Need vs. Want.

S. sent me an email asking, “The thing I’m most interested in reading about, over all, is how you got started and ramped up from inactivity to triathlons. I’ve been getting reacquainted with exercise over the last year, and it’s not been fun or easy.  Some things which may seem automatic to you now (changes in diet, ramping-up from being unable to run a mile to being competition ready and how it takes a long time and needs to be approached in a certain way, different stretches for different endurance activities, etc.) are not at all obvious to someone just getting started.  I think for a general audience beyond ‘Max’s friends’ that will be an interesting component of the site overall.”

My lengthy history article addresses my Who, What, Where, and When trajectory towards exercise, but much like many of my old screenplays it fails to address the How and Why. S’s question goes to the heart of character and how it influenced my life change. In this case the How stems from the Why and I should answer the Why first. The ramp-up from sloth to sleek is linked to the character dynamics of Need vs Want and how that dictates behavior.

I’ve frequently referred to myself as a change junkie. I get bored very quickly and a lot of what I do is an effort to stave off boredom. Related to this is that in the past my core nature was deeply unsatisfied with wherever I was and whatever I presently had. Sometimes this manifested itself as a “grass is greener” mentality, and at worst there was a raw coveting that filled my heart with envy and greed. This regarded money, possessions, success, sex, career, and the material world. Oddly, it was never about joy, experience, or perspective. I coveted other’s things, even their bodies, but I did not want their lives. I have a firmly established ego, and I would not sacrifice it to become someone else.

As an adult I have spent years pulling apart my behavior and deciding what works for me and what doesn’t. I use a very basic pleasure principle – am I happy? If I’m not happy I have to start looking for what’s causing me displeasure and study its root cause. Rarely is the immediate behavior the root, it is almost always symptomatic of my deeper character. In character development this is Want vs. Need. Want is superficial, Need is core and the two often are in contradiction. For example, why did I hate waking up early to go to work? I Wanted financial and professional success. However, my deeper Need was to work in another career. I would stay up late writing screenplays, and then drag myself out of bed late to work at some IT job I hated. Therefore my Need subverted my Want. Changing my behavior never occurred to me because it defied my pleasure principle – I received more joy from staying up late doing what I loved than the pain of waking tired and being reprimanded at work for lateness to a job I didn’t even like. Why did I covet the possessions of others? Because I had equated success as a writer with material reward, and attaining possessions was the reflection of that success. I Needed to feel like a good writer, so I Wanted stuff. 

Need vs. Want is a fundamental aspect of character and I’m endlessly fascinated by friends and acquaintances who live in opposition. I have a friend who is devoutly Catholic, but his underlying personality is so fiercely anti-authoritarian, rebellious, even blasphemous to his church, that his Want to be a good Catholic is in opposition to his Need to be an iconoclast. Attending mass regularly and being absolved of sin satisfies his Want, while his Need can only be satisfied by his career of throwing stones through the windows of power.

Neither desire can be imposed by someone else. A doctor can tell you that you’re going to die if you continue to eat chips and sit on the couch for the next thirty years (duh). But this does nothing to address the core reason of why sitting on the couch and eating chips brings you more happiness than the initial discomfort of working out and changing eating habits. Ever have a friend who seems to complain all the time and never changes their behavior? It’s because complaining about their pain brings them happiness. When you hear the same story from the same person for the umpteenth (or even the third) time you can bet they’re deriving pleasure from being miserable. This is not as contradictory as it seems. The pleasure they get from complaining to a sympathetic ear is greater than the displeasure of the problem they’re discussing. Their Need to be sympathized with drives them to repeat bad behavior. If you want to effect change, determine your core Need and change your Want to satisfy that Need.

Exploring Want and Need break down into subgroups, notably Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs, short-term and long term goals, framing reality, and emotional intelligence – all things which will be explored in later posts. Need vs. Want is the question all people must ask themselves when they desire life change. Determining Need answers the question of Why. Why did I want to become an athlete? I didn’t. I had always Needed to be physically desirable to myself and others but the short term reward of Wanting rich foods had always subverted the Need. After watching my father almost die from years of gluttony the Need roared and I was able to see the Want in its proper light. The potential joy derived from changing my Want to reflect my Need became the motivators to change my behavior. Need rarely changes. Want is malleable.

We’re mammals with a biological imperative to be physically active. Inactivity is a choice we make that runs counter to our biological function; disease can be a result of suppressing or rejecting that function (though sometimes disease, such as cancer, just happens). Our days of hunting game and running for survival are long gone but we still inhabit bodies that evolved for that purpose. We live in the middle area of having subverted our biological evolution, but it will take many more generations before we can counteract the negative effects of a sedentary life. Our biological Need is to be active and healthy (Maslow’s base physiological Need). Our emotional Needs flows from this and spawn our more ethereal desires. Not everyone will become a runner, triathlete, tennis player, or skateboarder. But addressing the core Need will bring you closer to discovering what activity works for you, and the happiness that can be derived from satisfying your core Need.

Once I understood my Why, the How became a matter of research, experimentation, and learning. I started doing Yoga because my wife wanted to try it and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the practice. I could just as easily been turned off by it and tried something else – which I might not have done had I not gotten my head straight first. By now we all know that to lose weight we have to move more and eat better. My wife and I looked at different weight loss plans and concluded that Weight Watchers was highly effective without any magical thinking. Pushing away sugar was made easier because I was aware that by rejecting bad foods I was satisfying my deeper Need. Losing weight and moving more led me towards trying new things without fear of failing (or comparing my performance to others). All this change stemming from addressing my core Need; my personal Why. The How was mechanical, learning through doing, pushing past the initial discomfort and searching for what lay beyond. Having enthusiastic, knowledgeable teachers was and is invaluable.

Your How will be different than mine because your core Need is different from mine. There’s a difference between not liking something because your body isn’t used to it and not liking something because your body can’t do it. Often the only way to figure this out is to experiment with a healthy and positive attitude. Through mental preparation you can train yourself to enjoy, even look forward to your particular physical experience. My change happened internally first, and the physical change was an external manifestation of an inner choice. As the internet and endurance athletes like to say:

Your mileage may vary.

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2 responses to “Need vs. Want.

  1. Great post, Max. Very inspirational, yet honest. Getting to the core need is very important. For me it is simply wanting to not be tired all the time, and not wanting to die as young as my father did. Also, I think it’s very true what you imply about understanding that each individual must compete with themselves and not be jealous of or discouraged by others whose emotional needs are different (and whose physical strengths and weaknesses are also different).

    I hope you’ll also ultimately share some of that research on the mechanics of exercise that you did as a beginner, because there are a lot of resources and many are bogus.

  2. De Soto & Zilla

    Great article and so true. We also enjoy that you are in shape because our walks are more energetic… and that means that maybe we can get a treat or something at some point. ;-)

    I knew you before you got on this ride of life and wave of health… and you do seem much more satisfied over all. You seem to have a purpose and this is also part of what life makes.

    Keep on keeping on.

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