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,

What are your guiding principles?

A gentleman asked me yesterday “What are your guiding principle? What guides your decisions?” Then this morning I woke up to this being the next page of the Daily Stoic book I’m currently reading:

Character is a powerful defense in a world that would love to be able to seduce you, buy you, tempt you, and change you. If you know what you believe and why you believe it, you’ll avoid poisonous relationships, toxic jobs, fair-weather friends, and any number of ills that afflict people who haven’t thought through their deepest concerns. That’s your education. That’s why you do this work.

I got caught a bit off guard with that question but I could immediately think of two things:

  1. Will my decision or action cause injury to others and
  2. Am I being true to myself

I must admit though that often I fail in the second but I’m getting better at it. It helps that whenever I fail it usually comes back to bite me in the ass down the road. A good dose of negative re-enforcement. I don’t think those two items are sufficient to call them my only guiding principles. I think I do need to at least create a set of principles to measure my decisions again. See how they serve me and tweak as necessary.

These things I know for sure

This list of 16 truths is said to be written by Andrea Zittel. I can’t find the original source but if you do please let me know so I can attribute.

  1. It is a human trait to organize things into categories. Inventing categories creates an illusion that there is an overriding rationale in the way that the word works.
  2.  Surfaces that are “easy to clean” also show dirt more. In reality a surface that camouflages dirt is much more practical than one that is easy to clean.
  3. Maintenance takes time and energy that can sometimes impede other forms or progress such as learning about new things.
  4. All materials ultimately deteriorate and show signs of wear. It is therefore important to create designs that will look better after years of distress.
  5. A perfect filling system can sometimes decrease efficiency. For instance, when letters and bills are filed away too quickly, it is easy to forget to respond to them.
  6. Many “progressive” designs actually hark back towards a lost idea of nature or a more “original form.”
  7. Ambiguity in visual design ultimately leads to a greater variety of functions than designs that are functionally fixed.
  8. No matter how many options there are, it is human nature to always narrow things down to two polar, yet inextricably linked choices.
  9. The creation of rules is more creative than the destruction of them. Creation demands a higher level of reasoning and draws connections between cause and effect. The best rules are never stable or permanent, but evolve, naturally according to content or need.
  10. What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves.
  11. Things that we think are liberating can ultimately become restrictive, and things that we initially think are controlling can sometimes give us a sense of comfort and security.
  12. Ideas seem to gestate best in a void— when that void is filled, it is more difficult to access them. In our consumption-driven society, almost all voids are filled, blocking moments of greater clarity and creativity. Things that block voids are called “avoids.”
  13. Sometimes if you can’t change a situation, you just have to change the way you think about the situation.
  14. People are most happy when they are moving towards something not quite yet attained (I also wonder if this extends as well to the sensation of physical motion in space. I believe that I am happier when I am in a plane or car because I am moving towards an identifiable and attainable goal.)
  15. What you own, owns you.
  16. Personal truths are often perceived as universal truths. For instance it is easy to imagine that a system or design works well for oneself will work for everyone else.

Beautiful people do not just happen

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
-Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
For a bit of perspective, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist who spent much of her time with terminally ill patients who had only a few months to live. You might know her work by way of “The five stages of grief”, a theory she shared in 1969 and is pretty famous today. Her life of working with the ill and dying provides some insight into the mind behind this quote.

Another quote from an interview she did rings true of life

In Switzerland I was educated in line with the basic premise: work work work. You are only a valuable human being if you work. This is utterly wrong. Half working, half dancing – that is the right mixture. I myself have danced and played too little.

The Attention Economy, Weinstein and Living a Baddass Life

This is my first week of publishing my “what I’m reading” articles list.  I can’t promise the topics will be in the same field each week as my interests are broad, but you might find a slight skew to tech, science and the outdoors.  If you enjoy these articles share them, share this page and  if you come across something you think I should read drop it in the comments. Thanks.

This Week’s Reads

  1.  The Attention Economy Is Screwing Us – The people who made our smartphones so addictive are now grown ups and more of them are questioning their creations. Among the less than surprising facts, is the great lengths that some of these persons go to to protect themselves and their kids from their own creation. What does that leave for the rest of us  that don’t realize what is happening?The negative effects of these tech inventions are broad. Concerns includes techs contribution to limiting peoples ability to focus and even lowering IQ. Then there is  the “psychologically manipulative advertising” which causes one to question how soon technology, through it’s ability to manipulate, will undermine democracy. Or it might already have.
    If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves – faculties that are essential to self-governance – what hope is there for democracy itself?
    Side note I saw this study mentioned in the article a while ago that shows the effects that the mere presence of a smart phone does to your cognitive capacity. Even when the phone is turned off. I’ve since gone most nights to bed leaving my phone in another room and I can say I’ve noticed the difference in how well I sleep.
    See Article here [Paul Lewis for The Guardian]
  2. Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent – A woman who has the financial means, or weather the lack of income, is more likely to come forward against the very man that could put her in “economic exile”. This explains why Weinstein got away for so long being a sleazeball. The author says it best:
    Because consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it. In many cases women do not have that power because their livelihood is in jeopardy and because they are the gender that is oppressed by a daily, invisible war waged against all that is feminine—women and humans who behave or dress or think or feel or look feminine.
    See article here [Brit Marlin for The Atlantic]
  3. The key to a badass life was learning to listen to a different voice –  Kimi Werner is a spearfisher, freediver, shark whisperer, chef, artist, and entrepreneur. That’s quite a bit of stuff for one person. There’s so much good in this profile but here are some of my favorites: 
    the real risk is in becoming a “zombie who doesn’t ever think about where their food comes from,” helpless in the absence of a Safeway. “Our world is so based on efficiency and convenience,” she says. “I think something in your life is really missing if you decide to just shut off your brain and consume.” About 80 percent of everything Werner eats, or cooks for others, comes from hunting, growing, foraging, or trading.
    “I hate it when they say ‘man and the ecosystem,’ ” Werner says. “Because we’re part of the ecosystem.” And, she adds, “we’re not necessarily at the top of the food chain.” 
    As always, people had plenty of advice: Get a real job or you’re headed for failure. You’re not getting any younger, you know. No one can make a living this way. Werner recalls the stricken face of one woman who’d asked about her career plans: “It was such a look of concern and confusion. And I just started laughing, because I didn’t know what else to do.”
    See article here [Susan Casey for Outside Magazine]

That’s it for my first week. A short list but it was a busy week so there’s that. Thanks for following along.