5 life reflections as I turn 30
On the 22nd of December 1987 a stream of conscious flow later to be labelled “Shawn” entered the world in a hospital near Pretoria, South Africa.
Now, as I turn 30 years old, I’ve wondered what reflections would be most appropriate to share … here they are!
Reflection #1: Of the Seasonality of Life
You wake up, get out of bed, and go over to your wardrobe.
Since it’s summer right now, your wardrobe has been kitted out with all sorts of summer clothes; shorts, T-shirts, etc.
It was summer yesterday. It will be summer tomorrow.
… And you lose sight of the fact that summer is merely a season because — it feels like summer will last forever.
When your day to day life in the year 2017 is a particular way, it’s easy to get lost in that particular way of living — believing, as it were, that this is the only way of your life.
But of course, the permanent feeling of a temporary season just an illusion — a season that you’re currently in that seems to be all-encompassing and entrenched, but it is just a season, and it will end one day.
When I was in high school, a family friend once told me that I should “appreciate the high school years and freedom of life because it would end so soon”. Of course, like most of us, I was caught up with and felt associated with that particular season; thinking it would never end – or, rather, underestimating how quickly it would come to an end — falling for the illusion. But as we all know, high school ends one day.
And so does university, and so does one particular job, and so does one particular career, as does your time as a single person, as does your time as a married person (sometimes), as does this particular time of your child’s life. These are all seasons that seem to be so all-encompassing and engrossing to us at the time, but they do gradually fade.
This year I did a kind of “30-year autobiography” of sorts. Something that struck me as I zoomed way out and observed my life is how seasonal life really is. The leaves fade. New plants sprout out of the ground…
… Everything changes.
Reflection #2: Of Worldviews, and the filtration of Ideas and Information
What are ideas?
Ideas are mental models of the reality that we find ourselves in. They are representations of reality.
Ideas are how we map the terrain of reality, and what we use to navigate that terrain.
Good, correct, (or as close to correct as possible) ideas are extremely useful to navigate the terrain of life. Bad ideas can be very unhelpful or even harmful for people navigating life — as well as very vexing for the owner of them (like trying to navigate a city with a faulty map).
A wordlview is the grand set of ideas that someone believes are accurate.
Worldviews are what we use to navigate reality on a day to day, even moment to moment basis. Even an action as simple as switching on a light bulb engages the gears of your worldview; as your mind contains a set of mental models (ideas) about how lights and light switches work. Your worldview has been under construction from the when you were very young — as you walked around and bumped into objects, feedback from the reality around you was fed into your mind and models of reality were formed. Everyone has one, and they are incredibly useful.
Though it’s not often thought of this way, one of the most valuable possessions you have IS your worldview — as it can be (and is) used to accomplish everything that you accomplish.
And the more accurate and the more comprehensive your worldview is, the more useful it can be — just like the more accurate and complete a map of a certain terrain is, the more useful it is.
And yet — we spend very little time talking about how worldviews work, how propositions are believed, and how to filter the information that goes into them for maximum effect.
I’ve grown up in a generation that has experienced an information explosion.
In 2010 Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google at the time, explained that we create as much information every two days now as we did from the dawn of civilisation until the year 2003.
That means that within OUR lifetimes the amount of information produced by mankind has exploded exponentially, with far-reaching consequences.
One of those consequences is the need for world-class information filtration systems to be installed into the minds of each and every sincere seeker of good ideas and accurate worldviews.
Over the years I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about these very filtration systems. I think it’s an area that is very under-served in the kinds of content we encounter on a daily basis. You can read books about all kinds of subjects, and surely there are books and courses about information filtration, but it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to be discussed very often.
How to filter information
Winnowing good information from the masses of noise that we encounter is a complex and subtle subject. It involves many elements, E.G understanding how credibility works, understanding all kinds of bias, epistemology, critical thinking, logic, reason, argumentation, premises, assumptions, cause and effect, nuance, motivated reasoning, etc. it is so large that I won’t attempt to address it in any detail here.
And yet, given how valuable our worldviews are, this skill of filtering information is arguably one of the most useful and important skills for a person to have — without it our worldview can be like a derelict house– an outdated map unsuitable for navigating reality.
I think it’s wonderful to build a deep passion and curiosity for developing our worldviews. And I think in order to do so effectively, we need to build a world-class skill for information filtration and internal error-correction (being curious, open-minded, and trying to understand when and how we are wrong). This can make life smoother, more satisfying, and more enjoyable.
Without the ability to filter out the errors in our worldview (critical thinking about what we think and believe), we may find ourselves “knowing a lot of stuff” but “having little insight”.
Insight, it seems, is (knowledge) + (critical thinking).
