0392 – life is precious

Life is precious. It’s the best thing we’ve got, as far as we know, and yet it’s unpredictable, volatile. We’re all still primarily trapped in our meatbags. We still need to pee and poop and stuff, and we still get cancer and hernias and arthritis and all sorts of nasty ailments. Everything breaks down and falls apart. So quality of life is really a precious, precious thing. The amount of time we have to do things that matter to us – to work on interesting challenges, explore our curiosity, spend time with friends and family, laugh heartily.

Reality doesn’t give a shit about us. [B] It’s cold, harsh, unforgiving. A meteor could hit the Earth tomorrow and wipe most of us out, or a supervolcano could fire. There are all sorts of extinction events.

For most of all of existence, life was about survival. Survival against the elements, survival against a harsh, cruel and random reality. Survival against predators, against harsh environments, against starvation and so on. I don’t want to say “the idea of fun was secondary”, because there’s a certain oversimplistic thing there– people who are struggling to survive still seem to want to have fun where they can, it provides them some sort of escape, sometimes some sort of dignity.

But the point is– we don’t have much dignity or security if our basic needs are not met. So we have to figure out how to meet those things in order to live a happy, fulfilling life. (Which is an end in itself, because life is limited and precious and should be enjoyed.)

In the context of civilization, we have to create things of economic value somehow– things that other people will exchange with us (we use this complex agreed upon mechanism called money). We make stuff that other people need or want, we get paid for it, we use the money to buy stuff that we need or want. That’s how we stay sheltered, clothed, fed when we’re not living off the land. (It gets more complex, of course– most of us buy shit that we don’t need, and have to work extra hard to pay for that. The needs vs. wants situation is simply another resource optimization problem. What do you actually want out of life? If you agree that life is precious and should be enjoyed, you should probably spend some time thinking about what you really want, and optimize for that instead of wasting precious resources on things that don’t matter to you.)

In highly complex, industrialized cities and civilizations and such– if you have Internet access, you’re probably living in it– you’re rarely making something by yourself. [1] You’re more often then not working as part of a team, which might in turn be a part of another team, which is part of a larger organization that produces something with the combined fruits of all your labors. [2] Whatever the case, doing work (or pretending to do so) takes up precious time and energy. Time and energy that you’d often prefer to be spending on other pursuits. [3]

By now we’ve gotten through a bunch of optimization problems already. A, figuring out what you really want out of this limited, precious life. B, figuring out how you’re going to afford it, typically by deciding what you’re going to produce that’s of economic value. Few people really take the trouble to figure this stuff out, and if you do, you’re heads-and-shoulders above everybody else. (But hey, life isn’t a competition. You do what’s best for you. Compare yourself against Yesterday You, not those around you.)

Once you’ve done that, then what?

To be continued in the next vomit.

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[1] Individual craftsmen are actually quite rare, although very remarkable. I personally think there’s a certain comfort and elegance to it, having a direct relationship between your labor and the fruits of your labor. If you carve stuff out of wood and then you sell that, and you use that to pay for the roof over your head and the food on your table, I think that’s a “pleasing life”, in the sense that it’s an elegant system. The problem is that you probably can’t make a lot of money from it, and you might struggle to make ends meet– especially if you live somewhere expensive. The “happier villagers” argument is also sort of dodgy– the villager is happy until he or his family members needs an operation that he cannot afford. I mean, sure, there might be villagers who over the course of their lifetimes lead better quality-years than the average cubicle worker, but you get the point.

[2] In a sufficiently large organization, it may not actually be necessary for your labor to translate into anything tangible that people actually use. For instance, it might be possible to work at a large advertising firm where you spend every month working on briefs that never actually make it to any client briefings, or if they do, never make it to any ads. You still draw a salary every month– the successful campaigns pay for the failed ones. A generous reading of the situation would be that you’re failing on behalf of the company, you can share your mistakes and lessons learned and your organization is better off for your failures. A more negative reading of the situation would be that you’re dead weight– the organization keeps you around possibly out of inertia– perhaps the cost of letting you go might somehow be higher than the cost of keeping you. This might seem weird to an individual, but organizations involves layers of communications, which have signals that might be ‘gamed’ for some periods of time. I don’t know, I’m not an expert on how organizations afford dead weight, and why they continue to carry that dead weight. It probably has some parallels with almost how all of us carry some sort of dead weight in our own lives. Being efficient is difficult. It’s painful. It doesn’t happen by itself– people have to work hard at it.

[3] Some people have their lives designed really well– they get pleasure and meaning and such out of producing the thing that other people want. This is where I think of individual craftsmen, and I think of highly successful business leaders, and I think of really satisfied parents and teachers and such. Considering all of the above context, it makes sense that we all ought to try and figure this out for ourselves. We all are going to need to produce something of economic value in order to live in society (ignoring those who own or control the means of production, and can afford to live off of the rent). If we’re going to spend the bulk of our time producing, we might as well produce stuff that simultaneously satisfies and fulfills us in the process of production. This is usually not an option for most people, but it’s a desirable end-state to put time and effort working towards. In the context of optimizing our own short little precious lives, because life should be enjoyed.

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