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“To win true freedom, you must be a slave to philosophy.”—Epicurus

The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was once sitting in a park having a philosophical discussion with a friend when his friend, quite animated, stood up and said loudly, “That is a tree! I know for a fact that that is a tree!” An awkward pause ensued as the two men realized that passersby had stopped and were now staring at them. Wittgenstein, thinking quickly, turned to the people and said, “Do not worry, this fellow is not insane… we are merely doing philosophy.”

When most people think of philosophy, they likely imagine indecipherable books that stretch on for a thousand pages, saying and solving nothing. They envision stuffy old men in misbuttoned shirts, untied shoelaces with mismatched socks, shuffling about hallways of some archaic university, mumbling to themselves, completely unaware of the humanity around them.

As an undergraduate in university, when I told people that I was considering choosing philosophy as a major, they often looked at me with some mixture of horror and confusion, as though I had just told them I was considering shoving a stick of butter up my ass. One friend even went as far as to say, “Dude, why would you do that to yourself?”

Philosophy has been a favorite punching bag for centuries. The criticisms are worn and weathered: philosophy doesn’t actually solve anything; philosophers simply argue about arguing; science tells us all we need to know, therefore philosophy is no longer relevant, and so on.

These criticisms are hardly new. And they haven’t been limited to whinging college students or skeptical parents either. In fact, the critics have been many of the famous philosophers themselves. Albert Camus vehemently insisted that he was not a philosopher and would correct journalists if they referred to him as one. Schopenhauer considered most of the philosophers of his day—stalwarts such as Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling—to be navel-gazing hucksters and frauds. Karl Marx even went so far as to write, “Philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love.”1

Ouch…

But it was those intellectual titans of our age—Monty Python—who perhaps captured these criticisms best with their classic satirical bit, “Philosophy Football:”

Caption: “Hegel is arguing that reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside.”

All of this is to say that from the outset, I realize that I’m marching into an uphill battle here. Philosophy isn’t for the cool kids. Philosophy is seemingly lots of mental effort for little reward. Philosophy is not practical nor does it solve any relevant questions anymore. We have science. We have big data and artificial intelligence. Who cares if we can ever actually know if a tree is a tree, right?

Needless to say, I disagree with the haters. Philosophy is useful. It’s also important. In fact, I will go as far as to argue that philosophy is likely more useful and important to the average person in the 21st century than any other time in human history.

So buckle up—shit’s about to get real… just as soon as we figure out what exactly the word “real” means.

What is Philosophy?

“Science is what you know. Philosophy is what you don’t know.” — Bertrand Russell

Here’s a funny little quirk about those criticisms of philosophy: in order to criticize philosophy, you must engage in philosophy.

Philosophy is the inquiry into our understanding of reality, knowledge, and how we should live. When you string thoughts together into a coherent belief system, you are weaving together a philosophy. When you make value judgments to determine what is good and what is bad, you are relying upon a philosophy. When you are laughing at the ridiculousness of a book that has statements such as, “Being is the being of a being,”—well, hate to break it to you, but you are engaging in philosophy.2

Philosophy is, therefore, undismissable for the simple reason that it encompasses all of conscious experience. To criticize philosophy, you must rely on some degree of philosophy. To shit on systematic frameworks of understanding, you must generate a systematic framework of understanding.

This little logical conundrum is known as the “performative contradiction.” And where does it come from? That’s right, motherfuckers: it comes from philosophy.

Philosophy boils down to three major questions:3

  1. What is true about existence? (Metaphysics)
  2. How can we know that it is true? (Epistemology)
  3. What actions should we take as a result of this knowledge? (Ethics)

I would say, “That’s it,” but all three of these questions have resulted in thousands of years of inquiry and debate with little consensus emerging on any of them.

That may sound ridiculous but that doesn’t mean that huge progress has not been made in philosophy. Much has. Over millennia, epistemology has given us science, logic/reason, economics, psychology, and many of the theories of knowledge that underpin our political systems and societies today.

Similarly, over the millennia, our understanding of ethics has progressed to the point where we no longer enslave vast portions of the population, systematically burn people alive for their beliefs, or watch people get eaten alive by angry lions in an arena for weekend entertainment.

Today, concepts such as democracy and human rights have generally been accepted the world over. In fact, the “expanding circle” of empathy has grown so much in recent centuries that we now not only concern ourselves with human welfare, but we see the treatment of animals and the environment as ethical issues as well.4

And in terms of metaphysics… well, in the past four hundred years we’ve gone from, “I think; therefore, I am,”5 to “Maybe you’re living in a giant computer simulation?”6

So, uh, I guess that’s progress?

The Matrix - Neo stopping bullets
You already love a movie about metaphysical questions—you just didn’t know it.

Why does philosophy matter?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

Philosophy matters because at some point in our lives we must all ask and answer these questions for ourselves.

  1. What is true?
  2. Why do I believe it to be true?
  3. How should I live based on what I believe?

A failure to answer one or more of these questions will quickly result in what we generally label as a mental or emotional crisis—we fall into depression, succumb to anxiety, struggle to find any sense of meaning or purpose.

Philosophy, therefore, has an immediate and profound impact on our well-being and daily lives. A man knows he’s a brilliant salesman. His entire identity is wrapped up in his ability to accomplish his job, to do his work, and to impress his colleagues.

Then, one day, he gets fired. And not only is he shown that what he believed to be true was wrong, but it now calls into question his actions and motivations for the past twenty years. He doesn’t know what’s true. He doesn’t trust himself to figure out what’s true. He no longer knows what to do. He’s a mental and emotional wreck.

These sorts of events happen to us all. They may be triggered by the loss of a loved one, a dramatic health scare, or just straight up getting our ass kicked at work. But our mental structure for how we see and understand the world collapses and we find ourselves lost, unable to determine what is true about ourselves, about our lives, or about the world.

In fact, you may have heard of these sorts of experiences referred to as an “existential crisis”—as in, “Jane’s husband fucked the mailman and now she’s having an existential crisis.” It’s a term that was originally borrowed from existential philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre and has since become a mainstay in psychology and psychiatry.

The existentialist philosophers said that to regain our composure and mental strength, we need to reconstruct a mental scaffold—we must redefine what we know to be true, how we know it to be true, and how it should dictate our actions. We must find new sources of meaning, more fundamental definitions of identity and purpose, more useful principles for relating to the world.

In many ways, this sort of philosophical reinvention is what therapy is designed to help us do. Practices such as meditation or journaling can be useful, as well. Using these tools, we can slowly re-evaluate our values, shift our beliefs, and take new actions to create a better life for ourselves…

…that is, we can do philosophy.

