Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category
Some people just aren’t ambitious.
Take Michael Skrzypek. The San Francisco resident was covered in the Chronicle last year. For five years, Skrzypek worked 10 weeks per year, earning enough money to finance the remaining 42.
How’d he swing that? Basically, he got lucky. He fell into the arrangement–working with legal trial presentation software–mostly due to happenstance.
So what did Skrzypek do during his 42 free weeks? Not a whole lot. He says:
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I don’t have an answer for what I did on an average day. Most days, I got up and wondered what I would do. … A lot of days I wouldn’t get out of bed. I’d just read. I liked to joke that I was the only person in the United States who read the New Yorker every week, cover to cover.
Skrzypek’s friends observed his inaction and made suggestions. One suggested he take up bluegrass guitar. Another suggested he read the complete works of Dostoevsky. Others wanted him to write short stories or volunteer at a homeless shelter.
Skrzypek wasn’t interested. He held firm: He wasn’t going to do anything; he didn’t need to be productive to be worthwhile. His desire for achievement was nil.
Skrzypek has since taken a full-time job, but only because doing nothing was getting boring. He says, “I don’t have that kind of ambition that makes people anxious or competitive.” He’s just not an ambitious person.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Though Skrzypek was torn apart by SFGate commenters, I have nothing against him. Not everyone needs to work hard or focus on achievement. I’m happy he’s living as he sees fit.
But what about you? Are you ambitious? Most people wouldn’t say they are. Ambition’s a dirty word. It brings to mind greed, competition, and workaholism. It’s seen as something you focus on if you’ve got your priorities wrong. It also means hard work: You can’t claim to be ambitious if you’re resting on your laurels. If you say you’re ambitious but you’re not doing much, you’re basically admitting you’re lazy.
That’s why far more people are ambitious than will admit it to themselves. They think ambition’s bad. They don’t want to see themselves as lazy.
How do I know this is true? Because of envy.
Envy’s a powerful emotion. We feel it when we want something someone else has: respect, experience, accomplishment, whatever. It’s a very strong–and true–form of desire.
Envy is often hard to detect because it masquerades as anger, hatred, and resentment. Rather than acknowledging envy directly, we focus negative energy on its cause. We come up with reasons–rationalizations–to make ourselves feel better. We become righteously indignant.
I’ve seen this happen in my own life. When I was in college and a struggling beginner guitar player, I tended to resent other musicians on campus. I thought their music was lousy, I thought they were pretentious — I just didn’t like them.
I now realize those feelings were caused mostly by envy. I don’t look back now and think, “Wow, those guys were brilliant!” but I do see that my feelings were more a reflection of who I was than who they were. Their music was no threat to me. My resentment was unwarranted. It was caused by my frustration with where I was as a musician.
This is a common pattern. It’s why anger and resentment–and therefore envy–point to ambition. It’s why if you feel anger and resentment you could be ambitious without knowing it. (Incidentally, this is the focus of a recent post of Jennifer McGuiggan’s at The Word Cellar, “Turn Envy into Inspiration.” Check it out — it’s good.)
So what about ambition? Isn’t it bad? I don’t think so: Ambition’s only a motivating force. It’s one that drives us to want to do remarkable things, to stand out in some way. Many amazing things have been done in the name of ambition. And of course, some awful things–and some merely pathetic or pointless ones–have also been done in its name. Ambition by itself is neither good nor bad.
I know I’m ambitious. I want to be interesting and remarkable. I know I’m much better off acknowledging that than hiding in a cloud of resentment.
That’s why I’ve chosen to focus my energy on conscientious ambition. Ambition doesn’t have to be about accumulating vast quantities of money or attaining some narcissistic ideal. Conscientious ambition is focusing your ambitious tendencies on making the world a better place. It’s doing things like working to right wrongs, improve people’s quality of life, and produce things of beauty.
Ambition can be a great thing. Do you have it?
I was watching the late comedian Bill Hicks with a friend recently. Hicks has strong opinions, and his audiences love him for them.
In the video we were watching he has a bit on marketing. He begins:
By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing … kill yourself.
The audience laughs. He continues:
Just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day they’ll take root, I don’t know. You try, you do what you can.
[whispers] Kill yourselves. Seriously though, if you are, do.
More laughter. Then the real rant begins:
No really, there’s no rationalization for what you do, and you are Satan’s little helpers, okay. Kill yourselves, seriously. You’re the ruiner of all things good. Seriously. This is not a joke. There’s no fuckin’ joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us. Kill yourself. It’s the only way to save your fuckin’ soul. Kill yourself.
At this point, the audience responds with what sounds like a standing ovation. They love Hicks, and they hate marketers.
I was struck by this video for two reasons. First, it reminded me of how much people hate marketing. They really do. Marketers may be hated more than even lawyers.
But more importantly, I was reminded of recent shifts in my own attitude toward marketing. I probably would have been laughing along with everyone else only a year or two ago. I’ve never had an interest in marketing, and in fact, I’ve actively disliked it. I’m just as annoyed as anyone by cynical marketing ploys. I’m sick of being inundated with inane and obnoxious advertising. I’m tired of our materialist culture and the pressure to buy junk we don’t need. I hate being manipulated, and I despise being seen as a means to an end.
But at the same time, I’m coming to realize that marketing isn’t all bad. It’s useful–and even good–when used in the right way.
So I wasn’t laughing at Hicks. Instead, I found myself resenting the lynch mob that seemed to be forming in his audience.
Hicks has a point, of course. (And if you watch the video, he explains it a little more.) Marketing can be bad — very bad. People hate it for good reasons:
- It’s often about manipulation, about getting you to part with your money rather than helping you or providing you with something of value.
- Marketers don’t seem to care about you as a person. They see you only as a guardian of money; they’re interested in your psychology only in so far as it helps them get you to relinquish it.
- Marketers often use cynical tactics. They’ll do what it takes to get your money. They’re unprincipled. As Hicks later points out, they’ll even try to exploit anti-marketing sentiment as a marketing tactic.
(Incidentally, blogger Chris Guillebeau covers more on marketing-hate in his recent post, Why People Hate Marketers. He talks about internet marketing attitudes he finds disturbing.)
