Finding your purpose and living a meaningful life

Hunter S. Thompson letter of advice to his friend Hume.
I find myself going back to this letter ever so often whenever I feel a bit lost. It’s surprising that someone who was in his early twenties could write something so profound. Highlights by me.

April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal— to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect— between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo— this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.

And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

your friend,
Hunter

How Doctor Who, the series, became a self sustaining living thing much like it’s protagonist

From JMR Higgs in the book KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money:

When the current Doctor Who writers claim that they only became writers because of Doctor Who, they usually credit the series of novels which Whitaker started and which young boys devoured during the 1970s. There is another explanation, however, which comes from the very format of the programme. In the original series, episodes built towards a climax and ended on a cliff hanger in which the Doctor or his friends appeared to be in inescapable danger. Of course, the children watching knew that the Doctor would somehow survive. He always did. The question, then was not would he escape, but how? What could possibly happen to get the Doctor out of that situation? There would be much debate about this in school playgrounds after each episode. And as the kids thought about the problem, their imaginations were being stoked. They were thinking like writers. Indeed, they were trying to write the next episode themselves. What we have here, then, is character of fiction, neither created nor ‘owned’ by any one imagination, who is actively creating the very environment – writers’ minds – that it needs to survive into the future. Not only is Doctor Who a fictitious character that acts like a living thing by constantly evolving and surviving, it is also a self-sustaining living thing that creates the one thing that it needs to survive. From an evolutionary point of view, that’s impressive.

It’s hard to think that the creators of doctor who thought this far ahead of the show they co-created. It goes to show that when you give birth to an idea that idea will live outside of yourself in the real world. It can become so much more than anything you imagine.

Mistakes were made (But not by me)

This is a meaty book but it was definitely worth the read. I would say this book at the greatest impact of all the books I’ve read so far this year (I’m now going on to the twelfth).

Mistakes were Made explains how we come to rationalize bad and often harmful decisions and maintain foolish beliefs that we would  have no difficulty recognizing as such in others. Like when you get caught speeding, you’re likely gonna have some excuse for it. Like you were late, or there was no one else on the road so it’s all good. But when you witness someone else speeding it’s the last think in your mind that they are justified in doing so. You might even say they’re a reckless sun-of-a-* .  Why we do this is because of what is called cognitive dissonance. The authors write:

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.”

Dissonance produces mental discomfort that ranges from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (after all, obesity is a health risk too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.

The authors also go on to show how a person with a strong moral compass can find herself taking actions that are far removed from what they would consider “the right thing to do”. As illustrated in the story told by a doctor who got caught in the pockets of Big Pharma:

It’s kind of like you’re a woman at a party, and your boss says to you, “Look, do me a favor: be nice to this guy over there.” And you see the guy is not bad-looking, and you’re unattached, so you say, “Why not? I can be nice.” Soon you find yourself on the way to a Bangkok brothel in the cargo hold of an unmarked plane. And you say, “Whoa, this is not what I agreed to.” But then you have to ask yourself: “When did the prostitution actually start? Wasn’t it at that party?”

How these decisions happen and how we find ourselves in these situations is just one part of the story. There is also the element of false memories that we create without knowing. Think on this:

We do not remember everything that happens to us; we select only highlights. (If we didn’t forget, our minds could not work efficiently, because they would be cluttered with mental junk—the temperature last Wednesday, a boring conversation on the bus, every phone number we ever dialed.) Moreover, recovering a memory is not at all like retrieving a file or playing a tape; it is like watching a few unconnected frames of a film and then figuring out what the rest of the scene must have been like. We may reproduce poetry, jokes, and other kinds of information by rote, but when we remember complex information, we shape it to fit it into a story line. Because memory is reconstructive, it is subject to confabulation—confusing an event that happened to someone else with one that happened to you, or coming to believe that you remember something that never happened. In reconstructing a memory, people draw on many sources.

Though a lot of the book covers the effects of self-justification on one’s self it also touches on more serious things like the criminal justice system. It shows how with a lack of training against self-justification there are cops and prosecutors that have made mistakes at great cost to regular civilians. The authors show that even in the face of overwhelming evidence law enforcement will stick to what is objectively the wrong verdict as a means to combat cognitive dissonance. That’s how powerful this part of our psyche is. Have a look at the cases of the central park five or the Thomas Lee Goldstean investigation (also in the  book). Anyone from the outside could see how wrong the investigators were. But once they started down the road of prosecuting these innocent individuals they couldn’t bring themselves to see the error. Admitting they made a mistake would mean admitting they could have in the past.  And that would be at odds with the view that they are ‘good’ people. So the solution was one of self justification — It’s the evidence that is wrong.

There is hope

The authors do give some pointers on how to guard against self-justification. The main one is being aware of dissonance and how it works. So reading this book is a great start. I highly recommend this book to everyone. Not just for those interested in a bit of psychology.  You can check out some of my notes and highlights here.

Thanks for following along.

Cheers,
Bill

Putting yourself out there is how you get noticed

I chose this book as my first review since it helped push me to creating this site as well as getting my  further in the public domain.

Creatives often find trouble creating while at the same time getting their work seen. Or worse balancing the idea of sellout vs just creating what they feel like. What Austin Kleon attempts in Show Your Work is to teach a way of making your work discoverable while you focus on getting really good at what you do.

Though I work online, I’ve always had some discomfort with sharing too much online. This is a book for people like me. The author says “it’s for people who hate the idea of self promotion”.  Also for people who haven’t realized that most of us are amateurs. And there’s nothing wrong with being reveled as one:

We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur – the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means ‘lover’), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career – who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have so little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are a few.”
In every chapter there are examples of instances where geniuses we thought became successful solely on the merits of their work, were actually helped along by “showing their work” in one way or another. They also became good at what they do by actually doing it. In the same way if you are to find your voice, you need to use it. Rings true with the saying “If you wait until you’re ready, it’s almost certainly too late.”

start of a chapter from Show Your Work
It sounds extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. We all have the opportunity to use our voices, to have our say, but so many of us are wasting it. If you want people to know about what you do and the things you care about, you have to share.
And if you are scared to be embarrassed, or to make a mistake:

Steve Jobs on how looming death allowed him to do what is important.

Another great chapter touches on taking people behind the scenes of your work. Because we don’t want to be seen as tacky or inept we shy away from showing the process. And that is one of the reasons why myths like the overnight success exist.

A lot of people are so used to just seeing the outcome of work. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome.
Michael Jackson

I like how Michael Jackson put it. Most portfolios show outcome of work and not the work itself. the work is what goes into achieving the outcome.  Showing the process also allow the audience to connect with the outcome. As per Brené Brown:

In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen really seen.
Brené Brown

And then there’s the chapter Share Your Trade Secrets.

The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
Annie Dillard

The funny thing about sharing your trade secrets is that doing so is akin to teaching. And with teaching the more you teach the more you learn. The more you let people in on your work the more interest people will have in your work.

Other than sharing, he touches on the subject of guarding your mental space so you can create. He calls this the vampire test:

If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire. If after hanging out with someone you still feel full of energy, that person is not a vampire. Of course, the vampire test works on many things in our lives,
not just people — you can apply it to jobs, hobbies, places, etc.
Against being a ‘sellout’

Show Your Work is a great book to read, especially if you have a shitty resume like myself. There’s nothing shameful about self-promotion. Finding ways to do what you love, share it, and make a living from it is in my opinion what life is about.

Thanks for following along. Hit me up in the comments let me know what you think.

Cheers,
Bill