The Joy of Not Getting What We Want


“Remember that not getting what you want Is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” ~Dalai Lama

Let me tell you a story. I first read it in a book on Taoism, but I’ve seen it in at least a dozen other places since then, each with its own variation. Here’s the gist:

There’s this farmer. His favorite horse runs away. Everyone tells him that this is a terrible turn of events and that they are sorry for him. He says, “We’ll see.”

The horse comes back a few days later, and it brings an entire herd of wild horses with it. Everyone tells him that this is a wonderful turn of events and that they’re happy for him. He says, “We’ll see.”

The farmer’s son is trying to break one of the new horses, it throws him, and he breaks his leg. Everyone tells the farmer that this is a terrible turn of events and that they’re sorry for him. He says, “We’ll see.”

The army comes through the village. The country is at war and they are conscripting people to go fight. They leave the farmer’s son alone because he has a broken leg. Everyone tells him that this is a wonderful turn of events and that they’re happy for him.

The farmer says, “We’ll see.”

Now let me tell you who I was when I first heard that story. I was twenty-three or twenty-four, trying to get off of drugs and stop drinking and turn my life around in general. I had recently rolled my car out into a field, lost my wife and most of my friends, and had moved to West Texas to start over.

I was smart enough to know something had to change, but I wasn’t quite smart enough to know how, so I tried to do what I thought smart people did—I started going to the library.

I initially got into a bunch of weird stuff like alternate theories about the history of the world, cryptozoology, and things like that. Not really the change I needed.

One day I went to the library looking for a book about the Mothman, but Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was sitting in its place. I didn’t know anything about this book or the things it talked about, but the title was cool, and libraries are free, so I checked it out.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much this book revolutionized my view of the universe and my place in it. It was thrilling to recognize how much there was out there that I didn’t know. Atlantis and Bigfoot were replaced by quantum mechanics and string theory.

I eventually stumbled onto The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, rearranging my worldview again. Having grown up in a pretty strict evangelical home, any sort of eastern philosophy was completely outside my frame of reference. This led me to begin studying Taoism and Buddhism, most specifically Zen Buddhism, and to the story I started this post with.

I started to recognize that I had a mind, but I was not my mind. Meditation showed me how this mind was always grasping and wanting and reaching out for different things. It was a craving and aversion machine.

It wasn’t long before I realized that it wanted these things solely for the sake of having them, and that none of them were all that important. I just wanted what I wanted because I wanted it.

This changed everything.

I had spent the previous fifteen years running from one thing to another in order to avoid anxiety, fear, anger, and depression. I did this through drugs and alcohol and taking crazy risks with my life. These things have consequences.

These consequences came as car wrecks, jail time, hospitalizations, and a long string of destroyed relationships. I was so captivated by my wants that I was running through life with my eyes closed, blindly chasing them, with predictable results.

Realizing that I was not my mind gave me a sense of objectivity about the things I wanted and the things I did not want. It taught me that I didn’t have to be so attached to having or avoiding things. This let me stop running.

I learned that getting our way is overrated. Once we recognize this, we are much less susceptible to the whims of a flimsy, fragile, and fickle mind.

Why We Have No Business Getting What We Want

There are three primary reasons we need to be careful about being too invested in getting what we want:

  • We are emotional creatures, driven by things like hunger and a bad night’s sleep.
  • To a great extent we’re wired for short-term thinking. Immediate benefit often outweighs long-term consequences.
  • We experience time in a linear fashion, so the future is completely unknown to us.

Let’s take a look at these.

Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired

I often encourage people to memorize the acronym HALTS to use when making decisions. It stands for hungry, happy, angry, lonely, tired, stressed, and sad.

These are all common emotional states, and they are all terrible times to make a decision. We’ve all heard the advice not to go shopping while we’re hungry, and there’s a reason for that—it’s good advice. You will buy more food than you need, all based on how you feel in that moment.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen good decisions come from these emotional states, unless luck intervened and let the person off the hook. It all makes sense when we think about it.

Anger shuts down the best parts of out brain. Situations go from bad to worse and from worse to unfixable when we decide to address something in a moment of anger.

When we are sad the entire world seems bleak and it feels like it will never change. This is okay, unless we make long-term decisions based on the idea of an ominous, crushing world.

Stress makes even the smallest things feel overwhelming. We cannot make good decisions when making our bed or going grocery shopping sound like monumental tasks.

When we’re lonely we’re likely to let the wrong people into our lives just because we need someone. This opens us up to toxic, manipulative, and malicious people.

Our brains are slow and sluggish when we are tired, and our decisions are, unfortunately, rarely our best.

Even the so-called positive emotions aren’t safe. I know I have overcommitted to things on days when I was happy and feeling a little bit better than normal.

