[Throwback] Wisdom nuggets #2
Change—Self-actualization—Social support—Socratic wisdom, through Badu
This week, I’d like to re-share a throwback note I wrote this past fall. A few of these “nuggets” have resonated with me recently as I’ve been thinking more about constructing a meaningful life and the fearless, jungle-slashing posture we often need to push for one.
Unexpectedly, this quote from Betty Friedan set me down this path:
“It is precisely this unique human capacity to transcend the present, to live one’s life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as a builder and designer of that world—that is the distinction between animal and human behavior, or between the human being and the machine.”
Though Silicon Valley may suggest otherwise, we can choose to be active builders and designers of our lives, free to best use this limited time alive.
And if we choose not too, the onus is still on us. As Gasset says below, we just have “decided to not to decide” our future.
I enjoy underlining certain passages in books to convince myself I’m retaining what I’m reading. Over the years I’ve probably underlined thousands of sentences that I’ve since forgotten about… until today.
This week I’m sharing round 2 of some wisdom nuggets that I believe you’ll find insightful and practical. If you missed round 1, check it out here.
Wisdom Nugget #1
“The one who would be constant in happiness must frequently change.”
Earlier this year, a series of annoying injuries sidelined me from running. To stay in shape, I learned how to (actually) swim. This entailed a 6-month journey that began with me unable to swim 25 yards and ended with my first triathlon in the summer. (Side note: I finished right behind a man who used a snorkel, which apparently is allowed.) Moral of the story: the swimming journey was an uncomfortable but necessary change for me to retain my well-being and find meaning in something new… when the old was no longer possible.
Adaptability and flexibility promote antifragility, the ability to withstand and even benefit from adversity. Too much attachment—to current routines, identities, possessions—can do the opposite.
To better accept future change, I find it useful to reflect on how much I’ve been through already (I wrote about this here). This can be a helpful way to set proper expectations about the future. Psychologists note that people tend to underestimate how much they will change in the future, something that’s often called the end of history illusion.
Wisdom nugget #2
“To live is to feel ourselves fatally obliged to exercise our liberty, to decide what we are going to be in this world. Not for a single moment is our activity of decision allowed to rest. Even when in desperation we abandon ourselves to whatever may happen, we have decided not to decide.”
—José Ortega y Gasset (2)
At the age of 22, Charles Darwin was presented an opportunity to join a multi-year expedition throughout South America and Asia aboard the HMS Beagle. His father, who wanted Darwin to become a doctor, thought it would be a waste of time. Darwin disagreed and signed-up anyway. The risk was worth it; much of his research on the HMS Beagle would serve as a foundation for his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin exercised his liberty in making this decision. Often it can feel much easier to do the opposite: you let the wind take you wherever it takes you, listen to what other people think is best, or follow exactly what others have done. In each of those cases, though, you still have made a choice. As Gasset says, you have decided not to decide.
Harvard’s dean of admissions William Fitzsimmons has remarked on the effects of deciding not to decide when speaking to high-achieving students and alumni:
“It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes’, stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties […] sometimes give the impressions that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work.” (3)
Robert Greene’s book Mastery helped me understand and avoid some of these pitfalls. There is still more work to do, but the goal is to ultimately feel more comfortable choosing my own path.
Wisdom Nugget #3:
“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (4)
Raise your hand if you’ve gone through a difficult time. Keep your hand up if friendship helped you through it.
That was really corny, but you get my point.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with strong friendships “have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI).” Other research suggests people with strong relationships live longer as well.
As I was writing this very paragraph, I got interrupted by a phone call by a close friend. We talked about youth lacrosse, college football, and real estate. I did not mention his friendship’s positive impact on my blood pressure/BMI, though I’m sure it helps? Thanks @Greg Adams.
In nuggets #1 and #2, I touched on navigating change and living a life true to your own. Those activities often involve sacrifice and stress. Friendships, and relationships in general, can be the best support system to handle that.
Not exactly the most inspirational way to end this, but
“Lookin' for real friends (real friends)
How many of us? How many of us are real friends
To real friends, to the real end
'Til the wheels fall off, 'til the wheels (yeah) don't spin”
—“Real Friends”, Kanye West
Wisdom Nugget #4:
“The man that knows something
Knows that he knows nothing at all.”
—“On and On”, Erykah Badu
Ok, this one isn’t from a book. Sorry. Breaking my own rules here.
If the downfall of FTX and its cabal of super geniuses has taught me anything, it’s that IQ and wisdom aren’t necessarily correlated. Some research suggests intelligent people are often more susceptible to the kind of narrow-minded dogmatism that can lead to disaster. Excellent at rationalizing away nearly anything, they don’t change their minds before it’s too late.
Adam Grant’s book Think Again suggests this too:
“Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your mind, you’ll miss many occasions to think again. […] And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.”
It can be difficult to challenge your own beliefs. That’s why I believe it’s important to have peers / co-workers who feel comfortable challenging you too. This can help you stay tethered to reality and avoid developing brash overconfidence in something that’s totally out of touch.
Mark Twain said this one best:
“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
I also find wisdom nuggets a helpful way to better navigate the world. But this is only round #2, and there is so much more to learn…
Stay tuned for more.
References / Further Reading:
Awareness, Anthony de Mello
The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset
Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz
The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thanks for reading! I love when these thoughts lead to conversations with readers. Did you find anything interesting or surprising? Reply to me and let’s have a dialogue.