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Posts Tagged ‘meaning of life’

Shane posted this letter from Hunter S. Thompson to his friend. Great advice from a young person.

Bottom line: “Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.” 

April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal— to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect— between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo— this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.

And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

your friend,
Hunter

PS: I came across this earlier in another link, but still good to read the whole letter.

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Honors bother Feynman: “I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors. ”

Advice on life from a 20 year old.

Excerpts:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

……

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

……

A man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

Parenting skills.

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Update

A lot have happened over the past 3 years since my last post. I got a new job, moved to a different country, and got married. I’ve read/listened/watched many books/podcast/movies/videos. I’ve traveled to many more places as my wealth increases. This year so far I’ve been to over 20 cities in 7-8 countries, some for work and some holidays, more than half of which I’ve never visited.  Backpacking in Yunnan was a particularly memorable trip. I met many interesting people and saw different ways of living.  Here‘s an article on why some urban Chinese are moving to Yunnan. I’ve started Muay Thai lessons to stay fit and to learn some self-defense skills. To my surprise it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made this year. I enjoy the physical challenge as well as the 30 mins solitary time walking back home around midnight.

What has changed

Even though I’m 30 years old I don’t feel much different from my teenage student self. This is probably bias thinking on my part. Even though I think people’s personality tends to be quite stable after certain age, my thinking and priority in life have likely evolved. I used to be more ambitious, think more about the meaning of life type of questions, and try hard to figure out what I want to do in life. These questions still linger in my mind, but they become less relevant as I age. Priority in life also seems to have changed. Money, power, and fame seem less important now, while autonomy, self-satisfaction, and relationship more.

Why I resume blogging

I worry that as I grow older, I’ll become less able to feel excitement in life. I read that time seems to pass by faster after certain age because people tend to live a more routine/mechanical lifestyle and there tend to be less new surprises and experience (This is also a reason why I prefer to live in a different countries after several years). By recording my thoughts in this blog, I hope to capture more of my experience and create meaning and memories that would not have otherwise existed. It should also help slow me down to be more mindful on what’s happening around me and to reflect more on the vast amount of information I consume. It’s also a good way to track my thinking over time, keep me motivated, and expose to more serendipity.

This post from Scott Sumner resonates with me.

Excerpt:

Knausgaard is talking about childhood, but in my view “meaning” drains out of our lives in two steps.  Age 0 to 6 is the years of magic, 7 to 35 is the years of meaning, and 36 to the end is the years of nostalgia.  For little children, places seem enchanted and parents are like gods.  Even as young adults we are still visiting new places, and life seems a bit of an adventure.  Other people are charged with mystery, allure, or danger.  I mean other young people of course; the old don’t really exist for young adults.  They are just shadows.  And then you reach a point where you are just revisiting places. Even places you’ve never been before seem like someplace else you recall.  People become just people.  You watch your children experience meaning, and remember. Of course you know more, and your increased ability to cope with life takes the edge off growing old.  But the meaning gradually slips away.  (Peak happiness is supposed to occur at ages 23 and 69.)

Here’s Knausgaard again:

As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.  Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it.  Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce.  At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer.  When it has been fixed we call it knowledge.  Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena.  We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments.  Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place.  That is when time begins to pick up speed.  It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening were are forty, fifty, sixty . . . Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance.  Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.

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