Do you know the best way to live your life? Meaning: how do you act in certain situations, how do you handle difficult situations, what do you spend your time on, how do know if you’re on the right path in life, etc. I’m not sure if any other question matters as much as this one.
I definitely don’t have the answer. I’ve been curious about this question for a while though, and have tried to read different philosophy from different thinkers across time. You might have run into similar challenges that I have: much of the advice or ideas are consistent, but many other prominent thinkers advise the complete opposite. How do you choose what to follow? And how do you take different ideas and create your own worldview on how to live?
Below I’ve tried to categorize some of the most insightful ideas I’ve read, distilled into only a few words. Hopefully this aggregation of world-class insight can provide you with a bit more clarity in the trenches of your day-to-day life; hopefully it also shows you how “sage” wisdom can’t just be taken at face value.
How am I supposed to know what to do?
1. Do what your nature requires (Marcus Aurelius)
The king of the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius (an emperor of Ancient Rome and author of Meditations) advises that we put our heads down and do what is demanded of us. Not to complain, not to overthink things, but work and act within our own skin as our own person.
2. Like all important things in life one never derives such knowledge from other peoples’ experience but only from one’s own fate. (Zweig)
Stefan Zweig was a brilliant Austrian writer and philosopher who wrote his best works at the height of WW2, and had a front-row seat to the horrors of war. Here, he advises that you can’t learn how to live from others (how ironic!!) but only through accepting and understanding your own life experiences. Here, quite a few other philosophers agree with him like Nietzsche (“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life“) and Joseph Conrad (“We live, as we dream—alone….”).
3. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away. (Ryan Holiday)
Ryan Holiday, a modern student of the Stoics, essentially says that instead of complaining about your situation or falling into a loop of self-deprecation, to fall back and focus on work and doing things well. You can think of this as a clearer way of doing what your nature requires.
4. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster. (Ryan Holiday)
For the ambitious, capturing opportunities where everyone else sees disaster or doesn’t see the benefits can help propel you to where you want to go. Think of investors and entrepreneurs who made millions going the opposite way of the herd. It’s a similar way to think of the Silicon Valley gospel of: if you’re doing something weird and people look at you funny, you’re on the right path.
How to Spend Time in Day to Day Life
5. Virtues are a garden that should be cultivated (Ben Franklin)
Virtues are a fascinating and complex topic that I’m not going to get into here, but Ben Franklin advises to focus on “tending” to your virtues each day, similar to how you’d tend to the plants in a garden each day. If you’re confused like I still am on virtues, professor Jonathan Haidt gives a good base to wander from: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (the ability to forge connections to something larger than the self).
No need to obsess and spend hours on the details, Franklin would say; but, if you learn how to get the initial conditions right and become a model of consistency, before you know it, your virtue garden looks like this:
6. The return to consciousness, the escape from everyday sleep represent the first steps of absurd freedom. (Camus)
The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus turned out to be the most challenging philosophy book I’ve read yet ended up being the most rewarding. Escaping from everyday sleep here means recognizing what you actually do moment to moment. The first few steps of escaping the room of constant thoughts gives you a glimpse of a completely new world.
7. And he thought that now there was one more affair or adventure in his life, and it, too, was now over, and all that was left was the memory. (Chekhov)
Anton Chekhov, the great 19th century Russian author, sums up how we feel on the Monday after vacation. But, it’s a subtle warning to savor the moments you do have because they’ll quickly become memories, just like everything else.
8. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES. (Hunter S. Thompson)
Probably my favorite piece of wisdom here. See here for context that I cannot match. If I tried, in a nutshell: be yourself and don’t let other pressures or others people make choices for you.
9. Stop aspiring to be anyone other than your own best self: for that does fall within your control (Epictetus)
Clearer than the one above, another famous ancient Stoic of Rome on the list advises that, if you happen to fall into the habit of asking yourself, “wow, I really wish I could change lives with so and so” then stop that behavior immediately and focus on creating yourself. You literally don’t have another option.
The Big Picture
10. Think objectively to get what you want (Ray Dalio)
Ah, what’s a list of advice without some from Ray Dalio! Thinking objectively = seeing the world as it is, not how you want it to be. More often than not, these insights will help you not only get what you want but also figure out what it is that you actually want. This does seem contradictory to Marcus Aurelius though (point 1): what happens when what your nature requires differs from what you think you want?
11. It’s not that we don’t have enough time to live, but that we waste most of it. (Seneca)
How many ancient Roman Stoics can we get on this list?? Seneca, another one of the great thinkers, would be an excellent modern day time management coach. He thinks we should stop wasting our time doing things that don’t matter and focus on living. In the end, maybe you will think you had enough time to live how you wanted.
12. Putting things off is the biggest waste of life…it denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control and abandoning what is in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: LIVE IMMEDIATELY. (Seneca)
Pretty self-explanatory from our ancient friend again. Re-read this one..
13. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it (Frankl)
Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, imparts incredible wisdom on suffering. In retrospect, he found that he survived the concentration camps not through physical strength, but pure force of mind, realizing that he could give up hope like millions of others, or choose to continue to fight another day. Every single day. That decision to respond deliberately to his suffering allows us to even have the gift of his writing today.
14. Success and happiness: cannot be pursued. It must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself (Frankl)
Frankl notes the futility of chasing happiness as a goal. We put our head down and dedicate ourselves to something; one day we look up and realize we’ve been happy the whole time. But unlike Camus (point 6), do you realize when you’re in the middle of your life’s work? Can you be “awake” if your attention lays elsewhere?
