Finding Meaning


Examining life

I live with Daniel Lockyer, my housemate and my best friend.

We have a very healthy friendship - we help each other to grow. We challenge each other and try to improve, and don’t just dismiss crazy new ideas out of hand. Importantly, we talk about what we’re thinking and feeling. We talk about our hopes, about the future, about society. We talk about life.

We examine our lives and the lives of others and we try to experiment and change things to try to become happier or to find meaning or just to see what would happen. I think something that a lot of people don’t really stop to think about is that the standard way of doing things might not be the best way for you; and what works for your neighbour may not work for you. The termite would not feel comfortable living in an eagle’s nest.

Lockyer and I frequently challenge our own and each other’s beliefs and opinions. We reason about our beliefs and discuss exactly why we believe something to be true. It leaves you feeling lost and confused for a while, but I think it’s better than a life unexamined.

Lockyer and I in 2013 (We don't take many pictures) Lockyer and I in 2013
(We don’t take many pictures)

We’ve discussed and experienced so much together now that in some ways we exhibit traits of the other. When he first brought up minimalism to me I just didn’t get it at all, but now I’m reaching some of those conclusions independently (even if I haven’t fully acted on my compulsions yet). These days we regularly seem to have the same opinion about matters of life, even on topics that we haven’t explicitly discussed.

What makes me happy?

We’ve both tasted the freedom of working on our own projects, as well as experienced the routine of salaried employment. We’re still young, so we need to make a decision about which of these is most attractive to us.

Making your own thing? Investing in yourself? I feel it’s infinitely more rewarding than working to make somebody else’s dream happen. It’s more rewarding than creating something you don’t care about. When you need to, you can take some time for yourself, rather than being forced to come back every day.

We both totally reject the idea of salaried employment.

Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, I think back to my achievements; to the projects I worked on, the things I did. Bartos Flur. Polygraf. StreASM. My video game levels from my younger years. Thinking about these things just gives me a huge sense of pride and helps to reassure me of my worth.

A guy from Berlin even emailed me recently to ask about the Bartos Flur. Just knowing that this work I created was out there - that there is this real person I could connect with and talk to who had my product - it was an amazing feeling and I truly felt like I had made an impact on the world. It’s fulfilling to know that my name is stamped out on PCB plastic in homes or studios in different places in the world.

Lockyer and I both have these hopes and dreams about how we’re going to make a great product. Write a cool software application. Make some powerful tool or really useful service. I think that even if these products don’t get traction, they’re still a reflection of ourselves. They are manifestations of how we responded to stimulus. You can actually reflect on the decisions made when making these things.

In the same way that hearing a song you haven’t heard for a long time can remind you about a forgotten time, projects that you pour your soul into can do the same. They’re grounded in the time that they were made and have the attached energy and emotions of the person that you were when you made them.

I don’t feel like I would be able to reflect on the things I have done - my achievements - if I had done them as part of a huge team at a mega-corporation. My achievements wouldn’t be my own and I certainly wouldn’t have ownership of them. There’s no “I made this.” factor. Those corporate projects would probably have turned out pretty similar without your input.

I think its incredibly difficult to be able to find the time to make side projects whilst in salaried employment too. Your mind is naturally trying to solve the problems at work. You get so worn down by it that you just don’t feel like you have the energy anymore.

Building something interesting requires a surplus of time and money. Salaried jobs provide neither. Unless the job itself is your dream, stay the fuck away from them.
Rob Fitz, in How to screw up your life by getting promoted

So it’s obvious then?

If your mind works like mine does, just work on making your own projects? Find ways to monetizing your passions so that you don’t have to stop doing them?

Life is never that easy

Lockyer sometimes (okay, often) works with Pieter Levels.

Levels has been referred to as ‘The Nomad King’; he’s the guy who makes everyone want to ship stuff when he enters the room. He’s productive, full of energy, and with a growing list of great products behind him. And he’s very open about his issues.

This morning, Lockyer seemed quite different to his normal perky self. He told me he had been logged into the levels.io administrative panel and came across a private post that he’d never read or even known about before. We don’t know if it was once live, or if it was just some kind of brain dump for therapeutic reasons, but it’s from a time before Levels had made Nomadlist.

Levels left his native Amsterdam in early 2013 and travelled across Asia. He did it to reset his life; to move on and start a new chapter. He wasn’t happy with his life, despite being in a position where all his base needs were met. He needed change. He left for Asia.

I understand Levels’ feelings about needing change. When I first came to Southampton, it was one of the happiest and most productive times I have had in my life. I made lots of little tiny programs constantly and learned a lot. I cooked for every meal and experimented with cooking things I had never cooked before. I saw the opportunity in everything and I consumed the sights and sounds of my new city like a delicacy.

Everything was new. I never knew what to expect around the next corner. I still remember sitting on the bus on my first night in this new place, watching all the lights stream past the window. I had never lived in a city before.

"Night Rain" by Vladimir Agafonkin is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Night Rain” by Vladimir Agafonkin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Starting University - or, getting away from home - helped me to learn a lot about myself, as I’m sure leaving for Asia did for Levels.

Stupid Spending

When I first started at University, I had more cash than I’d ever had before and I went a little crazy for it.

For the first time, I could afford to buy my own things! Choose my own clothes! Express myself! I wanted to be unique. I bought expensive shit that I didn’t need; I felt like buying all these things would make me happy and improve my quality of life.

Gauntlets did not give me long-term happiness Gauntlets did not give me long-term happiness

A Realization

As it turns out, buying stuff does not make me happy, though it felt like it at the time. It definitely did not improve my quality of life. A week or more after buying something, I’d be thinking about whatever else I wanted to buy. And then the next thing.

