On Living a Life of Purpose In Your 20's
It sounds morbid, but I contemplate death daily. I ask myself, “What if this is it? What if my time runs out today?” I’d love to say that I’m at the point where I’m comfortable with death, but it terrifies me.
A benefit of these thoughts about expiration is that it makes me appreciate the little things a whole lot more. This cup of coffee tastes better when I remember that it may be my last, and the music in my ears hits a little deeper when I remember that it may be the last song I ever listen to.
Another byproduct is that I think deeply about what to do with my limited time here on earth. The more you ponder the scarcity of time the more valuable it becomes. It's a scary realisation that every day spent doing something other than what you love most today is a day you’ll likely regret in future.
There’s a beautiful quote in a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson in 1958 which succinctly sums up the situation of trying to live a meaningful life:
Each day comes with a decision: float or swim. While nobody knows how to master the rest of their life, the best you can do is figure out how to master today. Then do that every day for the rest of your life.
These 13 principles are an attempt to make that easier. An attempt to lay out a framework to swim for the goal, instead of just floating.
1. PLACE A PREMIUM ON YOUR TIME. PLACE A HIGHER PREMIUM ON YOUR ATTENTION
Very few things in life can’t be replaced. Time and attention are two of them.
You can earn more money. You can buy a new car. You can find a new job. But you don’t get more time, and you can’t retrieve your attention once you’ve given it to something.
I've always thought that time is the most valuable thing we have, but I now think attention is more valuable. Time is limited, but the utility you derive from it is determined by how you allocate your attention.
“So that you can spend it on what matters.” That’s what life is all about: identifying what matters and figuring out how to give it as much time and attention as possible.
Feel a sense of urgency about everything you commit to. Quit books halfway through. Hit exit on bad movies. Don’t be afraid of stopping when you know something isn’t the best use of your time.
The world is absolutely incredible. It comes with so much to do and see. You’re NOT going to get to do it all, so choose wisely. Everything that you say yes to means that you have to have to say no to something else.
2. EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY
Realising that most people don’t have a clue what they’re doing comes with plenty of freedom. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You don’t have to have all the answers.
The idea of not knowing what comes next used to intimidate me. Now I can’t think of anything worse than knowing exactly how the next 60 years are going to play out. It’s like watching a movie and knowing how it ends.
The beauty of being lost is that it enables you to travel to unexpected places, find unexpected answers, and discover things you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Uncertainty isn’t to be feared, it’s to be embraced.
3. SEEK BEAUTY
You’re a shaved chimp on a giant ball flying through space at 108,000 km per hour. Stop and take that in once in a while.
This planet is absolutely incredible. We’re surrounded by beauty in every direction. It's not just waterfalls, mountains and the ocean. Beauty lives in love, and people, and the way your dog jumps to greet when you get home. It’s everywhere, you simply have to notice it.
Life becomes peaceful when you do. The rush dissipates. Life becomes more enjoyable once you decide to live it slowly, noticing the abundance of beauty that surrounds us every day.
4. RUN ON YOUR BIRTHDAY
The most important run you'll do all year is the one on your birthday. Why? Because it's the one day that truly belongs to you. Gifts, food and visitors - all there for you. You're the centre of attention, and even if you don't love it, parts of you enjoy it. It feels good to feel important.
Why is this the most important day to run? Because it's the day where you have the most reasons not to.
You're excused for not running on your birthday - you're allowed to take the day off and relax. You don't even have to make excuses for why you're not going to run. They're made for you!
Run anyway, because if you can do it on your birthday, you can do it on every other day. Running on 1 day makes it easier to run on the other 364.
5. SPEAKING OF EXERCISE: DO IT, DAILY
There are very few things that you can count on, but here are two of them:
- The world is uncertain.
- The world is competitive.
Most things are out of your control. One of the few things that aren’t (for most people) is your health. Get it in order. It gives you a slight edge over the 80% of people that are unhealthy. In a competitive world, those small edges add up.
More importantly, life is more enjoyable when you’re healthy. Good health leads to more confidence, energy and clarity of thought. It’s a better way to live.
6. PONDER THE TOUGH QUESTIONS
What am I trying to achieve? What will happen if I die tomorrow? What if my closest loved one died tomorrow? Am I on track to fulfil my potential?
Ponder these questions. It’s the only way to prepare for when they eventually happen, and more importantly, the only way to act on them while you still have the chance to.
