Things that keep us from living a fulfilled and good life
When I think about life there are many problems I have, problems that I need to solve, if I want to live a fulfilled and good life. And I think that many people share these problems because they are fundamental problems. Problems with the foundation - the "fundaments" of our lives.
- Not perfect Health
- Financial Shackles
- Sloth and Procrastination
- Fear of failure
- Comparison to others
These to me are the worst "enemies" that I will encounter in my life. This says a lot about the state of my life, because food, water and shelter are not on this list. Which is something to be grateful about.
However, what do I mean by these problems and how do they block the path to a fulfilling life? I think all these problems have one thing in common. They prevent us from improving our lives further. They are hindrances in the way of striving. And it is that striving, that sense of progress that is all-important in life.
Let's start with health as it is the foundation of everything else.
Problem 1: Not perfect Health.
This one is obvious. Having a body that can support you in your endeavors of doing things you enjoy, is of utmost importance. To have a body that enables progress, you need to be healthy.
And health is a spectrum. There are so many optimizations you can do to have better health. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, social connections, time spent outside and stress levels are the things that come to mind. Trying to make them as perfect as possible is of utmost importance because from this basis flows everything else. If your physical health is deteriorating it is very hard to live a fulfilled life. It is very hard to progress.
Health is not just about our bodies though, it is about mental health as well because many things can destroy your psyche and your life, even though you have a healthy body. Ingredients for a healthy mind include such things as good social connections (family, friends and colleagues), an underlying purpose or goal (meaning), as well as enough rest, and perceived agency about our actions. Without those, mental health will quickly deteriorate.
A sharp, working brain, housed in a cared-for body, embedded in a solid network of social contacts, striving towards a goal at peak capacity - that is what perfect health is all about. And achieving "only" that is a tough challenge already. Life is trying to get in the way, things deteriorate on their own and we need to put in work to maintain, and even more, work to improve our constitution.
But it is the foundation from which everything else flows and so we should start with building that. A perfectly healthy mind and body.
Problem 2: Financial Shackles.
This one might be the most subtle and creeping of all of the problems that are out there, yet I feel that it is so common, that I am tremendously scared of it.
In our society, we need money for everything we do. If you want to survive you will have to have a way of paying for yourself and the more time you want to spend doing stuff you love, the more you will have to worry about finding a way that can pay for all the things you need.
Being able to pursue something you love is only possible if you have enough time to do so and the more time you have to spend on getting around to survive daily life, the less time there will be to do all of the stuff you want to do.
And that to me seems bad. The ideal would be to get paid for doing the things you like to do. But even this ideal can be dangerous because your interests might change. And if they do you have to find a way to get paid for your new interests and this might be hard or impossible, since not every interest is something that other people will pay you to do. And therefore you can still end up in financial serfdom again. Which would mean you will have to keep doing things you don't like again, only as a means to support yourself.
And the worst of it all. Circumstances can change, there can be hardships in your life or things you have to take care of. Burdens that you have to carry. Burdens that don't allow you to live the life you want to live.
Those burdens and financial shackles can become such a high priority in our lives that they end up being the only thing we have time to work on. We might end up working in a shitty job, that is draining us of all our energy, just so that we can provide for our families and ourselves, with enough food and a warm place to sleep at night.
And I feel this is the cruelest thing. If people are prevented from striving for a better future because the present already drains all their energy. If people don't have enough time to maintain enough income to simply live while also preparing for a better future. People, who have to run as fast as they can, usually while neglecting their health, their dreams, and their purpose in life, because they have to.
And I am deeply afraid of falling prey to such a situation myself. That's why I list the problem of financial shackles as one of the fundamental problems of life. Even if it doesn't affect me too much yet, because I was lucky so far. But still, I am not free of financial problems yet. I still have to work.
Therefore, getting rid of financial shackles once and for all is important to me. Becoming wealthy is a condition to be attained, not for the sake of wealth itself, but because of the freedom, it can buy.
And when money is not a concern anymore, you can work on making the lives of other people better as well. Because that, in the end, is more important than money. But since you still need money for surviving, you need to secure that first, otherwise, you don't have a platform to stand on.
