Monday, June 25, 2012

Learning to Want, Part I

Once upon a time I was discussing the rampant consumerism of the modern age with a friend of mine. In a moment of self-imagined Zen mastery I said the following:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

I don't know if I got that from somewhere or if it was a momentary lapse of mediocrity, but the phrase has stuck with me over the years. I call it my Principle of Contentment.

I won't claim that I lived by this principle since I first uttered the phrase. For many years, it was quite the contrary. I spent much of my 20s and early 30s deeply in debt and always felt like I had justifiable rationalizations for my excess spending.

It wasn't until I started to figure out why and how to go about changing my wants that I could actually start applying the Principle of Contentment. But before I get into those, I want to clarify one thing that I had to understand about it:

It was not about learning to settle for mediocrity or giving up on my hopes and dreams. This was about learning to identify the impulsive desires that lead to constant dissatisfaction and over-consumption. I had to learn the hard way that constantly giving in to those impulses was my greatest barrier to realizing my greater dreams.

My life goals have never been exceedingly ambitious or unusual. I wanted a job that paid enough to cover the bills and have a little left over for my hobbies. I wanted to be able to retire with enough invested to maintain my current lifestyle. I wanted to be healthy and look good. That's all pretty run-of-the mill stuff and I never really doubted that it was all achievable. I was always pretty good in school when I applied myself. I usually did well at work. When my weight started to get out of control, I was able to shed most of it as long as I paid attention to my diet and spent more time exercising.

With my focus mainly on my career, I plugged away at building my skills and worked various jobs. I did increasingly well up until my early 30s and then the lucky job streak faltered. I found myself buried in credit card debt, earning half of what I did a few years earlier and pushing 250 lbs.
In a bit of a funk, trying to contemplate how I had gotten into my predicament, that phrase started coming back to me:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Yes, it seems simple and superficial but the problem is that it's so non-specific. Any principle such as the Principle of Contentment has to be non-specific because the application will be unique to the individual. But that doesn't mean I can't expand on it a bit and detail some of the specifics as it applied to me. Hopefully seeing how I applied this principle in my life will be useful to you and provide you with some strategies for identifying and coping with self-defeating impulses.

In the next part of this series, I'll describe some of the impulses I identified as being the most self-destructive along with some of the rationalizations I used to defend them.