Philosophy teaches us the fundamental techniques for finding meaning and purpose in a world where there is no given meaning, no cosmic purpose. Philosophy gives us tools to determine what is likely to be important and true and what is likely frivolous and made-up. Philosophy shows us principles to help direct our actions, to determine our worth and values, to generate a magnetic field to direct our internal compass, so that we may never feel lost again.

Philosophy in the 21st Century

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

If we all need to answer the three fundamental questions for ourselves to remain emotionally and mentally healthy, then I would argue that 21st-century life disrupted our ability to answer these questions unlike ever before.

  • What do I know to be true? The flood of information has paradoxically not made us more confident of what is true and untrue, but less. Between fake news, bad science, social media rumors, and manipulative marketing and propaganda, it is harder to know if you can trust the information you come across than any time before.
  • How do I know that it’s true? What’s more, our traditional methods of ascertaining what we know about the world have come under fire. Science is facing a widespread replication crisis.7 Scandals of corruption are being unearthed in almost every major institution. Authorities are distrusted. And to throw even more gasoline on the fire, we are more aware of our own proclivities for irrational biases, prejudices, and false assumptions. Not only do we not know what’s true, but we don’t even know how to figure out what’s true much of the time.
  • How should I live based on what I believe? Without knowing what is true nor how to go about finding truth, it is less clear than ever before how we should live. What is good? What is useful? What is important? We all think we know, but there’s a general uncertainty that I think pervades most of our culture and generates a constant sense of existential anxiety and insecurity.

Philosophy is more important than ever before because it has been deeply contemplating these questions for thousands of years. It has been aware of the traps and failings of the human mind, of the inconclusiveness of all knowledge, of the almost impossible task of deciphering the moral good and acting upon it. When it comes to these existential questions, there are more than a few giants’ shoulders on which we may stand upon.

Below, I’ve written about three distinct ways philosophy can improve your life. It helps you better question what you know. It helps you choose how to live. And it helps you have an impact on the world.

I’ll go over each topic and then at the end of the article, I will give some book recommendations as well as pointers on how to start learning about philosophical ideas on your own.

Philosophy Helps You Question What You Know

“The only thing that I know is that I know nothing.”—Socrates

The beautiful thing about philosophy is that it is in a permanent state of questioning. There is no form of knowledge so assured that philosophy hasn’t grabbed it by the neck and had its way with it a few times.

Take, for example, René Descartes. In 1641, Descartes decided to tackle the first of the primary philosophical questions: “What do I know is true?”

Within about ten pages of writing, Descartes quickly realized that there was almost nothing that you could come up with that you couldn’t imagine a way that it wasn’t true. The room you are sitting in—it could be a hallucination. Your memories could be invented or made up. The news you read or hear about, an elaborate lie.

Descartes went so far as to posit what we today know as “The Matrix” scenario: that we could be asleep and this entire life a dream. In fact, even our choices and decisions could be controlled by some evil, manipulative force. Our self-control could merely be an illusion. He created a thought experiment of an evil demon who could be tricking you into believing that you are alive and free and enjoying this fine afternoon drinking a milkshake. Yet, none of it is real.

Therefore, when it came down to it, Descartes realized that the only thing he could say with absolute certainty was that he existed. Maybe the room was fake. Maybe the world was a dream. Maybe his friends and family never existed. But by the given fact that he could even ask these questions in the first place—the fact that something was conscious and aware—he must exist in some form. He then wrote one of the most famous lines ever: cogito, ergo sum.8

“I think; therefore I am.”

Descartes’ deconstruction of knowledge cleaned the slate and made way for a burst of intellectual creativity in Europe, which has since become known as The Enlightenment. Descartes believed that his insight would provide a fresh beginning for metaphysics (or, the “What can we know that is true?” question) and would lay the foundation for a new form of understanding—an understanding based on logic, reason, and evidence.

Rene Descartes
Descartes believed our only access to truth was through mathematics, that our perceptions were unreliable.

And indeed, it would. Descartes would be hugely influential on a new methodology of understanding that would later come to be known as natural philosophy, or what we today refer to as “science.”

But the mindfuckery didn’t end there. Roughly a hundred years after Descartes, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, at the tender age of 29, published A Treatise on Human Nature, where he demolished the idea of cause/effect and or the assumption that we can predict anything at all.

Bear with me here, as this might sound insane. Hume said, logically speaking, that it is impossible to prove that anything will occur in the future, no matter how often or how regularly it has occurred in the past. If the sun has risen in the east every day for millions of years, that still doesn’t prove it will rise again in the east tomorrow. It simply makes it insanely probable that it will rise in the east.

David Hume - oil canvas portrait
David Hume

We can never be certain something will happen, no matter how many times it’s happened before. The best we can do is come to extremely probable approximations. Just as Descartes showed that we can never be certain that our perceptions are true, Hume showed that we can never be certain that our understanding of cause/effect is true either.

This blew the minds of just about everyone who was paying attention at the time… which was like maybe a few dozen wealthy white dudes.9

But still… As the 18th century proceeded, Hume’s influence grew, and soon his arguments became impossible to ignore. Not much later, a young man in Prussia named Immanuel Kant read Hume’s ideas and said it jolted him awake from a “dogmatic slumber.” It ignited a desire to pick up the mantle of understanding human knowledge and push further, to discover how we can know anything at all. Hume’s writing inspired Kant to become a philosopher.10

Kant took Descartes’ and Hume’s ideas and went even further. He said that there is a difference between our perception of something and the “thing-in-itself.” I can see the tree outside my office window—I am experiencing the light reflecting off of the surface of the tree and interacting with my retinas to stimulate the nervous system in such a way that the appearance of a tree is generated in my mind. I can theoretically reach out and “touch” the tree—that is, I can experience the nerve impulses that trace up my arm from the atoms in my fingers coming close enough to the tree’s atoms that the subatomic forces push them apart and signal to my nervous system that I am “touching” the tree.

But I can never know the tree. I can never experience life as the tree experiences life. No matter how much sensory data I gather about the tree, I can never experience the tree… I can only experience the data. I am limited by my biological equipment to only interpret the tree with the means I have—sight, touch, sense, taste, etc.

Therefore, one could say that I do not know that there is a tree. All I know is that there are cognitive reflections occurring in my mind of a tree. The tree’s true existence, its fundamental treeness, is forever unavailable to me.

Now, I know what you’re saying… “Yeah, Mark, but seriously. That is a tree. I know that that is a tree!”

And now who’s the crazy man standing in the park?

