How Are You Supposed to Live?

Treat Thompson



This is a republishing of the Shoulders of Giants newsletter.

What we'll learn (in 5 minutes):

👨‍🏫 Topic: You can’t fit your life into a template, and you shouldn’t live for other people

🔍 Quote: Parker Palmer on the privilege of being yourself

📜 Passage: Vincent van Gogh on people who want to take action but can’t

How Are You Supposed to Live? (4 min read)

A basic human instinct is to do the bare minimum necessary for survival.

That’s why when it comes to life in the 21st century, we want to live by prescribed paths.

For example, going from high school to college to the workforce to build a career.

A proven path is comfortable, safe, and lets you believe the end goal is guaranteed. There are also no threats on a busy trail. All the speed bumps have been smoothed out by people before you.

So, following human nature, you’ve probably wondered, “how am I supposed to live? What steps should I be taking in life? What path should I follow?”

But these questions are unanswerable.

There is no definitive way to live. As Carl Jung said, “one lives as one can.”

You Can’t Plan Life

We have a flawed obsession with deciding the trajectory of our lives decades ahead of time. We like to imagine a specific future, then structure everything we do around reaching that.

But you can’t plan life. It has to be lived. Like Picasso said, “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

Oftentimes we try to force meaning on our lives when we should let it come naturally to us just by living. Your life’s purpose isn’t a goal you choose to pursue. It’s a calling that you hear.

Every day we experience new things and gain new perspectives. So why should we try to force our lives toward a specific goal when we’re constantly changing.

We over-invest in values, careers, lifestyles, etc., in our 20’s that don’t match who we’ll be in our 30’s.

Parker Palmer put it perfectly, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”

Palmer calls forcing purpose on our lives an act of violence and an attack on who we are. Purpose shouldn’t be something external we choose. It should be something internal we feel.

My desire to share what I learn is something I feel inside. And so now I’m writing to you! I didn’t choose this because I thought being a writer was cool or because I wanted to have someone else’s life.

Not having an established plan seems scary, so we’ll sacrifice our individuality to not feel lost. We’ll look for guidance everywhere except inside ourselves.

Hunter S. Thompson says we must choose to “float with the tide or swim for a goal” at some point in life.

Knowing how precious life is, I choose to float with the tide. That’s where the magic is. Like Maria Popova said, “uncertainty is the price of beauty.”

Floating with the tide is about removing our urge to control everything. Let your life naturally unravel instead of forcing it into different molds.

Carl Jung said if you always do what feels right inside, you don’t need to overthink how you should live. Because you’re just living. You can move confidently down the path prescribed by your unconscious.

The best we can do in life is keep putting our next best step forward in the face of uncertainty until we turn around one day and gasp at the path we’ve made.

Being an Individual is Hard

Floating with the tide isn’t easy. It’s more demanding than trying to fit your life into a template.

First of all, judgement, failure, and embarrassment scare us. So when we feel our true calling deep down, we run from it or ignore it.

Second of all, we’re anxiety-ridden creatures who want to know everything going on. So planning comes naturally to us. It’s going with the flow and listening to yourself that's hard. It takes a conscious effort.

Lastly, we’re pressured not to be ourselves. In one way or another, we’re taught to list a bunch of values and conform our lives to them whether we believe in them or not. So some choose to ignore their inner voice and find a socially acceptable way to live instead.

We mask ourselves with faces that aren’t ours.

But the effort needed to be yourself is well worth it. Reaching someone else’s definition of success doesn’t satisfy you deep down.

The people who structure their lives around reaching other people's goals get left with the same feeling Palmer had: “the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.”

You make your life meaningless if you stay tied up living for other people.

Vincent van Gogh said he’d rather die than live a formulaic life laid out by society or social norms.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said there is no sorrier creature than a man who gives up their individuality to live by someone else or conform to social pressure.

Remember, we don’t strive to be our jobs or our goals; we strive to be ourselves.

Don’t bend your life to fit an arbitrary image. If you’re a circle, don’t force yourself into a square hole.

Final Thoughts

Elizabeth Gilbert asked a question that I think about often: “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”

Humans are creative creatures. We all have something inside that we want to bring to the world. Whether it’s art, a business, or solving a problem, we want to express a piece of ourselves.

Being meaningful brings meaning to our lives. We want to matter. We feel purpose when we use our abilities to reach our desires. But we can’t do that unless we embrace our individuality.

There are lives that would’ve made much better directors than Steven Spielberg, much better rappers than Jay-Z, and much better painters than Picasso, but they lacked the courage to share their treasure with the world, and that’s a shame.

Act on the things that dominate and delight your life at the same time.

Life is beautiful when you walk in the face of uncertainty without asking where the path leads.

Featured Quote

What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!

- Parker Palmer

It can take a long time to be yourself. That’s why Carl Jung called it the “privilege of a lifetime.”

Featured Passage

In this passage Vincent van Gogh uses a caged bird as a metaphor for people who have a desire to take action in life but can’t because they are “imprisoned” by something.

The passage also touches on how we judge others and mistake their circumstances for their capabilities.

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember, and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering.

“Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine.

But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel the bars.