What is the art of living?
I like how Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, seems to describe it from all her reading and writing over the years:
“In all of them I try to find some little piece that helps us answer, or helps me answer at least, directly or indirectly that grand question of how to live and what it means to live a meaningful life and to live well.” — Maria Popova
Or, perhaps we should consider the art of intentional living:
“Intentional living is the art of making our own choices before others’ choices make us.” — Richie Norton
You’ve probably heard the quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.” While I believe that’s true, most people would likely say that they don’t have great power—so where does that leave the average person on responsibility?
Instead of great power, I believe modern humans in developed countries can all relate to great choice. We have an abundance of choice in our lives today. Even busyness and slow living are choices. While many people associate a lot of choice with a higher standard of living, there is a breaking point of too much choice.
Nowhere is this more apparent than modern humans trying to figure out who they are and what to do with their lives. Even after reading thousands of quotes, there are some that just stick with you forever. This is one of those quotes for me:
“In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time—literally—substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.” — Peter Drucker
This is an incredible insight by Drucker. Never before in the history of humanity have we had so much choice. Will we cave under the responsibility, or will we rise to the opportunity?
“The most radical change of all in a free-market economy and democratic society: the empowerment of individuals to consciously take charge of their own lives and to begin changing their manner of work, patterns of consumption…and much more.” — Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity
This isn’t your typical personal responsibility post with the normal how-to advice: don’t make excuses, stop blaming and complaining, start taking accountability, etc. In a way, those things are just dealing with symptoms. I want to get to the roots.
Is Drucker right that we’re totally unprepared to manages ourselves? If so, what can we do about that?
The Modern Art of Living — With Great Choice comes Great Responsibility
Understanding the Paradox of Choice
As I’ve outlined previously in the post The Paradox of Choice—Even Not Choosing is a Choice, modern choice is great—to a point. Here are two key insights:
“Freedom and autonomy are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” — Barry Schwartz
“There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to develop all of the talents…Making choices among the possibilities is indeed arbitrary; there is no ‘ultimately right’ choice. Even choosing a vocation can be difficult if one is trying to make a career decision between essentially equal passion, talents and potential…” — DavidsonGifted.org¹
Or, at least existential anxiety from all the choices and possibilities. Gordon Marino, author of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age says:
“Kierkegaard describes anxiety as ‘the dizziness of freedom.’ In anxiety I can come to understand that I am free, that I am a creature fraught through and through with possibilities. That freedom, the necessity to constantly make choices, to realize this possibility and close down another, is a font of anxiety.” — Gordon Marino
With Great Choice comes Great Responsibility
Let’s go a bit deeper. How did humans get to this point? I recently wrapped up the book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. I feel like he wrote a very astute summary to give us historical perspective:
“As tribal cultures developed into the ancient civilizations, certain functions began to be allotted to certain people: ruler, priest or priestess, warrior, farmer, merchant, craftsman, laborer, and so on. A class system developed. Your function, which in most cases you were born into, determined your identity, determined who you were in the eyes of others, as well as in your own eyes. Your function became a role, but it wasn’t recognized as a role: It was who you were, or thought you were. Only rare beings at the time, such as the Buddha or Jesus, saw the ultimate irrelevance of caste or social class, recognized it as identification with form and saw that such identification with the conditioned and the temporal obscured the light of the unconditioned and eternal that shines in each human being. In our contemporary world, the social structures are less rigid, less clearly defined than they used to be. Although most people are, of course, still conditioned by their environment, they are no longer automatically assigned a function and with it an identity. In fact, in the modern world, more and more people are confused as to where they fit in, what their purpose is, and even who they are.” — Eckhart Tolle
Woah. Makes sense though, right? Life was not easy for the people of the past. At the same time, it was simpler. Choices were made for them. Modern humans simply have not been trained to individually take responsibility for their lives and cope with all the choices that exist today. Hence, increasing numbers of existential crises.
Did you ever think you’d have to learn how to live?
“I’d always believed that a life of quality, enjoyment, and wisdom were my human birthright…I never suspected that I would have to learn how to live…ways of seeing the world I had to master before I could awaken to a simple, happy, uncomplicated life.” — Dan Millman
What can we do about it?
3 Ways to Take Responsibility for Your Life
This is the part where I promised not to mention all that normal advice: don’t make excuses, stop blaming and complaining, start taking accountability, etc.
