I focus a lot on gratitude. If I don’t, I’m a miserable ass. I’ve written before about how gratitude is my emotional force multiplier.
I have so much to be grateful for. Good health, family, friends, interesting things to do, various artistic and career successes. But if my life sucked (and it has sucked at times), I would try to be grateful, for anything I had. Each working limb and organ. Being a conscious-aware being. Our sun, Earth’s atmosphere.
There’s something exhilarating about extreme gratitude. It’s freeing. No matter how much life beats you down, there you are, feeling pretty good because you’re not six feet under. We all have the right to enjoy life regardless of our circumstances. Practicing gratitude is the means to that end.
It’s not that we can always choose to be happy (at least I can’t). Sometimes the cocktail of hormones, neurotransmitters, and brain architecture that influences consciousness leaves us feeling bleak. But the choice is always there to detach our feelings from our external circumstances, or to reframe our circumstances in such a way that we feel fortunate. That’s what detachment means, in the spiritual sense. Not that you don’t care, but that your internal state becomes independent of your external circumstances. Unhooked. Free-floating. Detached.
I have a strong, well-developed ego. I want things. I have well-defined goals and I work towards them systematically. Why? Partly nature, partly nurture. Mostly, I think, I’ve chosen ambition as a life path. I like the dopamine rush. I like working towards things, the sensation of progress.
At times being ambitious has made me less happy, given me feelings of being less than. It’s an easy trap to fall into, basing your self-worth on what you’ve achieved. Regarding people who have achieved more than you as better, those who have achieved less as worse.
Is it possible to want more while still appreciating what you have, feeling that it’s enough? For me it is, as long as I remember that it’s the pursuit of my goals that makes me feel good, not achieving them (though of course that’s nice too).
I try to center my identity around my values and actions, things that are well within my control. No matter how many goals I achieve, those things won’t change. I am what I commit to, not what I accomplish.
Does being humble and grateful and satisfied with what you already have make you less effective at achieving your goals. Less hungry? I don’t think so. Gratitude and ambition can easily coexist. Listen to the words of Demian Maia before his fight with Carlos Condit. “I am already an accomplished fighter.” “I have plenty of wins.” Determined and confident, but also filled with humility and gratitude and a sense of enough, Maia proceeded to choke out one of the most dangerous men in the world in less than two minutes.
Of course real world achievement is important. It’s how we make positive changes in our lives, families, communities, and societies. But we shouldn’t hold our own happiness hostage to what we manage to get done. Be happy regardless, by appreciating what’s already there.
Scott Harrison does a good job of being grateful and ambitious at the same time. He’s grateful to all the donors who have supported his personal and organizational goal of bringing clean water to the world’s poorest communities. But he’s ambitious too — he wants to get more monthly donors, expand operations, help more people. I’ve supported charity:water on a monthly basis for years, and I’ll continue to do so. Not only do they dig new wells, but they monitor existing wells, involve the local community, and implement sustainable models. Access to clean water improves health, frees up time for education and earning money (especially for women and girls), and increases basic human dignity.
Please take a few minutes to watch the video below (warning: some of it is hard to watch). If the white savior narrative bothers you (or the clubbing is bad subtext), please ignore both. In real life, charity:water brings clean water to millions of people, in verifiable and sustainable ways. Charity Navigator gives them 4 stars, a 92.5/100 rating. It’s the real deal. Please join me in supporting their work on a monthly basis, at whatever rate you can afford.
And be limitlessly grateful for all the wonderful things in your life and the world, and terrifyingly ambitious about improving those aspects that are less than wonderful.