‘Do what you have to until you can do what you want to,’ is a famous quote by Oprah Winfrey.
It sounds really good. The problem is it’s not entirely true. (To be fair, I don’t know if Oprah
agrees with me on the caveat below.)
While it’s likely that as people become more successful, they are able to spend more energy on things they enjoy, there’s always something one doesn’t want to do which is required to do to get more of what one wants. That is to say, there’s something one has to do to get to the point where one no longer has to do it.
This is true for the simple fact that if one wants to progress in life or business, one has to work to achieve that improvement. Although the work may be enjoyable, there will always be an element to it that one wishes to improve. That is the very nature of what people are working for.
Put another way, the mere desire of wanting to achieve some future aim will inevitably mean that the journey will be paved with aspects one doesn’t fully enjoy.
Let’s imagine John is starting a business. In the beginning there are a lot of moving parts, and much of his time is spent doing things he doesn’t enjoy such as customer support and accounting. He dreams of the day when he can hire a COO to carry out the day to day details, so he can focus on the big picture and growing the business, but in the beginning, he wears both hats.
A few years go by, John’s business crushes it and so he can put the necessary people in place. With his new team, he lives happily ever after, right?
Not exactly. John only lives in this illusory utopia temporarily. Now that his COO is fully operational, he’ll begin working toward a new aim, and that will surely require more attention from John until he can delegate that as well.
Or perhaps, he’ll want to start a new business entirely, but to do so he’ll have to find a CEO to replace himself or sell his original business, just another of the many ‘have to’ on the way to his next ‘want to’.
Assuming John is even a modestly ambitious person, that is, one with a goal he’s working toward in the future, this oscillation between doing some of what he has to in order to get more of what he wants will continue indefinitely.
In other words, it’s precisely because he wants things to be better or different that he keeps working to turn his vision into a reality. I believe it’s healthy to maintain this perspective for it properly prepares one for what lies ahead.
The problem is many are lured by these promises of eternal ecstasy and strive for this perpetual state of bliss where they have everything they want. ‘If I can only have _______, then I’ll be content’ is the ongoing narrative. This is a dangerous assumption because it sets one up for unhappiness.
Satisfaction is fleeting. It’s the temporary space we live before we want more of it. Just like one is only full until they’re hungry again, one is only content until one has another ambition. I believe it is in part for this reason Buddhists accept that all life involves suffering (The First Noble Truth) and that the origin of suffering is attachment (The Second Noble Truth).
It is said that life is a journey, but many people fail to see that it’s largely an ascent up an infinite mountain. Happiness, that is to say, the temporary phase before you want more happiness, is the flat part of the hike that lies between the top of one hill and before the next one begins.
There’s always a hill in front of us, which by its very nature means it will be challenging to move forward. Inevitably, there will be parts of that challenge which we don’t enjoy in the moment; yet, should we push through and conquer them, we will likely be happy that we did.
Once we get to the top, we may rest in that perfect equilibrium where everything is just right. That is, of course, until we decide to start moving again, at which point we’re at the bottom of another hill.
To climb is good, for it means we’re still alive. We can keep moving in this way so long as we’re able. The journey only stops when we stop. It seems to me that the key to enjoying that journey is focusing on where we’re climbing and resisting the temptation to compare our peaks to someone else’s.
That’s a game we can’t win as there’s always a bigger mountain out there somewhere. Instead, why not measure your own progress by looking back at what you’ve already climbed, and of course, pausing every once in a while to reminisce about how far you’ve came?
Remember, it’s your journey and you can rest for as long as you need.
Then, when you’re ready, look ahead and take one step at a time and resume your climb.