Problems are precious. They challenge us, make us learn and grow, and give meaning and purpose to our lives. Especially when we’re pursuing the laudable goal of making the world a better place. Hooray for us! But what if our noble intentions become a crippling addiction? In this case, we might be affected by the so-called St George in Retirement Syndrome, a condition that keeps us from knowing when to quit. To figure out what it is and what we can do about it we have to first look into its origins, the legendary story of Saint George.
The Legend of Saint George
St George in Retirement Syndrome has its roots in one of the oldest stories of mankind. George of Lydda, as he was known before his noble deeds were rewarded with sainthood, was a Roman officer of Greek descent. Presumably, his story took place in today‘s Libya where a fierce dragon was terrorising a village.
In an attempt to appease the fire-breathing creature, the villagers had already sacrificed their farm animals. When they ran out of sheep, the king gave orders to sacrifice the people‘s children instead. By way of lottery, to keep it fair. Unfortunately for the ruler, it was so fair that one day his own daughter was selected to be sacrificed.
Enter George who just happened to be in the area. He takes on the challenge and manages to tame and kill the dragon after spotting its vulnerability. The rest is legend. He rescues the princess, is hailed as brave and courageous, good wins over evil (and the whole village converts to Christianity).
I casually tell this story, but it has of course a deeper meaning. One that‘s still relevant today. There are plenty of symbolic dragons in our lives. If we want to get ahead, we must confront those problems, which are often the ones we least want to face. We can put them off temporarily by sacrificing our needs and even what we love the most. But not indefinitely. Only when we face those inner demons can we achieve our biggest goals.
Now, with the original legend in mind, what is the syndrome all about?
St George in Retirement Syndrome
It was Australian author Kenny Minogue who turned the story around Saint George into a metaphor known as St George in Retirement Syndrome. In the introduction of The Liberal Mind, a 1963 book about the past, present and future of liberalism in the Western world, Minogue remarks:
The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance.
These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence.
But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped.
As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.Kenneth Minogue
In essence, St George in Retirement Syndrome describes the pathological state an initially heroic person can wind up in. After having succeeded in a righteous battle, the winner becomes preoccupied with increasingly trivial causes. In the end, the hero is too committed and too proud to call it quits. What started out as a laudable pursuit is now indistinguishable from madness.
While Minogue doesn’t seem to have used the expression himself, the term is rather fitting for what he describes. It echoes a common sentiment: As opposed to fictional stories real life continues even after the happy ending. Because this is where the Australian philosopher’s interpretation picks up. After the original legend ends, George of Lydda becomes addicted to fighting for the oppressed. Initially, the knight got into the dragon-killing business by mere chance. Now he can’t get enough of it. Eventually, the once-proud knight turns into a rather pathetic shadow of himself.
You don’t have to be an outspoken liberal to suffer from this condition, though. In fact, political convictions may not have much of an influence. Just like the broader meaning of the original legend, I think our syndrome reflects a general problem rooted in the human condition. It all seems to imply a counter-intuitive truth: achievement can be dangerous.
The Dangers of Achievement
When it comes to potential downsides to achievement, there are three things we might consider: the relationship between achievement and pleasure, the postponement of a task and the role of our ego.
Goals and Dopamine
According to neuroscientist Dr Andrew Huberman, we get our dopamine kicks from progressing towards a goal, not achieving it. This serves the function of keeping us motivated, especially when we pursue a highly ambitious cause over a long period of time. Problems seem to arise when our happiness comes solely from progressing towards a single goal and we actually achieve it. The source of our happiness dries up so to speak. No more little wins along the way, no more dopamine.
St George in Retirement Syndrome could be a response to such a dynamic. In order to avoid drifting aimlessly, we become a solution in search of new problems, no matter how trivial or unrealistic. It would also explain the downward spiral George finds himself in. As St George fights for his Daseinsberechtigung, the dragons become smaller, easier and quicker to defeat, with smaller and smaller rewards along the way. To an extent, he becomes the victim of his own effectiveness.
