May 3, 2023

Choices that no longer hinge on what happens at the end


The maxim in virtually every spiritual tradition some version of this.

Detach from results, act without expectation, let go of attachments and embrace the present moment.

There are no holy scriptures encouraging people to white knuckle their way to enlightenment. Only by surrendering can we alleviate suffering and achieve peace. It’s how we make room to deepen our connection to self, to other and to the universe.

What’s fascinating about this philosophy is, esoteric and abstract as it might be, it’s also surprisingly practical. Because one of the things you discover when you’re not overly invested in any particular action’s result is, you make better choices.

You decide more objectively and authentically, without the bias of the future distorting your intention.

You train yourself to declare things worth doing for their own sake, regardless of whether or not you succeed, fail, win, lose, or anything else in between.

You learn to appreciate all facets of life, rather than rank everything as good, bad, positive or negative.

It’s amazing how much easier decision making becomes with that kind of filter. Now, it doesn’t mean you’re completely naïve about the potential consequences of your actions. Rationality should enter the picture to a certain degree.

But when you no longer have a heavy stake in the outcome, you tend to make choices that give you the greatest chance of fulfillment.

Rosenthal, the television writer and producer whose sitcoms have earned dozens of awards and hundreds of millions of dollars, has a thing or two to say about this philosophy. After four decades in the television business, he recently gave advice to young screenwriters:

Just do the show you want to do, because in the end, they’re just going to cancel it anyway.

That may sound cynical, but it’s actually liberating.

Imagine a creator who stopped focusing on external measures like ratings, awards and earnings. Might she devote herself to her craft rather than pandering for laughs? Might she follow her artistic vision, rather than stressing over how mainstream audiences would respond to it? And might she take greater pride and ownership over her effort instead?

Sounds like enlightenment to me.

And it’s funny, millions of young artists pine for that fateful day when they finally have enough money, experience, notoriety and security to rebelliously say, oh screw it, I’m just going to make my own art anyway, no matter what happens.

Guess what? You can do that right now. There is no line to stand in. Liberation is waiting for you. And not in that reverse psychology, trick the universe into giving you more of what you want kind of way.

You can detach from results and start making more fulfilling choices right now. Choices that no longer hinge on what happens at the end, but how much fulfillment you have along the way.

Now, if you’re noticing a vinegary feeling of resistance welling up inside your stomach, that’s normal. We live in a results driven society smothered in output bias, where people celebrate or lament actions based on how they turn out, rather than feeling proud about the manner in which they decided to act.

Nobody is going to congratulate you on your ability to surrender expectations. They won’t praise you for being the arbiter of emotional rectitude. Matter of fact, they’ll probably get annoyed with your choices.

Why don’t you ever measure anything? Don’t you care about results? What the hell is wrong with you?

It’s understandably irritating.

Then again, maybe it’s just an enlightenment tax.

Ultimately, we don’t have to let the future distort our finest intentions. We all have permission to declare things worth doing for their own sake.

What if you placed less importance on the outcome of your decision, and more importance on the efficiency and ease with which you made it?