Saturday, October 9, 2010

Calibrating Desire

In response to yesterday's post, Every Day, Joy wrote
Wow, for me a great vacation is spending time doing what I do not normally do. It's being away from phone and email. Spending time watching the sceneray and doing something physical--but absolutely do something I do not usually do.

Why? Because I do not like how I spend my days? Not at all.

When I have a partner I love spending time away and looking forward to the reunion. The same goes for work, phone and email.

As I thought about what Joy wrote, several threads emerged for me:
  1. The basic concept that Joy clearly puts forth: wanting to do something different doesn't necessarily imply dissatisfaction with what you're doing currently.
  2. The question: what motivates you to want something different when you are satisfied with what you have?
  3. The question: when you strip away all the should's and must's and it's-good-for-you's and addictions and habits, what exactly is the nature of wanting?
  4. And finally: how do you quantify desire?

It's the last question that's really got me thinking right now. You hear all the time how much people want something. To want is the favorite companion of the word really and is also frequently accompanied by a lot. However, when Fred says he really wants thus and such, how do you compare it with Wilma saying the same thing?

In fact, how do you compare any qualitative sense that is stated in a quantitative manner? Who's happier? Who's in greater pain? Who has the most courage? Who want's it the most?

My first response is simply: why bother? However, as I think about it, there are times when it makes sense to bother. Certainly, when making hiring decisions, knowing the degree of desire an applicant has for the job influences you. If you've got kids, you pretty quickly learn how to translate cries of pain and agony into whether or not someone is actually hurt. In a world where people tend to obscure and obfuscate what they really think, you learn to calibrate statements like: It's fine or I'm good or You're really gonna love this!

So, there are some practical aspects to calibrating if not completely quantifying qualitative assessments of emotions, the senses and desire.

Desire as a Skill
Then it occurred to me that, like intellect, desire is not something that we usually consider to be learned; instead, it's something that you have or you don't have. It's something inspired by things external, not something developed as a skill. In fact, the idea of desire as a skill probably sounds a bit strange.

And yet, if I think about the question: what is the single greatest differentiator between success and failure, the answer is clearly: desire. Sure, Lance Armstrong is an amazing athlete, but can you imagine where he'd be without his unquenchable desire to return to cycling after having survived cancer?

Yesterday, I mentioned:
As I think about it, playing music, programming and writing are all activities that I could do 365 days a year. For me, a great vacation, would involve going somewhere beautiful where I could play music, program and write.

This contrasts somewhat with Joy's comment:
Wow, for me a great vacation is spending time doing what I do not normally do.

What's the difference? I absolutely agree with Joy that wanting something different doesn't mean you don't want what you have. However, I think there's a difference in our level of desire for what we each do daily. As I write this, I realize that it might irk some people to compare one person's level of desire with another's. Some of us have pretty heavy judgments regarding level of desire. Who am I to say that I desire something more than someone else?

And to some extent, they'd be right. I don't actually know how much Joy desires anything in particular? I'm not even sure what the metrics of desire would be. And yet, it would seem that, desire being as influential and powerful as it is, it might be useful to figure what those metrics are. So here goes...

Capacity and Concentration
My first thought is that there are two dimensions of desire that we want to consider: capacity and concentration. Capacity is simply how much desire you can muster if we focus all your desire in the same place. Concentration is simply a measure of how narrowly or broadly distributed your desire is. So, for example, Joy may have much more capacity for desire than I do, but her desire might be for many, varied things. I may have much less capacity than Joy, but it's focused exclusively on writing, playing music and programming. The net could be that, although Joy has much greater capacity for desire than I do, I have greater desire to play music than Joy has for any one thing.

Why would that matter? Well, I often hear people describing things that they really want to do and yet never do. Rarely does anyone attribute his not having done something he "really wants" to lack of desire. However, if it is indeed lack of desire, then looking elsewhere for answers won't get you very far. The key to translating theoretical desire into practical desire would be to learn from others who have already done so, to observe someone who exhibits great capacity for desire and an ability to focus it, and to figure out just how she does it.

