Henry David Thoreau famously stated in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He thinks misplaced value is the cause: We feel a void in our lives, and we attempt to fill it with things like money, possessions, and accolades. We think these things will make us happy. When they don’t, we just seek more of them.
Thoreau argues that the value we attach to possessions and status is misplaced. They aren’t the key to happiness, and they may hurt more than they help. To him, happiness lies instead in a simple life stripped to the essentials. To find it, we must shed our false values and live austerely, with no luxury and only meager comforts. Thoreau attempted to do just that in his minimalist excursion at Walden Pond.
Thoreau’s basically right: Misplaced value contributes to “quiet desperation.” But it’s not the end of the story: it’s possible to value all the right things and still lead a quietly desperate life. What Thoreau’s missing is resignation. We lead lives of quiet desperation when we resign ourselves to dissatisfaction. Quiet desperation is acceptance of–and surrendering to–circumstances. Quietly desperate lives are frustrated, passive, and apathetic. They’re unfulfilled and unrealized.
Pay attention to the following signs of a quietly desperate life. You might be leading one if:
- You’ve worked hard to reach a place of comfort and security — but you’re still dissatisfied. You’re comfortable, but you feel trapped. Every path away seems to go downhill.
- You’ve convinced yourself you’re not talented, creative, disciplined, or lucky enough to pursue your dreams. You think you’re not one of the chosen few, so you’ve resigned yourself to mediocrity.
- You’ve accepted the power your fears hold over you, and you work within their constraints. You concede to your fears rather than confronting them. You refuse to do anything scary and new.
- You’re your own worst naysayer. You focus on how your plans will fail rather than on how to make them work. You expend great energy rationalizing inaction. You’ve decided your past failures predict future ones.
- You’ve adopted a fatalistic attitude. Rather than working to improve your situation, you sit idly, hoping to get a lucky break. Rather than working to help yourself, you wait for others to help you.
- You’ve decided you missed your chance. You’re too old, too committed, or too set in your ways to turn back now. Instead you sit and watch younger and more-free people do what you want to do.
I’ll address each of these points.
Comfort and security are curses in disguise. They’re like a warm blanket on a chilly day — it’s far too easy (and tempting) to stay with them. When you’re dissatisfied, you need to venture out into the cold unknown, even if that means a short-term decline in your happiness. If you don’t, you’ll die comfortable — and still dissatisfied.
Thinking you lack talent, creativity, discipline, or luck is never good reason to resign yourself to mediocrity. Assume for a minute you do lack these things. Does that mean you should give up? No, it doesn’t — you’ll always feel better doing what you know you should do, even when your results aren’t what you’d like. Now consider that you’re probably underestimating your potential — everyone is insecure, and it’s impossible to know what you can do without putting in the effort. Talent and creativity don’t spring spontaneously from nothing, especially when a difficult skill is involved. Self-discipline is entirely about implementation right now — you can be self-disciplined today even if you haven’t been for the past 10 years. Luck is malleable — we’re all lucky in some ways and unlucky in others, and we can create our own luck. Even if you’re unlucky in every way, that still isn’t reason to give up.
If you’ve accepted your fears, you’ve accepted your life as it is now. If you love every part of it, great — but if you don’t, you’re stuck. It’s often difficult to confront fears, but it’s never impossible. The good news: they’re entirely internal. You can’t always change the world, but you can change yourself.
Naysaying is attractive because it encourages inaction; it allows you to be lazy and avoid the unfamiliar. But it’s a terrible way to spend time and energy. Don’t use your power against itself. Spend your time thinking about how to make your plans work, not about how they won’t work.
Fatalism is another excuse for inaction. You don’t have control over everything, certainly, but you do have control over some things. Spend your time thinking about the things you can change — and work to change them. If you sit and wait for something good to happen, you’ll probably be waiting for a long time.
It’s true that some things are easier when you’re younger. But that’s not always the case — being older has its own set of advantages. Age and commitment may mean you have to make adjustments to your plans, but there’s always something you can do. Start slowly, and work from there. Don’t use them as an excuse to be lazy.
Quiet desperation is dangerous. It tends to feed on itself as time goes on. It’s never unconquerable, but extraordinary energy can be required to defeat it. Don’t resign yourself to a life of dissatisfaction.