Example: one can know a lot about the flat-earth theory, and all of the complex and varied arguments to support it, but without the critical thinking to realise its flaws, one is left without the insight that it’s untrue. Without that insight, one might waste a lot of ones life chasing this idea and that idea, learning a lot, but having few insights.
(Indeed, insights are very time-saving).
Insights are things that can be gained in a moment, or missed in a lifetime.
Reflection #3: Of Mentorship; The Filtration and Use of Advice
As a natural segue from reflection #2, this reflection is about the filtration of a particular subset of ideas that are to be found in the world: advice.
Broadly speaking, advice is any externally-sourced suggestion on what we can, should, or must do.
It seems almost wherever we look, advice surrounds us. A billboard at the train station suggests that we would be happier if we had another university degree. Our mothers tell us to stop spending so much time on the computer. A friend suggests we change our job.
It seems obvious that if we were to follow all advice given to us that we’d land up running around chasing our tails all the time; In the very moment you start your new Bachelor of Archaeology degree, the university is advertising an even better Bachelor of Science. In the very moment you spend less time on the computer you need to spend more because you’re looking for a new job.
It’s important to reflect on the fact that all advice is given to us with the adviser only having a partial knowledge of our circumstances. Sometimes, if this is the right mentor and they have a lot of insights, then their partial knowledge is even better than our fuller knowledge. But for the most part, the person who knows the most about your circumstances is YOU, and the person who would follow-through with any advice is YOU, and so only YOU can judge whether advice is truly valuable for you (and even that process is difficult).
Accepting and embracing all advice given to you would be a disaster — it’s impossible to follow through with every idea you are bombarded with. On the other side, ignoring all advice and suggestions given to you stunts the possible growth that could occur from following through with good advice.
There’s a balance to be struck; a middle-ground where advice is taken, considered, digested, and acted on thoughtfully.
Similar to reflection #2, this process is complex and nuanced. But, here is possibly the most important idea around mentorship:
How to filter advice: take it from those who have walked the path
When I was about 18 years old, I once sat in the car with a friend who told me that he was “good with the ladies”. He was several years older than me. He told me that if I ever wanted any advice for how to deal with women, I would be welcome to ask him.
As luck would have it, I both dated more girls and married before he has married. To this day he’s still single.
I share this anecdote, not to put down my friend (he’s actually a very good guy), and certainly not to suggest that I am “good with the ladies” — but to point out the obvious: it’s wise to prefer advice coming from people who have walked the path you want to walk on.
In other words, if I wanted to learn from someone who was “good with the ladies”, I’d better go find someone who has been successfully married for 50+ years and ask them to give me some insights, not someone who is single. Because the mental models of the 50+ year married man will be significantly more refined than the early-twenties “good with the ladies” single man. Those who have been successful for long periods of time have failed enough to learn critical lessons, while those are are still failing are still learning; they may be good sources of information, but not the best — the best are the ones who have walked the path and are well ahead of where I am.
Reflection #4: The importance of reading books
And, as a natural segue from reflections #2 & #3, reflection #4 is the importance of reading books.
Reading books helps us take advice and build mental models from the best thinkers in the world. For a vast majority of us, the best thinkers of the world are unavailable from a personal perspective (you can’t access their time). However, often, many of the best thinkers write books where they explain their views on many subjects in great detail.
Take Tony Robbins as an example. Many people admire Tony Robbins and like his ideas around personal improvement. But really — is there actually any need to meet him? Is there actually any need to attend one of his conferences?
From a pure “ideas” point of view; no — you can absorb as many of Tony Robbins’ ideas from his books and content as you’d like — and it’s cheaper.
What an amazing privilege! With Kindles and electronic books, the greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers in the world are merely seconds and a few dollars away at any point in time!
A personal story about reading and books
About four years ago my attitude towards reading books changed. Reading went from something I do occasionally and casually to something done often and habitually. A significant part of that change was a change in lifestyle: simply, I stopped driving to work and started taking the train.
In those 20-minute train rides over four years I have read over 52 books. That’s about 13 a year (about one per month).
It’s difficult to exaggerate the changes that happened in my life as a result. I learned about all sorts of things; business, entrepreneurship, finance, economics, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, personal development, philosophy, science, everything.
Reading has been an incredible adventure which has taken my mind down many roads. As it’s walked down those roads, guided by great thinkers in various domains, mental schemata have been constructed along the way; available for present and future use. Of course — I’ve not always agreed with everything I’ve read, but that’s exactly the point — reading things made me consider various points of view regarding various subjects.
I think one of the best ways to learn about a subject is to find the key books on the subject written by the best thought-leaders in the domain, AND THEN read the criticism of their books.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the benefits of reading frequently. I cannot recommend it enough.