7. IF IT MAKES YOU BETTER, FASTER OR MORE PRODUCTIVE - BUY IT
Spending money on things that make you better, faster or more productive is a no-brainer. They have years to repay themselves, and will probably do so ten-fold. Some good examples:
- A fast laptop. The small chunks of time saved by having a fast laptop add up, but the real value comes from the frustration that’s prevented by not having to wait on a slow laptop.
- A good mattress. Sleep is a multiplier. It amplifies everything. Your mood, productivity and quality of work. Multipliers work in both directions. Let’s say that poor sleep = 0.5. Average sleep = 1. Great sleep = 2. Multiply your effort by your sleep to get your output. You give 100% today. Poor sleep makes it 50% output. Average = 100%. Great = 200%. Prioritise sleep.
If it doesn’t make you better, faster or more productive, saving is a wise choice.
8. LONG-TERM VISION. SHORT-TERM FOCUS.
Achieving something great requires long-term vision coupled with short-term focus. Long-term vision helps you identify what is going to be important in years to come. Short-term focus ensures that you’re prepared to take advantage of it when the opportunity rolls around. Long-term vision provides direction. Short-term focus provides speed. You need both if you intend on getting to your desired location.
9. MAKE ART
Art is anything that allows you to get your perspective out into the world. Write, paint, make music, start a YouTube channel.
You should write because when you know that you’re going to make art, it changes the way you live. Knowing that I'm going to sit down to write each morning allows me to see the world through a different light. It makes you more inquisitive, and you seek a deeper understanding of how the things around you work.
To find out, you generate questions. That's the beauty of it. You live more curiously. More of the world and the things around you will pop alive. It makes you more aware. It'll make you engage with the world around you instead of just watching it float by.
An added benefit is that good art has the potential to change somebody’s life. An essay, song or video can change the way that somebody sees the world. For you, it’s a piece of art. For them, it’s a different way of spending 80 years on this planet.
10. REALISE HOW SMALL AND INSIGNIFICANT YOU ARE
Remember that big, beautiful planet I mentioned above? 99.9999% of the people on it will never even know that you exist. It sounds negative at first, but it’s a blessing. It means you can do what you want and pursue what makes you happy and nobody will even know, let alone care.
If you’re wondering just how insignificant we are, watch this video.
11. PROBLEM AVOIDED > PROBLEM SOLVED
Stop trying to solve problem after problem and learn to avoid problems instead. For every problem solved, a new one is invariably created. Problem-solving is good, but problem avoidance is better.
By having some foresight (#10) and trying to avoid problems, you’ll save yourself plenty of time (#1), money (#7) and pain (#4).
12. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT IN A JOB
On the topic of work: I believe that the work you do plays a disproportionately large role in the happiness you experience.
Your career is responsible for 20% to 60% of your free hours. It's a no-brainer to be very deliberate in picking it. If you spend 60% of your free time doing something, it's important that you enjoy it. Life will be miserable if you don't.
I’m at the start of my career and I think about it a lot. Far too much, in fact. The result of all that thought is a very clear set of things which I care about when looking for a job. It includes:
- Mentorship: When you’re in an environment where the people around you are better than you, you can’t help but improve, and do it quickly. In the early stages of a career, I don’t think there’s anything more valuable.
- Impact: It’s exceptionally difficult to turn up day after day and give it your all if you don’t feel like you’re making an impact. When you’re vested in what the company is trying to achieve, motivation becomes abundant and the potential to do great work increases significantly.
- Pressure: Similar to mentorship, when you’re in an environment with high-pressure and high-stakes, growth is inevitable. Pressure means someone is challenging you. You’re not just encouraged to keep up, but expected to. That’s a wonderful way to learn. (For more on this idea - ‘There’s no speed limit’).
- Learning > Money: If choosing between two positions, ask not what will pay me the most, but what will teach me the most?
13. WORK LIKE A SLAVE IN SERVICE OF YOUR FUTURE SELF
Disclaimer: This title isn’t mine. It comes from a friend of mine but it’s too good not to include.
Once you realise that there’s no speed limit, you realise that it’s possible to achieve incredible things. A lifetime is so much time. Twenty years is so much time. One year is so much time. The work you do today determines the life you live tomorrow. Do the work needed to live the life desired.
Wake up each morning and take one step closer to what you want. Stop messing around and put in the effort required. When you do that day after day over the course of years, achievement becomes inevitable rather than just possible.
Just as this piece started with timeless wisdom from Hunter S. Thompson, it ends with it. As you finish reading, ask yourself: What will make me happier: braving the storm of life or watching it from the security of the shore?