On Setting A Proper Life Path

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 avoidable catastrophe.

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 unwanted ways.

These two examples are relatively obvious, but there are lower-level gradients of these same examples that I also think are life-enhancing.

To the 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 feet.

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