Philosophy and the tree - does it exist?
Is it a tree? Or just a figment of our perception?

Okay, okay—so why the fuck am I bothering going through all of this? This is just mental masturbation, right? What does this have to do with anything?

These inquiries into human understanding raise many important points. But here are two:

  1. In the past century, psychologists have caught up to what these philosophers were saying: that we are limited and confined by our biological and neurological hardware. Any notion of objective truth will always be bent and twisted by the need to fit our limited sensory faculties.
     
    Our perceptions are flawed, our memories often imagined, our ability to reason often impaired. Much of what we believe to be “true” at face value is inaccurate, at best, and completely delusional, at worst.11 This has real-world implications as we struggle to ascertain what is really going on around us—what is real and what is fiction, what is propaganda and what is legitimate inquiry. It is a call for us to be vigilant, critical, and humble of our own beliefs.
     
    As George Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires constant struggle.”
     
  2. Because human understanding is limited, we must be careful about what we choose to accept as true. Generally, philosophy has concluded that science is the best method of ascertaining and acting on knowledge, but it also admits that in most situations, solid scientific evidence is not going to be available or possible.
     
    Philosophy reminds us that many of our most closely cherished beliefs—beliefs about freedom, morality, and (especially) God—are not fundamentally provable by any sort of epistemological method. Everything, to a certain extent, must be taken with some degree of faith. Therefore, we need to be smart about what belief systems we buy into and which belief systems we ignore.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that not only is it more accurate to remain uncertain of most issues and circumstances, but it’s also more beneficial to you and the people around you.

Unfounded certainty breeds tyrannical, narcissistic behavior. Unfounded certainty alienates you from the perspectives and beliefs of others. Unfounded certainty prevents you from learning and growing from your failures.

It’s on this point that Buddhism was perhaps 2,000 years ahead of the west when it explicitly pushed a philosophy of “not knowing” and detachment from any tangible desire in the real world.

Whatever you believe you know to be true—you don’t. None of us do. We’re all floundering around in a metaphysical abyss. And we must each construct some form of understanding out of nothing to keep us afloat. If it is impossible to definitively answer the question, “What is true?” Then the next best question is, “What is worth believing?”

Philosophy Helps You Choose How to Live

“If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor. If you shape your life according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.” – Epicurus

Once you begin to question the significance and veracity of everything that happens in your life, you will begin to realize that much of what you believe and value was not determined by you—it was determined by the people and culture around you.

You didn’t decide you liked dogs—you just grew up with a dog. You didn’t choose to value propriety—your community did. You didn’t think about wanting to be a doctor—your parents threatened to disown you if you didn’t go to medical school.

At some point in our lives, we must all step back and question the values that we were raised with and ask ourselves if those values are serving us. In many cases, we grew up with good values, especially if we had parents who were present and functional and didn’t vomit on our birthday cake.

Toenail cake
Your real birthday present: years of therapy when you’re an adult!

But every family has its dysfunction. Every culture has its obsessions. And inevitably, as adults, we start to uncover places where the values and beliefs we grew up assuming to be true are not helping us, but rather hurting us.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called this questioning of what we grew up believing, “the reevaluation of values,” and said that if one has the mental and emotional courage to question these inherited values and beliefs, they would become what he referred to as the Ubermensch, or “Superman.”

The Ubermensch, according to Nietzsche, was not limited by traditional or conventional beliefs of his/her time period. Even concepts of good and evil should be called into question, he said. Thus, the Ubermensch is not only willing to face social rejection or ridicule but in many cases, he welcomes it because it is merely further evidence of his willingness to define values for himself.12

Nietzsche believed that in the future, with the rapid acceleration of science and technology and the outsized social influence they wrought, only the Ubermensch would be able to remain thoughtful, independent, and mentally sound. Everyone else would be too easily corralled into this social movement or that religious doctrine. He argued that the Ubermensch would enter a realm “beyond good and evil,” a place where traditional morality was questioned and cast aside in favor of something deeper and more transformative.13

Nietzsche didn’t live long enough to explain what that “something deeper” would look like, but his work did prophesize much of what has occurred in the past 100 years:

Nietzsche went insane in 1890. It would take another fifty years for a group of French philosophers known as “existentialists” to finally pick up where Nietzsche left off.

Whereas Nietzsche wrote of the coming age of nihilism, philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Merleau-Ponty wrote from within the thick of it. All of them were victims and survivors of World War II, confronting the inherent meaninglessness of life head-on.

Nietzsche wrote of the courage to choose one’s own values in heroic and lofty terms. He saw it as a daunting task only taken up by the chosen few. But the existentialists wrote of this task as an inherent responsibility for each individual. For Sartre, those who failed to consciously choose what they valued in their lives lived an inherently inauthentic life.14

Much of my work over the years has been in line with this—an attempt to help people “reevaluate their values” and to define what matters for themselves among a flood of useless information.15

This conscious choosing of one’s beliefs and values not only has repercussions for one’s own mental and emotional well-being, but it also determines the kind of footprint you leave in the world. In fact, as we’ll see, the people who make the greatest footprints tend to have clearly defined philosophical belief systems for themselves.

Philosophy Helps You Make an Impact on the World

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” – Marcus Aurelius

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex. The book starts out tame enough—the first seventy pages explain, in scientific detail, the biological differences between men and women.

But upon arriving at Part II, the book quickly takes a revolutionary turn. Beauvoir announces boldly that, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman,” and the reevaluation of gender norms and the social definitions of sex began.

The Second Sex makes a simple observation: there are two definitions of “woman”—the biological definition and the social definition. The biological definition is solid and physical, and (mostly) fixed.

But the social definition is fluid. It evolves and changes shape based on the time and location of the culture. This social definition of womanhood is not a moral truth but rather a reflection of the economic and social realities of each society. Beauvoir then argues convincingly that the reality of most women’s lives in the western world did not live up to the values espoused by the Enlightenment. And because the definition of “woman” is flexible and can be molded, she aimed to recast the definition in a way that precipitated positive change.

It’s a dense philosophical work, numbering over 800 pages, with long prodigious passages attacking the notion of womanhood from every angle imaginable. There are over 100 pages dedicated to Freud and the psychoanalytic definitions of femininity and another 100 pages looking at the developmental effects of cultural pressures on girls beginning in early childhood.

In contrast to today where way too much “activism” happens on Twitter with the caps lock key on, Beauvoir put together a towering intellectual work, cast in hard science and bolted together with airtight reason.

Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir

The book was a scandal upon release. The Vatican quickly added it to its list of banned books. Women began to create networks to smuggle the book throughout Europe. Once translated to English, hundreds of pages were cut due to fear of public revolt. It took almost ten years for any publisher in the United States to agree to publish it at all.

But eventually, it was published. And while it didn’t tear up the bestseller lists, it quietly infiltrated the culture via the vast networks of bored, college-educated housewives—smart, ambitious young women who had gone to college, aced their studies, and then sat around their empty kitchens for the next ten years.

One of these housewives was a woman named Betty Friedan. After reading The Second Sex, Friedan attended her fifteen-year college reunion where she couldn’t help but notice all of her girlfriends from years before seemed to be suffering the same affliction as her: lonely, bored, depressed.

Friedan decided to write a book about the experiences of the American housewife. She wrote about them in moral terms. She called the book, The Feminine Mystique. In it, she explained the dehumanizing effects of the traditional gender roles of women’s lives.

She lambasted everything from the editors of women’s magazines being male, to the loss of agency due to women being expected to give up their careers to raise children, to the stultifying boredom of repetitive housework. Friedan took the heady and abstract arguments of Beauvoir’s reevaluation of gendered values and crystallized them into daily life of the American woman.

The result set off a firestorm. The modern feminist movement in the US was born.

In my opinion, Beauvoir will one day be considered the most influential thinker of the 20th century. Regardless of how you feel about the state of feminist activism, The Second Sex perfectly illustrates the outsized influence philosophical thoughts can have on the world.

This is why nothing appears to ever “get solved” with philosophy: its ideas move so slow over such a staggering amount of time that it’s only possible to properly gauge their influence hundreds of years after the fact. We could trace similar genealogies of socialist and communist thought back to Marx (1840s), capitalism and free commerce back to Adam Smith (1770s), the political philosophy of liberalism, democracy, and human rights back to John Locke (1680s), or the classification of the sciences all the way back to Aristotle (circa 330s BC).

Because philosophy deals with concepts that are so abstract and universal, the effort that goes into redefining our definitions of ideas such as justice, equality, freedom, and gender require not only monumental intellectual effort to redefine (Marx’s Das Kapital clocks in at nearly 2,000 pages long—and was still unfinished when he died), but it takes generations for the ideas to properly disseminate across populations and be translated down into day-to-day applications.

For every Beauvoir, you need dozens of Friedans. And for every Friedan, you need thousands of activists and adherents for any tangible change to actually take place.

But I believe that if you look at all of the people with the greatest impact on the planet right now, they are all driven by some form of personal philosophy—they too, have been forced to go through the work of “reevaluating all values” and defining good and evil for themselves. They have taken on the responsibility for choosing their own meaning and giving it to the world.

For example, much of the ethos of Silicon Valley (“move fast and break things”) is built off a philosophy that is part techno-utopian (derived from science fiction) and part libertarian (faith that market-driven innovations produce better outcomes for all). Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps the most visible of all Silicon Valley tycoons, built his credibility by espousing a personal philosophy of “connecting the world” and “bringing humanity closer together.”

(Note: This was back in the mid-2000s before we all discovered how fucking awful people were—it sounded like a great idea at the time.)

Another example: Alan Greenspan has quietly been one of the most influential figures in the world over the past 50 years. Greenspan, who in his younger years was a close friend and follower of Ayn Rand, became the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987 and presided over one of the biggest economic booms in history.

During this period, he adopted a more activist approach to managing the economy via interest rates and debt. His policies remain influential and controversial, even to this day. Critics have argued that everything from the 2008 collapse to the growing inequality across the developed world can be attributed to the banking practices Greenspan pioneered during his tenure.

Another: Xi Jinping has reshaped the political economy of China, making it more aggressive and less democratic.16Xi has done this by going against his predecessors, reviving millennia of Chinese thought. He has then combined these traditional ideas with Maoism to justify clamping down on dissent, committing atrocities, and becoming more antagonistic towards the rest of the world.

Another: Most recently, a set of ideas loosely identified as “critical race theory” (CRT), with the help of famous authors such as Ibram X. Kendi and activist reporters at the New York Times, have become prevalent in schools, universities, activists communities, and news media in the United States. CRT teaches that not only is racism prevalent, it’s ubiquitous. Everyone and everything is either racist or anti-racist. And squashing racism should take precedence over all other concerns.17

The examples are endless. Philosophies emerge from the abstract clouds of ideas and gradually trickle down to ground-level activists and politicians who, over the course of generations, materialize these ideas into the world. Once made real, these philosophical principles are then put into action and reshape our lives.

And unless you are aware of them, unless you are aware of the intellectual forces molding and dictating the discourse underpinning your day-to-day life choices, you are helpless but to be influenced by them.

Where to Start with Reading Philosophy

Okay, so hopefully your nipples are all hard for philosophy now.

Good. Let’s talk books. If you’re a complete newbie to philosophy and are intimidated by the length and density of most philosophical works, that’s fine. We can break you in slowly. I’ve included a list of “entry point” books below that discuss major philosophical ideas of the western canon so you can have a little familiarity before diving in yourself.

There are also philosophical novels and memoirs. Many philosophers preferred this format rather than the classic essay. They are certainly easier to read, but sometimes their arguments and points aren’t as clear.

Finally, I included both easier philosophy books and more difficult and serious books. Obviously, none of these lists are exhaustive. These are mostly biased by my own taste and stuff that I have read and enjoyed. If you’d like more recommendations, you can check out the book recommendations section of the website.

I’d advise using study aids as you’re reading, as well, especially for the harder books. I highly recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It’s an incredible resource for summaries of major works and simpler explanations of difficult concepts. It’s also free.

Also, surprisingly, Wikipedia entries for major philosophers and their works are often very good. Don’t be afraid to hop on and read a summary of a book you just finished if you aren’t confident you understood all of it.

Happy reading. And happy mindfuckery.

Entry Points to Philosophical Ideas

  • Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder – An easy-to-read novel that also serves as an introduction to the entire western canon.
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine – an introduction to Stoicism.
  • The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt – A summary of ancient wisdom on happiness combined with modern psychology research on happiness.
  • The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker – Becker relies on the work of Freud, Kierkegaard and Otto Rank to put together an existential framework for how fear of death inspires us to create meaning.
  • The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday – A great entrypoint to Stoic philosophy but also ancient philosophy, in general.
  • Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope by Mark Manson – Plugging my own shit here, but needless to say, if you got through this article and enjoyed it, you will love the book.

