Recently I read a fantastic piece from Tim Urban’s Wait but Why blog which broke down the exact number of weeks we can expect in our life. It gives off a very straightforward message: your life is precious, and every week we can spend our life doing something different of our choice. This article is pretty old, but not dated. It was written before the Coronavirus Pandemic, before anyone outside of NYU knew who Timothée Chalamet was, and even before Tik Tok.
If we (very optimistically) aspire to live 100 years, or 5,200 weeks, there’s a lot more time behind most of us than we may think. I’ve personally joined the pink region, and already completed 6 of the 12 significant events Tim has outlined… oh, and I’m only 27! As the world begins to look somewhat normal again it’s hard not to stress over how to spend time wisely. The pandemic called into question how much time is worth spending at work, in the gym, or with family. Luckily, Tim has simplified these choices into three distinct categories::
- Enjoying life in the current moment (good!)
- Improving the future of your life or others (also good!)
- Doing neither (not good)
I’ve also spent the last 18 months mostly in the third category. I’ve tried in earnest to make progress on #1, but the closest I got was eating too much, drinking too much, and sleeping too much. Even less impressive were my attempts at #2.
This fascinated me. It also put me into a state of existential terror. I’ve done my fair share of reading and this is the first time I can recall an unbiased, well-thought-out dissemination of what we can actually spend our lives doing. I also think there’s more things we can do. Going to church, crying over the death of a loved one, and swimming the English Channel don’t neatly fit in one of these three buckets.
I’ve put together my overarching list of things I believe we can spend our life doing, or “life philosophies”. Crucially, I haven’t offered an opinion on whether I think one is better than another. However, certain philosophies undeniably have shorter and longer term payoffs. So without further ado…
Part I: Shorter-term Life Philosophies:
You can spend your life maximizing pleasure
What is it? Eating food, having sex, watching Netflix, and hanging out at the beach. As Lana said “Live fast, die young, be wild, and have fun.”
Why do we do it? It’s the quickest and most surefire way to find enjoyment. We’ve been biologically programmed to seek out baser pleasures, so we’re literally going against nature by ignoring these impulses.
- Deep fried pickles in ranch are delicious
- Lots of other people do it, so it’s a good way to make friends
- Sometimes it leads to a deeper form of joy
- It’s terrible for your waistline, STDs are a thing, and Netflix keeps asking “Are you still watching?” after you’ve lost the remote
- These pleasures sometimes have a diminishing rate of return. After all, the best slice of pizza is always the first one out of the box
You can spend your life longing for something in the past
What is it? Without ever knowing it, we’ve all done something magical for the last time. Whether it’s walking downstairs for Christmas expecting gifts from Santa or going on one last jog before that knee problem gets really bad. Similar terms include nostalgia, wistfulness, and grief.
Why do we do it? It’s really difficult to control longing for the past. It’s also more likely during certain stages of our lives such as after finishing school, after kids have left the house, or in our twilight years. Oftentimes, something else will come along which reminds us again of the present or future.
- As we get older, we do a better job of realizing when we’re a part of something wonderful, and therefore do a better job of appreciating it
- Longing teaches us how precious life can be
- It’s really, really hard to control. There are entire industries dedicated to therapy, thrill-seeking opportunities, and sedation just to help us put our past at bay (oftentimes temporarily)
- It also hurts… sometimes a lot
You can spend your life trying to avoid pain
What is it? Sleeping, drinking, and drug use are just a few tools in our arsenal which allow us to completely forget about our problems. While they can sometimes lead to elation (see maximizing pleasure), they can also alleviate individual suffering.
Why do we do it? Life is hard and it can get significantly more difficult at any moment. Temporarily avoiding pain can sometimes seem like the only way to feel a sense of peace.
