How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love

Here’s the link to this essay.

Why prestige is the enemy of passion, or how to master the balance of setting boundaries and making friends.


“Find something more important than you are,” philosopher Dan Dennett once said in discussing the secret of happiness“and dedicate your life to it.” But how, exactly, do we find that? Surely, it isn’t by luck. I myself am a firm believer in the power of curiosity and choice as the engine of fulfillment, but precisely how you arrive at your true calling is an intricate and highly individual dance of discovery. Still, there are certain factors — certain choices — that make it easier. Gathered here are insights from seven thinkers who have contemplated the art-science of making your life’s calling a living.


Every few months, I rediscover and redevour Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham’s fantastic 2006 article, How to Do What You Love. It’s brilliant in its entirety, but the part I find of especial importance and urgency is his meditation on social validation and the false merit metric of “prestige”:

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.


Prestige 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.


Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

More of Graham’s wisdom on how to find meaning and make wealth can be found in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age.


Alain de Botton, modern philosopher and creator of the “literary self-help genre”, is a keen observer of the paradoxes and delusions of our cultural conceits.

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he takes his singular lens of wit and wisdom to the modern workplace and the ideological fallacies of “success.”

His terrific 2009 TED talk offers a taste:

One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.


Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod is as well-known for his irreverent doodles as he is for his opinionated musings on creativity, culture, and the meaning of life. In Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity, he gathers his most astute advice on the creative life. Particularly resonant with my own beliefs about the importance of choices is this insight about setting boundaries:

16. The most important thing a creative per­son can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it. The more you need the money, the more people will tell you what to do. The less control you will have. The more bullshit you will have to swallow. The less joy it will bring. Know this and plan accordingly.

Later, MacLeod echoes Graham’s point about prestige above:

28. The best way to get approval is not to need it.

This is equally true in art and business. And love. And sex. And just about everything else worth having.”


After last year’s omnibus of 5 timeless books on fear and the creative process, a number of readers rightfully suggested an addition: Lewis Hyde’s 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of which David Foster Wallace famously said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

In this excerpt, originally featured here in January, Hyde articulates the essential difference between work and creative labor, understanding which takes us a little closer to the holy grail of vocational fulfillment:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a term for the quality that sets labor apart from work: flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know creative labor.


In his now-legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address, an absolute treasure in its entirety, Steve Jobs makes an eloquent case for not settling in the quest for finding your calling — a case that rests largely on his insistence upon the power of intuition:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.


Robert Krulwich, co-producer of WNYC’s fantastic Radiolab, author of the ever-illuminating Krulwich Wonders and winner of a Peabody Award for broadcast excellence, is one of the finest journalists working today. In another great commencement address, he articulates the infinitely important social aspect of loving what you do — a kind of social connectedness far more meaningful and genuine than those notions of prestige and peer validation.

You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

If you can… fall in love, with the work, with people you work with, with your dreams and their dreams. Whatever it was that got you to this school, don’t let it go. Whatever kept you here, don’t let that go. Believe in your friends. Believe that what you and your friends have to say… that the way you’re saying it — is something new in the world.


You might recall The Holstee Manifesto as one of our 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life, an eloquent and beautifully written love letter to the life of purpose. (So beloved is the manifesto around here that it has earned itself a permanent spot in the Brain Pickings sidebar, a daily reminder to both myself and you, dear reader, of what matters most.)

This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often. If you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t like your job, quit. If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.

The Holstee Manifesto is now available as a beautiful letterpress print, a 5×7 greeting card printed on handmade paper derived from 50% elephant poo and 50% recycled paper, and even a baby bib — because it’s never too early to instill the values of living from passion.

Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living

Here’s the link to this essay.

Reflections on how to keep the center solid as you continue to evolve.


UPDATE: The fine folks of Holstee have turned these seven learnings into a gorgeous letterpress poster inspired by mid-century children’s book illustration.

On October 23, 2006, I sent a short email to a few friends at work — one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college — with the subject line “brain pickings,” announcing my intention to start a weekly digest featuring five stimulating things to learn about each week, from a breakthrough in neuroscience to a timeless piece of poetry. “It should take no more than 4 minutes (hopefully much less) to read,” I promised. This was the inception of Brain Pickings. At the time, I neither planned nor anticipated that this tiny experiment would one day be included in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the few friends would become millions of monthly readers all over the world, ranging from the Dutch high school student who wrote to me this morning to my 77-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria to the person in Wisconsin who mailed me strudel last week. (Thank you!) Above all, I had no idea that in the seven years to follow, this labor of love would become my greatest joy and most profound source of personal growth, my life and my living, my sense of purpose, my center. (For the curious, more on the origin story here.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘I’ll Be You and You Be Me’ by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Looking back today on the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching and writing Brain Pickings and the countless collective hours of readership it has germinated — a smile-inducing failure on the four-minute promise — I choke up with gratitude for the privilege of this journey, for its endless rewards of heart, mind and spirit, and for all the choices along the way that made it possible. I’m often asked to offer advice to young people who are just beginning their own voyages of self-discovery, or those reorienting their calling at any stage of life, and though I feel utterly unqualified to give “advice” in that omniscient, universally wise sense the word implies, here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of making those choices, of integrating “work” and life in such inextricable fusion, and in chronicling this journey of heart, mind and spirit — a journey that took, for whatever blessed and humbling reason, so many others along for the ride. I share these here not because they apply to every life and offer some sort of blueprint to existence, but in the hope that they might benefit your own journey in some small way, bring you closer to your own center, or even simply invite you to reflect on your own sense of purpose.

Illustration from ‘Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35.’ Click image for more.
  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige 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.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking momentdictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?
  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
One of Maurice Sendak’s vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Then, just for good measure, here are seven of my favorite pieces from the past seven years. (Yes, it is exactly like picking your favorite child — so take it with a grain of salt.)

Montaigne and the Double Meaning of Meditation

Here’s the link to this essay.

“There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous … than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts.”


“We all have the same inner life,” beloved artist Agnes Martin said in a wonderful lost interview“The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.” But in an age where we compulsively seek to optimize our productivity, the art of presence with and recognition of our inner lives, while infinitely more rewarding, is one fewer and fewer of us are able or willing to master. Of those who seek to cultivate it despite the cultural current, many turn to meditation. And yet meditation itself has an ambivalent history that reflects this tug-of-war between productivity and presence.

Among the timeless trove of musings collected in his Complete Essays (public librarypublic domain) is the following passage Michel de Montaigne penned sometime in the second half of the 16th century:

Meditation is a rich and powerful method of study for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously. I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, “those for whom to live is to think.”

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

“Meditation,” here, is taken to mean “cerebration,” vigorous thinking — the same practice John Dewey addressed so eloquently a few centuries later in How We Think. This conflation, at first glance, seems rather antithetical to today’s notion of meditation — a practice often mistakenly interpreted by non-practitioners as non-thinking, an emptying of one’s mind, a cultivation of cognitive passivity. In reality, however, meditation requires an active, mindful presence, a bearing witness to one’s inner experience as it unfolds. In that regard, despite the semantic evolution of the word itself, Montaigne’s actual practice of meditation was very much aligned with the modern concept and thus centuries ahead of his time, as were a great deal of his views.

