“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
In a world constantly trying to tell you who you should be, it’s never been more difficult to build the courage to forge your own path. To make matters worse, the self-help industry has now become saturated with formulaic listicles on how you too can become the next Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Sheryl Sandberg.
But what if we don’t want to be like them? What if our definition of success isn’t defined by the number in our bank account? What if our definition involves buying a small plot of land outside the city and growing old with our partner and dog? Or, perhaps, travelling from country to country every few months to experience as many foreign cultures as possible? Or what if it’s to merely move back home and take care of an ailing parent without completely losing our shit? Our life goals are entirely perspectival. What’s important is the strategy that will get us there.
Establishing a personal philosophy is an endless task. As you get older, become awakened to new ideas, and learn hard lessons from tough experiences, you’re bound to undergo a few course corrections along the way. However, despite that, it is entirely possible to outline what is an immutable set of standards that will help you endure the curves, dips and twists of your life. Think of a personal philosophy as a map designed just for you. Only you can understand it; Only the GPS in your car can navigate it. It’s the compass. Your true north star.
While I can’t tell you what yours looks like, I can show you how I came to develop mine. The instructions are painfully simple — the path to self-awareness isn’t. I learned that, through trial and error, building a personal philosophy comes down to answering five fundamental questions. These answers will help you stay the course through troubled waters, annoying distractions, as well as the incessant need to compare our actions to those of our peers. I can’t promise that this exercise will suddenly lead you to an epiphany (I also don’t believe in epiphanies), but I believe this will enable you to make decisions in the present that will propel you towards your ‘big picture’ goals. I believe notable Indian economist, politician and social reformer, B.R. Ambedkar, said it best: “Every man must have a philosophy of life, for everyone must have a standard by which to measure his conduct. And philosophy is nothing but a standard by which to measure.”
QUESTION #1: WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES?
As Sigmund Freud once said, “It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.”
Of course, the difficulty is discerning what you consider true value in your life. For me, I used James Clear’s list of 50 personal values to help me narrow down mine. As James suggests, it’s best to narrow down your core values to less than 5. List too many and they no longer become priorities. When I undertook this exercise a couple of months ago, I actually took this a step farther — I forced myself to select only 3.
It wasn’t an easy choice. After going over the list, I felt that choosing 3 values meant I didn’t value the other 47 on the list. But that wasn’t the point, I soon came to understand. You can care about as many things as you want. However, when, push comes to shove, and you find yourself caught in a tricky dilemma, you’ll need something of which to assess your options by. The first question you must ask yourself is this: What are your absolutes? What are your non-negotiables? What are the things that you absolutely refuse to violate because they make up the essence of yourself?
Personally, after lots of hemming and hawing, I eventually narrowed my core values to the following three: authenticity, creativity, and service. I know that if I were to violate any of them, I’d be steering myself down a path that would lead me to a destination I don’t want. A life that I don’t want to live.
Figuring out your absolutes helps with the tough decisions. Instead of weighing several different factors, you really only need to ask yourself if it simply violates any of your three values. If so? Pass and move on.
We live and die by our decisions. If you’ll notice, I said decisions and not outcomes. This is because no outcome can truly be guaranteed. As Annie Duke notes in her book, “Thinking in Bets,” we can make all the right decisions in a given situation and still receive an adverse outcome. Conversely, we can make all the wrong decisions and receive a positive outcome. There’s always an element of luck that impacts the outcome — whether it’s a small or significant role, who’s to say. And so, it’s important to make decisions that feel right to you because it’s truly the only thing that you have control over. Make decisions that align with your individuality. The rest is out of your hands anyways.
QUESTION #2: WHAT ARE YOUR HABITS?
“We are what we repeatedly do. Greatness then, is not an act, but a habit” ― Will Durant
Habits are unique to each of us. The misconception is that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit, but in reality, it’s around 66 days — 2 months. Another discouraging fact is that how long it takes for a new behaviour to become automatic will depend on the person and their circumstances. In one study, which examined the habits of 96 people over twelve weeks, it ranged from 18 days to 254 days for people to develop a new habit. But aside from ensuring that the new habits that we create are ingrained into our daily life, the habits themselves must be examined. Our habits must optimize our energy, environment and the way we discern and organize new information. While we can look to others for inspiration, ultimately our habits must be made based on our unique traits.
The first thing I consider is the ebb and flow of my energy throughout the day. When does it dip? When does it raise? Am I more focused in the morning or in the evening? What is feasible for me to accomplish in the next 24 hours? Once you’re able to figure out the answers to these questions, you can start incorporating habits into your everyday life. Work better in the morning? Wake up an hour early and hammer out the toughest task on your To-Do List. Experience the most distractions in the afternoon? Develop a habit of going for a long walk or reading in the middle of the day.