15. We don’t need an immovable place to stand; we need to make our peace with a universe that doesn’t care what we do, and take pride in the fact that we care anyway. (Sean Carroll)
An excellent writer and theoretical physicist, Sean Carroll knows the inherent meaningless of the Universe. Nature doesn’t care about the individual: it’s optimized for the whole. But as humans alone (for now) in the Universe, he steers us away from nihilism and advises that we should take pride in the fact that we can make a difference to ourselves and others.
16. The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. (Watts)
Alan Watts, a British-American philosopher, helps clearly us cut through the noise of daily life and see the bigger picture immediately. You derive your meaning from the process of participating in projects, relationships, in life. You don’t dance to reach the end of the dance. You don’t sing to reach the end of the song. The whole point of everything revolves around the process of that thing itself. Here, he could say to Seneca (point 12) that it doesn’t matter if we put things off until another day – whatever we’re doing at that moment is the point of life. He’d disagree about another “thing” that’s more inherently meaningful or purposeful.
Against the Pulls of Society
17. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (Emerson)
When was the last time you actually spent time in solitude? Even the utterance of that word is a hate crime these days. But Emerson (a famous American transcendentalist that you probably read in high school) suggests that to achieve your potential and think for yourself, you must actually spend time with yourself. Getting inundated with others’ opinions (again, what do you even believe anymore????) holds you back from living a life of satisfaction and independence.
18. NOT A MOMENT TO SIT DOWN AND THINK. (Huxley)
In his novel “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley depicts a dystopian state that controls the populace by drugging everyone on “happy pills”. No one can live because they do not have a moment to sit down and think. Think like how technology and instant gratification allows us to jump from one dose of serotonin to the next, without a moment to think for ourselves…..
19. To be somebody, or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go? (John Boyd)
I love this. John Boyd was an Air Force pilot and Pentagon Consultant who pioneered new engineering techniques, military theories, and the famous OODA Loop. At the time, he was one of the most accomplished people in the entire US military. But he remained relatively low on the totem pole because he knew that his radical ideas wouldn’t allow him to move up, and even could cause discipline or dismissal. But when the time came for him to make decisions, again and again, he chose to do something and contribute to the whole, rather than strive for personal glory.
20. “Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.” (Siddhartha)
The novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse revolves around the main character Siddhartha’s quest for self-discovery and self-understanding. Here, Siddhartha explains to his friend that he should live in the present and understand himself and his environment and what he has before mindlessly pursuing a goal he didn’t assign to himself. He might already have everything he wants, yet never thought to look.
21. All life is servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it. (Seneca)
Seneca again! Here’s a great video where Alan Watts further explains this concept.
22. I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones. (Darwin)
Charles Darwin here offers some practical life advice: if you hear something that contradicts your worldview, rather than fight against it or dismiss it, you should mull it over, understand why that thought or idea even exists, and check it against your worldview to understand if you have something new to learn or a gap in your understanding to close.
23. I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span. (Munger)
Charlie Munger, the brilliant right hand man to Warren Buffet, quips that he became successful through constant incremental improvements and focus on the long game, not because of pure talent or skill or compromising for quick wins.
24. Don’t avoid competition…..seek it out and crush it! (Sam Walton)
For life and for business! The father of Walmart offers insight here about going after your competitors or problems before they can come to you and crush you first. What if it’s not in your nature (back to point 1) or not who you are (point 8) to seek confrontation though?
25. Set your goals so high that you can’t possibly achieve them (Ted Turner)
Here, Ted Turner, a media mogul and founder of the first 24 hour cable news network, has a different perspective than we’ve seen on goals. He holds this view because he believes that 1) setting high goals allows you to stretch yourself to achieve more than you thought possible and 2) so that you don’t achieve your life’s work too soon and are left in a state of turmoil about what to do next. Siddhartha (point 20) would warn Ted of the dangers of even having a goal though…
26. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump (Montaigne)
Michel de Montaigne, a immensely observant French Renaissance philosopher, gives us a lesson on humility here. No matter who you are or what you do, you’re just another human and no better or entitled than anyone else. Montaigne wants you to stay humble and stay off your high horse.
27. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” (Frank Herbert, Dune)
In the novel Dune, the main character Paul Atreides faces a dangerous storm in a helicopter-type vehicle he needs to navigate to survive, and recites these words. Fear paralyzes and immobilizes. But here Paul faces his fear head on and knows the fear doesn’t last forever; when he turns around to look for where his fear went, he realizes between the two, only he’s left. It’s a beautiful way to recognize the ephemeral nature of fear and to not fear facing fear itself.
28. “It was probable that hardship lay in the future; but the day was our own, and the day was pleasant”. (Teddy Roosevelt)
Probably our most badass President, Teddy Roosevelt journeyed to explore an uncharted river in the Amazon post-presidency. He faced constant trials every day with everpresent disease, blistering heat, deadly insects and animals, violent indigenous tribes, and an uncertainty of if he’d survive the journey. Here, he shows the type of mindset needed by the leader of the most prosperous country ever founded.
The Blatant Contradiction
29. Always be reading, most successful people read (Munger + Buffett)
30. Don’t spend so much time reading or else you won’t have time to think for yourself (Arthur Schopenhauer)
Here’s a fun contradiction on what to focus on that essentially sums up this whole post.
An exceeding amount of wisdom exists out there, but if you read long enough, you eventually run into endless contradictions like the one above, or the select few scattered throughout this post. How do you know what to do or who to listen to?
That’s the whole point: no one can tell you exactly how. You can establish your own base of wisdom and ways to live that work for you and venture from there. But besides that, our greatest challenge (and equally our greatest handicap) remains to figure it out ourselves.