Content or Discontent – Which Tent Do You Live In?

I don’t like to live on the fence,

But I find that I often live in two tents.

-Quote from The Arabian Prince of Camdelay*

There is a paradox in learning.  It is the paradox of the two tents.

On one side are those who are content.  On the other dwell those who live in discontent.   It appears that both have something to teach us about learning.

The content people have discovered that there is more to life than
acquiring enough possessions to keep up with everyone else.  They can
smile in the midst of life’s storms.  They are gracious in the moments
of life’s rewards.  They are like a man named Paul**, who was shackled
in a prison cell when he wrote the words…

"I’ve learned by now to be
quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m
just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve
found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or
hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through

Being content doesn’t come naturally, it’s not simply a matter of genetic disposition.  One must learn
to be content.  It is in the circumstances and experiences of living that
I am finding the lessons of contentedness.  The content person lives
with an internal sense of security that is fueled by the understanding
that "what happens to me isn’t as important as what happens in me."
Contentedness is a matter of character and integrity.  The content
person has learned to live with him or herself everyday, not reacting
to life, but rather, responding to it with an intentionality and

"Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be
content with what you have."
– Doris Mortman

But there’s another side to this thing: the discontent people have something to teach me as well.

The discontent people aren’t satisfied with the way things are.  They
wish, hope, and work toward changing things around.  They see something
that works and want to tweak it and make it better.  They are often
pleased but never satisfied.  They want something more.  The discontent person has discovered that there ARE things worth being
discontented over.  There are things that need to change, that need to
grow, that need to improve.  They relate well to the words of
Elizabeth Huxsley, who said,

"Only man is not content to leave things
as they are but must always be changing them, and when he has done so,
is seldom satisfied with the result."

The discontent person wants to
reach higher, stretch farther, build bigger (or smaller), and make

And so with learning comes this paradox – I must be both content and discontent.  I must live in these two tents.

Working with college students, I am encouraged by their
desire to grow and learn.  They live each day in this paradox.  They desperately want permission to be who they are with the hope of becoming more.
They want to discover their core self, learning to be comfortable
in their own skin, yet, they continually challenge the process. 
Students who thrive in this setting are the ones who discover how to
live within the tension of these two polarities.

Learning is enhanced by the balance between these two tents.  Live too long on one side and it may hamper your learning.

If a person is content with everything, then what will inspire him or
her to change?  Contentedness can easily lead to comfortableness or false pride, which
can lead to stagnation.

If a person is discontent with everything, then what do they have left
for secure footing in life?  Discontendedness can become bitterness or
cynicism, which leads to hopelessness.

It is the mixture of being content and discontent that guides one toward continued learning and maturity. 

How have you experienced this in your own life?  In what ways are you both content and discontent?  How do you live in both tents?

Author’s Notes:
*The Arabian Prince of Camdelay is a fictional work that doesn’t exist.  I made the whole thing up to help the little rhyme (which I also made up) sound a bit more literary (literally!).
**Paul is not a fictional character, but was a real person who wrote quite a few letters.  This quote comes from The Letter to The Philippians (4:11-14) out of the New Testament.

Tim Milburn writes at studentlinc – a webblog devoted to developing lifelong leaders one student at a time.   He recently created the MPOW- Meeting|Planner|Organizer|Worksheet which is being downloaded daily at an alarming pace.  Tim also dabbles in graphic|logo|web design and will often create things for Rosa because she’s such a great person.


  1. says

    Tim, this is outstanding.
    As I began to read, I thought to myself, “Tim is talking about Pono” for the word contentment (a favorite of mine!) looms large in MWA within that value— it’s the last chapter of the book because it’s a place at which we must arrive; learning, finding balance and what feels right to us, and finding contentment.
    Yet I love how you take a word which first seems negative —discontent— then explain how we can learn from the hunger within it too. Seems to me you’ve described a lot of people within this Ho‘ohana Community of ours, and given them quite a bit of affirmation.
    And I must add that your writing here is “most excellent,” as Dave would say. Paradox and parable blend so Timriffically!

  2. says

    Tim, I second Rosa’s motion on this post. I equate your “balanced” view to what I call “half-fullism”, in that we’re always trying to keep that “teeter-totter” off the ground, both in how we learn and how we live. Your approach was unique to me in the use of discontent and content – points of view I had not considered before. Well done, and thanks.

  3. says

    Rosa, can we please extend this month a few weeks? Everyone is putting on their best “Sunday go to meeting dialogue!” and looooking gooood!
    The scales of balance have followed me from the first day I was born. (no there wasn’t a second day :-) The introspection that must absolutely follow reading your work here is golden!

  4. says

    Tim, I am coming late to the party but I’ll second what has been said. I find walking the line you describe a challenge and a worthy one.
    What a month September has been!

  5. says

    Aloha Tim,
    I felt drawn back to your article this evening, for I’ve given more thought to your final questions, and how I might “live in both tents.” Two things immediately come to mind for me, and they are the two things probably most important in my life; my family (especially my children) and my work with the MWA coaching curriculum and project teams.
    I’ve arrived at great contentment with both work and family, for there are so many ways I realize I wouldn’t change a single thing, and truly don’t want for more. I absolutely love my life, and count my blessings daily. Even having “little” means having more focus on what’s right and worth my attentions. Yet with both work and family I instinctively and obsessively cannot stop looking for ways to make things better. Cannot stop, and will never stop.
    ‘Ae, (yes) my two tents have their flaps butted right up to each other so I stay dry with a foot in each when the rain starts to fall!

  6. says

    Great article Tim. I must say the older I get the more content I get with certain things in my life. That being said, the discontent side is increasing in other areas. I think that is what learning is all about.
    When you are passionate about something, discontent with the status quo is always present. You want to be better, go faster, and reach heights never before attained.
    I think the main thing to be “content” with is yourself. Realize who you are and what you are all about. Don’t try to be someone else. Then you can be radically discontent with what you are passionate about and go and change the world!

  7. says

    These are terrific comments. As I think about it more on a personal level, I am coming to believe that my discontentedness will be much more effective and well-intentioned if I am grounded in contentedness with myself.
    Which reminds me of something…
    When I was about 21 I went to see a psychic who told me that I would be broke and disappointed until I turned 40. I asked what would happen when I turned 40? To which the psychic responded, “Well, then you’ll get used to it!”
    I’m still thinking about this paradox…

  8. says

    I live in both. I think of them as “neccessity” and possibility”. When I am in the tent of discontent, I am thinking about the neccessity of change. When I am in the tent of content, I am think about what is possible – I agree it is about managing the ‘tension’ between the two.
    I also tend to work on different projects in my business depending on which tent I am in…

  9. says

    What a STUNNER of an article.
    REALLY got me thinking. I know that contentment flows at times from some elements of my life. But in others the destructive internal voices can wreak havoc on any attempts at contentment.
    But the discontent that I know drives my passion and my desire for improvement (and sometimes tumbling into perfectionism) was always a negative but here you’ve put a whole new spin on it.
    LOTS of thinking here
    A truly excellent post.

  10. says

    Organising YOUR day

    There’s no question Pink Apple is about relationships. We shriek it, in a rather squeaky, pink voice, from the rooftops! However to show up as a grown up in our relationship, requires self-knowledge and self-development as well. So Pink Apple

  11. Chris says

    Tim, a very thought provoking piece. As a Christian I think Paul had his feet in both ‘tents’ (he was a tent maker by trade). He was discontent with being constrained in prision, but had learnt to be content with it as he knew that in all things God ‘worked them out for good’ (Rm 8:28). Thus, being content for the Chrtistian is not simply a quite and resigned acceptance of one’s circumstances, but rather an knowledge that God can and will bring you through no matter what those are. This is the peace that passes all understanding to which Paul and Jesus refered. For non-Christians the key to having feet in both camps is simply this. Be content with what you have but never accept it as being all you will ever have. It may grow or it may decrease. Strive to change yourself for the better before you seek to change others or your circumstances. Always look for the best in all things and in all people no matter how bad it or they may be. Seek to build up and not tear down. Follow the 99 % rule. Find the 1% good in someone and praise them 99% for it. You will find this encouragment is enough to help you and them begin to grow.

  12. says

    Ho‘omau: Reveal the Good, and Make it Last

    IF you are a MWAC “regular,” our value for the month of November should prove to be a good complement to the past month’s study of Nānā i ke kumu. In short, we will move from “Source and Truth” to

  13. says

    Want Better? Ho‘omau. Adversity makes us stronger.

    You have likely heard it said that persistence is often the defining quality between those who fail and those who succeed. I believe it too, and to take it a bit further, I believe that adversity makes us stronger. Adversity