I want to understand the stories we tell ourselves. Actually, understanding is just the first part. I want to accept those stories, too, without skepticism or a correction. Then I could empathize, be more generous. Then I could give more and try harder.
I could always try harder. For your sake and mine.
Everyone tries hard (strives) for something. Few of us really know why. I’m not sure we can. In fact, we seldom really know much of anything about the thing we pursue until we fail to get it. That moment of failure is the point where the treadmill stops. That is the moment when we suddenly realize we were running in place the whole time, chasing.
Again, success and winning doesn’t show you the treadmill. Only failure and losing.
It’s terrible. It’s painful. It’s confusing. What the hell happened?
Isn’t it obvious? Someone else got the contract, secured the funding, won the Super Bowl, the Spelling Bee, or the election. Someone else got the thing you wanted. It hurts.
The pain can be subdued. When Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, his wife Betty recalls the reaction:
“He really did try to be very stoic in his face,” she said. “He told us that there always has to be a winner and there always has to be a loser, and that you shouldn’t be in politics if you aren’t aware of that. We didn’t talk a lot about it, because there was no sense in dwelling on it. We both felt pretty terrible. But we couldn’t change it.”
The pain can be taken in stride. Four years later, Carter lost, too. He handled it well.
“I think when I lost the reelection campaign for the presidency,” Jimmy Carter said, “I think I did my best, and although Rosalynn was pretty — well, bitter — after the loss, I was not. I had to spend a long time assuaging her disappointment — I’m sure she would agree with this if she was here in the room right now — and I said to her, ‘Rosalynn, we have a good life ahead of us.'”
But make no mistake: the pain was still there. In his concession speech, Carter said:
“I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you. So I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt.”
This from the same man who once said:
“Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
We should allow ourselves to lose poorly for a second.
How To Lose Poorly
When someone else wins what you lost, I think it’s perfectly healthy to wish for that person to wake up the next morning with a giant pimple raised on the end of their nose. A really big, ugly, painful zit that elongates their nose by a couple inches.
I think it makes a lot of sense to envision a future where that person has a really bad vacation.
And two week’s of indigestion.
Shift the desires, in other words. Take a moment to let the thing that you want become the most pointless, absurd thing possible. That way you can enjoy a few moments of not wanting the thing that your competitor now has.
Wish for a seagull to make a guano deposit on their car.
Then shift again. Get back to work. As Neil Gaiman rightly said: make good art. Keep shifting the desire to the next thing that will be as meaningful, as important. Whatever it is. Get back on the treadmill and try it with incline this time.
Dreams Are Free. Desires Have Costs.
Such is the struggle. Which is why I wish I didn’t want the things that I want sometimes. Because so many of the things I want are out of my control. Even the very choice of wanting them. It reminds me of a Hank Williams song:
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.
The way Hank sings this makes me want to laugh, cry, and slash a tire. I think it’s about a girl. It can be about a lot of other things, too.
It can be about dreams. Or desires.
There is a difference between those two things. Desires are tricky. They are more specific than dreams. A dream can be beaten down and still get up. I’m not sure a desire is so resilient. That’s the thing we often lose whenever a loss occurs.
Dreams beget desires. Dreams are the broad visions and desires are the tangible manifestations that narrow the energy into something irreversibly specific. The dream of being a great violinist begets the desire for First Chair at the New York Philharmonic. The dream of being a great marine biologist becomes the desire to have a TV series just like Jacques Cousteau. But better.
The desire leads to a goal. The goal leads to a strategy. A strategy leads to a journey of one step after another, one choice and the next, until a path is shaped.
But it’s not just your path.
No, because at some point, you find yourself running alongside someone else who wants the same thing.
It’s not just presidential elections, either. It’s that thing you bid for on Ebay. Or the last ticket for the concert. It comes as a surprise every time. You mean someone else wants this, too?
Now the race is on. Now you have to decide: how much do you want it? How much will you pay? Will you do anything to get it? Will you play dirty? Will you appease others?
Things get complicated at that point. Dreams are free but desires cost. So you have to choose: will you do your best, paying the full price? Knowing someone might still pay more?
What You Should Do
I have no idea! I don’t what you and I should do. All I know is that Henry Clay ran for president three times. He lost three times. At the end, he said:
I’d rather be right than be president.
He didn’t want to pay the full price. He probably didn’t even know the price they were asking. But it still hurt. Because he desired something that others held. Yet he clearly desired something else even more, something he felt he already had.
We all have to wrestle with that choice.
At the start, I cryptically wrote that I wish I understood the stories people tell themselves. I wish I could empathize. That way I could deliver on the part of the story they’re still working towards, the part that needs people like me to help.
In other words, this is how I’d know the full price and pay it. Or not.
I wrote that because I believe Zig Zigler was right:
You can get everything you want by helping others get what they want.
This wisdom helps me remember that desires aren’t just a cost we bear upon ourselves. Desires are a currency, too. They can be traded. Mine and yours. I can help with yours; you can help with mine. Let’s trade.
Let’s keep trading. A single unfilled desire is nothing compared to a broad array of exchanges. There’s so much more to offer when that’s what you want.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t want what I want. Not because of self-loathing. No, because of self-sabotage.
And because, really, what I wish for is to want the right thing.
In closing, the age-old saying comes to mind:
Be careful what you wish for.
You can interpret that a thousand differents ways so I want to clarify. Whatever you do, don’t wish for an easier way to lose. Don’t wish to not want anything. Wish for a better way to keep trying. Because the trying, the striving, is what happens in-between. Every day.
Speaking of desire, today is my effort to say thanks to Seth Godin for everything he does. If anyone reading this can get it to him, I’d appreciate it. I’d like to think he would appreciate it, too.