262 – The Inverse Law of Desire

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.

Managing Desires

“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.”

— Seneca

“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.”

— Epictetus

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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198 – The Fear of Knowing What You Want

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Do you really know what you want? When you think about what you want, does it excite you? Does it scare you? Are you pursuing what you want? In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about why it’s scary to know what you want, and why that’s a good thing.

“Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. For what task, then, were you yourself created? A person’s true delight is to do the things they were made for.”

—Marcus Aurelius

This week, I got an email from a listener who said she was struggling with being in a career that she felt no passion for but felt like she couldn’t leave for practical reasons, and asked if I could devote some time to this idea. I felt strongly about this because, as I’ve been working on putting things together for the Stoic Coffee community, I’m facing my own fears and doubts. I know it will take a lot of work. It will challenge me in ways that I can’t even imagine. It also creates excitement because of the opportunities that it can open up for me to connect with you, my listeners, and the ideas and things that we can work on together.

The Challenge

We all face the challenge of knowing what we want. There are so many reasons we struggle to know what we want. Why is this so challenging? Because we have been told our whole lives by our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, churches, and society what we’re supposed to want. Taking the time and the effort to know what we want is not something they teach us to do. We just assume that we’ll know what we want.

There are all kinds of forces that influence what we believe and what we feel is acceptable to want. Every culture has lots of biases about what is acceptable. Some cultures hold doctors in high esteem and look down on artists. Others may consider being a farmer is more important than being a banker. There are all kinds of explicit and implicit messages about what we should want and what is unacceptable. But these are things that should not matter. These are things outside of your control. If you are choosing what you want based upon what society or religion or family tell you, then you are choosing based upon the opinions of others.

Religious influences can also have a big impact on what is acceptable. In my case, there was such a big push to get married and have kids, that the thought of becoming a musician or actor was downright scary because I was afraid that I could not provide for a family while working in such unpredictable industries.

With those closest to us, there is a lot of pressure to conform to what they want for us. To go against what they expect is scary, and downright terrifying. Families have an outsized influence on the careers we choose, the people we marry, and the values we hold, which can make it challenging when we know they might disapprove of the things we want.

These are all powerful forces, and to seize the rudder of our ship and chart our own course can feel overwhelming. There are strong currents pulling us all different ways and if we don’t have a clear destination in mind, then we just go where these currents take us. But there is a way that we can figure out where we want to go amidst all the noise and chaos.

We slow down, tune out the noise, and listen.

Listen to what?

Listen to the sound of your breath and the rhythm of your heartbeat. You pay attention to the thoughts in your mind. When you do this, you hear what your mind and heart truly want. You become aware of your actions in everyday life. You notice the things that get you excited and the things that sap your energy.

The truth is most of us know what we want, but to say it out loud is scary… and exciting. Do you know why it is scary AND exciting? Because fear and excitement feel the same. If what you want scares you, that’s great because it means that it’s exciting! It’s thrilling! It means it’s something that you can’t imagine yourself doing, because to imagine yourself doing it feels like betraying everything you were told or believe about yourself.

Will you succeed?

Will you be great?

Who knows?

Does it matter?


What matters is that it’s your dream, and every day you work towards your dream is a day that you feel more alive. Every day you spend working on someone else’s dream is a day that you are not living. Therefore, the stoics implore us with Memento Mori, to consider our mortality so that we can distill what really matters. We can look at each day and the actions we take and ask, “If today were my last day, would I still do this?”

To take that rudder, and steer your course towards your destination, your dream, is to take responsibility for your life. There are all kinds of external forces that don’t want you to follow your dream. You can’t control those, and that’s okay. It means that those are things you can let go of. Just think of how much energy you save because you can let go of trying to control those things! For example, you can let go of worrying about what others think because you have no control over that. What you can control is your mind, your choices, and your actions.


When you try to know what you want, your brain will put up all kinds of resistance. You’ll find yourself second guessing yourself. You’ll try to talk yourself out of it because it seems like it’s impossible. This is normal. Your brain is trying to protect you. The fear of pursing your dream and failing is very powerful, and it has stopped plenty of us from stepping up and owning our dream.

The way you work through this resistance is to imagine what it would feel like if you lived in a perfect world where nothing could stand in your way, and that you could easily move past every challenge that presented itself. What would that feel like? What would that look like? Can you see yourself doing it? Imagine it in a as clear a way as possible. I mean like 4k video clear so that every time you think about about it, there is no doubt what your dream looks like. If you leave it vague, it makes it very challenging to get what you want. Things like, “I want to work for myself”, or “I want to work in medicine”, leave things too up in the air. The more clear and detailed you can be, the more likely you are to make plans to go after what you want.


Knowing what you want is scary because it can lead to big changes in your life. When we truly know what we want, we often bury these desires because if we went after them, it could mean a lot of change in our lives. We will do other things to distract us because we may not be ready to make those changes. For example, if we decide that the career we have doesn’t suit us anymore and we want to go after something else, that can mean a complete change of lifestyle. It may mean that we make a lot less money, and have to downsize the house we live in. It can change our whole circle of friends.

