To Thine Own Self Be True

April 24, 2006

Hamlet's in my zeitgeist today. A coworker quoted another line from Hamlet to me earlier today, "Things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes them so." Which also applies to what I'm about to talk about here.

I'm going to start trying something sort of weird. I'm going to take new posts from Steve Pavlina and write my own post with the same title, addressing the same issue, but with my take. After reading his site for a while I've found that he continues to address really interesting topics–in fact, things that I've been thinking about and writing about for years with slightly different names, references, and answers–and since comments are often turned off, one way to continue to the conversation around the web is to do what I'm doing here. I hope nobody interprets this as me trying to ride his wave… I do have a day job after all and have not spent nearly as much time thinking about this stuff as he has. What am I trying to do though? Honestly, I'm not quite sure… other than trying something new.

Today's post was "To Thine Own Self Be True," and here's my version:

The question posed is "How can you decide what to do with the rest of your life?" The question is difficult to figure out because it is impossible to frame the question in a testable manner, therefore you can never know for certain if you have the right answer. You get one guess, and one attempt to implement the guess, and no way to really know how you played except by setting up your own point system. There is no objective system that we can all reference to see how we're doing. When you ask yourself most questions, like "What should I eat for lunch?" you know which dimensions lunch will be judged on, and you have results from previous lunches to compare today's lunch with. This may seem obvious, but the fact that we do not know exactly which dimensions on which to judge life and we have no previous lives to compare our current life with. True, there are religions and philosophies and game theories to help some of us along, but the lost souls of this world like myself that have no faith or certainty in anything other than the fact that we are sometimes wrong and sometimes right, and want great things for ourselves but don't know how to achieve them, we are on our own.

Or so it seems at first glance. There are a series of insights that together provide a way out of this circular thought pattern.

  1. What you do doesn't really matter.
  2. You are what you see.

I don't want to sound like a depressed existentialist… I'm far from a real existentialist of any sort. But if you have a strong negative reaction to any or all of the points above, I want to emphasize that this is not a hopeless perspective that I'm advertising. It's actually one of the most enjoyable and life-affirming realizations that I've had in the last couple years.

It begins with what I call the "it doesn't matter paradox". As most of you know, our brains function in such a way that we can't register absolute values. We rely entirely on changing values to see (our eyes wiggle back and forth for this reason) and we judge changes in value by comparison to nearby values. Losing a dollar in a bet doesn't matter unless it's the last dollar you have. The dollar only "matters" in the context of the system in which it exists. The same is true with everything else. These contextual systems that create value, meaning, and mattering are human creations (at least, unless you believe that there's a God who would score our lives based on a point system). Some things might seem to matter no matter what, but it's really just an aesthetic preference most of us keep because the alternative is to most a depressing and inhuman thought. This is because we have trouble acknowledging a perspective bigger than our own lives, or the history of humanity, or even of the earth. But we all know that if we could see anything from the perspective of a galaxy 100 billion billion light years away, we would understand that it didn't really matter whether or not Kelly Clarkson won American Idol or that other dude did.

And yes I know this thought feels repuslive to you. Me too, usually. Very few people actually believe that nothing matters (other than when we're drunk and trying to feel sorry for our latest breakup–it's usually followed up with philosophies including the fact that we're going to die alone and that at least we have our kitties to keep us company)… but for most it's an ugly belief and one that one might register as possibly true in some abstract logical sense but not really accept into your heart and emotions without a lot more insight to help squeeze it in sans ugliness. One of the additional insights, however, is that because "mattering" is relative, the absolute value of how much things matter also doesn't matter. The paradox is this: when nothing matters, everything suddenly matters again. Mattering becomes an aesthetic and emotional experience perhaps with no monetary value at all… but when something has no absolute value you can begin to appreciate it for what it actually is instead of what it is worth. Everything is an end in itself; a word and its own definition a the same time. Your career and job and life no longer matter in terms of what they are worth to some undetermined point or value system… they simply are what they are: beautiful, textured, multi-dimensional, and weird. If you think about it, it's the only truly human answer to this question; the only one that makes room for a truly rich experience of life. The alternative is that life is a game with concrete rules or absolute values where you place value in things according to some established system. And yet, because we're not given access to these rules and values we get clever people like Daniel Gilbert create theories about The Futile Pursuit of Happiness (where he realizes that we are never made as happy as we predict we will be when we achieve the things we think will make us happy) and marketers start trying to get around you by trying to find out why you really want to hire that milkshake (the real reason we buy things).