At the moment I am trying to figure out my way of providing for myself. I am learning the skills and doing the work necessary, so that in the future I am free of financial troubles and can take all the time I have, to do only the things that I care for and want to do. I am acquiring my freedom and trying to break free.
Freedom is having enough to sustain yourself. Enough to sustain yourself and not a cent more.
I want to keep that in mind because there is a trap at the opposite end of the spectrum, where you only think that you don't have enough money, but in reality, have long surpassed a level of wealth that could sustain you indefinitely. You have to know when to stop and transition. You don't want to keep working on things you don't value when you don't have to anymore. This is just as bad as the forced necessity of work and has to be avoided as well. In a way, this is a form of greed. The ideal is to have enough money to live comfortably, without the need for work, but no more.
Problem 3: Sloth and Procrastination.
Both Sloth and Procrastination go hand in hand and are fundamental problems to everything else in life.
Humans tend to be very lazy beings. We are balancing somewhere between doing the least amount of work possible and having a sense of progress and wanting to improve ourselves all the time. From an evolutionary standpoint, being lazy makes a lot of sense, because when being lazy we can conserve energy and lazy humans (at least those that did not die because of too much laziness) flourished in the past because they needed less food to survive.
They passed on more of their genes and out-competed the other gene variants. Hence laziness is something that almost all of us share to a certain extent. I mean there are genetic differences and some people are less lazy than others, because of those differences and the culture/education they grew up with.
It turns out though, that I am not one of them, I am very lazy and good at procrastinating a lot of things indefinitely. I can even write articles about it and then forget about my ambitions completely for years on end...
This is a problem and something that I am slowly changing for the better (hopefully). The only good thing about sloth is that we can fix it. Or at least, work around it. By building habits and character, because habits and character can be stronger than sloth.
We can get around the problem of being lazy and do the hard work necessary to develop skills that can propel us into zones of flow and productivity.
Healthy habits are the solution to the problem of sloth and something that everybody should try to get integrated into their life.
Habits after some time, are eventually triggered automatically, they just bypass the need for motivation, and then the time spent progressing on work and the time spent in states of flow, skyrockets.
And that is important because that is what we want. We know we can be happy when we are doing stuff that we love and get lost in a state of flow. And we know we are happy when we are progressing and developing our skills. But even though we know, sloth is often in the way. It's like different parts of our brain are fighting out our decisions, and too often the procrastinating, short-term thinking side wins.
Habits are the key way to push the balance in our favor. Casting lots of "who" we want to be can change our brains. Writing and exercising daily, painting every week, coding every day and learning languages every day. Practicing piano, going for walks, eating healthily, reading in the evenings, and sleeping enough... We can do what we need to do, and keep building a track record, that motivates us to keep going. Until eventually the idea of sloth, of procrastination seems absurd.
Problem 4: Addictions
To me, addictions are something I struggle with very much. It's mostly computer games, but also porn, youtube, unhealthy food and smartphones. Luckily no chemical addictions, like alcohol, heroin or things like that (yet). Addictions take away our "freedom" of choice. They bias neural networks, that fire in your brain when you decide something. And they push those decisions away from the optimum decisions you want to make when trying to live a fulfilled life. Therefore addictions quite successfully prevent you from living a fulfilled life. In a way, one could argue that an addicted brain is not a healthy brain. So the problems of addiction can be grouped under the problem of un-perfect health as well.
I can remember the times when I would sit down and play computer games for hours and hours on end, day after day. And every so often I still fall into these patterns. In a way, an addicted brain is changed forever.
After school, I would get home, turn on the PC, and dive into a happy little game world for hours. And that made me happy and excited every day. But only in the short term. I was happy as long as I was in that virtual world, happy, until the point where I would eventually shut down the PC, and snap out of the immersion. Then I would start to ask myself: How it could have happened again that I just spent countless hours doing something that I don't want to do?
