I saw this New York Times column by Emily Esfahani Smith last fall and filed it away to reference later. I ended up reading her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.
She makes the case that a good life is one that most likely looks quite ordinary and unexceptional. You don’t need to live a life that makes the headlines or history books in order to consider yourself a success. If that’s the measure, very few will ever make it. And we all know of too many famous people whose lives seemed to be especially unsatisfying.
The good life that’s in reach for the vast majority of us, though, is marked by authentic human connection and small, mostly unnoticed acts of kindness and meaningful contribution.
Aiming for fame will frustrate and disappoint, whether you get there or not.
The best bet, I think, is to focus on what you can give instead of what you want to get.
In her column, Smith cites this moving line from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:
“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Unhistoric acts of kindness and beauty by those unknown to us have filled our world with much of its goodness. We can pay that forward to the benefit of all while safeguarding our own best chance at a life well lived.
I get The Daily Stoic daily email. Today’s email quoted this passage from Walker Percy’s book, The Moviegoer:
“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”
I read this and smiled and got up from my desk with a little more courage.
Lately I’ve been feeling a little less sure and a little more lost than normal.
I don’t seem to be getting wiser as I get older. I’m just becoming even more aware of how little I truly know. Or maybe that’s what getting wiser is all about. If so, wisdom is not living up to the hype.
Regardless, I do know that I can live by my “lights”, by my meager understanding of what it means to be good and to do good.
I know how it feels to come alive, even momentarily, and shake off the half-hearted, half-asleep caution that most of us cower behind perpetually.
I can fight. I can attempt to rise, knowing I’ll still go down sooner or later. But in merely making the attempt I will prevail and fleetingly defy the gravity that aims to keep us from escape velocity.
Make the attempt. Shine where you can. Get up and get going and put up a fight. Be the hero of your own life.
I recently listened to some fascinating interviews:
Shane Parrish interviewed Naval Ravikant on Parrish’s podcast, The Knowledge Project. Ravikant is thoughtful and interesting and candid and often counterintuitive. And Parrish is a solid interviewer. He sets a good pace and does a nice job of facilitating and keeping the focus on the interviewee.
Tyler Cowen interviewed the author Malcolm Gladwell on Cowen’s podcast, Conversations With Tyler. Two sharp minds in a very entertaining question and answer session.
Ezra Klein interviewed the author Yuval Harari on The Ezra Klein Show. (I then searched Klein’s podcast episodes and also enjoyed listening to his conversation with the author Elizabeth Kolbert who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sixth Extinction. Klein also has a new podcast up with a great interview of Tyler Cowen that is fast-paced and packed with information.)
Harari wrote the book Sapiens, which is the most remarkable book I’ve read in the last two years. It’s a sweeping, refreshingly readable, and enlightening history of humankind.
I’ve just begun reading Harari’s follow up book, Homo Deus, which looks forward to what humans might become. This book hasn’t grabbed me yet like Sapiens did. (I like Sapiens so much I’ve read the e-book version more than once, I bought a hardcover copy just to have on my shelf, and I’ve listened to the audiobook.)
As for other books, my little side table can barely hold the books that are in my current reading buffet. It’s a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction. I don’t wait to finish a book before adding new books to my stack. If the description of a book grabs me, I grab it.
Have no shame in your library game. Stockpile the books that interest you. Don’t feel bad if you never get to them all. And don’t hesitate to move on if a book doesn’t interest you enough to finish it.
Even just one excellent paragraph that stretches your mind and awakens a new possibility is worth the price of a book.
“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.” –Epictetus, Discourses 1.18.21
(I came across this while catching up on my reading of The Daily Stoic, which has become a delightfully bracing start to most of my mornings.)
I had an interpersonal communication class in college where I first encountered this principle. The professor pointed out that most of us regularly say something like “You make me mad!”
No other person or external event, she said, can make you have a certain emotion. You generate that emotion on your own.
As Victor Frankl made clear in Man’s Search for Meaning (which is a powerful little book overdue to be reread), there is a gap between stimulus and response. And it’s in that gap that we can choose how to respond.
It may be a tiny gap and we may be conditioned to forfeit our range of choices in that gap, but we have the power to choose our response.
This is hard and it puts us on the spot and removes our claims to victimhood.
It takes practice—catching yourself at the moment of choice repeatedly, seeing the gap and owning the choice.
With concentrated effort and mindfulness, though, the gap between stimulus and response will seem to grow and your range of reasoned choices will offer clarity and a reassuring power over your actions. You will feel invincible.
I had been shuffling through an increasingly large stack (hard copies and e-books) of partially read books, dipping in and out without making much progress on any one book.
For my week off at the beach, though, I decided to go all in on this fantasy novel, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
And it’s been terrific. This was the debut novel by Rothfuss, and it’s living up to the near universal acclaim it received.
It is beautifully written with clear, evocative prose, and it tells a compelling story filled with characters worth caring about.
When the world seems too much with you, there’s nothing like a change of scenery. Take a vacation if you can get away. But at least, give your imagination an adventure with some invigorating fiction.
Non-fiction by day, fiction by night.
I enjoyed Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, his excellent novel of the battle of Thermopylae.
His non-fiction masterpiece, The War of Art, remains a key influence in my approach to the creative life and is one of a few books that merits rereading regularly.
Fiction has been missing from my life recently, so I’m embarking on this story set in ancient Greece. A novel at night is a great way to end the day and nurture your imagination.
When something is sparking your curiosity or rolling about in your subconscious, you start seeing it appear in your everyday life as though the universe is in sync with you.
For example, when you buy a new car, or have your eye on one, all of sudden you start seeing that particular car everywhere. Your brain is simply more attuned to what you’ve chosen to focus on.
Lately I’ve been exploring the significance of community and connection and meaningful relationships as keys to a good life. And stories and articles and books that propel that theme even further keep popping up on my radar.
I just came across (and downloaded) Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe. His TED Talk on the topic is compelling, and his interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast is fantastic.
The premise is that millions of years of evolution shaped humans into social animals, and tribal creatures particularly. Our modern society is deficient in some of the basic tribal dynamics that are necessary for us to be fully functional and to more healthfully deal with the traumas of life.
It is all about relationships.