Life Is Not A Journey

It’s a meal

Maarten van Doorn
Jan 31 · 9 min read

Let’s think about today’s most popular life advice.

Focus on the process, not the results! Live in the moment!

Life’s about the journey, not about the destination. The ultimate reward is the process.

It’s so frequently offered as well-intended guidance that it’s becoming a meaningless cliché, stripped of its wisdom through overuse.

Here’s another gem of often-expressed wisdom:

Life is a journey!

When these two masterpieces of common sense — one about what life is, the other about how to live — are juxtaposed, an interesting paradox appears. Indeed, they seem contradictory.

Unless you’re a nomad, journeys are things that have a beginning and an end. You start at point A, and at point B, you’re there. You’re heading to the destination.

No one, for example, takes the train “for the process”.

The tricky thing about a trip is that it carries with it the suggestion you’ll ever arrive. That there is a safe haven at the end.

This creates a strange tension. On the one hand, journeys are typically a means for getting somewhere else; on the other hand, wisdom tells us to treat the voyage as the valuable end in itself.

It’s not a coincidence that we need constant reminding to focus on the journey!

To resolve the inconsistency, I propose we discard the journey metaphor and see life as a meal instead.

Why do we say that life is a journey?

But first we must give our opponent its due. If the ride — the process — is what it’s all about, why use a metaphor which suggests travel is a mere instrument in the first place?

“Concentrate on the moment,” recommends the self-help author. “Sure Bob,” you reply, hoping that these spiritual suckers fall for these lines, such that you, with the end rather than the now in mind, reach the top first.

If you think all this Zen stuff is bullshit, you should rethink your opinion.

For starters, there’s a deep difference between hitting goals and achieving something of importance, and, consumed in the chase, it’s easy to overlook that. People often mistake the goal for the thing that provides value.

Used right, goals are effective tools for improving yourself and realizing your dreams. Yet, ticking off objectives has no intrinsic value.

Furthermore, evaluation metrics create a mental dependency that might or might not be worth it:

You bind your expectations of happiness and contentment onto something so singular that you often forget that other things in your life are capable of adding just as much joy to your experience than the thing you’re so fixated on.” — Zat Rana

When you set out goalposts and you don’t hit them, you’re disappointed.

Let’s say you set out to lose 5 pounds this month, but you only lose 4. You’ve “failed”. That would be a reason for many people to be upset. But it’s a ridiculous reason to be upset. Why would I ever want to be upset with that?

Really, most of your goals aren’t that important. They are not worth the postponement of life.

“But,” the journey-metaphor whispers in our ears, “you’re not there yet! You can’t be happy here, you must arrive first! Everyone knows that’s how it works. Ask your parents if you don’t believe me.”

“You don’t deserve it yet, here.”

But … I thought I had arrived?!

Deferring happiness until you ‘get there’, is a bad idea.

Once we’re at the top, hedonic adaptation kicks in.

When we reach it, the destination often lets us down. We’re ‘there’, but feel strangely empty. Wasn’t this — the new house, the promotion, that viral article — the reason I conquered all these obstacles on the way? Yet, I don’t feel different from yesterday.

Enter existential crisis.

“True, lasting satisfaction, in the absence of change, is a myth, a dangling carrot, a moving target. Once it’s achieved, you must move on to something else to maintain satisfaction.” — Dave Schools

It seems that we cannot withdraw from the cycle of dissatisfaction → labor → goal-achievement and choose to simply stay happy. The famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, equals attempts to do so with a “longing for a land without homeland”, in his typical style continuing that “to look to an end, a peace, a ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’ … indicates fermenting and suffering.”

Journey = we’ve arrived, made it, done! But life doesn’t work like that. This creates a false expectation of everlasting happiness. Because this hope is illusory, the only thing that’s guaranteed, is disappointment.

Too many Tuesdays spent comfortably on that couch change your life for the worse. We all know these people who value their comfortable Tuesdays too much and therefore lose their deeper life satisfaction on the long-term.

Your overall good is better served if you let your well-being, in this sense, slip somewhat, by accepting the depressions involved in finishing your great novel.

Sometimes we need to sacrifice our comfortable Tuesdays to have a shot at long-term satisfaction. The journey metaphor can’t accommodate for this iterative nature of contentment.

Life as a meal

The point of the above: the journey metaphor is flawed. Here’s a better one.

See life as a meal. A fantastic, cozy meal. With good friends, family, loved ones — fascinating company. With great, delicious food.

Wonderful!

The cool thing about a meal is that it doesn’t ‘go anywhere’. There is no destination to be reached. It’s not a means to an end. It just stops. At some point, you’re done eating. The desire for food has disappeared. You’re full. Enough is enough.

When it ends, you haven’t ‘arrived’. That the lunch, dinner, or whatever is over, doesn’t imply that you’ve ‘made it’. Heck, if you don’t stop stuffing your face in time, it’ll even be rather unpleasant.

