Finding value in dissatisfaction

Dissatisfaction is one of the bases of anguish and insecurity.

Wanting things to be different, to be a certain way – that the way things currently are isn’t good enough. Perhaps, but not necessarily, to the extent of depending on things being differently for your happiness, peace of mind, self-worth.

And yet satisfaction is a potential path to stagnation, a weight that kills momentum.

To be satisfied with the way things are too easily becomes an excuse to accept and make peace with what is.

Dissatisfaction has value; to eliminate it is to forego that value.

To create or improve something – whether a product or a performance – is to be discontented with what exists, to want to do better than that.

It’s profound and spiritual to talk about contentment, but I find discontentment more interesting, and more paradoxical, perhaps a self-serving mechanism to rationalize my own.

Work and Working

How can we keep the artist discontented with his pictures while preventing him from being vitally discontented with his art? How can we make a man always dissatisfied with his work, yet always satisfied with working?”

G.K Chesterton

To do good work you can’t be satisfied easily.

An easily satisfied artist won’t perform at a high level – because to be easily satisfied is to settle; the first pass makes the cut.

An artist who creates great art presumably rejects what doesn’t meet his standards, and therefore isn’t likely to be satisfied easily.

And yet, were he to become dissatisfied with working itself, he wouldn’t go on.

To be discontented with what you’ve created, and yet not discontented with the process of creating it.

To be dissatisfied with the work and yet satisfied with working.

Being easily satisfied is a recipe for mediocrity and third-rate work; and to be dissatisfied easily is to give up and seek an easy way out.

Which is not to resort to the banality that moderation is the key, the answer lies in the middle.

Or the other platitude – the one that ChatGPT suggested when I sought its opinion – that you should focus on the process, not the destination.

It’s easy to say – trite is an understatement – and profound to hear, but of little real utility.

If destinations didn’t matter, you’d stop the moment the process became hard to bear – and every endeavour has moments when it becomes a grind, when carrying on becomes painful.

And to say that destinations don’t matter, that only processes count, is the easiest excuse for not trying hard – in line with the ideology that every runner gets a medal for participating; there’s nothing to differentiate them, they’re all winners and equally worthy.

On the contrary, I’ve found both opposite extremes to make sense.

When something really matters – whether it’s important or you just find it interesting – that is, when you care about it, you wont be easily satisfied with the work, but you will be satisfied with working.

And when it has no value – no matter how ‘important’ it’s supposed to be – just the reverse holds true. Any shoddy work – the bare minimum you can get away with – suffices, and working is always unsatisfactory.

Both extremes go together very well; either by itself falls short.

A pedant always intent on doing every single thing, even the most trivial and useless, to perfection, someone turning every insignificant molehill into a gigantic mountain, is painful to work with.

But so is the slipshod dilettante who settles with the bare minimum in everything, committed to nothing, ready to accept any excuse to give up.

Which is to say that the answer is not the banally moderate grey, nor a single extreme black or white, but black and white both.

Perpetual Dissatisfaction

It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment. When I have clarified and exhausted a subject, then I turn away from it, in order to go into darkness again. The never-satisfied man is so strange; if he has completed a structure, then it is not in order to dwell in it peacefully, but in order to begin another. I imagine the world conqueror must feel thus, who, after one kingdom is scarcely conquered, stretches out his arms for others.

Carl Friedrich Gauss

People who do good work usually have a strange habit of continuing to work.

They keep working, even when they don’t ‘need’ to.

Whereas those of us who haven’t done anything similar tend to imagine in their place a person would be satisfied resting on their laurels.

When I read about conquerors, I used to wonder – if they’d had the temperance to be content with what they’d gained rather than overshooting themselves, they’d have been more successful.

Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon – no one seemed to know when to stop.

Something obvious to most (in hindsight), but somehow not to them, who presumably were not idiots.

Until I realized that you can’t pick and choose; the product comes as a bundle.

Napoleon was Napoleon because of that discontentment.

Had he been ‘wise’ enough to let alone after his initial successes, he probably wouldn’t have been Napoleon – he’d have been someone else.

Perhaps he’d have been happier, perhaps less famous, perhaps lived longer – many things would have been different.

It’s not a eulogy to think and dream big, to be a Napoleon.

Even if you could, I don’t think it would be as glamorous as it sounds.

It’s only to observe that cherry-picking ideal attributes is an intellectual exercise devoid of any semblance to reality.

That you can’t package the drive of a Napoleon with the foresight of a Prometheus to create an ideal prototype.

That a person’s flaws contribute just as much to making them what they are, whether great or despicable; take them away and you no longer have the same person, or the same achievements.

I suspect it’s also the reason why you read about so many students who get top offers from major companies turning them down to work on their own ideas.

Their actions might seem stupid to the rest of the world, but the reason they were offered so much money was precisely because they were the sort of people who could and would turn it down.

Could turn it down because they had the ability, and would turn it down because they had the drive, to do something themselves.

And this holds in most fields, from business to sports to art.

The question of why successful people won’t let alone and know when enough is enough, even when it sometimes seems glaringly obvious they’re overshooting themselves.

What to others seems an immense achievement, after which one is entitled to rest, appears to the one who achieves it as nothing, to whom there are many more worlds to conquer.

And that’s perhaps a value of dissatisfaction.


‘I can love only what I can place so high above me that I cannot reach it.’

Franz Kafka

Discontentment usually has a negative connotation.

It’s meant to imply disliking what is before you.

But there’s a more positive connotation too, stressing not on disliking but liking.

Discontentment can just as easily be liking what is out of your reach.

It’s as much about loving what is so high above that you can’t reach it, at least not yet.

Perhaps you love it because you can’t reach it; the idea or illusion is what draws you, not the thing itself.

The paradox of discontentment is that the very reaching tarnishes it.

If you ever do reach it, you’ll no longer love it.

‘I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member’

Groucho Marx

It doesn’t have to be a ‘bad’ thing.

If anything, that discontentment is what drives a person from one stepping stone to another.

As soon as you reach what you once could not, it loses all value.

But perhaps there’s another stone, yet higher, that replaces it.