In How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) — that remarkable distillation of timeless lessons on the art of living from the godfather of “blogging,” explored more closely here — British philosophy scholar Sarah Bakewell points to Montaigne’s oft-quoted aphorism — “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep.” — noting that he “achieved an almost Zen-like discipline” and remarking on his “ability to just be,” the essence of meditation:

It sounds so simple, put like this, but nothing is harder to do. This is why Zen masters spend a lifetime, or several lifetimes, learning it. Even then, according to traditional stories, they often manage it only after their teacher hits them with a big stick — the keisaku, used to remind meditators to pay full attention. Montaigne managed it after one fairly short lifetime, partly because he spent so much of that lifetime scribbling on paper with a very small stick… Observing the play of inner states is the writer’s job. Yet this was not a common notion before Montaigne, and his peculiarly restless, free-form way of doing it was entirely unknown.

Meditation, then, isn’t merely the product of solitude — that increasingly endangered art of learning how to be alone — but is also aided by an active record of one’s inward gaze, the very practice that makes keeping a diary so spiritually and creatively beneficial, particularly for writers.

1947 illustration for the essays of Montaigne by Salvador Dalí. Click image for details.

How to Live is revelational in its entirety, full of Montaigne’s timeless and ever-timely wisdom on the most central questions of leading a meaningful life.

Sam Harris on the Paradox of Meditation and How to Stretch Our Capacity for Everyday Self-Transcendence

Here’s the link to this essay.

“Positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”


Montaigne believed that meditation is the finest exercise of one’s mind and David Lynch uses it as an anchor of his creative integrity. Over the centuries, the ancient Eastern practice has had a variety of exports and permutations in the West, but at no point has it been more vital to our sanity and psychoemotional survival than amidst our current epidemic of hurrying and cult of productivity. It is remarkable how much we, as a culture, invest in the fitness of the body and how little, by and large, in the fitness of the spirit and the psyche — which is essentially what meditation provides.

In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library), neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris argued that cultivating the art of presence is our greatest gateway to true happiness. After his extensive, decades-long empirical romp through the world’s major religious traditions and humanity’s most potent psychedelic substances, Harris returns again and again to meditation as the holy grail of self-transcendence, the single most promising practice for slicing through the illusion of the ego to reveal what Jack Kerouac so memorably called “the Golden Eternity.”

Harris writes:

Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

We know that the self is a social construct and the dissolution of its illusion, Harris argues, is the most valuable gift of meditation:

The conventional sense of self is an illusion [and] spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.


The feeling that we call “I” seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will. And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.

Such abolition may seem unnerving in the context of personal identity, something to which we are invariably attached, but as soon as we begin to understand just how mutable that identity is, dissolving the self illusion becomes not a punishing negation of free will but a promise of freedom. Harris writes:

The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment — the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists — perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein — you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found — and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.

And yet, and yet, this is where the essential paradox of meditation arises — if meditation is about cultivating the capacity to accept the present moment exactly as it is, then the notion of a meditation practice or of mindfulness training, which implies progress toward a future goal, seems at odds with the very concept of such pure presence. Harris captures this elegantly:

We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved. But here lies one of the central paradoxes of spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present. As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self — and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.

The solution to the paradox, Harris suggests, is in approaching mindfulness not as a compulsively productive practice of self-improvement — there is the “self” creeping up again — but as a state of active presence with everyday life:

The ultimate wisdom of enlightenment, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.

He cautions against treating meditation as another to-do item:

Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize.

Reflecting on his training with the Burmese spiritual master Sayadaw U Pandita, who teaches meditation as an “explicitly goal-oriented” practice — mindfulness is approached not as freedom from the self illusion in the present moment but as a means of attaining the “cessation” of that illusion in the future — Harris writes:

[This approach] encourages confusion at the outset regarding the nature of the problem one is trying to solve. It is true, however, that striving toward the distant goal of enlightenment (as well as the nearer goal of cessation) can lead one to practice with an intensity that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. I never made more effort than I did when practicing under U Pandita. But most of this effort arose from the very illusion of bondage to the self that I was seeking to overcome. The model of this practice is that one must climb the mountain so that freedom can be found at the top. But the self is already an illusion, and that truth can be glimpsed directly, at the mountain’s base or anywhere else along the path. One can then return to this insight, again and again, as one’s sole method of meditation — thereby arriving at the goal in each moment of actual practice.

Despite the paradoxes of the practice, however, Harris considers it our most promising access point to a fulfilling spiritual life:

It is very difficult to imagine someone’s not being able to see her reflection in a window even after years of looking — but that is what happens when a person begins most forms of spiritual practice. Most techniques of meditation are, in essence, elaborate ways for looking through the window in the hope that if one only sees the world in greater detail, an image of one’s true face will eventually appear. Imagine a teaching like this: If you just focus on the trees swaying outside the window without distraction, you will see your true face. Undoubtedly, such an instruction would be an obstacle to seeing what could otherwise be seen directly. Almost everything that has been said or written about spiritual practice, even most of the teachings one finds in Buddhism, directs a person’s gaze to the world beyond the glass, thereby confusing matters from the very beginning.

But one must start somewhere. And the truth is that most people are simply too distracted by their thoughts to have the selflessness of consciousness pointed out directly. And even if they are ready to glimpse it, they are unlikely to understand its significance.

Harris reframes the paradox with an admonition and an assurance:

Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity. However, it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy — while covertly hoping that they will go away — and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness. Only the latter gesture opens the door to wisdom and lasting change. The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.


Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations — changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world — but it also allows a person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.

In a conversation with Tim Ferriss on the altogether excellent The Tim Ferriss Show, Harris argues that the mindfulness meditation cultivates — a quality of mind that allows you to pay attention to whatever arises without being lost in thought — is the most useful way to explore the phenomenon of self-transcendence “without believing anything on insufficient evidence.” He adds:

The human nervous system is plastic in a very important way — which means your experience of the world can be radically transformed. You are tending who you were yesterday by virtue of various habit patterns and physiological homeostasis and other things that are keeping you very recognizable to yourself, but it’s possible to have a very different experience… It’s possible to do it through a deliberate form of training, like meditation, and I think it’s crucial to do — because we all want to be as happy and as fulfilled and as free of pointless suffering as can possibly be. And all of our suffering, and all of our unhappiness, is a product of how our minds are in every moment. So if there’s a way to use the mind itself to improve one’s capacity for moment-to-moment wellbeing — which I’m convinced there is — then this should be potentially of interest to everybody.

Milton, it turns out, was not only philosophically but also neuropsychologically right when he penned his famous verse: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

If you are looking for a good place to start with meditation, or would like slow-burning fuel for your existing practice, I highly recommend Tara Brach, who has truly transformed my life — her teachings and guided meditations are available as a reliably excellent free podcast, and her four-part primer on meditation is indispensable for beginners. (If you are moved and enriched by her generously offered free teachings, consider making a donation — Brach’s work, like my own, is supported by direct patronage, and I am a proud monthly donor.)

