I binge-read Mark Manson's _The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck_ last Thursday and Friday. It's not a self-instruction on narcissism or overconfidence. A more accurate, but less exciting, and even less informative title might have been, "How not to live a meaningful life, maybe what to do instead, and other musings on personal values in models in modern society".
I've read most of the essays on his site that inspired and contributed to the book, but it was a decent read. It still left me short of clear solutions to things, which of course is why I am still thinking and writing about all this.
What it did remind me about, and help me clarify: the centrality of personal values. I think this is one of the biggest sources of internal emotional turmoil in my life.
A major message in _Subtle Art_ was that you need to be careful how you frame your life actions and experiences, especially your efforts, struggles, and suffering, if you want your life to feel consistently meaningful. Most of us know about the common traps: assuming obtaining material goods or comfort will make you happy and fulfilled. (That second part, fulfilled, is more important to me, because I feel, like Manson, that happiness is a transient thing, and focusing on it tempts us to focus on what the world gives to us, rather than our own actions.)
Another trap, that I'm glad to be seeing elsewhere, is the trap of needing to be extraordinary in order to feel worthy as a person. That's something that took me a long time to accept as a criticism that applies to my own life. I thought: it doesn't apply to me because all I'm trying to do is to demonstrate that it was all worth it, despite all my mistakes. I can accept that any kind of need to prove something is basically equivalent to needing to be extraordinary. But the emotions that drive that mindset are still things I'm struggling with for now.
These two extremes aside, the part of the book that I found the most interesting, even though I'm sure I'd read part of it in a blog post before, was the idea of choosing your _suffering_ rather than chasing your ideal lifestyle. I'm not going to peek to see exactly what words he used. We are all going to suffer, we are all going to have struggles in our lives. The question is: what do you want your struggle to be about?
It's not: what outcome is worth the discomfort. I think that's the part that still is throwing me off, because I feel that in order for something to be worthwhile, it should have a good payoff.
But otherwise, what? Otherwise it's a bad idea. Otherwise it's a waste. But that isn't really my assessment. That's other people's values barging in. That's society's status assessment on the worth of your undertaking.
But, I mean, that already exists in two rough forms. One is the market. The other is popular fame. And both ways that society tends to evaluate people's undertakings pretty much suck, in what they overlook, what they fail to acknowledge, and in the kind of dumb stuff that they reward.
Anyway, I like the idea about chasing your particular struggle. This encourages either a process or value orientation over a goal orientation.
Some background on that: Ribbonfarm's Venkatesh Rao lays out a model that classifies people into three basic life orientations: values-oriented, goals-oriented, and process-oriented. It's in a blog post written by him that I liked: How to Fall Off the Wagon. It tries to elaborate on patterns and archetypes. I don't think it's all that correct of a model, but it did get me thinking about things.
As the post explains, all of us will think in terms of goals, processes, and values in different places. But his theory is that each of us, at any particular place in our life, tends to have one overall orientation at a time.
I have tended to be very goal-oriented for a long time. This remained the same even after reading that article and reflecting on the weaknesses of chasing after goals. Even before that, I understood that goals can get hijacked easily, especially by some sense of what other people think you _should_ be working towards.
That's the part that's historically caused problems for me. Since I was young, I've been in search for my own path for generating meaning. But instead of earnestly focusing on that, I tried to tackle a broad set of the wrong things. I hadn't acknowledged my own limitations, partly because I still hadn't had a chance to discover them.
Right now there's still a conflict between the goals that someone in my position _should_ have, versus the things I actually want.
I know at the beginning of this post I said the conflict was over values. That is still more true, because these goals I feel pressured to embrace ultimately come from external values.
Some of that just translates to, "What would reasonable people think of what I am doing?"
Or even, "What would reasonable people _see_ me as doing?"
That last part gets to me, especially with its tie-in to impostor syndrome: if other people saw what was really going on behind the scenes, they'd be appalled and lose all respect for me.
What a trainwreck! What a mess! Forget everything else—get your shit together! And so on.
That still vexes me a lot, but I think looking at things from the perspective of chasing meaning through _process_ equips me with the beginnings of an answer.
A few years back, there was a period where it felt like most interactions I had with all but a few friends and acquaintances was a back and forth on the question, "What the hell are you doing with your life?"