Philosophical Novels and Memoirs

Easier Philosophy Books

Serious Philosophy

Footnotes

  1. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, I, III, 1, 6, C, 1845-6
  2. The book this line appears in is Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. I would get you the page number but I’m still mildly traumatized from my last attempt to read it.
  3. There are more questions, of course. I am leaving others out simply for the sake of brevity, most notably aesthetics and the philosophy of language. But these are the three biggies, in my opinion.
  4. The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress is a 1981 book by Peter Singer bridging the topics of sociobiology and ethics. In it, Singer defines the ethical progress of history as an “expanding circle” of empathy. Initially, we only empathize with ourselves and maybe some family members. Later, we were able to sympathize with strangers who are similar to us, then those dissimilar to us. Now our empathy can expand to include all of humanity and even non-human creatures.
  5. Descartes, Rene (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy. (D. A. Cress, translator). Indianapolis, Indiana. Hackett Publishing. pp. 19.
  6. See: Bostrom, N. (2003) “Are you living in a computer simulation?Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 53, No. 211. Pp. 243-255.
  7. Baker, M. (2016). 1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility. Nature News, 533(7604), 452.
  8. Descartes, Rene (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy. (D. A. Cress, translator). Indianapolis, Indiana. Hackett Publishing. pp. 19.
  9. Fun fact: David Hume and Adam Smith were, like, besties. Check out: Rasmussen, Dennis, (2017) The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  10. Another fun fact: before he was into philosophy, Kant was into astronomy. In fact, he was the one who figured out how the planets of the solar system were formed.
  11. Donald Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality, presents a fascinating argument about how we almost certainly do not experience reality or even a close approximation of it. For a summary of some of his key ideas, see: Hoffman, D. (2019). Do we see reality? New Scientist, 243(3241), 34–37.
  12. Nietzsche, F. (1885) Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book For Everyone and No One (R. J. Hollingdale, Translator) New York: New York, Penguin (1963) pp. 214-5.
  13. Nietzsche, F. (1887) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. (W. Kaufmann, Translator) New York: New York, Random House (1966) pp. 124-131.
  14. For an introduction to existentialism, see: Sartre, Jean-Paul (2007) Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
  15. Manson, M. (2016) The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. New York: New York, Harper One. And yes, I just cited myself, motherfucker.
  16. Greer, T. “Chinese Leader Xi Jinping’s Mind ExplainedForeign Policy. Retrieved: 3 September, 2020.
  17. See: Kendi, I. X. (2019) How to Be an Antiracist. New York: New York, New York: One World, Random House. For criticism of CRT, see: Lindsay, J. & Pluckrose, H. (2020) Cynical Theories, Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing.

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The Opportunity in Adversity

By Eckhart Tolle

Life unfolds between the polarities of order and chaos. It is important at this time to recognize these two fundamental opposites, without which the world could not even be. Another word for disorder is “adversity.” When it becomes more extreme, we might call it “chaos.”

We would prefer, of course, to have order in our lives, which means to have things going well. We would like relative harmony in our lives. Yet, that very often is marred by the eruption of some form of disorder. And, usually, we resent that—we get angry, or despondent, or sad.

Disorder comes in many, many forms, big and small. When disorder comes it usually creates a kind of havoc in our lives, accompanied by strong underlying beliefs. “There’s something very wrong, this should not be happening, maybe God is against me,” and so on. Again, we need to understand that disorder, or adversity, is inevitable and is an essential part of a higher order.

 From a higher perspective, a higher level, the existence of order and disorder, or order and chaos, is a necessary part of the evolution of life.

 Many people have found that they experience a deepening, or a deeper sense of self or beingness, immediately after and as a result of having endured a period of disorder or chaos. This is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul,” a term from medieval Christianity used to describe the mental breakdown that many mystics experienced prior to awakening spiritually. There was an eruption of disorder, of destruction. Then, out of that, a deeper realization arose.

 And although that can be very painful, the strange thing is, it’s precisely there that many humans experience a transcendence. A strange fact is that it almost never happens that people awaken spiritually while they’re in their comfort zone. Or that they become deeper as human beings, which would be a partial awakening. It almost never happens. The place where the evolutionary shift happens, or the evolutionary leap, is usually the experience of disorder in a person’s life.

And so your life then moves between order and disorder. You have both, and they’re both necessary. There’s no guarantee that when disorder erupts this will bring about an awakening or a deepening, but there’s always the possibility. It is an opportunity, but often, it is missed.

 So here we are at this time, and our mission is the same: to align with the present moment, with whatever is happening here and now. The upheaval that we’re experiencing at the present time probably will not be the last upheaval that’s going to come on a collective level. However, it is an opportunity—because although this is a time for upheavals, it is also a time for awakening. The two go together. Just as in an individual life, you need adversity to awaken. It’s an opportunity but not a guarantee. And so what looks tragic and unpleasant on a conventional level is actually perfectly fine and as it should be on a higher level; it would not be happening otherwise. It’s all part of the awakening of human beings and of planetary awakening.

To learn more about Eckhart’s teachings on Conscious Manifestation, click here.

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Stop Asking Couples When They Are Having Kids

“So, when are you having kids?” my aunt asked me straight in the face, soon after I got married. At that point, I had been married for a few months. I didn’t even know if I wanted kids, much less when I was having them.

Caught off guard, I said, “I have not decided if I want kids.” I would spend the next hour listening to stories of women who had difficulty conceiving for a variety of reasons, with the implicit message being that I was going to be like them and regret it if I didn’t hurry and work on churning out babies.

This would be my life for the next few years, where I received varying forms of “When are you having kids?”, followed by a routine, almost ritualistic pressurization to have kids.

Lest you think that it ends after having a child, it doesn’t — the people who previously tried to persuade you to have “just one kid” when you were indifferent to the idea, now tell you to have “just one more.” It seems like you just can’t win. 😒

The problem with asking, “When are you having kids?”

I can understand why people like to ask this question. Find a partner, settle down, get married, and have kids. This is the life path that we’ve been taught to follow since young. This is the path that we’ve been told is the way of life, which would bring us ultimate joy and happiness.

This is especially so in the Chinese culture, where having kids is seen as the ultimate goal in life. There are even sayings built around this notion, such as 生儿育女 (shēng ér yù nǚ), which means to birth sons and raise daughters, and 子孙满堂 (zǐ sūn mǎn táng), which means to be in a room filled with children and grandchildren.

Multi-Generation Chinese Family at the Park

A multi-generation family, often used to depict a vision of happiness in the Chinese culture

So after you get married, people automatically assume that you should have kids. “When are you having kids?” they ask, somehow expecting you to give them a straight answer.