Harris has also written about how to begin a meditation practice himself.

Waking Up, which you can sample further here, is a superb read in its entirety, quite possibly the best thing written on this ecosystem of spiritual subjects since Alan Watts’s treatise on the taboo against knowing who you really are.

The Final Lecture

Here’s the link to this article. Definitely worth a read.

Ten lessons on living a good life and being resilient in the teeth of entropy, problems, setbacks & obstacles, aka normal life


MAY 16, 2023

For the past 12 years I have been a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, where I have taught a course called Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist, examples for which I draw from over 30 years of publishing Skeptic magazine and directing the Skeptics Society. I lecture on causality and determining truth, Bayesian reasoning, Signal Detection Theory, the scientific method, rationality and irrationality, game theory, cognitive biases, cults, conspiracies, Holocaust denial, creationism, science and religion, and much more (you can watch some of the lectures that I recorded remotely during the pandemic here).

In the final minutes of the final lecture of my final semester at Chapman a student asked what practical lessons for life I might share with them. I offered as much as I could think of off the top of my head, but since I have researched and written a fair amount on this topic over the decades (and tried to apply these lessons to my own life) I thought I would deliver a final lecture here, not only for my students but for anyone who is interested in knowing what tools science and reason can provide for how to live a good life and how to deal with entropy, problems, setbacks and obstacles, aka normal life. I have kept this short and limited to ten lessons, but I plan to expand each of these into chapter-length lessons and add a number more (possibly for a book). Watch for those in this space as well as in eSkeptic and on my podcast. To that end, please consider becoming a paid subscriber below. All monies go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization.

Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. All monies go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Lesson 1. The First Law of Life

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is first law of life, namely to expend energy to survive and flourish. That sounds rather anodyne, so let me unpack that briefly here, then we will see how it applies to all the other lessons.

We are physical beings living in a physical universe governed by the laws of nature. One of the most fundamental of all the laws of nature is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, sometimes called “entropy”, which holds that in a closed system energy dissipates, disorder increases, and things run down.

A hot cup of coffee, for example, will get cold if you don’t do anything to heat it up again. Why? Because heat is produced by all the jiggling of the water and coffee molecules in the cup, and since energy decreases and disorder increases, over time the molecules will jiggle less and the heat will dissipate into the environment, like the air above the cup or your hand holding the cup (which itself temporarily warms as the heat is transferred). In this case, a microwave oven to re-heat the coffee is your way of fighting back against entropy by putting energy into the cup. Of course, the energy to run the microwave comes from electricity generated by power plants, which you have to pay for each month, so there’s no free lunch in the universe!

Humans are open systems. We capture energy from food and convert it to power our muscles to move and push back against entropy, like making coffee, cleaning the house, going to work, and so forth. This is what I mean when I say that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the First Law of Life. Your purpose in life is to expend energy to carve out pockets of order that lead to survival and flourishing.

Examples of entropy abound: metal rusts if you don’t maintain it. Weeds overrun gardens if you don’t weed them. Wood rots if you don’t paint it. Beds stay unmade and bedrooms get cluttered if you don’t make and clean them. Your body will grow weak and flabby if you don’t stress it regularly with exercise. Your mind becomes fuzzy and confused if you don’t challenge it to think. Friendships and relationships must be maintained through regular communication. An empty bank account is what happens if you don’t go to work and earn money. Poverty is what societies get if they do nothing productive.

Entropy is not a “force” per se, like gravity. It’s just what happens if energy isn’t put into the system. Think of a sandcastle: There are a near infinite number of ways that grains of sand can be configured into an amorphous blob that resembles nothing in particular, but with just the right amount of water mixed with the sand there are a limited number of ways that the grains can be congealed into structures that resemble castles. What happens if the sandcastle is not maintained? Wind and waves and dogs and children erode it back into a featureless glob. There are simply far more ways for sand to be unstructured than structured. Life consists of building sand castles and maintaining them.

This also explains why failures in life are so much more common than successes: there are simply more ways to fail than there are to succeed. And the higher you aim the more obstacles there are going to be for you to get there, and entropy will push back against you along the way. Remember that the next time you fail. Like sandcastles, failure is normal, success unusual.

Lesson 2. To Thine Own Self Be True

In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Polonius says:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day.

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

To thine own self be true. What does this mean, exactly? Let’s begin with what philosophers call the Law of Identity: A is A, which means that each thing is identical with itself. The 15th century philosopher Nicholas of Cusa explained it this way: “there cannot be several things exactly the same, for in that case there would not be several things, but the same thing itself.”

Being true to yourself means recognizing and acknowledging that A is A, that you are you and not someone else. To try to be something that you are not, or to pretend to be someone else, is a violation of the Law of Identity: A cannot be non-A.

A is A means discovering who you are, your temperament and personality, your intelligence and abilities, your needs and wants, your loves and interests, what you believe and stand for, where you want to go and how you want to get there, and what matters most to you. Thine own self is your A, which cannot also be non-A. The attempt to make A into non-A has caused countless problems, failures, and heartaches in peoples’ lives.

How do you figure out who you are? By testing yourself, by trying new things, by meeting new people, by exploring, traveling, and reading, by trying different jobs and considering different careers. In time you will discover that most things you try, you will not be good at, but out of all those failures will emerge a handful of things that you are good at, a few people whom you are drawn to, and slowly the real you will emerge and thine own true self will come into focus.

Lesson 3. Be Antifragile

If the purpose of life is to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy pushing back against everything you do, then you need to be antifragile, a word coined by the risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2012 book of that title, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, on how to live in a world that is unpredictable and chaotic, and how to thrive during times of stress and even disaster.

Antifragile means growing and prospering from randomness, uncertainty, opacity, and disorder, and benefitting from a variety of shocks. Here’s how my psychologist friend and colleague Jonathan Haidt applies the concept of antifragility to raising children:

Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break. Bone actually needs to get banged around to toughen up. And so do children … they need to have a lot of unsupervised time, to get in over their heads and get themselves out.

For example, peanut allergies were once extremely rare. A mid-1990s study found that only 4 out of 1,000 children under the age of eight had a peanut allergy. A 2008 study by the same researchers, however, found that the rate had skyrocketed by 350 percent to 14 per 1,000. Why? Because parents and teachers had protected children from exposure to peanuts. The lesson is clear: immune systems become antifragile by exposure to environmental stressors, and so too do our minds and bodies to the stressors of daily life.

One solution to this problem may be found in an old saying: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” Other idioms capture the principle behind the lesson of antifragility: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Nietzsche famously said. “Tough times don’t last but tough people do,” my mother often told me. Here is what I wrote one of my students when she was going through a particularly difficult time:

No matter who you reach out to, ultimately it will come down to you and how you respond to your issues. There’s only so much other people can do. In the end, you have to help yourself. Whatever has happened in your life, you can’t do anything about that now as it is in the past and is out of your control. What is in your control is how you respond to it, whatever the “it” is, starting by deciding today that you are not going to let yourself be a victim any longer. It has to stop.

