Do you often have a feeling of discontentment? Does success in your life get you excited only to find yourself analyzing how you could have achieved more? I recall my plan when I was in college. I laid it out well, I knew what classes I had to take, how long each semester was, and when I could graduate if I was successful. Each time I took a course I would cross it off the list with my eye on the end goal, graduation. The closer I got the more the excitement built. When graduation came I was so happy. I also carried with me a sense of relief, but in no time that excitement faded and I was focused on what was next. In this case it was securing a job in the field I had just received my degree in. I learned early that if you want something you have to take the bull by the horns. I wanted a specific role in a specific field in a specific location. I networked and I obtained the role. I was excited….and then it faded, what’s next? I began to focus on thinking about my next role. I wanted more. I decided to go back for an advanced degree. OK great now I had another goal I could focus on and I was off to achieve it. There must have been sometime in there somewhere where I felt content, but to be honest I cannot remember.
We often talk about discontentment as a negative term. We can be lead to feel guilty about not being OK with our current situation. I recall as a child my parents getting really frustrated with me because I was always asking what we were going to do next. Now that I am a parent I have the same joy of learning to parent a child who in the middle of the most incredible activity will ask so what are we doing after this? I have to admit it frustrates me and then I stop think about myself for a minute. I am just the same now as I was then. I am always wanting/expecting more.
So is this feeling of discontentment really a bad thing? Does it mean somewhere deep down that I have this void I am trying to fill with external things? I am not a psychologist and I am sure that there are a hundred self-help books out there that would say I have some sort of unmet need. I really do not know, but what I do know is that I cannot worry about why I have this feeling. I need to focus on how I react to this feeling. I read the other day that in 2015 the average attention span was 8.25 seconds. That is down from 12 seconds in 2000. According to Weinreich, Obendorf, Herder and Mayer (2008) most of us spend less than 4.4 seconds on a webpage that has 100 words or more on it. That means that most of you have either stopped reading this post by now or skipped every third word. I bring this up to say for me that my attention span is directly related to my ability to feel content.
Wanting more, thinking about what is next, and coming up with ideas on how to make something better, faster and more enjoyable are often traits of someone with a Type A personality. We often have task list, we can’t sit still and we are often prone to stress. Simply put we do our best to see into the future. According to the definition by Oxford we would be labeled as dissatisfied. I don’t really think that is the case. I am very satisfied; I revel in the moment, and then I am off to the next thing. As a husband, father, friend, or leader I have to be very aware of this character trait or I can leave those around me feeling unappreciated. For instance, in the workplace if we are given a promotion and within weeks we are clamoring for more acknowledgement of our value others will look at this as being ungrateful or insecure. In our personal lives if our we are on holiday with our family but constantly talking about how great the fishing trip with our mates will be next month they will not feel appreciated.
For me it really is more about forcing myself to be in the moment. To verbally tell myself it is OK to bask in the present and yes things can always be improved but perhaps good is good enough. Strong leaders often have this same trait of wanting, expecting even demanding more of themselves and others. This is a good thing if we balance it with recognition of things accomplished. We have to acknowledge our teams wins and allow those who may not think like we do a chance to feel that sense of a job well done. We have to internalize our need to rush off to the next thing so that our teams feel appreciated. For me the lesson professionally is to pause and celebrate the victories and then ease into the planning of the next thing on the to do list. By ease I mean set the goal but don’t own the plan. In my personal life it means slowing down a bit to enjoy realizing I will never get these days back with my children and wife. It means not fighting the discontentment, but choosing not to let it control me.
As we close out 2016 I look back over the year and can count on both hands the number of times I felt content for more than a couple hours. Each of those were times when I took the focus off of self and placed it on the bigger picture. I was content when I focused on the present moment and being the hands and feet of my creator.
Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use,” in the ACM Transactions on the Web, vol. 2, no. 1 (February 2008), article #5.