There’s a passage that I once read by the writer and programmer Paul Graham which went along the following lines:
What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. [It] is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like… If you do anything well enough, you will make it prestigious.
I love this statement. I think that far too often we look for something fulfilling in our lives and sometimes base these desires on the illusion of what we think we want rather than being the authors of our own ambitions. Alternatively, we get frustrated or envious when we can’t do something as well as people we see around us, forgetting that their expertise is, in part, the product of their own silent perseverance.
Perhaps, what we don’t realise, as the psychologist-cum-philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once observed, is that enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety; when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.
I live a lot by these insights, not only because I’ve found them to be true but because they best address how to live in a world we can neither understand nor influence.
Whether one believes that individuals have the ability to control their own destiny or thinks that our fates lie in the hands of some higher order, spiritual or scientific, I feel that, as far as we are able to perceive and experience our lives, luck plays a far greater role, especially at the key, life-changing moments.
Given we cannot predict when serendipity will strike, I try to find enjoyment in everything that I do and aim to be noticed for doing something well, rather than through unctuousness or obsequity. I live to experience, not to hope. Hope is the preserve of the desperate. You can’t live on hope, but it sustains you, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
With that comes the humility that we can’t do everything, and nor should we. In my experience, we crave promotion and recognition in our careers because we don’t enjoy what we’re actually doing.
I was recently asked what my most enjoyable day at work had been over the last however many years since I started. I gave a few examples and it was pointed out to me that they were all very similar: they were times when I had solved difficult problems. They were times when the challenges were just balanced with my capacity to act.
Some people argue that life is to be lived but not designed to be enjoyed. I’m not sure I agree. Mammals have clearly evolved a need for pleasure, albeit only perhaps as a driver for survival. Enjoyment brings us together, helps us relax, makes us more civil.
The challenge we face is learning how to moderate this enjoyment. With more and more income we place higher and higher degrees of expectation on ourselves for how we should spend our free time. We expend a lot of energy trying to fit in and be someone we are not. We need to slow down and discover how to be ourselves.
And we need to accept that our purpose may neither be what we expected nor hoped for. If our lives do have a purpose, perhaps it is nothing more than to provide entropy. Through our actions and interactions with the world around, we bump off one another and influence everybody around us, sometimes in imperceptible ways, seemingly randomly like particles in Brownian motion.
We are a primordial soup of social interaction, rubbing up alongside one another forming partnerships, communities, colonies and countries. We have no inkling of the chain of events that may spawn from a single act of kindness or hostility so it seems to me that the most gracious way to approach life is to do what we enjoy while respecting the people and environment around us. As John F Kennedy said:
For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.