Recently, someone sent me an email asking for advice.
It went into great detail, but I’ll shorten it here, roughly it said:
“Dave, I’m a CD and I’ve got a problem with the CEO.
They won’t approve the work the way it’s written, they keep changing it and spoiling it.
I’ve tried explaining to them that they’re making it worse, but they can’t see it.
They disagree, they think they’re improving it.
Can you tell me what can I do to make them stop doing this?”
Those weren’t the exact words, but that was the gist.
My reply (again not my exact words) was something like this:
“There are basically three ways to solve any problem:
1) Change the source of your problem.
2) Change your experience of the problem.
3) Remove yourself from the problem.
You’ve tried number 1) and it hasn’t worked – the CEO won’t change what they’re doing: fiddling with the work.
So move on to option 2) change your experience. Is this a good job, can you work under these circumstances, can you learn to enjoy your job INCLUDING the CEO?
If not, that leaves option 3) get a new job. If you can’t change the source of the problem and you can’t change your experience, then remove yourself from the problem.”
I knew that wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
They wanted a quick fix to make their CEO start behaving the way they wanted.
But they tried that and it failed, so time to check out the other options.
Buddha said that misery stems from desire, and desire stems from wanting things to be different.
So, misery is simply wanting thing to be different than they are.
Does that mean we should just lay down and accept everything the way it is?
No, of course not.
There’s 100 year-old prayer that Alcoholics Anonymous teaches its members:
“Lord, give me the courage to change the things I can change.
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Because misery is created by desire, by wanting things to be different, it starts in the mind.
It starts by comparing how things are now with how we want them to be.
So choosing the context for the comparison is critical.
If we spend our lives comparing ourselves with people who’ve got MORE than us, we’ll always be miserable, because we’ll always have less.
But if we compare ourselves with people who’ve got LESS than us, we’ll be grateful, we’ll be more content with what we’ve got.
In Mumbai, in the slums, my wife and I noticed everyone seemed quite happy while they were working.
And yet to us, they had nothing, they lived and worked in squalor.
We asked our guide, what did slum dwellers have to smile about?
She was a professor of philosophy at Mumbai University.
She said they were happy because they’d come from the country where there was no work, everyone was starving.
In Mumbai at least there was work, however hard, they could feed their family.
To us it looked terrible, but to them, they were better off than the people they’d left.
If we compare our current circumstances to something better then we make ourselves miserable at the unfairness of it.
I’m not saying don’t change your situation, I’m saying you’re more effective when you don’t spend your time making it wrong and looking for agreement.
As Sartre teaches: “Life isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about cause and effect.”
This piece first appeared on Dave's blog.