We’ve all been there.
Endless nights, gazing at the white ceiling of our bedrooms thinking about the haves and the have-nots. It seems like the only things that are restless at 2 AM in the night are my brain cells and the faint rays of moonlight passing through my blackout shades that are not doing such a good job. As I look at the rays wiggling on my ceiling, in an empty cold hotel room, far away from friends, far away from home I feel like I’m viewing a fast forward replay of all the decisions I’ve been faced with and how I ended up in another mess again.
“The grass is always greener on the other side”.
I’ve heard this a million times. And I bet so have you. It’s illuminating and frustrating at the same time. The kind of mental loop that keeps you awake at night. Why is it that whenever we achieve our goals, our dopamine levels spike just enough to keep us happy until we get distracted by the next shiny thing that we should be doing to feel fulfilled? Most of us are always in a constant race with ourselves to achieve, to receive, to possess. We get a kick out of doing this while having the most arbitrary judges ever: everyone else besides us. And thus, something always seems to slip from our grasps. I’m calling this never-ending loop the Life Paradox Blocks. And it’s divided into two categories: Vertical and Horizontal Experiences. These are the two main perspectives through which we view all aspects of our lives. Like relationships, health, professional life, all of which eventually dictate our most prized possession, our self-worth. There is meaning in everything we experience if we know how to look for it.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use relationships as an example since it’s one of the main factors that dictate at least a third of our life’s happiness.
Imagine you have a set of small cubes. They all look the same and you have a bunch of them. There is no limit to how many you can have. Each one represents a certain experience in your social life and how you connect with people. It could be the number of flings you have during your lifetime, the number of friends you have, the number of relationships you have.
Now you might think that this is shallow and wrong. But when we jump too quickly to judge others we close our own doors towards the potential to grow further. People who decide to just live a bunch of small experiences and constantly put themselves in new situations learn pretty fast what they like and what they don’t like. Especially in intimate relationships, you learn what you actually enjoy from sharing intimacy with another person. Growing up, most of us are fed with the typical fairy tale that one day we are just going to bump into Jenny or John, everything will click and then “we will live happily ever after”. But the reality is totally different. You might need to kiss a lot of frogs to find one you can actually share a lily pad with.
Fulfillment is found in this experiential feedback loop with the world and by putting yourself out there constantly, open, and vulnerable. The rush, the adventure and the lessons that help you climb the dating hierarchy is exciting. Like in poker, everyone wants to be part of the Royal Flush so they try to match as high as possible.
The main con of this lifestyle is that although you experience a high volume of cubes that you can quickly learn from, you never get to dive deeply into any given experience. It might be you, it might be factors outside of your control, but in the end, everything is lived mostly at a shallow level. Investment is low.
And that’s why we also need the other side of the coin.
Now imagine instead of small cubes you just have one or a few blocks that you decided to focus on.
The more you focus on that one block the more it grows in height. The investment becomes higher and more meaningful. Instead of priding yourself with 5000 Facebook buddies you decide to have maybe just 3 close friends that you truly connect with, building a higher level of trust and reliance. You might choose to finally settle down with someone and let them experience the real you, that version of yourself that you are terrified to share with anyone else besides you because you know that you aren’t perfect.
Fulfillment here is found by shutting down all your other options and deciding to focus on quality more than quantity. The higher the block, the greater the potential for reward. You are not just learning about yourself and how you experience life, but you are also learning how it feels like to let someone else experience you for a longer time. And for that, you need trust, compromise, and commitment.
The Life Paradox Blocks concept can be applied to every aspect of our lives. Some common ones are:
- Traveling the world vs just staying in one or a few cities most of our lives.
- Being loyal to one company vs bouncing around to who has the best offer
- Specializing to become great at one thing vs becoming a jack of all trades
Why is grass always greener on the other side?
