← Back to Writing

The Art of Conditionlessness

February 13, 2019

Goals can seem like a good idea. They allow us to focus our attention and channel our energy toward a common direction. They sound innocent enough.

But goals can quickly turn into destinations to get to. And in doing so, they become the conditions for our success.

While a goal-focused approach might work for the small things in life, for the big things it can lead to despair.

For the big things, you have two options. You can either set conditions for success. Or you can adopt conditionlessness

Small things versus big things

For achieving small and mechanical tasks, conditional goals are effective.

An example: If I want to make a cup of coffee, then my goal is to make a cup of coffee. If I manage to brew it, then pour it, and finally drink it, I have achieved my goal. My conditions for success have been fulfilled. I have been successful in the task that I set out to accomplish. Simple enough.

But with big tasks—with the Big Task itself—it’s a different story.

We say, “as long as I reach X, then I’ll be happy”. We claim that, “as soon as I achieve sales of Y, then everything will be OK”. We’re sure that, “if only I sign Z amount of clients, then I’ll feel secure”. 

These “if only…” statements are understandable. But when the attainment of conditional goals becomes the only determinant of one’s state of mind, it turns into a dark and treacherous road. 

Hedonic adaptation and outsourcing

There are two reasons why conditional goals form a slippery slope. 

The first reason is hedonic adaptation. We are first-rate adapters. Whether we become paralyzed or we win the lottery, our happiness always converges after an initial spike or dip

Well-being is not an additive game. It’s not a “more-is-better” competition. Instead, it’s a balancing act. Our state of mind is a thermostat that demands constant calibration. “More” doesn’t solve it. Only calibration can. 

The second reason is that when we set conditions for success, we outsource our well-being to things we can’t control. We become dependent on our circumstances for our state of mind. That would be fine if everything remained stable and delightful around us. But the gods aren’t always that considerate, are they. 

Not only do we outsource our experience to things we can’t control, we outsource it to the future. We outsource our today’s intrinsic desires to extrinsic, conditional rewards tomorrow. And that means that our intrinsic rewards will wait, playing catch-up, forever. 

A dark and slippery road, indeed.

Conditionless choice

So what’s the alternative?

The goals, milestones and visions we have for ourselves are very rarely about “the thing”. It’s not actually revenue that you want. It’s not actually the new job that you want. It’s about what those things give you. It’s about the sense of joy, the sense of freedom, the sense of immersion we envision that “the thing” will provide.

The beauty with these types of conditionless rewards is that, if you dare to think outside the box, they’re not dependent on external circumstances. They can always be experienced. They can always be had. They can always be claimed. 

They are dependent only on choices

Masters of conditionlessness

History is rife with examples of people who have mastered the art of choosing. In fact, it is those that have transcended the conditional world that stand out in history. Conditionlessness is the stuff of legends. 

One of the greatest examples is Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychologist and Holocaust survivor who survived several concentration camps during WWII. 

We assume that our sense of happiness and meaning emerge from having the right conditions—the right job, the right neighborhood, the right relationships. But Frankl came to a different conclusion. He found the deepest meaning of his life in the worst conditions imaginable. 

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Frankl wrote. “Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him….It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

He realized that meaning isn’t conditional. Meaning doesn’t depend on anything external. It can always be attained, no matter the circumstance. 

Viktor Frankl should, based on all objective and conditional measures, have been one of the the most deprived, depressed human beings on the planet. Instead, he was one of the most fulfilled. His sense of meaning did not depend on his external circumstances. He chose meaning. And from that choice, meaning emerged. 

His sense of meaning just was. It was conditionless

The path of the conditionless warrior

Conditionlessness is nothing but a choice. But it’s the biggest one you’ll ever need to make. 

And it’s not just a choice that you make one time and one time only. It’s an accumulation of smaller ones, one after the other.

Every moment, every situation confronts you with a new choice to make. Will I choose to make this encounter meaningful, or will I moan? Will I choose to be joyful despite the thunderstorm, or will I despair? We’re confronted with these choices again, and again, and again, and again. 

In every situation, in every moment, the gods are testing you. Will you fall into the trap of conditional rewards? Or will you choose conditionlessness?

There are no musts. You don’t have to do anything.

But this is the path of conditionlessness. This is the path of the conditionless warrior. 

This is freedom.


Subscribe to my newsletter to get my occasional writing spanning philosophy, psychology, living and leading.