My Philosophy Of Life At 47

When I was a young man, the country singer Tim McGraw had a song called “The Next 30 Years” in which he articulated the lessons he learned during his first 30 years and how he’d make the next 30 better. In my case, being a slow learner, it took me 47 years to start putting some of the pieces together. You see: I turn 47 in a week, on Thursday April 4, 2024.

In Tolstoy’s novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Ilyich contemplates the famous syllogism: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates is mortal. But he can’t imagine that it applies to him. I think most of us are like Ilyich: We can’t imagine that we are going to die. Everybody else will, but not us. We’re special. I certainly couldn’t imagine my own death in my twenties or thirties. In fact, it’s only as I approach my 47th birthday that I feel like I’m getting older. The syllogism applies to me – and you – as well.

The consolation is that I finally feel as though I’ve learned a few things about life that will serve me in good stead going forward. Youth is wasted on the young, George Bernard Shaw aptly said.

Education: A lot of people in America today are obsessed with working out. Many others at least make sure they get to the gym a few times a week. Some do it for health reasons but most do it in order to look physically attractive. Unfortunately, very few people spend any significant time developing their minds – and the mind is more important to a well lived life than the body (though the body is not unimportant. More on that later).

When I was in college, I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In it, Mill argues that no man can consider him an expert in any subject unless he understands the best that can be said on both sides of the issue. If he only knows his side, he doesn’t really understand things. For thousands of years people have thought about life and left written records of their ideas. Education is the study of the best that’s been thought and said. Instead of reinventing the wheel, learn from those who came before you who confronted the same problems and questions. Only then will you understand the different ways of looking at questions and life in general and be able to form an informed opinion. Only then can you go beyond what’s come before you, transcending it to go even further – and adding to the sum of human knowledge and wisdom for those who come after you. This is Stage 4 of mastery in the schema outlined by Anders Ericsson in Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise.

Independent Thinking: Humans are very sensitive to what other people think. But each age tends to think the same way about various things. Only by thinking independently can we move beyond conformism and the false assumptions of our time.

When I was in college, I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and was influenced by its main character Howard Roark. Roark was a Nietzschean figure who had very independent and strongly held views about things. He didn’t care much what other people thought. He wanted to figure things out for himself.

Later I was influenced by one of the most independent thinkers in history, Henry David Thoreau. Just because men have done things a certain way for centuries, tradition, didn’t mean there wasn’t a better way. “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he famously wrote in Walden. Thoreau moved to Walden pond in his twenties to escape the soul crushing early capitalism of his day. “To be a philosopher is not just to think subtle thoughts, or perhaps even to found a school, but to solve some of life’s problems, not just theoretically but practically”. Thoreau was determined to find a better way to make a living and lead a fulfilling life than what was on offer in the society of his time.

Free Will And Self Responsibility: While our ability to shape our lives is limited by circumstances, we do have free will and the choices we make have a huge impact on how our lives go. I was fortunate to read Nathaniel Branden’s Self Responsibility and the Self Accountable Life as a young man. “No one is coming” was Branden’s favorite aphorism. Too many intellectuals deny free will and therefore self responsibility and this does people a huge disservice. Only by embracing your personal power, the things you have control over, can you authentically face life. There are so many people who, through sheer will, overcome enormous obstacles. You can too if you embrace the power of your mind and choices.

Exercise: While the development of the mind is more important than the development of the body, the latter is important too. Sound mind, sound body. “I hope that here in America more and more the idea of the well trained and vigorous body will be maintained neck by neck with that of the well trained and vigorous mind as the two coequal halves of the higher education for men and women alike”, wrote the American psychologist and philosopher William James.

While I was an athlete as a young man, injuries cut short my athletic career and I didn’t workout regularly for most of my twenties and thirties. When I picked it up again at 37, the difference it made was eye opening. Not only did I feel better and have more energy, but my mind was clearer. I was more centered in myself and therefore made better decisions. Rediscovering exercise was a life changer for me – though I worked out too hard for the first decade back. More on that later.