So yes, marketing’s often bad. But is it always bad? Should we just round up all marketers and call in the firing squad?
I’m actually less interested in marketing is a profession than I am in it as a mentality. After all, I’m never going to be a marketer, per se. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lot of marketing I can–and even should–be doing.
Marketing in its most basic form is discovering what people want and giving it to them. It’s not about tricking people into buying what they don’t want, and it’s not about exploiting people’s psychology to get something out of them.
The problem with the anti-marketing mindset is that it’s self-limiting. If you think marketing is bad, you won’t do it. You’ll laugh at Bill Hicks and go back to your no-marketing life.
Here’s why this mindset’s limiting. If you subscribe to it, you probably think:
- Self-promotion is bad.
- Defining a target audience and marketing to them is bad.
- Convincing people to buy something is bad.
These attitudes are okay as long as your only concern is filling a well-defined job role. I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like. Your boss is happy as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing — no marketing necessary.
But they stop working when you do something creative or risky. If you’re an entrepreneur, an artist, or otherwise self-employed, you need to shed the anti-marketing mindset. If you don’t, it will severely limit you.
Why is marketing necessary for entrepreneurs, artists, and the self-employed? Because if you are one, you’re not filling an already-defined role — you’re creating one. There isn’t already a clear audience for your work. You need to find one, and you need to appeal to that audience.
You can’t succeed on your own if you live on a desert island. Simply creating things and shipping them off to the rest of the world doesn’t work. You need to think about who’ll be interested in what you’re doing and how they’ll use it, why they’ll want it and how they’ll benefit from it. Marketing’s about taking the perspective of other people: What do they want? What gets them excited? It should be about empathy, not manipulation.
Marketing forces you to avoid masturbatory behavior: doing things that are all about you rather than about other people. Masturbatory behavior isn’t wrong in a moral sense, but it’s wrong if you want other people to care about what you’re doing.
If your primary goal is to impress people–whether it be with how smart, clever, funny, or talented you are–you’re engaging in masturbatory behavior. Sure, you might get lucky and hit on something that people do like. But you probably won’t. Other people care far less about how smart, clever, funny, and talented you are than you do.
If you’re just doing what you like and hoping someone else is interested, you’re engaging in masturbatory behavior. Again, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing what you like; it just means you may have a hard time making a living from it. Part of marketing is finding the intersection between what you like to do and what others want.
I’m not saying that it’s always best to watch the polls and let public interest decide what you do. That would kill art (and most creative endeavor in general). I am saying that you should take what other people want into account, even if only after the fact. There’s an audience for almost any kind of art — you just need to find it. And once you find your audience, you need to reach it effectively.
That’s where marketing comes in — and that’s why I’m realizing its value. Marketing’s about finding an audience for what you do and targeting that audience, giving them what they want. It is (or should be) about empathy and relationships, not trickery and manipulation. It’s a necessary part of any independent endeavor.
Thoughts? (And thanks, Ohad, for inspiring this post!)
I’ve been making my way through Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book’s good. I love its mix between philosophical discussions and narrative, and it’s very well written.
Pirsig himself is an interesting guy. He was a precocious child with a high IQ score (170) at age 9. He started college as a biochemistry student at age 15, but he dropped out three years later. He was losing faith in science as a means to ultimate truth. After a brief stint in the army, he turned to philosophy, which he studied as an undergraduate and graduate student. He then traveled to India to learn about Eastern philosophy at a Hindu university there.
At 33, Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent time in mental hospitals for a few years, eventually getting diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. While hospitalized, doctors subjected him to electroshock treatments, which he says left him a completely different person.
All this happened before Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book chronicles a cross-country motorcycle trip he took with his 11-year-old his son, Chris. It took four years to write and was apparently rejected 121 times by publishers before going on to sell more than 5 million copies.
Classical and Romantic Perspectives
One bit of ZatAoMM that has really struck me so far is Pirsig’s distinction between two modes of thought: “classical” and “romantic.” These modes are more than just ways of thinking. They’re approaches to life — even approaches to truth.
The classical view sees the world primarily in abstractions, explanations, and underlying forms. It proceeds by reason and by laws. It loves to dissect things (and ideas) into their component parts, to explain, and to classify. The fields of science, law, and medicine (for instance) fall into its realm.
The romantic view sees the world primarily in terms of its immediate appearance. It sees the whole rather than the parts, the thing itself rather than abstract categories or classifications. It is, in Pirsig’s words, “primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive.” To a romantic, feelings take precedence over facts. Art is usually a romantic pursuit.
Although no one sees the world purely from a classical or romantic viewpoint, most fall clearly on one side or the other. People tend to cluster with those on the same side and clash with those on the opposite side. (Side note: if you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs types, I think the most-classical people are probably NT’s (iNtuitive Thinkers) and the most-romantic people are probably SF’s (Sensing Feelers). Classifying people into personality types is a very classical thing to do, so you know what side I’m on!)
Disagreements between classics and romantics can be intense. Pirsig says that both sides misunderstand and underestimate what the other side is about. Neither wants to give up its idea of truth. He writes:
To a romantic, this classic mode often appears dull, awkward, and ugly, like mechanical maintenance itself. Everything is in terms of pieces and parts and components and relationships. Nothing is figured out until it’s run through a computer a dozen times. Everything’s got to be measured and proved. Oppressive. Heavy. Endless grey. The death force.
Conversely, to classics, romantics are:
Frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, interested primarily in pleasure-seeking. Shallow. Of no substance. Often a parasite who cannot or will not carry his own weight. A real drag on society.
Pirsig’s distinction is highly applicable to my own life. I’ve spent large swaths of my life immersed in the classical side of things. You have to when you’re a computer programmer, and I spent a good 17 years as one. Besides the fact that I tend to focus monomaniacally when I’m interested in something, computer programming is mentally demanding. It’s not something you can start or stop on a whim. It takes all your concentration and tends to occupy your thoughts even when you aren’t doing it.
Computer programming–as with, say, biochemistry or motorcycle repair–is all about abstractions, components, and laws. You don’t succeed as a programmer by relying on your gut, your feelings, or your intuition (though those do come in handy). Instead, you need to adopt an objective, highly rational, logical perspective. As a programmer, biochemist, or motorcycle repairman, you form and test hypotheses. You surrender your feelings to the laws of nature or the machine: the program works or it doesn’t, the motorcycle runs or it doesn’t, the hypothesis is true or false.
