Life is short and age comes unnoticed.
Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@united_2208
A long time ago, I started to think about life seriously, perhaps after I knew that I don’t have much time left to live. Alas, life is short for everyone, given the so many fun and exciting things to do and experience. Were life unlimited, we wouldn’t care what to do, as we could just try everything out. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, life is finite; so we better choose wisely what to do. (For a detailed discussion of the comparison between finite life and infinite life, see this article.) Indeed every road leads to Rome, but we still want to choose the best path that gets us there faster so that we can enjoy life in Rome, or choose a road with the most beautiful landscape for us to enjoy along the way.
Which road, then, should we choose? If we haven’t stepped on every road, can we really make a decision? Life choices as such, are important. Before sharing my ideas about choosing what to do in life, I would like to tell you what I think about the common approaches.
What people usually tell people to do
Many people and also the dominant culture in most parts of the world think we should do what we want and what we are good at. This will firstly make us happier and also easier to create value for our world. Naval, in his “how to get rich” twitterstorm, mentioned almost exactly the same idea with more powerful language.
Here is an exerpt:
And so the more authentic you are to who you are, and what you love to do, the less competition you’re going to have. So, you can escape competition through authenticity when you realize that no one can compete with you on being you. And normally that would have been useless advice pre-internet. Post-internet you can turn that into a career.
If I understand correctly, the logic goes like this:
If you find yourself very excited about chips, electronic gadgets and computers, you should go to study computer science and become a programmer. As you are passionate about it, you will do whatever you can to be good at it, and you will become a geek that create new technologies. In this way, you are happy pursuing what you like and also make a lot of money by creating value for society.
Or another version:
You should build on your existing skills. Everyone has got his innate talent. Someone is good at singing, some dancing, some math. They should develop their gift and become the best in their field.
The best thing, of course, is to have both: being really excited about what are you already good at.
This sounds like a dream and perhaps this is really how many successful people became successful. After all, proper alignment of interests and talent is a rare find.
I think the common approach is not the best.
For me, this life approach is not acceptable.
My problem with this approach is that we should do things that are meaningful and intrinsically valuable. We should also do universally good things. What people should do shouldn’t depend on their innate talent and build-in psychological reaction towards certain activities. In other words, it is a fixed view of what we should do and take passion and talent as given.
Should you focus on what you are good at?
This is wrong because there is perhaps no way to tell what we are really good at. And it is such a sad thing that what we shall do is prescribed by our birth or our innate capability, something out of our control. It is equivalent to say that we cannot choose what to do because the best thing for us is to follow what our body and brain are good at, which is, in most cases, fixed and immutable. If I am good at selling to people, I shall become a salesman. If I am good at math, I should become a scientist. (Note that, of course, this man good at math can do other things too, it is just that his main work and most of his time should be devoted to math, something he is good at, to create more value.) Is this acceptable to you? I think this is not right. As humans, we can build our skills and strength. We shouldn’t take our skills and capabilities as fixed. In addition, there are something, no matter whether you are good at it or not, we should all do. For example, learn how to deal with relations, learn how to think clearly. There are things, no matter how good you are at it, you shouldn’t do. For example, you have a super sensitive nose to the extent that you can use it to detect drugs. You shouldn’t do it because dogs can do better than you and they are smaller and cheaper.
Let’s get some perspective of real-world cases. I have a friend who is really good at music. He likes it as well. Yet he doesn’t think a life devoted to music is desirable for him. He wants to become a scientist, and he want to become a politician to solve global issues. At the same time, people and also himself think that not fully developing his music gift is a waste. I would support him if he decides to do something other than music, because if he thinks that is important, he will make an effort to build skills, he will make himself like it and he will go very far.
Now, we need to turn to the next idea, that we should do what we feel passionate for.
Should you do what you are passionate for?
This is an even crazier idea. Our passion is a moving target. It changes as we move along in life. Passion can be developed and is not fixed. In addition, our passion depends a lot on our memory, a not-so-accurate thing as we discussed earlier. Sometimes, we just happen to remember something more and more of its enjoyable aspects. Therefore, how can we really stick to something that keeps on changing?
Let’s grant it that some people have got some magic passion that will be with them for life. Should they then focus exclusively on what they are passionate for? I say no, because they could devote themselves to other things too. They can develop their interest in science, arts or anything meaningful.
So, I think we shouldn’t choose what we will do based on the above suggestions. And here are some of my ideas on how to choose.
Do what is intrinsically important and meaningful for both yourself and the collective humanity
I will not ask and take into consideration what am I good at, what am I interested in. Instead, I will ask, what is so intrinsically important that I should love it and should be good at it? I consider myself as a blank slate, or I choose to ignore what is already written on it, and I have to start from scratch.
And I believe a truly noble person can go beyond his psychological wiring to like things other than the ones he was born to like. He could do things that contribute to common good even though he was not born to be good at it. Because he so believes in something that he makes himself love it and good at it. This is what we should strive for.
When I think this way, I no longer need to consider the potential conflict of not loving what I am good at. I should build skills that I love and I should love what I build, as long as what I am doing advances my goal and vision. Then the question becomes: what is intrinsically important and meaningful for both yourself and the collective humanity? This question is hard and we will leave it to the next post.
Before I finish, here are some of my principles to help me decide what to do. These are like the principles we should use when we are choosing our roads to Rome.
- what I am about to do should also be what I would like to do when I have enough money to live any life I like. In this way, I will not waste my life that much.
- I will do a variety of things in my life. In no way am I focusing on a particular thing. A meaningful life should have diverse experiences.
- I will do things that will have a compound effect. That it must be useful now and increasingly useful in the future. For example, writing is such a thing with compound effect, whereas programming isn’t likely given the high depreciation rate of software. Photography is one. The longer a photo is preserved, the higher its value.
- I will work in the area that address the concern of whole human-kind instead of a specific group of people, for example, my native nation: Chinese. I will work to address problem that are common in all eras. Education could be one. Life, motivation, relationships, politics are all possible domains.
- I will make myself accountable to people. Be honest with people and admit my mistakes. I will play in a domain where long-term trust is needed and valued. I will always keep in mind that I am going to meet the person, do the things again and again. So, there should be no opportunistic behaviour.
- I will learn things and skills that are relevant in 10 and even 100 years. The soft skills are paramount. Of course, I will do something that I really enjoy like programming (which is a compromise because I don’t see programming as intrinsically important, but I like it anyway).
The universe humbles us and helps us find meaning
Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@federize
Please tell me what you think about my points and also share what you think are the things that are intrinsically important and meaningful for both yourself and the collective humanity.
Follow my Twitter for more updates!