Can’t Get No Satisfaction

My dad took me to see the Rolling Stones at Cyclone Stadium in the mid-90’s. I was in middle school and remember feeling that I was witnessing something I wasn’t supposed to see watching Mick Jagger jump and wiggle around singing songs like “Honky Tonk Women”. We were more of a Beatles family so the Rolling Stones were a little on the racy side and I am pretty sure at one point my dad had me turn around so I wouldn’t see the video they were playing on the big screen. One of the songs I did see in its entirety though was “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. While the song is often interpreted in a sexual context, the first two verses are actually about the messages we get from popular media encouraging us to want more, more more.

"When I’m drivin’ in my car and that man comes on the radio and he’s tellin’ me more and more about some useless information supposed to fire my imagination. I can’t get no, oh no no no. “
"When I’m watchin’ my TV  and that man comes on to tell me  how white my shirts can be.  Well he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke  the same cigarettes as me.  I can’t get no, oh no no no.”

White shirts are good until something comes out that can make them whiter…then white just won’t do anymore. It’s white-er that you need to be happy. This is a fiendishly clever marketing strategy because it simultaneously creates a problem that did not previously exist (were you really worried about the whiteness of your shirt 5 minutes ago?), gives us something concrete to blame our problems on (“that’s it, I don’t feel good about myself because my shirts aren’t white enough”) and provides an easy solution (just buy the product). The trouble is, whiter shirts don’t really solve the underlying issues that make us unhappy so the relief is short-lived. We end up right back with the same insecurities we started with — only with whiter shirts — and soon go in search of a new cure. 

For the better part of the fall, I was constantly irritated with my iPhone 4 and counting down the months/weeks/days until I could go get the iPhone 5. For months, I felt some level of inferiority and frustration every time I had to use my “outdated” iPhone 4. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I checked my eligibility to upgrade and how many times I nearly spent $700 on an iPhone5 at full retail price, convinced that I simply needed it.

I’ve had the 5 for about a week now and can assure you that while I like certain features, overall it adds no more to my happiness than the 4 did. My vehicle, even though I agonized over what to buy and was thrilled to go pick it up, today provides provides approximately the same level of satisfaction that my 1994 Ford Probe did in college. The dress that I got at Express 5 years ago still makes me feel about the same way as the new BCBG dress I got a month ago. How can this be?

Simple. They provide the same utility. My phone lets me communicate. My vehicle gets me from place to place. My clothes keep me decent. So why the anxiety?

Our culture glorifies this constant state of discomfort, especially in entrepreneurs.  We hear about Steve Jobs’ relentless pursuit of the perfect shade of beige for the first Apple computer, rejecting hundreds of choices before making his own. We are admonished to never be satisfied, always strive for more. Job candidates are told to list their biggest weakness as “perfectionism” because it sounds like a weakness but is actually considered a strength.

Last fall I had the pleasure of hearing Donna DiMenna speak. She’s an executive coach and organizational psychologist with a very impressive resume and knack for storytelling. One of the points that really jolted me was when she said “Perfectionism isn’t running toward success. It’s running from failure.”

When we were building TableNabbr, in the beginning it was all creativity and ideas and trying to build something awesome. Then we launched, and as happens with a new product, issues arose. We were stretched pretty thin trying to keep Entrepreneurial Technologies (the consulting business) clients happy as well as continue to build TableNabbr, and very quickly TN shifted to Avoid Failure Mode. Avoid Failure Mode can appear to be very productive for a period of time. It causes people to work long hours and expend a lot of energy. But the energy is all being directed at patching holes rather than creating something beautiful. There is no joy in perfectionism. Eventually, the enthusiasm you had for the beauty of the original plan is lost in the struggle.

There are three big lessons I’ve learned from all of this:

  1. Don’t allow propaganda to replace your thoughts and emotions. If you are feeling anxious because you are convinced that you need a new something in order to be happy, ask yourself: what will I be able to do with this new item that I can’t do today? If the answer is ‘nothing’, it likely won’t add anything to your happiness. So then the question becomes: why do you want it? What underlying insecurity or discomfort with your own life are you trying to fill with this new item? Are you feeling inadequate at work? Do you feel out of shape? Are you insecure about a partner or potential partner? Identify the real issue and spend the time and money addressing that. You’ll be much happier.
  2. Creativity and joy are inseparable; creativity and fear are mortal enemies. They may look similar on the outside, but the drive that comes from the joy of creating and the drive that comes from the fear of not being good enough are not the same. One is full of light and life. The other is desperate and empty. The only time we ever truly create anything is when we are on offense. Strive to build something of beauty, not to avoid making mistakes. Of course, part of putting something out there is having to respond to feedback and issues and that process is essential and important. But the key is not to lose sight of the vision that drove the creativity in the first place. For me this means still taking time to do things that are not necessary to avoid failure, but build on the beauty of the original vision. For example, with altruo.us, our fundraising platform, I make certain that every time I work on the project and fix a bug or add a necessary feature, I also give myself permission to spend an equal amount of time adding something that gives me pleasure to create. That might be as simple as adding some graphics or a little feature I haven’t seen elsewhere. But it keeps the joy going.
  3. Building something is hard but enormously more satisfying than flitting around finding fault with yourself and others. I can tell you that 20 new gadgets or dresses or vehicles couldn’t make me feel as good about myself as nurturing something beautiful. That “something” may be a tech project, a clay animal, a relationship with a friend, or a surprise for someone I care about. It takes work. It requires a person to put a stake in the ground and commit to trying, which is by nature a risky proposition. There’s nowhere to hide. It will never be perfect. It means we are choosing this opportunity and by definition letting some others go. But at the end of the day, we will have made something, flawed as it is, that adds value to the world. Something that did not exist before. Something that could not have existed if we hadn’t decided that this little kernel of an idea was special and deserved to be nurtured. And that is deeply satisfying.