Fancy jackets did not give me long-term happiness Fancy jackets did not give me long-term happiness

A year later, and you’ve accumulated all this shit that you once thought you’d care about, but none of it really brings you satisfaction, or maybe your style changes, or whatever, and you don’t want it anymore but you can’t bring yourself to throw it away because you know how expensive it is…!

I remember feeling the same thing as a kid too; I never really had disposable cash when I was growing up. I got what my parents chose to give me, and as I recall, other than Lego (which was my childhood passion), I didn’t really ask for much. Sometimes, my parents might give me a toy or a book or something and inevitably I’d lose interest in it compared to my computer or my Lego. I’d feel really guilty.

I’m quite lucky because for me this issue wasn’t very deeply rooted. I really don’t buy things as a way to bring me satisfaction now. I think the practice of buying-to-make-you-happy is so ingrained in most people (as they have been doing it since childhood) that they don’t stop to think about the futility of their actions.

People have become used to desiring material possessions; it’s normal to them. Healthy. They’ve been doing it their whole life and they just think that’s how it is. And these same people are going to constantly find themselves having spent all their money on stuff, chasing the carrot that continually moves away from them.

They’re going to spend their life wanting a bigger house with more things. When does it end? It’s craziness.

And to support all this, those same people work until their body literally gives up and they can’t work anymore. The average retirement age in the UK and US is around 65 years old, and it’s rising. Given that the average life expectancy is 80 years old, this is most of their life!

Many people are working for most of their life Many people are working for most of their life

People are spending most of their life doing work they hate, in an office surrounded by people that they don’t care about, working for a company they don’t feel connected to.

They can’t say what they want, they can’t wear what they want. Some of these people are doing things that are really unfulfilling. Like completing long forms. Or cleaning bathrooms. Or processing emails.

You work eight to whatever the hours a day, plus commuting, and then you’re like this:
**heavy breathing**
And that’s your life. That’s your real fucking life.
All that other stuff is not your life anymore. All that other stuff is work.
And most of us have committed to that.
Joe Rogan, in JRE #389, The Society Trap

Having to work extraordinarily hard to be able to purchase lots of things that only give fleeting happiness doesn’t seem like meaning to me. It’s a painful cycle, and it’s not very sustainable.

That said, the strategy of “change” that I described is not very sustainable either. Having to jet around the world to a new city or country just to achieve a high… You would become desensitised.

Needing to get any ‘fix’, be it material, or change, or chemical just implies that you have deeper problems in your life. It’s not how you find “meaning”.

So then what gives life meaning?

The post that Lockyer discovered this morning detailed some of the things that Levels was feeling after a few months in Asia. His travels and experiences were so revolutionary, so shocking, and so new to him that when he came home he felt completely and utterly disillusioned and disconnected from life.

Levels spoke about how he and the people he had met in Asia had become certain that their shared reality was some kind of dream or simulation or something. His travels had literally changed his brain to the point that it rejected his original life.

I also really identify with the feeling of disassociation when returning home, but not to any of the degree that Levels describes. The freedom I get from living independently is a hard thing to give back. When I go home, I feel like I don’t have my own zone and that I can’t quite get away. Everything seems to lack the colour and brightness that I get from my own independence.

I find Levels’ post deeply disturbing. It makes me feel quite unsure whether I know what is best for me. It made me remember that Levels already had a business and was already focussing on himself and his passions, and yet he still felt unfulfilled. I can relate to many of the issues and experiences that Levels has talked about on his blog, so I can only conclude that one day I might possibly have the same problem, and that’s terrifying - will I be helping myself become happy, or will I just be screwing up my brain?

It’s possible, of course, that in 2013 something else in his life was lacking.

Mindfulness

For some people, Religion plays a big role in defining the meaning of life. An aspect common across religions is that time is taken for contemplation and reflection. Prayer, Meditation, Shabbat, Salah - these are all very similar.

I haven’t ever seen the value in religion myself. It’s not for me.

Recently though, I have become curious about meditation. Meditation must not necessarily be connected to religion. It is a practice that can help an individual to achieve a peaceful state of mind, and can be used to combat depression, anxiety, and stress.

I’m a strong believer in self-examination. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Perhaps trying to examine life in a more structured way (as with Meditation) could be beneficial. Meditation might help to put to rest old worries and fears.

Monks are typically at peace Monks are typically at peace

I think the real benefit of Meditation is that it brings you back to the moment. The injustices of the past, the uncertainties of the future, they all go. You focus on yourself. You focus on now.

Focus On The Now

With the delicate subject matter and other pressures in my life, this post has taken me some days to write. I have been meditating consistently for at least 30 minutes each day, sometimes up to an hour.

Thinking about this post made me realise some things that I hadn’t previously considered.

Meditation helped me delve deeper into what is bringing me happiness in the now.

I spent the last six months trying to maintain a positive mental state after my period of depression, and I’d say I have achieved it.

Most days, I don’t feel unhappy. Other days, I have a great time and really enjoy myself.

So what has been bringing me meaning in the past six months?

  • Self improvement

This one is obvious; I’ve been massively focussing on my health and I am feeling better for it. I’ve been running the parkrun regularly and keep getting that runner’s high.

I spend time at the gym and I love seeing the number drop on the scale.

  • Simple pleasures

Almost every day for the past 6 months, I have cooked for myself. I enjoy cooking. It’s a pleasure for me, especially when I create something that is both healthy and tasty.

  • Connection

Not something I’d truly realised (despite what the opening paragraphs here would indicate!), but the connection I feel to those I consider important really does bring meaning and value.

For example, living with Lockyer genuinely brings me happiness. We hang out all the time and we always joke about stuff. His laughter is infectious and he encourages me to improve.

I don’t need possessions or change to bring me happiness when those close to me already do.


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