"The person attempting to travel two roads at once will get nowhere" - Xun Kuang
The paradoxical nature of humanity is that no matter when we live, where we reside, and what technology dominates our consciousness - we exist just the same. It's almost comical that nothing but the polish on top of the vehicle changes.
We feel the same emotions; anxiety and depression, joy and bliss, defeat and hopelessness. We undertake the same exact challenges, simply masked by our current events, social structure, and stratification of our place in time.
Xun Kuang, a respected Chinese philosopher spoke this truism somewhere between 310 BC and 237 BC - his 73 year life. Even then, in a world without western religions, world wars, transatlantic travels, social media accounts, and Snoop Dogg - he knew that we couldn't be two things at once. Or, at the very least we could not flourish and thrive living such double lives.
Now, double lives may be an extreme way of looking at the crossroads that is the pursuit of happiness and the chase for greatness, but it still retains enough merit to count. Surely one can pursue success and maintain a healthy relationship with happiness and love, but the juggling act can require Barnum and Bailey type talent.
Think of it this way:
May of things that make you most happy; family, friends, and autonomy do not coexist, at least not initially, in a world in which become great is the focus.
Just the same, it can be incredibly difficult to juggle your love for family and friends whilst logging the hours of experience needed to master your craft, network your way to better opportunity, and delivering the product for which you've promised time-and-time again.
So, what did Xun see in a quieter world, back when the calendar unwound towards zero, that still holds true today as you read this article with your smart phone in hand, coffee in the other?
We cannot have multiple priorities
We must have one premiere driver followed by other goalposts arranged in tiers of importance if we are to truly excel and achieve happiness.
In order to be happy, or to be great, we must focus on just that. Whatever means most in our souls must be our emphasis and all other things must fall in line behind it.
If your goal is to have a beautiful family in the country side complete with the white picket fence, acres of green land, and the calming sound of Midwestern winds whispering their way through your porch chimes, then you should do your best to avoid the cramped apartments and long hours that embody urban existence.
Yet, if the sound of subway trains ripping down the tracks past your head serves as a potent alarm to push you out of your bed and into your business suit, then maybe just maybe, you'll want to leave the small town you grew up in, and the people who you once saw as best friends, and embark on the journey to Universities, internships, and an eventual career in the concrete jungle.
In these examples, it's clear to see that these individuals aren't happy with where they are, but that they hold an idealistic vision of where they want to be in their minds, tattooed to their souls, and hardwired into the beating of their heart. The small-town girl shouldn't suffer in the big city just as the big-city boy shouldn't toil away chasing smoke and vapor in wide-open spaces.
Most of us though, don't fall into these obvious extremes - like all things in life - we dot the spectrum.
Most of us want to find a career that helps us make good money, gives us some autonomy and ownership, fulfills our need for purpose, and grants opportunities for bigger and better. We also want the family beside us, and the amazing sound of little feet scurrying through a home to greet you when you've finished your day.
The dogs and the mortgage, the parties with friends, and the pain of losing what we hold dear. We want high stakes meetings at work, and big games on Sunday. We want hot coffee in the morning and an ice cold beer in the evening.
We want success and we want life.
So, as your car rolls to a stop and you see the road to greatness run straight ahead with bliss and happiness passing by your face to both your left and right - What do you do?
Do you choose the straight and narrow line that gets you to your endpoint the fastest, or do you make the right hand turn and enjoy the smiles, belly laughs, and memories that lie ahead?
It all depends on what you want out of your life. It all depends on what matters most to you. Thankfully, we'll reach this crossroads a bunch of times in our lives. This isn't a one time deal. The roads weave throughout each other and even run parallel at times. Life, unlike traffic grids, usually won't send you too far out of your way if you make a mistake.
You've got to understand the commitments that greatness and happiness require if you are going to pursue them. You must know that there is a sharp difference between maximizing the two.
