The Two Tragedies in Life


Two Tragedies in Life
The Two Tragedies in Life

No Expectations… No Disappointments

“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”- Oscar Wilde

Achieving goals is a tragedy because you can lose your purpose, ambition, and desire. And of course, that is the ultimate tragedy. The other idea is that not achieving your goal is another tragedy since you have failed at what you’ve set out to accomplish. Life is by definition a tragedy. No matter what you do, you will always be unhappy.

Achieving your goal and not achieving it are both tragic and painful. One way to get around this is by not having ambition. Since ambition inhibits goal seeking, it also prevents failure.

As Ted Danson once said as Dr. John Becker“You see… no expectations, no disappointments.”

There are a lot of reasons to be nihilistic. To get rid of the whole idea of having goals in the first place. Our lives are going to be full of tragedies and disappointments in ourselves and others. We’ll never find what we’re looking for. Our expectations will never live up to reality. Sure, we might get pleasantly surprised every now and again, but that’s no consolation for the inevitable shocks that we’re going to experience.

But it’s also worth remembering that the two tragedies are not equally tragic. It depends on the person. If you are someone who is living an inauthentic life, you achieve your goals, but they might be the wrong goals. In this case, it would have been less tragic for you to never have achieved your goals. But if you were someone who was aiming for the right thing, and achieving it would have significantly improved the quality of your life, then not achieving your goal would be the bigger tragedy.

There was an interesting observation made by a comedian. I cannot remember who it was. The idea was that in sports, sprinting – for example – the third and fourth placed finishers often finish the race fractions of a second away from first, and these are people who have spent months training intensely for this race. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis on achievement, on being the very best, when what separates the very best from his competitors in many fields in life are often fractions of a unit.

In many people’s lives, a single moment of good or bad fortune could decide whether or not they are remembered or not, whether they succeeded or failed. There are professionals who work their entire lives to become recognized and valued, some do eventually, but the vast majority don’t at all. Not because they didn’t have the talent, or that they didn’t work hard enough, but because the line between failure and success was that thin.

You can choose the noble path of trying to make something of yourself. But what good is that when the margins between success and failure are so narrow? And what about luck? In his book, Outliers, Gladwell makes the point that good fortune has been what’s separated the good from the grate. The legendary from the forgotten. That’s hard That a few lucky or unlucky factors beyond your control will make the ultimate difference between success and failure.

And then, finally, what if you do somehow (miraculously) succeed? Then what? There are many people who – after having achieved what they had worked so hard for – find themselves without a purpose, desire, or reason to live. Many professions inherently breed this kind of mentality. Once a professional athlete is forced to retire, they often report feelings of depression.

The Impermanent Goal 

“Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.”  – Sugar Ray Leonard

Of course, many professionals feel relief after retirement. Some retired workers choose to finally go on that vacation they always wanted but never had time for, to spend more time on their hobbies, but there are many others who feel there simply is no value outside of their work, outside of what they’re so good at doing.

Values Not Goals 

In a previous post, I explained how interpretation is always open to the reader when it comes to great poetry or literature. My takeaway from Wild’s quote is that having goals will doom you to failure. And it’s not about the size of the goal either. It’s not like having a long-term goal solves your problem. Even after achieving your career goal – for example – after 25 years of slugging it out in the trenches, what’s that going to do for you beyond a momentary phase of satisfaction?

When you aim at a value – as Dr. Jordan Peterson has written in his book 12 Rules for Life, you aim at something that transcends goals. That’s the same message being given to us by all religions. It’s not about making money. It’s not about retiring on some island. It’s not about how many people you’ve outcompeted. It’s about aiming for something higher.

“Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient” – Jordan Peterson

When you aim for truth or beauty or love, you never get what you want and that’s a good thing. You’re engaged in an infinite pursuit of something perfect. But the power of that journey is that it protects you from getting what you shouldn’t want – or what you think you need – or what society thinks you need. It’s going steep trek and it’s never going to get better, but fighting for an ideal makes life worth living for, especially it’s an ideal worth dying for.

It will make you stronger, not weaker. It will encourage you to tell the truth.

“When you’re speaking properly you’ll experience a feeling of integration and strength. When you’re speaking deceitfully you feel you’re starting to come apart at the seams. What you need to do is practice only saying things that make you feel stronger” – Jordan Peterson


"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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