How to Be Content

by | Aug 30, 2021 | Thoughts | 0 comments

We first learned about “Self-Determination Theory” in Sebastian Junger’s excellent book, Tribe.

Self-Determination Theory holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content:

1) We need to feel competent at what we do;
2) We need to feel authentic in our lives; and
3) We need to feel connected to others.

Competent, authentic, and connected.

These are surprisingly humble words.

We don’t need to be constantly exceeding expectations at work – we just need to feel competent.

We don’t need to be perfect – we want to feel authentic.

And we don’t need to be wildly popular – we simply crave connection.

What if the secret to being happy isn’t about setting the bar higher, but about recognizing how low the bar actually is, if we have our values in order?

This week, we’ll be exploring each of these humble concepts, one at a time.

Defining Competence

Competence is “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.”

It’s been a wild year. For those of us lucky enough to still have work, our day-to-day likely looks and feels quite different.

The good news? We’re just going for competence here. Successfully and efficiently completing one task at a time. Pretty simple, right?

The bad news? It takes more discipline and focus to be competent than ever before. (And yes, luck and privilege help – but right now we’re focusing on what you can effect.)

Two enemies of competence to watch out for:

1) EGO
Your ego wants constant positive feedback. Your ego wants to be more than competent, the ego wants fame and praise! If your hard work isn’t recognized right away, the ego gives up. Being competent is quiet. It’s often thankless. But doing good work, consistently, is its own reward… if you can recognize it. As Ryan Holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy, “Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

We like to think people-pleasing is so altruistic. We’re being giving, right?

In reality, people-pleasing is selfish. We’re hiding from our real work by saying “yes” to others’ short term needs. Why promise to give others all the little things they need or want today, making promises you know you can’t keep when you could be successfully and efficiently doing your most important tasks?

Competence is saying no much more than you say yes.

Developing Competence

There are many ways to become more competent in your work. Here are two general areas to focus:

(a) Close a knowledge gap: learn or improve a skill, educate yourself on your area of work, find a leader or colleague who you can learn from, etc.
(b) Close an application gap: change the way you apply knowledge, execute your work, or communicate.

Whether you pursue (a) or (b), the most important thing is that you do the work.

Ryan Holiday warns against being talk and all action: “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego. Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.”

In other words: Fac, si facis. (If you’re going to do it, do it.)

Defining Authenticity

“Authentic” is defined as, “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”

But what does that mean, really? How stable is our “personality, spirit, or character”… and how stable do we even want it to be?

Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing, argues for, “a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shape-shifting thing.”

This raises the uncomfortable question: in a state of constant change, how do we remain true to our “self”?

After giving this some thought, we believe we are able to be most authentic when we:

  • Separate our thoughts, labels, and identities from our true “self”
  • Practice self-love
  • Seek out and allow ourselves to experience pleasure

You are not your thoughts

Michael A. Singer writes in The Untethered Soul: “You are not your thoughts. You are simply aware of your thoughts.”

Singer compares the voice in your head to an irritating roommate. At any given moment, your “roommate” is yammering away about something or other.

You might intend to quiet your mind, or focus intensely on something, or avoid certain negative thoughts. Your roommate doesn’t care about what you want. There he is, telling you all the things you’ve done wrong, what you need to do next, bringing up a useless memory, or going on a rant about how wrong someone else is.

These thoughts are not you. They are not authentic to you – at least, not most of the time (or even half the time.) You should associate with your thoughts as much as you would with your irritating roommate.

Sometimes your roommate has something interesting to say. A lot of the time, he deserves no more acknowledgment from you than a shrug.

As you practice listening to your thoughts as though they are separate from your essential self, the better you can get in touch with who you really are, beyond those incessant thought patterns.

Loving Yourself is a Practice

Lucille Ball once said, “You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.”

That might sound like a tall order. Tolerating ourselves, sure. Liking ourselves, maybe. Loving ourselves?

Love is a big word. Huge. And that’s why loving ourselves is so important. Until we give ourselves the ultimate gift of self-love, we’ll always be seeking it elsewhere, by people-pleasing, or we’ll find ourselves withholding love from others, feeling bitter.

Writer Kamal Ravikant practices a simple, but revolutionary, habit. When making decisions – as large as quitting a job, or as small as what to eat for dinner – he asks himself “If I loved myself truly and deeply, what would I do?” Or, “If I loved myself truly and deeply, would I let myself experience this?” Then, he lives the answer.

Fellow writer Glennon Doyle has a similar tactic, one she calls “How to Know”: “Moment of uncertainty arises. Breathe, turn inward, sink. Feel around for the Knowing. Do the next thing it nudges you toward. Let it stand. (Don’t explain.) Repeat forever. (For the rest of your life: Continue to shorten the gap between the Knowing and the doing.)”

