Last night I watched an excellent documentary about Donald Trump on 4OD, which suggested that, because Trump’s father was very financially successful, he feels the need to prove himself as even more successful.
As his fortune grew in the 1980s, he bought hotels, casinos, yachts and helicopters, and then built bigger casinos and bought bigger hotels, seeming to be on a relentless quest to impress.
There’s a fascinating scene in which his wife at the time, Ivana, is getting all the limelight at the launch of the refurbished Four Seasons Hotel, which she orchestrated. Trump is clearly hating it because the spotlight is not on him.
Man’s frantic search for meaning
In fact, we all want our contribution to be recognised, whether by our colleagues, children, parents, flatmates, or even just the person we held the door open for.
In the words of William James,
‘The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.’
When we don’t get that recognition, it often leads to frustration, anger, or even sadness and emptiness at not feeling valued. We might turn our ire on those who aren’t giving us what we want, causing resentment and conflict.
We might also work even harder to get their recognition, by working more hours, making more effort, being more ‘generous’, building another skyscraper or running for president.
This is one theory for why most people are so busy: they are trying to find meaning in their lives by having their contribution to the world recognised by others.
We miss what’s meaningful in the rush to find it
Ironically, the faster you go, the less meaning you are likely to feel. In order to actually find meaning, you need to slow down long enough to reflect on what’s really important to you.
You need to make time for philosophy: the contemplation of what makes a good life.
In the words or Socrates,
‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’
More and more people are realising that the pursuit of everything that society says they should have — the house, the car, the high-status job, 1,000 Facebook friends, the perfect body, the perfect relationship, the perfect kids, a productive day, the latest phone — aren’t actually making them happy.
Why we’re not willing to slow down
The challenge is that slowing down is terrifying to a lot of people. When I tell people about the silent retreats I go on, most people’s response is ‘I’d hate that! Just me and my own thoughts for a week? No way!’
What we’re also doing by being so busy and distracted is running away from ourselves — avoiding facing the possibility that the way we’re living is not congruent with how we feel or our core values.
One of the things that makes meditation challenging is that it involves tuning into the reality of your internal state, however unpleasant that may be.
Insight comes from giving yourself space
If you think about the best ideas you’ve had, and the times when you felt most clear about the route your life should take or a decision you needed to make, it was probably when you had given yourself some space — perhaps in the shower, going for a walk or while on holiday.
Newton didn’t come up with his theory of gravity in the office at 2am — he was relaxing under an apple tree. Archimedes had his eureka moment in the bath.
You’ll never fill an internal void with external validation
There is no amount of external recognition that can fill the void of feeling inadequate or unworthy; it doesn’t matter how many metaphorical skyscrapers you build. Even in his role as the most powerful man on the planet, Trump’s fragile ego is painfully apparent.
Instead, what’s required is to find a path towards greater inner peace, wholeness and a confidence that emanates from within. This can only come from deep self-knowledge, reflection and the willingness to slow down, as uncomfortable as that might be.
Just like Donald Trump, we’re all searching for a sense of feeling loved and accepted in the world and, just like him, we often go about it in counter-productive ways.
Recognising this can make us less judgmental of other people’s egotistical behaviour, and it can also help us to reflect on more positive ways to focus our time and energy.