Life's Biggest Question: 3 Things I Got Wrong

"What do you want out of your life?" asked Randy, my former boss. The question caught me off guard. I was in my early 20s at the time. No one had ever asked me that point blank. It was a question that always lingered in the back of my mind but I'd find ways to distract myself from considering it too closely. Despite its existential nature, I muddled my way through a response:

"I want to inspire people on a large scale and create something lasting. I want to be remembered." -Me, Age 24

Four years later, I cringe at the flaws in my answer. But instead of viewing my younger self as a failure, I see the difference as an eagerness to learn, develop self-awareness, and discover what matters most. So what did I get wrong?

1) Lack of Direction

My answer demonstrated a complete lack of direction. How could I expect to inspire anyone without specifying the means of doing so? While I've never been one for neatly defined goals, I believe it is critical to establish a general sense of direction; one which leaves room for resourcefulness, a far more valuable trait than compulsive goal setting. But as things were, progress was impossible. Without knowing where I was aiming, I had no hope of negotiating the way forward. 

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”
— Seneca

It takes time to figure out what's important to you, but figure it out. I spent most of my 20s refusing to make up my mind. I wanted to be everything and was unwilling to compromise. I stumbled from opportunity to opportunity based on the privileges I was born into. But the reality is that you have to determine what you value most, and that requires tradeoffs. You can't have it all.

Without identifying what's important to you and what you should dedicate your time to, you'll find yourself torn in a dozen different directions, floundering in a pool of half-realized dreams. Figure out what you want, why you want it, then put one foot in front of the other. 

2) Beyond My Control

The second flaw in my answer was that it fell outside of my immediate influence. Beyond a certain point, I cannot control whether what I do inspires others or the volume of people that I reach. Defining my purpose by fortune and outside opinion, uncontrollable external factors, is irrational. It means empowering something outside of my reasoned choice to dictate my peace of mind and wellbeing.

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do.
Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.
Sanity means tying it to your own actions.
— Marcus Aurelius

You can prepare yourself to take advantage of opportunitiespursue what comes from a place of inspiration, and ensure the quality of your work. You cannot control how your work is perceived, interpreted, or praised. You should only define progress by what's within your influence and reasoned choice.

If fortune is on your side, momentum will carry your efforts to the next level. But if you never achieve "large scale" or inspire the entire world, it doesn't mean you've failed. You must start small. Even if you're unable to reach more than a handful of people, dedicating uninterrupted time to better yourself, your craft, and the lives of those around you, is a noble endeavor.

3) Mirage of Immortality

The final flaw: I will not be remembered. There's no way to rationalize this part of my answer. If fame and the hope of keeping my name alive after I'm gone are what motivate me, I am pursuing an impossibility. There isn't a single person who has stood the test of time. And what's the point? Even if my reputation outlives me, I won't be around to reap any of the benefits. 

The hope of creating something lasting defies our very nature. We exist in a constant state of motion. But impermanence is the very thing that makes life so precious.

The goal is not to create something lasting. The goal is to create what inspires you and use it as an opportunity to better yourself and the lives of those around you, in the brief time that you have.

There are entire civilizations that we remember now with just one or two words like ‘Sumerian’ or ‘Mayan.’ Do you know any Sumerians or Mayans? Do you hold any of them in high regard or esteem? Have they outlived their natural lifespan somehow? No.
— Naval Ravikant

It might sound like a downer if you're consumed by the idea of leaving your mark on this world, but every imprint is swept away with time. There's no need to waste energy concerning yourself with how you'll be remembered, because you won't be. But this should be empowering. Once you accept your impermanence, you'll free yourself to appreciate the present moment and pursue more of what makes you feel alive.

The cumulative effect of each of these hard-won realizations is significant. It's productive to look back and reassess. You should take issue with answers to big questions from your younger self. It means you're learning, growing, and embracing the constant state of motion that defines life. There's no reason to be disheartened by the past. Life is about becoming the best version of yourself. It starts with negotiating what you want out of life, objectively assessing your motivations, and adjusting the lens through which you view the world.