Remember when you were a kid, spending time at the beach running around the sand, the waves, the shells, and the detritus that Mother Nature left behind? You just had an insatiable interest in things. In everything. No one counselled you to “get engaged.” Jumping the waves in the ocean surf, did you ever ask yourself, “will this make me happy?” Hell no, you were just doing stuff because you were interested. That interest in life is Zest. All kids have Zest, right? Zest is beautifully hard wired into humans and we naturally exhibit it… except in so far as it has been diminished or even destroyed by a mistaken conception of conforming to themes and memes of current popular culture.
Zest is the single most visible correlation of well-being in humans today. Is Zest the result of what you do… or is Zest what you put into what you do? Cause and effect is not knowable, but this we do know: Zest is the opposite of boredom. So I am going to ask some questions about and deal with the most universal and distinctive trait of well-being for badass EOMs—those resilient characters who relentlessly strive beyond their comfort zones—namely, Zest.
We find it on all continents of our planet, and across all socioeconomic groups. Zest is the opposite of indifference, disengagement, or boredom. For most of us, Zest is somehow related to our work, our purpose, our sense of meaning and self-identity, isn’t it? There’s boredom with some kinds of work, but broadly speaking the boredom that we feel when doing necessary though uninteresting work is nothing in comparison with the boredom we feel when we have nothing to do with our days. To most of us then, even the dullest work is less painful than idleness.
Zest requires that passions and interests are directed outward, not merely inward. I have never encountered an anxious, self-concerned “Taker” with Zest, have you? But, stuff happens, and we occasionally experience some negative emotions that can temporarily lock us up, ruminating in the “prison of self-concern” mostly related to fear, shame, doubt, self-pity, self-admiration… you can fill in your own descriptors. What if we’re good to ourselves and agree that for these moments it’s okay that our attention, focus, and consciousness is temporarily centered upon ourselves; there is not any genuine interest in the outside world, but only on our fearfulness. The key word for Zest here is “temporarily.”
Authenticity, fairness, leadership, gratitude, and Zest. Those are the top five character strengths of seasoned successful entrepreneurs in our Bigelow-University of Pennsylvania study a few years ago. And interestingly, when you compare those super successful seasoned owner-managers to the general population, Zest was the single characteristic they possessed that had the largest statistical variation from the general population. So is Zest a goal or a result? And how is Zest related to well-being? (I cannot bring myself to use the H word as it is hopelessly subjective and unscientific).
Zest is a (f) of purpose, right—or more precisely—a (f) of continuity of purpose, one of the most essential ingredients of well-being. For many, including most EOMs, this frequently comes from our work. And the kind of work is important. It is important that the work have a purpose greater than mere self-interest. Anyone who is ashamed of their work can never achieve self-respect, and without self-respect, genuine well-being is not possible. I am not suggesting that consistent purpose is by itself enough to optimize well-being, but it is an indispensable condition of it. Unique Ability is connected here too (though that’s a topic for a different day). Through Zest for an outside interest or ability, an authentic badass comes to feel herself a part of the stream of life.
But at every moment of life in current popular culture, it can feel like our society fences in our natural animal spirits, can’t it? If we happen to be particularly cheerful one day, we must not sing or dance at work. If we have a great reason to feel sad, we must not cry near the Keurig in the office cafe for fear of being accused of a “micro-aggression” against one of our colleagues. As a kid, they restrict your liberty at school, and as an adult it is restricted at work by the popular culture’s memes and themes. All this continual restraint by the bullshit rules-based culture makes Zest more difficult to enjoy—for the continual dampening down of our natural fire produces fatigue and lethargy. Zest has been greatly diminished by our mistaken conception of the need for conforming.
In every situation, the authentic badass who radiates Zest of life has the advantage over the person who has none. To the person who has Zest of life, even unpleasant experiences inspire learning and growing for her. These people might enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, storms at sea, business travel, earthquakes, childbirth, fire, and all kinds of other seemingly unpleasant experiences (provided they don’t kill you). In an earthquake maybe they might say to themselves, “Aha, so that’s what an earthquake is like,” and they enjoy learning one more thing about our mysterious world.
So Zest is interest in life made visible; an alchemical mix of positive energy + passion: It gives life flavor. Seeing what is very clearly, but also seeing what can be and leaving your comfort zone behind to strive for it. Can Zest be learned? Without a doubt. Just like every other characteristic of consciousness (hey, according to Marty Seligman!), it’s roughly 50% innate and 50% learned. We still have a lot to learn; we are eager to deepen and refine our understanding of Zest and well-being. In the interim, remember what your grandmother taught you, like attracts like: If you have Zest and positive energy, you attract Zest and positive energy. (And the opposite is also true).
Will you let me re-purpose a verse of two musical baddasses, Lennon & McCartney, from the last words, of the last line, of the last work they ever recorded together?
“And in the End, the Zest you Take Will be Equal to the Zest You Make.”