“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?” “What do you want to do with your life?”

We constantly ask ourselves these questions. More frequently, others ask us. Friends, family, interviewers, colleagues, just about everyone wants to know what our lives have in store. They want to not only know which direction we are sailing in but which destination we have chosen. Because at some point we are supposed to know these things, to arrive exactly where we’ve charted our course.

Reading Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project, I encountered another opinion entirely. Fittingly, the opinion comes from someone who knew a thing or two about how our minds work. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life”, psychologist Amos Tversky once said in an interview.

“The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet…On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”

The more I thought about this the more it made sense. Most people I know got into their long term careers by chance.”If you would have told me I would be selling insurance, I would’ve called you crazy”, said a former biology teacher.

The same could be said for many other life altering decisions: getting married, changing location, starting a business. When people describe such seismic shifts, there is always a touch of serendipity. They were in the right place at the right time. Does that mean we should let the wind take us wherever it may lead?

That is where small choices come in.

For Tversky, the small choices are our identity. What small choices we make in a field reflect ourselves more deeply than the big choice of field. This flies in the face of where my headspace has been, focusing on what field I want to be in. It got overwhelming because I felt like I needed to prepare on a massive scale. My identity seemed wrapped around the big choice.

What’s worse, I damned my current state, called myself a failure. Why haven’t I made it to ‘x’? Why are you still a barista when you should be at ‘x’ by now? You feel as though you should have made your big choice by now. 

But again, this is where the small choices come in. This is where we have the most power in our lives. Wherever we are at, we can define ourselves by the small choices we make. What kind of barista am I? What kind of intern am I? What kind of job searcher am I? 

What kind of person am I? That is where our focus needs to lie.

Wendell Berry wrote about the big choice question of “finding yourself” in “The Body and the Earth”. In the essay, much like Tversky, he too calls for a focus on the small choices. His poignance begets a fitting end to my rambling:

“Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work.”

Whatever work that may be now, whatever work that may be in the future, we can’t forget to ask one simple question:

How do I do this work?

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“Wow…”

Ryan Holiday had just given a talk about Conspiracy, his new book as of this publication. One thing stood out to me most. The guy’s well read. After a couple days I had to ask myself a question. “What did I mean by well read?” I don’t even think I knew. I had to think about it.

For one, the guy reads a lot. His monthly book recommendations are a testament to the volume. How about the quality of those books he reads? His recommendations comprise of biographies, works of history, philosophy, literature, quality stuff really.

But these two things, quantity and quality, were not satisfying as answers. Because if it were that easy, more of us would be well read. All we’d have to do was find quality books and read tons of them. There had to be more under the surface.

Then I came across this, an article of Holiday outlining the note card system he uses for what he reads. Things suddenly clicked. It doesn’t matter how many books you read or the quality of those books if you cannot recall and apply their contents. Holiday was able to do just that and utilized a system of reading to help him. Therein lied what it meant to be well read.

To be well-read, you have to read well. And whether it’s using Holiday’s note card system or one of our own, all of us can be well read with but a little help.

In the conclusion of one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca pulled advice from Epicurus:

“We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.”

Live as if this person watching you. Do everything as if this person saw what you were doing.

It all has to be hypothetical right? That person could be dead or in a sphere you will never orbit in a lifetime. There are other factors, sure, but what do they all share? There will always be a gap between the role model knowing you and you knowing the role model. No amount of email correspondence with the role model will change this. No amount of research on the role model will either.That chasm cannot be breached.

It’s never said because it’s obvious, but ruminating on this gap is like staring into an abyss, a reminder of some sort of isolation between ourselves and others. It sounds contrived, overwrought and overthought, but I couldn’t shake this feeling when I thought about this.

Well, as most people do, I forgot the stray thought and continued on with my life. Much later I was trying to get back into regularly attending Mass. The homily that week touched upon building a personal relationship with Christ.

Christ is a role model, no? WWJD sounds cliched at this point, but the phrase emphasizes that status Jesus holds. Go further. In Christian teaching, one develops a personal relationship with Him through prayer and the Sacraments. Wow, I thought, that sounds like having a personal relationship with a role model.

It hit me. The gap could be breached.

Christ bore all of our sins, He knows us individually. Pascal often referred to Christ in his Pensées as a mediator, the Great Mediator, between God and ourselves. Think of that oft repeated line of Scripture: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” Christ serves as both a role model and, most importantly, more than a role model.

There was a sense of resolution in that. Even more so, there was a sense of the work that needed to be done in building said relationship. Realizing that the gap could be breached isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.

What does the Renaissance and Chicken McNuggets have in common?

Okay, let me explain.

When I refer to McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, I am referring to McNugget, a 2012 work by Chris Alexander. The concept? Every mention of “mcnugget” on Twitter that year between January 29th and 30th is listed out chronologically. This goes on for about 500 pages.

An anomaly, right? Not even. Imagine a book with all the Youtube comments to the initial 9/11 video. How about a transcribed issue of The New York Times? What about a piece that is 48 translations of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno? All exist. And there’s more.

McNugget is part of a larger trend of works in the 21st century. These pieces, however, share a spirit that goes beyond this Internet era, past the 20th century, and all the way back to two curious figures of the Renaissance: Ulisse Aldrovandi and Konrad Gesner.