Another consideration is, of course, the reality of your circumstances. I work from 8:30 a.m. — 4:30 p.m. during Monday to Friday. Sometimes, I don’t have the privilege to take a long walk during the afternoon, despite how badly I need one. Sometimes I get interrupted when I’m in the middle of writing because my dog is beckoning me to take him out. When all I want to do is open a book and sink into the couch, I have to wash the dishes, tidy the bedroom or prepare my lunches for the coming days. It’s not easy. That’s why it’s important to start with the small things. The things that don’t seem like they’ll move the needle, but end up slowly changing your life. The decision to wake up just an hour earlier to read. The decision to turn off the TV and pick up a book instead. The decision to go for a walk, no matter what, every single day. The thing with setting new habits is not how much they’ll change your life now, but in a year, two years or five years from now.
The possibilities are infinite. Experiment. See what works. Review what doesn’t. Pivot and change. The creation of smart habits — like most things — is a process of trial and error, but it’s important to get them right. Once you start to see what works, that’s when the gruelling work begins of implementing that action every single day. The process of forming and repeating. As George Santayana so succinctly proclaimed, “Habit is stronger than reason.”
QUESTION #3: WHAT IS YOUR MINDSET?
“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.” — George Bernard Shaw
In her popular book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Carol Dweck argues that two types of mindsets exist: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. When someone has a fixed mindset, they believe that their traits are fixed and impervious to change. They see their skills and knowledge as permanent, and that talent breeds success rather than effort. A growth mindset is obviously the opposite. When someone bears a growth mindset they believe that their skills and knowledge increase with experience. They believe that a person’s effort is a core factor in their success. She claims that adopting a growth mindset is imperative to fostering positive change.
What Dweck is really talking about is believing in your own agency. The idea that you recognize your own power (while not negating circumstances outside of your control). It’s okay that you don’t believe in yourself utterly and completely, but do you believe in yourself enough that your effort you exert towards something can still possibly be enough to affect the outcome, no matter how marginal that affect may be? I read a lot about mindset — especially how to adopt a growth mindset but it’s much easier said than done. I prefer to frame this within the context of a person’s efforts. Of course, we aren’t certain that the strides we make towards a particular goal will actually be the reason we achieve that goal (or not), but do we have enough faith in ourselves to know that it’s at least worth trying?
I don’t know how I got to where I am today, but I can tell you with certainty that if I never tried at all, my life would surely look very different.
QUESTION #4: WHAT IS YOUR ‘ENOUGH’?
Germany Kent once wrote, “It’s a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of things you are grateful for, you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack.” Unless it relates to work, I never make a timeline for my goals. I don’t need to write [x] amount by the time I reach [x] years old. I don’t want to be on Forbes’ List of, “30 Under 30.” Most of these are vanity metrics, and that’s what a personal philosophy specifically aims to avoid.
When you find your ‘enough,’ it transcends all superficial goals. It’s about knowing what you want at the end of the day: a teammate in life, to earn a living doing work that you’re proud of and to contribute to society in a meaningful way. To live slowly and simply. To appreciate the sunrise with a cup of coffee and your beloved dog by your side. To spend an evening with your loved one playing board games and drinking wine. To treat your family to a nice dinner as a way of saying thanks. It’s to get to the point where you can look at your surroundings and say, ‘This is all I need. This is enough.’
QUESTION #5: WHAT FRICTION CAN I MINIMIZE?
Creating a personal philosophy is easy. Maintaining one is hard. There will be things that will test you.
Money. Ephemeral pleasures. Pressure from others. Since these will largely be unavoidable, you’ll have to make a game plan to combat them — or at the very least, minimize the chance that these will steer you away from your end goal.
What’s the safest way to minimize this friction? Pair down your needs/wants. Live deliberately. Spend less than you make. Avoid the trap of attaching your identity to material objects. Decide that what makes you unique are things that can’t be bought. Focus less on what everyone around you is doing. Let yourself be defined by how you treat others and the projects that you’re working on.
The better a financial situation you’re in, the more risks you can take in your career. The more you can decline sponsorships or job opportunities that don’t align with your values. The greater the chance that you can do things your way because you don’t need other people’s money.
While we cannot always control how much we make, we can certainly control how much we save and spend. Minimizing friction means, above everything, establishing a financial safety net. Secondly, it means embracing what some would label a ‘minimalist’ lifestyle. Everything in your life serves some sort of purpose. There is no excess to distract you from your lifelong goals.
DON’T LOOK TO OTHERS — INCLUDING ME — ON HOW TO LIVE A GOOD LIFE; MAKE IT YOURSELF
“The conclusion bears repeating: Do not try to change yourself — you are unlikely to succeed. But work hard to improve the way you perform.” — Peter Drucker
As you may have noticed, this article isn’t about inventing a new you. It’s about finding the you that’s been within you all along, buried underneath all the bullshit that society tries to convince you with as to who you should be. It takes work, don’t get me wrong. But it’s work that’s worth doing. You live on a planet of 7.6 billion people, you have to recognize who you are and unabashedly live out that identity. After all, your time on this moving rock is all that you have. You might as well spend it the exact way that you want to.