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3 Lessons on a Happy Life: Letter to a Freshman
Here's some unsolicited advice on happiness written to an incoming freshman. I think the lessons will apply to you too...
I’m going to lay out a 3 lesson curriculum for how to get the most out of life.
Answering “what should I do with my life?”.
Starting before you’re ready.
Unlearn. That’s the first thing to learn.
There’s a story of a professor going to visit a Zen monk. The monk offers him tea and starts pouring and pouring. He continues as the tea overflows and spills all over the table.
“Stop! What are you doing?” shouts the professor.
The monk says – “Your mind is like this cup. How am I supposed to teach you anything if your cup is already full? If you want to receive, you must first empty your cup.”
Empty your cup of what (you might ask)… BULLSH*T
Bullsh*t that society has been pumping into you since you first had the unfortunate experience of switching on the TV or overhearing adults talk about adult things. These are conditioned beliefs, assumptions, narratives, and ideas that society has slowly soaked into your mind. You and I and everyone else have been programmed to be, act, and think a certain way.
Until you observe this through direct experience you won’t really understand the extent to which we’ve been brainwashed. Yes, I said “brainwashed” and I don’t use that term lightly!
Why do we dress how we do? Why do we think about life the way we do? Why do we believe we need to have a couple cars and a nice house in the suburbs to be happy? Is the banker who has a beach house in Florida and a nice flat in Baltimore really more “successful” that the rock climber who lives out of his van in Arizona?
It’s not that having a job or money is bad. I’m not saying that at all. What I’m challenging you to do is search inside yourself and ask – where do these beliefs come from? What are the influences that have shaped my thinking about life?
You’ll find 90% of it is all programming. It’s not necessarily your wisdom or your critical thinking – it’s rubbish from the water of ideas that you’ve been swimming around in your whole life.
So if it’s happiness you’re after, you better get good at unlearning. Because the goal of society is NOT making people happy. The goal of society is making money – GDP – economic growth.
A mentor of mine says - “The answers money, what’s the question?”.
The main preoccupation of a consumerist society is keeping people sick. That’s where the money is. What happens if you have a bunch of happy, healthy, content people who have lives rich in meaning and joy. What do you sell them? What prescriptions do you put them on? They already have it all!
So your first job is to re-brainwash yourself. You do this through awareness. By paying close attention to your experiences of life and studying your own mind/heart. And by learning from wise people.
Here are 3 specific things to unlearn…
Unlearn thinking that school is education. Sure, if you’re lucky you’ll run into a few good educators in college. But on the whole the $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt used to buy “education” is the biggest scam in US history. College is a lot like playing a few months of Call of Duty then getting dropped with an AK on the frontlines of the Ukraine. If you really want an education you have to take it into your own hands. Your school isn’t paid on commission - once they have your tuition they don’t give a sh*t what you get. To get an education, seek out groups with brilliant people, find the few teachers who really care about teaching, and most important get REAL experience. Education won’t be given to you, you’ve got to go get it.
Unlearn the standard pace. College should NOT take 4 years. The standard pace is to appeal to the lowest common denominator (LCD). At my orientation I heard some future frat star wannabe say he was there to major in “bangers and parties”. “Bro I’m gonna enter that on my degree paperwork hahaha”… Meet Tommy, the LCD. He’s a dumb motherf*cker here on mommy and daddy’s money. But his dollars are just as good as yours! So they’ve got to cater to his level… Pick up the pace! Test out of stuff, work with your adviser to bypass stuff, and skip as much as you can. If you’re reading this as someone post-undergrad the same theme applies to whatever education you’re getting.
Unlearn the script. Here’s the prescribed script: go to class, apply for internships, apply to jobs, take the one you get, and there’s your life. That’s a great recipe if you want a mediocre ass life. Maybe your advisor will disagree with what I say about taking your education into your hands and picking up the pace, well unless you want to be a college advisor, don’t listen to them. Think for yourself. Again - this applies to older folks too - don’t listen to life advice from people unless you want their life. There’s a book called the 3rd Door. Imagine you’re trying to get into the most popular club in LA (that represents the Good Life in this metaphor). The line is down the block. Door 1 is waiting in line with everyone else (Tommy and the LCDs). Door 2 is VIP. You know people. You were born into the upper class. That’s the typical Ivy League route (read Evan Mandery if you disagree with me on that comment). Door 3 is the one no one knows about. You sneak in through the back, you climb in through a window, you wear a disguise, etc. When I was 20 I got into the most popular bar in Tuscaloosa on the night of the national championship with a $200 cover by walking up with a takeout box and a ballcap and saying I had an uber eats for the busboy. How can you apply that to your life? You want to be a landscape architect? F*ck your landscape architecture program (sorry). Find 10 of the best landscape architects in the world and say “hey I want to learn from you what can I do?”.Raise money to do a big landscape project on the campus that you engineer. Start a landscape architecture channel that curates the work of the best designers in the world. How many of your program peers are doing that? Go off script if you want to be extraordinary. Again this applies to all stages of life.
So those are a few things to unlearn: school is not education, don’t tolerate the standard pace, and don’t follow the script.
(2) What should I do with my life?
