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Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
—Henry David Thoreau
Most people live their lives looking ahead, aiming for some preconceived goals usually driven by other people’s opinions, customs, or example. Such things as settling down, securing a high-paying job, adopting the culture, customs, or national allegiance of your family or tribe, or starting a family of your own, may seem so obvious to most people that they never even question them, let alone consider the possibility that charting a different path—one driven by, and more closely aligned with, one’s individual temperament and aspirations—may prove profoundly more satisfying.
No person other than you, can know which strategy will give you the most satisfaction. Beyond whatever skills you may need to meet your existential needs, there is no universal “right” or “wrong” in most such matters; there is only right or wrong for you. Also, there is no mandate that says you should know absolutely what may be right or wrong for you at a given time or age. We are all works in progress, and most of us living in developed countries have more control over our progress than most human beings ever had. Why not take advantage of it?
With no offense intended toward those who practice career counseling or those inclined to follow the advice of such counselors, at no point in the first three decades of my life did I have the slightest idea of who or what I would become or want to become, the lessons I would learn in the process of becoming, or how much more satisfying my life would be than anything I could have hoped for at an earlier age. If I had taken the advice of counsellors and seniors at an earlier age, it is unlikely my life today would be as rewarding to me.
For many years, the governing wisdom for career choice was to pick a path early and to stick to it, to rise through the ranks until accomplishing seniority, job security, and financial comfort, all while setting aside considerations of personal fulfillment or fitness to personal temperament and interests. Then, wait out the clock until retirement age, when, perhaps for the first time in your life, you may be able to dedicate any significant time to personally meaningful interests and avocations. This approach is now coming into question, both as a career strategy, and, more important, as a recipe to a fulfilling life. Characterizing the problem in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein writes, “Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous, to use Darwin’s adjective, when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.”
I feel fortunate today for having had the foresight to not commit myself to any preconceived path and for allowing myself the freedom to defer some important decisions until I felt I had sufficient knowledge and experience to make them. Such knowledge, I can say in hindsight, was not available to me at an early age. I arrived at it by following my instincts and intuitions, by saying yes to serendipitous opportunities and by taking some risks. I didn’t always know what I wanted, but I always knew what I did not want. None of the templates and obvious choices available to me excited me much.
As legend goes, Alexander the Great was fond of the humble philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (reputed to have lived in a barrel). When Alexander commented to Diogenes, “if I were not Alexander the Great, I would want to be Diogenes,” the philosopher responded, “if I were not Diogenes, I would also want to be Diogenes.” I never could, and still can’t, name a single person I would want to be exactly like, let alone to trade lives with. I have tried other lives only to find myself dissatisfied and disillusioned. This is not to say my life today is ideal or even close to it, only that it allows me to be who I am and to do what I love, and I would not trade it for any other. This was not always the case. Indeed, for most of my life I had no idea what kind of life would be “right” for me. I think it’s the kind of knowledge that one may only gain by intuition and self-reflection. Along the way, authority figures of many varieties insisted that I was wrong, or outright foolish, in not sticking to some academic path or corporate career and in deferring (and ultimately deciding against) becoming a parent. I have no doubt that many have found their calling, and great satisfaction, in such things; but they never held any appeal for me other than being easy choices, and that never seemed reason enough to go “all in.”
My goal here is not to incite you to choose as I have, nor to be as I am. In fact, to put it bluntly: you’d be foolish to try. This is not because anything I’ve done is necessarily foolish for others to try (although certainly I’ve made my fair share of foolish choices too), but because it’s foolish in general to think you can, or should, be anyone other than yourself—whatever that proves out to be. No matter how similar you may believe you are to anyone else, surely there are at least some important ways in which you are not, whether you know what they are today or realize them later in life. My goal is to encourage you to live as you are, according to your nature, your understanding of yourself, and the options available to you—even when it is difficult. Live defiantly with the explicit knowledge of the finite nature of life.
In the fourth act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says to King Claudius, “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Among the things Ophelia did not know at that point in the play is that by the end of that same act she will be dead. That is also why her statement, although true, is incomplete. We do know some things about what we are: we are mortal; and because we are mortal, we also know at least one thing about what we will be: we know how the story ends. We may not know when that ending will arrive or what’s to come before that, but we do have at least a degree of influence over what things may, or may not, happen before we depart—what we may become by our choices. And yet, most choose—implicitly or explicitly—to surrender most, sometimes all, such influence to others or to chance (which is often the same thing).