Most of the world is happy with good enough. The average exists because most humans hover there; not because we are all extraordinary or underwhelming. For the majority of humans in the western hemisphere of our floating round sphere, success is having a job that makes enough money to pay the bills, have some fun, and save a little for the future. Other cultures see success as having a larger family, by being a warrior, by being the best artisan in your village, or simply having a little bit more luxury than most.
Our cultures guide our values.
Yet, a universal vision of greatness permeates us all. We see the money, power, and fame that the CEO, a surgeon, a rockstar, and our favorite athlete have. We observe just how much they stand out among their peers. They are great in every way.
How does a young woman with a law degree blow through the first few years at a firm and become a partner before she turns 35?
How does a young athlete go from a small town baseball team and suddenly find themselves on a college field, and soon enough in the minors, and eventually the big leagues - before he turns 23?
The chase for greatness.
It's a bit selfish. It requires you to push so many other things to the side in favor of mastering your craft, networking with the proper professionals, and self-managing as necessary. You can't attend all of your friend's birthday outings when you are trying to climb your firms ladder and become partner. You can't skip workouts and be lazy when other athletes are trying to take your job every single day.
Becoming great requires an absolute commitment to maximum effort in the direction of your passions. It demands that you often skip the short term satisfaction and choose the long, arduous road to the top. You can't take the shortcuts, or take a day off - you must keep putting one foot in front of the other until the sole of your boot reaches the summit. And even then you'll have to battle to make sure you stay there.
See, greatness doesn't always go with happiness. A look at all of the dating sites catered to high powered CEOs or mid-level professionals shows that interpersonal relationships suffer while you chase your passions. The year-by-year decrease of children per home shows that many people are worrying less about how big their family is and more about how big their retirement account could be.
People are sleeping less, eating more, and spending significantly less time doing things that they love across the board, but especially so among those who are pushing the bleeding edges. Ironically, once you achieve greatness in field, whatever that means, you'll have access to more sleep, better health and wellness, and a significant boost in autonomy as others toil away for you.
The chase is extremely rewarding. It's like building a big wall of bricks. You can't worry yourself with how the wall will look when you are done, rather it is much better to emphasize how well you lay each brick. I can thank the actor, singer, comedian Will Smith for that idea.
The reward of a push for success comes with each perfectly laid brick. It's the promotion you've eyed, the strength feat you've been training for, and the amount of views your website consistently receives after years of writing into the abyss.
The chase is whatever you need it to be. It could be your career, your fitness, your inventions, an entrepreneurial spirit, an athletic endeavor, and your position in a power structure. Whatever you are invested in - the path to greatness is strikingly similar.
You need to work more than others.
You need to wake up early and occasionally stay up later.
You need to forego simple pleasures and social events in favor of "the grind"
You need to put yourself and your needs first more often than you may like
You need to embrace a quieter, potentially lonely, existence for a while.
You need to to know you'll lose people and opportunities along the way
All of these aforementioned things pop up along someone's journey towards the top. It is crucial to understand the difference between trying to be successful, and trying to be elite. I imagine most of us work hard and sacrifice from time to time, but there is a sharp edge that separates the average person's effort and the output of someone looking to change the game. It is a road that many think they are on, but few every ride to the end.
The Pursuit of Happiness
On the other side of the coin is the ability to step back and "smell the roses". This pursuit is one that emphasizes the emotional satisfaction within before considering the physical manifestation of effort. Happiness, as well as love, is something that every human seeks. It is also one of the hardest words to define.
Every single day someone contemplates "what is happiness?"
Greek philosopher Socrates believed we must achieve true self-knowing in order to be happy. Meaning - we need to know ourselves and what we truly value in order to find our place of peace.
Sounds exactly opposite of the chase for greatness doesn't it? How many of us sacrifice our passions, our dreams, and our peace in favor of the big paycheck, that bad boy at the bar, or that house we can't afford?
So, without turning this blog into an exploration of what "happiness" meant throughout the ages it is safe to ascertain that:
Happiness is the realization of absolute joy by means found deep in your being and not in the world around you.
Want four kids, a front porch swing, and family vacations to the beach?
Want to spend your time bring life and health to others, especially strangers?
