By Todd Kelly
We have all heard the saying “happiness lies within.” If happiness lies within me – I can’t find it. Maybe I shat it out during the great food court sushi debacle of 1996, when I had the bright idea to eat sushi from a mall food court. I was in high school and did not know any better. (Here is some free advice, sushi at a food court, really, really bad idea.)
My life has been guided by the pursuit of external goals, goals that society tells are important. You know the list: money, beauty, corner office, BMW, big house, etc. Writing this I was compelled to ask, “So how is that working for you Todd?” I responded with an emphatic, “Shitty!”
I can speak from experience when you achieve one of those external goals, be it a new job, new car, face lift, the happiness was temporary. A new goal arises, because the one you just met no longer satisfies. It becomes a very fun game of whack a mole, or better yet whack a goal.
Doing something for no other reason then you can’t imagine not doing it. That endures. It’s not fleeting.
A recent example of this was the half marathon I did in the fall. Usually for me races are not an enjoyable experience. The pressure I place on myself to run a time that others will find impressive is exhausting. My motivation is to satisfy my egos need for admiration. It is no surprise I dread doing races. I love to run but I hate to race. When I run I run for me, when I enter a race my ego joins the party.
I decided that approach was not working for me. So I tried something novel. I ran the race for me. Because I love running. I treated it like one of my Saturday long runs. I love my Saturday runs. It is something without fail I look forward to every week.
Guess what happened.
The night before I was relaxed, this is almost never the case. For the first time ever I was looking forward to morning of. I enjoyed every moment, every step of the race. I noticed things I’d never noticed before when racing; the other runners, the trees, the sun, the beautiful buildings, and the onlookers cheering us. Normally when I do a race I don’t see anything but the pavement in front of me.
Guess what else? This is the real kicker. My time was 1 minute slower than the previous year. Those 60 seconds were not worth the cost.
These external goals have done a splendid job of distracting me from where happiness really lies, on the inside. I’ve judge the success of my life based on goals that weren’t really what I wanted. They weren’t my goals; they were goals society told me I should have. I never bothered to ask why I wanted what I wanted.
The book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi really helped me to understand why extrinsic motivation does not work and what do about it. How we can find that state of flow or happiness we all seek. Just so we are clear I’m talking about the happiness that lies within. The happiness no one can fuck with. I like to call it “un-fuckable happiness”.
Here is a great passage from the book.
If an artist is responsive to her inner feelings, knows what she likes and does not like and pays attention to what is happening on the canvas a good painting is bound to emerge. On the other hand if she holds on to a preconceived notion of what the painting should look like without responding to the possibilities suggested by the forms developing before her, the painting is likely to be trite.
What does this mean for me, and hopefully you?
Start paying attention to what is happening around you and really ask the questions, why do I want what I want? Is this serving me? Running to satisfy my ego was definitely not serving me.
Become aware of your surroundings. Like a rock climber perched hundreds of feet above the ground, who must be aware of every crevice in the rock, every movement in the wind, every muscle in his or her body, carefully evaluating their next step to avoid an unfortunate demise.
What do we want the painting of our life to look like? Chances are if I keep living my life the way I have for the past 37 years it will look less like the Mona Lisa and more like the drawing my 4 year old son brought home from school with lines and circles scribbled all over the place. Sure cute for a 4 year old but a complete disaster if you’re an adult.
I want to do what I do because I just love doing it, no matter the external rewards. Jerry Seinfeld just loved performing; he did not care about the money. He loved being on stage, he loved the grind and as long as he could make a living he was happy. Without that love he would have never made it. Being a comedian is hard. Rejection comes fast and furious. If motivated by external goals alone he surely would never have been able to keep moving forward on a road littered with obstacles. Plenty of people are successful but how many of those people would do what they do if you take away the corner office and big paycheck?
It is just a theory of mine but after reading this book I believe Marc Maron(Host of WTF podcast) has found his flow after years of rejection and failures as a comedian. Listening to him I believe he found so much heartbreak and despair being a comedian because he was doing it for the wrong reasons. Being admired and respected was of the utmost importance to him. When rejection came, say from SNL in the early his ego did not handle it well. He became resentful (check out his interview with Louis C.K.). Finally a few years ago, hitting rock bottom he just stopped playing that game. He said fuck it. Turned on a mic in his garage and started WTF. He did it for him and him alone. It’s no surprise his podcast is now listened to by millions every week and he got to interview the president.
I want to find that something that keeps me going no matter what obstacles are thrown my way. I want to do what I do because I love it, because it makes me feel alive inside and connects with others. I will keep looking for my passion through trial and error, keeping throwing shit against the wall until something sticks. Like I talked about before, that intersection of passion + skill + world + need. I believe truly finding flow is only possible when what you do benefits the lives of others. They go hand in hand.
Mihaly summed it up perfectly at the end of the book:
“If goals are chosen well and if we have the courage to abide by them despite opposition we shall be so focused on the actions and events around is that we won’t have time to be unhappy.”
My path more closely resembles Maron’s then it does Seinfeld’s. Sometimes learning the hard way is the only way some of us can.