My biggest piece of advice is to reset your perspective once you understand modern choice and responsibility. I believe you’re doing that by simply reading this post. It’s important to understand that we are living in an age and culture of individualism. This means that responsibility today is often a synonym for personal responsibility.
If you’re struggling with personal responsibility, don’t start with your actions. Start with your mind—your thoughts and beliefs.
I believe mastering your mind is the #1 life hack of all-time. So much of taking responsibility has to do with mastering your mind and consciously choosing what you think about:
- “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.” — Martin Seligman
- “Look at the word responsibility—’response-ability’—the ability to choose your response.” — Stephen Covey
- “To end the misery that has afflicted the human condition for thousands of years, you have to start with yourself and take responsibility for your inner state at any given moment. That means now.” — Eckhart Tolle
- “If you can neither enjoy or bring acceptance to what you do – stop. Otherwise, you are not taking responsibility for the only thing you can really take responsibility for, which also happens to be one thing that really matters: your state of consciousness. And if you are not taking responsibility for your state of consciousness, you are not taking responsibility for life.” — Eckhart Tolle
It ultimately determines who you become:
- “We become what we think about most of the time, and that’s the strangest secret.” — Earl Nightingale
- “What we believe determines our behavior, and our behavior determines what we become in life.” — Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life
There’s no way around it. Some actions are non-negotiable in life—like eating and sleeping. Give yourself permission to take control of all aspects and actions in your own life:
- “Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence.” — Maria Popova, author of Brain Pickings
- “There are two primary choices in life: To accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.” — Dr. Denis Waitley
- “The moment you take responsibility for everything in your life is the moment you can change anything in your life.” — Hal Elrod
Don’t feel like you need to go big with your actions and overwhelm yourself. Focus on essentialism, the disciplined pursuit of less but better. Momentum from small actions can snowball over time:
- “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” ― Helen Keller
Quite the conundrum, isn’t it?
- “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” — Molière
- “Once we know and are aware, we are responsible for our action and our inaction. We can do something about it or ignore it. Either way, we are still responsible.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
- “When we’re feeling overwhelmed by negative headlines, we remind ourselves that none of us has the right to sit back and expect that the world is going to keep getting better. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to push it in that direction. In that way, we’ve found that optimism can be a powerful call to action. And it has a multiplier effect: The more optimists there are working for a better future, the more reasons there are to be optimistic.” — Bill & Melinda Gates, 2019 Annual Letter²
- “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” — Voltaire
Are you going to be the author of your own story or let others write it for you? Which door will you choose?
I was surprised to read that your existing crises lasted 6 weeks. Mine has gone on for about 2 years now. I don’t have thoughts about who I am and where I’m going every day, but I get them regularly enough. I think that it started when one of my main goals in life if fell through and suddenly each of the roles I had adopted in life started to crack. I started to watch my life crack. And I was left watching. I slowly sank into this mental space where I could lie and be for hours…. I started to realise I could exist and be, without having a role and without really belonging to anybody. And at that point you start to realise the depth of the human spirit and the strength that each one of us possess inside us. The modern world and my relationship with it remains difficult. I enter it every day, it tires me out so much because I feel like it is so far and removed from what I want to be thinking and doing with my life. I don’t like how it pulls me to become part of the fair again. To be a part of the rat race again. I can’t. I’ve seen .. That there are more important things than that…
Thank you for sharing your story, Hannah. I’d say the acute portion of my crisis lasted 6 weeks. This was when literally all my free time was spent on asking questions, searching, researching, learning, reading, watching, etc. However, as you know, an existential crisis isn’t a convenient switch you can flip on and off. Since mine started in late November, I decided New Year’s could be a pivot point (this is where the 6 weeks comes from). But, I invested a lot of time the entire following year continuing the journey, searching, learning, and ultimately beginning to find/create purpose about a year later.
It sounds like you are well on your way in your own journey. Much of what you mentioned around goals, life roles, depth of the human spirit, difficult relationship with the modern world, etc reminds me of “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle (3-part book summary: 1, 2, 3). These few quotes really resonated with me when I was starting my journey:
“Many people who are going through the early stages of the awakening process are no longer certain what their outer purpose is. What drives the world no longer drives them. Seeing the madness of our civilization so clearly, they may feel somewhat alienated from the culture around them. Some feel that they inhabit a no-man’s land between two worlds.” — Eckhart Tolle
“One thing we do know: Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness.” — Eckhart Tolle
“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” — Eckhart Tolle
“Doing is never enough if you neglect Being.” — Eckhart Tolle