Reflection #5: Of the profundity of this very moment
Let’s change gears to the existential.
A little while back while I was doing my usual random rounds on the internet I encountered a Reddit thread where people were discussing how a particular species of arctic sea sponge lives to an age of 11 000 years.
Someone commented on this thread saying that they were now experiencing an “existential crisis” at the thought of “what it would be like to live 11 000 years” — this person was thinking about how short the human lifespan actually is.
This got me to thinking:
What is it about an 11 000 year life that would make it “enough”, and what is it about a ~80 year life that would make it “not enough”?
Based on what criteria or system did we evaluate the prospect of an 11 000 year life and deem it “long enough” and an 80 year life and deem it “too short”?
I have the answer, but it might not be what you expect.
Of craving, yearning, wanting, needing, and human suffering
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I think the answer is that most of our life we spend yearning for something else… someone else… somewhere else… some other moment…
- A bigger paycheck
- A different job
- A bigger house
- A faster car
- A sexier spouse
- To finish our university degree
- To study something else at university
- A nicer computer
And these cravings are the very essence of suffering.
And if you spend your life living immersed in such cravings, then surely 80 years is not enough.
But nor will 11 000 years be enough.
— No amount of time in life is enough if we spend every moment of it hoping for something else.
Think about it. During the week, you can’t wait for the weekend to come because — work sucks.
Finally, the weekend arrives. FINALLY!
But, just as you are settling into enjoying your Saturday guess what? Monday looms just around the corner and ruins everything….
In the moments of crappiness, we yearn for the crappiness TO END — thus giving the crappiness power and a “bite” over us.
And in the moments of happiness, we yearn for the happiness TO NEVER END; thus “crapifying” our happiness.
This is the essence of human suffering; spending most of our moments yearning for some other moment.
Most of our suffering is not due to our circumstances, it’s due to how we think about our circumstances.
Awakening to this moment
Conversely, if you have even once in your lifetime awoken to the perfect adequacy of this present moment — right here right now — the sounds, sensations, feelings, and sights around you — then even ten seconds of true conscious experience is “enough”…
If you have even once fully awoken to this present moment, the suggestion that something about it is inadequate will be absurd to you.
This is why I am not afraid of death; because I have once lived. Death is conquered by the profundity of being alive, right here, right now, in this moment….
… By the fact that it’s like something to be you in this moment.
If you were to do a systematic analysis of your life, attempting to extract insights about all of your happiest times, I would be willing to bet that a pattern would emerge:
Your happiest times, whatever they were, had something to do with being present in the moment. You weren’t “thinking” about this moment, you were “experiencing” this moment — in fact, the time seemed “happy” only in retrospect.
- Maybe that was on a bike ride when you experienced the joy of exercising.
- Maybe it was at a rave party where you experienced the joy of music and dancing.
- Maybe it was a sexual experience.
- Whatever it was — chances are you were “in the moment” and not “thinking about the moment”.
Referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — it’s my conviction that once the “basic needs” are met, That is:
- Physiological needs; food, water, warmth, clothing, shelter, rest.
- Safety needs: Security, Safety
Then happiness is on the cards. That’s not to say we will automatically become happy once they’re met, but, that happiness is attainable from that point onwards.
But there are so many experiences that I want to have?!
How could ten seconds of truly “living in the moment” be enough? There are so many experiences that I want to have! I want to see Tailand, sing in an opera, and skinnydip during full moon in the warm oceans of the Bahamas!
Many people have a “bucket list” of experiences that they’d like to have. Then, they live their lives in pursuit of those items, ticking them off one by one as they go.
Of course, there’s nothing “wrong” with this — however, if your happiness has to wait for “this item to be ticked” and “that item to be ticked”, or if you experience any measure of suffering by yearning for certain items to become “ticked” sooner, then it’s good to “dissolve those checkboxes” in the present moment every now and then — and realise that there’s nothing wrong with this moment.
Regardless of who you are;
- How rich you are,
- How famous you are,
- How smart you are,
- How popular you are;
… you will never attain all of the conscious states available a human — you will never know what it felt like to be a pre-historic hunter gatherer picking berries in the cool forest, you will never know what it feels like to learn Swahili and reflect in the wisdom of some old Swahili phrase, or kiss Michael Jackson on the cheek in the middle of his performance –There are an infinite set of experiences that are possible for someone to have but simply unavailable for us to have.
Hence, our happiness and fulfilment should not depend on whether or not we’ve attained certain experiences.
So I turned 30
So as I turned 30, probably the most important reflection has been:
How profoundly “enough” life has been.