Remember every fairy tale and myth you were told as a child? Notice how every Disney and children’s movie ends? That’s right, it’s always with and they lived happily ever after.
This is a common theme in the messaging we receive growing up, isn’t it? The hero sets off on an adventure, overcomes a challenge, falls in love, and then gets to settle peacefully into an eternal retirement.
These stories are told to us before our brains have fully developed critical thinking processes, so we drink them in like iced-tea on a hot summer’s eve.
When we get to school, this concept is sold to us even more directly. Finish the essay, and the topic is done forever. Pass the exam, and the school term is completed. Get your degree, and you’re done with higher learning.
There is a clear message being conditioned into our impressionable young minds: struggle through the challenging lesson, pass the test, and enjoy a permanent vacation because it’s game over.
We start to believe, nay, expect, our own happy ending. I’ve decided to call this toxic little piece of psychological bullshit the Finish Line Fallacy.
THE FINISH LINE FALLACY
This is the belief that there is a final finish line in life. While this manifests in different surface-level ways for each person (which I’ll go into soon), it basically consists of an subconsious drive toward reaching the end of effort and pain, dreaming like a marathon runner of finally busting through the white tape.
We come to believe that if we can just succeed enough – by whatever arbitrary standards we’ve been raised to believe is enough – then we will be rewarded by heaven on Earth. A glorious and never-ending blissful experience with abundant resources, love and health.
While we don’t speak about it directly, it can be clearly seen in our intentions, goals, dreams and behaviour.
The average person can be seen rushing toward their finish line, panic-stricken with the fear that they’re not going fast enough. Maybe it’s the way they stress about deadlines at work, or the way they seek to move their date forward to sex or a relationship, or maybe it’s shown through their obsessive dedication in training to the point of injury.
They’re future focused, almost completely unable to be present, and sacrificing all enjoyment of life trying to constantly serve a greater goal of total completion.
WHAT IS A FINISH LINE?
The finish line takes different forms, ranging from immeasurably vague through to minutely specific. It all depends on your influences and beliefs around what quantifies success.
It can be financial; a certain sum of money is the end-goal. This can be extremely vague, like “enough money to do whatever I want,” through to extremely specific, like “retire as a millionaire.”
It can be social, with a vague goal like “become popular,” or even something related to skill, like “be able to talk to / sleep with anyone I want.” Or often it’s in the form of socially accepted benchmarks, like getting married and having children.
It can be related to other areas like health (six pack), careers (become an entrepreneur), or possessions (buy a house).
Often, an individual cannot define it. They only know they take little pleasure in processes and only enjoy achievements, yet even after “success” they quickly focus on the next level of achievement.
Many people even have a vast combination of life-achievements that are required to cross their finish line – a “successful person” being defined as someone who is good at everything and has everything that everyone else wants.
Whether it’s specific or vague, realistic or impossible, conscious or unconscious, confined to one area of life or spread over many; the common theme is that once you “get there,” your struggle is over for good, and you can finally rest.
SO? WHAT’S WRONG WITH HAVING GOALS AIMED AT HAPPINESS?
Back when I was really struggling with financial insecurity, I turned to my mentor Jesse Krieger, owner of book publishing company Lifestyle Entrepreneur Press. I was suffering because even though my finances were finally somewhat stable, I still wasn’t feeling secure.
Jesse, and his then-mentor Laura Gisborne, revealed something that rocked my world. Even though they were both significantly better off financially than I was, they still had the same basic issues as me.
As they put it: “Same problems, more zeroes.”
They had already crossed my imaginary financial finish line (I figured I’d be “happy” with $100K per year) and yet both still regularly struggled with money problems. That’s when it hit me:
The dark, painful truth is that there is no finish line. There is no eternal happiness.
No matter how many goals you accomplish, how many achievements you add to your trophy cabinet, or how many skills you possess, the problems never end.
How can they end, when success creates more problems?
Make more money; you’ll end up with more sophisticated financial problems. And the government or banks could still take it all away for no reason (just look at what happened in Greece recently).
Get into a relationship or have a lot of sex, suddenly you are thrown into the emotional worlds of other people and must navigate them. Get married and have kids, now you’ve got the endless issues that long-term family relationships and parenting brings up.