The problem with this question is that it’s rude. It’s presumptuous. It’s also insensitive.

1) Happiness can come in different forms

Firstly, everyone has their path in life. Some people want kids, while some don’t want kids. Some people think that having kids is the greatest joy in life, while some see having kids as a burden to their carefree life. To presume that everyone should have kids, especially when the person has never said anything about wanting kids, is rude and disregards the person’s preferences and choice in life.

Take for example, Oprah Winfrey. She chose not to have children and has dedicated herself to her personal purpose of serving the world. Oprah hosted her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show which ran for 25 years, founded a leadership academy for girls and became a mother figure to the girls in attendance, and started her own television network. Through the years, she has inspired millions and become a champion for humans worldwide. As she says,

“When people were pressuring me to get married and have children, I knew I was not going to be a person that ever regretted not having them, because I feel like I am a mother to the world’s children. Love knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if a child came from your womb or if you found that person at age two, 10, or 20. If the love is real, the caring is pure and it comes from a good space, it works.” — Oprah[1]

There are other people who chose not to have kids as well.

  • Betty White, actress and comedian, chose not to have kids as she’s passionate about her career and focused on it.[2]
  • Chelsea Handler, talkshow host, doesn’t have kids as she doesn’t have the time to raise a child herself, and she doesn’t want her kids to be raised by a nanny.[3]
  • Ashley Judd, actress and politican activist, chose not to have kids as there are already so many orphaned kids in this world, and she feels that her resources can be better used to help those already here.[4]

And then there are others who chose not to have kids, such as Chelsea Handler, Cameron Diaz, Chow Yun Fat, Marisa Tomei, Renée Zellweger, and Rachael Ray. These people choose not to have kids for different reasons, such as because they’re pursuing paths deeply meaningful to them, they do not wish to be tied down with a child, or they just don’t feel a deep desire to have kids. Not having kids has not prevented them from being happy in life, and there’s no reason to assume why people must have kids in order to be happy.

2) You may well cause hurt and pain

Secondly, you never know what others are going through.

Some people may want kids, but maybe they are facing fertility struggles.

  • Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan went through three miscarriages before having their firstborn.[5]
  • The Obamas had a miscarriage before they had their daughters via IVF.[6]
  • Friends star Courteney Cox had a total of seven miscarriages before having her daughter, as she has a MTHFR gene mutation which raises the risk of miscarriage-causing blood clots.[7]

About 10% of women have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant,[8] while 13.5% of known pregnancies end in miscarriages, with the figure rising as the maternal age rises.[9]

For some people, the journey to conceive is fraught with deep pain, struggle, and losses as they experience miscarriages, undergo round after round of invasive fertility treatments, and wait in hope of the double blue lines on their pregnancy kit each month.

And then there are people who cannot have their own biological children due to issues with their reproductive system, which could have been there since birth.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and family

Barack and Michelle Obama had a miscarriage before they had their daughters via IVF

While you may be think that you’re being helpful or funny by asking people when they’re having kids, your question may well trigger hurt and pain. As Zuckerberg said,

“You feel so hopeful when you learn you’re going to have a child. You start imagining who they’ll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they’re gone. It’s a lonely experience.”[5]

3) Not everyone is in a position to have kids

Thirdly, having kids is simply not a reality for some people due to their circumstances in life.

Some people may lack the financial resources to have kids, a reality in a place like Singapore.

Some people may be facing problems with their marriage, in which case their priority should be to work on their marriage, not to have kids.

Some people may be so burdened with caring for their dependents that they are unable to consider kids, at least not at the moment.

And then there are people facing chronic health issues, issues that you don’t know and can’t see, which make pregnancy difficult due to the toll it would take on their body.

4) Some couples could still be thinking

And then there are people who are neutral to the idea of having kids, like myself when I just got married. These people need time to think it through, because having kids is a permanent, lifelong decision with serious consequences. There’s no reason to assume that having a kid should be an automatic decision, because you’re bringing a whole new life into this world. This is a decision that will change your life forever, as well as the life of the child you’re bringing into the world.

For those yet to have kids, they need the space to figure out what they want, not have people breathe down their neck day in and out about having kids.

My experience

For the initial years after I got married, I just wasn’t thinking about kids. Firstly, having a child is a lifelong decision, and I wanted to enjoy married life with just my husband first, before diving into a decision as serious as that. Secondly, both my husband and I were genuinely happy spending the rest of our lives with just each other — we didn’t feel the need to have kids at all, not in the way my culture obssesses about it. Thirdly, my husband was dealing with some personal problems, and I was fully focused on supporting him through these. These were issues that we needed to sort through before considering kids, if we were to want kids.

Yet I kept getting nudges to have kids, even though I never said anything about wanting them.

“So, when are you having kids?”

“[This relative’s] baby is so cute, isn’t it? Why don’t you hurry up and birth a baby?”

It was as if I was some vehicle, some production machine to have kids, where my own views in the matter didn’t matter. The most frustrating thing was that I kept getting this question, while my husband would never get it (as a man), not even when we were in the same room together.

It was as if my sole reason for existence as a woman was to have kids, and until I had them, I was regarded as unworthy or incomplete.

The decision to have kids

Yet the decision to have children is a personal one. It is also a complex one. It is a decision that will permanently change the lives of the couple in question.

It is not a decision that one should be pressurized into making because their mom wants to carry grandchildren or their aunt wants to play with kids. It’s a decision that a couple should make because they genuinely want to nurture another life.

Because when a child is born, the people bugging others to have kids aren’t the ones who will be caring for the baby 24/7, whose lives will be set back by years (even decades) as they care for a new life, or who will be responsible for every decision concerning the child for the next 18-21 years.

It will be the couple.

And the people who aren’t ready, who were pressured into having kids because they were told that it was the best thing to do, may have to deal with regret as they are stuck with a decision they cannot undo. Because there are people who regret having kids, and we need to be honest about that. These people regret, not because of the child’s fault, but because they were simply not ready to have kids, be it financially, emotionally, or mentally. Unfortunately, the children are the ones who eventually suffer, from living in dysfunctional households to dealing with issues of violenceabuse, and anger.

We need to recognize these realities, and not make parenthood seem like it’s some magical band-aid that solves a lack of purpose or life’s pressures. Things don’t magically get better because people have kids; existing problems usually worsen as having a child puts a big strain on a couple’s lives. Digging into people’s plans to have kids, and pressurizing them into one of the biggest life decisions they can ever make, will only stress them out and perhaps push some into depression. As this redditor shared,

“I have a friend who went through 6 years of miscarriages and fertility treatments before the doctors figured out the problem and she had her son. The nosy ladies at her work and her in-laws questioned her constantly. The depression from that made it harder for her to conceive.”

