As humans, we balance the pull to conform with what nearly everyone around us is doing, and the desire to be unique individuals. We navigate through life, constrained by these boundaries. Most of us give little thought to where we are going, and how we will get there.
This post begins a series that will run on and off through the rest of 2020. The series will explore how we can plan our lives in light the big questions that nearly everyone faces: the desires to have a place to call our home, to belong to a family, to be secure, and to lead a life of significance that is worth remembering. To be sure, many have talked about these things since the dawn of time. Why is there still more to say?
Today, we live in an amazing world, in which change is accelerating. Raw knowledge is now “free.” Anyone can learn from YouTube, Wikipedia, or the Khan Academy. We can talk to anyone, anywhere on FaceTime. The number of people living in abject poverty continues to decline across the globe. We are more connected to each other, virtually, than ever before, yet we are more isolated than ever, struggling more than ever to discern a wise course of action for our own lives.
In history, compliance with social norms and the expression of individuality seem always at odds. Totalitarian societies enforce complete conformity, in the name of what is best for all. At the opposite extreme, when there is a complete absence of norms, individuals become lost and ineffective. The complete absence of conformity can lead to anarchy. Today, individual expression is valued more highly than compliance, and this has built walls between people, in spheres where none are required. We cannot say, “I did it my way,” if my way turns out to be unworkable.
We will not be discussing ideologies in this series. Instead, we will try to highlight principles that can be seen in nature and through human reasoning. These principles can be applied when we set our course in life to express and strive for goals. The “right goals” strike a balance between what are laws of nature and society, and what constitutes individual expression. There are not necessarily “right goals” for everyone, but there are goals that miss the point, and goals that are reached by default.
We will develop reasoning tools to help cut through the clutter of contradictory ideas that are often paralyzing and preventing action. When we are comfortable and lulled into inaction, our lives pass us by. We look back later and wonder how it was that so much time passed without doing anything significant. As the old saying goes, at the end of life, nobody ever wishes he or she had spent more time in the office. Instead, people in their last days often regret that they had not mended relationships, expressed love, or had been more generous.
As we discern goals, it is easy to write down how much money one would hope to amass for a secure retirement, or to send a child to college. But what is the point of a retirement if our efforts in life were spread too thin to have accomplished any one thing, fully? When do we withdraw to look at the big picture?
When writing down our plan to save, it can be easy to overlook universal uncertainties: having money cannot protect us from an early death, or a debilitating disease. When planning our next step on the career ladder, we can miss the rung that is about to break out from under us. What can we protect, and what must we endure?
What reasoning tools are at our disposal?
The knife of simplicity: Our lives become cluttered by complexity, through the amassing of possessions and through unseen “nudges” given by hidden influencers. Anyone who has ever moved or downsized knows how many things accumulate. One famous consultant has achieved fame and made a livelihood by simply helping people reduce their clutter.
Listening to the world around us: We can quiet our restless natures, and discern what is good, true, and beautiful, by observing the natural world. The virtual or “cyber world” has made a parallel and in many respects, “unreal” world. By observing and reflecting on the natural world, we ground ourselves in what is indisputably real.
The drive to reach for significance rather than success: Anyone can be significant but not everyone is ultimately successful in material terms. Many of those who are materially successful secretly yearn for significance. By our very natures, we have an inbuilt instinct to “be somebody.”
What is the point of having all the money we dream of, if we do not choose to use it wisely? Rationally building our future begins with taking a look at human nature and the world, simplifying to essentials, avoiding missing the point of it all before it becomes too late.