A meditation on (human) evolution

When it comes to human beings, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection requires a footnote.

Creatures of all kinds adapt physically and behaviorally to survive and reproduce. Human beings do this, as well. But humans also adapt and change in response to something else: dissatisfaction. It has nothing to do with survival; it’s more like an itch that can’t be ignored, one that is unique to the human animal.

The curious thing is: Most of the things that satisfy us are transitory; their power to satisfy fades almost as soon as we acquire them. And the things that will satisfy us are always a step ahead relative to where we are. In a sense, we’re always subconsciously waiting for a new carrot to be dangled in front of our faces.

That’s why there was a time in your life when all you wanted was to get your driver’s license … graduate from college … get your first apartment … get married … get that promotion … whatever. And, in each of those cases, once you had that thing, you were satisfied. You were happy. But only for a moment.

As Don Draper famously said: “What is happiness? It’s just a moment before you need more happiness.”

Humans never stay satisfied — or happy — for very long. As much as anything else that sets us apart from other animals — complex language, creativity, intentional cruelty, etc. — our dissatisfaction with the status quo is a uniquely human quality.

(Is this a drive that can truly be categorized as “evolutionary”? Honestly, I don’t know; I’m no scholar of Darwin. Maybe in this regard we don’t “evolve” at all; maybe we simply change a lot. But the underlying point is the same: Something drives us to constantly replace what once kept us satiated with something new and exciting. And the standard doesn’t merely fall to some secondary position behind the former leader; it disappears completely. If you’re skeptical about this, try to remember the last time you rented a video at Blockbuster. Or used a flip phone. Or spent way too much on Taylor Swift tickets.)

The point? That our incessant dissatisfaction — our drive to find happiness in something new — is a marketer’s greatest asset. You don’t sell something with features and benefits. You sell it by showing that it’s a significant leap beyond what you’re already doing/using. In that difference your audience will find happiness.

Even if for just a moment.

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*In this same scene, Draper also said: “Even though success is a reality, it’s effects are temporary.” Indeed. It cuts both ways.

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