Mindfulness: Perhaps the hardest thing to do is to change. To break bad habits and create good ones in their place. The way you do this is by becoming mindful of your habitual impulses and patterns of behavior in the moment and short circuiting them by mindfully managing your emotions and doing the right thing instead of the habitual thing. Self discipline is the ability to subordinate an impulse to a value. I first understood mindfulness when I read the Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life in the wake of struggling to recover from COVID in the middle of 2021. Giovanni Dientsmann’s Mindful Self Discipline was also enormously helpful in this context.

Execution: Mindfulness is important because we can know something and yet continue to do the things we’ve always done even though we know they’re not adaptive. The Greeks called this akrasia or weakness of will. Psychotherapy soon discovered that insight is not enough. Hence the problem of analysis interminable, people who are in therapy forever but make little progress in their lives. What good is knowing a better way if we won’t or can’t implement it? People like this are akin to Nietzsche’s “walking encyclopedias” (The Advantages and Disadvantages of History For Life) who know so much and yet it has no effect on how they live their lives. Without execution and implementation, all the knowledge in the world doesn’t do us any good.

Therapy: We live in a therapeutic culture. When things go wrong, people go to therapy. A century ago, they might have seen a priest.

While most therapists have good intentions and want to help, that isn’t enough. In addition, they have to have the skills to do so. Unfortunately, many do not.

The human mind is extraordinarily complex and our theories for understanding it woefully inadequate. There’s psychoanalysis, cogntive-behaviorial, psychopharmacology, neuroscience, etc.. Each of these have their own theory about how the mind works, what happens when things get off track and how to fix things. Unfortunately, they are frequently incompatible with each other and none have the kind of evidence scientific theories like relativity or evolution do. Practioners from different schools will treat you in completely different manners.

In addition, therapists themselves are just people. They are not “fully analyzed” to the point where they have transcended ordinary human problems. They have their own limitations, biases and blindspots. And those limitations limit their ability to understand and help another person.

In fact, therapy can be not just ineffective but positively harmful. This is called Iatrogenesis in medicine. I learned about this concept from chapter 1 of Abigail Shrier’s Bad Therapy (2024). As I said previously, wanting to help is not enough. You also have to know how to help. Many therapists want to help but don’t know how. But there are also some therapists who don’t really care about their patients or are damaged, toxic people themselves. This is a very dangerous situation for someone who is already struggling.

One disheveled and disorganized therapist gave me sample medication that was past its due date. In my first session with another therapist, after pouring out my soul, he called me a “professional bullshit artist”. In another session, he accused me of purposely shorting him with my last payment even though it was an accident. We spent the whole session dissecting the situation. In my last session with another therapist after I decided to discontinue treatment, he attacked my character saying things like I had “thin skin” and didn’t really want to get better. Essentially, he blamed me, not his therapy, for my lack of improvement. When I was going through a crisis, a third therapist massively increased my dosage of Abilify and put me on a massive dose of Gabapentin as well. When that didn’t work, he tried a number of other medications that didn’t work either. The same therapist also once told me: “Find the best people and do exactly what they say.”

If you’re really struggling, therapy may be your best – and only – option. But it is far from a panacea.

Never Stop Learning: That said, you never want to stop learning. You will never reach a point where you know it all and can rest satisfied. Life continually throws up new problems and situations and we must continue to learn and grow in order to confront them adaptively. Often you will not know the answers at first and the best you can do is to “live the questions” (Rilke). Education doesn’t stop after school. A college degree doesn’t mean you’re educated.

Limits: I have long been an admirer of the late, great basketball legend Kobe Bryant. The sports journalist Mike Sielski titled his book about Kobe’s early years The Rise: Kobe Bryant And The Pursuit of Immortality. Not the pursuit of basketball immortality. The pursuit of immortality. That’s a pretty philosophical title for a book about a basketball player but it’s always struck me as on the money. Kobe was relentlessly and compulsively driven to be the best he could be – and the best ever; better than Michael Jordan. In pursuit of that, I believe he pushed himself beyond what a mere mortal is capable of. This didn’t catch up with him until he tore his Achilles on April 12, 2013 at the age of 34 – cutting short his prime. Refusing to come out of games or rest to heal his aching body as the Lakers tried to earn a playoff birth, Kobe’s Achilles eventually gave way.

