I’ve stumbled upon something big… a real zombie apocalypse. Popular culture in movies and video games has expressed a deep subconscious fear of our dead rising from the ground to feast on the brains of the living. Maybe the playwrights and science fiction writers that conceive of these plots deserve more credit than I thought. We don’t have to fear a magical return of the dead, but modern society is dealing with an eerily similar and equally devastating plague. Almost all of us are living wasteful lives (sub-optimal compared to our potential) by behaving emotionally and irrationally in most of our waking hours. Lack of deep thought, honest self reflection, and rational decision making helps us create the majority of our own problems. We are the zombies devouring our own flesh and brains with bad habits.
I created this blog to record my personal attempt to understand how people lead successful lives. The polar opposite of success is failure, so the symmetric goal of my work is determine how to avoid failure, as well as finding ways to achieve success. There are a lot of facets to a complicated concept like success, but surprisingly little public discussion about what success even means. A useful understanding of the concept requires a lot more thought and discussion than a single speech or offhand blog post can really provide. Now that I’ve spent over ten weeks reading and blogging about the topic, I’m beginning to see how some of the puzzle pieces fit together.
Periodically I suffer bouts of existential depression stemming from frustration about the way the world is, and the way I think it should be. I’m upset by a lack of structure and meaning in life that isn’t artificial or arbitrary. Rather than resigning myself to being a jaded old man, or undertaking a poorly planned, emotional, quixotic quest to change the world singlehandedly, I decided to deal with my depression logically by understanding its cause and eliminating it to the best of my ability. I soon stumbled upon Stoic philosophy. Reflecting on past experiences, I realized I had been successfully applying Stoic techniques to my life in the past, such as negative visualization, causal fatalism, and mental triage. The idea of conquering my biologically induced misery with reason was quite appealing to an analytical person like myself.
In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb illustrates how the modern world is becoming increasingly random. The role of serendipity in life is greatly underappreciated. Success in the modern world depends more on chance or luck than it ever did in the past. The old advice that “hard work and no play makes a man rich” just doesn’t apply to modern lives the way it used to. If we aren’t careful about how we live, we have a good chance of working extremely hard, but achieving very little. Taleb advocated a strategy of “getting lucky” by preparing for, anticipating, and taking advantage of serendipitous events in life.
Charismatic speakers like Steve Jobs have been advising youth to pursue passion in order to lead successful lives. Passion was best defined by Professor Larry Smith as “finding the highest expression of one’s talents.” However, Malcolm Gladwell has convincingly refuted the notion of talent in his book Outliers, demonstrating that in many cases, success stories are a combination of extremely hard work (usually at least 10,000 hours) and a good measure of luck. If talent doesn’t exist and luck is so extremely important to achievement, then how does passion affect success at all?
I think the confusion arises from the obsessive connotation of passion. Successful lives are the product passion that is not obsessive, but rather like the Stoic pursuit of virtue. One achieves the highest expression of one’s talents by making the most out of the luck and opportunity given to you in life. Since talent doesn’t really exist as some magical intrinsic quality of a person, achieving success is a matter of working hard in a disciplined manner to attain goals that you define as ultimately valuable. The “disciplined manner” required to lead a successful life involves developing good habits that you can harvest profits from throughout your life. This is important because seemingly insignificant efforts add up over time to significant results.
Defining your goals requires that you adopt a life philosophy and decide on a grand goal in living. For me, this was Stoicism and the pursuit of virtue by living rationally and socially. Stoics employ many strategies to combat negative emotions, the biological hardwiring that interferes with one’s ability to be rational. These techniques are essentially habits that help to avoid failure resulting from irrational decision making.
Living a successful life requires strategies for avoiding failure and progressing towards your goal. The trick with life philosophy is that the goal is unattainable. I don’t expect to become a Stoic sage anymore than a Buddhist would expect to become Buddha, but the process of attempting to better oneself benefits you, even if the goal is an unreachable ideal. Attaining perfection is not necessary to live a successful life, but setting a goal allows you to define habits that help you develop into a better person.
Having come to the conclusion that habits are the biggest contributing factor to a successful life, the next obvious question is how does one eliminate bad habits, and develop good habits? It is important to realize that a person’s habits are heavily influenced by the culture that they live in. Take time to analyze your culture and identify aspects that you like and dislike. Change your habits, and be aware of the people you surround yourself with because they influence you.
I had a 21 year old female friend who admitted to me during a discussion that no one had asked her to justify an opinion before. I was the first person to ask her to provide a basis for an opinion. In her world up to that day, opinions didn’t require justification. You are free to believe whatever you want, regardless of how stupid or unfounded it is. I argued that being an idiot is within your rights, but it certainly isn’t something one should aspire to. After all, if you don’t have justifications for what you believe, where did your beliefs come from? Did someone feed them to you intentionally? Who is controlling your thoughts and behaviour? Are you behaving like a zombie? I don’t even remember what we were talking about anymore, but her final answer to my question was “I don’t really know because I haven’t thought about it enough.” Good honest answer. Think about it. This is what self reflection is. Maybe your culture taught you to believe something or behave a certain way. Maybe they are wrong.
In Outliers, Gladwell showed how the culture and parenting style that a child grows up with at home greatly influences how successful they are as adults. Studies of inner city New York students indicated that children from higher income families learned more over the summer vacation, while children from lower income families were generally more neglected, and forgot important concepts during vacation time. Successful special education programs actually kept low income children in school for longer hours, and during the summer to compensate for the poor educational conditions at home. As a result of these educational programs addressing cultural/parenting problems, children who were destined for a life of failure in the normal public school system were put through a kind of boot camp that allowed a large percentage of them to attend college on scholarships.
You cannot choose the income level of the family you’re born into, but there are plenty of other aspects of your culture that are directly under your control. The culture you live in includes: what friends you choose to socialize with, what you study, where you work, where you live, and what you do in your free time. All of these aspects of life will influence your habits and thinking patterns. Find people who are better at living than you are and befriend them. Adopt their good habits into your life. Find people you dislike and determine why. Drop those habits. It is never wrong to learn, even from one’s enemies.