This thought often made me deeply unhappy. There were so many amazing ideas I kept having. About building stuff in the real world, about doing this or that. But they were only ideas... and the next day, I couldn't wait to get home from school, to play computer games for the whole day again. It was weird, and the thought of it still is.
Now I am at least trying to reduce the time lost to computer games that way. I still play in the evenings, sometimes way too much. But FOMO and the fear of death are great motivators, here.
I try to remember that I am going to die and that time is short. Life is short and I do not want to spend it with something that I can not hundred percent justify for myself. I don't want to fuel an addiction. And computer games are this sort of thing. They have a taint of being the "wrong" thing to spend my time with. And so I try to play less.
And I think that's because games are engineered to give a quick but also quickly vanishing and misguided sense of progress. They reward, without building lasting flow states and progress in the real world. And progress in the real world is what is important in life.
Problem 5: Pride
Pride is one of the most dangerous things. And something I struggle with way more than I'd like to admit. And pride can manifest in so many different ways, it's depressing. And worst of all, pride is sneaky. In thinking you have beaten pride, you are probably inviting it back through the back door. You can pride yourself on your humility.
Fear of Failure
The fear of failure is a unifying theme tying many problems in my life together. And it's a symptom of pride.
When problems arise and we have not prepared for them properly and even though we struggle hard and long, we can not overcome the problems and fail. That's harsh. It stings. And it's the worst way life can go. And that's why most people fear it so much, that they don't even try.
When I think of failures, I do not think of the nice - fail and then recover stories. I am thinking more of the kind of dramatic failure that you can not recover from, the kinds of failures that eat your dreams alive because you can not recover from them.
Luckily these complete disasters are rare (or maybe they don't exist at all or are beyond our control). Failing usually means that there are ways out but we are not wise enough to figure them out. Finding them is the problem. And the embarrassment that goes along with that failure is what the fear of failure is all about.
It's about pride, about what we want to look like. Nobody likes to be seen struggling, to be seen failing. Yet, this quality, of being able to fail, repeatedly, is what is most important.
Because analyzing the problems and hardships we survived in our lives is an important step in avoiding the repetition of failures in the future.
A fulfilled life is a constant upwards tumbling.
If not fatal, failure is good and should be embraced.
This is a concept I took from Ray Dalio's principles. An image of an upwards spiral of failure, learning and growth.
It is up to us to find ways to overcome failures though. But this is often hard. And usually, that is the problem. Because it is easy to say that one is not afraid of failures but when digging deeper one often finds out that this is simply not true. Because we might not be competent enough to find the learning and recover from a failure and then our pride is on the line.
We can very easily lock ourselves down in fear of failing. And end up not doing the things we would like to do. Because we don't dare to face the odds and fail. Simply because we are afraid of what might happen if we are unable to fix the failure and learn and grow from it.
Questions I like to ask myself that help: When I fail what is the worst possible outcome? Is that acceptable? How can I develop a strategy to get back to my feet and keep doing the things I love? How can I keep trying, keep making, and keep creating?
Comparison to Others.
This is a bad problem and another manifestation of pride.
When comparing yourself to others, you can always find somebody who devoted their whole life to only this one singular purpose, somebody more gifted, more obsessed with it than you. Somebody who put all of their soul and all of their time into doing only this one thing exceptionally well. And you can not compete with people like this, without collapsing down into doing one thing only as well.
But people like this become more than good, they become so exceptionally good, that they seem superhuman. They push the boundary of what is possible and get so good that you can not compete with them. I think of people such as Alex Honnold, John Florence, Jacob Collier, Magnus Carlsen, Albert Einstein and so on.
These comparisons sap away motivation way too often. Because we usually do not want to put in that much time. We want to do other things as well. We do not want to live a life single-mindedly oriented towards a single purpose.
Even if it would mean that within this narrow segment of skill we could become "world-class" or even "the best". But we still want to be world-class performers. We would like to think that, yeah, sure, if we put in the hours, we could become world-class and compete with these other people. But because life is in the way, well... we simply do not. This is a mechanism of pride, protecting the image that we have of ourselves.