Plagued by a negative body image as a young man, I also worked out too hard as a young athlete, causing myself many injuries, including permanent damage to my legs in an attempt to increase my explosiveness for basketball and tennis. Even as recently as December 2023, I was doing 3 hour workouts which included pool work, warm up and calisthenics, basketball and weight training. That is too much for a 46 year old with my history and it continued to catch up with me too as my body repeatedly broke down. After a long illness, I realized that I was not a young man anymore and needed to adjust my workouts to something more sustainable.

In one scene in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the industrialist Hank Rearden is exhausted. But he has work to do and wills himself back to work. As a young man, I thought this was heroic and I pushed myself through a consulting job after college that permanently damaged my health. I didn’t then understand that there are limits to how hard you can push yourself without your body and/or mind breaking down.

In his book Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang pushes back against our culture of “total work” (Joseph Pieper, Leisure: The Basis Of Culture) and wisely argues for balance, recovery and sustainability, using many examples from prominent figures in history. In Working Out, Working Within, Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang tell an anecdote about an ambitious young runner. “How long will it take me to become a world class runner?” she asks her coach. “4 to 5 years”, he answers. “What if I train twice as hard?” she replies. “Ten to twelve years.”

People: As a young man, I was insecure about myself and extremely sensitive to other people. I gave them all the power in interpersonal interactions as well as how I felt about myself. I also implicity believed that human beings were by nature good and aspired to treat others well as I did. It was only in my mid-forties that I realized that people’s opinions of you are not objective measures but usually rationalizations in order to make themselves feel better. Many want to put you down in order to put themselves above you. I also learned that, while there is great variety among people, many people are selfish, ignorant, common and nasty – and it is getting worse in what I have termed “the culture of nihilism” (also see my “Surviving Contemporary America: A Guide For The Superior Man”). When I internalized these things, people’s opinions had much less power over me and I learned to hold my own and even control the narrative in social interactions. While it’s inevitable to get upset when people treat you badly, I have been able to tamp down these feelings significantly. As the philosopher George Santayana said: “While the waves will not be stilled, they will now beat against a rock.”

Friendship and Love: While many people are worthy only of common courtesy, there are some with the potential for deeper relationship. Aristotle famously said that there are three types of friendship: friendships of pleasure, friendships of utility and friendships of virtue. The first is between people who simply enjoy being with each other in certain contexts. For example, workout buddies. The second is between people like an accountant and and investment advisor who refer each other business. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Friendships of virtue, the highest form of friendship for Aristotle, are between two people in search of the good life and supporting each other in the quest. They are rare because they require two people of high character who have built a relationship of trust over time.

Love is similarly rare. I learned about love from my mother when she came to my rescue in my mid-thirties. Over the next decade-plus, she made enormous sacrifices – financial, emotional, time and energy, etc… – for me in order to get me on my feet and help me right my life. In my mid-forties, I started to understand how special it was for a person, even a parent, to make those kinds of sacrifices. A card sits on a table in the entrance to my Mom’s house that reads: “Love and you shall be loved”. As I reflected more and more on what she had done for me, I felt enormous gratitude and love. I learned that love is not saying “I love you” but doing the things that show you truly care about another person’s well being.

Now let’s talk about romantic love. In a a recent article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Review section, Brad Wilcox distinguished between a soul mate model of romantic love and what I’ll call a partnership model (“Don’t Buy The Soulmate Myth” [SUBSCRIPTION REQUIRED], February 10, 2024). In Plato’s Symposium, the idea is floated that all of us were androgynous at first but Zeus punished us by splitting us into male and female and we’ve been searching for our other half ever since. Only when we find our soulmate will we feel complete. In this model, two people are meant for each other and everything should flow smoothly from the beginning of the relationship until “death do us part”. But it’s a fantasy. In the real world, even romantic love requires effort, commitment and sacrifice. The partnership model recognizes the gritty realities of making long term relationships work.

A few years ago I was dating a woman named Rachel. At first she was enamored with me, but I was too easy. Eventually she took me for granted and dumped me. When I asked her why she said I lacked “overwhelming charisma”. Overwhelming charisma. What about intelligence? What about character? What about the things that truly matter for building a lasting relationship? Apparently those were not her priorities. Clearly she was operating under the soul mate model of romantic love. In retrospect, it’s not a surprise that she was twice divorced before 40.

