Thought Catalog
October 2, 2014

Why Do You Do What You Do? Because You Better Know.

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What is the issue?
Thomas Høyrup Christensen
Thomas Høyrup Christensen

Most of us got into what we do because we one, like it, or two, are good at it. We generally know what we want and need, as well as what we hope to achieve. The irony is, the further you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet people whose success will stagger you and make you feel insignificant.

Like put everything you’ve done in pile and it might not even register compared to what these successful people will do this year.

Sometimes that is measured in money. Or fame. Or power. Usually, it’s a little of all of these. But it almost always has to do with money.

And man are these forces attractive.

Especially if you work on anything remotely internet related. Because the amount of people making obscene, life-changing amounts of money doing what appears to be very little work is essentially infinite. Let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how well you’re doing, these people can make you feel like a chump.

The thing is, most of these people aren’t doing that on purpose. It’s just what humans do. When everyone around us is running, we unconsciously pick up the pace to keep up with them. That’s what I mean when I say these forces are attractive, we gravitate towards them–away from what we were doing.

The problem this creates…What if different people are running for different reasons? What if there is more than one race going on?

Or, hey, maybe it really isn’t that much of a race at all.

See, you set the terms of your life, only you should render judgement, and only you should set those terms.

I’ll say it clearly: You have to know why you do what you do and what truly motivates you to do it. Or I promise, it will cost you so much pain. So much wasted time.

Because the alternative is unknowingly assuming terms that you don’t really believe in.

A friend recently illustrated this point well. I don’t remember what I said exactly and I don’t think he even meant it more than in passing. It was just an observation–but one of those off hand remarks that hones right in on a critical assumption about life.

I had said something about a large fee from a prospective but boring client and he said, “Ryan, if that was what we wanted, we’d work at an ad agency.”

It was like: Oh yeah, there are a lot of ways to make money. But I chose my way (writing and other such projects) instead of their way for a reason, namely because I tried it already and hated it. I don’t want what those people have and I don’t want to live and act like they do. So why the hell am I using them as a metric for success?

For you, maybe you do work on Wall Street for money. That’s perfectly fine. Know that and own it—as Michael Lewis writes, the problem is the lying to yourself. Maybe the most important thing to you is family. Awesome, so that’s your priority. But what it means is that not only do you have to start measuring yourself by family-related metrics, you also have to stop measuring yourself against all those other people with different priorities.

It’s something I see often in fellow writers. You are only able to write the books in your head and the ideas that come to you. For some of us, that might be a marketable genre. For others, it happens to be Elizabethan Sci-fi and therefore somewhat less marketable. This is the reality of writing, and it makes it completely preposterous to compare yourself to other writers and their success. They are not your peers. Neither is F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hugh Howie, or whoever else you happen to hate-compete with.

You have no peers. You are your own genre. You are the only one.

I know another person who, despite being incredibly successful as an author and with some other ventures, is obsessed by the fact that a bunch of awkward internet scammers are richer than he is. I can’t tell what matters more to him: the fact that they’ve made more money or that he is much smarter than them and they have still managed to make more money than him. The answer doesn’t really matter, because the point is that besting them as a businessman has become his Moby Dick. How much time this miserable man has spent doing things he doesn’t like, to prove himself to people he doesn’t respect, I can no longer even track.

And just for a healthy dose of some Gift of the Magi-ness to round out this story, these awkward internet scammers all desperately want what he has too!

You could say it’s obscene. Pathetic. Sad. But I can think, if I’m being honest: There, but for the grace of God, go I. It could very well have been me who was running this invisible non-race race.

It’s like the story of Julius Caesar weeping because Alexander the Great conquered the world a few years earlier than he did. Man, what do you care? It will never be enough anyway.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

When I chose to write a book about stoicism, it was on me to accept that I was making a tradeoff. A more positive self-help book might have attracted a different publisher. A more prescriptive how-to book would probably sell better. But I chose to write this book–in fact, I desperately wanted to write it. I don’t also get to choose which world it exists in. Nobody does.

That is the trade-off I had to pursue a dream I had for many years. That is life. Life is about trade offs. I could have written the book my agent and publisher would have been more comfortable with, and it might have made me more money. But what exactly is the point of that again? As though happiness is going to ensue from doing stuff we deeply do not like to do. As if betraying principles is the way to live them.

Contentment is about meeting expectations and satisfying needs. And you will never, ever have the former (contentment) if you don’t accept and understand the latter (your personal expectations and needs).

So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can.

Only then can 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 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 you can develop the quiet confidence that Seneca called euthymia—“the belief that you’re on the right path and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost.”

I talk about this not from atop my high horse, but rather from a little further down the path; from part way through the gauntlet. This was a journey for me, one in which I made the wrong call a whole bunch of times. I’ve been miserable. I’ve caught myself running someone else’s race. I still catch myself doing it sometimes.

But eventually it became clear(er). I’m not working for money. I make it, definitely, sometimes a lot of it. Definitely enough to feel or meet my own definition of rich for a 27-year-old. Definitely enough to feel incredibly lucky and fortunate, and part of a very small percentage of people who get to do this for a living.

But all of that is a means to an end to me. As Frankl writes, “Only if one’s original concern with meaning fulfillment is frustrated is one either content with power or intent on pleasure.” Or money. [Or competing against other people.

Are you starting to see? We set out on our path to do ________ because we find meaning and satisfaction in it. Then we see others who do less, make more, get more ________ and ask, what are we doing wrong?

The answer is nothing.

My end is to do good work. When making more, or making any, period, gets in the way…well then I’m in the wrong race.

Find your end. Find out why you’re in it. Ignore the people who mess with your pace. TC mark

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