It's enshrined in our business wisdom of the last few years: Continuous improvement. Agile. Kanban. Deliver something new and different, preferably every two weeks. Wherever we are at any given moment, we should always on our way to someplace better.
It's also the way that many of us, me included, approach our professional, and sometimes our personal lives. That can be a problem. In many cases, it prevents us from being happy.
I hadn't really thought about this question of continuous improvement and continuous dissatisfaction very much until my most recent coaching session with executive coach and best-selling author Wendy Capland. A while back, I wrote a column from an interview with Capland and as a follow-up we decided she would coach me and that I would write about it.
At this session, Capland asked me to note the things that I had been doing right recently. Before answering, I started with a disclaimer I make often: "I'm never really satisfied with anything that I do."
This time, she stopped me. "Let's reframe your language," she suggested. "I don't ever again want to hear you say that you are never satisfied with anything you do. Why would you do that to yourself?"
For lots of reasons. First, there's habit. I've been chronically unsatisfied for a long time--all my life, really. I can't quite imagine myself any other way. Then there's fear. Fear that if I let myself be satisfied, even for a little while, I'll lose my edge, and my drive. My chosen profession of writing is not an easy one. I worry that if I let up on myself, the routine obstacles and frustrations of the writing life will drag me under. I'll wind up sitting in the living room in my pajamas at four in the afternoon, watching Netflix and eating cheese puffs.
But even as I envisioned this, I could see how wrong that fear was because it isn't satisfaction or complacency that robs creative people of their forward momentum. The people I know who are most completely stuck in neutral aren't suffering from an excess of satisfaction. On the contrary, they face pessimism and despair. They believe that nothing they can do will change things for the better. I know this. So why can't I be satisfied?
There's my mother, who died in September at 91. She was never satisfied with anything she herself did, or that anyone she loved did either. Throughout my life, I've always heard her voice inside my head, approving and disapproving, urging me to go further and try harder. And I have.
She had Alzheimer's, so for her last few years she was physically present, but mentally mostly absent. Now that she's actually left the planet, I've almost physically felt her come to live inside my skin. She led an extraordinary life, and so much of it wouldn't have happened if she too had not been chronically dissatisfied. Or at least, that's what I've always thought.
"I'm very driven and I want to achieve so much more," I told Capland. "To me, that seems like the opposite of being satisfied."
"It is," she said. "You can have two opposing feelings at the same time." And then she told me the story of when she dropped her youngest daughter off at college. She returned from the trip full of excitement. With the kids now all out of the house, she and her husband could relax, travel, or make spur-of-the-moment dinner plans. There would be so much more freedom. Then she opened the door of her daughter's room, looked inside, and burst into tears.
It wasn't that she no longer felt thrilled and excited. She still did, but she felt bereft too. "Both at the same time," she said. I've certainly had bittersweet moments like that, for instance a year ago when the excitement of moving somewhere new mixed with a deep sense of loss at leaving my home of more than 20 years.
Maybe we should all try to hold a feeling and its opposite at the same time about our work and personal lives. Driven, ambitious, and satisfied. Completely content, and yet yearning for the next accomplishment.
It's worth a try, because it's the only way most of us will ever be happy. If you're anything like me and you've ever achieved any of your goals, then you already know that there's no "there" there. Achieving something you've been working on a long time brings a brief jolt of pleasure, a celebration if you're lucky, and then you go right back to working toward your next goal.
So try saying this to yourself right now, preferably out loud: "I am satisfied with myself and with the way things are right now. And I want more."
I plan to say it, and live it. How about you?