Ultimately only you can make it stop. Psychologists, family, and friends can only do so much. You must dig deep inside yourself and call up reserves you didn’t know you had, and from there rebuild your life, day by day, hour by hour, until it no longer is holding you back from realizing your full potential. What does not kill you makes you stronger. Whatever happened, it didn’t kill you. You are alive. You are engaged in the world. You are working on assignments. You will grow stronger with every accomplishment.

The current craze of overprotecting students from anything that makes them uncomfortable, including ideas that may challenge them, is making them weaker, not stronger, fragile, not antifragile.

Lesson 4. Be Self-Disciplined Because Action is Character

As the name implies, discipline comes from within the self. You are the architect of your life. You are responsible for what you do. So do it. How? Change your behavior and your cognition will follow. Change your habits and your thoughts will follow.

Everyone is looking for a hack, an easy way around the self-discipline problem. There is no hack and no way around being self-disciplined. External motivations, like motivating yourself with rewards for changing your habits, will not last. The motivation must eventually come from within. Internal motivation is the key to self-discipline.

You want to stop eating sugar and unhealthy food? Stop eating sugar and unhealthy food! Where? Here. When? Now. Self-discipline happens here and now. Stop eating bad food and start eating good food…here and now. Just do it.

Toward the end of his life the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “action is character,” by which he meant that what you do is who you are. Cognitive psychologists call this “embodied cognition”, in which action becomes character. My friend the science writer Amy Alkon wrote a book about this, colorfully titled Unfuckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence, with a chapter title that perfectly captures this principle: “The Mind is Bigger Than the Brain.” Here’s how Amy explains the principle in her humorous way:

Embodied cognition research shows that who you are is not just a product of your brain. It’s also in your breathing, your gut, the way you stand, the way you speak, and, while you’re speaking, whether you make eye contact or dart your eyes like you’re about to bolt under a car like a cat.

By acting and behaving a new way, you push out of your mind the old ways of being that you want to change. You are what you do. So act the way you want to feel. Be the person you want to be by acting like that person. As the Buddha counseled:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much.

Lesson 5. Don’t be a Victim

In their 2018 book The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning document how Western society has transitioned from an honor culture to a dignity culture and now is shifting into a victimhood culture.

In a culture of honor, each person has to earn honor and, unable to tolerate a slight, takes action himself. The big advance in Western society was to let the law handle serious offenses and ignore the inevitable minor ones—what sociologists call the culture of dignity, which reigned in the 20th century. It allows diversity to flourish because different people can live near each other without killing each other. As such, a culture of honor leads to autonomy, independence, self-reliance, confidence, courage, and strength of character.

The past quarter century, however, has seen the rise of a victimhood culture, where people are hypersensitive to slights as in the honor culture, but they don’t take care of it themselves. Instead they appeal to a third party to punish for them. A culture of victimhood leads people to divide the world into good and bad classes—victims and oppressors. As such, a culture of victimhood makes one weak, dependent, timid, afraid, and lacking courage and character.

Yes, any of us can be victims, but how you handle it matters. In a victimhood culture the primary way to gain status is to either be a victim or to condemn alleged perpetrators against victims, leading to an accelerating search for both. An Oxford student explained what happened to her after she joined a campus feminist group named Cuntry Living and started reading their literature on misogyny and patriarchy:

Along with all of this, my view of women changed. I stopped thinking about empowerment and started to see women as vulnerable, mistreated victims. I came to see women as physically fragile, delicate, butterfly-like creatures struggling in the cruel net of patriarchy. I began to see male entitlement everywhere.

As a result she became fearful and timid, afraid even to go out to socialize:

Feminism had not empowered me to take on the world—it had not made me stronger, fiercer or tougher. Even leaving the house became a minefield. What if a man whistled at me? What if someone looked me up and down? How was I supposed to deal with that? This fearmongering had turned me into a timid, stay-at-home, emotionally fragile bore.

Here is an antifragile way to deal with misogyny and patriarchy, from the model and pro-nuclear energy activist Isabelle Boemke:

If your Spanish is rusty a biblical metonymy may be found in the command to “go forth and multiply” (with your mother).

So stop with the safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and especially the deplatforming and cancelation of speakers who may cause students to rethink their beliefs—you know, what colleges and universities were designed to do. It is turning young adults into fragile snowflakes instead of antifragile warriors.

Lesson 6. Don’t Eat the Marshmallow

When video of Admiral William H. McRaven’s 2014 commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin was posted online, the speech went viral. Millions of viewers will remember the core message summed up in his memorable line: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” The Navy SEAL veteran explained the psychology behind such a simple task:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

Admiral McRaven’s “life lessons” in his speech are, in fact, variations on a theme explored by the legendary psychologist Walter Mischel in his 2014 book The Marshmallow Test. The key to being a successful Navy SEAL—or anything else in life—is summed up in the book’s subtitle, Mastering Self-Control. Mischel begins by describing how, in the late 1960s, he and his colleagues devised a straightforward experiment to measure self-control at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University.

In its simplest form, children between the ages of 4 and 6 were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. Some kids ate the marshmallow right away, but most engaged in unintentionally hilarious attempts to overcome temptation. They averted their gaze, covered their eyes, squirmed in their seats, or sang to themselves. They made grimacing faces, tugged at their ponytails, picked up the marshmallow and pretended to take a bite. They sniffed it, pushed it away from them, covered it up. If paired with a partner, they engaged in dialogue about how they could work together to reach the goal of doubling their pleasure.

In 2006, Professor Mischel published a new paper in the prestigious journal Psychological Science. The researchers did a follow-up study with the students they had tested 40 years before, examining the type of adults they had grown into. They found that the children who were able to delay gratification had higher SAT scores entering college, higher grade-point averages at the end of college, and they made more money after college. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also tended to have a lower body-mass index. That is, they were less likely to have a weight problem.

So, not eating the marshmallow is good for both your body and your mind. And all of life is a series of marshmallow tests.

Lesson 7: Directing Your Future Self

In an episode of the hit animated television series The Simpsons, Marge warns her husband that he might regret the drinking binge he’s about to go on, to which Homer replies: “That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.”

All of us, in fact, have future selves. Or, more accurately, there is no fixed self, but rather an ever-changing self, and the fact that we can project ourselves into the future means we can not only anticipate how our future selves might act, we can take measures today to alter how our future selves behave.

In the field of behavioral economics this problem of the future self is called future discounting, or myopic (nearsighted) discounting, and research shows that most of us discount the future too steeply, for example, electing to spend too much now instead of saving some for later. People are notoriously bad at long-term investing, as well as selecting smart retirement plans. The reason is that in the world we evolved in, and in all of human history until recently, life was, in the words of the political theorist Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Why save for a fabulous 75th birthday party when the odds were high that you’d be dead by 50?

For most of our ancestors, a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. In that world, it was better to eat one marshmallow now rather than risk the promised two marshmallows later that might be purloined or otherwise lost. A bumper sticker captures the temptation psychology: “Life is short. Eat dessert first.”

In today’s world, however, there is a good chance you will live a long life, so there is some justification to figuring out how to delay gratification, save for the future, plan for retirement, and expect your future self to be around for awhile.