In his post, Steve comes to a very similar conclusion when he talks about solving the "what should I do?" questions by figuring out who you are, and being that person wholly, rather than figuring out which actions will provide the most fulfillment. Ultimately, being what you are is your primary occupation in life. If it were anything else wouldn't it be a disappointment?
But, a somewhat subtle point that Neil Strauss often makes (he's a popular journalist and most recently writer of a book about the secret society of pickup artists called The Game) is that the answer is not simply being yourself but being your best self. Do not simply take the you that you were given, but work to make it the best version of yourself that you can.

Easy to say, but how do you do that? Isn't finding your best self as difficult as finding your fundamental purpose in life?

No, because you yourself are a purely subjective experience. The best you is the one that you most enjoy being. And the best world is the one you most enjoy seeing. This is where "you are what you see" comes in. We see the world through a filter of our own emotions and thoughts… in fact, it is our subconscious that actively filters what we see for things that match our emotions and thoughts. It is well known in neuroscience that the 40 million plus sensory stimulations that come in per second into our brain must be narrowed down to something closer to 10,000… and the way that it chooses which 10,000 sensory inputs it will send to our attention is by seeing which filters have been recently activated in our brain. We've all experienced seeing a new word that we just learned suddenly appear everywhere. Or, when one thing goes wrong suddenly more things seem to go wrong. We are fed what we have recently eaten when it comes to emotions and thoughts. Think about this the next time you feel like you're at a boring party, or, alternatively, the next time everything seems to be going right for you: you are actually perceiving the environment that exists internally… to a point. This is probably only about 75% true–most of the time we're not so immersed in ourselves that we're completely blind to novel occurences outside of ourselves–but it's a lot more true than most people give it credit.

Once you realize that you are what you see to a large extent, it's time to think about the variables that contribute to what you see.

  1. Your emotional state and your chosen subconscious filters.
  2. Your chosen environment (see: angry/negative people can be bad for your brain).
  3. What you choose to do in that environment and with that emotional state.

As you can see, there is still a lot of choice involved here, if we choose to exercise it. That is primarily why it is my goal here to give you 101 exercises that work towards one of these levels of experience. Some exercises will help create or revise existing emotional filters. Some will help shake up the environment that you've chosen to build around you. And others will be ways for you to explore your own contribution to that environment… as you are as much a part of it (and therefore a contributor to other peoples' lives) as they are a part of yours. Your primary obstacles will largely exist within your own head, either in the filters you've created, the environment you've chosen to build around you, or in the contributions you've chosen to release into that environment. Your primary tool will be momentum… bootstrapping it, directing it, and letting it spiral outward into the various corners of your life. Momentum (by which I mean the inertia that propels us forward into making changes for the better, and expecting greater and more exciting things out of our and other peoples' lives) is (I think) the single most important ingredient that most of us lack, but when we have it… when we're in the groove and we're in our element and working instinctually and skillfully towards our own happiness, then everything else just falls into place as if by design, and we're left in wonder, confabulating fantastic tales around our own success, meanwhile happy as drunk kittens in cups.


One Response to “To Thine Own Self Be True”

  1. technomom Says:

    Hi there! I’m a new reader, working my way through your entries.

    I also have fibromyalgia, a neurological disorder of hypersensitization leading to severe constant pain and fatigue. Your statement that:
    “It is well known in neuroscience that the 40 million plus sensory stimulations that come in per second into our brain must be narrowed down to something closer to 10,000… and the way that it chooses which 10,000 sensory inputs it will send to our attention is by seeing which filters have been recently activated in our brain.”
    Is fascinating to me. I haven’t run across that bit of information before. Would you be able to point me toward any studies or other sources where I might be able to do further reading on that? I’d truly appreciate it :-)


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