Zen or Kaizen

In my early twenties I used to be pretty calm about life in general. There were definitely a few things in life that I could get hugely worked up about, but my general take on life was that I aimed to be at peace with any kind of situation (a.k.a “being zen“). But the older I get, the more I feel that this idea clashes with the idea of “striving for better” (sort of like “kaizen“, a.k.a. Continuous Improvement), and I wonder if I’m being dishonest to myself when I aim to “be zen” while also striving for better.

Some banal examples of this are creature comforts: if I’m already happy with decent headphones, why would I want to have better ones? If, ultimately, I’m content with living in a two bed apartment, do I really need a three bed house? Other examples are more fundamental: if I have enough money to take care of myself and my family, do I really need that new job with the higher salary and the fancy job title?

I find that it is difficult to go all-in on something if you’ve already convinced yourself that you don’t need it. Though, out of all these examples, I think the job example is the easiest to justify, because having more wealth will benefit you and those around you. The amount of wealth you’d need for that statement to hit diminish returns is likely beyond most of us. Fancier headphones or better quality coffee are probably a bit harder to justify.

Once you start striving for something seriously, it’s difficult to go back. A two bed apartment might feel huge when you first buy it, but if you used to live in a three bed house you’ll notice the size much more. If you’ve experienced fantastic headphones you’d absolutely notice the lack of fidelity in cheaper models. Lifestyle inflation is a real thing. If you truly want to be zen, you have to make peace with your lifestyle deflating as well.

I believe it is possible to both be content with everything and also strive for better at the same time, but I think you have to deceive yourself a little in order to accomplish that. Being truly zen about your situation means not striving for better, and striving for better means you cannot be truly zen. Doing both means turning a blind eye to that dichotomy.

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