There are several different difficulty levels on which you can live your life. They are ascendingly difficult, though the difficulty is really mostly in switching to that method of living. Once you get to the next level it actually becomes far easier. An analog would be financial investing– it’s hard to save a lot of money when you don’t have much, but doing so makes it easier for you to live later and also makes it easier for you to save more and invest better.
Most people will use a combined version of several of these levels, so you may not find that you are entirely described by just one.
The easiest level is to do the wrong thing. For example, if you eat garbage food, do drugs, and play video games all day, you never really have to challenge yourself. Most people are resourceful enough that they will figure out a way to survive in this situation, but they will probably not find that their lives become better over time.
The decision making process here is a simple and likely unconscious, “what would give me the least immediate pain?”. Ironically the avoidance of immediate pain usually generates (with interest) future pain. Avoid the pain of being healthy now and you are likely to be plagued by disease for decades.
The next easiest level is to do the right thing without thinking about it. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is without thinking about it, but you make an effort. The decision making process is an unconscious, “what will make me feel like I’m doing the right thing?”. You may not eat fast food, but you probably eat things that say “33% less fat” because that seems like a smart decision. You base financial decisions off the advice of those who benefit from those decisions. When the mortgage broker tells you that you can afford a house that costs $X, you buy one that costs $X.
Following this method allows you to abdicate your responsibility. If things don’t go well for you, you can tell yourself that you were just doing what other people told you to do and that everyone you knew was doing the same thing anyway.
The next level is doing the right thing, but focusing only on the how and not the why. You know that you should get a degree, get married, have kids, have a good career, and buy a few status symbol items, so you do so. In this life you don’t suffer physically, but you may suffer mentally, feeling unfulfilled and feeling like nothing is ever enough. You have many victories along the way, but they seem fleeting and unsatisfying.
The decision making process for this level can be summarized as, “What action would improve others’ opinion of me?”. This level is harder than the previous because it requires some autonomy in achieving goals. Because most others are chasing the same goals, there is an element of competition. The focus on how to achieve these goals usually completely clouds out any sort of consideration of whether or not those goals actually matter.
The last and hardest level is to try to figure out what the right thing actually is, and then do that thing. The right thing isn’t a universal right thing, but rather an individual right thing. We are all different in our abilities, desires, and circumstances, so our ideal paths are always very different. This lifestyle requires sacrifice, mostly in certainty. Whether the promise is actually true or not, society promises us a certain level of happiness if we just do what it tells us to do. Deep down I think we all know that if we stop doing what society asks of us, we are then responsible for our own happiness. That can be a heavy burden.
My first thought after dropping out of college was, “Well, I’m responsible for myself now.”
Everyone is different, but I’ve found that people who fall into this category are less likely to drink, more likely to have unusual careers or jobs, more likely to work out and eat healthy, and much more likely to have really random hobbies.
The decision making process here can best be boiled down to, “What do I actually care about, why do I care about it, and what’s the best way for me to get it?”. These questions are so open-ended and wide ranging that just about everyone comes up with different answers, and short-term outcomes vary wildly. I have noticed, though, that people who have lived life like this for a long time tend to all have good results in the long term.
The payoff for living this sort of life is contentment and satisfaction. It’s hard to not be content when you are actually living in accordance with your own goals and actively working towards them. It’s not uncommon to second guess oneself along the way, but seeing the results at the end tends to foster a deep sense of confidence, not just in the results but in the feeling that the results mattered and that future results will also be good.
Photo is me skiing in Las Vegas for the first time of the season!