A reader suggested I write about this topic: Explore the tension between being satisfied with what you have and your accomplishments vs. the desire to do better.
Being too complacent would yield suboptimal results because you’re drifting and not getting close to your true potential. But push too hard, and you may never enjoy what you have and may burn yourself out. So it would seem the optimal solution lies somewhere in the middle between the extremes.
On the one hand, you have complacency. Think of this in positive terms as enjoying what you have and being at peace with your current situation.
And on the other hand, we have ambition and effort, the desire to keep moving and to improve yourself.
The perceived conflict comes about as a choice between here and there. Stay put or move on. Which is better?
Is a perpetual balance between these two extremes the right answer? Like 50% complacency and 50% ambition?
Let’s try a perspective shift … one that eliminates the problem entirely.
This problem arises from the assumption of a static view of life — that every moment is the same as every other, that if being ambitious is the right choice now, it will still be the right choice tomorrow.
Life isn’t static though. When you take a snaphot “here is where I am now” view of your life, you reinforce a flawed view of reality. Life is always in motion. Look at the cells in your body. If they ever go into a static state and stop moving, you’re dead. They’re doing different things at different times. Sometimes your body must shut down to fight illness; other times it’s happy to move around and get some exercise. There’s no single right thing for your cells to be doing at all times. Movement and change are integral to life itself.
In life there’s no status quo. Think about the momentum of different areas of your life right now. What’s expanding? What’s contracting? Instead of thinking of complacency vs. ambition as some percentage mixture in the present, think of long-term cycles of expansion vs. contraction. Cycles of ebb and flow are a natural part of life.
Notice what type of cycle you’re in right now. If you’re in an expansion cycle, then push your ambition as far as it will take you, and forget about complacency. If you’re in a contraction cycle, then take a break from ambition and spend time on your inward development.
Sometimes these cycles last for years. From about mid-2004 onward, I’ve been in a massive expansion phase — trying new things, meeting new people, starting a new business. Before that I was in a contraction phase for many months, thinking and contemplating, doing lots of reading, turning inward, reassessing my priorities. There are even cycles within cycles, like periods of short-term contraction during a long-term expansion period. It’s like the stock market. You have long-term bull and bear markets and short-term bull and bear days and weeks. At the time of this posting, it appears we’re having some bear days in an otherwise bull market. Cycles within cycles.
So just as a stock investor needs to know when to buy and sell, you must listen to the signals from your own life (both internal and external) to learn when it’s time to expand or contract. Every day is different. Sometimes buying/expansion is right, and other times selling/contraction is right. You don’t balance the two. You cycle between them.
One of my favorite treatments of this subject can be found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. The whole book of Ecclesiastes is an interesting story about a man searching for the ultimate source of joy in life, eventually succeeding by identifying it as the fulfillment that comes from hard work.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
Life is constantly cycling through expansion and contraction phases.
Sometimes we’re able to go out and do no wrong. Other times we run home licking our wounds. By recognizing what kind of cycle you’re in, you can flow with it instead of fighting it. In a contraction phase, this means spending a lot of time thinking and journaling, reading, working on personal development to build your skills, going to school, spending lots of time with family. In an expansion phase, it means taking on some ambitious projects and stretching yourself, joining new clubs, meeting new people, taking on new responsibilities, enjoying new experiences.
What happens in your life when your decisions are out of phase with your current cycle? What happens to a stock investor whose decisions are out of phase with the market?
Problems also occur when we get stuck in one phase for too long. A prolonged contraction phase can lead to depression (both in the stock market and in your personal life). A prolonged expansion phase can build stress and anxiety. Life requires cycles of exertion and rest — that’s what makes us stronger.
What is your life calling for right now? Should you be contracting or expanding? Is this the time to reinvent yourself in private or express yourself in public?