“If you want to know your past, look into your present conditions. If you want to know your future, look into your present actions.” — Chinese Proverb
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” — Stephen Hawking
There are two subjects everyone should learn: science and psychology. Everything else should be learned on a need-to-know basis.
Science is the study of structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. It is done through observation and experiment.
Studying plants explain where our source of food comes from. Plants represent the beginning of the food chain. Without them, there wouldn’t be animals roaming around. Without plants and animals, we wouldn’t have any food.
Studying the human body explains its various purposes. Anatomy and physiology details how the muscles work. Endocrinology describes how our hormones function. Cellular biology provides us the knowledge to discover and combat diseases.
Studying astronomy gives you a sense of awe by the beauty and grandeur of the universe. The Milky Way is bigger than our brains can imagine. Light, travelling at 300,000 kilometers per second, takes 100,000 years to cross our galaxy. A Hubble Deep Field image indicates there are 240 billion galaxies in the visible universe. And SpaceX’s recent Falcon Heavy rocket launch - featuring Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and a dummy named “Starman” on a journey into the solar system - marked another huge milestone for humanity’s attempt towards space exploration. The colonization of Mars may just be a blink away.
Without science, we would’t be where we are today. But psychology? Let me explain.
Comparison is the Origin of Your Sorrow
Remember when you were a kid watching Tom and Jerry? The series seems to have a similar plot where a house cat (Tom) numerously attempts to capture a mouse (Jerry), and the mayhem and destruction that follows. Tom rarely succeeds in catching Jerry, mainly because of Jerry’s cleverness, cunning abilities, and luck.
However, there are several rare instances within the cartoons where Tom is able to capture Jerry. And in that moment, Tom displays two different characters - the red devilish bad cat who can’t wait to devour the mouse, or the white angelic compassionate one who is thinking about befriending Jerry. It’s the classic case of “good” versus “evil”, and apparently, psychologists claim these dualistic traits exist in all of us.
For simplicity, let’s call our evil character the saboteurs and our good character the sage. Saboteurs are the set of mind patterns that govern your every move. They automatically govern your beliefs, thoughts and behaviors, and they are steering you in the wrong direction - that is, you’re sabotaging yourself.
The sage is your infinite wisdom. It’s the good part of the equation. When your sage is activated, you’re operating from another part of your brain. It guides you to your deepest insight and helps you make good decisions. It is balanced and does not involve your ego.
I have a simple litmus test. I like to ask my students if they know what they are good at. Whatever their answers may be, I always follow that with: “How do you know?” From the looks on their faces either they thought I tied their brains in a knot, or some would over-confidently say: “Well, I got first place,” or something similar. Notice that the confused students didn’t let their egos take over, while the over-confident ones are egocentrically comparing themselves to others.
How else would you know you are good at something? You must have someone else to compare yourself to right? Wrong. I mentioned that someone who is good at a particular skill is recognized because of his or her effort in helping other people fulfilling their needs. In the process, this individual changed their lives. And this individual is recognized by someone other than himself.
So why do we compare? We compare because it is more interesting. Otherwise, we would get bored. Try observing yourself in front of the mirror for an hour, you’ll see what I mean. But when you’re watching other people’s lives through reality television, it gets interesting. You could easily spend a whole day.
It is always interesting to look at others because they have what you don’t. They have the bigger house, prettier wife, more interesting drama, lavisher lifestyle, better vehicles. Meanwhile, you’re nothing more than the lousy average joe living his boring life. The grass is always greener on the other side remember?
Fortunately, our comparative behavior is not innate. Rather, it is taught. Through the ages we have been conditioned to compare. Our ancestors compete against each other to survive. And this behaviour continues to this day. Modern society does a very good job comparing one another in fields such as education, corporate, and sports.
Students are pigeonholed to compete and compare against others via tests and scores as the symbol of academic excellence and validation to attend famous schools and work in prestigious firms.
The structure of corporate laddering encourages employees to climb for higher positions and achieve better salary and benefits.
Professional athletes compete for the top podium and prize money - not to mention many have been caught cheating using performance enhancing substances. And if that is not sad enough, we acknowledge this form of competition as entertainment.
Of course, one may say: “Participating in sports is one way to discover someone’s talent.” Yes, I could not agree more, but talents and natural abilities should be fostered for compassionate causes, not for the purpose of personal fame and fortune. When you pursue a talent with compassion, your fame and fortune are merely the register of how many lives you’ve improved of your fellow human beings.