The key here is projecting your current self into the future, asking yourself now what you want to happen then, and set up conditions today that you know will take effect later when your future self may not be trusted with doing the right thing.

That is, you don’t want to be Homer and say of your future self “man, I don’t envy that guy.”

Lesson 8: Be Your Own Financial Advisor

The comedian Woody Allen once joked, “It is better to be rich than it is to be poor…if only for financial reasons.” Well, yes, it is, and those financial reasons are not trivial.

Money may not be able to buy you love, happiness, or meaningfulness, but it sure can make life more comfortable and, more importantly, it can increase your opportunities for finding love, happiness and meaningfulness. How?

First, if you’re living on the margin—that is, your income barely covers your expenses and you have next to nothing left over for additional consumption or investment—your opportunities for doing anything else, from vacations to hobbies to retirement, are reduced to next to nothing.

Second, money buys you time, and that time can be put to use to make more money, as well as enjoy life by enriching it with additional opportunities for both business and pleasure.

Third, money buys a better life: better food, better clothes, better homes, better education, better transportation, better travel, better recreation, and better retirement.

How do you make money? Investments in real estate or the stock market (or both). I recommend a book called The Gone Fishin’ Portfolio by a financial advisor named Alex Green, who subsequently became a friend of mine. What Alex demonstrates is that no one can consistently beat the market. You may hear about people who do—for example, fund managers like Bill Miller, who in 2006 was declared by to be “The Greatest Money Manager of our Time” because he beat the S&P 500 stock index 15 years in a row.

But as my science writer friend Leonard Mlodinow calculated in his book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, there are over 6,000 fund managers in the U.S., and so if you do a simple coin-flip calculation of the odds that someone in that cohort of 6,000 fund managers would beat the S&P 500 15 years in a row, it turns out to be .75, or 3 out of 4. As Len says, the CNNMoney headline should have read “Expected 15-Year Run Finally Occurs: Bill Miller Lucky Beneficiary.” And, wouldn’t you know it, in the two years after Miller’s 15-year streak, the story read: “the market handily pulverized him.”

When Alex Green says to “go fishin” what he means is that you should not try to be the next Bill Miller. Why? Because only after the fact can we pick out the winners. Instead, you should pick stocks in companies with a solid track record—or, even better, invest in mutual funds tied to, for example, the S&P 500—and then, well, go fishing; that is, leave your investments alone. For example, Green calculates that if you invested $10,000 in 1990 in a mutual fund tied to the entire S&P 500 and then went fishing, 20 years later you would have $90,000, not counting dividend reinvestment, which would push you well over the $100,000 figure.

By contrast, if you tried to be actively involved in trading—buying and selling stocks and trying to anticipate what the market would do—you risk missing the biggest increases in that 20-year block. For example, if you miss just the 5 best days in that 20 years, your $90,000 account would plummet to $45,000. If you miss the 10 best days you’d end up with around $35,000. If you miss the best 25 days your $10,000 investment would only bring you only $19,000. And if you miss the best 50 days…you’d actually lose money.

Anyone can compute for you how much stocks have returned to investors in the past. No one can do that for the future. In the case of the S&P 500, since the 1920s it has returned an annualized average of around 10%. The returns for the NASDAQ, which is heavily loaded in tech stocks that have done so well the past 20 years, is significantly higher. Whichever fund you invest in, however, you should expect that your returns will not be significantly higher or lower than the long-term average, which in any block of time in a two-digit positive number. Here’s how Alex Green explains it:

History clearly demonstrates that no other asset class returns more than stocks over the long haul. Once you understand this—and accept the steep odds against timing the market—you’ve made the first step toward adopting an investment strategy that can generate high returns with an acceptable level of risk.

Here’s a chart showing the value of different assets over the very long run:

Lesson 9: Build Strong Social Networks

Diet and exercise are very important tools for living a long, healthy, and high-quality life, but believe it or not there’s something else you can do that produces even better results and it doesn’t require getting up at Zero Dark Thirty, doing push-ups, or eating kale. All you have to do is be sociable. Here are some comparisons of things you can do to lower your mortality risk based on the latest studies in longevity by scientists around the world:

  • Exercise lowers mortality risk by 33%. A happy marriage lowers it by 49%.
  • Eating 6 or more servings per day of fruits and vegetables lowers mortality risk by 26%. Having a large social network lowers it by 45%
  • Eating 3 servings a day of whole grains lowers mortality risk by 23%. Feeling you have others you can count on for support lowers it by 35%.
  • Eating a Mediterranean diet lowers mortality risk by 21%. Living with someone lowers it by 32%.

These numbers, and their implications for what you can do to improve your life, were compiled by the science journalist Marta Zaraska and published in her book Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness can Help You Live to 100. Here are some of her suggestions of simple things you can do, all backed by scientific research:

  • Engage in more physical contact with others: kiss your partner more often, hold hands with your kids, hug your friends, rub each other’s back, look others in the eyes.
  • Prioritize your romantic relationship and really commit to it. Read books and articles on how to be a better partner. Avoid contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Talk with your partner about good things that happen in your daily life. Try new and fun things together and have some fun.
  • Invest in your friendships. Spend more time together, disclose your secrets, and don’t be afraid to ask for favors. When you’re with your partner or friends and family, put your phone away and focus on them.
  • Be more extraverted by greeting staff in a store, calling a friend whom you haven’t talk to in awhile, try a new restaurant or bar or café where you will meet new people working there.

In Zaraska’s words, here’s the bottom line:

It’s time we recognize that improving our social lives and cultivating our minds can be at least as important for health and longevity as are diet and exercise. When you grow as a person, chances are, you will also grow young. To Michael Pollan’s famous statement, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” I would add: “Be social, care for others, enjoy life.”

Lesson 10. Find Your Meaning and Purpose in Life

What, specifically, should you do to find meaning and purpose in life? Philosophers, theologians, and sages from spiritual traditions have been writing about this topic for millennia, and recently psychologists have undertaken scientific studies of people and what they do to find meaning and purpose in life. Here are some of their findings.

1. Love and family. The bonding and attachment to other people increases one’s circle of sentiments and a corresponding sense of purpose to care about others as much as, if not more than, oneself. A core principle of leading a meaningful life is to make it more than just about yourself.

2. Meaningful work and career. Having a passion for work and a long-term career gives most people a drive to achieve goals beyond the needs of themselves and their immediate family that lifts all of us to a higher plane, and society toward greater prosperity and moral progress. Having a reason to get up and around in the morning, and having a place to go where one is needed, is a lasting purposeful goal.

3. Social and community involvement. We are not isolated individuals but social beings with a drive to participate in the process of determining how best we should live together, for the benefit of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our societies. This is not just voting but, for example, being actively engaged in the political process; it is not just a matter of joining a club or society, but caring about its goals and the actions of the other members working toward the same goals. Get out and participate!

4. Challenges and goals. Most of us need tests and trials and things at which to aim, both ordinary, such as the physical challenge of sports and recreation and the mental challenge of games and intellectual pursuits, as well as extraordinary, such as striving for abstract principles like truth, justice, and freedom, and struggling through obstacles in the way of realizing them.