Maybe you want to get married or maybe you want to get divorced. Maybe you want to cut ties with friends or family that are damaging to you. These are all things that you may want, but are afraid to do because it can mean tremendous changes in your life and living situation. But remember, life is always in constant flux and that as much as we might want it, things will never stay exactly as they are. We should be will to not only accept change, but embrace it and guide it in ways that benefit us. Think about it this way. If you want to be a veterinarian, it’s going to take years of schooling and a lot of hard work. But the thing is, that time is going to pass you anyway, and at the end of that time spent in school, you’ll come out doing what you love.

Another reason we may be afraid to go after what we want is because we feel like we are too old to change. I disagree. We can choose to make changes at any age. Albert Schweitzer was an accomplished musician and clergyman in the early 1900s and could have easily spent the rest of his life in comfortable positions in the Lutheran church. At the age of 30 he decided he wanted to be a medical missionary. He went to medical school with little knowledge or aptitude for medicine, and after 7 years of school, he finished with a medical degree and went to serve the people of Gabon, Africa, at his own expense. He would spend the rest of his days working to build a hospital in Gabon, and speaking out against colonialism.

It’s Okay to Know

If you’re struggling with this, the first step of knowing what we want to just to accept that it’s okay to know what we want. We don’t have to do anything about it right now. Just acknowledge it’s what you want. If you are young, it is very possible that you might not know what you want, at least in the long run. That’s okay. Because life is constantly changing, you may want something at one phase in your life and want something completely different later on. Just because you make a choice and go after what you want, does not mean that you can’t change your mind. You can always change your mind. What served you in one part of your life may no longer work for you. Just because you pursue one path in your life does not mean that you have to continue down that for the rest of your life.


“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

— Tim Ferriss

Making the choice to pursue what you want is scary, and challenging, and it should be. It means you have to grow and step out of your comfort zone. It also means it’s worth it. Any dream or desire that is worth it will challenge you. You will doubt yourself along the way. You will fail. You will have down days, and days where you want to give up and ask yourself why you ever wanted it in the first place. You will find strength that you never knew you had. You will find allies and helpers and people that show up at just the right time to lend a hand. You may never actually achieve your goal, but living each day pursuing your dream, to go after the things you want, is a day that you have truly lived.

Hello friends! Thank you for listening. If you like what you hear, head on over to and help support this podcast by becoming a patron. Also stop by the website at where you can sign up for our newsletter, and buy some great looking shirts and hoodies at the Stoic Coffee Shop. Also, if you know of someone that would benefit from or appreciate this podcast, please share it. Word of mouth is the best way to help this podcast grow. Thanks again for listening.

Awareness Coffee Break stoicism Tranquility

134 – A Wise Man

A Wise Man


“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. ”

― Epictetus

Show Notes:

  • If you were to sit down and write a list of all the things that you want in your life, what would be on that list?
  • Maybe a new house, a new car, new clothes?
  • Would the things that you already have be on the list of things you want?
  • One of the core tenets of Stoicism being grateful for the things that we already have.
  • Because if you can want what you already have, you’ve already found a way to bump up your happiness.
  • One of the facets of modern day marketing is that if there is not a natural market for what you are selling, then they work to create demand for products.
  • Marketing works hard to make you feel like you are missing out, then offer you the solution to fix whatever ails you.
  • That if we only we had the newest, shiniest, new thing, then we could feel happy.
  • And it’s not to say that all marketing is bad. Marketing also lets us know about things that we may be truly interested in.
  • And it’s not always easy when there are messages email, ads, and tv that try to persuade us that we are missing out and that the key to fulfillment is just a credit card transaction away.
  • And then when you throw social media on top of our lives, we start to compare our lives to other people’s highlight reel.
  • And soon we can find ourselves perpetually unhappy with wanting things that we don’t need.
  • I know that I’ve fallen for this.
  • At times in my life when I’ve gone shopping because I’m unhappy or bored.
  • The things that I’m grateful for?
  • My partner and the great relationship that we have.
  • My kids and the good people that they are, and the amazing people they’re becoming.
  • And that we’re all pretty healthy.
  • For my awesome friends that make up my tribe.
  • That I have a comfortable home and a good job to take care of those that I love.
  • Taking those moments to appreciate what you already have, and to think to yourself about how fortunate you are, is a cheap way to brighten your day.



Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

Coffee Break Tranquility

118 – Contentment and Desire

Contentment and Desire


“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

― Seneca

Show Notes:

– Does Seneca mean that we shouldn’t think about the future and strive for anything? Seneca himself was a wealthy merchant, which means that he did have to think about the future.
– Contentment with what we have, and not desiring what we don’t.
– Be grateful for what we have. Not being jealous of what someone else has.
– Contentment of the physical things you already have.
– If you desire what you already have, then you can be happy right now.
– It’s those moments when I look around and appreciate what I have that help remind me that life is good.
– How can we apply this to striving?
– What I think that he means is finding that space where you focus on the work and not the end product.
– You focus on the composition, not desiring the end song. Enjoy creating the painting more than desiring the painting.
– If you’re building a company, enjoy the work, more than having the success.
– Each of these are also things which you can control.
– By enjoying the moment, focusing and enjoying what you are doing, doing good work, making the best choices you can, being the best person you can be, the future will work itself out.
– If something works out, great. If it doesn’t, great.
– Learning to be content with and desiring what you already have is the easiest way to happiness because you already have it.