The power you wield – Part 2


I have a fairly big ambition, which will probably come up here sooner or later. But what’s relevant is that there’s something I want to happen, and to pursue it directly would without a doubt require effort by a lot of people. And I’ve occasionally caught myself thinking of say Warren Buffett or Eminem, going “Man, if I had that much money/influence, I could really make things happen”.

David Garrick as Richard III

The problem is that I don’t really know what would need to happen to achieve my ambition. You know, in a totally brass tacks, David Allen action-item kind of way: if I had a million dollars for this specific purpose, what exactly would I do with them? And as long as I don’t have an excellent answer for that, I don’t really need to worry about the million dollars.

Of course money would help, in that I could pay other people to think about what to do. But it would be just that, help. Like a carbon road bike lets you go faster, but doesn’t do the biking for you. It’s tempting to go all Stephen Covey and say that the million dollars aren’t within my sphere of influence, but (aside from my being 25 years and eighteen thousand self-improvement books late in making that point) I find the topic is interesting because the million dollars are attainable. As in, if I choose to shift my focus entirely to making money instead of figuring things out, could make a million dollars. Only I probably couldn’t do both at once, and if my ultimate goal was something other than the money itself, I might not be any closer once I had the million dollars. If you don’t know what to do, your resources don’t matter.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!“. So cries Richard the Third, who has more resources than most, but not the thing he really wants. I wonder how often that scenario plays out in our lives? Have you ever cursed your commute even though you spend a good deal of your time merely existing? Coveted a promotion without considering whether you would enjoy the daily work of that position? Wished for the next episode of True Blood to be out even though the last one didn’t really blow your mind? If you’re lucky you get what you wanted, only to find out that pure bliss (or whatever it is that you really wanted) wasn’t part of the benefits package.

So I guess in a sense it is all Stephen Covey, about being effective by doing the thing that matters. About not wishing for things that you don’t really need.

This series is about the influence, small or large, that you have over the world. Part 1 talked about invulnerable superheroes, and what we can learn from their limitations.

Commonly perceived goods

Last Christmas a coworker asked me if I was going home for the holidays. I wasn’t, and moreover I was pretty happy with that: I preferred to get things rolling in my new occupation before taking a vacation. But saying so felt a bit weird (for both of us): I would rather work than celebrate Christmas with my family? Am I a mentally warped career-slave?

Christmas in LA

As a counterpoint, I feel that I have a very positive relationship with my parents. I talk to them once or twice a week, and they are the first people I go to when something significant (positive or negative) happens in my life. I didn’t move out upon turning eighteen because I was happy being close to them. I’m thrilled at the upbringing they’ve provided and one of the items on my last ‘5-year goals’ was “make sure parents feel fully appreciated”. So it’s not ‘home’ that fails to out-compete labwork, which immediately suggests that it is ‘Christmas’.

Christmas hasn’t been a huge deal in my immediate family, at least not since most of my grandparents died. For several years now we haven’t even had a tree. Nonetheless, (more or less) disregarding Christmas is a bit of a step, even for me. But in trying to figure out why, I realized something about the things that I unexpectedly enjoy (or don’t enjoy) doing.

It all boils down to whether Christmas with family isn’t what I will dub a ‘commonly perceived good’. A prime example of this concept would be sipping a cocktail on a paradisaical beach somewhere. If you posted this on Facebook, many people would likely express feelings of jealousy. In fact, much of what we post on Facebook are things that will be generally accepted as ‘good’, so as to boost perception of our online persona (and, by extension, our self-esteem). It is less common to post pictures of yourself playing a role-playing game, or of a whiteboard filled with ideas you have for knitting a scarf. Even though these things might be more rewarding to you than sitting on the beach. And while the ‘commonly perceived goods’ certainly are nice, they’re not necessarily how you would MOST like to spend your time. Therein lies their insidiousness: they’re not bad per se, so it’s hard to argue for why you would willingly avoid them.

A commonly perceived good

Social dogma kind of hints that they are the best thing that could possibly happen to us. Certainly isn’t for me. Admittedly I’m a hyperactive productivity addict, but that’s not a good counter-argument: I am who I am (and my parents largely made me that), and why shouldn’t I do what is most rewarding? By doing the alternative I am letting external forces govern my life, at the cost of my happiness. And not the undeniable kind of external forces that will really mess you up if you ignore them (like war or hunger), but an illusory kind that only has whatever power you (and those around you) grant them. I’m not trying to make the commonly perceived goods out to be loathsome; the reason they are ‘commonly perceived’ is that a lot of people find value in them. All I’m saying is that when you get a memo from that most honest part of your gut, saying that you’d really rather be doing something else, just ignore that what you’re currently doing is ‘supposed to be’ great.

So yeah, I kind of skipped Christmas. On reflection this let me work on all the things I was working on, and thus made me happy. And maybe more successful. If Christmas was a huge deal to my parents I would certainly have factored that into the considerations; but instead they visited here for Easter, and we had a great time. Being pragmatic is not necessarily the best choice in every situation, as there can certainly be value in traditions. But it doesn’t have to be the same traditions as everyone else has.

Thanks to Joana Neves for the innocuous question that spawned this post.

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