When you take all of this together, it helps us to see that the things we want are flimsy and that they change depending on our mood. The things we want become a lot less important when we realize that we might only want them because we had a bad night’s sleep, or we skipped lunch.

Short-Term Planning

Our immediate responses are rarely oriented to the long term. This makes sense, since most of the things our body needs are immediate—food, sleep, protection, sex, using the bathroom, etc.

The problem arises when we focus on meeting these needs to the exclusion of the things that are good for us long term. I wasn’t stupid—I’d always known that the drinking and drugs were a problem. The problem was that rational James was usually outvoted by crazy James.

I had good intentions, and they held so long as I wasn’t around any of my temptations. My long-term planning was solid until short-term fun was in front of me. It was infuriating to watch my resolve and dreams go out the window over and over again.

As I mentioned above, our wants are flimsy when we begin to explore them. Why do you want chocolate? Why do you want a beer? Why do you want to go on a walk? Why do you want to go to Disney World?

We have all sorts of answers for these questions:

Because I deserve it.

Because I need to relax.

Because it’s a nice day outside.

Because Disney World is the happiest place on earth.

These don’t really hold up when we examine them though.

Why do you deserve it?

What does it mean to relax?

What makes it a nice day?

What makes Disney World the happiest place on earth?

If we keep going, we always arrive at the realization that we just want to feel good one way or another. We want to feel good for the sake of feeling good. While there’s definitely nothing wrong with this, it is ultimately baseless, and we cannot let it drive our lives.

Not feeling good is a part of the human experience. You’re going to get sick, you’re going to have days that are not as good as other days, you’re going to have a headache sometimes. These things are unavoidable.

The things we want right here and right now are rarely the best things for us long term. Because of this, long-term planning requires intentionality and energy. It may be inconvenient but it’s true.

We Can’t Predict the Future

As a kid, I remember thinking it was weird that we couldn’t remember the future. If I could remember what happened yesterday, why couldn’t my brain go the other direction?

This is one of the primary limitations of our species, and the most important reason that we shouldn’t hold the things we want too tightly. We don’t know how anything is going to turn out, including what will happen if we get what we want.

I used to drive through Lubbock, Texas once or twice a year to go skiing. Lubbock is a city out in the desert, and while I have come to love it here, I don’t think anyone would describe it as beautiful.

Lubbock has some dubious honors. We have been voted most boring city in America, worst weather in the world, and I recently read that we have the worst diet in the United States. Our poverty and violent crime rates are roughly double the national average, and we score high on things like child abuse and teen pregnancy.

I always swore I’d never live in a place like Lubbock when I would pass through here, but moving here twenty years ago saved my life. The place that I loved, Austin, I brought me to rock bottom. it was only a matter of time before I was dead or in prison.

On the other hand, the place that I swore I’d never live has given me a college education, a family, and a successful business—all things that I thought only existed for other people. I honestly shutter when I think what my life would have looked like had I not moved.

There have been smaller examples along the way. I was working at a CD store and loved it, but one Sunday corporate came in and said they were shutting the place down. They gave me a two-week paycheck to help them pack the store up and move it out. It was that abrupt.

It sucked, but this led me to working at hotels, where I was able to get paid to do all my homework and still have time to read for fun. I burned through all the Russian classics, made all A’s, and got to spend a lot of time with my son when he was little. I will always be grateful for that.

Before opening my practice, I was working at a private university. For someone with sixty-plus jobs in their life (my wife and I made a list), working on a college campus was amazing—it was the first place I saw as a “forever” job.

When things went bad, they went all bad and it was obvious it was time to leave, but I was comfortable. I ignored some problems I should not have been ignoring, and it caught up with me. By the time I left I was burned out and sick all the time.

This catapulted me into opening my own business because I didn’t really see any other options. I’d never seen myself as being responsible enough to do this, and people told me I didn’t have the head for it.

Six years later, my business has been super successful and afforded me more freedom than I could ever imagine, but even this wasn’t the end. I recently closed my office to stay home with my kids, another twist I couldn’t have seen coming.

We are trapped in linear time, so we don’t know what’s coming right around the corner. Holding on to one thing or another as the right thing or the thing we “should’ have often causes us to miss the amazing things right in front of us.

Accepting What We Get

My life has been a series of hard lessons brought about by my self-absorbed, entitled, and foolish choices. They have all, in one way or another, taught me one thing: I don’t know what’s best, so a majority of the time I don’t have any business getting what I want.

Things like someone shelving a library book in the wrong place, corporate closing the place I worked, and moving to a city I actively disliked have brought about the best things in my life. I would not have chosen any of these if I’d been given the choice.

We are emotional, shortsighted creatures who have no access to the future. Learning to cultivate acceptance for the things outside of our control often opens up amazing paths for us. I know it has for me.

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