You’re going to think I’m crazy in a second (assuming you don’t already, which is likely an incorrect assumption).
If you really want to understand what it’s like to figure out what to do with your life, then you need to go someplace very dark. The ideal place would be a basement with no windows and a lot of obstacles (eg furniture). Start in the far in corner of the room and try to get to the door with all the lights off.
I’m not joking, go do this if you really want to get it!
In this case the door represents “where you want to be” in life. Where you’re at now is where you’re at now. And darkness represents life’s ambiguity, randomness, and uncertainty. This is actually a very important exercise to get what life is like.
What happens? You can’t see sh*t! You don’t know what’s next (like life). So you sort of creep forward in the GENERAL DIRECTION that you think is right. You go one step at a time saying yeah I think this feels right. Each step is carefully considered against your intention. Then you bump into something.
Oh okay I have to change course. Think check and adjust. So you feel around and figure out roughly where you are then start the process over again. Then you reach a wall. Oh sh*t – can’t go through this. This must mean I’m pretty off course. Okay time to change my direction again.
Throughout this process you’re basically moving forward into the unknown and figuring out where to go by feeling where NOT to go.
So you (and me and everyone else) is basically a blind person figuring out where to go. You should have a general direction (towards the door). Then you feel your way through the dark.
What matters more than anything are two things: your trajectory and your willingness to change direction.
Trajectory is more important than results (hat tip James clear). Think about this step. Is this step moving me in the right direction? If you keep stepping into the dark in the right direction you’ll end up at the door eventually. BUT that’s only true if you’re willing to try things and drop what doesn’t work.
Most people get a few steps down a path and think they’re locked in forever. “Well I’m a premed major and I hate it but I’m already in my senior year so I guess I’ll just go to med school so that my parents don’t get pissed”. Great, how productive is that? It’s as productive running into the wall in the dark basement and trying to push it over.
Here’s a long, beautiful verse from The Teachings of Don Juan —
“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.
This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with a heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.”
If you’re willing to try things and feel where not to go – check and adjust – and keep making dogged incremental progress in your direction, then nothing can stop you. But here’s the catch…
There is no answer to “what should I do with my life?”. In fact, it is your figuring it out that becomes the answer. The act of looking for the answer IS the answer.
Your answering the question – what should I do with my life? – becomes your life.
Steve Jobs said – “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you have to connect them looking back.”
My firsthand account is quite in line with this. As I lived my life I stumbled forward – helpless, clueless. But now it all fits together as if it were planned out according to some higher intelligence.
You might be saying – “Jackson, that’s true but it’s not very helpful!” Well I don’t totally disagree. But it’s helpful in that it may help you embrace uncertainty and ambiguity. It may help you to not worry so much about an impossible to foresee future. It may help you enjoy and experience your life instead of just worrying about it. Your life is not preparation for something else - this is it.
Your life is a sacred riddle and the act of solving the riddle becomes the answer to the riddle.
I have another story for you…
From Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist --
A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The lad wandered through the desert for forty days, and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.
Rather than finding a saintly man, though, our hero, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity, tradesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious food in that part of the world. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man’s attention.
The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn’t have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours.
“Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something,” said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”
The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was.
“Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”
The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.
“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world” said the wise man. “You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.”
Relieved the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.
“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man.
Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.
“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you,” said the wisest of wise men. The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.
This story gets at an understanding that’s really hard to express in words directly. So I’m not going to try to.
If you want to figure out what to do with your life, first adopt the mindset that you’re feeling your way through a dark room. Focus on your trajectory and a willingness to adjust. This step – right foot, left foot – an make sure it’s taking you in the right direction – down the path with a heart.
You’ll end up where you need to and soon enough it’ll all make sense. Don’t forget the oil drop story.
(3) Start before you’re ready.
Don't trick yourself into waiting to "feel ready". This is the story for so many people!
"I wanted to travel the world, but I wasn't ready. I had to start making a living first."
"I wanted to say I love you but I didn't know if I was ready."
"I wanted to quit my job and follow my dream, but it didn't feel like the right time."
Then years go by and they never even started!
I feel like most people don't start to understand this until they have kids. I always hear parents say you're never "ready" to have kids. (What they're getting at is not unplanned pregnancy, but how ambiguous, difficult, and overwhelming it is to raise another human being).
But this is the case for more than kids. For anything in life worth doing, you have to start before you're ready.
If you limit yourself to things you feel ready to do then you're basically sticking to things you've done before or things that are so easy, obvious, and simple that you know exactly what to expect. You have to start before you're ready if you ever want to expand your comfort zone.
You're never going to feel ready to do something radically new, different, or challenging. How could you?
So don't wait. Start before you're ready!
There you have it, a 3 part curriculum for a good life.
Start by examining where your beliefs and PoVs come from and how they do or do not serve your happiness. This will help you see what you really want and ignore the peer pressure from the collective insanity we call society (unlearning).
Get comfortable stumbling through the dark towards your ideal future. Focus on your trajectory and be willing to adjust. Keep the oil drops but enjoy this kingdom.
And perhaps most importantly - learning, contemplation, and looking within are very, very important. But ultimately, the big things will come from starting before you’re ready. Okay? So just start.
Just f*cking start.
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