Wanting it all

Yes, this post is at least tangentially related to that Atlantic article. And yes, my friend beats me to the punch. But no, this is not about my demands against society, or, important as it is, how the entire system must change in order for us to experience a work-life balance that more closely aligns with the realities of human labor, lifespan, and reproduction. Instead, this is about wanting it all.



Lately, I’ve come to the realization that a lot my problems would be classified as “1% problems”: that is, issues only those who have already have means and stability would experience (or complain about). Things such as the free food cooked for you at work seems to be going downhill, or the fact that all the massages at work get booked up weeks in advance. Okay, so these are mostly Goog-world problems. But still, there are things like not being able to afford to purchase a house in this area, and the lifelong quest for The One.

My friend a.l.’s blog post, though, made me re-realize that in reality these problems are just manifestations of problems that everyone faces. We as humans all confront the same classes of obstacles, just of varying degree. And so despite the fact that Ms. Slaughter’s article is nominally about “having it all” for those women who are in professions of power and flexibility, I think everyone wants to have it all — for some definition of “it all” — independent of their socioeconomic status.

My Econ 1 professor once stated that the field of economics — the economic problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_problem) — deals with the allocation of finite resources among our infinite desires. Much like the quip that states that the term in biology for a system in perfect equilibrium is “dead,” it’s against human nature to be satisfied with our current state, no matter how objectively good it is. We can’t settle for an equilibrium when we know there is more out there.

In almost any measurable respect, our lives in 21st century, middle-class America are much better than those of royalty a few centuries ago. We have incredible access to water, food, clothing, and shelter. We have the ability to travel anywhere on the globe in days, access to tremendous amounts of information, all sorts of medical procedures that can save our lives, technology that can keep us connected, an endless amount of entertainment. In short, everything’s amazing.

Interlude: Louis C. K.’s “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” clip:

But we do not measure our lives in absolute terms. We compare ourselves to others, and in this interconnected age, we can compare ourselves to a lot of others. There’s always someone smarter, taller, stronger, richer, more beautiful than us, and that knowledge makes us unhappy. No matter what metric of success you strive towards, chances are about 1 in 7 billion that you’re at the top. And to compound the problem, those at the top are also more visible to the public.

As I see it, there are three possible options: we can stop comparing ourselves to others by self-imposing some sort of solitude; we can attempt to have a mind frame where we lower our expectations and settle; or we can consign ourselves to always wanting more, to get more, and to still want even more. Although the first two don’t appear palatable, I can only hope that there’s some way to break out of the third’s vicious cycle.

It’s easy to suppose that we can just take a Zen-like approach and tell ourselves to be satisfied with what we have. This is a difficult thing to achieve. Without our desire to strive for more, progress would be nonexistent. Yet, I believe that a large part of the unhappiness of modern society is due to our demanding too much out of life.

I sometimes (only mostly) joke about how work never stops, and that in search quality we should just define a point at which we believe the search engine is good enough and just call it quits afterward. Or that adding an extra weekend day provides 50% more weekend at low cost of 20% of production. Neither of these will happen. There is always work to do, always things to improve, always things that will take up our time.

So we continue our lives never fully satisfied. Maybe this is the way things should be. Maybe the aspirational nirvana we think should exist couldn’t possibly exist. We already have so much, but our wants are always more. Just like if we have an injury we feel pain in the injured part and not the healthiness of the rest of the body, we see what we lack more than what we have. Perhaps the only thing to do is to constantly remind ourselves that “everything is amazing” and that “this is water.”