June 6th, 2020

"It's super important!"

At various times in my life, I've had the experience of being asked for something with such desperation that it seemed as though some terrible catastrophe would transpire if the request were not granted. There are some people who are natural actors and will put on a tremendous show of urgency whenever they want anything, no matter what it is or what the circumstances are.

I have most often encountered this type of behavior in dealing with salespeople, which is perhaps not surprising, as salespeople are in the business of creating a sense of urgency in people. Of course, one experiences this sense of urgency as a prospective customer being sold to, because salespeople often try to create the sense that something bad will happen if you do not buy the product or service being sold, but I have also experienced this when working with salespeople. Multiple times in my working life, I have been approached by co-workers in the sales department who came to me full of haste, telling me that some customer was interested in our business and needed more information, or was about to order a product and so the product urgently needed to be prepared for the order, but when I came back with the requested product or information, I was simply told that the customer had changed their mind and that it was no longer needed. The salespeople delivering this news never seemed terribly disappointed about it, as if their lives had been shattered because the customer had decided not to buy; indeed, they seemed to have already forgotten about the matter and moved on to other sales leads, absently recalling the customer I was talking about as if it were some long-forgotten event from a previous century rather than something which they had been telling me about with great urgency earlier that very same day.

If this had only happened to me once, it would have been easy to dismiss it as something not worth remembering, something to forget as quickly as that salesperson had forgotten their customer, but I experienced this enough times with multiple co-workers in multiple companies that it became clear to me that there are people who will regularly do this as a matter of course, as a standard way of operating because they've figured out that they are more likely to get what they want if they put on a huge show of terrible urgency and beg for whatever they want as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Speaking of begging, panhandlers tend to exhibit this same behavior, which is perhaps not surprising, because beggars are, in a very real way, a type of salesperson, except that unlike salespeople which sell a product or service, beggars are in the business of selling nothing at all. I always feel a bit cautious when implying that beggars are not entirely honest in their intentions because it is clear that there are people in the world who really need help, but it is also clear that there are people in the world who exploit other people's natural charity, sympathy, and willingness to help. In many places, I have seen situations where multiple beggars are asking for money on the same city block, and I realized that this necessarily creates some competition, because while a passer-by may be willing to drop their spare change into one person's outstretched hand, they cannot do this if there are several beggars lined up on the same street; whatever change they gave to one person is now gone, and they will have nothing left for the next one, unless they specifically conserve their spare change with the intention of systematically distributing it to a network of beggars, which I think is rather more consideration than most people put into the matter. So beggars learn to create a sense of urgency in people; the most successful beggars are probably those who do not quietly sit on the sidewalk and murmur "Spare change, please?" to everyone passing by, but the ones who put on a show, acting as if the universe will end tomorrow if you do not give them everything you can spare right now. It's an act, but it works: The more sympathy you can arouse in people, the greater a sense of desperation you can awaken in their emotions, the more money you're likely to make as a beggar.

Here we see the same behavior exhibited on the two opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: On the one side, we have literal beggars, people who may be homeless and are not likely to have very much other than whatever they can buy for today, and on the other side we have salespeople who work in offices and probably have a residence with walls and a ceiling which they sleep in at night. We can see that the human tendency to try to create a sense of desperation and urgency is a universal trait, visible across all economic levels and all walks of life. No matter who you are or how you make a living, people eventually learn that they can get more from other people by being more forceful, by putting pressure on people and making up a story about how "It's super important!", about how whatever they are requesting or demanding is the most important thing which you can devote your attention to right now.

This seems to prove, once again, that human beings never stop wanting: Whether you're homeless and starving or rich and stuffed, human beings never stop wanting more, more, more. Whatever you have now doesn't matter; if you can think of anything you want, getting what you want becomes the most important thing in the world, and you'll go to any ridiculous lengths to get it, no matter what it costs, because the human tendency to pursue whatever a human being wants is stronger than any kind of rational sense which might move people to pause and ask "Do I really need this thing which I seem to want so much?"

