A few months back, I listened to Pete Holmes interview Ryan Holiday on the You Made It Weird podcast. Holiday described his parents’ visit to see him in Texas, during which they planned a day trip to a town called Clovis.
Holiday was incensed that his parents – who came from California to spend time with their grandchildren – planned to spend a day of their short trip in Clovis.
What was in Clovis, anyway? Two generations of their family were in the house, and they were rushing out the door to visit a random small town.
Holmes rightly picked up on this and generalized it, using “Going To Clovis” as a shorthand for the dumb things we do to stay in motion.
Going To Clovis is the compulsive tendency to maximize: it’s trying to visit five monuments in a day or spending three hours scouring Yelp before picking a dinner spot.
It’s easy to laugh at this phenomenon and its many appearances in our lives. Humans are ridiculous. I should know – I Go To Clovis at least once a month.
But what compels us to Go To Clovis?
Sometimes it’s money. “We spent $500 on plane tickets, so we need to make them count.” Other times we seek social validation. “Think of how many likes I’ll get on this Grand Canyon pic! It’s only six hours out of our way.”
But as I see it, there’s something else going on here too – something underpinning the frustration of otherwise incredibly successful, productive people.
La vie en Clovis
I’m not sure when, but someone put a brick on the gas pedal of my generation. Nobody’s yet bothered to remove it, so we hurtle forward at breakneck speed.
It’s easy to see why it feels this way. Mine is the first generation to grow up with the universe in its pocket. We’re the first to instantly know what everyone else in our peer set is doing and the first for whom daily communication is part marketing, part performance art.
This connectedness, among other factors, has bred a generation of maximizers. The urge to maximize puts the Clovis crowd in perpetual motion. If you’re sitting still, there’s a gnawing feeling that wherever you are is not enough, and whatever you’ve done is inadequate.
This isn’t a new phenomenon – people have been grappling with an inability to sit quietly in a room alone for thousands of years. But it’s the one core American value that almost everyone in my social sphere seems to have bought hook, line, and sinker; the idea that if we get the next thing – trip, job, apartment, etc., we’ll feel better.
For a notoriously godless generation, we believe with a religious fervor. Surely this achievement will be different – more fulfilling and more visible than the dissatisfying ones that came before.
As you know, this doesn’t always happen. We get a hit of joy – though perhaps smaller and more fleeting than we might expect – and the goalposts move again.
We have two options:
1) We could recognize we’ll never feel fully satisfied by way of external accomplishments and adjust our system of measurement accordingly.
2) We could create new domains in which to achieve.
The second option is what Going To Clovis is all about. We turn leisure into work, finding another avenue to satisfy our need to succeed. Clovis isn’t an attempt to maximize but Maximization itself – an elaborate method of avoiding the reality that achievement doesn’t provide enduring happiness.
And that’s why Going To Clovis turns out not to be a funny quirk of achievement-obsessed humans at all – but rather a symptom of a serious problem at the heart of how we live.
What’s the damage?
I just leveled a significant charge against the way many of my fellow Type-A1 people live, but up to this point, Going To Clovis seems pretty harmless.
It’s anything but. Let’s examine a few of the costs:
We spend our lives disappointed. Once we realize the best is available, we must have it. Anything else is an abject failure.
I’ve heard the refrain from nearly every corner of my life: “If I can’t do it the way I want, I’d rather not do it at all.”
How screwed up is that? We’ve set such stringent parameters for success that only the best possible outcome is even acceptable.
In the movie Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell’s character has a similar belief.
We laugh at his character’s obliviousness to the truth: there are plenty of excellent outcomes that don’t require you to finish first every time.
Yet we spend our lives with the same “first or last” attitude in different clothing.
The belief that only the best will suffice is a recipe for deep, prolonged unhappiness – a life spent believing the good stuff remains just out of reach.
