Harry Taussig

The Paradox of Progress

01 May, 2021

Why strive when it is exactly what makes us suffer?

We strive after unobtainable, never-ending voids of desire. More money, fame, status, sex. Some people can balance the cycles of chasing and obtaining these things, but often wanting more is an itch that can't stay scratched. Dissatisfaction drives our efforts: We imagine that there's a certain promotion or achievement that will make us happier in the future, and it will—for a very short period of time until it you adapt to it as normal. Desire and dissatisfaction both come back.

By striving I don't mean working hard—hard work is necessary, important, and ultimately more satisfying than slacking off. By striving I mean wishing for things to do be different. Dissatisfaction is in that space between where you are and where you wish you were.

The next achievement, goal, or purchase feels like it will be life-changing, but if you've ever gotten any of these things you've chased after, why do you still feel like you haven't made it—like something is still lacking?

From an evolutionary perspective, overestimating how good future rewards will be, getting them, and then becoming dissatisfied and looking for more and better is the strategy that got us here.

So even if you believe as I do that we'd be happiest by learning to let what we already have be enough, we are biologically hard-wired to want more. Regardless, there are still good reasons to have future goals, and they don't have to breed dissatisfaction.

When progress is worth it

The first way striving for more is worth it is when you genuinely expect it to improve your own well-being. I don't actually think that achieving any level of career success or status will make me consistently happier, I'll just want more. But I do think my friends will greatly improve my life in the long run, and that it's worth putting in serious effort into those relationships.

It's a sort of mental minimalism—limiting your desires to the few that will actually help you or others.

When caught up in the worries and frustrations from striving, it's worth asking yourself if you'd really be happier with the thing that you're chasing. Would you be willing to bet that the version of you who got better grades, got the promotion, or is getting paid more, is more satisfied in their life a year later?

Aside from yourself, striving for the sake of others is also valuable. The success and happiness in my own life is almost completely in debt to the thousands of generations before me who luckily decided that they cared about the future. In my room I am surrounded by objects, clothes, and technology which could only be created due to centuries of past human cooperation. It would take me more than a lifetime to start from scratch and try to craft just socks that are as well-fitting, comfortable and precisely manufactured as mine. We are living in the most abundant and peaceful time in human history, but there is still so much suffering to end and heights of human flourishing that we could reach. We have the opportunity to continue this tradition of working for the betterment of people alive today and generations to come.

At first it seems that striving for others may be detrimental to your own well-being. I have rarely found this to be the case, and anecdotally see that those who are both happiest and find their lives most meaningful work to make others better off. One of the most selfish things you can do is act more selflessly.

It's worth the effort to genuinely improve your own and others' lives, but almost all other striving leads to endless cycles dissatisfaction. Improving your own well-being calls for non-striving on nearly all other fronts, but It's lucky that we find helping others so meaningful, and I think part of the reason for this is that it naturally makes us take on the following mindset.

Living each moment for itself in the context of greater progress

Although striving and satisfaction seem to be contradictory, you can live each moment entirely for itself while still choosing a series of actions that lead you towards achieving your goals.

Any journey towards a goal is made up of only tiny steps, but there does not need to be striving or dissatisfaction in each moment of execution to reach towards goals. We should strive and hope when creating plans, but not when following them through.

Yoga or meditation is a good analogy here. Someone who meditates or does yoga is trying to get better at it or make use of it outside of their practice. Across weeks and months they hope to improve, but in any single practice session they work with their mind or body exactly as it is. It's the difference between "damn it, I messed up" and "damn it—oh wait, I was expecting to mess up anyway, and this is also a chance to improve." An aspect of the practice is fully accepting whatever point in your progress you happen to be at each day. You close the distance between where you are and where you wish you were, while still putting in your full effort.

This is not only a useful mindset emotionally, but also for progress. It's both more enjoyable and effective to accept where you are on your path towards your goals—understanding and working with where you are rather than wishing you were already at a later stage. Further, these achievements or skills would be worthless if you didn't have to work for them. There would be no satisfaction in learning a language if you could download it to your brain, or in running a marathon if it was as easy as driving one.

On a daily scale or shorter, you commit to your priorities and put in the work. There's no use in worrying about doing better than whatever your best is today. You can accept now as it is even while pursuing larger goals over longer time-scales.

Wishing for or trying to force yourself to be at any other stage will only delay your progress. You are doing the important work of going through this challenging stage of this long journey.

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