Who am I? What’s my purpose? What should I do with my life? What makes me come alive and dance to the tunes of cosmic manifestation? Will I ever get out of a bathtub and run around the streets naked screaming Eureka? Chances are you ask yourself some variation of the above questions at regular intervals. And chances are you think everyone except you has found the answer.
The questions are great. They show that you are constantly challenging yourself. Or that you are getting drunk a lot. Either way, they provoke a sense of thoughtfulness and self-reflection. But, that’s not why you ask the question. You ask because you need an answer. Like, Now! Setting aside the fact that we ask ourselves these questions mostly during the 5th hour of a dead five-hour meeting at work, there’s a larger underlying idea behind this questioning:
Life is short.
Without going into the morbid aspects behind the idea, we want an answer Now so that we can start work immediately. When we don’t find the answer, we remind ourselves how life is short and there’s only so much time you can spend staring at your own navel. That’s the paradox within this idea: you need an answer because life is short, but since life is short, you can’t spend all of it trying to answer one question. So, you do something – anything and hope to find the answer somewhere along the way.
A lot of people are not fans of these questions. They believe this whole idea of passion and purpose is exaggerated and hinders more than help. But, that doesn’t take away the fact that life is short and you would like to get something done, preferably something you like at least half the time. Here’s when something else kicks in: Even after you discover a grand purpose, the questions will come back seeking approval. Because life is — still short.
“Does it really make sense to spend 4 hours staring at a blank page trying to come up with an idea to write about, and 4 hours next day writing something, another 4 hours the next day trying to make sense of the writing, and then reading it the next day and hating oneself and deleting the entire thing?” Isn’t life short for that?
The preoccupation with writing doesn’t mean I have found a passion or purpose. It doesn’t mean I don’t type the words “is this what I want to do with my life?” as I stare at the blank page. It only means there are a handful of things life is short for and defining those things leaves me with no choice other than the blank page and a few other things like travel and needlessly long walks.
There is no one purpose. Only answers to the questions. An important question to ask is: What is life short for?
Life is short, sure. But what is life short for? The twelve-hour movie marathon? Attending every wedding you have been invited to? Netflix? Status updates? Waiting in line for twelve hours to get the new iPhone? Arguing with the Pizza delivery guy about him being three and a half minutes late hoping to get a free Pizza?
Staring at the blank page for four hours? I am not saying any of this is necessarily bad or useless. I am only saying you need to look at your options and ask which of these your life is short for. If Netflix and knowing what your friends are up to are important and give you a much-needed reprieve, go ahead and vent your anger about the crappy ending to How I Met Your Mother.
Finding clues to this answer is hard. At first, everything will seem important. Then, you will eat that free Pizza during your third movie of the day and feel terrible and slowly, eventually, you will have a handful of things in the life is short for this bucket.
How is this any different from knowing your priorities or saying no? Priority, like purpose a loopy paradox that you can never seem to get a firm grip on. Because the truth is they constantly change and we aren’t ever quite sure if we have the order right. Knowing life is short for a certain number of things leaves you with fewer things to prioritize. And it’s easier to say No when the fact that you aren’t going to go on forever is one of the options. Scary, but helpful.
Every question has more than one answer. The purpose question in particular. Your clues will never lead to a single answer. They will lead you into a dark endless path of unknown-ness. Knowing what your life is short for is a little flicker on that path. It’s the smallest hope that could keep you going.
I could have just pasted a link to Paul Graham’s fantastic, Life is short essay and left it at that. I refrain from writing about ideas that have been explained far better by someone else. PG’s essay helped me rework my first draft from Why life is short to What life is short for.