When you spend much of your time working in the classical mindset, it tends to filter into other areas of your life. You don’t just stop being a classic at the end of the workday. You usually live your entire life on one side or the other.
I found myself moving further to the classical side as I got older. I think this was mostly due to specialization. As we get older, we tend to spend more and more of our time doing one thing — specialization is the way most people make a living, after all. For me, that one thing was programming.
I also spent five years in college, and colleges tend to emphasize the classical mindset, even in humanities departments. Academic research is all about analysis: dissection, classification, categorization, and deduction. It’s likely that the longer you stay in academia, the more classical you become. You have to if you want to succeed there.
I think I became frustrated at my job (at Google, as a programmer) in large part because I was becoming increasingly imbalanced. The romantic side of me was being suppressed; I craved an outlet but simply wasn’t getting it at my job. It also was hard to do anything significant or focused outside of work — as I said, programming can be very demanding.
In the past year, I’ve regained the balance that I think I lost when I started college. Writing essays (like this one) exercises the classical part of my mind, while writing music exercises the romantic part. I feel whole in a way that I didn’t a year ago.
So I’ve achieved a balance — but does it make sense, in general, to try to balance the classical and romantic modes?
On the surface, it seems the answer is yes — balance is good, right? But there is a danger: In trying to balance between extremes, it’s possible just to become boring. Sometimes it’s better to go with natural inclinations than to fight them. Balance can be bland, boring, and fake; everyone doesn’t need to be the same, anyway.
In the case of classical and romantic viewpoints, though, I do think it’s worth seeking some sort of balance. You’re missing out on an entire realm of experience if you don’t. Both modes are valid (and even true) in their own way. They both contribute to human experience and achievement. If you fall too far into one camp or the other, you’re only seeing half of the picture. You’re only engaging half of humanity.
One major goal of Pirsig’s book is to establish a common ground between the two modes. I think he’s on the right track.
The English rock band Coldplay writes melancholy and often-grandiose songs. They’ve become quite popular, selling millions of records and touring the world and play their music for those who like it.
Coldplay is hated. Here’s just one example: A 1,200 word essay authored by Joe Pareles (entitled “The case against Coldplay”) states that Coldplay is “the most insufferable band of the decade,” claims that the band’s singer is a “passive-aggressive blowhard,” and calls the band’s songs “tremulous, ringing anthems of insecurity.” (Oh, and let’s not forget about the “Anti-Coldplay Society” on MySpace and the “Anti-Coldplay Coalition” on Facebook.)
… Steve Pavlina runs a well-known personal development website. Its stated purpose is to “help you grow as a conscious human being.” Steve has written hundreds of articles over the past several years, and he offers them free of charge through his site.
Steve Pavlina is hated. Just search for his name on Google: An article entitled “Steve Pavlina Sucks” (and featuring his headshot) begins:
Steve Pavlina is a swindling knave who’s made a fortune for himself blowing hot air up the asses of normal working people, over inflating their egos just to inevitably get popped on one of life’s many thorns through his eponymous website/cash cow.
This quote is tame compared to much of the rest of the article. (Search for it if you like; I’m not providing a link.)
… Indian film director Parvez Sharma worked on Jihad for Love, a documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims. The film, which shows gay Muslims kissing and holding hands, has been well-received at festivals and by critics.
You guessed it: Parvez Sharma is hated. Before the film was even released, Sharma reported that “About every two weeks I get an e-mail that berates me, condemns me to hell and, if they are nice, asks me to still seek forgiveness while there is still time.” Now he receives death threats. Several countries have banned the film.
Seems pretty easy to arouse people’s hatred, right? Here’s how these things work.
If you take a public stand, people will hate you. They’ll say you’re an idiot. They’ll claim you’re evil. They’ll attack not only your views but also you as a person. They’ll write diatribes against you. If you get really big, they may even create websites in your honor.
If you’re successful, people will hate you. They’ll deride what you do. They’ll insult you. They’ll claim that you got lucky or were over-privileged. They’ll say you cheated. They’ll say your success doesn’t matter.
As you grow in prominence, you’ll attract more detractors. What you say will be used against you. You’ll be misquoted and misconstrued. Your mistakes will be pounced upon. Rumors and false accusations will spread.
Your detractors’ hatred will reach far beyond mere disagreement. Even those who present no specific point of view–artists, actors, musicians, etc.–receive their share of hate. Though it’s often presented in the form of rational argument, hatred is rarely that simple. Your detractors probably aren’t really that worried about the things they complain about.
What lies at the root of most hatred is resentment. If attention is being focused on you, some people will resent that. Rather than accept that what you’ve done is of value to others, they’ll alter their worldview to discount you. To them, your views are unfounded and your success ill-gotten. You are, at best, overrated, and at worst, trash.
Of course, hatred isn’t all about resentment — real disagreement does exist. If you take a stand, someone will disagree with you. If you create something, someone will have different aesthetic sensibilities. That’s inevitable. When you make your views or works public, you are opening them to the criticism of the rest of the world.
That’s why it’s so hard to take a stand. It’s hard to receive criticism, even when it comes alongside praise from others. Most people prefer to stay under the radar. It’s infinitely easier to think, “Oh, I could do all sorts of amazing things if I just put my mind to it,” than it is to do so and receive criticism.
When you make a bold statement or create something awesome, you’re saying, “This is who I am,” to the world. It’s very hard to do that. Most people don’t have the guts or determination. They prefer to hedge their bets: Better to stay quiet and vague than arouse the ire of others by being something.
If you do make a public statement, people will equate you with your statement. To them, you are your statement. And some of them will hate you for it. They’ll resent that you disagree with them or that your aesthetic sensibilities clash. They’ll resent that you’ve created something they don’t appreciate that others do. Rather than work to bring themselves up, they’ll work to tear you down. It’s easier for them that way.
