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Getting More of What We Want Won’t Get Us What We Really Need

Human beings want more of everything. We are on a hedonic treadmill that says, “What I have now is OK, but I really want more—more stuff, more money, and more friends. That would make me happy.” From a societal perspective, the hedonic treadmill has some benefits. It keeps us on our toes and moves society forward. It also gives lots of people jobs. If people didn’t want more Oreos, no one would have jobs selling Oreos at the grocery store, or stocking the Oreos on the shelf, or making new kinds of Oreos.

Amazon is the king of giving people more of what they want. When I was at Amazon we would talk about the things that customers will always want more of. Amazon is always focused on lowering prices, increasing selection, and faster shipping. Amazon is always looking to make these things better because, as Jeff Bezos says, “customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great.” Customers will always want these things to be better. They will never say that Amazon should charge more, deliver things more slowly, or have fewer options. These are all good things. All of these things are frustrations, and getting rid of them makes people happy.

But having more isn’t always better.(1)More stuff doesn’t make you happy. Just ask Professor Laurie Santos who has talks about how more money and stuff don’t make you happier. I was just reading the book A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time narrated by the fictional and autistic Christopher Boone. He doesn’t like new places, often moans, and sways back and forth. I had assumed that people with autism couldn’t get enough information to be able to understand the real world, and that’s why they had these ticks. It’s actually the opposite. Christopher had too much information coming in. At one point, he passed a field of cows while on a train. He could tell you that there were 31 cows and he could draw the patterns of cow #23 or cow #15 from memory. Having all of this information come into his brain is overwhelming, which is why he sometimes needs to keep it out, soothing himself by swaying and moaning. Christopher doesn’t have a problem acquiring information, he has too much information, can’t process it, and needs to keep new information out.

We conveniently overlook that there’s a trade-off to having more of something. When you have more of one thing, you have less of something else.(2)Oddly enough, there’s a trade-off that when you have more money, you want even more money. Let’s look at supertasters— people whose taste buds are far more sensitive than the average person. They can pick up nuances in food that most of us can’t imagine. They make great food critics. But though they can taste the highest of highs they can also taste the lowest of lows, which is one trade-off. The other one is that they can’t stand spicy foods because it overwhelms their taste buds.

Let’s think about Amazon again and what it does for us. We don’t have to go to the store and get our own books, electronics, or groceries. We can have them delivered tomorrow, freeing up our time. We don’t have to walk or drive to the store anymore, and we don’t have to deal with others in the store. These things are pretty mundane and boring, and we’re glad to get rid of them.

So you’d think that there’s no trade-off in getting rid of these frustrations in life, but you’d be wrong. We actually like the small interactions we have during the day(3)On The Happiness Lab episode Desperately Seeking Solitude, Professor Laurie Santos talks about how we think that we want fewer distractions and more time to ourselves when it’s really the opposite that makes us happy. She uses the example of quiet cars on trains. When you ask people what changes they want on the train, they say they want more quiet cars. But what about an “anti quiet car” where people just talk to each other. That would be a bar car. Some bar cars have been taken off trains because they were too crowded. Talk about giving people what they say they want but not what they really want! and little times of boredom. In her podcast series Bored and Brilliant, Manoush Zomorodi shows how we’re jam-packing our lives with distraction, and how a little bit of boredom each day can make us happier and more creative.

So what do we do once Amazon has helped us get rid of all of these annoying and boring tasks? We add the boredom back in—with meditation. Don’t get me wrong. I love meditation. It helps me get centered and clear my mind. It holds back the tsunami of thoughts and gives me breathing room. But it’s still boredom.(4)Removing the boredom and putting it back is a little odd. It makes me feel like we’re trying to scientifically rebuild our lives out of component parts. Instead of a holistic view of the world, we’re trying to build everything in pieces. This reminds me of Michael Pollan’s article Unhappy Meals or his book Food Rules about eating. He says that the only thing we really know about food is to, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” However, food scientists and companies try to split all of our food up into nutritional components like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats but lose the larger perspective of what “food” really is. Meditation helps shut off your brain. Instead of having lots of thoughts, it gives you the freedom to focus on what’s really important rather that just trying to do everything. Meditation is about doing less.

Another example of how less is more is the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain talks about how you need to turn off part of your brain to draw well. When you draw something, you need to turn off that part of your brain that says, “This is a tree” and see what the tree really looks like, the shadows, the colors, and the way lines come together. You need to turn the left side, the language side, off of your brain in order to really draw.

We don’t like thinking about trade-offs. We can go to tremendous efforts to avoid uncomfortable things even when they’re obvious. When I was at Amazon, Jeff hosted a town hall and told the company that “One day, Amazon will fail’ but our job is to delay it as long as possible”. It’s interesting that the press picked up this story because it’s the most “non-story” that you can have. It’s like Jeff saying “I’m going to die one day.” No one wants to think about that happening, but it’s going to happen.(5)I remember being really upset when my Zaid died. Someone at work told me about how his mother had died recently. I looked at him and said, “I’m so sorry that you had to go through this.” He looked back at me, smiled slightly, and said, “Everyone goes through this,” and it made me feel much better. I realized that this is what life is all about. I realized that we all pretend that these things don’t happen, but people only live so long.(6)Wouldn’t it be great to live forever? Sounds great, doesn’t it? First, we should start with giving you immortal cells. The problem with cells is that they have these counters called telomeres. The telomeres tell the cell to only divide 50 times and then it dies. But there are some cells that never die and don’t have this telomere problem so we’ll just give you those. As it turn out, these cells do exist, but you probably don’t want them. The only cells that don’t die are cancer cells. Companies only live so long. There’s only so much stuff you can keep in your brain. That’s why you need to think about the trade-offs that you have to make. Otherwise, they’ll be made for you.

