So this is Christmas, and what have you done? I’ve discovered the meaning of life, at least for me. Rather, I’ve started down my path toward discovering my purpose and learning to be successful. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and studying passion, happiness, and success. It’s not exactly every 25 year old’s hobby, but I figured it would be prudent to spend as many of my limited years on earth as happy and productive as I can be. This requires giving proper attention and consideration to important things like how to live a good life.
Right now is always the best time to start living properly. The earlier you figure out your purpose, the more years you can dedicate to living well. If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage you to use the beginning of the New Year to do some thinking about your life, what you want to accomplish, and how you’re going to do it. Maybe that task alone is an intimidating year-long goal in itself. Maybe the act of doing so will generate other more practical short term goals. You can make them your New Year’s Resolutions, as is the current custom.
The Meaning of Life
I believe that after a few short months of research, I can already conclude that the secret to living a good life is a clear purposeful life philosophy, worthwhile goals, and self discipline. I want to surround myself with people who inspire me, whose company I enjoy, and who can help me find the highest expression of my talents and interests.
I believe living in this way will bring me success and satisfaction regardless of the constraints or misfortune life may place on me in terms of wealth, health, or social standing. Doing something valuable well, being content and enjoying life along the way, and being pleased with my contribution in the end is what I really want out of life. By living like this, I intend to make a positive influence in the lives of others, producing useful and lasting work whenever possible. I know I can accomplish this because this goal only requires me!
The Importance of Motivation and Human Capital
Talent may not exist as it is normally conceived. Mastery of any skill appears to require merely 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Anyone with enough time and effort can learn skills. Learning a skill for the bragging rights of having a skill is a hollow pursuit.
Motivation or lack thereof can make or break people. “Talent” is really the motivation to work. If you work much harder on something than most other people would have in your place, you become exceptionally talented. If you do nothing of value with your life, you become talentless. Motivation comes from inspiration. Inspiration can come from within, or from others. Without motivation, people won’t apply themselves, and skills go to waste or are never developed. This is tragic.
Human capital is the most valuable and undervalued thing in the world. It is what makes people special. Its destruction by murder, suicide, or disease is tragic. Not because we lose skills. Skills are a renewable resource provided we have the time and effort to master them. When people become sick or die, we lose potential. We lose those hours of time and effort that could have been productive or beautiful.
A lot of professional work is involved in building or maintaining human capital. Medicine heals disease, and promotes health. Social work prevents suicides and recovers people who live sad unhealthy lives. Law prevents murders. Agriculture and engineering provide people’s basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter.
Education trains people to work more efficiently, inspires people to live better lives, and to consider a wider range of possibilities. We focus most of our teaching efforts on our young because it has the greatest impact. Youth are especially valuable because they are our largest reserves of human capital. They generally have the most energy, and the longest time to do useful work.
Why Human Capital Matters
Life isn’t about money, knowledge, social standing, legacy, or pleasure. Most things that people desire or pursue in life are bottomless pits or infinitely complex. These things keep us occupied; they are incidental details of daily life. They cannot and should not be completely neglected, but they aren’t the point of living. You probably won’t feel you lived well if you pursue these things as goals by themselves. You get to the top and then die, so what? Life is about people and balance.
Everyone in the universe is connected. Even gravitational fields extend out to infinity. Your simple existence, doing nothing but idly sitting and breathing in a room somewhere, has a profound effect on the universe. Because you influence everything, every particle in the universe, you permanently and uniquely influence the future with everything you do. Desiderata by Max Ehrmann is a wonderful piece of Stoicism:
… many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass… Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here…
In the spirit of evolving Stoic philosophy, I would add that you have a duty to do something worthwhile while you’re here! You must light your own candle, then use your life, your short time on earth, to light others. Do not despair at appearances. Often you cannot see the effect you have on other people. Things you do, say, or write are seeds. Some will fail, some will blossom immediately, and some will take years, decades, or centuries to bear fruit. Live virtuously and it will be the best use of your life, whether you live to see your own great works or not.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is directly and positively affecting me nearly two millennia after his life ended!
Attempting to live a virtuous life is essential despite the risk of failure for any reason such as dying early from disease, or being killed because of your principles. An unprincipled life is categorically wasteful. Not developing a mature life philosophy with principles is a waste of your human capital because you lack clarity and direction in your life.
Lives need purpose.
Because it’s not enough to just live. You have to have something to live for.
Let it be Earth.
–William Adama, Commander of the Battlestar Galactica
Be Optimistic and Have Faith: Everything Happens for a Reason
Christian Baptism encourages exactly this. The baptized are welcomed to the world symbolically by a ritual which involves lighting a candle. “Let your light so shine before others, so they may see your good works.” Even if you aren’t Christian, or lack faith in any God or divinity at all, the ancient Stoics would have encouraged the same thing based on reason alone.
Universal truths exist, regardless of the lenses we perceive them through. Every human has a different experience, a different lens of perspective on the same universal truths. Everything we think we know is a half-truth, an approximation to reality, a model that isn’t quite right because it is based on incomplete information. Don’t confuse reality with models of reality.
All of science uses models to explain, predict and manipulate the world. We know the models are wrong. They are simplifications or incomplete explanations of universal truths, but they are still immensely useful. The evidence of this is all around you, just look at everything humanity has built.
Religions propose models of God, idealizations and concepts we find difficult to express, and impossible to measure or prove. Impossible is just a special case of hard. Maybe one day we will have better models. The difficulty of a problem does not make it irrelevant. Models are flawed. But even flawed models can still contain some truth.
The earlier quote I gave was from William Adama, a fictional character from a recent television show. The quote is taken from a script read by an actor. William Adama never really existed, nor did the situations he was supposedly reacting to, yet the truth of his statements have value that is entirely independent of whether or not he ever existed in the form we conceived him to be. Sometimes people spend so much time fussing over the details, correctness, and completeness of a model that they only see its faults, and they forget to use the model for the obvious good in it.
Living virtuously means accepting that you will spend your life sowing seeds to grow trees for shade, knowing that you may never live to enjoy the shade yourself. A different metaphor or model describing this concept is lighting your own candle, and passing your light to others.
Study and understand models. Understand the difference between models and reality. The better the model, the more subtle this difference becomes. Balance skepticism and faith. Find a philosophy that resonates with you, a set of models that are intuitive to you. Light your candle. Pass your light on to others. We need it.