You can’t do something awesome if you’re worried about arousing the hatred of others. It’s impossible to please everyone. Some people like to be contrarian and will hate you if you try. You can’t please them, so don’t try. The path to awesomeness lies in deciding what you want to live for, doing that, and finding a community of supporters. It doesn’t lie in trying to please everyone. Someone will hate you no matter what you do.
In fact, you’re already hated right now. If you’re American, some people hate you just by virtue of that. If you’re a vegetarian, some meat-eaters hate you; if you eat meat, some vegetarians hate you. Whether you’re religious or irreligious, some people hate you. There’s no escaping the hate. You can hide and pretend it doesn’t exist, or you can decide what you want to be and proudly be it, haters be damned.
You will be hated. You are hated. That’s just the way things are. It’s not easy to stick your neck out, and if you do some people will try to chop your head off. Accept the hate and do something awesome anyway. There’s no better alternative.
Most of us aspire to be authentic. We praise those we see as authentic and criticize those we see as not. We hold up authenticity as an ideal to strive toward.
But what is authenticity, exactly? On a basic level, it’s is a kind of “realness” or “genuineness.” When we interact with authentic people, we feel we’re interacting with a “real” ones, people free from pretension and without false fronts. We like authentic people because we feel we can trust them. Our relationships with them seem more deep.
As a concept, authenticity is far from clear. Much ink has been spilled attempting to define it, and significant disagreement still exists. Since disputes over semantics are rarely interesting, I’m not going to argue for a particular definition here. Instead I want to determine what “authenticity-like” characteristics it actually makes sense to strive for. My goal is practical: If I desire authenticity, what should I do? What ideal should I seek?
From a practical standpoint, authenticity should be both desirable and attainable. Any type of authenticity that isn’t both of these isn’t very interesting and certainly isn’t very practical. As it turns out, some common views of authenticity fall into this category. Let’s thus first look at what authenticity is not.
One view of authenticity states that it’s about finding your unchanging, “true” self and acting according to its dictates. Under this view, each of us has a true self that’s determined at birth. This self is a collection of personality characteristics and dispositions; actions made according to it are considered authentic, and ones not are considered inauthentic.
This view is flawed. Certainly it’s true that we’re born with certain dispositions — some components of personality are genetic. Some people are more introverted than others, for example, and that difference is (at least to a degree) determined at birth. But does that mean we each possess a true, unchanging self? I don’t think so. Though we do each start from a particular baseline, most aspects of our personalities are changeable. Our ability to change isn’t boundless, but it is there. A naturally introverted person can become more extroverted, and a naturally extroverted person can become more introverted. Such changes sometimes even happen naturally — an young introverted person may become extroverted as she grows older (or vice versa). Our “true” selves can change right out from under us.
The concept of a true self is flawed. How can we act in accordance with one if our selves are in constant flux? And, given that we can change our selves, why would we even want to pretend we can’t? Not all aspects of our personalities are changeable, of course — some basic desires are outside our control. But our personalities are, on the whole, malleable. It’s in our power to change them, and we should do so when it makes sense to. A bad-tempered wife-beating husband should do whatever he can to change his disposition (and therefore his behavior). Not doing so would just be irresponsible.
But what about the parts of our personalities that aren’t changeable? Isn’t it inauthentic to act in a way that contradicts them? It can be inauthentic to contradict them, but it isn’t necessarily. Why? Because our most basic desires sometimes contradict each other. A desire to do some subversive activity, for example, may conflict with a desire to “fit in” with the rest of society. Both desires are genuine — neither is more or less authentic than the other. In particular, a desire for the support and approval of others is just as real as any other desire. There’s no magical dividing line between authentic and inauthentic desires.
So authentic desires can conflict. Here’s the problem: The true self view suggests that it’s impossible to act authentically when desires conflict. In such cases any action will contradict some desire. Our “true” selves don’t guide us unambiguously — we need more than they provide to guide authentic action. The true self view is simply not up to the task of describing authenticity.
A second view of authenticity contends that some activities are, by their very nature, inauthentic. The view is that such activities cannot be motivated by authentic desires and motivations. Something about them just is inauthentic.
I agree with this view to a point — some actions are, as a rule, inauthentic. Lying, cheating, and manipulating fall into this category. But this view of authenticity goes further: many seemingly-innocuous activities become inauthentic. Depending on who you talk to, watching TV is inauthentic, playing popular music is inauthentic, wearing certain kinds of clothing is inauthentic, and so on.
This view is wrong — it might be inauthentic to play popular music (or do whatever else), but it also might not be. Not liking someone’s actions is not grounds for calling them inauthentic. Some actions may be more likely to be inauthentic, but that doesn’t make them inauthentic by definition. Authenticity is not just about performing some approved set of activities.
So what, then, is authenticity? Put simply, authenticity is honesty. To be authentic, you must be honest with yourself and with others. A person who is honest with herself and others is authentic, regardless of what she does. We may not approve of her actions, but we should still praise her for being authentic.
Being honest with yourself is being fully self-aware. To be internally authentic, you must understand and acknowledge your feelings, desires, and motivations. Denying their existence is inauthentic (and will probably lead to much internal strife). You can try to change them, of course, but to do that you must first understand and acknowledge them. Actions based on an honest understanding of your feelings and desires are authentic even if they sometimes contradict those feelings and desires. It’s impossible to avoid contradiction. The best you can do is be honest with yourself.
Being honest with others is trickier. We’re not always going to say exactly what we’re thinking. I’m not going to say “This tastes terrible” to someone who just cooked me a meal, even if that’s the first thing that comes to mind. That would just be rude.
External authenticity isn’t being honest at the expense of all other considerations. Rather it’s a sincere attempt to represent one’s feelings, desires, and motivations accurately to others. Practical considerations are relevant, yes — an authentic person doesn’t need to be honest when doing so would just be a bad idea. But authenticity does require a sincere attempt at honesty.
An authentic person reveals her emotions — she reveals when she’s happy, when she’s sad, when she’s feeling insecure or vulnerable. An authentic person doesn’t put up a false front. She doesn’t falsely represent herself for the sake of manipulating others. She conveys her intentions honestly.
We’re authentic when we’re honest — both with ourselves and with others. Honesty is the only path to authenticity. Our “true” selves are nebulous, and our true desires sometimes conflict. Actions aren’t inauthentic in and of themselves — only motivations and external representations are.