Why rush into big decisions without knowing whether you are the kind to be elevated by them or the kind to become hopelessly trapped in them? It’s your life, your mind, your character, your aspirations. Your choices may limit or extend the range of opportunities open to you: what you may become, what you may experience, what you may discover within whatever time you may have. It should be your decision, and your decision alone, what to do with who you are and with whatever opportunities are available to you. Assert your right to choose your own path or to delay your choices until you feel prepared to make them and to accept their possible consequences. Nothing is guaranteed. Unforeseen consequences will ensue whether you choose or fail to choose (to not choose—to abdicate whatever control you may have over your own life—is also a choice). When you choose according to your own knowledge of yourself, rather than follow a prescribed path, you at least stack the odds in favor of a more satisfying outcome.
Some degree of self-knowledge can be gained only in hindsight, and for some no outcome will ever feel final. If you know yourself to be such a person—a seeker, an adventurer, an experimenter, a polymath—you may be best off remaining a perpetual explorer. Until you feel you have found your calling, or have run out of places to search, your best strategy is to keep trying, to not settle until feeling content and grateful. Even if you never find your “thing,” your ideal life, you will surely feel grateful for having had the tenacity to not settle for a lesser alternative: a life of boredom, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or outright misery. Such is the fate of those whose minds are restless, who yearn for adventure and discovery, and who may end up stuck in lives that don’t fit their temperaments. Some of the most tragic among these are those who entrap themselves in decisions made too early, with insufficient knowledge, despite having the opportunity to defer such decisions; and those who, fearing change, implicitly choose to imprison themselves in lives of sensory and emotional deprivation in trade for some small measure of safety.
Studies show that a correlation between income level and happiness only exists up to about the average income of a mid-level job. Beyond that, additional income ceases to be correlated with increases in happiness, satisfaction, or sense of meaning in life. To believe otherwise is a delusion. The fact that it is a common and popular delusion doesn’t make it any less so. To spare yourself the dispiriting effect of realizing too late that a delusion has led you astray, I suggest this as a general attitude toward important life decisions: rather than just look forward to things such as comforts, riches, fame, or power, believing that accomplishing them at some future time will make up for years of drudgery and foregoing opportunities, consider instead what your future hindsight might be: what you might someday—looking back—regret doing, or not having tried to do. Future hindsight means going about life, not in pursuit of some preconceived accomplishment, but with the goal of avoiding things you may regret when it’s too late to do anything about them. These can be big things, like career choices, deciding where to live, who to marry, or whether to have children. They can also be smaller things, like creating a personally meaningful art portfolio, writing a book, finding out what all the hype is about quantum mechanics, or learning to surf. Be mindful when feeling bored or irritated or when engaged in some inane activity (even if momentarily tempting). Pause and ask yourself whether you may someday regret not having used the same time—the scarce and valuable currency of your living days and moments—in other ways.
Among the more unfortunate of potential future regrets are experiences missed in the pursuit of misplaced aspirations, choices not made when they were still possible, and risks not taken while still having the ability to recover from failure. Certainly, there is no way to avoid all misfortunes and regrets, but when the time comes to tally up the balance sheet of your life—when that moment of future hindsight finally arrives (and it almost certainly will), you will undoubtedly realize with perfect clarity the difference between misfortunes stemming from miscalculation and random chance, and misfortunes stemming from lack of patience, courage, foresight, or tenacity. To me, the thought of that moment resulting in regret, in some realization that I had wasted my life in full knowledge that I could have done better, is utterly terrifying. Few encourage young persons to pursue professions in the arts or the humanities. Such lives and professions may necessitate degrees of financial risk, unpredictability, breaking with traditions, defying prejudices, or challenging social conventions. But to discourage such lives entirely, may amount to dooming a person to lifelong misery. This is not a speculation. A 2017 Gallup poll revealed that a staggering majority—85%—of full-time employees worldwide are dissatisfied in their jobs. For many years, I was among this majority believing I had no other choice. But I did. I am familiar with the sentiment expressed bluntly by Edward Abbey in The Fool’s Progress (his semi-autobiographical novel): “I don’t believe in doing work I don’t want to do in order to live the way I don’t want to live.” It’s hard to say in hindsight whether these years were perhaps a necessary precursor to the life I live now. I do, however, remember very well feeling in those years like my life was wasting away. On many an evening since, whether at the end of a satisfying day in some wild place, or watching the light fade in my own home, which I love, I recall those former lives and think proudly to myself, “Another day not wasted.”