- Things don’t suck for a short period of time
- Things usually begin sucking again later
Part II: Longer-term Life Philosophies:
You can spend your life building something
What is it? This covers a lot of stuff. Building wealth, a business, or maybe even a political dynasty. The important thing is you cut back now for payoff later. When I was a kid I used to eat the oats first in my Lucky Charms cereal. Eventually all that would be left is a magnificent symphony of rainbow colored marshmallows. Little did I know, this was a tried and true philosophy for life.
Why do we do it? It seems prudent, and whether we admit it or not, we look to our elders for advice. The guy who never used his vacation days and banked every extra penny in his IRA is usually living a pretty sweet life by the time he turns 50.
- You get to be a part of exclusive clubs like the “Homeowner’s Association”
- After you die, you may be remembered for a long time by others
- In all likelihood, your family will be well taken care of even after you’re gone
- There’s a risk of never achieving something which makes you happy because you’ve intentionally placed it just out of reach
- If you fail, every vacation, relationship, and simple pleasure you’ve sacrificed will have been wasted
You can spend your life helping others
What is it? Mother Teresa immediately comes to mind, but there are big and small ways to help others. Volunteering at a local food bank or starting a family are small but significant ways to touch the lives of those around us.
Why do we do it? Helping others can be done for a wide array of reasons. In fact, many other life philosophies have a vested interest in acts of service.
- Lots of religions consider this a crucial part of getting into heaven
- Helping others often creates a virtuous cycle which makes the world a better place
- Seeing happiness in others can oftentimes create personal joy as well
- People may take advantage of you by taking more than you have to give
- Some may not be appreciative of your efforts. Had you never put yourself out there, you could’ve lived life blissfully unbeholden to others
You can spend your life preparing for the afterlife
What is it? We’ve figured out Gravity, The Big Bang, and Boba Tea, yet the world is still a great big mystery. Consciousness is difficult to quantify, and nobody has given an airtight answer as to what happens after we die. Countless religious theories have been made with plenty of diverse details. One thing they all have in common is faith. Trusting something bigger than oneself which cannot ever be proven.
Why do we do it? Religion makes the world far less scary and it quenches that insatiable desire for meaning. Plus, it builds community beyond our borders.
- It helps solve the problem of existentialism by proving that we matter, and that we have a purpose
- It guarantees that we get to see loved ones after they pass as long as we end up in the same place
- It incentivizes us to do good deeds unto others which when done properly makes earth a better place for everyone
- Religious dogma may lead some to avoid struggling with difficult questions. It’s possible that our maturation both individually and as a species relies on not knowing all the answers
- Big hurdles such as prolonging life and traveling to the stars hold less importance when our central mission is successfully passing through to the next phase of existence
You can spend your life trying to find The Deeper Truth
What is it? Perhaps the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, or the loneliest stretch of the Appalachian Trail will unlock the deeper meaning of life. This is a spiritual journey which leads to a form of enlightenment that is not predetermined. It’s a spiritual cousin to religion, but unlike religion there is no existing dogma; only the immovable desire for truth.
Why do we do it? Humanism has taught us that we have an indisputable goodness and value, all we need to do is look within. It’s a beautiful sentiment that resonates on a timeless level with all of us.
- It sometimes helps you score a book deal
- It may make you more interesting at parties
- Even if you’re wrong and there is no Deeper Truth, the journey will likely unveil a great deal of wisdom and beauty
- It sometimes helps you score a book deal about your deadly Mt. Everest calamity
- It may make you insufferable at parties
- A spiritual journey is oft-times a deeply personal experience and may prevent you from making meaningful connections or finding joy in simplicity
So the obvious question — Which one is best for me? We can make broad generalizations, but it’s situational. Priorities may shift on any given day, and sometimes two or more can take place at the same time. There are undeniably tradeoffs between each philosophy though.
This begs yet another question. How much of a say do we even have in which life philosophy we pursue? This is a difficult question to answer, but for those of us who’ve been vaccinated, probably more now than in 2020. Maybe one good thing to take away from this gut-wrenching year is the value of time not yet spent. A year can disappear, and so can a loved one. The endless possibilities we have now will be the unreachable envy of years to come.