On Contentment and Ambition
“Contentment is an inexhaustible treasure.” ~Arabic proverb
Contentment is all we need to live a rich and peaceful life … if only!
How can we experience contentment when everything around us screams: Don’t settle; you can be more, and do more?
We’ve been programmed to seek and do, to learn, to innovate, to create, to experience. The notion that we are satisfied with our life as it is doesn’t cut it. It feels dull, or lazy. We’ve been told that dissatisfaction is good. It gets us off our butts and pushes us to want more and achieve more.
Modern day living looks at contentment as an outcome, not a way of life. The thing that gets all the attention (the superstar of success and achievement) is: ambition.
If we’re always seeking more, how can we be satisfied with the life we have?
Which comes first contentment or ambition? Can we have both?
Can we be satisfied with life as it is and still have dreams we want to fulfill?
My heart says yes. My mind is programmed to believe that ambition leads to results, which bring contentment. This way of thinking doesn’t work most of the times (since I fail more than I succeed).
In order to create a shift in thinking, I needed to look at things differently. The idea of a simple food analogy came to mind. We’ll use hunger and food to explore contentment and ambition.
So, let’s dig in.
Hunger: the conventional motivation
We’re told hunger is good. You need to be really hungry and allow that hunger to drive you to achieve your goals.
Imagine that you’re compelled by a desire to eat this fancy ten-course meal. Your dream is to be able to learn how to cook that meal to perfection, and enjoy it.
The conventional way of being driven by ambition would say: starve yourself to death, and work as hard as you can till you learn every aspect of this meal. Find a mentor, read books, take classes, and spend hours slaving in the kitchen till you get it.
So you starve and work hard every single day and every waking hour. You see people around you eating and enjoying simpler meals. But this is not for you. Your meal awaits you at the end of the tunnel of sacrifice and pain.
If you succeed:
After so much blood sweat and tears you succeed. You get your meal and you feel ecstatic … and yes you’re famished.
So you sit down and you eat, and eat, and eat. You gorge yourself to the point where you can barely breathe. All that delicious food after starvation (as delicious as it is) is now hard to digest.
How do you feel afterwards?
Now you need to deal with indigestion. You might feel sick since you’re not used to eating that much.
Do you feel contentment? Maybe for a minute or two when you realize that you’ve actually done it. But what’s next? Most likely you’ll focus on indigestion. If not, your focus will shift to the void that needs to be filled with another dream.
If you fail:
You will be exhausted. You’ll suffer from malnutrition. You’ll feel dejected and probably you’ll give up. It’s too hard, it sucks, and life is not fair.
You don’t have the energy to do it all over again. And even if you do have the energy and you do it again, using the same approach, how contented are you going to feel (whether you succeed or fail)?
An alternative: contentment first, dreams second
We’ll stay with the same example. You desire to learn to cook this ten-course meal and savor every bite. But this time you do it differently.
As you wake up every morning, you look at your life and how full and rich it is. You sit for a few minutes and imagine that your desired gourmet meal is already here, within your reach.
You have a piece of toast for breakfast; it’s dry. You sip a bit of coffee with every bite and appreciate the blessing of sustenance.
You calmly and lovingly go on about your day. You go to your cooking class and have a blast. You come home just in time for lunch. You didn’t prepare anything, but you have some leftovers that you eat with the same appreciation as if it were a ten-course meal.
You relax for a bit and then you work on your meal experiment. Then you spend time with your family and you go to sleep appreciating the things you learned today and hoping to work more on your magical meal.
The next day comes along and it’s mostly the same routine. You keep at it. You don’t get distracted from your main goal of learning how to cook your fancy meal. But you live your life with acceptance and appreciation. You eat every day and you enjoy what you eat. And you make some progress.
If you succeed:
It may take you months to fully learn how to cook that meal. And one day: it’s done, and it’s perfect.
You’ve enjoyed every meal you’ve eaten before. This is going to be a wonderful treat simply because you’re not expecting much, other than the chance to savor the fruit of this amazing cooking journey.
Instead of gorging yourself, you invite a few friends over. And you spend hours eating and talking and laughing—no indigestion, and no pain.
You did it. You took your time, and you enjoyed yourself. And more importantly, you didn’t just live for that dream. You lived your life—in contentment.
If you fail:
No big deal. You can start again, or pursue another thing. You were not hungry at any moment in your life. You had satisfying meals every day, and you were learning and growing.
Now back to you:
To put this into practice, replace the ten-course meal with anything you desire. Can you appreciate your life you with all of its challenges (dry toast) right now?
Feeling contentment now
If we compare the two scenarios above, we realize that the second is a much better option. We get to pursue the same dream, but we choose contentment first. And it makes a big difference.
Hunger (drive) can be a great motivation. But the sense of urgency and desperation can lead to stress, disappointment, and possibly apathy.
Contentment, on the other hand, lets us appreciate the enough-ness of our life. This in turn helps us calmly focus on the desired goal since we’re not distracted by the promise of happiness from outside influences. With contentment first and a dream second, the other stuff fades away.
We can find and focus on the richness of this moment, with or without the dream. And when we accept life as it is, it receives us with open arms.