There are natural outgrowths of authenticity. When we’re authentic, we tend to live fully-integrated lives that make sense as a unified whole. We tend to have deep relationships with others. We tend to understand ourselves. Authenticity is an ideal worth striving for.
Faith is taking the place of fact in providing the basis for religion. The number of religions claiming full factual support for their beliefs is declining, and fully-literal interpretations of religious texts are becoming less popular. There’s good reason for these trends: given current historical and scientific evidence, it’s hard to see how facts alone justify most religious belief. Something more is now necessary.
That’s where faith comes in. Faith is often described as a “way of knowing” that doesn’t require factual evidence. It’s a deep and sincere feeling that something is true. Many religious believers feel a close emotional connection to their God. To them, this feeling is itself proof of their beliefs; no further evidence is necessary.
Certainly it’s the case that some religious beliefs could be true. The universe is a mysterious place, and our understanding of it is not, and never will be, complete. There may be things that are true but that can’t be proven true with factual evidence. Some of them could be current articles of religious faith. But does faith help us arrive at this truth? What type of certainty does it provide?
The Certainty of Faith
We all know from personal experience that we’re sometimes wrong. Our beliefs aren’t always true. It’s possible to know something to be true only later to find out that it isn’t. When you’re depressed, you may feel helpless and worthless. Your feelings are real — you may feel them so strongly, in fact, that you’re certain they’re true. You may know you’re helpless and worthless even though you aren’t. These feelings are so strong they can cause people to kill themselves.
Knowing is a state of mind. When we know something is true, we feel with great certainty that it’s true. But the act of knowing does not itself make anything true: our mental states represent the world, they don’t control it. A belief that is strongly felt–or even known–can be false. Our feelings themselves are real, but the reality they point to may not be. Faith doesn’t provide any great level of certainty.
So our beliefs and feelings are unreliable. But aren’t they still some indicator of truth? Otherwise anything and everything is equally likely to be true, and that seems absurd. Indeed, it is absurd — our knowledge of the world is imperfect, but we still manage to use it day-to-day. Our senses–emotional or otherwise–are flawed, but that doesn’t mean they’re useless.
Now if all knowledge is imperfect, why single out faith? Why is knowledge obtained through faith worse than any other knowledge? The answer is that, while all ways of knowing are flawed, some are better than others. What makes some ways better? The fact that they can be corrected through thought and experience.
A belief that cannot change can’t be moved closer to truth. Faith-based beliefs could be true, of course, but they could also be false. A strong feeling that something is true doesn’t make it true. You’re not actually helpless and worthless when you’re depressed, even though you may know you are. People who kill themselves due to depression have great faith in their depressed thoughts. Faith-based beliefs are what they are — they can’t be corrected through thought and experience.
There are other reasons to question faith. We tend to believe things we want be be true. Psychology research indicates that people tend to interpret ambiguous information in a way that benefits their interests. Most people think their abilities are above average when compared to their peers. They can’t all be right. We can test our abilities, but we can’t test beliefs we hold on faith. We may hold such beliefs partly because we want to hold them, and in such cases we should be all-the-more-ready to question them.
Our beliefs are strongly influenced by when and where we grow up. I believe the earth is round now, but I’d likely have believed it was flat had I grown up a few thousand years ago. Had I grown up in 10th century Norway, I’d likely have believed in the existence of Thor, the great pagan god of thunder. Faith-based beliefs are, like all beliefs, influenced by upbringing. While we might like to think they’re the product of a transcendent understanding of the universe, the truth is more mundane: we’re likely to possess ones that reflect the time and place we grew up.
That makes it even worse that they can’t be changed. How do I know my present faith-based beliefs are better than ones I might have had had I been born someplace else or at another time? There’s no good way to choose between them. Any belief may be wrong, of course, but only non-faith-based beliefs can be changed through thought and experience. Thought and experience may not allow us to arrive at all truth, but they’re the best tools we’ve got — faith doesn’t bring anything to the table.
A Bad Way of Knowing
Faith is a bad way of knowing. Like all beliefs, faith-based beliefs can be mistaken, and we may hold them only because we like them or because we grew up in a particular time and place. But only faith-based beliefs can’t be corrected through thought and experience. They’re not necessarily wrong–they could even be right–but that doesn’t change the fact that faith is a bad reason for believing them.
Is faith all bad? Not necessarily. Faith-based beliefs can certainly be useful. As many will attest, they can increase happiness. If I want something to be true and I believe through faith that it is true, I may be a happier person. Faith has contributed to the happiness of many people. But is it the only path to happiness? I don’t think so. We can appreciate the wonder and mystery of the universe without having unjustified faith that it is or is not a certain way. We can live with purpose without having faith that this purpose was ordained for us.
Choosing not to live according to faith may, in fact, be a moral choice. If we accept that our beliefs can be wrong and change them when necessary, we stand a greater chance of understanding each other. Without faith we have the tools necessary to bridge differences. The possibility of a peaceful coexistence improves. Faith is not all bad, yes — but it may do more harm than good.
It’s now been over five months since I left my job. The time has flown by. Though I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished in the past five months, I’m also puzzled by how quickly time has passed. My memory is a blur.
My last update was over two months ago, and enough’s changed since then that I think it’s time for another one. I’m in a different place mentally than I was a few months ago. My perspective is becoming more realistic and my direction more clear. After five months of unemployment, the giddy thrill of waking up and thinking “I’m not working, I can do whatever I want!” has worn off. I now feel more of a need to justify what I’m doing and to know where I’m headed. I’m also more aware of the downsides of unemployment.
This change is good in many ways. When I first left my job, I remember looking forward to getting past the initial rush. It’s easier to see things clearly when you’re in a stable(r) emotional state. I’ve grown accustomed to the routine of waking up each day and having free reign of my time. It’s an odd lifestyle at first, but you get used to it. After five months, I feel I’ve proven I have the self-discipline necessary to organize my own time. That’s nice to know.
The bad parts of unemployment are also becoming more clear. I’m not surprised that unemployment has downsides–I did anticipate them, after all–but there’s nothing like firsthand experience to drive them home. When you leave a job, your problems don’t go away. Some of them diminish, of course, but others expand. And new ones can appear from thin air.