Stop asking couples when they’re having kids

So, if you tend to ask others when they’re having kids, it’s time to stop that. It’s rude, insensitive, and it disregards people’s privacy. It’s also none of your business.

The reality is that if people want kids, they will work on having kids. They don’t need you to prod them about it.

If they don’t have kids, it’s either because

  1. they really don’t want kids,
  2. they are not in a position to consider kids right now, or
  3. they want kids but they are facing some struggles.

For people in group (c), they aren’t going to share such deeply personal experience over some afternoon coffee chat, and certainly not by you asking, “When are you having kids?”

The best thing you can do is to give people their personal space. Understand that having kids is a personal decision, and people don’t have to share or explain anything. Respect that others have their right to privacy. Respect that people are individuals on their own path, and this path may not involve having kids. And this doesn’t make them incomplete or lesser in any way.

Instead of asking women or couples, “When are you having kids?”, talk to them like how you would a normal person. There’s no reason why conversations should suddenly revolve around childbearing after marriage; it’s not like a person’s identity changes to revolve around having kids. A person still has their own passion, goals, and dreams. Talk to them about what they’ve been doing. Understand their interests. Know them as a real person, not some random being here to fulfill society’s checklist.

If you’re really interested in someone’s plan to have children, you can simply ask, “Are you and your partner planning to have kids?” If they wish to share more, they will do so. If they give a generic answer, then take the hint and move on.

Ultimately, having kids or not doesn’t change a person’s self-worth. A woman is complete with or without kids. A marriage doesn’t need kids to be deemed complete. Having kids should be a conscious choice, not a result of external pressure. Don’t judge people by whether they have kids or not. Some people will have kids, and some people will not have kids. Some will have kids early, while some will have them later in life. All of these are different paths, and there’s nothing wrong about any of them.

For Me

For my husband and I, we eventually had a few discussions and decided to have a baby, and had our baby girl this year (2020). 😊 Yet other people’s comments and nudges to have children didn’t make me want to have children; it only annoyed me and made me want to avoid these people, because having a child is a personal decision between me and my husband, that has nothing to do with them. It was after we had the space to settle down and enjoy married life without kids, and took some time to actively pursue our goals and interests, that we finally felt ready to try for a kid last year.

In the meantime, I hope all of you are doing well. There are other things that I’m working on, other things that are happening that I look forward to sharing in time to come. Sending lots of love to you, and remember that whatever life challenge you’re facing, you have it in you to overcome it. I’ll talk to you guys soon! 🙂

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Step 1: Ignore every step-by-step system for success, including probably this one

Look, I know you want to be that big badass with the sweet ass house and all the fancy letters after your name, but let’s be honest for a second. Insane, spectacular success is achieved by doing something exceptional and extraordinary.

To achieve something exceptional and extraordinary, you must—by definition—do something that few or no other people are doing or willing to do. Therefore, wild, insane, spectacular success can only be achieved by actively going against what others have done and/or believing you can do things that others believe they cannot do. Therefore, anything that can accurately be codified into a step-by-step system on the internet is full of shit and not going to help you achieve this kind of success.

Do you think Steve Jobs ever sat around Googling, “How to revolutionize the way everyone communicates?” Fuck no. Do you think Thomas Edison went to the library looking for books titled, “How to build things that can change the world?”

No, they got to work on things that felt important and things that few to no other people could conceive, much less think about.

Steve Jobs pop art

The problem with a lot of these paint-by-numbers systems that you come across in these articles is that they suffer from what’s known as the “narrative fallacy.” The narrative fallacy is the human tendency to weave explanations of cause/effect into sequences of events that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

For example, if you read a biography about Warren Buffett or Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt, you will inevitably spend much of the early chapters learning about their childhood. These early chapters are filled with cute and profound-sounding vignettes about their parents, their teachers, and a series of events that “caused” them to later become the kind of genius that they were.

There are two problems with this though:

  1. Whatever happened to little Albert Einstein, there were millions of other little boys who experienced the same shit, yet they did not become Albert Einstein.
  2. Just because two events in a notable person’s life appear connected does not mean that they are connected. The biographer connects them because they form a great narrative. Not necessarily because they reflect reality.

Think about it, for every event that makes it into someone’s biography, there are thousands of small, private events that are, in sum, likely just as influential, if not more than what you actually see. Therefore, these narrative devices, while they make for great books and cute articles like this one, they don’t actually help us suss out what drives incredible levels of success.

If there really is a first step to achieving wild success (and there’s probably not), then it would be this: ask yourself, “What is something critically important in the world that few people are aware of or not working on?” Then… get to work on that! 

But understand that even that is no guarantee. Because, let’s be honest, our definitions of “success” are a bunch of fairy godmother, made-up bullshit. Oh yeah… I went there. Fuck your dreams. Fuck your dreams with a cherry on top. Let’s get real…

Step 2: Understand that “success” is just something you and everyone else made up—it’s not even real

Look, most of your dreams aren’t really dreams, they’re merely imaginative over-compensations for the feelings of inadequacy you are trying to avoid in yourself.

People with an overwhelming desire for wealth or fame aren’t motivated by the pure joy of having wealth or fame. No, they have a hole in their psyche that they are trying to fill with enough stuff to not make them feel so inadequate anymore. Maybe they got pushed into too many lockers as a kid. Maybe Mom was an alcoholic and Dad was never around. Maybe they always felt like the stupid kid in class and had that one teacher who was Satan incarnate.

Whatever it is, none of us get through childhood without emotional scars (or, if you’re one of the lucky few who did, then please eat a dick casserole). Those scars cause us to see the world in a skewed, unbalanced fashion—as though everything is magically tilted against us in some imaginary way. They cause us to overestimate the value of things like sex or money or adulation or prestige to the point that our behavior becomes compulsive. These biases then cause us to suffer because they make us do stupid shit.

Ultimately, our definitions of “success” become skewed based on this funhouse mirror view of the world. Daddy was always broke and spending his money at the casino, so you grew up with an unconscious over-emphasis on money and material wealth. You feel like unless you’re bringing down at least eight-figures, then you’re a broke, miserable failure and no one will love you. As a result, you screw your own grandmother out of Christmas money because interest rates are low and you can get a better ROI if Granny cries herself to sleep at night. Congratulations, you have become a grade-A dick casserole.

(We’re just going to run with the casserole thing until it starts to get weird.)