And it might be very well true, but we have to choose. Either we push ourselves and see if we can compete, in reality, with the world's best... or we don't try and just compete with ourselves, within our arenas and are content that way, but also stop comparing ourselves with these people entirely and stop giving up the idea of "hey, if I only tried, I could be like them", because we wouldn't be.
I for one, know that I have a much lower bound on most possible skills, than what other people have already reached. I can not push the boundaries, because I don't want to. Because I have too many flaws in my life, that I need to fix first, and am set up too broadly because my fear of missing out would be too overwhelming otherwise. And that is ok. I don't need to compete at a world-class level at chess, because I like chess, I don't personally like it that much, to go through the pain, necessary to reach that level. And fundamentally, the people reaching world-class level think the same I think. They don't reach a world-class level, because their motivation is to reach a world-class level, they reach it because they are so captivated by the thing that they are doing, that they simply can not help themselves, but want to become exceptionally good at what they are doing as they possibly can. And that, almost "automatically", pushes them closer to the extreme heights of their skills, which are necessary to compete at these levels.
Because I am who I am and I am decidedly different from these people, I won't compete with them. And that is ok. Now, this might be an excuse to not fail at the task of becoming world-class at something, but I don't think it is. Somehow I am convinced that I am being genuine in thinking that. Deep within me I am still stuck though. I still compare myself to others in that toxic way. No matter how hard I try not to... I still do it. At least subconsciously. And it sucks.
If you still compare yourself to world-class people but don't want to put in the time and effort necessary to reach their abilities, it quickly takes the fun and passion out of the process of learning. Cynically we could think, that it makes no sense to become better at all because you will never reach a "world-class" level. So, why bother? This type of thinking is toxic. Because it leads to decay, and standing still.
Comparing myself to others is a problem I still have to solve if I want to become happy in the long run. I have to remember, that I need to be excelling only when compared to myself the day before. Because that's the only thing that matters.
As long as I am progressing and giving my all to whatever it is I am doing at that very moment, I can be happy. I can be present, strive to become better, and everything will be alright. I'll be in flow. The danger is, that you can start slacking off and be convinced that you are doing your best, but in reality, you are not doing your best. The mind can twist itself in such ways, because of a mix of pride and sloth, and we have to be careful, not to fall into such a trap. We can think of ourselves as good, while not being good at all. A Feynman quote comes to mind:
You must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
If truly internalized there is simply no point in doing comparisons to other people. Because it makes no sense to be focused on the outcomes, it is more important, that you are internally focused on doing your best. To put your character first, instead of the results. Ideas like this remind me a lot of the thoughts expressed in the Bhagavad Gita.
But even though I know this, still, here I am, living my life, having fun and enjoying most of it, yet also not able to follow through with my passions because I want to be better than others. Because I am still comparing myself.
This is ironic and depressing. I still need to find out more about myself. So that I can start to tame this screaming voice buried within me, that gets angry at my friends if we play games together and they win, that makes me go mad when playing losing, the thing that makes me assign blame onto others, which probably I am at fault. The thing that makes me smile from the inside at the failing of others because it makes me seem a notch better. And I am sick of that voice, of comparison, of competition.
Even though we might know better and have thought a lot about it and want to change, it can be exceptionally hard to change the psyche to tolerate other people's greatness and be only in competition with ourselves. I know that I am still not there yet.
Several things keep me and probably many others from being the best version of themselves and I discussed them at great length above. They are:
- not perfect health
- pride manifested as comparing yourself with others and the fear of failure
- sloth and procrastination
- financial shackles and the need to work for sustenance
All of these can boil down and be solved by a few concepts of ancient wisdom. They are deeply human problems because they are problems of character. The antidote is to build a better character, which is a project that takes a lot of time and work. Ideas on how to do that are plentiful and you can find them in a lot of books such as 7 Habits or Enough.
But knowledge is not enough. And implementation is way harder than acquiring knowledge. And true understanding, true wisdom, only comes when living these ideas day to day. Only when you put in the work to build a solid foundation, and a solid character, only then you can overcome these problems. And that takes time and work. So keep at it.