But if it was a good meal, you will be satisfied.

Until you get hungry again.

If you fear you’ll become lazy, that says something important about you

The meal metaphor doesn’t suffer from the shortcomings that made the journey metaphor unhelpful. It takes on board the cyclical nature of life and goals: you’ll know you’ll get hungry again. It better incorporates the thought that the process is the most important thing, because it doesn’t imply that the process is a means to ‘making it’. There’s no illusion of a safe harbor.

“But,” you say, “if I see life as a meal, I’ll no longer do the hard work that achieving your dreams requires.”

I can see why you’d say that. The metaphor does have a hedonistic ring to it.

On the upside, that can serve as a counterbalance to flood of, in Nat Eliason’s apt phrase, “struggle porn”, the trend to glorify brutal sacrifices even if they don’t lead anywhere:

Struggle porn gives you a se nse of progress if you feel like you’re fai ling. You don’t need to look at metrics like revenue because you know you’ve been working hard, and that guy on Instagram said that’s what it takes. In this way, struggling and hustling become success proxies unsuccessful people can brag about to give themselves the dopamine hit they would otherwise get from, you know, actually succeeding at something.”

No pain no gain, as they say, but it doesn’t follow that pain always means gain. Our culture values effort and personal sacrifice, but that something takes up a lot of time, does not automatically make it worthwhile.

It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a pointless direction. Don’t confuse growth-pains for the hurt of fruitless shouldering on.

If you fear you get uneasy at seeing life without metaphorical mountains to conquer, let's find out where that anxiety comes from. What is the real reason abandoning the mental model of destinations to be reached scares you?

If you need targets to bring in the energy and motivation, you’re likely doing something that’s not meaningful enough by itself. If life without sticks and carrots frightens you, if ‘getting there’ is your core incentive, you might be toiling for something you don’t actually care about.

I don’t mean to say we should all join Doctors Without Borders or whatever. I’m saying that, if you spend your time in a way that fits with your passions and values, there’s no reason to fear that, if you stop chasing metrics, you’ll become a couch potato.

When things interest us, we make efforts. Out of love for the process.

Interestingness — or why seeing life as a meal is in your own self-interest

I have a question for you:

Can you sit down and chat about a topic for thirty minutes and hold an audience’s attention?

If you can, you possess the trait Cal Newport calls “interestingness”.

In this scenario, what would you talk about? What excites you most?

Play this out in your head. As a TEDtalk, in a bar, standing on a bar, at a conference, on TV — doesn’t matter. Do it now.

What are you talking about?

Scan your audience. Do they care?

In this thought experiment, which experiences would you share? How far have you expanded your horizons? And which opinions would you express? Have you thought about them or are they dictated by your peers?

Are you an interesting person doing interesting things? Is there actual substance behind your words? Do you radiate depth and enthusiasm?

Are you worth people’s time?

This is interestingness.

Interestingness isn’t just enjoyable. It also works.

It generates knowledge with unforeseeable pay-offs down the road. As Steve Jobs recalled: “Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

And secondly, it’s what sets you apart from the herd:

The only way [people] are going to give you something more— whether it be their money, their company, or their empathy — is if something about you makes them take a second look. Something that makes them pause. … Interesting is how you stand out in the noise.” — Zat Rana

To optimize for interestingness, capitalize on what makes you unique. Be curious. Be serious about learning and enriching yourself. Develop a deep interest.

Most people go about this all wrong because they focus on completing many uninteresting, small journeys. Their CV is a long list of boring feats. Impressive … in a way.

Demonstrating time-consuming “commitment” to fake-sounding, unoriginal accomplishments is not an effective approach to maximize your win chances in life. If there’s one thing that both my personal experience and our mental health crisis makes clear is that living an engaging life will get you further than living a stressful life.

People think stress and success are inextricably linked, but that’s false. Interestingness trumps busyness.

For instance, last week, I was having dinner with a London professor who often sits on hiring committees. In academia, and I suppose in other fields too, there are standardly multiple candidates that are really, really qualified to fill a job opening. How do you decide between those last couple of excellent people, I asked him. “This happens a lot. What we basically do, is we think about, ‘who is the most interesting person?’ Many people are standard. Their CV might be good, but they are boring.”

To put it bluntly, you read their activity and research descriptions, and then you yawn.

Interestingness is what happens to you if you approach life as a meal instead of a journey. Here’s Cal Newport again:

“Interestingness cannot be forced or planned in advance. It is generated, instead, as a natural byproduct of a “deep interest,” which is a long-term pursuit [one] returns to voluntarily and eagerly whenever given a chance.” — Cal Newport, How to Be a High School Superstar

Because your pursuit is something you want to do for its own sake, the central point is the process.

Not necessarily going anywhere, and over because its content will at some point stop to attract you. Like a meal.


There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more quasi-philosophical aphorisms about what life is and is not, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

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Thanks to Nick Wignall.

Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. I write to change common sense about education, success and (post-)truth. Get ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.