Stylish wealthy couple on a luxury yacht
Dude, stop pretending you’re hot shit, you’re on a fucking pirate ship.

And while it may feel like your definition of success—lots and lots of money—is objective and reasonable, it’s really just you playing make-believe in your head. Plenty of people have definitions of success that have nothing to do with money—they lead happy and healthy lives. Many people who are rich feel as though they are miserable failures and that it’s never enough. There is nothing inherently “successful” about money or fame or love or anything else. It’s our minds that make it so.

That’s right, we each make up what “success” means for ourselves, and then we spend our lives measuring ourselves against that definition. And let’s be honest, most of us don’t actually define success for ourselves, we simply adopt the definitions that are handed to us by our family, environment, and culture.

When you’re a kid, you see everyone around you obsessed with honor or prestige or education or self-indulgence and you kind of just go along with it. Meanwhile, so many years go by that you forget that you went along with it. You start to believe that this is how the world operates—this is what success is.

And when you’re confronted with people who have different definitions of success, or people who point out all of the ways that your precious little definition actually doesn’t make much sense… well, it kind of freaks you out. I mean, if this thing by which you’ve measured yourself for so many years doesn’t really exist, what the hell have you been doing all your life?

That thought is often too much to bear…

Step 3: Succumb to the existential despair that comes with the realization that your self-definition is completely arbitrary and self-invented

Most people resist this realization—that their definitions of “success” are made up and largely motivated by their emotional dysfunction—for a couple reasons. One, it potentially invalidates a lot of what they’ve spent most of their adult life pursuing. Two, it’s really fucking upsetting to realize that the thing you cared about so much might not actually matter. And three, because if the things you’ve spent your whole life caring about may not actually matter… holy shit, what if nothing matters?

Yes, coming to the realization that your definitions of success were simply arbitrary and made-up by either you or the people around you can throw one into an existential crisis.

Historically, most middle-class yuppies hit Step 3 around middle age. So many have this experience in their 40s and 50s that it has become known as the “mid-life crisis.”

You spend your whole life defining success as a good job, a nice house, 2.5 kids and a dog. You work for twenty-plus years to get there and then one day you wake up and realize that you have achieved everything you ever wanted… yet you’re still the exact same sloppy, smelly motherfucker that you were twenty years ago. You don’t feel successful. You don’t feel anything different. You still get just as annoyed and anxious as you used to. You still question and doubt yourself constantly. You still feel frustrated and insecure… it’s just that those frustrations and insecurities have changed shape.

“Fuck, all that work… and for what? What do I do now?”

When you ask this question there may not be a right answer, but there certainly is a wrong answer.

The wrong answer is: “way more of what I did before.”

couple under money rain

A lot of people who have defined success as money their entire lives hit middle age, wake up with a shitload of money, have an existential crisis, and come to the conclusion that the answer must simply be more money. This is how you end up with millionaires who live in permanent emotional poverty—a sense that no matter what they do, that it’s never enough. Don’t be this person.

This “never enough” conclusion follows pretty much every worldly definition of success—money, status, prestige, fame, power, accolades. There will always be more to achieve. Therefore, it will never feel as though it’s enough. It’s like living on an extremely exhausting treadmill… except that the treadmill is stuck on an elevator to hell.

Step 4: Eat some popcorn. Drink a beer. You’re going to be okay

When thrown into the maw of an existential crisis, it’s easy to feel as though the world is coming to an end. This beautiful ideal that you spent so many years holding up as the bastion of purity and sanctity has fallen and revealed itself to be yet another illusion of your own fantasies. As a result, you feel directionless. You begin to question everything. You fall into despair. You feel as though there may be no point to anything at all.

But then something happens. Life goes on. That bonus check from work comes through, and while you still recognize that, on some cosmic scale, money is meaningless—it feels kinda good. Birthdays come and go. Vacations are still fun. That new show you watched with your partner was pretty awesome.

Hold on a second… life is actually, like, pretty good.

Slowly but surely, you begin to realize, “Wait, I don’t have to define success to have a good life!” And this epiphany is soon followed by another, more profound epiphany, “I can adopt whatever values I please!

And then your mind gets to work. What is your definition of success? What is the yardstick by which you will measure your life?

For some, it becomes some ideal—being a good parent, having integrity, practicing honesty, treating others with dignity.

For others, it’s a perspective—success is being fully engaged and appreciating each moment as it arises. There is joy and excitement to be found in any experience, and success is choosing to orient oneself towards it.

For others, the definition becomes incredibly mundane—waking up and going to work each day, cooking meals for friends, being a nice person. And amazingly, these mundane definitions of success somehow seem more effective than the ambitious world-changing definitions of your old self. They are easily achievable. They are enjoyable. And when repeated indefinitely week after week, year after year, incredible things start to happen.

Step 5: Focus on what matters now

Great achievements happen not just through grand visions of the future, but rather doing what feels most significant and important in the current moment.

Let’s return to the Steve Jobs example, as he’s a paragon for what most would consider “wild success.” Jobs didn’t sit around thinking, “What will make me as famous and successful as possible?” No, he got to work on devices that would improve his life today. The focus was on solving day-to-day problems for people.

We think of huge leaps in innovation or creativity as these massive moments of inspiration. But, in reality, they are actually a simple questioning of assumptions that are in front of us all.

Scientific breakthroughs often happen in this way. As Thomas Kuhn discusses in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the biggest breakthroughs in science rarely come from veterans within the academy. That’s because scientists who have built their career and prestige on the current paradigm of understanding are less likely to challenge it.

The biggest breakthroughs come from outsiders—people who have no career or prestige, people like Einstein—who look at the current assumptions and simply say, “What if this wasn’t true? What could be a better explanation?”

What we generally perceive as “wild success” after the fact, typically begins as something small, something unexpected in the moment. And, as Jobs once said, while we can look back and connect the dots, at the time, the way forward is never clear.

Ultimately, people who adopt terrible definitions of success usually do so because they are trying to give their life a sense of meaning and purpose. But, it turns out, the way to give your life a sense of meaning and purpose is to simply be engaged with the problems of the now, to work tirelessly on what stimulates and excites you today, without lofty visions of what prestige might exist for you in the future.

Because not only is this a more emotionally healthy definition of success, but it’s the definition that actually gets shit done.

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Travelers often find themselves the victims of theft. Alone, tired and in unfamiliar surroundings, they are softer targets than the locals; and even those who travel on a shoestring can be preyed upon when visiting lesser-developed countries. Business people also can attract unwanted attention because, well, they can afford expensive stuff. Regardless of what you …

Read more6 of the Best Anti-Theft Backpacks

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