Let’s look at the problems in more detail. These are the problems of employment:
- Your work schedule is (mostly) outside your control. You have to wake up earlier than you’d like. You have to commute to a workplace. You’re expected to stay for some minimum amount of time regardless of how productive you are or how much work there is to be done.
- You have to work with people you don’t like. Maybe you can avoid them, and maybe you can’t. These people can make your job unpleasant and difficult.
- Your job saps much of the time and energy you could be devoting to your outside interests. As a result, it can be hard to be productive outside work. Your interests may fall to the wayside.
- You have to do something that is employable to be employed. Many creative pursuits (like art, music, and writing) aren’t, in general, employable. You can make money doing them, but not usually in the context of being an employee. You’ll likely have to compromise your creative ideals to be employable. Your work may be boring or unfulfilling as a result.
- You can take only minimal credit for what you do. In general, any work you do when employed bears the company’s name, not yours. Your work is owned by the company.
Of course, not every employee experiences all of these problems. And some employees are perfectly happy doing what they do. For the ones who aren’t happy and would love to quit, I’d like to give an accurate picture of unemployment. It’s definitely not all rosy. There’s the obvious money issue: you have no income, at least at first. You may have to live more cheaply than you did while you were working. Beyond money, these are the problems of unemployment:
- Your life becomes less stable. The highs become higher and the lows lower. The future becomes less clear. You don’t have a paycheck to fall back on if all else fails.
- You have to face the reality of what it’s like to follow your dreams. Doing what you’ve always wanted is not always fun and definitely not always easy. Some days you feel bored and uninspired. It can be odd to be doing exactly what you’d like to be doing and to still feel bored and uninspired. You have to get used to feeling that way sometimes.
- You come face to face with meaning- and purpose-of-life type questions. It’s much easier to ignore these questions when your purpose is provided ready-made by a job. Having full control of how you spend your time can be a weighty responsibility. The pull of nihilism becomes stronger.
- You have to take responsibility for your happiness. Don’t like what you’re doing? It’s your own fault! Don’t like who you’re spending your time with? Do something about it! You can no longer blame your job for your problems.
- Others will resent you. When you stop working, some people with jobs will feel you aren’t “one of them” any more. They may begin to treat you differently. They may try to make you feel guilty for not working. (I’ll save my analysis of their motivations for another time.)
- Your self-confidence may diminish. If you’re leaving a job and striking out on your own, you have to prove yourself all over again. This is especially true if your new pursuits differ from your job responsibilities, but it’s true even if they’re similar — you lose any reputation you had at your job when you leave. You also lose any leadership role you may have had. It takes time for self-confidence to return.
- You lose the community you had while employed. When you have a job, your coworkers are always there to talk to. You always have someone to chat with about the projects you’re working on. When you’re unemployed, you have to create your social life yourself. You have to find others with similar interests. You have to sell yourself and put your work out there.
Many of the problems of unemployment are not really “problems,” per se, but rather challenges to be faced. I welcome these challenges — I’m glad I’m facing the questions of the meaning and purpose of my life head on. I’m glad I’m forced to accept responsibility for my own happiness. I’m glad I have to define my own future. I’m glad I have to seek my own community.
These challenges do cause stress. The temptation to return to a life of greater immediate certainty is sometimes strong. But I’d rather live as a conscious, independent person than hide from them. It’s too easy to ignore these challenges when your life is consumed by a job and easy solutions are provided for you. Not every employed person does ignore them, but many do. I certainly saw this tendency in myself when I was employed.
My direction, while still vague, is becoming more clear. I’m learning a lot by following my interests and seeing where they take me. I’ve found I enjoy some things less than I thought I would and other things much more. Though I could have made some of these discoveries while still employed, unemployment is dramatically speeding up the process. I’ll get into specifics in a future update.
In a previous essay I described my ideal person. Such a person is fully-realized: she knows what she wants and is pursuing it, she knows who she is and is happy being that way. Being fully-realized isn’t easy: I’m not fully-realized yet, but I’m working on it.
In this essay, I’m going to address one part of being fully-realized: knowing what you want. Knowing what you want is both trivially simple and profoundly complex. The answer lies within us, but it’s often difficult to find.
The answer is important. If you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to pursue any path with vigor. A person who doesn’t know what she wants may lead a pleasant life, but she’s unlikely to lead a fulfilling one.
What We Want
So, then… what do we want? Put simply, we want what makes us happy.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to distinguish between two kinds of happiness: short-term happiness and long-term happiness. We are short-term happy when we like what we are doing right now. Short-term happiness is in the moment and without thought for the future.
We are long-term happy when we are happy with the direction we feel we are headed. Though we feel both short- and long-term happiness in the present, their content is distinct: long-term happiness is about the future rather than the present. Long-term happiness is about goals, plans, and predictions. We are long-term happy when we project ourselves into the future and imagine ourselves to be happy there.
We have corresponding short-term and long-term wants. We short-term want what makes us short-term happy, and we long-term want what makes us long-term happy. (I use the awkward phrasing to emphasize that long-term wants point toward the future; they are not necessarily experienced over a long time-period, as “want long-term” would imply.)
Our short- and long-term wants can sometimes conflict. A long-term want may require actions in the present that make us short-term unhappy. Many days I short-term want to stay in bed rather than go to the gym, but I long-term want to stay in shape. The long-term want usually wins out, but that’s not always the case.
To know what you want, you must know what you want both short- and long-term. You must also reconcile your short- and your long-term wants. Though there can be–and probably will be–some conflict between them, the conflict must be small. You don’t know what you want if you have long-term goal you hate pursuing in the short-term. When you know what you want, you are both short- and long-term happy. Your wants must, for the most part, align.
Finding what you want short-term is relatively straightforward. Trial-and-error is a common strategy — and since short-term happiness is immediate, it’s also an effective one. Trial-and-error works in part because it’s a “dumb” strategy: it makes no assumptions about what you’ll like doing. It’s hard to know in advance what things will make you happy and what things won’t. You need to try them and see how you feel.
