Why does reaching a goal so often leave us with a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction, as if it wasn’t enough? It seems far too easy to nitpick the amazing success we achieve.
There’s a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the human brain is wired for negativity because it wants to keep us safe from threats and help us avoid being eaten by predators. That’s a good thing, but this neurological wiring has not evolved much since the caveman days. So, when the car in front cuts us off, a waiter acts in a rude way or we are forced to deal with the daily tribulations of digital life, our brains think we are being chased by wild bears and react defensively.
The second reason is that there is no such thing as the perfect experience. Every positive comes with a downside. My favorite place in the whole world is Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. However, to get there requires an hour and a half drive to the airport, a three-hour wait in the terminal, then a five-hour flight and finally a two-hour taxi drive to reach the hotel. Not to mention the restaurants, the humidity and the crowds covering the best parts of the beach.
Everything has a tradeoff. In fact, researchers say it can take three positive experiences to counter a single negative experience. That’s the reason one bad customer can ruin a great day, one bad driver can sully a pleasant commute and a one bad waiter can dampen a lovely dinner with friends.
I often sweat the small stuff, too. After all, it is easy paint a horrible picture of my life with a disability. Many activities are permanently unavailable to me and many more I cannot do without assistance. Everything takes more time and energy to complete than it would for other people. I sometimes feel this disability robbed me of pure joy. Yet, by taking a step back, my life is genuinely happy most of the time and I am surrounded by incredible, fun-loving people.
And yet I often find myself nitpicking this amazing life. My brain will conjure sneaky thoughts like, “this would be so much easier if I could speak without an impediment and hustle just like the others.” The old caveman wiring for negativity still hovers in my subconscious, focusing on the small stuff rather than enjoying my successes in this amazing life.
Here’s the issue.
Nitpicking has its place, don’t get me wrong. It is unwise to ignore problems no matter how small. For example, an entrepreneur must immediately find ways to solve the problem of an unproductive employee, a broken business process, unhappy customers or a sudden change in the market. Ignoring these little bumps just kicks the can down the road and guarantees they will become an enormous obstacle later. Engaging with these challenges in a smart way is not nitpicking. But there’s a fine line.
When pursuing your goals, there will always be more reasons to stop than to persevere. If your goal is to get married, you might notice the divorce rate and decide against taking the ceremony. Or perhaps you want a new job, but then you dismiss the thought because you don’t know anybody in the new sector or you lack the necessary qualifications.
The mistake is to let perfection get in the way of amazing. Said differently, we often expect perfection and won’t settle for amazing. Our relationships easily slip into this trap when we expect our friend or spouse to be perfect, rather than appreciate their amazing value. I often have a great time hanging out with my friends. I don’t need them to be some kind of superhuman, perfect friend who joke around and can help me with my business or fix my air conditioner. I’m happy with buying a few drinks with them and a chatting.
Nitpicking other successful people can be just as corrosive, too. Rather than judging them by their body of work or dedication, we judge them on their worst qualities. We say things like: “she is too intense,” or “he is challenging to work with” or “she is just greedy.” Nitpicking the flaws of successful people might make us feel better, but we are only inventing a false narrative about their lives – and warping the perspective of our own lives.
Everything amazing will always have a hidden flaw. That’s just the way things are. There’s no such thing as a perfect marriage, job, child, friend, business – or even the perfect trip to Hawaii. The key to living an amazing life and finding happiness is learning how to put nitpicking into perspective.