I believe that it's
very important in life to set oneself on a good path. A good path isn't a
guarantee of success and happiness, but it does minimize the potential for
For example, I
believe that most children should set themselves on a scholastic path that
trends toward college. This is not because I think college is right for
everyone, but rather the fact that the toward-college path will generally tend
to set a person's life up for either
college or not-college. The not-college
path only sets a person up for not-college.
Another example is
drug use. I believe most people should put themselves on a path toward
eschewing recreational drugs. I don't think mild experimentation will ruin a
person's life, but the pitfalls of drug use are well-known and well-documented.
While some people are able to escape from youthful experimentation relatively
unscathed, the overwhelming majority of people will be set up best in life if
they steer away from drug use. This will also tend to keep them away from
criminal communities and dangerous outsiders that could influence them in other
These two examples
are relatively obvious, but there are lower-level gradients of these same
examples that I also think are life-enhancing.
toward-college example, I think people - no matter who they are - ought to put
themselves on pro-knowledge or pro-curiosity life paths rather than on
anti-intellectual paths. One need not be a genius or an academic to appreciate
the fact that more knowledge is better, and even a plumber will have a more
successful life if he learns comparatively more than his peers, and always
demonstrates curiosity and a thirst for knowing more.
And, to the
anti-drug-use example, I think people would be better served to avoid
"beer culture," "cigar culture," "vaping
culture," "barbecue/meat smoking culture" and so on. This is not
because I think those things are gateways to additional drug use, but because
communities that enthuse about unhealthy activities will tend to make a
person's overall health worse. By contrast, it is well-documented that people
who hang around physically fit friends with good diets tend to adopt those same
healthy habits themselves.
I hasten to add that
it is entirely possible to have a good life even if you aren't particularly
curious about the world, even if you love to brew your own beer at home, even
if you put bacon on everything, even if you enjoy the occasional cigar, etc. You
can have a good life under many different circumstances. My point isn't that
such things are impossible, my point is that people should generally stick to
positive paths if they want to have a generally positive life.
Our lives tend to
become whatever it is we surround ourselves with. If we surround ourselves with
good, honest people, our social groups will tend to become good and honest. We
might even become more good and honest ourselves. Surrounding ourselves with dishonest
criminals, casual drug dealers, unhealthy or uncurious people, and so on is of
course no guarantee that we ourselves will become worse. But the risk is
obviously higher for those who surround themselves with bad things than it is
for those who surround themselves with good things.
Now, you might
disagree with me about which specific things are good and bad. That's fair.
It's not so important to me that we agree on the list of good and bad as it is
that you come up with your own list, and set yourself on a path toward more of
what you consider good and less of what you consider bad. Whatever things end
up on your "good" list, steering yourself toward those things will
tend to make you happier and more fulfilled in life.
I occasionally see
friends and acquaintances who deliberately set themselves on bad paths. In
time, it becomes obvious that they're dissatisfied with their lives, but they
never make an effort to change their life paths. This is bewildering to me and,
from a friend's perspective, more than a little frustrating. The friends who
spent a lot of time at clubs and raves had mental and physical health problems
later. The friends who chose highly unfocused and idiosyncratic career paths -
stints at the Peace Corps, stints teaching English in faraway lands, long and
winding paths to eventual college degrees, and so on - are all now saddled with
debt, living in small apartments, and wondering what to do with their lives.
The friends who never took care of their health are all predictably overweight,
and unhappy about it. Those who delayed marriage and children until later in
life have struggled to find good people with whom to build a later life. And,
indeed, those who rushed into marriage and children too early have experienced
broken marriages and poor relationships with their children.
In hindsight, it is
all very predictable. Anyone could have expected that too much of Thing A would
put a person at risk of Unsatisfactory Life Outcome B. I'm not gloating over
their poor choices, and that isn't the point. The simple fact of the matter is
that it's easy to expect a certain kind of outcome if you set your life on a
particular path. When I see my younger friends setting themselves up for
lonely, unhealthy, or financially difficult lives, I try to subtly and
inoffensively nudge them marginally toward a better path. But their problem is
not insufficiently good influence. Their problem is that, in the moment, they
think they will be the exceptions.
In the moment,
everyone thinks that their own personal bad choices are inconsequential and
that they have plenty of time to reverse them later on. And, indeed, life is
long enough that we can all afford to make a few really bad decisions and
recover later on. But, on the one hand, why plan your life such that you'll
have something to have to recover from? And, on the other hand, you're going to
have to set yourself on a good life path eventually, so why not now?
In the end, I think
a lot of this has to do with having a sense of personal "restraint,"
or what Aristotle called the virtue of "Temperance." When we achieve
independent adulthood, it's tempting to set out to do almost literally whatever you want to. It's a natural
inclination, a fully understandable feeling. But having a sense of temperance
or restraint means that you can think of a few good reasons why you wouldn't
want to just go for it, whatever it is. Our decisions ought to be mindful of
the risks and consequences. Some of what we might choose to do is worth the
risk. And, indeed, if we set ourselves on a broadly good and constructive life
path, we'll even be able to afford a divergence now and again. Healthy bodies
recover quickly. Treating romantic partners with kindness and respect will
result in a string of fulfilling relationships, even if they aren't all
successful; eventually, one will be. Pursing knowledge and opportunity where
you find it will get you far enough ahead that you can take a risky career move
or two in pursuit of something great.
But all of that
depends on a person's conscious decision to set out on a good life path to
begin with. If you decide from an early age to live life in the fast lane, by
the time you're 30 or 40 years old, you won't be able to afford to make too
many mistakes. If you instead take the time to build a strong foundation for
your life, you'll never have too far to fall, and you'll usually land on your