For finding short-term wants, I recommend the throw-things-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. Try as many activities as you can. Place priority on the ones that seem most appealing, of course, but try even ones that sound unappealing.
Think you don’t like dancing? Give it a fair shot anyway. Fear may be clouding your judgment. It’s hard to know before you’ve tried something whether fear or real dislike is turning you away from it. Facing fears is worth the trouble: we often fear most what would make us most happy.
Knowing what you want long-term is more difficult. Since long-term wants are about the future, they are, by necessity, predictive. You can know what you want right now by trying things and seeing how they make you feel, but you can’t do the same to find how you’ll feel ten years from now. To know what you want long-term, you need to project yourself into the future and imagine how you’ll feel there. This process is imperfect, but it’s the best one that’s available.
Remember that long-term happiness, though being about the future, is experienced in the present. If you’re happy right now with the direction you’re headed, you’re long-term happy. How you’ll actually feel in the future is thus, in a sense, irrelevant. If you feel you’ve made a good plan and you’re following it, you’re long-term happy now. This fact makes finding long-term wants a little simpler.
I recommend the following approach for finding long-term wants. First, brainstorm a list of possibilities. Write down every goal, achievement, and life path that comes to mind. Then go through the list and, for each entry, imagine yourself ten (or however many) years from now. You’ve reached the goal, you’ve made the achievement, you’ve followed the path. Since you’re trying to discover your wants, don’t try to be “realistic” — assume you’ve been successful in whatever you set out to do.
Now, imagine how you feel in that future state. Do you feel fulfilled? Do you like how you are spending your time? Are you happy day-to-day? Or do you feel confined or trapped? Are you bored? Do you have regrets?
From your responses to each entry, try to form an overall plan. The plan can be very specific or very vague. The only constraint is that it makes you (long-term) happy. You’ll know you know you know what you want when your plan fills you with a sense of purpose and excitement. Of course, I wouldn’t expect this approach to yield a concrete plan immediately. But it is good at clarifying your thinking: after following it, you may decide to rule out some possibilities and focus more energy on others.
Yes, it’s hard to predict exactly how you’ll feel in the future. Your prediction may turn out to be completely wrong. You have to accept that possibility. Long-term happiness is always, to a degree, uncertain. Make the best decision you can given the information that is available. If you want to improve your predictive accuracy, I recommend Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling On Happiness (or others like it). It outlines the errors people tend to make in predicting their future happiness.
One issue remains: Your short- and your long-term wants must, for the most part, agree. Long-term goals require short-term actions. If you love a goal but hate the actions it entails, you don’t know what you want. If you like the idea of writing a novel but don’t like sitting still for long periods of time, you may need to find another goal. Short-term wants constrain long-term ones.
It’s unlikely that all of your long-term wants are ruled out by your short-term wants — but some of them may be. In most cases, the future projection exercise I outlined will uncover long-term wants that conflict with short-term ones. If you project yourself into the future and imagine yourself loving being a famous author but disliking the sitting-down-and-writing-books part, you’ve discovered a conflict. Make sure to vet your long-term wants for conflicts with short-term ones. There can be some conflict, but it must be small.
What about me? My vision of what I want is still hazy, but it’s becoming more clear as follow my interests and see where they take me. Though I can’t claim to be an expert in this area, the techniques I’ve outlined have worked well for me so far. I recommend trying them if you are, like most people, unsure of what you want.
The Standard Debate
The free will debate in philosophy is usually framed as being about two concepts: determinism and compatiblism. Determinism is the idea that the world is, at a fundamental level, ordered and consistent: all events are caused, and the same causes always produce the same effects. Nothing is left up to chance. Everything that happens was destined to happen since the beginning of time.
It seems intuitive that free will is impossible if the world is deterministic. After all, how can our actions be free if they were determined billions of years ago? Compatibilists think this intuition is wrong: they claim that free will is possible even if determinism is true. Compatibilists base their claim on their definition of “free will,” which they usually hold to mean something like “freedom from restraint.” A person is free, they say, if she is of sound mind and isn’t bound in chains.
Most of us are free according to the compatibilists’ definition of “free will.” But is “freedom from restraint” really what we mean by “free will”? According to incompatibilists, the answer is no. Incompatibilists insist “free will” implies that we, ourselves, are the ultimate, originating cause of our actions. If we have free will, we control our destinies. Being free from restraint is not enough: if our actions were determined prior to our birth, incompatibilists say, we cannot be free.
I agree with the incompatibilists. Or, more accurately, I agree that the compatibilist definition of “free will” is a bad one. The free will debate would not receive nearly the attention it does if “free will” and “freedom from restraint” were synonymous. People who are free from restraint are nevertheless bothered by the idea that they don’t possess free will. The compatibilist definition does not capture what people mean when they say “free will.”
Incompatibilists usually turn to non-determinism in the hope that it will explain free will. According to non-determinism, some events don’t have a cause. They just happen randomly. This view has credence: current theories in quantum mechanics do imply the universe is non-deterministic. But can non-determinism explain free will? If free will requires that we are the ultimate, originating cause of our actions (as the incompatibilists claim), how can non-determinism help explain it? Random actions are not free ones. Neither are “mostly-determined” actions with a little bit of randomness thrown in. Non-determinism seems to offer no help.
The Problem Clarified
So both the compatibilists and the incompatibilists appear to have major problems. The compatibilists have redefined “free will” to mean something trivial and uninteresting. The incompatibilists cannot explain how non-determinism explains free will any more than determinism does.
This is the problem: “Free will,” as a concept, does not–and cannot–make sense. When examined closely, the concept breaks down. Whether determinism is true or not is irrelevant: the compatibilists and the incompatibilists are both wrong.
Of course, I need to explain why “free will” doesn’t make sense.1 Let’s first understand what “free will” would mean, if it did make sense. The incompatitibilist definition is a good one to work with: to repeat, it states that we have free will if we, ourselves, are the ultimate, originating cause of our actions. Of course, our actions may be caused partially by factors outside our control, be they laws of physics, randomness, or anything else. Thus it might be more correct to say that we are free if we are an (rather than “the”) ultimate, originating cause of our actions. What’s important is that our actions are not caused fully by factors outside our control.
