Dissatisfaction And Imagining If Things Could Be Otherwise


Dissatisfaction is the mainspring of aspiration and effort, though of course there can be dissatisfaction without aspiration. Envy, malice, and the other base passions may be sources of dissatisfaction that warp the soul instead of stimulating and urging it.

The poor man must be dissatisfied with his condition before he will acquire and hold property. He must be dissatisfied not only with his privations and discomforts, but with his lack of knowledge, with his lack of usefulness, with his lack of capacity for intelligent application.

What is it about a person’s character that dictates whether dissatisfaction will lead to motivation and constructive effort or whether it will fuel envy, rancor or even violence? Is it hope? Is it understanding? Is it self-awareness? Could it even be desperation?

Something most motivational books and magazines won’t tell you is that sometimes no matter how many hours you put in or how hard you try, you just might not have what it takes. That hard fact doesn’t sell books. Maybe it’s not even books being sold, but hope: hope that you can overcome your dissatisfaction.

And what about understanding and self-awareness? No matter how dissatisfied you may be, if your mental constructs, your way of understanding the world, are flawed or holding you back, you might not find your way out no matter how hard you work.

Those two factors are related to a phenomenon I frequently encounter, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the observation, more profound than it might seem, that you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, if you don’t understand something, chances are, unless you know and trust someone who does, you might not even know all the things you need to master in order to understand it.

Much is often made of the breakthroughs made by people who “didn’t know it wasn’t possible.” There’s truth to that, but I wonder if perhaps more often it’s the known (to some) improvement that didn’t happen because the people involved didn’t see “what was possible.”

I’m reading The Power of Impossible Thinking, an entire book about how changing mental models can lead to breakthroughs in business and personal life. Despite some flaws, I’m enjoying it, but I fear it probably won’t reach the audience who most needs it. In The Unnatural Nature Of Science Lewis Wolpert asserts that 15% of people have the capacity to consider that things could be otherwise.[1] I don’t know where he gets that figure, because he doesn’t cite a reference, but based on my own experience, I’d put the figure even less.

In any case, it isn’t clear to me if dissatisfaction is just the catalyst or if it is a natural outcome of assessing why things are the way they are, asking whether things really are what they seem or if there might not be a better way.

Further Reading
The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong, But You’ll Never Know What It Is
The Power Of Impossible Thinking, Yoram (Jerry) Wind and Colin Crook, Pearson Education, Inc. 2006.
The Unnatural Nature Of Science: Why Science Does Not Make (Common) Sense, Lewis Wolpert, Harvard University Press, 1998.

[1] “Research into how people reason about complex issues of genuine importance such as crime and unemployment again emphasizes the difference between common-sense thinking and more formal scientific thinking. At the extremes there are two very different attitudes towards knowledge. One pole is the comfortable ignorance of never having considered that things could be otherwise; the other is a continual self-aware evaluation of the evidence and subsequent modification of views. These reflect the distinction between knowing something to be true and contemplating whether one believes it to be true or not. Only a minority (about 15 per cent) appear to have the latter capacity but scientists — even though they may not like to — have to adopt this approach.” The Unnatural Nature Of Science, p. 19.

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4 Responses to Dissatisfaction And Imagining If Things Could Be Otherwise

  1. Insightful, and thanks for pointing to the Dunning-Kruger effect link! IMHO, changing mental structures is the underlying key to personal development, and it seems to me there are two ways to do so: 1) from the inner world, e.g. feeling dissatisfaction and thinking about a possible escape; and 2) from the outer world, e.g. learning from exposure to new experiences, new people, new sources of knowledge (education, culture etc.)… In other words, curiosity and “open-mindfullness” can be as strong a driver as dissatisfaction in moving forward. And of course, scientific research typically requires that: looking for something new (hypotheses) while paying close attention to what is actually happening (experiences), possibly from different perspectives…

  2. richfinck says:

    Positive thinking is the avenue to making your life better.

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