When Growth Goes Wrong
The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life's purpose goes into a lot of detail about how growth is the point because all life strives to be in a better state over time. It differentiates this purpose from happiness, which is the indicator of growth, such as when you feel happy after eating, sex, sleeping, or physical activity. One of the things that's important to note about happiness is that, like any indicator, it can be hacked. You can take drugs, have irresponsible sex, or gamble to trigger pleasurable feelings that are not necessarily growth-enabling. It's this fact that makes "to be happy" a misleading conclusion about the meaning of life because you might pursue these "pleasure hacks" that feel good over growth-enabling activities that will lead to fulfillment.
But this raises the question: can growth ever go wrong? After all, tumors grow, you can become too physically large like Andre the Giant where you die early, or you can grow a business "too quickly" where you cannot sustain it. Well, the short answer is that while growth is at the heart of meaning and purpose, it has to be growth that you desire and believe is significant to you. So you can do 1,000 finger curls one day and 1,001 the next, and it might not be significant because you do not care about doing more finger curls. Similarly, you can increase certain numbers that aren't bettering the overall outcome, such as when your cholesterol gets too high for optimal growth or you make money at the sacrifice of friends, family, and other priorities.
So, how do you avoid this "growth gone wrong" situation? There are a few angles to addressing it:
- Focus on the Improved Long-Term, Overall Outcome – Many things seem to benefit in the moment but are not good in the long term. This includes consuming too many calories, working too hard for progress at the expense of sleep, and asking too much from someone. While it gets you what you want immediately, your physical health, mental well-being, and relationships will suffer (respectively) in the long-term if you do that. Similarly, if you focus too much on improving one area of your life at the detriment of other things, your overall success might suffer for one area. Make sure you focus on the optimal outcome from the right perspective to avoid going wrong in the moment.
- Determine Where More is not Always Better – Yes, more money can't (directly) hurt you, nor can more air or more options. But "more" is not the only way to assess growth/progress. For example, you might find that cutting down the clutter in your life will make you more able to add new things to your life in the future, thus enabling you to have greater growth than if you had to maintain a lot of existing things. Similarly, more food, liquid, vitamins, exercise, sleep, etc. are not always better. There are limits to how much of something you need—hence the "everything in moderation" saying—and so you should adjust accordingly.
- Know When You're Headed in the Wrong Direction – You can get another year of experience in your job, but it might be the wrong career for you. You can continue a relationship that is codependent or unhealthy. You can go to school for a major you don't care for. These are all examples where growth in one area has an opportunity cost of not growing in the right area. If you are going the wrong way, you'll never get to where you really want to go.
- Identify Where What Is Good for One Person Is Not Necessarily Good for Another – You might have different genetics than someone else and need a different diet, exercise, or sleep regimen. Similarly, you might compete with other organisms over resources—from people competing to cancerous growths multiplying at your expense. Unfortunately, not all growth in the world is good for everyone. You do have to defend yourself when something or someone's growth encroaches on yours, and you have to know when something that works for others will not work for you.
- Recognize When Growth Is Being "Hacked" or Manipulated – Like happiness, you can "hack" growth by providing a false sense of progress. We see this in many places: Role-Playing Games give your character statistics and have you improve them by playing for a certain period of time, which makes you want to keep playing the game. Ponzi schemes offer amazing financial growth that isn't actually being legitimately earned. "Gamification" that companies are doing—e.g., point systems, progress trackers, achievements, and rewards programs—are all systems to get you to feel a sense of progress and accomplishment from behaving in ways that they want you to. If it's not real or you are being used for their benefit, it is not real growth. (Note: "fake" growth can be okay as long as you know that it is for entertainment)
So, yes, everything in this world is capable of being used for positive or negative outcomes. Growth is no exception. But just because something can be used improperly doesn't mean that it shouldn't be used at all. Focus on growth that matters to you and continue to make your life and the lives of people you care about better, and you will find meaning and fulfillment in your actions. The only reason to be aware of where growth "goes wrong" is to avoid doing things you might regret later, such as over-consuming, wasting your time on the wrong things, getting manipulated, or being short-sighted. These are all risks that you can mitigate and live a meaningful life; it's just helpful if you are aware of them and avoid them rather than having to learn from the painful firsthand experience.
Though, if you do learn from firsthand experience, make sure you learn your lesson and turn that into a growth opportunity because that will bring meaning to even the most traumatic experiences. In other words, you can make anything meaningful, including your mistakes, as long as you keep striving to better yourself and your life. So don't worry too much about getting it wrong, as you'll always be able to get back on track and move forward regardless of the adversity you face in life.