Do you struggle with getting the things that you want in you life? Are you unhappy because you are unable to achieve the success you want in life? Today I want to talk about an idea call the Inverse Law of Desire, and how it may be keeping you from accomplishing your goals in life.
“We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”
— William B. Irvine
We all have desires in our lives. These may be material items, achievements, or personal accomplishments. Maybe you want to have a partner or family or start your own business. Whatever it is, we all have something that we’re working for. But what if I told you that your desire might just be the thing that is getting in the way?
Inverse Law of Desire
“Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.”
— Naval Ravikant
There’s an interesting phenomenon from the Tao Te Ching that I like to call “The Inverse Law of Desire”. It’s about how when we really want something, it can backfire on us and cause us more distress. The more you desperately want something, the more you feel the lack of it.
The more you desire to be rich, the more acutely you’ll feel the lack of money you have. The more desperately you want to feel loved and accepted by others, the lonelier you’ll feel, regardless of who is around you and how much they support you. The more you desperately to cling to someone you love, the more likely you are to drive them away from you.
I think a good example of this is in the realm of dating. When you’re out on a date and you’re trying to be funny, the more likely it is that you won’t be funny. The more you can relax and not try to impress your date, the more likely you’ll enjoy yourself and have a good time.
The reasoning behind this inverse law is that when we desire something too strongly, what we actually want is the outcome, which is something that we can’t control.
On the opposite side, when we are willing to accept negative experiences, the less negative they seem. It actually becomes a positive experience. The easier you can accept when something goes wrong, the easier it is to learn from it and move past it. If you want to learn more about how to accept negative experiences, you should listen to episode 260 – Suffer Well.
“I am happy because I want nothing from anyone. I do not care for money. Decorations, titles or distinctions mean nothing to me. I do not crave praise. The only thing that gives me pleasure, apart from my work, my violin and my sailboat, is the appreciation of my fellow workers.”
— Albert Einstein
So how do we get better at making sure our desires don’t sabotage us?
By learning to find contentment with what we have.
People often think that if you are content, then you will not strive to achieve anything, that you will simply be apathetic and never accomplish anything in your life.
This is a false paradox.
Contentment is a state of mind that is not dependent on external circumstance. Contentment is a choice, and is completely under your control. It is the ultimate self sufficiency because you are happy and content under any conditions. Your happiness is not dependent upon things that are external to you. When you have mastered this, ironically, it becomes much easier to improve your external circumstances.
This is why we need to learn to be content with what we have. When we can recognize and appreciate exactly where we are, then we are happy. We see that we don’t need anything more to make our lives complete. When we do this, then anything we strive for beyond our current state is because we choose it. We are able choose to do something from a place where we are already happy, rather than out of a place of stress and discontent.
This is something that I’m struggling with right now. As I’m pivoting from being a software developer to building a community around this podcast, it has been challenging. I created a 30 day challenge course in last month about developing self-discipline that went pretty well the first round, but as I’m preparing for the next round next week, I’m finding it harder to attract students.
At times, I can feel myself getting discouraged and want to quit because I really want this to succeed . The stress around not achieving the success that I want starts to seep over into my mood and impact my daily life. I have to work to be aware of this and remember that my life is still in a good place. I’m healthy, my kids are doing well, and even though there is a lot going on in my life, I’m doing okay. I also remind myself that in this big change that I’m making progress, I’m learning how to market my course and to get better on social media.
Passion About the Process
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Some people think you need to be passionate about what you are doing, and I don’t disagree. Being passionate about something can be a great driver, but often we are passionate about wanting the outcome of something. If you only do things when you feel passionate about them, then your effort may fall by the wayside when that passion dissipates. If passion were the only thing needed to become great at something, then I would be a Broadway singer, a famous movie actor, and a pro cyclist.
What you need to be passionate about is the process. You need to be passionate about doing the work. You need to be passionate about consistently putting the effort and the time needed to accomplish your goals. For example, great athletes love to practice as much as they love to compete. If you just rely on passion, then when things are hard, you may not show up and get the work done.
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
— Alan Watts
Often times we have strong desires for something because we feel like we are somehow incomplete or lacking. We may feel like we have to achieve something in order to be fulfilled or feel worthy. But the thing is, if we are unhappy with ourselves and who we are, then achieving something does not cure that discontent. That feeling of discontent is something that is internal, and achievements are external.
The key to being content with what we have is being content with who we are.
Everything else is external to us, and therefore is not something that we can control. If self-acceptance is something that you struggle with, I highly recommend that you listen to episode 218 – Accept Yourself. There is great exercise that I talk about in that episode which was highly transformative for me.
“A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.”
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions.”
When we learn how to manage our desires, then we are better able to pursue them because we choose to do so. We can pursue things because we decide they will make us better people and will help us grow, not because we believe they are a cure for our unhappiness.
If we can learn to be happy, or at the very least be at peace in our current situation, then we are able to operate from a place where we are in a better mindset. When we are stressed or discontent, it closes down our thinking. It’s harder to maintain an optimistic outlook. When we get stuck looking at the pessimistic view, then we are restricting our view of what is possible. We might still accomplish what we need, but we doing it feeling stressed, rather than enjoying the process.
This is where learning to be dispassionate can give you a healthy perspective on something. By taking a step back and being able to view things from a rational and less emotion driven perspective can help you focus on doing the work and not tying your happiness to the outcome.
This is what Steven Pressfield calls “turning pro”. You do the work because it’s your job. You show up and get it done because it’s what you agreed to do with yourself. I mean we all have shown up to jobs and did the work, even when we really didn’t want to because we needed to pay the bills. Applying that same attitude to things we are passionate about will help carry you through the tough times.
Learning to be content with what you have might be one of the best tool to helping you achieve your goals. When we are a slave to our desires, we are trying to control things that we don’t have control over, namely the outcome. When we can learn to be content with what we have and more importantly with who we are, then we can pursue our desires from a place of calm, even-mindedness, and in control of our desires.
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