Just continuing some thoughts from last time when I was talking about some ideas for my personal philosophy.
I think one of the greatest mentalities that I had while growing up in a religious context was the thought that everything was part of God’s plan. And I think for me, that made me a relatively passive person growing up. Going into high school, I became a little more proactive as I tried to succeed within the high school environment. But it was really when I went to America and when I went to Brown, that I was shocked by the pro-activeness of Americans around me. The American arrogance was on display all the way from the classroom to the dance floor. And I think there are people who would criticize that kind of behavior, especially those from cultures in East Asia and the Middle East, where hierarchical and respectful/subservient cultures are still the norm. But for myself, it was a realization of how my passivity was not a good combination with my already mellow personality.
Around that time, I started having a parting with my religious upbringing. Looking back at writings deep in the older archives of this blog site and other pieces of writing from the time, I realize a lot of it was me wrestling with the idea that everything was part of God’s plan and purpose, the debate between free will and predetermination. 1
And I think the last four of five years have been a slow progression of a more proactive mentality in my life. Moving half way across the world for college, deciding that I wanted to study a field that no one in my family had any experience with, computer science, deciding that I wanted a career in computer science, being part of a non-profit that brought me to East Africa, moving again across the country after graduation to a new city, and now starting a new chapter at a startup.
Once I moved away from the idea that there was a life I was supposed to live, and instead moved towards the idea that life was what I wanted to make of it, a lot more options and choices became available to me. Once I gave up on the idea that there was a life I was supposed to have, it freed me from the fear of failing, which has given me a new desire to take on opportunities with unknown futures.
Once in a while, I get into a ‘how the heck did I end up here’ mode and start questioning all the choices I ended up making, and sort of look at it from a tabula rasa perspective. Even at my age, I think the socialization we acquire from media, from our peers and from our families can be stronger than we believe. So questioning some of these beliefs can yield interesting insights. Where did this notion of having a family and having two children come from? Where does this notion of finding a job that pays well come from?
But on the flip side, the sense of freedom has also presented me with more choices. Having choices are great but having all these choices have also made me deeply question my own existing decision making criteria because to make a choice you need to know what is it that you seek, and how you need to go about achieving it.
One consequence of believing in this notion of free will is that I felt like the possibilities of life expanded greatly but I also experienced a profound sense of lost. If there is in fact no plan, and in fact no purpose, that what are we all really living for? Why do we live and breath to make it to the next day? A personal journey is necessary from here for you to decide what is that you want to live for. Each is extremely personal and the conclusions we derive from are all different, which is what after all makes humanity so interesting.
That mental exercise that eventually led me to write this post and the previous one, thinking about how I want to measure success on my own terms, how I want to live my life, and how to get there.
I think my idea can be expressed very simply by a line I found for my last post ‘The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members’. Helping the weakest members of humanity is a goal I’ve decided to work towards. My idea is simple, which is to minimize the number of human-years that are lost to preventable causes, whether health, social or political in the most resource-efficient way possible.
The goal is kind of ridiculously broad and honestly not very useful at all, but I can’t really narrow it down for you right now. This goal has the difficulty of being incredibly difficult to measure. So the proxy I’ve decided to measure it is by the following activity. Opening up an issue of the most recent copy of the Economist and make sure that there isn’t something that can be done easily to help preserve the human potential that would be otherwise lost. ‘Done easily’ is a terribly vague word here as well but I can’t think of anything better right now.
I think the difficulty in staying true to this goal is finding the inspiration and the courage to keep going. I believe I am more afflicted by the tragedy that I observe than the admiration that I feel for individuals who have scarified to improve the world. So the difficulty moving forward will be able to tune into this emotion by connecting with a large group of people and their circumstances. Humans have the strange tragedy of being better at empathizing with individuals rather than groups, thus our fascination with storytelling, heroes, martyrs. It is individuals acts of heroism and courage that have inspired us, but how do we wire our brains to appreciate the small acts of heroism that many people commit each day? And how do we force our emotions to focus on the larger picture rather than the tragic stories we read? How do we become data-driven in the handling of our emotions?
Hopefully this post will act as a promise that I have made to my future self of the life I will lead.
1 And I think looking at the matter now, I used to have a dislike for religion in general. But now I’ve realized that my anger is directly towards organized religion and not the underlying faith. Organized religion just like any another institution of power, can and will be abused at some point. And the part I realized was that the people representing this institution do that represent the beliefs and convictions of all the followers, just as political parties. I think growing up I only met people in that practiced both, as one would in a church setting. I have nothing against anyone’s faith, except when it tries to dictate the actions and behaviors of others who are not part of that faith.