At a first glance, you might think that the obvious answer is that we should all just aim to build one big vertical experience and forget about the small blocks because those are meaningless. In a perfect world that might work, if we ignore one main factor. The fact that we are human. Our nature is prevalently focused on self-preservation. No change is a good change, at least until an external threat appears and then we are forced to evolve and adapt all over again. And sometimes we make mistakes and choose the wrong cubes. That’s when investment actually becomes more harmful than exploring new boundaries and possibilities.
Vertical experiences would be great if people choosing them would come from the right mindset. One of abundance. But most of us make decisions based on scarcity, on the fear that there’s not enough for everyone so we better grab onto something quick before it’s all out.
We might grow up without a strong parental figure or we might grow up overly protected. When the time comes to face the unknown, most people crumble. We are taught really quickly that we need to blend in to survive. Our individuality becomes mashed up with the rest. And then we cling to the first life vest that is thrown at us. We stick with friends that bring us down and don’t really support us in our goals because if they did, then they would also need to take a good look at themselves. And nobody wants that. We go to our dead end jobs and dream about how it would feel like to travel the world and actually do something meaningful for a change. We hang on to broken relationships and drama, because that’s the only thing we’ve known for most of our lives, and that’s still better than nothing for most.
What you attach your identity to is what you eventually get. If you believe you have an abundance to choose from, you will have the opportunity to pick what suits you best. And even then nobody really knows. If you believe you are in scarcity, you might grab something quick and invest in vertical experiences that are not meant for you. Further down the road, you will get disappointed. Ask the thousands of wannabe doctors and lawyers that listened to their parents and gave up on their creative dreams because “those were not safe options”.
How to build a meaningful life.
The paradox of life is that logically we seek comfort and stability while our own nature as human beings works against us. We are always subjected to change. We grow whether we accept it or not. And so our experience of the world changes together with us.
Happiness and meaning are not found in attaching ourselves to one particular experience. We don’t need to hold onto a vertical experience forever just because we invested in it. And we also don’t need to only live a shallow life because all investment is pointless.
True fulfillment lies somewhere in the middle of these experiences. In juggling all these building blocks together. We need both broad and deep experiences. Our potential is built at the intersection between the journey of realizing who we could become and the journey of showing the world the result of that process.
People who adopt an abundance mindset realize that nothing lasts forever. You can only enjoy what you have now, one moment at a time. The grass is not always greener on the other side because grass also dies. Then it transforms and gets reborn a couple of months later. It’s now a different grass. And everyone’s life journey takes them through different seasons at different times. That’s why comparing is a really wicked method of shooting yourself in the foot. This judgment is what makes most people believe that opportunities are scarce and that there’s nothing out there for them.
One way to live a meaningful life is to combine many vertical experiences with horizontal ones. You can travel the world and live in a new city each year together with a partner you connect deeply with. You can focus on your life’s mission to put a man on another planet while going through many failed relationships because that’s how your energy was distributed. You can decide that you both want to write a best-selling novel and raise a family but can only take crappy temporary jobs in the meanwhile to support this lifestyle.
You might be going through a multitude of horizontal experiences while all your close friends might be diving deeper into vertical ones. You might have no idea what to do in your 20’s while everyone seems to have it figured and you see them crushing it in life. You might have no idea who you are in your 40s after separating from someone you used to love because your identity was so attached to that union and now you need to explore and find out all over again.
The more experiences you are able to weave together, the more complex and beautiful your life’s masterpiece will be. You become less attached to any particular identity because the process of defining who you are is a never ending one. Once you realize this, you actually focus on experiencing the present moment more and distracting yourself less with the haves and have-nots.
In the end, sometimes more often than not, it may appear that the grass is greener everywhere else but here. And then you realize that those light rays dancing on the ceiling of your room in the middle of the night actually show you how far you’ve actually come and how much potential there’s still out there because you’re not even halfway to show your true potential.
You are not behind. You are just rearranging your cubes back together.
And that’s OK.