Then again, how much should human beings want? If people have a place to live and food to eat, should they be satisfied with this? If someone is fortunate enough to have these things already when they are young, should they simply say, every day of their life, "Well, I have a place to live and food to eat. That's enough for me. I'll just sit here until I die, being content with what I have", or should they try to use their life to do something else, to do something more with their life than just survive? I have always maintained that life is not an end in itself, but a means to an end; the point of living is not just to be biologically alive, but to do something important and meaningful with your life. Being happy with the basic needs of survival is not being virtuously humble, but actually the act of wasting precious life, squandering the opportunities to do something with that life.

So, again, how much should human beings want? Should they just go through their lives constantly wanting more and never being satisfied with what they have, or do they reach a point where it makes sense to say "Stop. I have enough. I will remain as I am all the rest of my life" and stop doing anything with that life? I think it makes sense to ask what human beings should want, rather than how much they should want. If a person already has billions of dollars, it is not useful for them to go to extraordinary lengths to get another few billion, because those extra few billion probably won't materially change their lives, but that doesn't mean that they're done with life, as if life were a video game which they've successfully "won" because they reached some certain financial amount. Rather, it is useful to try to achieve something else with life, not something focused on making more money, but on other things which you can achieve with the time we have. Speaking for myself, I like learning new information, and this is something I can always acquire more of, because there is more information in the world than any one person can learn in a lifetime. Information on the Internet is readily available, and so I could go through my whole life just learning and learning; indeed, I could probably be happy doing so. In this sense, I am completely avaricious, because I am always happy to get more information and never have the sense that I have "enough", and while this is probably not as damaging as avarice for money or power because me learning things doesn't really cost the world anything, it can be taken to extremes. It is not healthy to spend one's entire life buried in books, nor does it actually bring anything to the world which could have made use of that acquired knowledge. So again, it's not so much a question of how much people should want, because I think that in a very real way, it's okay to go through your life constantly wanting more and more and more, as long as what you want changes: Rather than saying "I want more of what I already have" or "I don't want anything now", it's better to say "I want to do something different with my life now".

Of course, it's important to want to do the right things with your life, and this is where disagreements can arise, because different people prioritize different things. Some people want to help others, some people want to create art, and some people want to develop their own lives. I once worked with a woman who, in her 30s, was feeling the ticking of her biological clock, and asked me bluntly if I would have a baby with her. This was what she'd chosen to prioritize in her life. I told her that I didn't feel financially secure enough to have a child, to which she replied "Are you serious? Do you think that's a concern? There are all kinds of charitable organizations which help families that don't have enough money". I felt like this was an abuse of charity because it would mean deliberately putting myself into a situation where I would be dependent on that charity, possibly for the rest of my life. Perhaps this is where those beggars come from: There are people who are in the habit of regularly getting themselves into some predicament, then urgently demanding that someone else help them out of the situation they got themselves into.

This reinforces the idea that life isn't worth much. People have children on a whim, just because they feel like it, and often they don't care whether a child is born or not, nor what happens to one if it is born. Yet during the time period when they want a child, that's the most important thing to them, and they will do anything to fulfill that desire. All of us seem prone to this same behavior of wanting something with all of our strength, then forgetting about it as soon as we get what we want. We were like this even before we were conceived: You began your life as a sperm cell which was trying, with all urgency and with all of its strength, to reach an egg, for no other reason than that that is what it was programmed to do. What if the sperm which made you had ended up being unsuccessful? It probably wouldn't have mattered, because if that one didn't reach the egg, then another one probably would have. And what if none of the sperm cells from that ejaculation had successfully fertilized the egg you grew from? Would your parents have died of disappointment? More likely they would have simply done the same thing again a few days later, and instead of you being born, someone else would have been, and no one would have mourned the loss of a few days. Even the cells which spawned us live and die casually, and no one really cares. In the moment when they want to do something, that's the only thing which matters to them in the world, but if they fail and die, it's no big loss.

So the next time you feel the sense that something is more important than anything else in the universe, or encounter someone else who is trying to convince you that something is that important, don't worry too much. It's not really that important. It doesn't really matter whether you get what you want, because if you don't, then someone else will. And even if no one does, it still wasn't really that important anyway.