In the movie, Will Ferrell grapples with the emptiness all Clovis-goers feel until his semi-absent father hits him with a hard truth:
The difference between competitive racing and real life is that the second, third, or fourth-best outcomes are usually every bit as satisfying as the best one. Only by dropping our quixotic chase for the Best of Everything can we learn to enjoy our lives.
We choose quantity over quality. Some things are status illegible; it’s hard to tell which are best. This opacity should ease the Clovis-goer’s mind, but it doesn’t. Rather than prioritizing a few things and doing them well, we attempt to do them all.
The best example of this is travel. Success isn’t just getting a solid deal on a flight to a cool location; it’s squeezing every drop out of the available time to see five cities in four days.
Each day, we have an airtight itinerary: four sights to see, two superb restaurants to try, a cocktail bar in which to Instagram our drink, and at least five casually elegant, profile picture-quality photos each day.
We feel accomplished but exhausted when we get home – we did so much! But did we learn anything? Did we do anything other than sprint from spot to spot, missing the forest for the trees?
Too often, the answer is no.
The biggest things in life, the ones that take a while and cost us lots of low-level opportunities elsewhere, are often the most satisfying. Justin Timberlake’s character in The Social Network knows this:
Most of us want to catch big fish. As Timberlake reminds us, one big fish makes for a more impressive picture than fourteen smaller ones.
We know that more isn’t always better. Here’s a quick quiz for you. Would you rather:
- Go on dates with seven potential partners or spend the time with one partner who makes you happy?
- Immerse yourself in a new city or visit seven cities about which you can’t remember anything?
- Have ten hobbies between which you scatter your time or have one deeply fulfilling hobby on which you spend hours?
I’m guessing you took quality over quantity in each of those scenarios. But in our day-to-day existence, we get distracted by the pursuit of quantity.
Ivan Boesky, the infamous Wall Street raider-turned-convict (and inspiration for Gordon Gekko), allegedly ordered every item on the menu when he went to Tavern on the Green so he could have one bite of each. Instead of experiencing one thing fully, he wanted to experience everything.
Unfortunately for Boesky, one bite each from twenty dishes doesn’t make a meal.
When we cram our days with activities to rack up points, we’re closer to Boesky than we’d like to admit – always eating but never satisfied.
We chase empty approval over connection. If you’re like me, you believe in fewer traditional institutions than ever and eye authority figures with skepticism.
But our need for approval hasn’t disappeared. Instead, we gather approval from a more diffuse and impersonal set of sources than previous generations: Amazon and Yelp reviews, TripAdvisor, KAYAK’s price indicator, or AirBnB’s “rare find” notification.
We get little hits of dopamine from these wins, but they’re not enduring.
In a similar vein, we’ve turned to social media to provide the validation that might typically come from our friends and families.
Every heavily-staged-but-outwardly-nonchalant Instagram post generates likes in droves, but what is a like worth if it comes from someone you don’t care about? What about someone you don’t even know?
By Going To Clovis, we’re prioritizing approval from these sources over ones closer to home – our family, colleagues, friends, and even ourselves.
Anyone who regularly Goes To Clovis is likely to spend their life disappointed and frustrated. They’ll jump from one thing to another, seeking joy (or at least relief) that isn’t forthcoming.
The good news is since we’ve identified the problem, we’re way ahead of most Clovis-goers.
Maximization culture is a formidable opponent, and we’re not going to change our operating systems overnight. But we can mitigate the damage it causes.
Getting back from Clovis
Alright, so. We know Clovis is not a harmless, fun place to visit in our free time – it’s a nasty habit holding us back from happiness.
If you’re like me, you’ve been Going To Clovis for most of your life. It’s a tough pattern to break.
How can we set up a sustainable system to avoid Going To Clovis? Though I didn’t have a name for it until recently, I’ve been working on this for years.
In that time, I’ve found a few things to reduce my likelihood of Going To Clovis.
On most things, settle for good enough
There are parts of life where you should require the best of yourself. You want to be a moral person. You want to do fulfilling work. You want to have great friends and a life partner with whom you’re compatible.
