Our Few Years on Earth - Joe Abittan

Our Few Years on Earth

Human beings are not always good at planning for the long term, but in general, we do expect to have a long term. I know that in my own life I have always assumed I would live to be at least 100, though I know life expectancy in the United States is not 100 years old and though I know many people who have died in their 70s, 80s, or even much younger from accidents, rare diseases, or from other serious problems. We expect to have a long number of years ahead of us and can make investments to plan for that long future, but we should remember that it is never a guarantee. 


In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.” 


This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia, afraid that we might die at any moment. Instead it is a reminder that the long term plans we hope to live out might not come to pass. It is a reminder to make our lives what we want them to be today, rather than assuming that we have a long future to achieve our desired goals. 


The wrong response to the message is the modern day (though kinda dying out) idea of YOLO. The idea, “you only live once,” has been used to justify a lifestyle of partying, of short term thinking, and of extravagant opulence. It almost ignores all long term planning in focus of short term pleasure, but it doesn’t really help us to be ready for death as Seneca suggests. 


Another wrong response to the ideas from Seneca is to be overly ambitious and push too hard to for achievements. We don’t have to push our bodies to be perfect physical specimens today. We don’t have to push too hard for the C suit in corporate America before age 40. We don’t have to be ruthless in our pursuit of money, wealth, and things to show how successful we are today. That too doesn’t actually prepare us for death. 


What we should learn from Seneca is that it is important to plan ahead, but to remember that our plans may never have an opportunity to come to pass. We should make our lives meaningful and do things today that we can take pride in. This means building real and lasting relationships, focusing our daily lives on things that truly matter, so that if we depart today, we have been focusing in the right direction, and would be satisfied with where we leave the Earth. We cannot procrastinate and assume that we will eventually have time to do meaningful things in our lives. We can’t use our potentially short time to simply puff up our own ego. We have to pause, to  think about a meaningful life, and continually adjust our course so that we are living well, and ready to depart at any unfortunate moment.
The Second Value of Deep work

The Second Value of Deep Work

“The second reason that deep work is valuable,” writes Cal Newport in Deep Work, “is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless – which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.”


If you only produce shallow work, your work will never have a home. People will skip over you as they search for something more interesting. Shallow work cannot compete against cat gifs, well produced reports, and interesting perspectives on important topics. Shallow work steals people’s time, and people will recognize that and learn to turn away from sources of shallow work.


Deep work on the other hand is truly considerate and well formulated. It requires focus, attention, and an ability to connect ideas and points that are not obviously related at first. It provides value to people and rewards them for investing their time with your media, content, or production.


Because we have so much access to so many people through digital media, we no longer need to pursue a shallow work approach to gaining an audience. Our deep work can resonate with those who are truly connected to what we do or the topic at hand. We can provide high quality work for a smaller group and have a more committed following. The listener data from 80,000 Hours, who regularly produce high quality 2 to 4 hour long podcast interviews is evidence in favor of Newport’s deep work claims.


If we invest in our minds, work on our thinking and focus, and produce high quality work, we can reach an audience that matters. If we don’t pursue this strategy, if we try instead to shovel meaningless content into the faces of everyone we can, we might get some clicks, but few people will appreciate, learn, and return to what we produce. The attention we receive will be fleeting as we are passed over for things that are more valuable and important.

Compete with Yourself

On of the most difficult things to maintain in life seems to be a sense content with where we are. As we age we have new opportunities, move through different situations, and experience vast change. Throughout all of this we watch as our lives move in new directions, and as the lives of those around us move in new directions.  It is easy to feel accomplished when you achieve something, but that sense of accomplishment soon dies off, especially if you are comparing your accomplishments to those of your neighbors, peers, co-workers, and high school classmates.


In his book Considerations, author Colin Wright discusses our competition with others and the way we compare ourselves to those around us.  In Wright’s perspective, it is best to judge ourselves according to our own performance and standards. The author writes, “rather than the standards changing with the performance of my peers, the only person I’m competing with is myself. And so long as I continue to grow, I’m winning.” His perspective means that we do not have to achieve the same level of financial success, marital success, or career success as other people to still be successful.


When we focus on our personal growth we are building a sense of self-awareness. We have to focus on where we are now, where we used to be, and what areas we can improve. This self-awareness helps us identify the change we want to see, and allows us to focus in new directions that align with the right change.  When we lack this self-awareness and compare ourselves to the successes of others, we fail to understand ourselves and where we can grow, and instead we feel limited because we did not achieve the same results of others.


Knowing where we are now and praising ourselves for our growth takes pressure off ourselves to achieve things immediately. I would love a promotion at work, but my expectation is not that I will be promoted within any specific time frame. My expectations are that I will continue to grow and improve each day and that I will prepare myself so that when an opportunity does arise, I am ready. That may mean that I will not get the next promotion opportunity (I may even be passed over for the next few promotion opportunities) but it does mean that my performance will continue to improve.  As my performance improves I will be able to strengthen my work and expand new skills to new areas, and even without a promotion I will gain the respect of not just my colleagues, but of myself. The growth that I focus on and am proud of will be recognized by those around me.