Then you'll volunteer at a soup kitchen, become a personal trainer, or find yourself buried up to your nose in a textbook as you study your way through medical school.
See, the funny thing about happiness is that you still have to work for it. You can't just wake up and expect happiness to be there for you like a warm cup of coffee. There needs to be goals, just like the chase for greatness, for you to pursue.
Yet, unlike being successful, the pursuit of happiness is built on being there for others, surrounding yourself with amazing people, and having a purpose other than the digits in your 401k. Happiness begs for your selflessness and shuns you for your selfishness.
Those who chase happiness may never invent a life-changing product or build a fortune 100 company - but they'll likely never be alone.
Those who pursue smiles and belly laughs will probably never start a game in the World Series, but they'll make sure they are at everyone of their kids little league games.
So what of the crossroads?
It's nearly obvious the differences between greatness and happiness. The selfish and the selfless. The crossroads make sense because we've all faced it at one time or another. I'm of the belief we are all born with unbridled ambition and optimism and a raging desire for love and happiness. So, if there is one equality in this world - it's that we will all face this choice in our lives. The severity of our decision may vary, but the weight of the option will not. The blur will never fade either.
The good news is that our lives will give us tons of opportunities to make these choices. The crossroads of happiness and greatness are not a one time deal.
You will, at so many times in your life, be presented with the choice of pushing ahead or turning right. The key is knowing exactly when to go hard and when to back off. The hardest part is the same.
So what do you do
Throughout your life you'll be faced with decisions that weigh the slow down versus the speed up. After high school you'll have to decide whether you leave your hometown and go to college, or just get a job, get married, and have some kids. After college you may have to decide on taking a job in a big city, or staying near your sweetheart.
The big job might rub you raw, rob you of your social life, and even keep you from your family on a Holiday. You could leave or you could dig in and keep pushing. One day you'll meet someone and have to choose whether or not you need to find time for them and your love, or ask them to take a backseat to your goals.
As kids come into the picture you may miss the little league games, and be overseas for their prom night - or you'll be right there, camera in hand, fighting back the tears that fill your eyes.
Eventually you'll stare down more job options, promotions, and raises. There is paying attention to the needs of your partner, your children, and the world around you too. One day you'll retire and it'll all be happiness from there, or at least it should be...
So, how do you handle the choices as they come to you? You ask yourself one question and one question only.
Will my chase hurt my, or someone I love, pursuit of happiness?
The answer you find will not always impact your actual decision. You may choose to hurt yourself once or twice, or beg for your loved one to understand just how important a deal, trip, or chase may be. But, it is absolutely critical that you know!
You can't plead ignorance in this journey. You can't act as though you walk two roads at the same time. As we began this blog with this point you now know - you can't do that. You can't pursue absolute happiness and absolute greatness.
It is important that you never chase one road so blindly that you miss the opportunity and joy that the other roads may bring, but there is no easy math available for you to know if you should push hard or pull back.
You'll know what is right if you do as Socrates recommends and come to a place of self-knowing. You'll ask yourself if it really matters that you have thousands of readers on your blogs because you tag everything and have perfect copy. You'll question whether or not it's important to go out and have drinks every Friday night instead of staying in and pushing yourself to do more.
Sometimes it's important to be selfish and value your efforts over the simple satisfactions in life. Yet, there are other times, many others, which it may be better to slow down, smell those roses, and enjoy a road less traveled by you.
We cannot walk those two roads, whether they lie in B.C. China or modern day New York City. Know how to navigate those crossroads.
I've learned this lesson only recently as I've grown from a person who only pushes the edges to a person who purposely tugs the reigns and pulls back at times. I used to put me first, my goals first, my career first 24/7. It would take an obvious situation for me to pull back. Blame being an only child, blame being a kid who always felt he needed to prove himself, blame it on Miley Cyrus - I don't care.
It's important to know the value of the crossroads and know how to handle those moments when you don't know if you're going to be happy. Chase your dreams, and always try to be the best you in this world...but ask yourself...am I truly happy?