Living with Intention
Imagine you are in your deathbed. You are looking back on your life: what would you be proud of? what would make you smile? what would you regret? Bronnie Ware shares what she learned as a palliative care nurse in The Regrets of the Dying:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier
The alarming thing is, the mistakes that produce these regrets are all errors of omission. You forget your dreams, ignore your family, suppress your feelings, neglect your friends, and forget to be happy. Errors of omission are a particularly dangerous type of mistake, because you make them by default.
-Paul Graham, The Top of My ToDo List
As Paul Graham points out in his essay, we don’t make these mistakes deliberately, they happen when we are living in autopilot. What do I mean with living in autopilot? Acting according to what others (people/culture/economy) expect from you instead of your dreams and values.
Last week I wrote about trade-offs, this article consisted in two premises:
- nothing is perfect — every pro has a con
- we have limited resources — every yes is a no to everything else
So if we only have one life to live, why do we keep saying yes to things we don’t care about?
The grass is always greener on the other side
This aphorism contains the greatest challenge of human nature: Why can’t we be happy with what we have? why do we always want more? Is it ever going to stop?
Comparing ourselves with others is natural, living beings need to do the best they can in order to survive and reproduce. Comparisons can be good motivation for working harder, being a better person, and push our limits. But it can also be exhausting. In the age of hyperconnection social media bombs us with airbrushed lives. We are consuming the best from everybody else 24/7, from Mark Zuckerberg to people we don’t know. We are measuring our regular lives with everybody’s filtered best.
Do you really want a rolex? Build the next google? Become a celebrity? Be Elon Musk? Have a family? — I’ve realized many goals that were bugging me were not mine. Somehow (childhood, media, culture, etc.) they got there, but the moment I asked “why is this important to me?” they vanished.
Is it actually greener?
The day I realized that all these people that I was jealous of, I couldn’t just cherry-pick and choose little aspects of their life. I couldn’t say I want his body, I want her money, I want his personality. You have to be that person. Do you want to actually be that person with all of their reactions, their desires, their family, their happiness level, their outlook on life, their self-image? If you’re not willing to do a wholesale, 24/7, 100% swap with who that person is, then there is no point in being jealous.
Do you think about the cons when you compare yourself to someone else? Are you willing to give up whatever this person gave up? Are you willing to have their struggles? Do you think about all the things that you like about your life this person doesn’t have?
Own your life
At some point in life we convince ourselves that there’s only one way to do things and that we should stop dreaming:
I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However … who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life. But time … how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time … give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
Not being cynical about dreams and being true to yourself is a true challenge. Cliché as fuck I know — but every cliché hides a powerful lesson overlooked by it’s simplicity. So I’m not exactly where I expected to be by now, and already wasted a lot of time doing stuff I don’t care about — What I’m doing now is what matters.
No one in the world is going to beat you at being you.”
[…]Once I came to that realization, jealousy faded away because I don’t want to be anybody else. I’m perfectly happy being me. By the way, even that is under my control. To be happy being me. It’s just there’s no social rewards for it.
What if everything we did, every choice we made had an intention behind it? What if we took control of our lives and started aligning our actions with our true goals and values?
Know Your Why — You have to know why you do what you do — what you prize and what’s important to you. Or you will be endlessly comparing yourself against other people, which will not only be a major distraction, it will make you miserable.
I don’t think the grass is always greener on the other side. There’s no such thing as “the other side”. The problem here isn’t that our lives are boring, lame, or bad. The problem is that we are living as spectators instead of the main character.
Why is this relevant? — Self compassion
I used to be very tough with myself, comparing myself with others and pointing out how lazy I am. It took me far enough, but at some point I realized it was doing more harm than good.
Thinking about trade-offs have been a way to self compassion and clarity. Where I am right now is the result of my decisions and circumstances. There are things I would like to have achieved by now, but I haven’t done the work to do so. Others I’ve realized it’s not the time yet . Trade-offs allow me to rationally forgive myself for not doing what I wanted to do and think about what’s needed to achieve it. Regretting our choices is a waste of energy, but we can learn from our mistakes and improve our decision making. Acknowledging that we are where we are because we chose to gives us the autonomy to change it. By thinking and acting intentionally we can start going towards what really matters to us.