I’m about to tell you how to get everything you want in this life. You may think that this is a joke or that I am about to sell you something you don’t need, but I mean quite sincerely that I will tell you how to get everything you want. In fact, it is only slightly more complicated because I have two ways to do this. You may choose which one suits you best.
Method One: Think big, work hard, and focus on what you want.
I have to admit that this first method is one you have heard of many times before, in many different ways. Some say that there is a “Secret” that you can get anything you really put your mind to. Others write books like “Think and Grow Rich,” basically arguing that you can do anything you really work hard enough for and believe enough in. Most of these require you to spend a good deal of time and effort thinking, planning, and striving to get all that you want. All require a kind of modern American “positive thinking” approach of some kind. And you know, I am sure that this method has worked for many people–especially the people who write those books about getting rich. I mean, what better method is there for getting rich than telling people how to get rich? But, to be completely honest, there are a couple of caveats to this method.
Caveat 1: It might not work.
I know I sound like a wet blanket, but Method One is not foolproof. You might spend all kinds of time thinking positively, focusing on getting all these great things in your life and have it all go down the tank. Not everyone who works hard and does their best gets rich or finds themselves having achieved and gained all that they want.
Caveat 2: If it does work, it will never be enough.
One of the major weaknesses of this approach is that it assumes that what you want will stay static as you achieve and gain. The truth–which we all know on some level–is that as we get what we want, we begin to want more. The person making $50,000 a year wants to make $100,000 but the person making $100,000 wants to make $250,000, and so on. Contentment is a hard thing to come by when using this method, because you have been working so hard at thinking big and achieving big that your appetites always grow with your achievements.
So Method One, in short, is to strive and focus on fulfilling all of your wants. And the problems are that it might not work, and if it does, you will never feel completely fulfilled because your desires and wants grow.
Method Two: Want nothing (or very little).
The Te Tao Ching (the principle book of Taoism) puts it this way:
Manifest plainness and embrace the genuine;
Lessen self-interest and make few your desires1
What does the author mean, to “make few your desires?” It means that the goal should be to lessen your wants rather than to work to obtain many wants. In our modern American culture, we are told that our desires should be grand and that we should devote our lives to achieving them. Taoism teaches us that we should make our desires less, and then we can learn contentment with little.
Fame or your health—which is more dear?
Your health or possessions—which is worth more?
Gain or loss—in which is there harm?
If your desires are great, you’re bound to be extravagant;
If you store much away, you’re bound to lose a great deal.
Therefore, if you know contentment, you’ll not be disgraced.
If you know when to stop, you’ll suffer no harm.1
It is hard for us to imagine “know[ing] when to stop,” because we have been taught from very young that we should always strive for more, always set our sights higher than they are now. But how does this sound to you–to know contentment? This is the great achievement of Method Two. You may not achieve so much in terms of material wealth or power, but you do gain the contentment and peace of mind that can come from knowing when to stop.
Indeed, “When you have little, you’ll attain much; with much, you’ll be confused.” Most of us know that gnawing feeling of want that doesn’t go away even when our earnings increase. We think that we will be satisfied when we make X amount of money, but find ourselves just as unhappy and unfulfilled when we reach the goal. So the cure is this: Want nothing (or very little). Because “to know when you have enough is to be rich.” 1
What would this look like in practicality, for you? What are some of those “things” or personal achievements that gnaw at you, demanding to be fulfilled? Perhaps a new computer, a new job, a new relationship? Spend a moment imagining that want or desire going away rather than being fulfilled. What if you were happy with what you have now rather than always hoping for some future state that is better?
The Te Tao Ching makes the argument that it is not the achievement of our desires that is key to our joy, but finding contentment where we are. And most of us have to admit that we have it pretty good.
So want very little, and you will soon have it all and be happy. Or, if you wish, you can spend the next few decades striving for your grandiose desires, and reap discontentment and unhappiness. The choice is yours.
1 These quotes come from my preferred translation of the Tao Te Ching: Lao-Tzu. Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts. Translated by Robert G. Hendricks.