2016-05-16

Live Life Deeply, Rather Than Broadly


Warning: The above video contains the kind of language and subject matter found in the average comedy club.

The thrust of the above video clip from the inimitable Bill Burr is, "There's too much information in the world, and everybody misses just a little bit." It almost sounds like he was channeling Hayek, but more likely Burr was just taking stock of the fact that nobody knows everything.

I was thinking about this while travelling recently. It seems to me that, unless you really despise a place, no matter where you go, people have figured out a way to live well. I love coffee breaks in Canada, live music in Texas, foreign food in New York City, fine dining in California, the outdoor running community in Colorado, the gym culture in Florida, and so on, and so forth. But as widely as I have traveled so far, I have not yet discovered a place that consistently got everything right.

This concept, accurate at an aggregate level, also sort of applies at an individual level. We all have acquaintances, friends, and family we admire, and they all live good lives, but everyone makes choices somewhat different from what we would do in the same situation. Still, some get it more right than others, and my closest friends tend to get "the most right" out of everyone I know. This shouldn't come as a surprise since friends tend to be people whose values are similar to our own.

Then, every now and then, a close friend makes a decision that calls this narrative into question. A friend might seem to be leading a close parallel life to your own, then suddenly take a 90-degree turn and veer off in a totally different direction. You might be inseparable work colleagues for years, until one of you suddenly decides to go back to school and/or change industries entirely. You might lifelong friends until the day one of you decides to go "find himself/herself," and ends up with a totally new circle of friends with which you have very little in common. Maybe the arrival of a newborn child or a cataclysmic life-change sends your friend off into a previously unconsidered kind of life. Or perhaps you never really knew your friend as well as you thought you did.

If we're doing it right, life is a series of choices that get narrower and more satisfactory as we go. We start out as children with the whole world waiting for us, and then we slowly shape our lives with important decisions, until the array of additional, practical choices available to us is relatively small, but no one choice will completely upend us. Changing your college major from science to business can have consequences as far-reaching as which city you end up living in and what your lifetime income will be. But choosing between accepting a new promotion at work or moving to another nearby firm seldom results in a major lifestyle change. Deciding whether to do soccer or track when you're 13 might very well impact the kinds of activities your prefer for the rest of your life, but deciding whether or not to do that community 5K coming up is largely irrelevant.

Crucially, the more choices we make, the better we should get at making choices. Our goal in life should be to become happier and more satisfied, and large disruptions should only occur if they are acts of nature (as in the case of death, disease, etc.), or if they payoff is so large that it's worth the disruption (as in the case of taking a "dream job" offer and moving across the country or world).

It's not such a good thing if your life is full of twists and turns that result in a lot of false starts, drawing boards, or major catharses. Over time, the volatility should tend to disappear as we transition from major to minor life decisions.

My point here is that if you find yourself leading the kind of life that involves persistent major drama, or constant and drastic change, or hopping from one thing to the next, always reinventing yourself, then you may want to consider your level of knowledge. Most of us are pretty wise, but it's better to have deep knowledge about your own life than it is to have broad knowledge about life-in-general.

So, as you aim for happiness, aim for wisdom, and as you aim for wisdom, aim for depth rather than breadth. Consider large increases in the breadth of your knowledge a sign that you may need to double-down on depth.