Are we as humans programmed to seek out new, bigger, faster experiences and achievements, much like some sharks need to keep moving to breathe? How do we know when to stop, when enough is enough? It feels tiring just writing these sentences let alone living them. Yet most of us to some degree are restless. I see it constantly in clients and experience it in myself. Where does this deep-rooted notion that growth is good come from? What is so tricky about settling, about celebrating what we have, about finding inner peace?
As hunter-gatherers we often had to seek food, simply to survive. But crucially this was followed by periods of feasting and relaxation. During the industrial revolution, social mobility was still relatively limited; society did not encourage or reward ambition or seeking. Although capitalism had phases through the 14th-19th centuries, it was really Keynes, access to finance and globalization after the first war that led to the rise of modern capitalism as the pervasive system. Now our urges to hunt for food had a new outlet – making money. The difference from our hunter-gatherers is that the markets never sleep; there is no resting we have become always ‘on’.
But what about at an individual level, or a family level? From looking at identical twins separated (manna from heaven for Psychologists), it would seem that around 50% of ambition is set genetically, the other 50% heavily influenced by our upbringing. Perfectionists for example are often trying to win parental praise or avoid parental criticism long after they have left home.
The famous hierarchy of needs by Maslow may help shed some light here.
Much like a computer game, we need to finish each level before moving on to the next one. Self-Actualization is impossible if you are in a war zone or struggling for basic shelter and food.
What strikes me about the most extreme seekers is that they are stuck somewhere between levels 3 and 4. In seeking power or money or profile or growth they trap themselves in a never ending search for self esteem, love and belonging. This is why settling is so frightening because they would be settling below self-actualization, below a level of fulfillment.
So what can we learn from this? First, that our upbringing casts a long shadow. Being aware of how we were loved and belonged as children gives us insights into how to build our own relationships to break into the next level of self-esteem. There is not an option for going it alone here and spending all your time and energy at work will not complete this level.
Second, that achievement and the confidence and respect that comes with it is not the end goal. Many clients are stuck in the self-esteem loop, trying to achieve more and more to increase the sense of satisfaction. Not settling, as they know they have not reached fulfillment, but looking in the same place over and over again.
Finally, that without having a purpose that has meaning (is larger than you) and is congruent with who you are, level 5 is not possible. I believe this is where the seeking stops and settling becomes a wonderful fulfilled way of life where you make progress and grow in an effortless way. This is what I work on with people on the Vision Days (details here).