paperboarts.jpgWhen I was growing up in Gainesville in the 1960s, my father taught civil engineering at the University of Florida. The department sponsored an annual “design creativity” contest where teams of engineering students were given a challenge and constraints to overcome.

One year the contest was to build and race a concrete canoe. Another year it was to build a crane from an assortment of odds and ends; whichever crane could lift the most weight before breaking was the winner. Another time students were handed a $20 bill (this was over 40 years ago!), directed to a local hardware store, and given 8 hours to create a machine to race.

I may be a bit off on my memory of the specifics of the challenges, but the principles and lessons are clear:
– satisfy all constraints
– maximize the desired benefits
– find and eliminate choke points
– overcome obstacles
– be creative (what haven’t I tried?)
– be innovative (can you turn weaknesses into strengths?)
– find that sweet spot on the cost—benefit curve

I still remember the excitement, the intense interest, these contests generated among the students: the passion they exhibited, the pride they had in their creations, the joy they took in their accomplishments.

I learned to derive pleasure from solving problems, to take an intrinsic satisfaction from making something work better, be more efficient, more effective. It is from this mental association, this drive, that I credit much of my success in the world.

This is true both because of the many positive benefits that flowed from it, and almost equally important was that it displaced the pleasure that most people seemed to get from consuming. Because I derived so much pleasure and satisfaction from building/creating/solving, I felt much less desire to spend in order to consume. I always lived at or beneath my income, never fell into credit card debt, and saving and investing seemed second nature.

My point? Lasting satisfaction comes best from delayed gratification and from a sense of self anchored deep within, never from without. The instant physical pleasure that comes from immediate gratification fades amazingly fast, a mirage that fools only the foolish. Be careful where you find your sense of satisfaction, your sense of self. How well does it serve you?