I, like many others, want to save the world… to some approximation. One person probably cannot and certainly should not save the world on their own. Nevertheless, the urge is there and I hardly feel like I’m doing much to act on it. It doesn’t seem like things are any better for my efforts, how can I do more?
It has taken time and patience to find even basic answers to questions like these. I wrestled with my perspective for years trying to find a way for my interests and creative projects to make things better. Today, while I do think art changes the world for the better, I have a more satisfying stance.
We must accept that the most significant contribution that most of us can make to the world is to live a life we believe to be exemplary. That is to say, aiming to create and live by a set of principles that, when also practiced by others, would move the world towards a “better” state (the definition of “better” is left as an exercise to the reader).
In terms of a life lived to its fullest potential there are some pieces missing from this goal, namely, any mention of happiness. This is what is offputting at first about the idea of the examined life. It’s a lot of work, discipline and not a lot of fun analysing your life in exacting detail, right? Is there some way in which living by principle relates to happiness? Yes, as we’ll see, and I’ll try and illustrate the relationship with a whirlwind tour of my thoughts.
First let’s stop calling it happiness, our aspirations are better thought of as contentment. Euphoria is pretty nice but contentment wins over a lifetime, a stable base to adventure from is more valuable than a single adventure. When we aim for contentment, we aim to live at peace. At peace with our circumstances, with our society and with the universe as we understand it.
But how do we find peace? It’s a bit of a trick question, peace is always at hand, but bare with me. It can be challenging to define peace except via a description of absence, so that’s what we’ll do: peace is effortlessness. Or, as the Taoists or Zen monks might say, peace is effortlessness in motion (see wu wei).
New questions then, how can one act effortlessly? Where do we spend our effort? It turns out we spend a great deal of effort making choices. So, in turn, reducing the number of choices we make reduces the effort, aka the ”cognitive load”, of life. Great. So how can we remove choices? I see two different vectors here. The first is simply essentialism: do a few things, do them very well, do nothing else. The second is the topic of this post: systems. In this context a system is a predefined set of rules we can follow to automate a decision.
Systems allow us to save mental energy. We compute a set of rules using our “cognitive” mind and then use them as a lookup table for our “autonomous” mind. In fact it sounds a whole lot like a habit when you put it this way. Habits are old news for most of us, but how many of us take full control of them? Seems like I’m about to argue that good habits can save the world. Wait, before we jump the gun, how can we ensure our systems actually become habits in the first place?
Given my background in software engineering my approach to systems design hinges on simplicity. Complex systems are not only ineffective, they’re often impossible to maintain. Of course, as any engineer knows, most systems actually start out simple. We have a natural eye for simplicity but as any system expands and connects to others it begins to accumulate cruft.
Luckily, there is a tool at our disposal to take care of this: mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to step back, evaluate and re-architect our systems with renewed perspective. This is quite literally the examining in the examined life. Are we even following our systems? Are they serving us? Do they need to be updated? Removed? Combined? The perks of designing systems are obvious when you give it time, the benefits compound over years.
Somewhat confusingly, this kind of contemplation can bring you peace. I doubt you feel your best when struggling to make a decision. No, instead, we are at peace when we already know what to do, when there’s nothing to think about. Remember that contentment is immersion in the present. However we must not aim for thoughtlessness, there’s nothing wrong with choice or thought. We must only be aware of them and manipulate both as further variables in the equation of life.
We may approach these systems through a seemingly-selfish lens, that of automating our problems away, but with a little mindfulness, compassion and wisdom we can reach surprisingly far. This is what we mean when we say to live by principle. These words I use—systems, principles, habits—are all pointing at something more fundamental about life. Everything around us is a system, whether intentionally designed or not. One can use their command of perspective, cultivated through mindfulness, to step back, take stock and consider how they can improve things. Systems are sticky and they spread, if your systems work well then others will adopt them. Suddenly we’re not so alone in our attempts.
So, this is often the best we can do when it comes to saving the world, build systems into our lives that improve things for ourselves, those around us and perhaps those we will never meet.