The Overexamined Life

Recently a friend recommended I read Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Full of short stories, it’s starting to become one of my favorite books. McCann has the ability to pull you in and give insight into not only what the characters are doing, but how they’re actually feeling in any given moment. As he was describing the grief felt by a mother whose son was killed in the Vietnam war, he mentioned this quote:

“The overexamined life is not worth living”

Interesting isn’t it? Aside from the nod to Socrates, McCann gives us some simple advice. We all know the dangers of overthinking. It adds stress, takes away from accomplishing our goals, and most of the time the little scenarios that we play out in our heads never even end up happening. Thinking too much about something and analyzing it over and over again does nobody any good, so why do we continue to do it?

I wish I had an answer to that question. Honestly, if I did I’d be much better off. Every decision or conversation that I had wouldn’t be analyzed over and over again until I had exhausted all possible scenarios in my head. I want to say this used to serve some kind of purpose in our primitive past. But I’m much more inclined to say this is just a byproduct of something we as humans are all very good at; producing situations in our mind and trying to predict the most likely outcome. However, instead of helping us predict the future, this ability has transformed into something we use to replay imperfect moments in our past.

If you think about it, over-thinking is just a result of feeling as if there’s no control over our lives. We all have the power to manage most of the things that happen to us — most. But for the times that we don’t, I think it’s important to remember that no matter how many times we play out different scenarios in our head, unexpected events will always happen. The hardest part about reducing overthinking is being able to differentiate between things that can be changed, and things that can’t. Once you find the right balance, it’s all about implementing it so the days of constantly worrying over the small things become few and far between. Realizing that — in the grand scheme of things — most of the things you’ve been worried about are only bothersome to you. After you’re able to come to terms with knowing not everything is in your control, you can free your worried mind and direct your focus to things that are in your power to change.

Everything has an opportunity cost. So by not replaying a conversation in your head for the 10th time, you instead get to focus on something concrete, and make a difference in your life where it’s actually possible to. Rather than wasting all of your energy thinking about what you should have said or what you should have done, you can instead learn quickly from your mistakes and improve for the next situation. Learning from your past failures and shortcomings is a vital skill, but getting wrapped up in them and constantly berating yourself for making those mistakes only sets you further back from your goals.

I’m not saying this is easy, I’m not saying it will happen overnight, and I’m definitely not saying I have perfected this skill. In fact far from it. But even though I’m still a ways away from living a worry-free life, by being conscious of my tendency to overthink things, I’ve noticed a large difference. It may not be easy to overcome, but with deliberate practice, we can all learn to calm down a little, and not stay up late at night going over why we said ‘you too’ to the waiter that told us to enjoy our meal.