Now we must ask ourselves: What would it mean for this definition to be true? To answer this question, I’m going to look more closely at how we make decisions. We base our decisions on reasons. There are, broadly-speaking, two kinds of reasons: objective ones and subjective ones. Objective reasons point to facts of the world. They refer to things outside our minds: our physical environment, the limitations of our bodies, the behaviors of others, and so on. Because objective reasons are external in nature, they can’t play a role in explaining free will. Subjective reasons, on the other hand, are characteristics of our minds: our moods, emotional dispositions, tastes, and so on. We base all of our decisions on a combination of objective and subjective reasons.2
A Series of Questions
From now on, I’ll use character as an umbrella term that encapsulates all subjective reasons. Character makes us who we are. If anything gives us free will, character is it. But where does character come from? Let’s look at an example. Say I’m faced with a decision: I can eat an apple or I can eat an orange. I like oranges better, so I pick the orange. My decision is based on one subjective reason: my preference for oranges. This seems like a clear-cut case of free will in action.
But things aren’t so simple. To show why, I’m going to ask a series of questions. First, why did I pick the orange? Say my response is, “I don’t know–I just prefer oranges. That’s just the way I am.” If that’s the case, my preference appears to be arbitrary. By my own admission I didn’t freely choose to prefer oranges, so how can my exercise of that preference be free? It can’t: if I was not the ultimate, original cause of my preference for oranges, then I am not now the ultimate, original cause of my choice of an orange.
But what if I did choose to prefer oranges? Say I read a book a year ago that convinced me oranges are more environmentally sustainable than apples. Since I value environmental sustainability, I decided from then on to choose oranges over apples. Surely that choice makes my present choice of an orange free–right?
Wrong. Once again, we must ask a question. This time it is: Why do I value environmental sustainability? Say my answer is, “I’m a moral person, and it’s immoral to destroy the environment.” Unfortunately, that leads to a new question: Why am I a moral person? If my response to this question is, “That’s just the way I am,” my decision is, as before, not a free one. If on the other hand my response is, “Because my parents taught me to be that way,” yet another question arises: Why did I accept my parents’ teachings?
I won’t go further. A pattern is emerging: each “Why?” question about character yields a “That’s just the way I am” response or a further question. And since we haven’t made infinitely many decisions in our lives, “That’s just the way I am” will always come eventually.
For us to have caused our characters–and therefore our actions–we would have had to have caused ourselves, which is impossible. The fact of the matter is: We are not the ultimate, original cause of our characters. And because we aren’t, we are not the ultimate, original cause of our actions. “Free will” does not make sense as a concept. It’s definition implies an impossibility.
This argument has important implications. One of them is: It does not make sense to worry about whether we have free will. After all, we can’t even imagine what it would mean to have free will, so how can we worry about not having it? The concept breaks down under scrutiny. Worrying about whether we have free will is like worrying about whether we’ll die before we’re born. Neither worry has meaningful content.
The fact that we’re not the ultimate, original cause of our characters is interesting. It means we’re not as radically self-determining as we might like to think we are. We did not choose our core preferences and dispositions–we were created with them. There’s no getting around this fact, and it has substantial implications for answers to meaning-of-life-type questions. I haven’t worked them all out for myself yet, but I’m thinking about them. More on this topic is sure to come.
- My argument is very similar to one put forth by British philosopher Galen Strawson. Though I did come upon the general idea on my own, an online interview with Strawson greatly helped me to clarify my position.
- Note that I’m not making a broad metaphysical claim with my distinction between objective and subjective reasons. I’m using the distinction only in the hope that it make my argument more clear. If you think all decision-making factors are subjective, that’s fine–the rest of my argument remains the same.
Some people glow. They know who they are, and they are happy being that way. They radiate an inner confidence and an inner energy. They know what they want, and they have worked–and are working–to get it. They know what they are good at, and they play to their strengths. They admit and accept their weaknesses. Their lives make sense as a unified whole; they are free from contradictions.
These people are, on balance, happy. They are excited. They seek challenges. They love to learn from others. They are not afraid to express their opinions, even if they may be wrong. They are great at what they do. Their energy is infectious.
I call these people fully-realized. I’ve met a few of them. I’ve seen some speak. I’m not one of them–yet.
What does it take to be fully-realized? The following, I think, are the basics–you’re fully-realized if:
- you know what you want;
- you pursue it; and
- you know who you are, and you’re happy being that way.
Knowing what you want is the most important part. In the long run, it’s hard to be excited about what you do if you don’t know what you want. If you do know what you want, pursuing it won’t be hard. In fact, doing so may be unavoidable. If you think you know what you want but you aren’t pursuing it right now, you might not actually know what you want–or at least you might not have fully convinced yourself yet that you want it. (On a related note: just because you are pursuing something doesn’t mean that you want it; you could be running up a blind alley.)
Knowing who you are and knowing what you want are obviously related. However, I think you can know what you want without knowing who you are. Knowing what you want is more basic and requires a lower level of self-awareness. You can know what you want at a younger age than you can know who you are. In addition to knowing what you want, you must understand your strengths and weaknesses and how people perceive you to know who you are. And to be fully-realized, you must not just know these things–you must be happy with them. You must accept yourself as a whole person.
I’ve noticed that fully-realized people are usually older–in their thirties, at least. It takes time to build self-awareness. You may know what you want at a young age, but I doubt you know who you are. And I doubt even more that you fully accept who you are. When you’re young and inexperienced, it can be hard even to be sure you know what you want. The only way to discover this is through a combination of trial-and-error and reflection. Trial and error build experience, and reflection derives patterns from experiences.
It helps that older people are more likely to have had successes. It’s easier to be confident–really confident, not postured-confident–and to accept yourself when you’ve had success. But I don’t think major success is necessary. Of course, a fully-realized person will tend to be successful in her pursuit of what she wants.
I’ll say one more thing: As I mentioned, the life of a fully-realized person is free from contradiction–its parts fit together. Stated differently, a full-realized person is “whole.” A level of personal identity and self-certainty come with wholeness that are otherwise unattainable. If you’re happy with some areas of your life but not others, you aren’t whole. If you accept some parts of yourself but not others, you aren’t whole. A whole person applies the principles of full-realization to all areas of her life.