Your Unlived LifeBy Jorge Combe | Wed, 08/11/2021 - 09:02
"And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse"
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot
Time. We all believe there will be time. But it is not only time that we have running against us: we are also in a race against stamina, ideas and initiatives. I love stream of consciousness, as the most natural way of how we think and make decisions. T.S. Eliot expresses this perfectly in his poem, showing human nature as dubitative, insecure, roaming through multiple analyses and trying to make decisions. What happens to the poem's character through a dinner party is a parallelism of what happens in a lifetime to a person or to a company through its existence.
Our own brain boycotts our initiatives by making us overanalyze alternatives, challenge our own assumptions and finish in a circular trend of analysis, doubt and inaction. What better way to analyze a hypothesis than to make things and just see what happens? I do not believe I will have any regrets of the things I did, but of all the shots not made and the chances not taken.
Human nature and our own version of entropy tends toward mediocrity. Probably, we can add stagnation to Franklin's list of "certain" things in addition to taxes and death. It seems like the reversion to the mean is not only multigenerational, but also that each of us is doomed to diminish our performance as we walk through life. Our life becomes short bursts of imagination, with sparks of creativity but subsequent long periods of stability and decline.
Becoming normal and mediocre is natural, as it is the path of least resistance. It's more difficult to live a contrarian life, operating on the edges, and instead accept the world the way it is and become resigned to hurdles, problems and things not being smooth. In a fast-changing world where the speed of the treadmill is increasing, you need to walk fast just to keep pace. A recent study showed that between 1900 and 2012, average IQ rose close to 30 points, which means that the average person in 2012 had a higher IQ than 95 percent of the population in 1900. But similar to any measurement, mediocrity is relative, and it's best seen through the eyes of others and very difficult to self-reflect.
Corporations, similar to individuals, have the tendency to become mediocre and obsolete as they age. Customs and ways of doing business become a company’s biggest drag. People who are good enough not to be fired, but who make no change to the organization, grow and expand, accumulating years and becoming sacred but at the same time they are the source of their own doom. Employees start to settle into their comfort zone, committees start to flourish, formalities, paperwork, processes and approvals all lead to the same stagnation and mediocrity. This slowness becomes the biggest competitive advantage for startups (See book: The Innovator's Dilemma).
With individuals, something similar happens in their life. Higher salaries, ascending the corporate ladder and ever-growing expenditures create golden cuffs, keeping potential entrepreneurs from leaving their jobs, making them fearful of jumping ship and starting on their own.
Few things are sadder than lives not lived...
Sometimes, I want to believe we are in a multiverse. What we perceive as our own life is only one scenario and with each small decision, we create an infinite number of new potential roads with further ramifications. Javier Marias uses this thinking in his book, Dark Back of Time, exploring all the different outcomes that were not lived and did not happen and the potential outcomes and evolution that they could have had. Marias’ novel is a masterpiece of how reality so easily blurs into fiction and the transience, chance and fragility of life, speculating about what could have become of his own brother who died as a child. We do not need to go to this extreme and think about the dead, when our own life is flowing like water between our fingers without us taking action.
Humans tend to live long cycles and a circular life. Long cycles are decisions you took when you were young: where to live, what to study and who to marry. These will have long-term consequences in terms of your optionality. We get trapped into long-term cycles that limit our optionality and impede our decision-making process. The circular life is our brain becoming a judge of our perceived reality and our ego. Many of these judgements and our ego-formation happened many years ago; we live trying to please our ego, our insecurities, false sets of beliefs, symbols, your parents, a schoolteacher or seeking acceptance in society because of a trauma or something that happened decades ago. Unconsciously, we make these decisions without understanding the underlying reason, until it becomes entrenched in our personality and way of thinking and unifies with our Self.
To live your life to its full potential and not to settle, I rely on the following six tactics:
Retrospective and self judgement: Know yourself and why you are making any decision. Who are you trying to please? What are you trying to show and to whom?
Don’t take life to seriously: What is the worst that could happen if you take a different path? Probably not much, and in some decades hence, no one will remember you or anything you did during your life on Earth.
Flow: Very few things equate to feeling connected with what you are doing and the performance that you can have in your field.
Beginners’ mind: To disrupt in an industry and a startup, it’s better not to have pre-conceived ideas of how it works and to start almost from scratch. Many of the most important disruptors were considered outsiders before they launched their product.
Have Fun: You need to do what you like. Few people will put in the energy if what they do feels like work.
Diversify and move out: Get involved in industries, initiatives and lessons that you like; it does not matter if it is related to what you are doing or not. To quote Steve Jobs: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Humans are born with impressive curiosity and we lose it as we grow. Somewhere and sometime, we are told to concur and to stop asking questions, which leads us by default to choose to live the most conservative life as part of their version of the multiverse. We do not explore the optionality we have in life because of the risk of being judged by others, risk of failure or being afraid of deceiving others or even ourselves. We delay painful decisions and change until one day we realize that by not taking any action the default decision was to age and live way below our potential. Most will not realize this until it is too late, as with Prufrock’s last line: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”