Love is not a noun. Love is a verb. We show others we love them by how we act. To live authentically, we must also show ourselves love, in little moments, every day, with the daily choices we make.

Will your choice to love yourself over all else inconvenience or frustrate others who want something from you? Sure, sometimes. That is okay. It is normal, acceptable, and even inevitable that others will occasionally be disappointed by you. You are human. You can love that about yourself too.

As Ravikant says, “You don’t go to the gym once and consider yourself done. Same here. Meditation is a practice. Working out is a practice. Loving yourself, perhaps the most important of all, is a practice.”

Your Pleasure is Activism

adrienne marree brown coined the term “Pleasure Activism,” which she defines as “the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy.”

Pleasure is not something we can rate on a scale of 1-10 and decide quantifiably whether it was pleasurable or not. Pleasure is something we know. We don’t think pleasure. We feel pleasure, in our bodies.

Pleasure is what Oprah calls, “a full-bodied yes.”

Pleasure is something you know you love, something you know feels good. It can be something you do physically (sex, exercise, dance, massage, drugs, food, naps, you name it) and it can also be a way you feel (relaxed, generous, joyful, peaceful, grounded, energized, etc.)

marree brown writes that “part of the reason so few of us have a healthy relationship with pleasure is because a small minority of our species hoards the excess of resources, creating a false scarcity and then trying to sell us joy, sell us back to ourselves.”

We don’t need to buy anything, change anything, or be anything other than who we are to find pleasure, right now. But we do need to be able to drop into ourselves – to seek pleasure, rather than numb pain.

As the Roman stoic Seneca wrote, “Look back in memory and consider…how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!”

We have so little time on earth. Working to live authentically is worth our efforts.

Defining Connectedness

“Connectedness” is defined as “the feeling of belonging.”

A myriad of studies show that when we have deep social connectedness – when we feel that we belong, that others rely on us, and we have others to rely on – we live longer, we recover more quickly from illnesses, and we live more joyful, content lives.

So, how can we foster this sense of belonging?

To get connected, get less free

Author David Brooks’ book Second Mountain is a manifesto on modern day connectedness. Brooks makes the argument that we ought to set aside our focus on individualism and optionality – in fact, that we ought to get less free, to get more content.

“Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation… It turns out that freedom isn’t an ocean you want to spend your life in. Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side—and fully commit to something.”

Brooks interviewed folks across geographies, income levels, and demographics to seek out those who seemed most content. The common theme was rootedness: people who were dedicating themselves to the community and people around them, not those who had achieved the most individually.

Just as living authentically involves releasing the ego and relinquishing the pursuit of a “personal brand,” feeling connected involves releasing – at least a little bit – our pursuit of individual accolades.

To feel more connected, Brooks recommends a series of tiny actions: living generously, day-to-day:

“When people make generosity part of their daily routine, they refashion who they are. The interesting thing about your personality, your essence, is that it is not more or less permanent like your leg bone. Your essence is changeable, like your mind. Every action you take, every thought you have, changes you, even if just a little, making you a little more elevated or a little more degraded.”

Just as Kamal Ravikant asks himself, “What would I do, if I truly loved myself?” we can ask ourselves, too, “What would a very generous person do?”

To get connected, get curious

According to Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Shame, and the feelings of self-loathing, guilt, sadness and anger that follow shame, keep us from connection with others.

Brown wrote that before she undertook this research, when she experienced what she now defines as shame, she’d ask: “What’s the quickest way to make these feelings go away?” Today her question is “What are these feelings and where did they come from?”

“Invariably, the answers are that I’m not feeling connected enough to Steve or the kids, and that this comes from (take your pick) not sleeping enough, not playing enough, working too much, or trying to run from vulnerability. What has changed for me is that I know now that I can address these answers.”

When you feel sad, angry, ashamed, or a myriad of other emotions that are hard to sit with, take a moment to think about why you feel that way. The more in touch with ourselves we can become, the closer we can edge close to those we love, instead of pushing them away.

To get connected, drop expectations

Anthony De Mello said it best: “The selfish thing is to demand that someone else live their life as YOU see fit. That’s selfish. It is not selfish to live your life as you see fit. The selfishness lies in demanding that someone else live their life to suit your tastes, or your pride, or your profit, or your pleasure. That is truly selfish.”

People do not exist to serve you.

Yes, you may have holes that you need patching.

Who doesn’t have feelings that are unresolved?

You will experience anxiousness, pain, resentment, annoyance, anger. You think these things are caused by someone else.

But in those quiet moments, you can see reality.

You can see that it is not anyone’s responsibility to “fix” these things or change these things.

If you are waiting for others to change so that you can feel better, you will be waiting a long time. Maybe your whole life.

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