Improvement as the Purpose of Life

Or, why we want to always improve ourselves.

What is life?

Life is the continuing and spreading of complex patterns of information throughout time and space. Life is the process that turns matter into more of itself. But what does that have to do with improvement?

Life is about improvement because life can evolve. Competition, a changing environment, together with random mutations and selection produce a constant stream of new adaptations.

Why? Life is the opposite of death. And because it exists at the edge between chaos and order, it always has forces pulling it away from existence. In one way, there is only stasis and in the other way, there is too much growth, too much chaos, and no patterns to be extracted. At one end is the heat death of the universe, boring universal coldness, while at the other end is the extreme heat and burning chaos of a star. Life exists somewhere in the middle.

Life is complicated and messy. It has to be, to exploit patterns in this world. It needs to keep improving, so that it can extract energy from places and keep existing, in its own ordered and complex ways.

But the problem is that once life has adapted to a certain environment, and figured out the rules of how to exploit the environment, it has also changed the rules of the game. Life simply by existing in a certain place, starts to compete with itself. Living things have to continually improve and adapt, because they live together, in competition with other organisms. Without a continuous stream of innovation, movement, progress, and improvement, that life would quickly die out.

And we, as humans, are very much part of this process. What's more, we have abstracted this idea of improvement, of progress, and lifted it onto yet more levels. In a way, we are progressing on all of them simultaneously. Because the idea of evolution, of selected change, is not tied to biology at all. Biology is just one realm where evolution is at work.

The ideas in our heads can compete, they can change and evolve too. So can our personalities and characters, which are made up of ideas and words. So can the social constructs we build together. Firms, countries, families or political groups evolve.

Therefore everything we do as humans in a way, is an expression of evolution, progress, of improvement. That's why I think improvement is the purpose, not only of life in general but of our life as humans as well. Without it, life would quickly reach equilibrium and equilibrium means death.

Improvement is the Purpose of Our Lives.

Because we are an extension of life in the most general sense, we follow the same rules. And I am very much included in this idea.

That's why I want to learn and understand things. Because I want to get better over time and I think that this is the unifying theme driving the whole of evolution forward. It is what moves me to tears when I am reading about the progress of technology. It is what I enjoy so much when I finally solve a problem in coding after hours of failed attempts. It is why I practice and enjoy doing parkour and sports in general. Or why I paint. Or write. Or photograph. Or play the piano. It's all about having a sense of progress

It is, incidentally, also what makes me addicted to computer games. Because in a sense, computer games are a way of tricking our brains into believing that they are doing a lot of progress. That's what most games are about. That's why they have achievements, quests, items and so on.

Progression. That's what it is about.

A deeper truth about myself

The fear of missing out doesn't make sense. Because I am happiest when stretching myself to the very edge.

I am happiest when achieving things: When I am learning, traveling, and progressing...

I still have to accept that I am going to miss out on an awful lot, to become happy. Because stretching myself in a direction, requires turning a blind eye to other things. There is an opportunity cost attached to everything. And whatever I do, I have to sacrifice other opportunities for it.

Keeping up a mix of healthy habits: reading, writing, photographing, traveling, learning languages, coding, painting, doing sports and learning music are my priorities in life.

I want to do all of them and realize that when not pursuing all of them I will become unhappy. So doing all of them is in a sense who I am. A piece of my identity is wrapped up in these activities.

This is who I want to be. And I want to become better, over time, at all of them. Even if that means that the maximum distance I can go is limited because of that, I still want to stretch myself in all of them. I want to be a generalist.

Single-mindedly focusing on any of them is not what I want to do. Because that's not who I am. And I love all of these hobbies too much, to let any one of them fall by the wayside.

Even if that means that I am not going to be exceptionally good at anything in the end... But since that's not what is important to me, I don't care!

As long as I get a little better in all of them, by cycling through them, day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year, I will be living a fulfilled life...

A life that I enjoy.

The sting though. When reading these words they at the same time sound so right and so wrong to me. Because something inside of me wants to compete with the best. It wants to compete, not only with myself but with others. And I know that these two are mutually exclusive. I can't both excel at any of the things I want to do, while also doing all of them. Because that would be having my cake and eating it too. And... there is no free lunch.

Sometimes I wonder how this feeling of wanting to be better, to excel, to outgrow and be better than others got there... It is nested deep within me and I do not like it sometimes and think about whether there are ways to change it. Is it an extension of competing within hierarchical structures? Or is it simply because improvement, as the purpose of life, originates, originally, out of competition and therefore that's what's motivating me?

Even if that were true, I have to be careful, because, in the end, this idea of competition and not being able to compete could become something that keeps me from trying. With a thought like, hmm, if I can't be the best, why push at all?

In the end, that would be the fixed mindset at work. My mind is afraid of failure in a way, and sometimes I am internally aching because others are better than me. This is because I compare myself to others and see myself as a "failure" in those moments. And this mindset has enough power to taint the things I enjoy completely. I have to be immensely careful about it and that's why it is to me at least, a fundamental problem in life.

A sense of progress.

I think the theme unifying all of the points above is that I like to learn and experience new stuff and gradually become better at it by practicing and learning and having new experiences. It feels exhilarating to know things.

When something clicks in my mind and I finally understand something better, that makes me tremendously happy. There are those moments where I just can't help myself but smile and almost brim with happiness. Sometimes moments of understanding make me dance around my little room at home.

So what is the core value that I want to drive my life – the one theme unifying it all? It is curiosity and a passion for learning. But then I have to ask, why. Why do I feel that it is so important to learn new stuff constantly?

Why is learning so important to me?

It turns out that the thing that excites me about learning is not so much the learning itself and neither is it the point of knowing more than before and neither is it the ability to then explain and share it with others. It is way simpler than that. I crave improvement. Above all.

Do you?