Knot for want of

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I’ve recently been rather obsessed with Charlie Lim’s music. Very late to the party, I know. There’s a line in my favourite song, Knots, that really stood out to me and it goes like this:

Don't you think it's for the best
That we don't always get what we want

At first glance, this line might sound a little strange. How can not getting what you want be any good? To answer this question, I’ll borrow an excellent example from the Skepticism episode of Philosophize This!, which is a great podcast by the way. Let’s consider things from the opposite end, and assume that we’ll get whatever we want whenever we want it. Sounds perfect! Right?

Things might be amazing initially, but not for long. The satisfaction that you get from buying a new iPhone or a new car does not come solely from ownership. Much of the satisfaction and joy comes instead, from the months or years of hard work put into saving up for the purchase. This principle applies to most things, not just monetary purchases. The sense of achievement gained from seeing your hard work come into fruition is an amazing feeling. And this would be lost forever if we simply got whatever we wanted instantly. Not so perfect now, is it?

Now, you’re probably thinking that this isn’t exactly the opposite of Charlie’s lyrics, he didn’t say “that we don’t always get what we want instantly. And you’re right. Things don’t always go as planned, and sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off, at least not in the way that we wanted it to. Success doesn’t come by easily, and that’s precisely why in the off-chance that it does, the satisfaction that comes from is much sweeter than if we succeeded all the time.

Taking a step back, and applying the Stoic principle of identifying things within or beyond our control, we see that we can’t control whether or not we’ll get what we want, but we can control our wants and desires. Seneca puts it succinctly what this means for us:

No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic