"You can own the earth and still, all you’ll own is earth, until, you can paint with all the colours of the wind.”
Those 25 syllables, those incredible lyrics from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s “Colours Of The Wind”, have been some of my favourite lyrics for my whole memorable life. However, have you ever stopped to consider that they could potentially be some of the most profound, potent, important lyrics of all time?
You might be shaking your head in disbelief at such a bold claim, you might be wracking your brain for all the more “obviously credible” lyrics that are out there, from the likes of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley or The Beatles…you might be thinking “it’s just from that Pocahontas movie, what are you on about, Alex?”…but seriously, have you ever thought about those lyrics, properly? Have you ever analysed them and felt the true weight of them? Because the moment you do, you’ll realise that they might not only be some of the best lyrics of all time, but they might even be a tool that can be used to help people survive and thrive in modern society.
Perhaps they are even the key to happiness itself.
In the West, from birth we are placed on a treadmill and told a set of lies: that growth has to be upward and that more is better. Everything is geared towards climbing: the career ladder; the property ladder; bigger car; bigger trophies; bigger family; bigger personal brand; bigger bank account; more stuff; fancier clothes; luxury lifestyles; climb climb climb. It’s drilled into us through the education system, workplaces are set up as such, and of course the media perpetuates it, because there are billions of pounds of marketing money to claim, if you are masterful at creating desire.
Create an unquenchable thirst for stuff, create a lust for aspiration and comparison and no matter how well people do, no matter how much they possess - it will never be enough. Evolution is slow and we are apes, apes who are scared of scarcity and therefore have a baseline desire to hoard and feel anger/envy when others have more that us. We are hardwired to “want” and have failed to recognise (through the onslaught of desire-creation) that the world has changed beyond all recognition since our days in the jungle, and our potential for enlightenment in a world of relative safety and abundance, is being hampered by the fact that our focus, attention and energy, is being directed at the opposite of what really matters…
We are focused on what we lack, not on what we have, and as a result, what we have has little to no impact on our lasting happiness.
Read that again.
We have lost touch with what really matters and it’s important to recognise that this has happened on purpose.
“Desire creation” in all its forms, is the bedrock of the modern capitalist society in the West, it is what feeds the machine. The simple truth is that the last thing anyone in this system wants is for people to be sat around in a state of gratitude and happiness. Gratitude, contentment and happiness are the polar opposites of a BURNING DESIRE FOR MORE! When people feel like they have enough, sales slow down!
The Rise Of Comparison Culture
The most potent manifestation of desire-creation in todays society, is Comparison Culture. Although “comparison” certainly isn’t new, the CULTURE of comparison, which is ravaging our mental health and taking us further away from Pocahontas’ philosophy, certainly is new, and it’s been made possible by two simple things:
1) The Nature Of Celebrity Has Changed
Historically “celebrity” seemed out of reach, you had to be royalty, or a world leader, an artist or athlete with unimaginable talent, a genius or a revolutionary. What this created was an appreciation of that person and although one may have been wowed by their mansions or luxury lifestyles, it still felt “other”, because they had a talent or philosophy or position that separated them from the masses. Sure, you could daydream about what it would be like to be that person, but there was no serious comparison to be made to one’s own life. The distinction between “the celebrated” and “the normal” was clear and as a result, people still felt comfortable in their own skin. I.e. "they can have those things because they are a one-off, most people can't have that stuff".
Reality TV and Social Media has changed the perception of celebrity forever and we weren’t, and still aren’t, psychologically ready for that fact. In modern society you can amass unimaginable wealth by turning the camera on yourself. Submit your life to the public, submit yourself to the machine, and you may build numbers and become a celebrity without the need for any sort of stamp of approval from a third party. No A&R person to sign you up, no sport scout to watch you play, just make content online and let the people decide. Furthermore, in some instances you don't need even need a discernible talent, for some "looking good" is enough.
And, don’t forget, because social media and TV’s primary driving force is “desire-creation”, once you have any level of influence or reach, the money will flow in so that you are incentivised to keep creating desire, on the platforms/clients behalf. This is the very definition of the beast that feeds itself and from a desire-creation point of view, it’s genius, it’s the perfect system.
By making normal people famous and giving them loads of desirable things you destroy the distinction between “the celebrated” and “the normal”. In the blink of an eye, suddenly that aspirational lifestyle feels like a life that anyone can have and the fact that it feels so attainable (even if it’s not in reality), makes a “normal life” feel unsatisfactory by comparison.