5. Transcendency and spirituality. Possibly unique to our species is the capacity for aesthetic appreciation, spiritual reflection, and transcendent contemplation through a variety of expressions such as art, music, dance, exercise, sports, meditation, prayer, quiet contemplation, religious revere, and spiritual contemplation, connecting us to that which is outside of ourselves, and generating a sense of awe and wonder at the vastness of humanity, nature, the world, and the cosmos. The idea that we live in a universe that is 13.8 billion years old, and on a planet that is but one among trillions of planets in our galaxy alone, itself one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies, in a universe that is possibly just one in a multiverse of universes, is so staggering a thought as to leave one speechless in reverence for the vastness of it all.

I will end this reverie on lessons for life with an inspiring poem that completely changed how I looked at my life when I first encountered it. It’s called Invictus, written in 1920 by William Ernest Henley, and is particularly poignant as he wrote it when he was terminally ill:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

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Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird ThingsThe Science of Good and EvilThe Believing BrainThe Moral Arc, and Heavens on EarthHis new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.

Anaïs Nin on the Meaning of Life and the Dangers of the Internet, Before the Internet

Here’s the link to this article.

“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”


Last week’s widely reverberating meditations on the meaning of life by cultural icons like Charles Bukowski, Annie Dillard, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Cage reminded me of a passage from the altogether sublime The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us this poignant reflection on why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

In an entry from May 1946, Anaïs Nin once again challenges our presentism bias by thinking deeply and timelessly about issues we tend to believe we’re brushing up against for the very first time, from the pitfalls of always-on communication technology to the pace of modern life to the venom of procrastination.

Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it. She writes:

The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

For more on Nin’s timeless insights on life, see Lisa Congdon’s stunning hand-lettered diary quotes.

Loving the Tree of Life: Annie Dillard on How to Bear Your Mortality

Here’s the link to this essay.

“We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water.”


Loving the Tree of Life: Annie Dillard on How to Bear Your Mortality

“To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier,” wrote Walt Whitman a century and a half before Richard Dawkins considered the luckiness of death as a radiant token of the improbable odds of having lived at all. Death — the harrowing fact of our mortality — is the central animating force of life, the one great terror for which we have devised the coping mechanisms of love and art. Everything we make, everything we do, is a bid for bearing our transience. And yet this is the native poetry of the cosmos — in a universe churned by entropy, the very fact of our impermanence is life’s most enduring source of meaning.

That is what the uncommonly poetic and penetrating Annie Dillard explores throughout her book For the Time Being (public library), published in the final year of the world’s deadliest century.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total solar eclipse by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to sand — Earth’s emissary of deep time, builder and dismatler of civilizations — Dillard writes:

Since sand and dirt pile up on everything, why does it look fresh for each new crowd? As natural and human debris raises the continents, vegetation grows on the piles. It is all a stage set — we know this — a temporary stage on top of many layers of stages, but every year fungus, bacteria, and termites carry off the old layer, and every year a new crop of sand, grass, and tree leaves freshens the set and perfects the illusion that ours is the new and urgent world now. When Keats was in Rome, he saw pomegranate trees overhead; they bloomed in dirt blown onto the Colosseum’s broken walls. How can we doubt our own time, in which each bright instant probes the future? We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water.

In every arable soil in the world we grow grain over tombs — sure, we know this. But do not the dead generations seem to us dark and still as mummies, and their times always faded like scenes painted on walls at Pompeii?

We live on mined land. Nature itself is a laid trap. No one makes it through; no one gets out.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Elbruch — a German picture-book about making sense of death

“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness,” David Foster Wallace wrote as he reckoned with mortality and redemption, “has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” In consonance with Wallace, Dillard writes:

Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us? We easily regard a beehive or an ant colony as a single organism, and even a school of fish, a flock of dunlin, a herd of elk. And we easily and correctly regard an aggregate of individuals, a sponge or coral or lichen or slime mold, as one creature — but us? When we people differ, and know our consciousness, and love? Even lovers, even twins, are strangers who will love and die alone. And we like it this way, at least in the West; we prefer to endure any agony of isolation rather than to merge and extinguish our selves in an abstract “humanity” whose fate we should hold dearer than our own. Who could say, I’m in agony because my child died, but that’s all right: Mankind as a whole has abundant children? The religious idea sooner or later challenges the notion of the individual. The Buddha taught each disciple to vanquish his fancy that he possessed an individual self. Huston Smith suggests that our individuality resembles a snowflake’s: The seas evaporate water, clouds build and loose water in snowflakes, which dissolve and go to sea. The simile galls. What have I to do with the ocean, I with my unique and novel hexagons and spikes? Is my very mind a wave in the ocean, a wave the wind flattens, a flaw the wind draws like a finger?

We know we must yield, if only intellectually. Okay, we’re a lousy snowflake. Okay, we’re a tree. These dead loved ones we mourn were only those brown lower branches a tree shades and kills as it grows; the tree itself is thriving. But what kind of tree are we growing here, that could be worth such waste and pain? For each of us loses all we love, everyone we love. We grieve and leave.

Complement with Marcus Aurelius on embracing mortality and the key to living fully, Rilke on befriending our transience, Marguerite Duras on our only taste of immortality, and physicist Alan Lightman on what actually happens when we die, then revisit Dillard on how to live with mystery and what Earth’s most otherworldly tree teaches us about being human.

Practical Mysticism: Evelyn Underhill’s Stunning Century-Old Manifesto for Secular Transcendence and Seeing the Heart of Reality

Here’s the link to this article.

“Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most part to live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin of experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the infinite gradation of values which they misrepresent.”


Practical Mysticism: Evelyn Underhill’s Stunning Century-Old Manifesto for Secular Transcendence and Seeing the Heart of Reality

The great paradox of consciousness is that it constitutes both our entire experience of reality and our blindfold to reality as it really is. Forever trapped within it, we mistake our concepts of things for the things themselves, our theories for the universe, continually seeing the world not as it is but as we are. The supreme frontier of human freedom may be the ability to accept that something exists beyond understanding, that understanding is a machination of the mind and not a mirror of the world — that the world simply is, and our consciousness is a participant in its being but not a creator of it.

The English poet, novelist, mystic, and peace activist Evelyn Underhill (December 6, 1875–June 15, 1941) explores how to do that in her 1914 book Practical Mysticism (public library | public domain) — a field guide to mystical experience that is secular rather than religious, the product of “ordinary contemplation” springing from the very essence of human nature, available to all.

Evelyn Underhill

Acknowledging what modern cognitive scientists well know — that our attention is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” — Underhill observes that “only a few amongst the wealth of impressions we receive are seized and incorporated into our picture of the world,” and reflects on the spiritual significance of this tendency to mistake representation for reality:

The distinction between mystic and non-mystic is not merely that between the rationalist and the dreamer, between intellect and intuition. The question which divides them is really this: What, out of the mass of material offered to it, shall consciousness seize upon — with what aspects of the universe shall it “unite”?

