Can We Want What We Have?
Is it possible to still find appealing that which we have already attained? In an age of gratitude bullet journals and the rise of self-help authors telling us we are enough, we still find ourselves searching for more.
Why is that?
This question of “wanting what we have” comes to me through psychotherapist, author, and literal owl (she is so wise), Esther Perel. In her book Mating in Captivity, she explores this question in the context of relationships. It is a common theme amongst the couples she counsels.
Of course, asking “can we want what we have” implies that there are times when the answer is “no”. Times when we no longer want what we have. We want more. I think this is natural. Our desire for newness and discovery is human.
Reflecting on these ideas made me think “what are other areas of life where we might want more?” My mind immediately jumped to my work. I find myself getting bored very quickly. Constantly seeking a new opportunity, only to exhaust its novelty with time.
I know this experience is neither sustainable nor uniquely mine. For this reason, I’m exploring what it means to “want more” in the parallel context of relationships and career, using my understanding of one to inform the other.
Safety vs. Passion
Perel is an expert when it comes to relationships. She believes that the quality of our relationships determine the quality of our lives. The underlying theme in her research is this tension between the old and the new.
The known and the unknown.
The mundane and the erotic.
This is the tension between the safety that comes with a longstanding relationship and the passion invested in the early stages of one that makes us feel alive. We pull back on our investment of passion as safety consumes greater collective mindshare. We quickly go from the butterflies of first dates and love notes to the familiar rhythm of Netflix + chill.
The same passion deficit that Perel diagnoses in relationships is connected to that sinking feeling in a career we know all too well. While our initial days on the new job can feel exciting, the shine wears over time. Something we might have been passionate about months ago no longer evokes desire. It has lost its novelty.
When that happens, it is a signal to pursue passion. While passion is a tradeoff to safety, the ignored reality is that we need both passion and safety for a rich life.
Using the comparison of an anchor and waves, Perel depicts this dynamic:
“Periods of being bold and taking risks will alternate with periods of seeking grounding and safety. He may fluctuate, but will generally settle on one preference over another. What is true for human beings is true for every living thing. All organisms require alternating periods of growth and equilibrium. Any person or system exposed to ceaseless novelty and change risks falling into chaos, but one that is too rigid or static ceases to grow and eventually dies. This never-ending dance between change and stability is like the anchor and the waves. Adult relationships mirror these dynamics all too well. We seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner. Yet at the same time we expect love to offer a transcendent experience that will allow us to soar beyond our ordinary lives.”
How relationships are similar to careers:
If I replace the words “relationship”, “partner”, and “love” in the italicized statement above with words like “career” and “work”, it becomes obvious how the anchor-wave dynamic in relationships is congruent to careers. We all seek stability and security in our jobs. We work for the financial freedom to support ourselves, our families, and our hobbies. At the same time, once we’ve made it to this safe place, passion knocks at our door seeking a period of growth once again.
An erotic career. Is that something you’ve ever considered?
So as to not spark a viral HR scandal, let me clarify that Perel defines eroticism as “those qualities of vitality, curiosity, and spontaneity that make us feel alive.” To me, eroticism is simply passion, something that should absolutely be a part of a career. I’ve only recently come to this realization.
I can understand why passion and career do not obviously overlap for many of us. I come from an immigrant family where there were many hurdles on the path to stability. However, as depicted in the anchor and waves analogy, eroticism is just as important as periods of stability.
“The challenge...lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.”
While we think about eroticism in the context of sex, Perel’s research makes it clear that passion and eroticism have definitions that are applicable more broadly. Leveraging this understanding, we can conceive of what a passionate career might look like using eroticism as a guiding principle. We might even be able to work our way there. But unlike a relationship, we will not stay for long.
And that’s OK.
Careers are not monogamous:
Careers allow us to explore in a way that relationships are not sanctioned. There is room for us to be scandalous. Thank God.
When it comes to long-term, committed relationships, Perel notes “[we] are going to have two or three marriages in [our] lifetime. And some of us are going to do it with the same person.” We can juxtapose this understanding of relationships to consider a different approach to careers. Careers offer unstructured, polyamorous roads of exploration throughout our lifetime.
How freaking amazing.
These paths are representative of passion, which is deeply linked to the thrill of uncertainty. When we’ve already discovered all there is to know about a certain person, place, experience, etc., it is time for passion to rise once again. These are the moments where we will want more. We will trade the safety of knowing for the passion that lies in the unknown. The questions that remain are: “what do we want?”, and more importantly, “why?”.
Keen attention to our motivation is the distinguishing element allowing for a life that neither over-indexes on safety nor passion, or worse yet - the abyss that is the middle ground.