That hasn't been the case recently. I think partly, I've lost touch with people, and partly, it looks like I have a clearer idea about what I am doing. I am actually trying to get shit together. And you know, maybe that would still be the case even under the surface.
I anticipate the conflict when I imagine being open about feeling lost, or frustrated, lonely, depressed, or ashamed. I have the fear and expectation that when you do that, it is, to the rest of the world, an admission that there is something wrong with you, and an invitation of loss of confidence in your own ability to make decisions.
I do have some real life experience when that has happened sometimes—ranging from overzealous advice, to misguided attempts by family members to wrest control away from me when I got in trouble.
But that's usually wrong, too. Because for a while now, when I talk about my problems, unless I specifically ask people, "Do you have any suggestions?" often, the first responses I get from my friends... are questions.
"What do you think you are going to do?"
"What are your options?"
It comes back to me. While that can also be frustrating at times, it also means the people around me do see me as capable of making my own decisions, and sorting out my own priorities. We might just have a misunderstanding about what priorities we have in common, or not.
Even when I get blasted by a billion questions by relatives, I think it also shows their expectation that I've thought things out.
And usually, I really have tried to think things out, even if I haven't come to a suitable conclusion.
Another important point of the book went like this: in today's America, there is a popular notion that if you're struggling, if you're suffering, if you're having a negative experience, unless you can squarely blame that on someone else, there's something _wrong with you_. If you can't somehow publicly prove that you're constantly happy and your life isn't _the best_, it is lame and stupid.
Along with that is widespread lack of acknowledgement that maybe challenges, setbacks, and failures are part of doing something worthwhile.
And there is an even greater blindness that most worthwhile things _aren't_ extraordinary.
I'm ending up injecting a lot of extra background into this. I was trying to get to a certain point about process and choosing the right struggle.
A lot of the actions I will be taking will have uncertain payoffs. It's going to be a lot of improvisation, maybe for a very long time.
That might not be a bad thing. Somehow, I still haven't accepted, emotionally, that I'm good at this. But it's the only way I've found myself out of pinches, since I'm not great at making steady, predictable, sustainable progress. In fact, it's usually when I try to concoct some kind of sure way forward that I get stuck in something unsustainable.
But somehow, the uncertainty still bothers me. It gets in the way of negotiating plans with other people. The worries gnaw on my brain during spare moments. It's still scary.
Meanwhile, many actions with more certain payoffs don't contribute all that much to the future. They are sometimes completely against what I'm trying to do, but more often, they're just immediate gratification—or release from fear. It's often easy to get distracted, procrastinate, goof off, overeat, and binge watch irrelevant videos, especially if it blocks out anxieties and their physical symptoms.
Amid all this fear and worry and desire to escape from the present comes the voice that says, "Why do you have to make things this hard? Can't you find happiness doing things the normal way?"
The answer has been no, but I haven't really been able to explain. And that becomes another anxiety on top of the already-existing fear. If it drags on for a day, unless I find a way to clarify my thoughts, it's enough to take me into depression for the rest of the week.
Before, the best answer I had was that my goals are not generic like everyone else's. It's the difference between wanting to get good at a particular game you are interested in, versus just finding a game where you can win a lot, and have fun calling yourself a winner. It's the difference between a unique experience versus a commodity. Or creating art versus creating entertainment.
I think this does still hold true, because the distinction between universals and particulars can arise if you model things as networks. Nodes are not unique by themselves, but can take on very unique properties based on their roles in their graphs/networks—how they are connected to other things.
But that gets too abstract, and it was still incomplete as a reply. I mean, sometimes you can't get what you want. If you can't get something you want, are you just going to refuse to settle for anything else forever? What if you want something that is impossible or unlikely—like being an NBA star at 4'11"? Shouldn't you focus on something else more worthwhile?
That's the weakness, because that whole discussion takes place in a goals frame of reference.
But that perspective has an even bigger weakness. Because, if you are looking at goals as endpoints, most of your life will be spent working to get to that some time.
The question, "What if it's not worth it?" is valid.
But if you take a process orientation, and ask: what is the path worth walking, even if it falls short of complete success in the end? What is the fight worth fighting on a daily basis, even if causes you to bleed?
I think many folks have strong opinions on this. But if they try to push their views on you without respecting your experience, if they try to call you _bad_ for wanting to devote your day-to-day experience to something different, it is easier to see through their bullshit. And I think it is easier for me to see through my own fears.