Today I want to address a problem we all probably have. It’s not a fairly obvious problem, but it, I think, worth resolving. In most developed countries, there is a certain expected “path” that most people will follow through – primary and secondary education, then college, then getting a job, getting a family, working, and retiring – in their lives. In other words, if you are born into a family that’s not uniquely poor or extremely wealthy, you’ll probably go to school the same way everyone else does, then you’ll attend high school the way everyone else does, then you’ll probably graduate college and look to get a job like everyone else… you get the idea.
If we put this yet another way, we can say that in most developed societies, from the moment a child is born to the time he or she retires, there’s almost always a certain “goal” that he or she will be working to reach. During primary and secondary education, that may be getting a diploma or graduating with a 4.0 GPA. During college, that may be graduating with enough specs to get a job. In careers, it may be to move up the corporate hierarchy or increase earnings, or even to get a better job. And then, after this person retires, well, then they’re free to do whatever, because there’s really no more clearly defined goals to shoot for. But by that point, there isn’t really much time left.
Like countless other social norms, this sequential progression exists in our cultural psyche for a reason: having something to follow through life makes it much, much easier to get something done during your lifetime, because it provides a series of goals, and it also gives us the method by which we can hopefully reach those goals. All this is good and functional in building a very productive society, but in making this process easy, it also makes it equally mindless (relatively speaking, of course) to navigate through life. And something that’s mindless is easy and convenient, but in thinking about and contemplating it, in finding the worth within, the same action or object becomes infinitely more valuable. Take music, for example. It’s easy to just play the notes on the sheet music or read the lyrics on the page to the beat, but for the song to come alive, you need to put in emotion and feeling into your action. And in doing so, you create something that’s much more than just a sequence of notes and words.
I believe the same logic applies to life. The path that our cultural and societal norms have defined for us does make life, and your success, much more convenient. But only in thinking carefully about what it is that you are here to do can you bring true value to your life. And the value gained trumps the convenience lost in what Socrates would have called the “examined life”.
It’s not just our cultural mindsets that separate us from thinking about life critically. The convenience of digital media and communication is a benefit impossible to pass by, but in taking advantage of these technological positives, we again surrender ourselves to the mindlessness of the modern society. The trend in technology is to make every action easier and eliminate all steps that can be eliminated to get you, the user, closer to the information and things you want, faster. That does have its pros, but things like “one-click purchase” and the concept of “unfriening” someone exist for those reasons, and they eliminate along with the frivolous steps the thoughts and value behind each of those actions. In short, the Internet and technology attempts to simplify elements of our life and in doing so, they minimize the necessity to think deeply and complexly about life itself, and that’s a truth I’d like to see changed.
But I digress. I see too often people who study to get high GPAs and play music and participate in volunteer activities to get a nice-looking resume for college. They do that, they say, to get into a good college, which will in turn increase empirically the chances they have of getting a high-pay job, which will grant them social and financial security and free dom. And all that makes logical sense, but it’s not answering the critically important question of why those goals exist in the first place. I’d like to argue that this tradition is in place because of two things: an ordered, convenient progression through life makes for an ordered, economically prosperous community and 2) we as a culture have a financially utilitarian definition of success that favors those who possess more money, authority, and fame over those bring value and joy to others. But personally, when I’m ready to bring my life to a close, I’d like to be the one who prides himself on how each moment was worth it in creating a life worth living, not the one whose regrets cloud over the moments left.
So to close, I’d like to say to you: in this fast-paced society, take a moment to stop, to catch your breath in your sprint through life to the finish line and think, “Why am I reaching for these goals?” And if you find in your answer the slightest hint of doubt or hesitation, I encourage you to stop blindly running alongside everyone else and look around, because there’s so much more to the world than just birth, death, and the milestones in between.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Heisenberg, quarantines, and the benefit of risks.
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