There are two states of being: surviving and thriving. To survive is to limit downside, to eliminate the risk of ruin — it means fulfilling our basic need for food and shelter and companionship. Thriving is different: It’s an attempt to transcend a state of existence not out of fear but out of desire and yearning.
Running so you can avoid being eaten by a lion in the Savannah is a motion inspired by fear. It’s something your body is conditioned to do because if it didn’t, your genes would eventually die out. Likewise, when you feel hungry or when crave some semblance of security, that’s your body using impulses to tell you to take care of yourself. The bodies in the past which either ignored these impulses or malfunctioned under threat in some other way did, in fact, go extinct. This is what drives evolution via natural selection — if you don’t have the capacity to survive in a particular environment, then the code in your body won’t make it to the next generation.
This is simple enough, and most of don’t need to be told this today. Living in the modern world, we are also quite fortunate: We don’t have to worry about being a lion’s meal. And while poverty and adverse living conditions are still abundant in many places, the vast majority of humans don’t wake up worrying whether or not they will survive to live another day. But is that enough? Living day in, day out, simply knowing you’re going to survive to live another day?
Well, along with natural selection, evolution also works via another means: sexual selection. While natural selection is a competition between different species over resources and territory to determine who survives, sexual selection is about competition for resources and territory within a species to enhance individual reproductive opportunities. For evolution to work, surviving isn’t enough; we also have to thrive so we can provide and nurture offspring. The status and wealth games we observe all around are an indirect manifestation of this evolutionary pressure. It’s why people buy expensive clothes they don’t need and showy cars they don’t drive — both of these things signal something about their value as potential mates, and this mate value is what allows them to successfully reproduce.
All of this, of course, is a lot more complicated than the picture painted here, but the core idea remains: We have innate need to satisfy the requirements of survival, yes, but also have a deeper desire to make something of ourselves beyond that so we can thrive in the world. And the latter is what makes us feel like we are living up to our potential, to our true self. For some, this can mean playing those status and wealth games that are about making some godly amount of money or climbing some real or imagined hierarchy, but for most people, it simply means challenging themselves to be more of who their core dictate they could and should be. Or as the great 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow put it:
“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be”
There is, however, a gap between these states of surviving and thriving that needs to be closed before life in the latter can be embraced. Thriving can only be built on a concrete emotional foundation. While the modern world of abundance has increasingly lowered the odds of us dying from survival-related issues, it’s brought on an onslaught different problems. Due to the sheer complexity of the average modern environment, one that is so different from what we initially evolved for, our lives have increasingly moved from managing ourselves in the physical realm of the body, moderating its survival, to the emotional realm of consciousness, moderating its sanity.
Everyday, our senses are abused by thousands of artificial lights, sounds, and smells in the cities we live in and the places we work in. Our media devices fill us with more information than we could hope to absorb and comprehend in multiple lifetimes; some of it purely false and even more of it simply useless. Even our norms and interactions in the social world are clouded by more ambiguity, more things to consider. Now, the fact that we have more and more isn’t bad in itself; abundance has its uses and benefits. The problem, however, is that if you don’t know how to manage all of this, which most us haven’t learned to do, then the mind is spending so much of its time in conflict with itself that it doesn’t have any energy left to do what it truly wants beneath the clouds of uncertainty that balloon to the surface.
When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 of the world’s most successful people (including 14 Nobel Prize winners) in the 1990s to see if he could identify commonalities between them, one prominent thing he noted was that they are all incredibly complex human beings. What does that mean? It means that, as individuals, they were both differentiated and integrated. They were differentiated because they had taken it on themselves to navigate the abundance of the world and expose themselves to it, making them a unique amalgamation of the different things they had absorbed and experienced; they were integrated because they had also done the work to make sense of this diverse absorption into a coherent whole.
Another way to frame this would be to see differentiation as the process of discovering individual values and integration as the narrative/the meaning that drives those values into day to day actions.
There are many people who are integrated but not differentiated, and their problem is mostly that they haven’t really done the work to expose themselves to the complexities surrounding them. They have been sucked into the ideologies of their family, or culture, or political affiliation, and they are seemingly happy to exist there. To them, it’s easy to ignore the excess noise in the modern world because they simply ignore it by default. But deep down, there is still emotional conflict because they know that they aren’t really living a life that’s true who they are and what they could be according to what their own body has experienced living in the world.
Then, there are people who are differentiated but not integrated. These people have exposed themselves to the different corners of the world, picked out the values that represent their individuality, but they have a hard time making it all cohere. The narrative structure that holds their life together is weak and the meaning of it all, fragile. Here, the conflict is less that they aren’t living a life that’s true to what they know deep down, but more so, it’s that they can’t act on what they know in their daily life. They get sucked up by their distractions, addictions, or whatever else gets in the way of applying knowledge to action. And none of this is helped by the fact that this complex, abundant world demands so much of them. Many in this category often carry unresolved problems from childhood/adolescence.
People often find themselves with a bottleneck where they identify a surface-level issue as the cause of their inability to do what they want. Sometimes, they’ll blame it on the company they are working for or the lack of credentials in their life. Other times, they’ll be looking for better productivity tools or a different lifestyle. Occasionally, these bottlenecks are indeed what hold them back, but usually they are just symptoms of deeper, thornier problems that our mind knows we aren’t ready to handle yet so it temporarily uses a false reason to conflict itself, driving us towards uncertainty and instability that, over time, begins to play with our sense-making abilities.
The question, of course, is: What can we do about this? And the answer, as I see it, is both simple and frustrating at the same time: It’s to cultivate awareness — which is essentially another way saying that we all have to become our own therapists, looking for ways we get in our own way and mentoring ourselves when the occasion calls. While there is a world filled with outside guidance, the truth is that the only person who can constantly look out for us is the person we see in the mirror. That’s the only person who is always watching, and that’s the only person who can take improved action based on immediate feedback.
One of the true injustices in the world is that different people are born with different strengths and weaknesses (not all as opportune as others), into different environments (not all as enriching as others), and guided by different parents and teachers and mentors and friends (not all as effective as others). And this, naturally, means that some people get a head-start in their quest for actualization, and that is as it is.
That said, one of the great justices of the modern world, however, is the democratization of information (through the internet, libraries, etc.). And if there is one thing that can compensate for a deficiency in pretty much any circumstantial condition, it’s this: All of the answers are already out there and immediately available, waiting for someone to take the initiative to find them and then have the courage to incorporate them into their life.
People do all sorts of things to cultivate awareness. Some swear by meditation, others see professionals, a few yet call on their friends and family for support. All of these can be effective. But at it’s core, awareness is about observing your emotional experience and not running from it — to see it clearly and objectively and, sometimes, painfully so you can first accept it and then decide what you want to do with it. Once the core issue itself comes to light, the world of information can provide a solution. And while this slowly builds a fertile ground for our ability to thrive, it’s also an ongoing process, one that charges itself towards increasing complexity.
Abundance is a gift, but only if we learn to harness its potential. The greatest inequality today isn’t the one concerning resources, but it’s the one between those who know how to use the tools of the modern world to regulate and enhance their own emotional reality and those who don’t. And that difference mainly has its root in one thing: taking responsibility.
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