Thursday, January 29, 2009

How can people know what they really want?

It was something I said that got Jim started on this topic. I was talking nostalgically about the lifestyle of the people in the farming community where I grew up. Most of these people knew what they wanted from life and they knew that they were well on the way toward getting it. A lot of the drudgery was disappearing from their lives with the introduction of electricity and the labour saving devices that we now take for granted. These people enjoyed the inner freedom of knowing that they were in control of their own lives. Most of them worked long hours, but they also volunteered a lot of time to work on community projects. Their social life was centred around fund-raising for the local school and charities. They liked their lifestyle and they wouldn’t think of swapping places with anyone living in a big city. They liked to go to “the big smoke” now and then, “just to see how the other half lived”, but they couldn’t understand how anyone would want to live there.

I can remember Jim saying: “You probably aren’t going to agree with this, but I think that these days a lot of people have a huge problem in knowing what they want from life. They have allowed themselves to become slaves to the things they think they have to do. Some are so stressed out that they are drowning in an ocean of ‘have to’.”

I was surprised to hear this argument from Jim. I had thought he would have been the kind of person who would say that if someone didn’t know what they wanted from life, then they should just “give themselves a wake-up call”. So I decided to find out where he was coming from. I asked: “What do you think is responsible for this problem?”

Jim said: “These days everyone in high-income countries has a huge amount of choice about what they do with their time. No-one has to work many hours a week to get the basic necessities of life. But a lot of people don’t feel the freedom that this gives them. They buy things they don’t really want and then they have to spend their lives paying for them. The farmers you were talking about earlier knew what they wanted and knew how to get it. These days a lot of people don’t know what they want because they have never learned how to deal effectively with Self 1’s interference.”

I knew that Self 1 was a concept that Jim had taken from Tim Gallwey’s “inner game” books about playing sport and work, but I wanted to see how he would explain it. So I just continued to show interest.

Jim explained: “Self 1 is your internal coach that has learned how to give advice from your parents and other external coaches. It is the inner voice that keeps warning you and instructing you how to do things and telling you to try harder whenever you make a mistake. Self 1’s reminders are intended to be helpful but they lead us to mistrust and over-control ourselves.
Self 2 is your natural self that embodies all the inherent potential you were born with.”

I didn’t have any problems with Jim’s explanation of Tim Gallwey’s concepts but I couldn’t see their relevance. I said: “Don’t people need this inner voice to warn them before they get out their credit cards and sign their lives away?”

Jim replied: “The problem is that when Self 1 has some good advice people tend to rebel against it because it isn’t their own authentic inner voice. People who grow up on farms have more opportunity to develop an authentic inner voice of their own. This is because they spend a lot of time working with their parents and arguing with them about just about everything.”

Jim’s theory seemed highly simplistic but I thought it might have some merit. As I thought about Jim’s theory I recalled Jonathan Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor, and wondered whether growing up on a farm might also help some people to identify with the elephant as well as the rider. I remembered Haidt’s comment: “We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider and we are elephant. Both have their strengths and special skills” (“The Happiness Hypothesis”, 2006: 22).

Meanwhile, Jim began explaining how Self 1 interference can keep people from knowing what they really want. He said: “As soon as you start to think about what you want from life, Self 1 is likely to chime in with comments about what you should or should not want because of his or her hopes, expectations or fears. This advice is well-meaning, but it comes from someone else. It might even sound like the voice of someone else talking to you. Knowing what you really want is a matter of thinking in positive terms about your own desires - outcomes that are consistent with your own potential and your own values and preferences.”

I said: “So, what you are saying is that if a man wants to be happy then his goal should be to earn a higher income than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Jim gave the hint of a smile before he replied: “What I’m actually saying is that if people learn to trust themselves they will know what they really want from life.”

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