Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Conscious Decision to Want Less

7 Minute Read

All of us waste precious life doing things we don't like, to prove ourselves to people we don't respect, and to get things we don't want. Why do we do this?
-Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

We Homo Sapiens are a finicky bunch. It seems as though once we've attained whatever pleasures we seek, it isn't long before we want more. As bestselling author and history professor Yuval Noah Harari explains, nobody is ever made directly happy by getting a promotion, winning the lottery, or even falling in love. These events have the ability to make us happy by triggering pleasant sensations in our bodies, and those sensations alone are what make us happy. 

The bad news about these sensations is that millions of years of evolution has created a condition in our minds that causes these pleasant sensations to wear off relatively quickly, leaving us with the desire to experience these sensations again and again. For thousands upon thousands of generations, our pleasure/pain system evolved to increase our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness. 

Think about it, what if some rare mutation had created a hunter-gatherer who, after enjoying a delicious antelope and a blissful night with a love interest, enjoyed an everlasting sensation of happiness and contentment? Who knows, a million years ago this may have happened. If it did, this hunter-gatherer would have enjoyed an extremely happy and short life, and his genes wouldn't have gotten very far. Conversely, his rivals who were designed to pursue more antelope and more mates had a much better chance of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. 

Reflecting on his experience coaching Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, Pat Riley famously coined the phrase The Disease of More, explaining that "success is often the first step toward disaster." After winning the 1980 NBA title, the following season's Lakers played like a collection of individuals, each looking for his own version of more--more playing time, more money, more media attention, etc. The '81 Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs. Some title defense.

The 1980 Championship led to the Disease of More

And so it goes for us. As we pursue whatever it is we're after--lucrative jobs, attractive mates, big houses--the deeper parts of our minds only understand that we are pursuing pleasant sensations. These sensations are designed to be fleeting and, if we're not deliberate about what we're after--we have no choice but to pursue them constantly.

By Design or By Default?

Take a moment to consider what's on your calendar for the day and week ahead. Are these commitments a result of what's important to you, or what's important to someone else? The fact is, if we don't prioritize our lives, someone else will. In addition to our predisposition to want more, we're also hard-wired to desire social acceptance thus we often make decisions based on comparing ourselves to our peers

In other words, when we don't have a clear sense of what we're pursuing, we fill the void with our own social games based on comparing ourselves to others and pursuing what we think others want. We overvalue nonessentials like new cars and big houses, and we pay attention to trivial intangibles like how many Twitter followers we have and how many likes we get on a Facebook post. Considering the opportunity cost--that time and attention could be going to our loved ones, our health, etc.--this poses a real problem. 

As Captain Ahab pursues Moby Dick over the course of 822 pages, it becomes clear that Ahab is chasing the whale for reasons he doesn't even understand anymore. He's simply hell-bent on winning the game.

Wait, what am I doing here?

Decision Fatigue

Can anyone remember what it's like to be bored? It's rare these days. Not long ago, when there was a line at the grocery checkout, a friend was running late to meet for lunch, or the flight was delayed, we had to wait. Now, however, a staggering amount of information, entertainment, and distraction is at our fingertips at all times. I'm not suggesting humans necessarily need to be bored all the time, but this abolition of time spent alone and in thought is certain to have consequences.

According to most psychologists, our ability to make decisions (also known as willpower) is like the muscles in our bodies in that it wears down when used over and over again. Every decision we make is like another rep in the gym. While we make decisions about things that don't matter, willpower fatigues, and we begin to make decisions based on default. 

Grocery chains are well-aware of this, and have all structured their stores accordingly: Our willpower is strongest when we first enter the store, so healthy food (produce) is right there up front. As we proceed through and willpower diminishes, there are the cookies, candy, and ice cream. As we move to the checkout--exhausted from all the decision making--that's where we'll find alcohol, tobacco, and gossip magazines (who is buying those things!?). Now we're out of willpower, and we default to Wal-Mart's agenda.

Outside the grocery store, default can often mean giving in to the world around us, and that world is almost constantly pushing us to want more. Get a job that pays more so that you can spend more, get more, and keep the cycle going. You'll notice that the outside world implores us to take exotic vacations, dine at fancy restaurants, and buy new electronics, but we never seem to be encouraged to go for a walk with Mom, sit by a pond, or visit a National Park. 

Photo from a recent trip to Del Norte campground at Channel Islands National Park (that's my shadow). Unlike Vegas and Disney, National Parks do not advertise.

How to Want Less

Perhaps Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt's character in Fight Club, said it best, "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need."

According to several recent studies, the number one regret of the dying is that they never pursued their own dreams and aspirations, opting instead to live up to the expectations of others. With this in mind, perhaps it's time to take Ryan Holiday's advice: To take time out, figure out what's important, and take steps to forsake the rest.

To find that space, we may have to say no to certain people and commitments. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, schedules two hours of empty space onto his calendar every day in order to process what's happening around him. Bill Gates famously takes it a step further by taking a biannual Think Week--a week off simply to think and read.

Our ancient biological desire for more no longer makes sense in a world saturated with stuff and the opinions of others. Whether it's two hours per day, two weeks per year, or 10 minutes each morning, it's imperative to deliberately create space to want less and to do less.

If this is all there is, it is more than enough.


  1. I love all of your blogs Sean, but this one is your best work to date. It's a great reality check and it makes me think not about why I am doing what I am doing but how to make best use of my time. Stay in the moment.

  2. I appreciate the feedback, sir!

  3. Agreed. All your blogs are great and this one is the crown jewel. Cheers
    - C Ahab

  4. When your website or blog goes live for the first time, it is exciting. That is until you realize no one but you and your. Collective conscious