What do you desire? How much do you want it? On a scale of one-to-ten, the most passionate desirer that you know being a ten and the least being a one, how does your "I want it a lot!" compare? How would pumping up your capacity for desire or focusing your desire change things?

Happy Saturday!


  1. The first conversation I recall having with you was about holidays - I remember feeling intimidated. Now I don't.
    When you set up a playroom you love your child and yet you want to invite it to change. That's how I like to live my life: I like what I do - and I love working towards something different. I also love the contrasts - after a night with champagne, I remember how much I love water.
    I might have many desires - but in each moment I have few.- and somehow I do not see desires as a path to happiness...

  2. Joy, I think you've lumped together three different things:

    1. The ability to make anything desirable. To be happy with what you have.

    2. The variable desirability of things based on situation, e.g., champaign versus water.

    3. The the global desires that one has for one's life.

    All three operate independently of happiness. One can want steak and be happy with chicken. One can take great delight in water as it quenches thirst and one can take great delight in the thirst itself. One can passionately pursue a vision to be a great violinist and be happy just learning the basics. So, although many confuse them, desire (fulfilled or not) and happiness are independent.

    In the case of Calibrating Desire, I'm referring to number 3. There are clearly difference among people in regard to their attainment of their big goals in life. I think the catalytic factor is desire measured in terms of level and focus.

    I'm not saying that people "should" be highly focused in their desiring, nor that they should have "great" desire. I'm not even suggesting that people "should" have goals. I just noticed the correlation between attaining goals and focused desire.

    Desire is not a path to happiness. It's a path to achievement. Happiness in the midst of great unfulfilled desire is even better (in regard to achieving, not good/bad).

  3. The way I understand what you are writting, you do suggest that wanting to do something 365 days a year shows a bigger desire than wanting to take a break from it.
    I guess that's a matter of definition

    I believe that purshueing it 350 days or even less might give a bigger chance of reaching your goal. - I don't know about Amstrong but the Atheletes I know do go on holiday doing something different, they do want olympic/WC medal, and some of them have acheived it.

  4. Joy, are you arguing that having greater desire isn't effective or that wanting something more often than not is not evidence of desire?

    I'm glad you know many athletes, but I'm not sure what your point is. Clearly there are people who do well training every day and those who do well training less frequently. However, one's being successful training less frequently doesn't in any way imply that they wouldn't be more successful training more frequently. It just means that they've been successful. I understand that you believe it and you might be right; it's just that your evidence is doesn't actually support your point.

    I also think that you're becoming a bit literal. Lets go with 350 or even 340. Are you suggesting that there's no correlation between desire and level of activity?

    This is fun!

  5. I believe that there is correlation between desire and level of activity - and a correlation between activity and achievement -and between desire and acheivement.

    I also believe that the positive correlation ends at maybe 90% or... I don't know when - but to me wanting something for 365 days are not a sign of bigger desire than wanting something different for a holiday.

  6. Joy, I agree, not a measure of level, a measure of focus.

  7. Hmm, shall we define holiday or vacation (or even weekend) as a time where we decide how we want to spend our time, without having to participate in obligations?

    Not having had a weekend since June, I started yesterday to fantasize what I would do with 48-hours of no obligations. At that moment I was very tired and was thinking about two days of hanging out in bed, with some meals and drinks here and there when I wanted too. This morning I would make a different choice: finishing up some fun but uncared for projects that acquire my attention. There is also a part of me that would love to run barefoot over the beach for a couple of days. Instead of discussion this as part of desire, I personally was more inspired by seeing it as "seeing the forest through the trees" as mentioned by Faith.

    If I make certain tasks my goal of desire, that is what I will be most focussed on. But in the end it's all about the forest for me. And my forest has to do with how I participate in the world: participation with laughter, enthusiasm, curiosity and love. Which can be practiced in many different situations. Love to you both...


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