Want not, Waste not

In 1 on February 27, 2010 at 9:33 pm

David Brooks was on The Charlie Rose Show recently and he was talking about a book he was working on.  The subject is the brain, specifically the unconscious and all the discoveries scientists are making now.  His conclusion from what he has learned so far?  “We don’t know much.”  He did not mean the scientists don’t know much.  He meant us.  Everything I can read, everything I experience, tells me this is accurate, but probably incomplete.

As I posted in an earlier blog, the research suggests that our notion of knowing what we want is often misleading, a trick that nature plays on us.  Here is what Nettle said:

“The distinction between wanting and liking is of use here. Our minds are equipped with a dopamine-drunk wanting system that draws us to compete for a promotion or a higher salary: a larger house or more material goods; an attractive partner or 2.4 children. It draws us to these things, not because they will make us happy, not even because we like them, but because the ancestors who got the stone age equivalents of these things are our ancestors, and those who did not are biological dead ends. Although we implicitly feel that things we want in life will make us happy, this may be a particularly cruel trick played by our evolved mind to keep us competing. The things we want in life are the things the evolved mind tells us to want, and it doesn’t give a fig about our happiness. All the evidence suggests you would probably be happier not caring about your promotion and going and building boats or doing volunteer work instead.    Moreover, the more important people believe financial success is, the more dissatisfied with both work and family they are.”

Basically, he is telling us that while we might “want” things, we often want things we will not like when we actually get them.  Ever had this happen to you?  Even worse, did you ever go into debt or even change something drastic in your life because you wanted something only to find you did not like it when you got it?  Ever pursued a date or relationship with someone only to find the chase was better than actually going out with them?

So how do we trust our “want” radar?  I would argue we shouldn’t.  If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you will see me use the word “wonder.”  I trust wonder far more than I will ever trust what I want.  Why?  Because from my experience of myself and from working with people, our wonder is far more accurate than what we think we want.  In my interviews with world class performers, I heard this over and over again.  They were successful because they stumbled upon something they felt when they were doing it.  They liked how that felt and followed that where it took them.

The distinction is that they felt something while they were doing it.  The feeling they had was not one of wanting, but of actually experiencing something.  As they felt that way again, as they practiced longer, played more, did more work,  a field of play seemed to open up and they followed their wonder across the field, testing things out.  They wondered.  They played.  They did work.

In the interview, Brooks told about a classic experiment, one he said is a good predictor of people being successful in life.  A researcher placed a cookie in front of a child and told the child that if he or she could go a certain amount of time without eating the cookie, he or she would get two cookies.  Some of the children ate the cookie anyway.  Others went to great lengths to suppress their desire to eat the cookie.  One kid banged his head against the table to distract him from the cookie.  The children who did not eat the cookie displayed an important characteristic of successful people– delayed gratification.  They were willing to do what it took to gain more over time.

But what if the researcher had children doing something they loved doing, something they did for hours, that they improved at as they did it?  Would they have stopped doing it to get the cookie?  My experience suggests they would not.

In eastern religions, the key it seems to me is that suffering is caused by wanting.  I think this is right.  I think if people were in the right environments, they would not want stuff.  Western society is built on creating, producing, and marketing things we want enough to buy.  The easy access to credit made instant gratification seem less important or at least more difficult.  Television is designed to make us want things we do not have.

But in the end, too often we want what we will not like…and the cycle continues.

Wonder , on the other hand, is a process that leads us to understand ourselves and the world around us at a deeper level.  In fact, one of the cornerstones of capitalism, probably the least talked about aspects of it, is curiosity.  We wonder about something.  Maybe the distinction between wonder and curiosity is that curiosity implies action.  Wonder did not kill the cat.  Curiosity did because it implies the cat did something about his wonder that might not have been so good.  I would argue that history shows that the greatest businesspeople, the greatest inventions happened because someone wondered and that wonder became active curiosity.  And work was done.  Truth was found.  And the more truth that was found, the more wonder happened because new questions arose.

Why am I saying all of this?  Because another one of the principles of any company I create, any activity I pursue, must be wonder, wonder that spurs curiosity into action.  I want people who wonder aloud, who take action on it, in my life.  I am not interested in people who want something like the greyhound who metaphorically catches the rabbit and can never race again.

My experience, my research, shows that to want something is a waste of time.  But to wonder, to be curious, leads us to worlds and places and people we could never imagine without it.

No cookies for me please.  I agree with Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

  1. IIRC, there’s a TED talk on the experiment testing kids’ ability to delay gratification. I think they used marshmallows.

    • Hey Karen,
      Thanks for reading my blog. One of the things I am clear on given my diverse experience and odd research is that too much of the psychology science (and other fields as well) is it is stuck in studying a “the game” that almost no one I know feels is honest or real, but is driven by politics and the way things are supposed to be. I have spent my life trying to understand the way things actually do work. I distinguish this from how things work in the way people are taught….

      Wow. You just inspired a new post for me. I love the TED talks and will check that one out.

      I hope someday to do one.


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