Aldrovandi and Gesner were both naturalists. Their realm was that of animals, vegetables, and minerals. When I use ‘study’, our modern thinking implies the scientific method and observation out in the field or the lab. But that’s not what they did. Biologist Stephen Jay-Gould highlights their work in The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox:

“..the form and purpose of these amazing volumes would strike any modern scientist as surpassingly strange, albeit wonderfully weird. Aldrovandi and Gesner displayed no rooted antipathy to novel information of their own discovery, or to observing animals with their own eyes and recording the results, but such activities represented a diversion from their primary purpose: to transmit everything ever known, stated, or merely believed about the objects under their scrutiny.”

This meant that everything was on the table: a footnote about pigs by Aristotle, a fable of foxes mentioned by Erasmus, even references to mythical creatures. The reality of the creature did not matter. Their task was less scientific and more encyclopedic.

If you think about it, this thoroughness aligns perfectly with the pursuits of their time. “The Renaissance”, Gould reminds us, “sought a rebirth, not an accumulation or a revolution. They believed that everything worth knowing had been ascertained by the great intellects of the classical world […] but then either not transcribed or more likely, lost to the West […] Thus the recovery of ancient wisdom, not the discovery of novel data, became the primary task of scholarship.”

Now I am not going to grandstand and say that McNugget is recovering the lost wisdom from 2012 about McNuggets and sharing it to the world once again.

But if we go beyond rebirth and into the thoroughness of Gesner and Aldrovandi, we find something like McNugget linking to their pursuits. McNugget attempts to capture every mention on Twitter about McNuggets in a span of time. It didn’t matter whether someone was calling someone else a McNugget or referring to scarfing down a 40 pc box. Everything is there and all of it for the skimming. Gould referred to this Renaissance idea of the complete repository as “the compendiast’s dream.” Works like McNugget, Wikipedia even, show that this dream has become a reality in today’s world.

I wonder, however, what this modern reality is connected to. Gesner and Aldrovandi were attempting to recover ancient wisdom. What are we trying to do with our encyclopedism? Is it about recovery of knowledge or something different entirely?

 

“Do you think it is possible that words could be deprived of their meaning?”

– Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome

Say you are searching for meaning in a word. Can that word be deprived of meaning while searching for its meaning?

I recall when books and discussion about Christianity consumed my time. I wanted to find meaning in the religion I had once abandoned. The assumption was that these things, reading and discussion, would help me get closer to some semblance of Christian faith.

After much reading and discussion, I reached an impasse where the Christian God seemed completely reasonable. I would even venture to say I believed. But what did I mean when I said I believed? Did I begin to pray, go to Mass, read the Bible?

Not at all.

In fact, nothing had changed. The only difference was that I was discussing, reading, and thinking about Christianity more than before. Christianity had become more a point of fascination rather than a point of meaning.

What to make of this? Was there a wall between fascination and meaning? What is this supposed wall made of? How do you hurdle over it?

I want to have meaningful conversations. It is a notion I think many of us have. We want to raise the conversational bar with our friends and peers. We want to reach above the noise.

The problem is that these kind of aspirations are left as aspirations. The demand to have meaningful conversation is crippling. When I demand so much out of myself I am left not trying at all. I fear sounding like a pompous ass if I ask about the meaning of life at a cocktail party.

Why not start smaller? Why not find rules that could immediately be put into practice? Maybe all we need are little nudges towards meaning. Perhaps our goal is to collect and utilize heuristics that can help us slowly develop into better conversationalists. It might be more important to develop this sort of compass rather than a step by step roadmap. If that is the case, then we better get started.

The first one I have found use for in my life is from Soren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age:

“If we could suppose for a moment that there was a law which did not forbid people talking, but simply ordered that everything which was spoken should be treated as though it had happened fifty years ago, the gossips would be done for, they would be in despair. On the other hand, it would not really interfere with any one who could really talk. That an actor should have mispronounced a word could only be interesting if there was something interesting in the mispronunciation itself, in which case the fifty years make no difference…”

Kierkegaard’s rule is echoed in Jeff Bezos’ advice to focus on what does not change. If we can focus on what would not erode after fifty years then we can reach conclusions and questions about human nature and meaning that transcend otherwise petty “He said, She said’s”.

Keep finding more and using them. I sure need to develop the toolkit. If there are any that prove useful for you then please feel free to share. Much obliged.

A year into the Revolutionary War, the city of Philadelphia was captured by the British. It served as the closest thing to a capital city for the burgeoning nation fighting for independence. As someone ignorant about the specifics of the Revolutionary War, I had no idea this happened so early in the conflict.

As someone even more ignorant about military strategy, I thought this kind of move would signal end-game. The capital city taken? Game over.

Far from the case.

Members of the Continental Congress, America’s proto-government, retreated further north. What’s more, Washington and his Continental Army were still on the loose. Washington acknowledged the capture of Philadelphia but realized the conflict was far from over.

“By this point”, Ron Chernow notes, “Washington knew he was engaged in a war of attrition and that holding towns was less important in this mobile style of warfare.” Washington stated similar sentiments in a letter around the time of Philadelphia’s capture. “The possession of our towns, while we have an army in the field, will avail [the British] little”, Washington wrote. “It is our arms, not defenseless towns, they have to subdue.”

There are defeats that seem dramatic, signaling the end. Having the capital captured by the enemy is one of those demoralizing events. There will especially be events in life that signal a similar rupture.

But the important thing to realize is that these kind of events are only symbolic of defeat. They are not defeat itself.  It is you that needs to be subdued, not a relative or job. Surrendering your entire being truly signals the end. 

As long as the army continues moving, there’s still a chance. Even in those demoralizing moments, our internal army makes it out. If we consistently remind ourselves of that we can churn through strategies and approaches to continue fighting.

There’s still a chance.