So if you can’t have more of everything, you need to deal with trade-offs and you need to be realistic, what do you do? You need to prioritize. The software industry has created an elaborate prioritization framework called Scrum to focus on what’s most important. I wrote about this framework as it relates to prioritizing my writing but I think it works well for prioritizing most things. Here are some of the key points.(7)This is just one version of prioritization. There’s a number of good systems I enjoy. There’s David Allen’s Getting Things Done which I’ve found useful. It can be overwhelming but I really enjoyed the GTD Path. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is powerful too, especially Habit 3: Put First Things First. Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture has a good video on time management which sums up the other two and puts his own spin on it. If this all sounds too complicated, John Maeda, the former president of RISD said that he likes to mix up his prioritization systems every so often because otherwise he gets lazy.

  • Split up the planning and the doing. Most people don’t like prioritization and will jump into execution or try to do planning and execution simultaneously. It’s very hard to prioritize while you’re doing things and you tend to work on the easiest thing first. It’s much more effective to prioritize first. This relieves a lot of cognitive stress and makes executing more fun.
  • Limiting the number of things you do at the same time. It’s much easier to start things than to finish them. I remember someone at Google once told me that “If you have 10 apples, don’t take one bite from each of them.” It’s generally a good idea to have 3-5 things in motion at any time so you have few enough to focus but enough that you can work on more than 1 thing. You should write everything else down on a big list (scrum calls this a backlog) so that you know that you have it.
  • Do the most important thing first.  Don’t worry too much about doing everything. Sit down and determine what’s the most important activity to do first. Then determine what step of that activity is most important. I found the Productivity Planner to be useful in clarifying these things though I use Getting Things Done for prioritizing at work. Start with the most important pieces of what you’re doing. Trying to nail down the details before you have the big picture can be a waste of energy. Think about the way that Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci didn’t sit down and start drawing sections of the Mona Lisa. He drew the basics. Then he drew the outline. Then he made refinements.
The Mona Lisa Wasn’t Put Together Piece by Piece…
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… The Big Pieces Were Put in First and Then Refined

Rembrandt caused quite a stir by leaving some of his paintings unfinished. He decided didn’t bother with some of the details because he decided when it was done. He called it finished “when the painting had achieved its purpose.” Look at Rembrandt’s portrait of his patron and friend Jan Six and notice that his lower glove is barely painted. Leaving the glove unpainted forces us to focus on the important pieces of the painting. If Rembrandt can finish one of his great masterworks without adding all of the underlying details, we can certainly finish activities while leaving off some unimportant loose ends.

Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six

While we think that we want more of everything, that’s not the best strategy because 1) It won’t get us what we want, and 2) It’s impossible. In his book, Luxury Fever, Robert Frank says that those who think money can’t buy happiness just don’t know where to shop. By focusing on time and energy on things that actually make us happy vs trying to get more stuff, we can lead much happier and fulfilling lives.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. More stuff doesn’t make you happy. Just ask Professor Laurie Santos who has talks about how more money and stuff don’t make you happier.
2. Oddly enough, there’s a trade-off that when you have more money, you want even more money.
3. On The Happiness Lab episode Desperately Seeking Solitude, Professor Laurie Santos talks about how we think that we want fewer distractions and more time to ourselves when it’s really the opposite that makes us happy. She uses the example of quiet cars on trains. When you ask people what changes they want on the train, they say they want more quiet cars. But what about an “anti quiet car” where people just talk to each other. That would be a bar car. Some bar cars have been taken off trains because they were too crowded. Talk about giving people what they say they want but not what they really want!
4. Removing the boredom and putting it back is a little odd. It makes me feel like we’re trying to scientifically rebuild our lives out of component parts. Instead of a holistic view of the world, we’re trying to build everything in pieces. This reminds me of Michael Pollan’s article Unhappy Meals or his book Food Rules about eating. He says that the only thing we really know about food is to, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” However, food scientists and companies try to split all of our food up into nutritional components like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats but lose the larger perspective of what “food” really is.
5. I remember being really upset when my Zaid died. Someone at work told me about how his mother had died recently. I looked at him and said, “I’m so sorry that you had to go through this.” He looked back at me, smiled slightly, and said, “Everyone goes through this,” and it made me feel much better. I realized that this is what life is all about.
6. Wouldn’t it be great to live forever? Sounds great, doesn’t it? First, we should start with giving you immortal cells. The problem with cells is that they have these counters called telomeres. The telomeres tell the cell to only divide 50 times and then it dies. But there are some cells that never die and don’t have this telomere problem so we’ll just give you those. As it turn out, these cells do exist, but you probably don’t want them. The only cells that don’t die are cancer cells.
7. This is just one version of prioritization. There’s a number of good systems I enjoy. There’s David Allen’s Getting Things Done which I’ve found useful. It can be overwhelming but I really enjoyed the GTD Path. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is powerful too, especially Habit 3: Put First Things First. Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture has a good video on time management which sums up the other two and puts his own spin on it. If this all sounds too complicated, John Maeda, the former president of RISD said that he likes to mix up his prioritization systems every so often because otherwise he gets lazy.