I’ve wanted a lot of things in my life. It started early. There was the archery set, the BB gun, bicycle, car, expensive clothes and a fraternity ring, to name a few. Listing all the things I felt I needed over the years would require a dedicated scribe. Turns out I have acquired almost everything I ever wanted. This was by and large a stroke of good fortune and, to some extent, hard work.
Most people who get everything they want feel a level of satisfaction. I know I do. But thinking about this achievement now, I wonder about my focus. Maybe my ambition should have been to get all I ever needed. Although there is some overlap, what I wanted wasn’t always what I needed.
In reality, I could live very well with about 20 percent of the things I possess. This became clear in 2004. With a dream of moving to California permanently, we purchased a duplex in Sausalito. I’ve always enjoyed projects — as long as I can offer opinions and have others do all the work — so the plan was to expand and convert the duplex into a single family home.
Prior to the completion of design work and the start of construction, my wife and I spent a month in the duplex. As it was unfurnished, we needed some furniture and a few necessities to make it livable. We found some discarded chairs and a table left at the curb in a nearby neighborhood a curbside and hauled them to the duplex. We bought a “kitchen in a box” from Home Depot. Costing around $30, it contained some utensils, plates and, I think, a pot. The purchase of a mattress completed our furnishings at a cost of less than $100. Our clothes for the month were limited to what we brought in our suitcases.
My wife and I remember our month in Sausalito fondly. We lived a minimalist life. We had all the “things” we needed; not necessarily all we wanted. We entertained friends and family on a few occasions. We enjoyed the natural beauty of San Francisco Bay. Spending time with family and friends and enjoying nature was what we needed, what nourished us, not a houseful of possessions.
I realize that most of my wants have focused on materialism. What I need is love, friendship, forgiveness, gratitude, continued good health, and the ability to pursue a significant life’s purpose. Focusing on materialism can lead to an empty life. Legacies and happiness are not built on acquisitions, but on love and service.
I don’t know the author, but I love this sentiment: Happiness is the new rich. Inner peace is the new success. Health is the new wealth. Kindness is the new cool.
Distinguishing between wants and needs was an important principle I emphasized when teaching leadership and ethics to graduate business students. The course was based on three simple tenets.
1. See what needs to be done.
2. Understand the underlying forces impacting the situation.
3. Take action to make a positive difference.
I warned the students that a common pitfall comes in the first step. Many people read it as, see what I want to do. The rationale is usually, “As a leader my wants are the needs!” Often they are quite different. The want to protect a company from bad publicity causes cover-ups of faulty products. The want to increase the stock price causes questionable accounting practices and the manipulation of earnings. The list goes on and on.
The second step can also presents dilemmas. The most significant underlying force is the leader. Leaders need self-insight to recognize biases, blind spots and to understand and acknowledge that they are products of their unique but limited life history. This produces gaps in critical knowledge. Leaders want to appear strong and in charge, but they need to be humble, open minded and willing to listen to diverse points of view.
The struggle between needs and wants is ongoing. In daily life, what I need is to maintain my integrity, what I want is to deny mistakes and appear perfect. I need to demonstrate courage when I want to escape, serve when I want to be served, love when I want to hate, listen when I want to talk, forgive when I want revenge, show compassion when I want to judge, let go when I want to hold on, and depend on others, when I want to stay in control.
If I pursue what I need, all the things that matter will materialize. Some call it karma. I call it the path to true happiness. As stated by an unknown author,
“Life doesn’t always introduce you to the people you want to meet. Sometimes, life puts you in touch with the people you need to meet to help you, to hurt you, to love you, and to gradually strengthen you into the person you were meant to become.”
I pray to be blessed with what I need, not just what I want.