What fits in a life?

When I was young, I didn’t think about the limits of life. I had been taught to dream big, that I could be anything I wanted to be. Popular media invited me to “Think and Grow Rich”, and in imagining the future I desired it would be so.

The future, it turns out, is a wonderful place. There, not only have we lost those 20 pounds, saved $3 million dollars, and solved all of today’s irritating problems. But we find it limitless both in time and choices. There, we don’t have to decide on a path. We can leave all options open. It takes our mind off the reality of life. Actually, the reality of death.

Because it’s death that imposes hard limits. Death forces us to choose a path, work within our restrictions, and accept that we’ll never do everything we’d like to.

Most of us will die between 70 and 95 years old (some much earlier, a few later).

That means we have 4000 to 5000 weeks to do everything we want to do. If we want to do a lot of things this creates anxiety. Our wants are bigger than the time available to make them happen. We can’t be and do everything. But rather than accept the limits imposed on us by life we try to escape to the infinite possibilities in our imagination. As we ignore reality the clock ticks by.

We have 24 hours in a day and 4000 to 5000 weeks in a life. What fits in this time?

As an adult, we probably have time to read 1000 books, raise 2 or 3 kids, build some wealth while running a business or working a job, and pick up 2 or 3 interesting hobbies.

In the graphic below I’ve tried to break down a typical life by weekly hours in 5-year intervals.

If we don’t want to raise kids, we could substitute that time to work longer hours or learn more hobbies or travel. However, whether we do traditional things or something completely different, the fact remains, we have limited time to do so. We need to choose a handful of things to do with our lives and accept that the infinite possibilities in our imagination will never come to fruition. We won’t read all those books, visit all those places, have all those relationships, or develop all those skills. The adult years will come and go, and after reaching age 70 or so we’ll settle into old age and try to pass on some knowledge to the next generation before ourselves passing away.

And this absolute time limit is only the beginning of the story.

We have sequential limits. We can’t do anything we want at any age. We can’t have kids in our 70’s. Raising kids is a 20-to-25-year commitment. So, we need to do it early enough that we’re not on our deathbed at the same time we send them off to college.

Strength and athletic performance peaks in our 20s. If we wanted to be a great athlete, we needed to do it early in life. For those of us over 30, that dream is dead.

Much of what happens to us is also outside of our control. We didn’t control the quality of our childhood education and environment, or what IQ we were born with. We don’t fully control if we’ll get sick, or severely injured in a car accident. Whether we get rich or not is partially due to work and skill, but also has a large luck component. Whether we find a great partner in time to have kids is also partially luck.

The reality is that life is nothing close to infinite. It’s a sliver of time where we make a few choices about how to live as we’re carried through 4500 weeks in an environment, we only partially control.

Expectations vs Reality

I often remember that quote from Fight Club.

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

But there’s no reason to be pissed off. The problem isn’t that we aren’t movie gods and rock stars. It’s that we expected to be.

Steve Jobs once said that he and his team “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?”. This type of quote encompasses why we feel so much anxiety about our lives and the finite time we have. We feel like we need to put a “dent in the universe” to give significance to our lives, but no matter how hard we work we can’t seem to do it.

But what Steve is missing is that no matter how great the iPhone is or how inspirational he became as an entrepreneur. He didn’t put a dent in anything. He and his phone will be forgotten in a few short generations. Just like the rest of us. No dent. Because in the eyes of the universe, whether we become billionaires or build empires or simply play Lego with our kids and read a good book or two, we will all be completely forgotten in no time at all.

Marcus Aurelius, the roman emperor, had a great reminder he’d use to keep these types of ambitions in check. He’d remember that Alexander the Great and his mule keeper are buried in the same dirt. One who conquered the world, the other, who tended to a mule.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to accomplish things. Marcus, for his part, was the most powerful man in the world. Every decision he made affected the lives of thousands of people. You’d think that if anyone put a dent in the universe it was him.

But he was perceptive enough to see that in the end, we live out our weeks, make choices about the few things that are in our control, then die. And that the meaning we derive from our existence can’t be tied to the results of our actions but only from the actions themselves.

In that sense there is more than enough time to do everything we need to do in life. In fact, there’s exactly the right amount of time.

Enter the Existentialists

Existentialism is a philosophy that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries in an attempt solve the problem of finding life’s meaning in a world that no longer believes in God. It explores the problem of human existence where the individual’s starting point has been called “the existential angst,” a sense of dread, disorientation, confusion, or anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.

It’s a helpful framework for thinking about the meaning of what we do with our limited time on earth.
To the existentialists, basically, there is no apriori meaning to life. You make your own meaning through your choices.

To make meaning through your choices you need to:

  1. Accept the preconditions you find yourself in (the universe, yes, the fact that you will die, but also your birthplace, limitations etc.). Essentially accept everything outside your control.
  2. Disconnect what’s outside your control (called facticity) from the meaning of your life.
  3. Take full responsibility for your freedom to act despite facticity.
  4. Focus your attention solely on the things in your control. Your actions and attitudes.
  5. Do the things that feel most meaningful to you with the limited time you have, within your constrained condition.
  6. Be satisfied with that. Because you don’t really have a better alternative.

In this sense we don’t need to take on the impossible task of putting a dent in the universe to be fulfilled with life. We need to just focus on what’s in our control and do with it what feels right to us.

Rather than living in the infinite make believe of our imagination, accept that we live in the finite, appreciate the miracle that is, and choose the few things we want to do with it.

Don’t judge our lives by whether we put a dent in the universe or do the impossible. Take a realistic look at what fits in a life and choose the couple of things that feel meaningful. Commit our attention to doing them fully.

Not only is this intense focus on making choices and being engaged in them a far more enjoyable way to live, but for those who are still obsessed with making dents it’s also probably the most effective strategy for doing so.

Time blocking, or the act of scheduling the most important tasks of the day in blocks on our calendar and ignoring everything else is a standard tool in the productivity geeks toolbox. Think of this as time blocking at the scale of a lifetime. Ignoring all the possibilities out there and doing things we think are most important, that are in our control, that fit in the allocated time, and letting the outcome be whatever it is.

Just putting one foot in front of the other. In a world where it’s impossible to do everything, know everything, learn everything. Where limitations and randomness are the rule, not the exception. Carve our own paths driven by personal curiosity and what feels most important within the context of our lives.

Judge ourselves based on our actions not our accomplishments. And be satisfied in doing so.

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