It is notorious that the operations of the average human consciousness unite the self, not with things as they really are, but with images, notions, and aspects of things. The verb “to be,” which [the self] uses so lightly, does not truly apply to any of the objects amongst which the practical man supposes himself to dwell. For him, the hare of Reality is always ready-jugged [jugged hare is a traditional English dish of hare marinated in wine and juniper berries, cooked in the animal’s blood]: he conceives not the living, lovely, wild, swift-moving creature which has been sacrificed in order that he may be fed on the deplorable dish which he calls “things as they really are.” So complete, indeed, is the separation of his consciousness from the facts of being, that he feels no sense of loss. He is happy enough “understanding,” garnishing, assimilating the carcass from which the principle of life and growth has been ejected, and whereof only the most digestible portions have been retained.

This, Underhill observes, is the opposite of the mystical orientation, which opens us up to a kind of knowledge beyond understanding — the kind that Elizabeth Bishop invoked in her astonishing poem “At the Fishhouses,” consonant with the notion of adaequatio and kindred to Maurice Bucke’s notion of cosmic consciousness.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Five years earlier, Underhill had voiced these existential reckonings through the heroine of her novel The Column of Dust:

She had seen, abruptly, the insecurity of those defences which protect our illusions and ward off the horrors of truth. She had found a little hole in the wall of appearances; and peeping through, had caught a glimpse of that seething pot of spiritual forces whence, now and then, a bubble rises to the surface of things.

That bubble, she intimates in Practical Mysticism, is what mysticism as “the art of union with Reality” surfaces in us. She writes:

Because mystery is horrible to us, we have agreed for the most part to live in a world of labels; to make of them the current coin of experience, and ignore their merely symbolic character, the infinite gradation of values which they misrepresent. We simply do not attempt to unite with Reality. But now and then that symbolic character is suddenly brought home to us. Some great emotion, some devastating visitation of beauty, love, or pain, lifts us to another level of consciousness; and we are aware for a moment of the difference between the neat collection of discrete objects and experiences which we call the world, and the height, the depth, the breadth of that living, growing, changing Fact, of which thought, life, and energy are parts… Then we realise that our whole life is enmeshed in great and living forces; terrible because unknown… The more sacred plane of life and energy which seems to be manifested in the forces we call “spiritual” and “emotional” — in love, anguish, ecstasy, adoration — is hidden from us too. Symptoms, appearances, are all that our intellects can discern: sudden irresistible inroads from it, all that our hearts can apprehend. The material for an intenser life, a wider, sharper consciousness, a more profound understanding of our own existence, lies at our gates. But we are separated from it, we cannot assimilate it; except in abnormal moments, we hardly know that it is.

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Those who bridge the separation, Underhill argues, are the mystics. Pointing to Walt Whitman as one such secular mystic — a person who “has achieved a passionate communion with deeper levels of life than those with which we usually deal” — she invites a layered understanding of what this notion of practical mysticism means:

The visionary is a mystic when his vision mediates to him an actuality beyond the reach of the senses. The philosopher is a mystic when he passes beyond thought to the pure apprehension of truth. The active man is a mystic when he knows his actions to be a part of a greater activity. Blake, Plotinus, Joan of Arc, and John of the Cross — there is a link which binds all these together: but if he is to make use of it, the inquirer must find that link for himself.

This practical mysticism, she argues as she contrasts it with an “indolent and useless mysticality,” is available to the ordinary person as an invitation “to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels of the world.” She offers a sentiment of winged assurance:

As the beautiful does not exist for the artist and poet alone — though these can find in it more poignant depths of meaning than other men — so the world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and purity of their desire.

The Dove No. 1 by Hilma af Klint. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Underhill considers the ultimate reward of practical mysticism:

Mysticism [is] the art of union with Reality [and], above all else, a Science of Love. Hence, the condition to which it looks forward and towards which the soul of the contemplative has been stretching out, is a condition of being, not of seeing. As the bodily senses have been produced under pressure of man’s physical environment, and their true aim is not the enhancement of his pleasure or his knowledge, but a perfecting of his adjustment to those aspects of the natural world which concern him — so the use and meaning of the spiritual senses are strictly practical too. These, when developed by a suitable training, reveal to man a certain measure of Reality: not in order that he may gaze upon it, but in order that he may react to it, learn to live in, with, and for it; growing and stretching into more perfect harmony with the Eternal Order, until at last, like the blessed ones of Dante’s vision, the clearness of his flame responds to the unspeakable radiance of the Enkindling Light.

Indeed, she places the ability — the willingness — to “look with the eyes of love” at heart of this practice of seeing reality clearly — a practice containing “the whole art of spiritual communion.” In a passage consonant with Dostoyevsky’s insistence that “nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason,”, and evocative of Hilton Als’s notion of love as the art of receptivity, Underhill writes:

The attitude which it involves is an attitude of complete humility and of receptiveness; without criticism, without clever analysis of the thing seen. When you look thus, you surrender your I-hood; see things at last as the artist does, for their sake, not for your own. The fundamental unity that is in you reaches out to the unity that is in them: and you achieve the “Simple Vision” of the poet and the mystic — that synthetic and undistorted apprehension of things which is the antithesis of the single vision of practical men. The doors of perception are cleansed, and everything appears as it is. The disfiguring results of hate, rivalry, prejudice, vanish away. Into that silent place to which recollection has brought you, new music, new colour, new light, are poured from the outward world. The conscious love which achieves this vision may, indeed must, fluctuate… But the will which that love has enkindled can hold attention in the right direction. It can refuse to relapse to unreal and egotistic correspondences; and continue, even in darkness, and in the suffering which such darkness brings to the awakened spirit, its appointed task, cutting a way into new levels of Reality.

Complement these fragments of Underhill’s wholly revelatory Practical Mysticism with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on transcendence for the science-spirited, then revisit Emerson on nature, transcendence, and how we become our most authentic selves.

Henry James on Losing a Mother

Here’s the link to this article.

“These are hours of exquisite pain; thank Heaven this particular pang comes to us but once.”


Henry James on Losing a Mother

“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the visionary psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote as he considered the mother as a pillar of society. Having a mother is a lifelong complexity. Losing a mother, no matter the nature or duration of the relationship, is the cataclysm of a lifetime.

That is what Henry James (April 13, 1843–February 28, 1916) reckoned with in his thirty-ninth year, recording the loss in a breathtaking diary entry found in The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (public library).

Henry James and his mother, Mary Robertson Walsh James

James writes:

I came back from Washington on the 30th of last month (reached Cambridge the next day), to find that I should never again see my dear mother. On Sunday, Jan. 29th, as Aunt Kate sat with her in the closing dusk (she had been ill with an attack of bronchial asthma, but was apparently recovering happily), she passed away. It makes a great difference to me! I knew that I loved her — but I didn’t know how tenderly till I saw her lying in her shroud in that cold North Room, with a dreary snowstorm outside, and looking as sweet and tranquil and noble as in life. These are hours of exquisite pain; thank Heaven this particular pang comes to us but once.

