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reflections on how to approach another three decades

April 1, 2016

I'm about to turn thirty. This generally puts people in a pensive mood, folds their thoughts to a reflective bent and, soon, questions about the self, the future and other insecurities arise. But this is not a strange state of mind for me. Trained in philosophy, I'm used to constantly checking myself, forcing myself to face situations in a deeper sense and trying to understand what's beyond the particular in those interactions to perhaps gleam some partial truths that I can live by. And so today, instead of turning inward, I'll do the opposite, turn outward, and share some of the things I've come to believe are key for living a life that has both the certainty that a stability of character brings along with the ability to continue to evolve - intellectually, emotionally, spiritually - in the face of the world and your relative position to and in it. I want to emphasize that I don't mean this in the universal, omniscient way that advice is often given in; I'm feel far too unqualified to do that. Rather, I'd equate it more to weathered signposts along a lonely, sun-baked highway that give someone unfamiliar with the territory a rough idea of where some sort of civilization can be found.

"I don't know."       There's something that feels inherently frail about saying - or worse - admitting this. Not only to someone else, but to ourselves. I would argue that that feeling of weakness has cultural roots and it is possible to overcome it with the understanding that not knowing is one of the most exciting things possible: it is the start of learning and inquiry about the world around you leading you down a path of greater understanding. And I don't mean this in some mystical sort of way but in that concrete manner where one can make a difficult decision based on thought processes that involve, as best we can define it, the real world. And, more importantly, it allows you to arm yourself with the conviction necessary to take responsibility for a bad decision and allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

Do it for yourself.        There are two types of rewards: intrinsic and extrinsic. The latter are things like money, fame, prestige, status, approval... the list goes on. And in the moment, they feel great. They affirm your hard work in the eyes and hand-claps of others. Unfortunately, all that affirmation will mean nothing if what you are doing is what you'd like to like, which are the type of things that one is generally led to when only striving for extrinsic rewards. Ultimately, these things are distractions - artefacts of our societies' obsession with productivity rather than presence of mind. Instead, aim to be thrilled about what you do when you get up in the morning; gratified and fulfilled before you go to bed at night. The deeper rewards, the self-fueled sense of accomplishment, the personal growth, etc., truly make life worth living day to day. In the face of adversity, only these things will carry you through with dignity and poise and only then will you truly understand that you cannot ever lose regardless of the hand life proverbially deals you: you can only succeed or learn more.

Open yourself to and for others.        It is infinitely easier to be a critic than celebrator. Whether its nature or nurture, it seems so easy for us to respond to a situation with negativity and how it could have been better. But there's a difference between true constructive criticism and tear-down criticism or frivolous praise. Take the time to remember that every exchange, with a person, a cultural artifact, a work of art, or a beginner's failed attempt, is a chance to understand and be understood in terms of who we believe ourselves to be and what we see as our place in the world. So take the time, then, to be generous - but not frivolous - with your words, your compliments, giving credit, and helping others with your expertise, and, therefore, your time.

Create quiet moments.        The human brain is a mysterious thing - for now. But one of the things we do know is that unconscious processing is an extremely important thing for the brain in terms of health, rest, problem solving, and the flow of creative ideas. So take the time to build moments of unproductive stillness into your day: go for a destinationless bike ride, daydream, allow yourself to be bored waiting for the bus, meditate, whatever it takes. Stop tackling life for a bit, ordering your mind to specific tasks, and let your mental problems shatter like a vase falling from a table might. You never know what new thoughts will arise as you look at the broken pieces on the floor through the eyes of unconscious experience.

Sleep and exercise.        I so often hear, around me, people bragging about how little sleep they got the night before. Bullshit, I say. Sleep affects our every waking moment. It dictates our social rhythms. It mediates our negative moods. What you're really saying to me, when you wear your lack of sleep as a badge of honour, is that you have a profound failure in your own self-respect and priorities. To hell with all the studies proving the benefits of sleep and ask yourself this: what could possibly be more important than your health and sanity? As for exercise - we all already know the score on that so I won't even bother mentioning it.

"Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time." - D. Millman        We live in a society that is enamoured with success and immediacy. I'm not sure how we got here: as recently as the Renaissance, people truly appreciated the process of and mastery itself as we can see in its appreciation of some of history's most prolific ploymaths. Today, however, we are slaves to the cult of the amateur and the myth that the bud, once planted, will overnight burst into the flower. We are uninterested in the process in-between, the gradual blossoming, in all its tedious manifestations. Somehow, we have forgotten that it is in that tedious process where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one's character. So when you start something worthwhile, be prepared to fight on all sides, but especially with time, for, as in all things, it is your greatest enemy and your best asset.

Temet nosce.        Most will know this aphorism from The Matrix; some from when their studies brushed with an introduction to philosophy. Either way, it holds: "know thyself." You are the custodian of your own integrity. Life is a struggle between who you are and who you wish to be. The first you may not have had control over; it may be the product of your environment, culture, whatever. But the second, you are the designer of. Listen to others, but, ultimately, gladly accept the responsibility for who you want to be and then strive to live as close to that model as possible. One day, you'll wake up and have the realization that the target must move, if you are to continue evolving, because you are now the person you wanted to be.

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