But it’s futile to apply that yardstick to the rest of your life. An example: the average person spends between 250-275 hours each year choosing what to eat, wear, and watch2, but I’d bet their decisions are no better for it. Horrifying.
As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice, the process of constantly optimizing for the best possible outcome makes us less happy than choosing something good enough and going for it.
But how do we trick ourselves into letting go in the moment? I’ve found success in implementing an “Enjoyment Hurdle” for things like restaurants, vacations, or weekend activities.
Above the hurdle rate (say, anything with expected enjoyment of 7 out of 10 or above), all choices are acceptable. Anything that doesn’t clear the hurdle is unacceptable.
For example, let’s say that you have five potential activities in mind on a Saturday:
|Walk in the park||6|
|Drinks with friends||6|
|Going to a movie||8|
Setting the enjoyment hurdle at seven or above eliminates a walk and a drink from contention, but a movie, game night, and dinner are all acceptable.
You might have preferences within those options, but you should treat them as preferential indifferents – any will do. If you want to play games, but your friends want to eat out, that should be a source of no agony in your life.
There will, of course, be times when you have to do things that don’t meet the hurdle. But the Enjoyment Hurdle method ensures you’re almost always doing fun things with a minimum of fuss.
Prioritize action over motion
Going To Clovis is all about motion. We’re moving for the sake of movement – and to tell others that we moved.
We eat at the famous place we can casually name-drop in conversation, go out of our way to visit the monument so we can say we’ve been there, and drop by the high-end bar for the perfect Drinkstagram rather than the perfect cocktail.
Deep down, we know movement isn’t satisfying for its own sake. Remember our quiz earlier – would you rather do five things you only kind of care about or one thing you care about deeply? Hopefully, for most people, the latter is more appealing.
Making progress toward something you care about is action: writing for three hours, spending quality time with friends, or immersing yourself in a foreign city.
Action is more difficult, requires full focus, and doesn’t check as many boxes as motion does. But it’s far more fulfilling.
Try redirecting your energy from motion to action, focusing on quality rather than quantity. You might be surprised how much you can accomplish and how satisfying it is to avoid wasted motion.
Improve via negativa
Interestingly, spending the past year in lockdown has eliminated many of the ways we all Go To Clovis in everyday life.
We can’t go for drinks with friends we don’t care about, hit up trendy restaurants, or do anything Instagram-worthy.
But people are still traveling, attempting “one book a week” challenges, and baking at a pace 1950s housewives would have admired.
Though the pandemic has stripped away our ability to do things, we believe at our cores that doing is better and more important than being.
Especially in a pathologically busy place like New York, this idea is in the water supply. A night in once in a while is a nice change of pace; if you spend too many nights in, you’re a failed New Yorker.
We’ve established that the key to happiness is not to squeeze more out of your time. Are you absorbing anything from your 46th book of the year? What points did you get for seeing three different friend groups in one day? How did you feel after spending your day in constant motion?
The best way to improve happiness is via negativa – by subtracting things that don’t serve you.
Instead of figuring out what to add to increase your happiness, think about what you could remove. What could you drop in pursuit of peace?
Resisting the urge to maximize
We spend too much time chasing things that don’t matter. We seek fulfillment in the wrong places, swarming our dissatisfaction with more activities and accomplishments.
To avoid routine trips to Clovis, we should do the opposite.
Instead of trying to pack more into our lives at every turn, we can consciously choose to slow down. To plant our feet and be where we are.
We can decide that good enough is perfect for most things. We don’t have to have the Best Saturday Night watching the Best Documentary We’ve Ever Seen with the Best Friends Ever.
Straining ourselves to achieve those things is probably holding us back from enjoying what we have.
If we stop trying so hard to pursue the optimal outcome – if we can stop Going To Clovis so much and with such gusto – we’ll find that we’re more than a little bit happier.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If you seek tranquility, do less.”
1 It still blows me away that this popular personality descriptor came from cigarette companies trying to absolve themselves of guilt for killing their customers.
2 How to Decide, Annie Duke