The carrot and stick syndrome is a scenario where a person perceives that by having something or by achieving something that they will have sustainable happiness, respect or fulfillment.
It is named after a technique that was used in the days of riding horses or donkeys (either bareback or on wagon) where the person holding the reigns would hold out a long stick with a carrot that would hang from the stick by a string right in front of the horse or donkey’s face. The animal would see the carrot and start walking forward towards it thinking that it will be able to get hold of and eat the delicious carrot. Obviously, the donkey/horse would never actually reach the carrot because it moves as the animal moves never getting any closer than it was before. But the animal doesn’t know that. It just sees the carrot and knows that it wants the carrot. So it just keeps on moving forward and theoretically, it could go on forever without ever actually getting the carrot.
Human beings go through something very similar, in fact, identical in nature.
We get taught from a very young age (and many people never learn any different) that if you want to be happy and successful (and therefore respected and admired) then you have to have or achieve a list of things that are primarily physical or material.
A few items on the list (the metaphorical carrot) would be:
- a certain type or size of house in a certain location
- a certain type of vehicle
- a certain type of body
- a certain type of partner
- a certain type of education
- a certain type of job
- a certain type of income or bank balance
Just as the donkey or horse sees the carrot and believes that if it progresses forward enough, it will have the carrot, so does the human think that by dedicating enough time, work and effort in the pursuit of a “carrot” that they will achieve their “carrot” and then, they will be happy or successful or fulfilled or respected or feared or loved or accepted by other people.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen and ultimately, if and when they achieve what they thought would make them happy, the “carrot”, they very soon discover after the temporary joy and pride of that achievement ends, that they are once again not happy, nor fulfilled. Some people don’t achieve it despite great efforts and then they spin or sink into low states of being fueled by judgments against themselves about the fact that they failed to achieve.
You’d think that after a person set a goal to achieve a “carrot” and that after accomplishing it, they realized that they are not sustainably happy nor fulfilled, that they would realize the nature of this illusion, but they don’t. What in fact happens is that they “realize” that what will really make them happy is a bigger “carrot”!! So they set their sights on a different, often bigger goal to achieve and so the illusion gets perpetuated over years and years. A person can spend the majority of their life in this illusion. It’s difficult to blame them. Who could know it’s an illusion when almost all of society promotes material accomplishments as a means to sustained happiness and success?
This carrot and stick syndrome usually ends in depression, anxiety or a mid-life crisis. A well-known idiom is about the person who wanted to climb the corporate ladder and after years and years of corporate work climbing this ladder, the person discovers it’s on the wrong wall. Who wouldn’t get depressed looking at all that time spent pursuing an illusion?
So if the carrot and stick syndrome is an illusion, what is the truth?
The truth is that nothing external can bring a person fulfillment or sustained happiness. To use the metaphor of a carrot symbolizing joy or success, the truth is that there is no external carrot, the carrot as well as every other “vegetable” is already inside of you. Nothing that you do to please other people and nothing you achieve based purely on society’s demands will bring you sustained happiness. As long as you’re looking to external things to bring you joy, it will always be in the next thing.
The void that we experience in the pit of our being is a bottomless one. Trying to fill it with the short lived highs of material or external things is futile and unsustainable. The only thing that we can fill the void with that is as infinite as the void itself is our own self-compassion and self-love. Anything else is finite in it’s supply.
The truth is, you’re not here just to be happy and thinking that you can and should only be happy in life is like thinking that there can and should only be good in life. It’s impossible because of universal balance. As there is night, there is day. As there is ying, there is yang. The only thing that is absolutely perfect everywhere and in every way at any given time is the universal balance in its correctional, rhythmic nature.
Your job is to train your mind to perceive the balance in your life and in the world. You’re here to be fulfilled and fulfillment is the direct result of a very specific action or set of actions that are in line with your highest values and your passion.
You can achieve joy and happiness through gratitude right now by focusing your conscious thoughts on everything you have in your life that is dear to you.
Do you need to accomplish things? Of course you do. It should however be in line with your passion and your purpose for only that will bring you fulfillment. The work and effort should be done with the best possible attitude.
Many people ask the question: “well how do I find my purpose and my passion?”
The answer to that has 2 parts.
Firstly, you’ll have to try different things you think you would enjoy (this is key) and through trial and error, you’ll quickly find which things you hate doing and which things you love doing.
In my pursuit of purpose, I found that there were things that I did where I needed to be happy in order to do them well, then there were things that that I did that actually made me happy. That’s a clear indication. Think about it, anyone that ever lived and made a difference in this world did it for decades! It was a life’s work. It would have to be something that they were extremely passionate about and really loved doing. The same will apply to you.
The other thing you’ll need to do is look to your childhood, to your wound. Every single one of us goes through a wounding in our mind’s developing years (childhood). This wounding can be seen as needs that went unmet during those years. As a result, once the mind is developed (after puberty), a person’s passion is the never-ending need to give to others that which you were denied.
The first part is conscious and you’ll do that anyway (look for jobs and positions that appeal to you), the second, however is unconscious. You will gravitate towards your purpose/wound just because that’s how it works. Your wounding not only prepares you for your purpose, it also propels you in the direction of the fulfilment by design.