Why Do You Want What You Want?

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Conscious Business

Think of something you want: a new car, more free time, an office with natural light, a higher salary. Ask yourself the following question: “If I got that (new car, free time, office with natural light, salary increase), what would I get that is even more important to me than that (new car, free time, etc.) itself?” For example, I want to write this book. My question would then be, “If I write this book, what would I get that is even more important to me than writing the book?” One answer is, “I would help people be more effective and act with integrity in business.”

Next, ask yourself the same question again using the answer to the previous question: “If I got to help people be more effective, what would I get that is even more important to me?” My second answer might be, “I would participate in the development of a more conscious society.”

Take this answer and ask the same question again and again, until you cannot come up with any further underlying reason for wanting what you want. (In my case, a possible sequence may be, “to fulfill my mission in life,” “to feel that my life is meaningful,” “to realize true happiness.”) After doing this exercise with hundreds of people, I have found that no matter how disparate the beginning, most inquiries converge on a practically universal set of values: truth, happiness, fullness, freedom, peace, and love.

You can verify the fundamental nature of these qualities by reversing the inquiry. Ask yourself, “If I lived truthfully, feeling happy, full, free, at peace, and in love, what would I get that is even more valuable for me than being true to myself, feeling happy, full, free, at peace, and full of love?” This is an awkward question. If you think about it, you’ll find that nothing is more valuable than these things. Truth, happiness, fullness, freedom, peace, and love are not means to a further end; they are the ultimate end.

Success, defined as obtaining something we want, is notably absent from this list of values. Without denying its importance, success, like all external results, is an intermediate goal on the way to a superior objective, such as happiness. One question alone is sufficient to prove this: “What would I obtain through success that is even more important to me than success itself?”

Don’t take my word for it. See what you come up with for yourself. I am not imposing my set of values on you, claiming that it comes from some external human or divine authority. I am inviting you to explore what is ultimately meaningful to you, and to act in a way that satisfies that ultimate concern moment by moment. Human beings have been investigating how to play the game of life for thousands of years. Everybody who has taken such an investigation to its conclusion has come up with a very similar ethical recommendation: “Do not focus on egocentric cravings, and express your highest virtue in every action.” Coincidentally, this echoes the optimizing principle of systems thinking I presented above. It also parallels a dictum of game theory: “In order to win the game, you must be willing to not win the sub-games. If you try to win the sub-games, you will lose sight of the goal and probably lose the game.”

Excerpted from Fred Kofman’s Conscious Business.

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