Everywhere that you look in the media, there are people doing things better than you. Cooler experiences, better jobs, more powerful positions, more beautiful families, more luxurious cars, more charitable, more giving, funnier, better at dancing, better looking - scrolling for five minutes can make even the most confident, successful person feel utterly worthless. That is a reality that we all know to be true.
Some studies have revealed that up to 86% of young people aspire to be Influencers.
2) The Media Itself Is Everywhere
Historically there would only be so many billboards you could walk past in a day, only so many ad slots on TV, only so much radio you could consume and only so many magazines you could read….but today, our devices are on our person, or in our hands, ALL day. So much of our world, be that work or social is online - and if you’re online, someone has your eyeballs.
The combination of these two things is what takes it from “comparison moments” to “comparison culture” - and with every day that passes, whether it’s happening consciously or sub-consciously, people are getting more and more used to rating their happiness based on how much of their life mirrors the people they are aspiring to be like. Regardless, by the way, of whether or not those “benchmark people” are actually happy, in the real world.
This form of desire-creation is so powerful, so damaging and so unchecked, that I sincerely believe in years to come we’ll look back and ask how we ever allowed it to happen without significant education and restrictions being placed around it.
HOWEVER…we have a tool in our tool belt to help us. A beautiful, poetic, perfectly structured lyric, that we can teach to our children, discuss with each other and think about ourselves, that triggers a path to happiness and shields us from this onslaught.
Colours Of The Wind
“You can own the Earth and still, all you’ll own is earth, until, you can paint with all the colours of the wind.”
Now of course in “Colours Of The Wind” Menken and Schwartz were talking specifically about the environment and how we should not squander the Earth’s gifts and abuse it for material gain - but I believe that the message has a profundity that lives beyond our impact on the Earth and actually applies to modern societies' impact on our very being.
Originally the lyrics meant this:
You can own the Earth (i.e. “all the worlds land/territory”), but all you’ll own is earth (i.e. in “dirt, soil, muck”), until you can paint with all the colours of the wind (i.e. “until you learn to appreciate the wonder and beauty of nature and Earth’s natural, holistic systems and have gratitude for your humble place within it”).
But think about the lyric in this way:
You can own the Earth (i.e. “all the world’s material goods”) and still, all you own is earth (i.e. “stuff”), until you can paint with all the colours of the wind (i.e. "until you/we begin to appreciate the gift of existence and the abundance, beauty, creativity and community all around us, until we can learn to live in a state of gratitude for what we have, rather than being primarily concerned with what we haven’t got - it all means nothing! Stuff is just stuff, that has no bearing on our lasting spiritual happiness").
When you consider the lyrics through that lens, you suddenly realise how immensely powerful that message is - but then you realise that we've only scratched the surface and that you can actually apply it to any desire.
Earth (with a big “E”) = all the world’s: material goods; status; power; sports ability; success; fame; celebrity; money, etc.
earth (with a small “e”) = it’s just: stuff; a title; a skill; notoriety; numbers on a screen, etc.
As you can see, the point is really clear...
No matter what you desire, no matter what you gain or achieve, it will mean nothing to you unless you have gratitude, unless you have appreciation, unless you’re placing your focus on the things that really matter in life, unless you’re painting with all the colours of the wind.
To me, the realisation that this lyric can serve as a trigger to gratitude in any situation, takes it from being simply a very powerful lyric, to being more like a mantra.
It empowers us to assess the reasons behind our ambition and asks us if we are pointing ourselves in a direction that we actually care about. Do you want the Lamborghini because of a deep appreciation of it’s interior and exterior design, will you feel a sense of connection and gratitude to the engineers who have crafted it, when you drive it? Will it improve your life in a way that has depth for you? Or do you want it because they are flashy and expensive and you feel everyone will think that you’ve “made it” if you have one?
Do you want the promotion to become a leader in your field because you have a desire to lift people up, to help them raise their standards and achieve more, will you feel grateful for having the opportunity to drive a high-performing team? Or, do you just want more money and power?
You see, one route leads to fulfilment, gratitude and true happiness, the other route, is just stuff.
This philosophy, this mantra, should be painted on the walls of every classroom of every school, in every country where this level of desire-creation is prevalent. It is the failsafe, the backstop, the reminder that we all so desperately need to focus on the right things. A reminder to prioritise gratitude and spiritual growth above all else, because it’s through gratitude and appreciation for all things, that we find true and lasting happiness, not from the arbitrary amassing of wealth, possessions and status.
Stephen Schwartz - I’m not sure if this reading of the lyric was ever anticipated by you, but either way thank you for creating one of the greatest lyrics of all time, one that I have learned to appreciate in a way that has and will continue to have a game-changing impact on my personal mental heath and wellbeing, and hopefully on many other people's too.