Behind the curtain

1: A wise friend’s friend and ex-colleague, an accomplished entrepreneur, was once in a room with one of the richest, most successful businessmen of our time (let’s call him Mr.Forbes). They were discussing a potential business initiative and Mr.Forbes seemed to be behaving somewhat difficult through the discussions. He seemed to be putting an undue amount of pressure on himself to make absolutely sure the venture would be a big success. After the meeting, this friend asked one of Mr.Forbes’ close friends and associates about the behavior. “Yes” – the friend acknowledged, “he’s just very hard on himself because he’s worried people think of him as a one trick pony.”

2: David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder of Basecamp, has a fantastic post in 37 Signals blog about “The day I became a millionaire.” In the post, he shares what many of us know deep in our hearts. After a certain point, money doesn’t make you any happier. Of his realization, he says –

If anything, I began to appreciate even more intently that flow and tranquility were the true sources of happiness for me all along. It was like I had pulled back the curtain on that millionaire’s dream and found, to my surprise, that most of the things on the other side were things I already had. Equal parts shock and awe, but ultimately deeply reassuring.

He adds –

I can only speak to the experience I did have. The one I do share with millions of people who have the basics taken care of, but who still yearn for the treasure perceived to be behind the curtain. For those who might contemplate giving up all manners of integrity, dignity, or even humanity to pull it back.

3: In a conversation with a couple of close friends recently, one of them pointed out that my point of view on someone’s behavior is likely because of “negative goggles.” It was a comment that made me pause and ask myself a couple of questions – “Am I aware of an unconscious bias in my judgment of the situation?”, “Am I being judgmental when it isn’t necessary?”, and “Am I giving with expectations?” It didn’t take me long to answer these questions. I cleared myself of the unconscious bias and I believed I was applying judgment only when concerned with the specific discussion. But, I did feel I’d given something in this situation with certain expectations. The nature of the situation was such that I felt myself entangled in it and I hadn’t let go. That wasn’t something I’d intended to do and the conversation helped me take a simple step that helped me resolve it.

These stories and a certain friend’s recent experiences have exposed me two truths –

1. When you don’t have your basics, i.e. shelter, food and security (or the lower ends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), taken care of, life is a fight for survival and making ends need. This happens to us occasionally during times of adversity. In such cases, our life has little do with our sense of self. If you are the daily wage laborer who has to work 16 hours to make ends meet, you don’t have time for much reflection. Even if it might make your life better, your priorities are different – it is about earning your bread and notching up a win for the day. Similarly, if your kid is very sick, your own well being is put on hold as you care for your kid. Again, during such times, it isn’t about you.

behind the curtain, life, needs, self

2. Once you do have your basics taken care of, life, in many ways, is everything you do with your sense of self. Notice how the upper pyramids have to do with love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. For example, to be loved, you have to be, and feel, lovable. This is what lies “behind the curtain” of most human beings you and I know.

It is this struggle that explains Mr.Forbes’ behavior. It is this struggle that David Hansson refers to. And, it is this struggle that I went through this morning. The quality of our lives has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much wealth or material success we have. If we don’t feel good, life isn’t going to be good.

So, how do we feel good or love ourselves? Here, I will go back to Scott Peck’s definition of love – “The will to extend ourselves for our own or another’s spiritual growth.” Or, to put it simply, to love, we must grow. And, to grow, we must love. Growth doesn’t come easy, of course. Self-growth is a constant cycle of learning, reflection, control and awareness. It is a cycle of – self-control -> deliberate action -> reflection or self evaluation -> self knowledge -> self awareness. It is easier to not complete the loop. Self evaluation is painful. I have been working over these years to give without expectations. And, yet, when I caught myself doing so this morning, it pained me. But, ignoring it isn’t going to solve the problem. Response is. And, now that I know this happens, I can be more aware and exercise better self control next time. It is an incredible loop. But, it is hard work. You can avoid this loop for a while (for years, in case of some people), but the pain felt as you grow is nothing compared to the pain felt when you don’t.

It is always better to do the work.

As Scott Peck says –

Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

It doesn’t matter who you are. The fact that life is difficult remains unchanged. If you, like me, are blessed to be free of worries around your basics, maybe this ought to be a reminder that our life is ours alone and we make of it what we will. It is best spent when we stop wondering what is behind the curtain of other people’s lives (especially those who’re more wealthy or more successful by some measure or other) and become better at loving ourselves.

So, it all comes down to this – we’ve been dealt a hand of cards. It isn’t easy to play it right. But, choose to grow, and we have the opportunity to make it meaningful, to make it count.

It truly is a wonderful life.