St George in Retirement Syndrome also has some striking similarities to Yak Shaving, a fascinating form of procrastination. When under the spell of Yak Shaving, we lose ourselves in increasingly trivial sidequests until we find ourselves shaving the eponymous yak. This is of course to distract ourselves from that one big thing we were actually supposed to do. This immense task can be seemingly overwhelming or one we’re simply afraid of.
So St George in Retirement Syndrome might just be another form of procrastination. One where we put off finding a new, more realistic and therefore more sustainable long-term goal. Both George and the Yak Shaver seem to evade true productivity. Both are undoubtedly busy, they just seem to lack focus and perspective. It’s only when procrastinators find themselves doing the most trivial task imaginable (shaving a yak) that they realise something has gone terribly wrong. Put simply, achievements can cause us to postpone finding a new and different purpose.
Ego and Other Vices
There seems to be another aspect to St George in Retirement Syndrome, one that has to do with our ego. The fact that George becomes “bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons” implies he succumbed to perfectionism, overconfidence and arrogance. Interestingly enough, we never hear from the people he’s fighting for and if they actually appreciate his breathless pursuit.
Storywise, it’s quite reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, the whale hunter who becomes obsessed with hunting down Moby Dick. Ahab’s hunt becomes an obsession as he projects all evil ever endured by humanity onto the white whale. In other words, both Ahab and George get corrupted in their pursuit to fight evil. Both become blind to their surroundings and the consequences of their actions.
The Art of Slaying Dragons
That leaves us with the question of a potential cure and prevention for St George in Retirement Syndrome. How can we make it less likely that we succumb to the syndrome? How can we know when to quit? Six strategies come to mind:
- Setting clear goals. That includes periodically reminding ourselves of what we’re trying to achieve and having a clear mind about when we‘ve achieved it. As Robert Greene writes in his infamous 48 Laws of Power, it’s crucial not to go past the mark of victory. Depending on the goal, it may also be advisable to pre-define a deadline regardless of achievement; to cut our losses and change goals.
- Premeditating. While we’re at it, we might also want to think ahead. If not retire, what are we going to do once we’ve achieved a big goal? Better yet, we also come up with a system, which is a set of behaviours and habits that help us achieve a goal. Author James Clear once famously said: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
- Staying flexible. Before going on our dragon-slaying mission, we may also want to give some thought to the following questions: How malleable should our goals be? Under what circumstances might we adapt them? Our initial ones could be too ambitious, in which case it pays to make a lateral move or use an exit strategy. Goals might also have been too unambitious, in which case it pays to set the bar higher.
- Outsourcing. Checking in with the people we’re trying to help seems like a good idea, too. When picking goals, we don’t want to be overbearing by stealing other people’s problems. Instead, we make sure our help is needed and wanted. If it’s not, we let someone else take over and we can find something more worthwhile to do.
- Avoiding short-term battles. The next one is to pay attention if our actions primarily serve a long-term or a short-term goal. We want to avoid getting lost in tactical fights of no abiding significance. We may be winning them all but to the detriment of our long-term goal. Let’s assume we won’t be able to notice this ourselves, so we have people around us with whom you can check in every once and a while.
- Reevaluating and regrouping. Finally, whenever a minor or major goal is achieved and we feel that little dopamine kick, we pause and reset. We re-evaluate the path we’re on and whether we should change course. We remind ourselves what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. If we realise we’ve achieved our goals and don’t have something equally good or more worthwhile to do perhaps it’s time to finally retire.
Problems seem to be so precious that they can become an addiction. Ultimately, St George in Retirement Syndrome comes down to an inner struggle triggered by outstanding achievement. This crisis of purpose leads to a dependency on fighting smaller versions of the old battles, which makes it impossible to know when to quit.
It’s easier to realise when we should stop doing something obviously evil. The challenge is to notice when something positive becomes pathological as any criticism can easily be drowned in claims of virtue. But no matter how seemingly virtuous, how much help is a knight with a spear for whom every problem looks like a dragon?