Thursday, February 08, 2007

Living Life on Purpose -- Sort of...

[Editor’s Note: This is a largely autobiographical trip through my life this past week. I don’t know if it will really be of use to anyone but me. But I hope you can find something of value in it. Because I’m sure we’ve all felt like I felt this week at least once in our lives. If not far too many more times.]

Man, today was a roller-coaster of a day. No doubt about it. It had some of the highest highs and the lowest lows of this week. And I must say, I don’t think I liked very much of either.

The funny thing is that all of these “high highs” and “low lows” happened solely in my head. They didn’t have anything much at all to do with my objective circumstances. But that more than not tends to be the case with me. Of course, I have had those moments where my circumstances dictated directly my emotions, but more and more as of late that hasn’t been the case.

Anyway, I suppose I’ll share with you the meaning of my lowest lows, and some thoughts that have managed to get me out of the gutter [again].

You might have read about my existential angst. Well, I guess that might be a little too powerful a term for what I was feeling. Let me put it this way: at the moments when I didn’t have anything to do this week, I felt like complete crap. As in, assuming I’m a work-a-holic, I felt like I’d just gone cold turkey. The worst part was that I neither forced myself to do something productive nor did I just sit there for a moment, take a deep breath, and relax and realize that I was creating the entire drama of my life. No, instead I just continued to flit about doing unproductive things, the entire time thinking about how unproductive I was being. Ugh. Talk about a recipe for disaster!

And I suppose there’s a little bit more to this than I let show in the last paragraph. Why DO I feel like such crap when I’m not doing anything? Tons of reasons, but the main one is pretty simple: a complete lack of self-esteem. Which seems pretty silly coming from someone that seems so hell bent on the idea that he doesn’t have a self. :) But you’ll just have to stick with me on this one. Here we go….

So, when all you do all day is read about the greatest minds in the world, watch movies about the best engineers, scientists, artists, etc, listen to podcasts about the brightest men and women in the field of computing, you very quickly start to think to yourself, “Well, shit, what am I doing?” And the first thought that flits into my already [at this point] fallow mind is, “NOTHING.”

Let me repeat that. NOTHING. That’s a pretty scary thought to have if all you ever focus on is how much you want to make it big in the world, how much you want to make a difference. If the first thought that comes to mind when you think about where you’re life is going is nowhere, then shit, forget about it. That’s a one stop ticket to depression-ville.

And sure, I could get myself to step back and say, “Well, hold on one minute, you’re not doing NOTHING. You’re attending college, getting good grades, reading, writing, learning, and experimenting with who you are and what you believe. Add to that any of the misc. activities you do throughout the day, and you’re actually doing SOMEthing, not NOthing!” But then the downer part my brain say, “Dude, yeah, that’s cool. But, uh, when’s the last time your writing got you a prize? And when’s the last time your reading made you learn something that completely changed your life? If you’re in it for the greatness, you’re doing a shitty job!” Shot down again.

And that’s about where I found myself today. This morning, I managed to cheer myself up with the promise that I should set a bunch of short term objectives for myself. Like getting up at 06:30 every day, or making sure I get some form of exercise in every day. That worked for a little while, until the little goals started to just seem, well, little again. And the fact is, I’m afraid to ask about the big goals because I don’t think I have an answer. Sure, I have the vague, “I wanna be a nanobiotechnologist!” But half the time I don’t even know if I really believe that’s true. I don’t know if this whole science thing is really cut out for me. With all the labs and hands-on stuff, I practically shit my pants every lab. And frankly, I don’t know if I’m smart enough [make that creative enough]. Talk about worrying too much about the destination! Yeah, I read “personal development” / religious / psychology texts. But clearly I hadn’t soaked any of it up yet.

So, I drifted through today wondering how the hell to fix the problem. Mostly, I tried my normal “opiates” like surfing the web, writing random stream-of-consciousness journals, and watching the Daily Show. All of those didn’t take the edge off. Most of the time, they just made things worse. I ended up with a headache and a major case of the blues.

But then I kept stumbling around in the dark, and as with all things, I eventually stubbed my toe. I flitted the idea of just filling my day with pleasurable and enjoyable things [there is a distinction that I might get into later]. Just not worrying so much about where I’m going and focusing more on the now, on just making this moment more enjoyable. And that started to get the joyful juices flowing. And then, in my continued fall to the ground, I stumbled on an article called Purposive Drift: Making It Up as We Go Along by Richard Oliver. And that’s when I realized that’s what I wanted to do. Stop trying to figure out where I’m going to be ten years from now, let alone ten days from now. Life’s too random for that.

What I can do, though, is figure out how I want to live, if not WHAT I want to live. To figure out the purpose and then let the rest of life flow from that. When speaking of a successful high tech company, Oliver explained:

However, there was a common thread that ran through its history. A core value, something that was crucial to the company's sense of well-being, was that its people liked working on hard computing problems. Its history could be described as a constant scanning of their context to find niches where they could satisfy this value and remain profitable. As their context changed, they changed, but retained the key values that gave them their sense of identity.

But, there was something else going on as well. As they moved through their trajectory from niche to niche, they were also building up their repertoire of competencies—the things they could do. Their developing repertoire of competencies not only meant that they could do more things; it also gave them the ability to see new opportunities as they arose. For example, the rise of the internet and the growth of the World Wide Web, which for many similar companies posed a serious threat, was a change of context that they accommodated with relative ease.

That’s the best I can do. To keep doing what I love, namely learning. And realize that the learning isn’t a waste of time. No matter what it is that I’m learning, I’m exercising the learning muscle itself, which will make any learning in the future easier.

This all weaves together a pretty powerful tapestry of how to live ones life. Something to the effect of, “Go with the flow, but make sure you’re in the right river!” I like that kind of thinking. And it makes my headache and bad feelings go away. And if there’s one thing that we can [and should trust] to tell us if what we’re doing is really right for us, it’s our feelings.

If you feel like shit, change what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re insane.

I don’t want to be insane anymore.


PS - This is clearly a pretty rudimentary life philosophy that could definitely use a lot more unpacking. But most of my ideas tend to come like that. Especially when they’re not 100% my own. Sadly, in most cases, they end up like the boxes used during a big move: stashed in the corner and left unopen. Lets hope not this time.

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