Buy a house, deal with a mortgage and rates and maintenance. Become CEO of the company, now you must protect that company and its employees. Even if you become a black belt in your favourite martial arts, now you got the problem of becoming a teacher and defending your reputation.
Your problems will never end. There are moments of happiness, but there is no such thing as a happy ending; an eternal bliss. There is no finish line.
You see, what the movies and fairy tales failed to explore is what happens to the hero after that chapter of the story ends. They don’t show the handsome Prince Charming getting old and developing the gout, or Cinderella losing her best friend to cancer, or Aladdin going through a mid-life crisis while bailing his kids out of prison.
BUT HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THOSE HAPPY PEOPLE I SEE ALL THE TIME?
There are some people who appear to have crossed your finish line; at least from your perspective.
They seem to have what you want, or dominate the skill you wish to master, and you don’t see them suffering the way you do.
Firstly, like most people, they’re probably pretending.
While some people do have mostly satisfying and fulfilling lifestyles, you don’t see them when they’re at home, arguing with their partner, trying to manage their kids, and balancing the cheque-book. You just see their hyperbolic Facebook posts and painted-on smile.
Have a closer look at the people who “have it all.” Notice how someone like Dan Bilzerian seems compelled to show off via Instagram. Why would he do that if he was content with his life?
Notice how your “happily married” friends never seem to go travelling or take any risks. What does that tell you about how much fear controls them?
Look for the exceptions beyond the perfect image everyone tries to paint.
Secondly, your finish line might be nothing to them. Maybe it bought them no satisfaction at all.
Here are realizations I had about some of my finish-line idols when I explored beyond the surface:
- Tim Ferriss, massively successful author – struggles regularly with bipolar disorder and potentially suicidal levels of depression.
- Mother Teresa, famous saint known and revered for altruism – empirical evidence has emerged supporting the claim that she deliberately kept people sick so that they needed her.
- Jonathan Davis, singer for Korn, my most worshipped band of all time – was bullied and sexually abused as a child, became a drug addict after Korn hit fame.
Turns out they’re all just human, with problems that continued long past achieving financial success, fame or legacy.
Thirdly, maybe the reason some people are so “successful” and possibly even genuinely happy with life is not because they crossed a finish line, but for another reason that you can’t yet see.
Maybe they’ve discovered a more helpful motivation to live by; a point to aim for that isn’t eternal comfort and pleasure. Maybe their finish-line accomplishments are merely a by-product consequence of pursuing a higher goal…
BUT IF THERE’S NO HAPPY ENDING, WHAT’S THE POINT?
As the Buddha is quoted as saying: “Joyful participation in the suffering of the world.”
Or, as Mark Manson puts it in his new book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck – satisfaction with life is about finding better problems to have.
You enjoy solving problems, so you assume you’d enjoy solving all your problems forever. But think about it; that doesn’t even make sense!
Not only can you be sure that you will never end of all problems, but without problems you can’t enjoy solving them. You think their resolution satisfies you, but you only enjoy it because of the painful process before resolution. Satisfaction is born of pain.
I encourage you to reframe the endless suffering that is life into something else: A never-ending abundance of problems to solve.
Even an impossible problem, like death, can be solved, in that the challenge is to reach acceptance of dying. Hell, achieving acceptance about problems you can’t solve might be the most difficult – and rewarding – problem of them all!
You know that rush you get when you solve the seemingly impossible problem? How you feel when you get through something that originally terrified you? Without problems, you can’t experience that feeling.
The truth is that an eternal happily ever after would bore you into insanity. It would kill you slowly, like the suffering of a spoiled brat.
There is no end to problems, thankfully. You have an unlimited potential for satisfaction available to you every day.
The only real issue you need to figure out is which problems are worth trying to solve. Rather than aiming for a finish line, take the Stoic approach of looking for the most satisfying, value-aligned problem for you to tackle today. Not even to solve it, merely to try solving it.
“The obstacle is the way” – Ryan Holiday.
Understand that some problems might never fully be remedied – like trying to be totally honest – but the attempt to solve it is where the rewarding experiences are waiting for you.
Let go of getting to the end – be it retirement, endless guaranteed love, or total mastery – and instead look to solve the biggest problem of all:
How can you enjoy just being alive?
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