Joy or Accomplishment

As I start writing this post, I am becoming aware that much of what I will express is based primarily on my intuition. I feel a bit nervous about that. Will I be judged more harshly? Is it not likely that I will fail in some important way? And yet, I would not want to miss the opportunity that comes from putting my thoughts into this form. I have come to appreciate the clarity and joy I get from doing so.

And there it is: joy. It really is a remarkable experience. A kind of tingling happens somewhere in my pelvic region, paired with a pleasant spaciousness in my chest. The corners of my mouth are being pulled upwards, and I am smiling—without even wanting to.

The feeling I am not experiencing about my blog, certainly not at this time, is accomplishment. A few days ago, a good friend commented on a recent post via email, saying: “Hope you’re enjoying the process and getting some good feedback. It can be lonely putting work into the void.”

Reflecting on the process—writing blog posts and what I get out of the process—I am coming to the following observations.

  • I do not feel particularly bothered by not having an audience
  • for things “at work”, where my motivation is not so much to learn or seek according to my own preferences, I thrive on affirmation feedback
  • the two emotions may be confused easily, and yet have very distinct flavors

The names or labels of these states I came up with are feelings of joy vis-a-vis accomplishment. Maybe I am now enjoying a premature moment of “A-ha!” And in reality, it is possible that all I have come to is an illusory spot of bias, where things suddenly line up nicely in one’s vision without true alignment. This is where I would definitely invite comments and feedback from the few people who do read my blog!

So, without further ado, the insight is the following: with everything I do, my motivation springs primarily from one of at least two fundamental and quite distinct sources. Either I am acting out of a wish to experience joy, and when things go well, that is what I will feel. Importantly, when things do not go well, the feeling state I will be in is what I would call sadness.

The major alternative means I am acting out of a wish to experience accomplishment—or maybe pride in my accomplishments. In that case, if things do not go well I will feel something entirely different: frustration, irritation, or maybe even anger, and possibly guilt or shame, depending on how much I believe that failing in my goal is a reflection on my character or identity.

My experience of “A-ha!” came out of the following, admittedly freshly minted and possibly whacky, imagined difference between people. Wanting to experience accomplishment may very well be correlated with beliefs about the source of individual value. What makes a person valuable as a person? Or in the words of Brené Brown, what makes them lovable?

It seems to me that some people hold the belief that going through life without work—that is, acting in ways that contribute to others’ wellbeing measured in quality and quantity through something like a market mechanism and currency—makes for a poor and, well, less valuable life. And holding that belief leads people to a place in which losing one’s job is, indeed, a disaster of sorts. An even greater disaster would be to find oneself in a position of not knowing how to produce anything of general value, in short how to be productive.

My hunch is that people who hold that belief will, in the absence of accomplishment, feel very bad about themselves. This feeling may then be mixed with thoughts of, “there must be something wrong with me,” or “if I don’t find something productive to do, I have no value.”

For other people there is a strong preference that everything they do ought to be done out of the joy of contributing. And experiencing that we currently live in a world in which people perform tasks at work as a consequence of being told what to do—regardless of whether they enjoy it or not, or whether they agree with the aims or not—is a source of irritation, to put it mildly.

These people would, unless I am mistaken, also experience a much deeper desire for autonomy. The idea that they themselves, or pretty much anyone else, would have to work out of fear of not having enough income to eat or not having a home creates a very unique kind of pain, maybe somewhere between sadness and disgust.

A final intuition I feel like adding to this post and sharing with the few stragglers that currently make up my audience is this: our current “culture war” might be deeply related to this difference in preference. And the transformation in awareness between the Boomer and Millennial generations stems from the values that the former instilled in the latter by saying something like, “do what you want,” and not “do what/as you are told.”

Some people believe and possibly biologically feel that the proper way of living life is through accomplishment. For them there is nothing wrong with modernity and the kind of culture we had going between roughly the end of the Second World War and the 9/11 terror attacks. This is a highly meritocratic view of the world. It is a place full of ambition and achievement. And rather than asking what the world can do for you, it is your job to ask what you can do for the world—something the world is willing to pay for, mind…

Other people believe and possibly biologically feel that the proper way of living life is through joy. For them modernity feels like a rationalist straight jacket that in many ways is just a less personal way of condoning slavery. Given the innate variance in ability, it also seems highly unfair that resources would be allocated primarily based on who can accomplish or achieve more or better than others. And any form of telling people what to do—whether through a slave master or a market that prices the outcome of human labor as commodities—is an infringement on autonomy.

Thinking about this for a bit, it seems obvious that the latter attitude without a clear and acceptable social feedback mechanism leads to decay. Evolution, biological and cultural alike, has been successful because it selects variability of value, of utility for the descendants of those who show that variability. Allowing everyone to simply do what their nature might suggest to them may very well lead into a state in which some tasks which are currently done via paid work would find too few people who would do so out of joy.

At the same time, it seems obvious that the instructions the Boomer generation imprinted on their offspring comes out of a deep longing to feel that one chooses a path in life that is not primarily driven by others’ needs, but rather a reflection of one’s own, inner experience of value. In a way, I believe that our technological revolution and ability to now feed everyone on the planet, if we so choose, has created this conundrum: we want to do what we want to do, and at the same time some things need to be done that seemingly no one wants to do.

And I now feel a deep curiosity around the question of: why is that? Maybe I will try to find answers in a future blog post—out of joy, I hope.

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