How Thinking About The Stars Can Improve Your Life On Earth
Have you ever been asked to estimate something like how many ping pong balls could fit in a plane? Or how many windows there are in New York City? These sorts of questions are staples of management consulting or investment banking interviews.
In the 3rd century B.C., well before the advent of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, Archimedes pondered one such question. He wrote an eight-page essay called The Sand Reckoner in which he estimated how many grains of sand could fit in the universe. In so doing, Archimedes invented a numerical notation similar to modern-day scientific notation and discovered and proved the law of exponents.
That alone was extraordinary, especially when you consider the simplicity of the writing system used by ancient Greeks. But there’s an even better revelation from The Sand Reckoner that stands out two millennia later.
In the essay, Archimedes noted the then-prevailing wisdom that the earth is the center of the universe and that the radius of the universe equals the distance between the earth and the sun. Archimedes then mentioned another old white guy with a big beard who had a different theory.
This guy posited the sun was the center of the universe, not the earth, and that the universe was much bigger than commonly suspected. His name was Aristarchus, and he was the first person to ever present a heliocentric model of the universe. And yet you’ve likely never heard of him.
Isaac Newton once remarked that his success stemmed from “standing on the shoulders of giants.” For Newton, along with contemporaries like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler who confirmed heliocentrism, Aristarchus was one such giant.
If you want to flourish like Isaac Newton, you should stand on the shoulders of Aristarchus. I’m not referring to astronomy per se.
But as Carl Sagan once said, “astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.” The history of heliocentrism and its implications can transform how you perceive and effectuate your life.
A Brief History Of Heliocentrism And Why It Matters
For almost the entirety of human history, we had a simple explanation for both kids and adults as to why the Sun moved in the sky every day: It revolved around the Earth.
Why, of course! Earth must be at the center of the universe, no? How else could we explain the unique and special status of humans? Surely no other celestial bodies could be more central than the planet on which humans lived.
This is why geocentrism is such an alluring model of the universe. It conveniently places us at the center of everything. It imbues in us a sense of importance and superiority we crave. It is an orderly explanation for something very chaotic and uncertain: the heavens.
When heliocentrism entered the scene, it was vilified. Galileo, considered the father of modern science by Einstein, spent years leading up to his death in house arrest because the Catholic Church considered his heliocentric views heretical.
The Scientific Revolution pegged our station in the universe one level down. But as we developed better space observation techniques, we came to understand that while the sun is the center of its solar system, it is not the center of the universe. We live in a galaxy (the Milky Way) with billions of stars that do not revolve around the sun. And there are billions of those galaxies. Do the math and you quickly realize how minor we are. Remember Sagan’s refrain about astronomy being a humbling and character-building experience.
The history of astronomy mirrors the ways in which civilization has perceived itself in the grand scheme of things. It relates to a claim from well-known self-help writer Mark Manson, who writes about an Uncomfortable Truth in his latest book, Everything Is F*cked. The Uncomfortable Truth is we all avoid: we don’t matter.
“One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will even matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose — we are nothing. Enjoy your fucking coffee.”
We attach so much significance to what we do and what happens to us. We believe we’re unique, special, and consequential. We tell ourselves no one can relate to our problems and no one can compete with our gifts. The one-word synonym: entitlement.
This is why we speak to the manager, hand out participation trophies, and obsess over how many followers we have.
The Life-Changing Benefits Of Discarding Your Entitlement
Humans are entitled bastards. A combination of biological success and cognitive progress means we can both think in abstractions and believe our own BS. We can think about the past, present, and future. We can regret what’s happened and anticipate what’s to come. We can think about our significance. We can create conceptual stories about ourselves fully divorced from physical reality.
No other living thing can do these things. Other animals worry about their next meal and their next chance to have sex. But they attach zero meaning to these things beyond their instincts: to survive and reproduce. Natural selection compels them to run their little lap in the relay race we call time and then pass the baton to the next generation. They run their lap and don’t ask questions or think about it.
We do. We worry about if we’re running fast enough. We worry about how we look as we run the race. We worry if our progeny will be able to run fast enough and look good as they run the race. And we try to extend our lap as long as we can. We worry about where we’ll go and what’ll happen to us when we die.
If you want to live a good life, reassess how you run your relay lap. As Zat Rana wrote in 2017, the purpose of life is to be a nobody. Just run your lap. Don’t worry how fast you run. Don’t worry how fast others run.
Recognize the triviality and ephemerality of your lap. It’s short and even if you run like Usain Bolt or Jesse Owens, no one cares. The universe doesn’t give a damn about you at all. It owes you nothing. Your existence is as inconsequential and fleeting as everyone else’s.
The sooner you realize this, the sooner you will transform your outlook on life. At first, it might feel like getting a painful wound and then violently ripping off the Band-Aid. But from then on, you feel much, much better about life.
You realize your entitlement is warrantless. You recognize the common desires we all share like prestige, love, and belonging. We all have similar answers to this question: What do you want?
That’s the wrong question to ask. The right question inverts a conventional prioritization of happiness and success. We all want to be happy and successful.
If anything is unique about you, it’s this: What are you willing to suffer for?
Find Something To Suffer For
Athletes like LeBron James and Tiger Woods excel because they suffer in the pursuit of greatness. They love the unsavory aspects of their craft that you don’t see: the workouts, the practices, the study sessions, and plenty more. Lots of people want to be great basketball players or great football players or great golfers. Very few are willing to commit themselves to the suffering required to become slightly less inconsequential than the rest of us.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger came to America, he pursued bodybuilding because he knew he wanted to suffer through the endless workouts, the soreness, the unceasing devotion, and the crippling competition of the bodybuilding world. Arnie suffered for the things we know him for: his bodybuilding, his acting, and his politics among other major contributions.
When Nelson Mandela sat in prison waiting for his release, he knew he was willing to suffer for the end of apartheid. Mandela welcomed the challenge of dismantling institutional racism in a country deeply hostile to people who looked like him.
Activists like Mandela or Gandhi or Malala or Greta make their mark by finding a cause to suffer for. They work on something beyond themselves and embrace the struggle of effecting widespread, lasting change.
The common thread behind every person you look up to — businesspeople like Musk or Bezos, entertainers like Beyonce or Drake, writers like Hemingway or Angelou, scientists like Newton or Einstein — is something to suffer for. Musk suffers for the extenuation and flourishing of human civilization. Einstein suffered for a greater understanding of the universe.
The key isn’t to replicate the success of Bezos or Newton or anyone else with a Wikipedia page. No, the key is to realize how meaningless you are but find something to suffer for, like them. Find something that has real intrinsic meaning and for which you will struggle as long as you live. Find something where you love the process and don’t care about the results. Find something where the journey matters far more than the destination. Find the mountain you will spend a lifetime climbing. Find the pain you will endure until your relay lap ends.
Look up at the stars and realize how small you are. Find something to make the most of your time bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck suspended in a sunbeam.
Your desires don’t distinguish you. Your struggles do.
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