After making funeral arrangements with his father and his sister Alice — herself a writer of genius and consummate wisdom on the art of dying — he reflects on the kaleidoscopic nature of the loss:

It is impossible for me to say — to begin to say — all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us all together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity. Her sweetness, her mildness, her great natural beneficence were unspeakable, and it is infinitely touching to me to write about her here as one that was.

Kinship by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

One of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts — the last time you sat across from a person you now know you will never see again, the last touch of a hand that is no more, the last kiss of lips that shall never part again — lasts the finality of which we can never comprehend in the moment, lasts we experience with sundering shock in hindsight. James shudders with this recognition, then finds in it an exhale of relief, of reconciliation with reality that borders on sanctity:

When I think of all that she had been, for years when I think of her hourly devotion to each and all of us — and that when I went to Washington the last of December I gave her my last kiss. I heard her voice for the last time — there seems not to be enough tenderness in my being to register the extinction of such a life. But I can reflect, with perfect gladness, that her work was done — her long patience had done its utmost. She had had heavy cares and sorrows, which she had borne without a murmur, and the weariness of age had come upon her.

I would rather have lost her forever than see her begin to suffer as she would probably have been condemned to suffer, and I can think with a kind of holy joy of her being lifted now above all our pains and anxieties. Her death has given me a passionate belief in certain transcendent things — the immanence of being as nobly created as hers — the immortality of such a virtue as that… She is no more of an angel today than she had always been; but I can’t believe that by the accident of her death all her unspeakable tenderness is lost to the things she so dearly loved. She is with us, she is of us — the eternal stillness is but a form of her love. One can hear her voice in it — one can feel, forever, the inextinguishable vibration of her devotion.

In a bittersweet reminder that we must never hold back our tenderness, for we never know how many chances to share it are left us, he adds:

I can’t help feeling that in those last weeks I was not tender enough with her — that I was blind to her sweetness and beneficence. One can’t help wishing one had only known what was coming, so that one might have enveloped her with the softest affection.

Complement with My Mother’s Eyes — a soulful animated short film about loss and the unbreakable bonds of love — and Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most redemptive advice for those who have the chance-granted luxury of choosing it — then revisit James on how to stop waiting and start living.

HT Diaries of Note

Let Your Heart Be Broken

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“The miracle is that we rise again out of suffering… The miracle is that we create ourselves anew.”


Let Your Heart Be Broken

We spend our lives trying to anchor our transience in some illusion of permanence and stability. We lay plans, we make vows, we backbone the flow of uncertainty with habits and routines that lull us with the comforting dream of predictability and control, only to find ourselves again and again bent at the knees with surrender to forces and events vastly larger than us. In those moments, kneeling in a pool of the unknown, the heart breaks open and allows life — life itself, not the simulacrum of life that comes from control — to rush in.

How to live with that generative brokenness is what composer Tina Davidson explores throughout her memoir Let Your Heart Be Broken: Life and Music from a Classical Composer (public library) — a lyrical reckoning with what it takes to compose a life of cohesion and beauty out of shattered bits and broken stories.

She recounts attending a talk by Stephen Levine — the poet and author best known for his work on death and dying — at which an audience member asked what the meaning of life is. Acknowledging the vastness of the question, Levine paused, then offered: “I think the meaning of life is to let your heart be broken.” Reflecting on his words, Davidson writes:

Let your heart be broken. Allow, expect, look forward to. The life that you have so carefully protected and cared for. Broken, cracked, rent in two. Heartbreakingly, your heart breaks, and in the two halves, rocking on the table, is revealed rich earth. Moist, dark soil, ready for new life to begin.

The Human Heart. One of French artist Paul Sougy’s mid-century scientific diagrams of life. (Available as a print.)

Davidson — who is living with congestive heart failure after a savage bacterial infection — was a small child when her heart was first broken. Long before she became an accomplished pianist and composer, she was a three-year-old girl living with her foster parents and siblings in Sweden, until she was ripped from the only family she knew to be adopted by an English teacher from Ohio, who eighteen years later was revealed to be her birth-mother, having abandoned her newborn in the heartbreak of an ill-fated love affair. Davidson writes:

Here was the heart of loss. To my three-year-old self, my foster family was my family. The day my mother rang Solvig’s doorbell and brought me home as an adopted child, I lost my first mother and father, my three brothers, a home, a country, and a language. I lost myself and became another child. The shining child waited at the window. The dark child emerged. To the passing eye, I was unremarkable, even normal — but my inner self was silent, dark, and eternally sad for a loss that had no name.

Soon, her single mother married and Tina became the eldest of five children living in an itinerant family across Turkey, Germany, and Israel. Eventually, that dark inner child found light in music as she became an accomplished classical composer, creating with “that wonderful absorbing feeling of being,” with “a sigh of homecoming.” She writes:

Music, like life, is no more than itself. There is no implicit reason to it except that it is. And that is its magic. Like swimming in a dark underground grotto, life miraculously pulses open.

Music by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet an unslaked longing lurked beneath it all. Thirty years after the separation, Davidson set out to reconnect with her foster family, only to find that her foster mother had died of carcinoma a year earlier. Inhabiting her grief — grief “patient and enduring” that untucked hidden griefs she had been living with at the edges of being — became her way of wresting new life from the broken pieces of her heart. She reflects on this tender and tumultuous process:

The path of memory was littered with startling beliefs and perceptions that operated, silent and deadly, behind the scenes. My progress was uneven. I reworked an understanding, leaped ahead, then wallowed for weeks in a fog. After a remission, I emerged to work on a new piece of the puzzle. The darkness began to lighten, my rage abated, my depressions lessened; I began to breathe.

Punctuating the particular story of her own life with reflections on the universal pulse-beat of all life, she considers what readies the soil for this new fecundity as we continually tussle with our past, with the selves we have been and the lives we have lived and the losses we have lost:

The past presses on the present with staggering consistency. Nothing is separate or fresh, always an afterimage. The slow time-lapse photograph catches the multi-image movement of our lives. Danger lurks in every corner. To reconstruct will challenge perceptions of self, to restore will allow old pain to well up.

The price of forgotten memories, however, is more costly. My puppeteer of darkness is cruel. He perpetuates false beliefs and forces reenactments I cannot control.

The miracle is light. The miracle is that we rise again out of suffering. The miracle is the persistence of the soul to find itself, to look hard into the darkness, reach back, and grasp remnants of ourselves. The miracle is that we create ourselves anew.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to both creative work and life itself, she echoes Henry Miller’s penetrating insight on control and surrender, and contours the most generative orientation of being:

The word allow asks for balance and helps me rethink the issue of ownership and parentage. Allow provides a medium for growth and questions authority. Too much control forces a finger into sacred ground, leaving a trail of infection. To allow, in the end, is to have.

Let Your Heart Be Broken is a consummate read in its entirety, exploring with uncommon sensitivity and poetic insight the fundamentals of love, forgiveness, creativity, and what it takes to emerge from the inner darkness into a vast vista of light, rooted in the life-tested truth that “we are, in the end, a measure of the love we leave behind.” Complement these fragments from it with Kahlil Gibran on how to weather the uncertainties of love, Hannah Arendt on love and the fundamental fear of loss, and Alain de Botton on surviving heartbreak.