The idea of pursuit dominates the psyche of modern society. Countries pursue GDP, which should always increase. Companies pursue revenue and profit, which should ever grow. Driven individuals want to maximize their potentials, and we should always be learning and tackling new challenges.
Throughout history, we have thought about pursuit in different ways. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a founding principle of United States. Sigmund Freud wrote in detail that human beings are driven by the pursuit of pleasure. Dr. Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, concluded that we spend our lives searching for meaning. In Buddhism, Duḥkha - the suffering, originates from the act of the pursuit itself.
So why do we pursue? If we take a step back and analyze standard established metrics - country’s GDP, company’s quarterly earnings, personal goals, it’s not clear why we choose these metrics. Why a country’s GDP has to continue to grow? Why a company has to make more and more profits? Why we, as individuals, have to continue to improve and learn new things?
The answers to these big questions are not definitive, and the responses vary for different people. However, three factors are worth considering in finding our answers. That society is connected, and people need to share a mutual understanding of each other. People’s need for improvement is rooted in our physiological nature. Lastly, timing plays a critical role in our pursuits in a constantly changing environment.
Our current human society is deeply connected economically. Even a simple T-shirt that we wear can be the fruit of global collaboration: raw material sourced in America, textile produced in Mexico, clothes assembled in Thailand, and the final product shipped from China. It is because of these countless specialized supply chain that allowed a thriving global economy. To collaborate effectively, countries established common standards so that they can speak the same language. GDP is one of those common vocabularies that shared across the country. An increasing GDP may indicate a better global collaboration, hence indicating a better living situation for all.
Metrics can serve as a common language across countries, which drives countries to achieve. What about individuals? Many of us work to be better at something, and some of us get high from self-improvement. Seeking to be better is not just psychological but biological. In his book “Principles,” Ray Dalio argues that meaningful work and meaningful relationship is not just a luxury but physiological need, based on neuroscience. Throughout history, we also see that human beings pursue objectives that are larger than themselves - whether it be region, scientific breakthrough, or art and science.
Look at nature, and we observe that nature has cycles of pursuits - a flower started its life as a sprout that requires some amount of water and sunlight, then it pursues more water and sunlight and blossoms, overtime it reduces its pursuits of resources and gradually withers. These cycles are all around us but also within us. When we are kids, our pursuits are passive and are guided by our parents and communities. When we enter adulthood, our pursuits are active, and we contribute back to our communities. When we get older, for most of us, our pursuits decrease, and we are not as involved in our main adulthood years.
So why do we pursue? That’s a question each of us must answer to ourselves. And we might never have a definitive answer. However, by asking this question, we take a step back and ponder. By keeping this question in mind, we recenter our intellectual and emotional compass. We make better decisions collectively.