Unfortunately, friendship and love are increasingly difficult in contemporary society. It’s a “me first” culture that mitigates against the mutuality required for true relationship. Only those who understand sacrifice, trust and commitment can build great and enduring relationships. Too few do nowadays.

Money: The bible says “Man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4) but the commentator Michael Novak nicely qualified that by saying “but he needs a little bread first to realize that”. America has always been the place of the self made man, the place where anybody can get rich. That’s the “American Dream”. Certainly it’s a beautiful thing that merit and not birth determine how far you can go in this country. Money is important. After all, you have to pay the bills and who doesn’t want the nice things in life too?

But – while important – money is not the most important thing. After meeting one’s basic needs for food, shelter and other such things, money has decreasing marginal worth as far as fulfillment goes. The most important thing money does is free up your time and energy to focus on higher things. Robert and Edward Skidelsky start off their wonderful book on money, How Much Is Enough? Money And The Good Life, by referencing Keynes 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren” in which he argued that capitalism was solving the economic problem and soon the human species would be able to focus on more important things. That hasn’t happened. Even as we’ve gotten wealthier and wealthier, we’ve continued to work just as hard. But that may simply be because we don’t know what else is worth pursuing besides money.

Many of us – even the more fortunate among us – work long hours at jobs we don’t enjoy in the large, bureaucratic, Kafkaesque corporations that dominate our economy. While this is efficient from an economic perspective, it is inefficient from a human perspective, as E.F. Schumacher argued in Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. It would be worth a decrease in productivity and economic growth to make work better fit human needs given our current technologic and economic capabilities. For example, it has been shown that businesses don’t lose any production by moving to a four day work week. That’s because workers are fresher, more engaged and therefore more productive when they have enough time off to take care of other important things and priorities in their life. Man will always have to work for bread but perhaps we should reconsider how hard we’re working given the poor return we’re getting when considered not just in terms of money but of overall fulfillment and flourishing.

Sex: As with money, most Americans consider more is better when it comes to sex. But just as the mindless accumulation of money can be an addiction, so can mindless sexual indulgence. Sex is one of the great pleasures of life but without intimacy, without human connection, eventually it becomes meaningless. Only in the context of a committed, loving relationship can sexual fulfillment reach its peak. That’s because human beings are spiritual as well as material creatures – and in fact our spiritual needs are more important for our fulfillment than our material ones once our basic needs are met. Even though Rilke wrote a century ago, it is still true that we are far from figuring out the ideal possibilities of relationship between men and women.

No Ultimate Answers: When I first started studying philosophy, my goal was a comprehensive system that explained everything. At first, I thought I had found it in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Eventually, I discovered numerous holes in her system. Finally, in my mid-forties, I realized that there are no ultimate answers. Why is there something rather than nothing? No answer is possible. Why is the world like it is? For example, we are likely products of evolution designed to survive and reproduce, not to be happy. In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright makes the fascinating argument that we have to resist our nature in many cases if we want to be happy since we’re not made to be happy but to survive and reproduce. We have to manage our ceaseless and unending desires or they will make us crazy. Even achieving them all probably won’t make us happy. This is not “the best of all possible worlds” Leibniz said it was. And there is no answer to why it is the way it is.

Diet: The one area that I probably should have learned by now but have not is the importance of diet. While I eat a salad now and then, I eat In N’ Out and DoorDash on a regular basis. I know many people’s lives have been transformed by changing their diet. Though I workout, I’m a bit overweight and I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t feel better if I ate better. Perhaps this is one of the next lessons I have to learn.

In the movie The Natural, based on Bernard Malamud’s novel, there is a fascinating exchange between the baseball slugger Roy Hobbs and his childhood lover. Hobbs had been shot as a young man and though he came back sixteen years later with great success, he regretted his lost potential. “I could have broken every record in the books”, Hobbs – played by Robert Redford – tells her. “And then when I walked down the street, people would have looked and said ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.'” To which she responds: “I believe we have two lives. The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” I’m still living with the scars and mistakes of my past but hopefully the next 47 years will be better because of what I’ve learned from them.

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