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Declaring Victory

Jonathan Clements

I OFTEN FEEL LIKE the Grinch, who “puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore.” One question I’ve puzzled over endlessly: If what I do barely matters in the greater scheme of things, why in the world do I keep doing it?

Here are four related thoughts that often crop up in my writing:

  • One of life’s great pleasures is working hard at something we care deeply about.
  • While striving toward our goals can bring great satisfaction, achieving them is often a letdown.
  • We should worry less about the praise of others and more about doing work we find personally meaningful, because only the latter will reliably deliver happiness.
  • Five or 10 years after we’re gone, most of us will be forgotten, except by friends and family.

We know why we keep pushing forward: It’s our hunter-gatherer instincts. We’re here today because our nomadic ancestors were never satisfied with what they had and instead—in their efforts to survive—strove relentlessly for more. The feeling of satisfaction we get when we make progress is a trick played on us by our genes, so we keep working hard.

But if we know this, why don’t we learn to chill out? Now that our daily existence isn’t a life-or-death struggle, doesn’t our relentless pursuit of progress start to seem like the frenzied activity of delusional men and women?

This bring us back to the old battle between “more” and “enough.” Somebody once joked to me that, no matter how much money folks have, their idea of being rich was having twice as much. But today, I’m not talking about more money or more possessions.

Instead, my focus is on more success—career or otherwise. We keep striving for one more big promotion or one last major achievement, so we can make our mark on the world, go out on a high note and thereafter rest on our laurels. But it almost never works out that way: We slip into retirement and what we achieved is reworked, abandoned, ruined or simply forgotten.

I try to comfort myself with the notion that we’re part of a conversation that stretches across the generations. We build on the work of folks who came before us and whose names we most likely don’t know. And our work will be built on by those who follow, and they most likely won’t know our names, either.

But I also think we should try to figure out what success looks like, so we can finish our life’s work with some sense of satisfaction. I’ve been endeavoring to do this myself. I think of HumbleDollar as my last big project—and I hope to keep it going for as long as possible.

At some point, however, I also want to feel like I’ve succeeded. But how will I know? I’m pondering what my goal should be—perhaps a target number of monthly website page views—so I’ll know when to declare victory and be satisfied with what I’ve achieved. Looking ahead to the end of your career or the end of the more active part of your retirement? I’d encourage you to engage in the same exercise.

Ponder what constitutes success and then write it down, so you don’t start moving the goal posts. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure this will work. But maybe, just maybe, if you achieve your written goal, you’ll have some peace of mind—and you won’t spend your remaining days wishing you had achieved more.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include User’s ManualJust Asking and No Worries. Jonathan’s latest books: From Here to Financial Happiness and How to Think About Money.

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Russ D'Italia
Russ D'Italia
2 years ago

This is all useful and thoughtful. We go on in life because there is only one direction to go, there is no going back no matter how alluring nostalgia might sound. But projects by themselves have a sterile, almost mechanical ring, they can be hollow, leaving you with the “self imposed stress” mentioned below by Jiab. I think one needs a human, or perhaps humane, element in one’s projects, something with human contact and immediate feedback. I get that with the foreign students I teach English and American Civilization to; it is face to face, one on one, very personal, helpful to them and rewarding for me. I am sure that is not the only model, but plenty of studies tell us that social contact is the way to a longer and happier life. I think that, however engaging an internet process or other intermediated activity might be (and it is for sure, have you liked my pictures yet!?), looking someone in the eye and interacting with them is a treasure that cannot be duplicated.

Alfred Maynard
Alfred Maynard
2 years ago

This blog post reminds me of the Book of Ecclesiastes; King Solomon struggled with these same deep philosophical issues of life, working, and meaning thousands of years ago. In particular, Chapter 5, verses 18-20:

18 Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.
19 Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.
20 For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.

I find it telling of human condition that these same issues still trouble our hearts today and we are no better in expressing them than the poetry of millennia past.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
2 years ago

Jonathan,
You hit the nail in the head for me. I recently retired and yearn for the feeling of satisfaction that comes from making progress. So, what do I do? I built a blog, started writing, learning guitar and Spanish, on top of other things that I want to do more of after retirement (family time, tennis, cooking, reading, etc).The result is self-imposed stress instead of being relaxed and chilled. This is a great post and get me thinking about my own definition of success

CraftsmanCT
CraftsmanCT
2 years ago
Reply to  Jiab Wasserman

Jiab, I read your post as pointing out that retirement offers the opportunity to do what we want, with a purpose, but that we can sometimes overplan, overdo and over-strive. But it usually takes time to find the appropriate balance. After six years of retirement,
I’m still looking for that balance. Nevertheless, I’m relatively satisfied and hope and expect the situation to improve as I continue to live and learn from my experiences, and occasional failures.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
2 years ago
Reply to  CraftsmanCT

Thanks. Your comment is very helpful and encouraging as I am working toward finding my own balance.

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