That’s not all. Comparative behavior can also be seen within communities and neighbors close to you.
Having lived in Shanghai for more than 6 years, I can’t miss the fact that housing prices here are extraordinarily expensive. A small 50 square meter one-bedroom apartment in the median scale neighborhood has a price tag of at least 6 million Chinese yuan. If you’re a family of three, you would need at least a two-bedroom. And the price would obviously be higher. This creates tension amongst individuals to own a piece of property before prices leap higher.
To earn the acknowledgement and prove they are more capable than others, people race purchasing these properties. Even without enough sufficient cash, they would take a huge amount of mortgage. So they end up paying most of their paychecks to the bank every month. That’s how they become someone who works 100 hours a week at the expense of seeing their children grow up. Not to mention the anxiety over job security haunts them every day. What’s worse, this behavior has become a culture. After all, everybody is doing the same thing, you shouldn’t be the one doing something different.
However, when one is capable of de-conditioning himself from the culture of society, and aims to think independently, there are numerous undervalued properties across the globe. Personally, I wouldn’t put my money here - even if I could afford one. But what I think doesn’t matter, because gluing to a home bias culture is much easier than thinking thoroughly and thoughtfully.
One may ask: “If there is no such comparison, how can we improve ourselves?” The answer is simple: focus on inner achievements.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus insists that our prime motivation should be inner achievements, not outer ones. We should strive having the right attitudes and values so we can flourish under any circumstances. He also emphasized that inner achievement lays the foundation for peace, tranquility, and personal freedom. And so he taught that true success comes from refocusing ourselves within.
“How?” you ask. Read on!
Recently, I’ve finished reading and rereading Ray Dalio’s new book, “Principles.”
This book is a keeper. I’ve added it to my books list on the website. This is more or less the contemporary version of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” which happens to be my favorite book of all time.
Ray Dalio is one of the top 100 richest people in the world. He’s worth more than $17 billion dollars. Even with that amount of wealth, he emphasized that money doesn’t make you happy. Chasing money is an endless unfulfilling goal and has no finish line. Now it would be one thing to hear that from someone who doesn’t have much - aka your author, but when someone like Ray Dalio speaks, we should listen.
Dalio is clear about his point of view, saying, “Having spent time with some of the richest, most powerful, most admired people in the world, as well as some of the poorest, most disadvantaged people in the most obscure corners of the globe, I can assure you that, beyond a basic level, there is no correlation between happiness levels and conventional marker of success.”
He also says that “even the richest people feel short of the money to do the things they want to do.”
The truth is, of course, happiness is largely subjective. It’s all of these things or none of these things. Personally - having gone through many of life’s ups and downs - for me, happiness is never about money. Happiness is a state. An internal bliss. The feeling of contentment. Of peace and tranquility. However I achieve them over a long and sustained period of time.
Unfortunately, this feeling alone is not enough for some people. So if happiness is not the issue, then what are they aspiring toward?
The answer: a life of meaning.
What is the purpose of life? From a biological standpoint, you can observe the natural world and see that all living things struggle to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation. But where do we find meaning psychologically?
For most of human history, men and women were too busy trying to survive to ponder the question. In the modern era, theologians have wrestled with the question. Philosophers and their students have tied themselves in knots over it. You can spend the rest of your days reading and soul searching and never find the answer. Why? Because the meaning of life is invented, not discovered. We each have a responsibility to determine what we are living for and invest our lives with meaning that we find significant.
When the weather is nice, and the air outside is not too bad, I usually commute to lectures on a mobike. And I don’t mindlessly simply go from point A to point B. I actually reflect as I pedal the crank. It is very meditative. On more than one occasion, I would ponder on “why I’m doing what I’m doing”. Is it about being satisfied that I’ve found what I wanted to do? Or about discovering something new?
I realized that it’s never about discovering my passion. It is actually about helping others with the given talent and skills. This process drives me to pursue a life of meaning. Health, meaningful work, and meaningful relationships are my primary goals. Everything I do is always for them.
The meaning of life is about searching for the marriage between who or what needs you the most AND who or what you need the most.
Everyone has their own uniqueness. Life is about finding what you are meant to do uniquely. What you are going to be amazingly good at is the thing that you are passionate about.
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking,” said American mythologist Joseph Campbell. “I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson has the right idea. He said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” As Robert Louis Stevenson observed, “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end in life.”