I had a chance to spend a lot of time on personal reflection recently. One of the biggest things that struck me was that my “life philosophy” (if we can call it that) is running out of steam. This is especially worrisome because I believe it’s served me extremely well for the past few years—I now have a great job which matches me perfectly, churn through books, manage to indulge a bunch of exciting creative projects, am constantly learning new and interesting technical skills, and so on.
I haven’t been living by any explicit code or set of principles; I don’t actually know anyone who does. However, there’s a small set of ideas that I’ve been roughly guided by for a while.
One of these might be summed up as “do what you want, when you feel like it”. This sounds like a recipe for hedonistic despondency, but my personal interpretation actually led to some pretty good places. For example, one thing I got into over the past few years was music production. I never pre-planned a single production or learning session. However, I managed to make hundreds of little songs, and got much better at the skills involved throughout the process. It turns out that I actually did want to get better at music, however sporadically, and found it worth spending time on fairly often.
I would actually chalk some amount of success up to doing things only when I wanted to. It’s super hard to burn out on something if you’re only doing it when you want to. There would be months where I wouldn’t work on music, sure. However, I always came back to it out of genuine interest, never out of a place of obligation or feeling like I “should” slog through.
This of course means that anything I truly didn’t want to do, I basically just didn’t do. This can (and did) lead to behavior that seems a little childish—outright avoidance of certain situations, for example. I tried not to force myself to do things, though, and instead relied on the fact that either I truly want something (although perhaps long-term and difficult to want moment-by-moment) or I don’t. If I don’t truly want something, why am I doing it? If I do want something, but it’s nebulous or long-term or temporarily painful, I still want it. So…I should do it.
Another vague piece of advice I followed was “try new skills all the time”. Even within music, I tried a bunch of new instruments (drums, violin, saxophone) and a dozen different genres in my production. I started piano lessons. I tried DJing.
However, putting these kinds of ideas for how to live a life together is certainly far from a perfect answer. I got pretty good at learning things it’s possible to practice 200 times for half an hour each (like making a one-minute piece of music), but remained bad at things that take 20 hours of focus time to practice once. I do think quantity is a nice hack to achieving eventual quality, but in cases where I found it hard to get a ton of reps, I didn’t see much change.
This pseudophilosophy also prefers achievements which are trivially easy to track. For example, I found a goal of the form “read X books in a year” fit this mindset pretty well, and it was easy to stay on track. (Just divide the number of days in the year by the number of books you want to read, and stay ahead of schedule.) However, qualitative items (especially personal or interpersonal ones like “be happier, somehow” or “improve the quality of X relationship”) didn’t really “fit”, if that makes sense.
This brings us to the “running out of steam” bit.
The ethos above provides a decent way to spend a pandemic—locked inside, gaining skills and putting your creations out into the world. These techniques have been really helpful for anything mostly skill-based, like certain parts of advancing a career, or finding interesting hobbies to talk about. However, I think it’s just about time for another big change.
I’ve pulled off a couple major-enough life-philosophical changes before. The current era probably started back in 2019, when I began emphasizing gaining certain kinds of technical and creative skills. It’s no accident I started this blog in January 2019, either. “Gain skills and put your creative work into the world” is a good way to live, in general, as far as I can tell. The biggest prior change (stretching my memory a bit here) was probably some mix of entering college and starting my first long-term relationship, which both involved reinventing myself somewhat, socially.
I’m not quite sure how I’m going to change in the future, which makes things a little tricky to plan. However, I think I’ve gotten a lot of juice out of creative/technical skill learning, and could probably stand to squeeze life from another angle. Good candidates are probably social involvement, building relationships, following through more on moral/ethical beliefs, trying harder to make people around me happy, and so on.
It’s also tough to plan when I know prior changes like this were so unplanned. It’s more like a feeling I get that something needs to change, and the “something” tends to unfold over the course of several years after the initial feeling. This is also the first time I’m writing (especially publicly) about such an upcoming change, and I’m not convinced I’m doing very well at it.
I guess the main takeaway (for myself) is that I should continue to trust myself to seek out improvements. Life certainly isn’t over, as a process of becoming someone new. I’m beyond excited for what comes next.