I would characterize my life in phases, chunks of time when certain things be preoccupied on my mind. In the past they were about trying new things, video games, girls, career success, friends. But for the past few weeks it has been about my character.
This semester so many friends have been stressing out, figuring out how to best use their time. Adam Grant came to give a talk about Barry Schwartz leaving Swarthmore, and he quoted a line from Barry that really stuck with me:
“I’ve only had one job and one girlfriend, but dammit I’m happy”
The question of how can I become happy, how can I just be satisfied with “good enough” and not be constantly worried about achieving the best has converted from a moral, internal question into resource allocation question. How can I serve the greatest number of people? How can I make the biggest impact? These questions always lead to a lot of stress, and being genuinely satisfied with life requires lowering your expectations. Not in the sense that you just want to sit on your ass all day because you don’t have any goals for yourself. But in the sense that if you have all these expectations for yourself and other people in your life, you won’t be able to experience the pleasant surprises in life. Life is pretty damn random and trying to plan so far into the future is like throwing a fucking fortune cookie into a black hole, hoping that somehow the fortune cookie will magically come out unscathed and end back in your hands. Things change so much, and when you carve your epitaph, major, and career decision onto your tombstone when you are an 18 year old freshmen in college, you will never be able to be present and experience the pleasant surprise of change.
I think the people we should pay attention to are those who are passionate not just about some subject matter, some hobby, but about life. Maybe they do have hopes and expectations for the future, but if things don’t turn out the way they expected it to, they are fine with it. Or in other words, they are confident that they will be happy whatever the outcome is.
So how does this relate to character? I feel that a sustainable goal for college, and more importantly for the rest of my life, will be to develop a sense of depth in my character. I want to engage in an effort to magnify what is best in myself and also become strong in my weakest places. Overcome the bad parts of my character that have been repeating too many times in my life like selfishness and thoughtlessness. As David Brooks puts it, wise people who have lived their lives to ultimately improve their character possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. And I feel that this is a sustainable goal for happiness because I will not be phased by external pressures and expectations to succeed. The means to achieving this goal is simply to live. To experience failure, rejection, then be able to laugh about it not because you came out healed, but because you came out different. These scars will be a constant reminder to me that I was present to experience these events in my life, and they will ultimately be a part of my character. Furthermore, I think that things like career success (while important) are like good looks, they will eventually fade and what is left is the character.
I feel that these resource allocation questions, trying to decide a policy now for the rest of your life, will never lead to satisfaction because you will always be thinking about what you had to sacrifice in order to do that one thing. Feeling guilty for spending time with your friends because you prescribed that you had to attain some GPA seems like a sad way to spend your time in college.
Life is not an optimization problem.
I think focusing on living my life as a means to deepen my sense of compassion, integrity, and character will be a way for me not only to do good, but be good. The journey along the way will be filled with bumps, but dammit I’ll be happy.