How to be Content Without Being Satisfied

We’ve all heard these sayings throughout our lives. Common advice is thrown around like gospel, and many take it as such. Winner’s never quit. Slow and steady wins the race. Practice makes perfect. On the surface, these all sound good. But there’s only one problem: much of our common advice contradicts each other.

If winners never quit, what happens if you quit while you’re ahead?

Slow and steady wins the race… except when the race is to get the worm. That prize goes to the early bird.

Does practice make perfect, or am I insane for doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results?

So many of our popular sayings can be refuted with an equally popular saying. In many cases, both cannot be true at the same time. But there is one popular pairing that stands out:

Reach for the stars, and be happy with what you have.

Set Your Goals High

It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how great your life is. Everyone has the capability to improve their lives. Everyone.

You can always improve your health, financial position, and personal relationships. And it’s all within your control.

People often don’t give themselves enough credit. That’s why we need personal trainers. If it were up to us, we’d quit after the first 30 pushups. Only after your jerk trainer makes you do 50 more do you begin to realize your full potential. It takes aspiration and a willingness to fail to get a taste of what is possible.

The way to overcome this is to set your goals absurdly high. Set them far above what you think is possible and then try to hit them anyway. Odds are you will achieve much more than your previous goal.

Alexander the Great had a lofty goal. He wanted to rule the entire world. Even though he was only 18 when he took the throne, Alexander began working towards his goal anyway. After many years of war and effort, Alexander expanded his reach to create the largest empire in human history.

Reach for the stars.

But don’t let it get too far

Alexander the Great did something that no one has done before or since–but it still wasn’t good enough in his eyes.

“Alexander wept when he heard Anaxarchus discourse about an infinite number of worlds, and when his friends inquired what ailed him, ‘Is it not worthy of tears,’ he said, ‘that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we [i.e. human beings] have not yet become lords of a single one?’”

Plutarch, “On Tranquility of Mind”

He dedicated his entire life to this conquest, and fell short. Even though his empire was the largest in history, he never fully conquered all of it. And when he realized there may be other worlds just like Earth, the thought of his failing brought him to tears.

Alexander saw himself as a failure.

Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

This happens far too often of people that set the bar high. They define their whole being with the idea of hitting the goal that falling short–even by a little bit–is considered a complete miss.

The same thing happens even when people achieve their goals completely.

Child movie stars are notorious for this. They wrap their entire identity around being an actor from such a young age. But when they grow up and they aren’t the cute little rascals they used to be, no one will hire them anymore.

They got everything they ever wanted, but then it’s taken away. Without a goal in place, they turn to drugs and deviance. Pretty soon that adorable kid from that one movie becomes a strung-out drug addict on the evening news.

All of a sudden, setting high goals doesn’t seem so fun anymore. If you fall short, you might get depressed. If you hit your goals, you might get depressed.

How can you win?

Learn to love the process

Loving the process means being happy while you’re working towards your goals. The work is what’s pleasurable, not the goal itself.

A basketball player finds his happiness during shoot-arounds. He works to make every shot, but he is content even when he misses.

A teacher loves to see children learn. But even if nothing is learned that day, the act of teaching is enough to make her happy.

A championship archer has a goal to hit the target, but his true passion is the process itself. He loves the feeling of holding the bow, drawing back the arrow, and feeling the release of pressure when he lets go.

Paradoxically, this love for the process makes hitting the goal even easier. When you love doing the work, your goal becomes a byproduct. Success flows naturally when practice is the main focus.

Goals lead to progress. Process leads to happiness.

When you define your happiness by a goal, you’ll never truly be happy.

When you find joy in the practice, you’ll never be sad.

Thanks for reading!

Feature photo source: Vince Fleming on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “How to be Content Without Being Satisfied”

  1. ooh, I like this framing! I’ve been thinking on this a lot – from the perspective of appreciating what I have while still striving for more.

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