WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU?

 

Chapter 13

 WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU?


To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age.

—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

At the end of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and his friend William Tecumseh Sherman were two of the most respected and important men in America. Essentially the dual architects of the Union’s victory, a grateful country, with a snap of its fingers, said: Whatever you like, as long as you live, is yours.

   With this freedom at their disposal, Sherman and Grant took different paths. Sherman, whose track we followed earlier, abhorred politics and repeatedly declined entreaties to run for office. “I have all the rank I want,” he told them. Having seemingly mastered his ego, he would later retire to New York City, where he lived in what was, by all appearances, happiness and contentment.

   Grant, who had expressed almost no prior interest in politics, and, in fact, had succeeded as a general precisely because he didn’t know how to play politics, chose instead to pursue the highest office in the land: the presidency. Elected by a landslide, he then presided over one of the most corrupt, contentious, and least effective administrations in American history. A genuinely good and loyal individual, he was not cut out for the dirty world of Washington, and it made quick work of him. He left office a maligned and controversial figure after two exhausting terms, almost surprised by how poorly it had gone.

   After the presidency, Grant invested almost every penny he had to create a financial brokerage house with a controversial investor named Ferdinand Ward. Ward, a Bernie Madoff of his day, turned it into a Ponzi scheme, and publicly bankrupted Grant. As Sherman wrote with sympathy and understanding of his friend, Grant had “aimed to rival the millionaires, who would have given their all to have won any of his battles.” Grant had accomplished so much, but to him, it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t decide what was important—what actually mattered—to him.

   That’s how it seems to go: we’re never happy with what wehave, we want what others have too. We want to have morethan everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.

   Compelled by his sense of honor to cover the debts of the firm, Grant took out a loan using his priceless war mementos as collateral. Broken in mind, spirit, and body, the last years of his life found him battling painful throat cancer, and racing to finish his memoirs so that he might leave his family with something to live on. He made it, just barely.

   One shudders to think of the vital forces drained from this hero, who died at just sixty-three in agony and defeat, this straightforward, honest man who just couldn’t help himself, who couldn’t manage to focus, and ended up far outside the bounds of his ample genius. What could he have done with those years instead? How might have America looked otherwise? How much more could he have done and accomplished?

   Not that he is unique in this regard. All of us regularly say yes unthinkingly, or out of vague attraction, or out of greed or vanity. Because we can’t say no—because we might miss out on something if we did. We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek. All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want.

   Why do we do this? Well, it should be obvious by now.

   Ego leads to envy and it rots the bones of people big and small. Ego undermines greatness by deluding its holder.

   Most of us begin with a clear idea of what we want in life. We know what’s important to us. The success we achieve, especially if it comes early or in abundance, puts us in an unusual place. Because now, all of a sudden, we’re in a new place and have trouble keeping our bearings.

   The farther you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet other successful people who make you feel insignificant. It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing; your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothing— just as others make them feel the same way. It’s a cycle that goes on ad infinitum . . . while our brief time on earth—or the small window of opportunity we have here—does not.

   So we unconsciously pick up the pace to keep up with others. But what if different people are running for different reasons? What if there is more than one race going on?

   That’s what Sherman was saying about Grant. There is a certain “Gift of the Magi” irony in how badly we chase what will not be truly pleasurable. At the very least, it won’t last. If only we could all stop for a second.

   Let’s be clear: competitiveness is an important force in life. It’s what drives the market and is behind some of mankind’s most impressive accomplishments. On an individual level, however, it’s absolutely critical that you know who you’re competing with and why, that you have a clear sense of the space you’re in.

   Only you know the race you’re running. That is, unless your ego decides the only way you have value is if you’re betterthan, have more than, everyone everywhere. More urgently, each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means that we’re the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet, and as a result, squander our very potential and purpose.

   According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, it’s not about beating the other guy. It’s not about having more than the others. It’s about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It’s about going where you set out to go. About accomplishing the most that you’re capable of in what you choose. That’s it. No more and no less. (By the way, euthymia means “tranquillity” in English.)

   It’s time to sit down and think about what’s truly important to you and then take steps to forsake the rest. Without this, success will not be pleasurable, or nearly as complete as it could be. Or worse, it won’t last.

   This is especially true with money. If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more. And so without thinking, critical energy is diverted from a person’s calling and toward filling a bank account. When “you combine insecurity and ambition,” the plagiarist and disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer said when reflecting back on his fall, “you get an inability to say no to things.”

    Ego rejects trade-offs. Why compromise? Ego wants it all.

   Ego tells you to cheat, though you love your spouse. Because you want what you have and what you don’t have. Ego says that sure, even though you’re just starting to get the hang of one thing, why not jump right in the middle of another? Eventually, you say yes to too much, to something too far beyond the pale. We’re like Captain Ahab, chasing Moby Dick, for reasons we don’t even understand anymore.

   Maybe your priority actually is money. Or maybe it’s family. Maybe it’s influence or change. Maybe it’s building an organization that lasts, or serves a purpose. All of these are perfectly fine motivations. But you do need to know. You need to know what you don’t want and what your choices preclude. Because strategies are often mutually exclusive. One cannot be an opera singer and a teen pop idol at the same time. Life requires those trade-offs, but ego can’t allow it.

   So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people, because most of the time they aren’t—at least relative to you, and often even to themselves. Only then can you develop that quiet confidence Seneca talked about.

   The more you have and do, the harder maintaining fidelity to your purpose will be, but the more critically you will need to. Everyone buys into the myth that if only they had that—usually what someone else has—they would be happy. It may take getting burned a few times to realize the emptiness of this illusion. We all occasionally find ourselves in the middle of some project or obligation and can’t understand why we’re there. It will take courage and faith to stop yourself.

   Find out why you’re after what you’re after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around. Because that’s independence.





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