I just finished up a two week stint in Mexico, and despite worrying that it would be my last due to El Chapo’s minions, I made it home safely. I’m on the cusp of turning 30, so I thought it’d be worth writing about what I’ve been constantly thinking of in these last few weeks.
Lust vs Love
Traveling vs Settling
Goals vs Systems
Dreamers vs Realists
Life vs Death
Lust vs Love
I’ve been in three long term relationships since I was 18, but retrospectively, these relationships were more like pockets of monogamy within a general fabric of lust.
For me, lust wasn’t, and still isn’t, just satisfying sexual desire: it’s tied to external validation and, unfortunately, my own self-worth. It’s also been made more invasive because it’s very easy to remain single with the abundance of choice. As a case in point, I swiped right over the course of 30 minutes on my first night in Mexico City on Tinder. I woke up in the morning to 65 new matches of Hispanic girls. Extrapolate that to a few days, and you’ll see how choice quickly compounds.
There are entire communities of men dedicated to lust. Even one of my favorite authors, Mark Manson, used to have his own dating advice site and dating coach services.
It’s difficult because of how visceral attraction is: it’s an instinctual and energetic pull. It feels like truth. I wonder how many men in long term committed relationships still experience it with women they find attractive or if it ever fades.
I’ve met only one woman that was fine with having a long term casual sex relationship in my 20s, and that may have changed if I saw her more often. While sex comes first in the majority of our Western modern day courtships, my interactions with women have often progressed from casual to a point of monogamy via an implied ultimatum.
Many men in their 20s prioritize this attainment of multiple casual relationships, or at the very least, dating and getting “better” with women. Taking action on the desire of lust is very “here and now” – it’s not abstract, like pursuing financial freedom, nor does it require the long term delay of gratification. It still requires patience, practice, and skill, but the results are more immediate than other pursuits. No doubt many men also aspire for a long term monogamous relationship, but the first element of relational chemistry is that of lust.
I’m currently pondering opening myself up back to monogamy, but I’m filled with questions and uncertainty. What is the benefit of a committed relationship compared to being single? Is it possible to be single without being distracted by lust – without actively seeking casual relationships to satisfy the desire? Should I actively avoid monogamy or should I actively pursue it?
Many friends preach “let it happen,” but I also notice many men fall into relationships rather than choose them; as if their relationships happened passively rather than an active result of a decision – of choice.
Pushing 30, many of the women I knew from high school are married, and many of the men are also starting to settle down. For now, I’m simply asking myself questions, exploring the answers, and above all else, loosening lust’s grip on the more important areas of my life.
Traveling vs Settling Down
I’m blessed in the sense that I now have a remote job that allows me location-independence, but it did make a question that much more pressing to me. I can live anywhere in the world: where should I live?
You might rattle off locations of places you saw in Google Images (I sure did), but living somewhere requires an investment of time and energy. It’s not a travel trip, it’s working full time from somewhere new. And it begs the question: why move? If the move is just based on lust (looking at you Mexico), which I’ve already defined as low priority, then what’s left? I’m actually curious as I still don’t have the answer. I love the mountains in California, but there needs to be a lot lined up for a long term commitment.
For me, I chose the stability of a solid network of friends and family in the place I grew up – Atlanta and it’s surrounding areas. This is because of my priorities. I viewed stability as essential in progressing in my career, health, and hobbies. If another move would progress that forward, I might re-evaluate it.
For me, I want to travel, but I know that in doing so, I will have to sacrifice time and energy from other pursuits. I’ll have to spend time making new friends, learning new languages, figuring out my way around new cities – all awesome things, packed full of novelty, but in the context of a career and pursuits of passion – potentially distracting. I no longer view travel as an “escape” – a perspective shift, yes – but you carry yourself with you wherever you go.
I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go. ”
Goals vs Systems
I sometimes think of “Goals vs Systems” as “Event vs Process” to tie both of them together.
I notice that a lot of people (including myself) look off to a distant future “goal” (event) as the key to their happiness and work hard towards it – believing that eventually it will happen and then that will make them happy.
While I admire consistent action towards a goal, my butchering of ideal goal setting is as follows:
Step 1: A strong “why” behind the goal before its set
Step 2: A strong system behind the goal once its set
When I was 26, my goal was to “date multiple attractive women” – and I assumed the only problem with the goal was that it wasn’t specific enough. I didn’t have a “why” behind the goal, I told myself the “why” was obvious – desire. Nonetheless, I somewhat humorously turned it into a S.M.A.R.T. goal (“date 3 attractive women, seeing them each once per week, before the summer time”). Like all good goal setters, I even created a system behind it (how to approach, how to follow up etc.)
The irony is that I eventually did attain this goal and realized, as Buddha would have chuckled at, upon its achievement I still felt deeply dissatisfied with my life. If anything I felt MORE dissatisfied, because even though I was getting laid, the truth was laid bare: my career was non-existent, I was broke, and I was stuck in Japan.
On the plus side, I realized the power of writing down a goal and sticking to a daily system that led to its achievement – even if the goal itself was rather shitty and not well thought out.
The system is how all goals are achieved whether or not your focus is on it. To generalize Adams’ hypothesis a bit, it comes down to how you frame it. Losing 10 pounds is a bad goal; exercising every day isn’t. That’s because exercising every day is a system – a process – while losing 10 pounds is an event – a “goal.”
So for me, part of growing up is thinking differently about the future: specifically about goals. I think that framing a system as a “daily” S.M.A.R.T goal might help me live a more satisfying life while helping my mind makes sense of the semantics of the Goals vs Systems debate. This New Year will be the first time since my early 20s that I haven’t written down multiple goals to “check off” at the end of the year.
Dreamers vs Realists
To piggy back off of Goals vs Systems, one thing I’ve noticed in myself and a lot of men my age (and older) that alarms me is the persistence of delusional daydreams: goals you believe you’ll achieve, despite their attainment being objectively unrealistic. Think of the 45 year old server in Hollywood who has only starred in one commercial, but genuinely believes he will still be a movie star…he just needs that one big break.
To stray away from standard examples, I’ll dive in with three of my own personal examples…
#1 My old roommate bought thousands of dollars of video equipment to start his career as a cinematographer. He went to school for drama in university, and thought “enough is enough, I’m gonna do it” in his early 30s. He’s a very smart guy, but since buying all of the equipment years ago, he hasn’t completed anything. He hardly shoots. He’s now in his mid 30s and has not uploaded a single thing to YouTube.
#2 My former coworker believes he is destined to be the CEO of a start up one day. He’s constantly on Tech Crunch, reading entrepreneurial news, and thinking of business ideas. I even attempted to start a business with him, but his inability to invest the time required for it (and inability to admit it) caused me to pull the plug. He has two kids and a wife, has to commute and hour and a half to work every day (each way), and is in his early 40s. He’s a smart dude, and genuinely believes that circumstances will eventually “open up” to allow his dream to become a reality, and that when they do, then he’ll be able to create his start up.
#3 I have a friend who aspires to be a full time DJ – he more or less put his full time job on “maintenance” mode because he views it as temporary. He currently has a small following online and while he has over 10 years experience DJing, he has not had a high-ticket booking in years – in other words – not earning money from the craft. He struggles to find time to produce. He’s waiting for the right circumstances, to get more time. He’s 40.
I’m an optimist, and I believe that all of these individuals COULD achieve their dreams. However, I worry, as I worry about myself and my own dreams, that they are erring dangerously close to delusion.
The anchor of reality seems to have left them, and instead of trying and failing, they are simply floating adrift: thinking and dreaming. They aren’t taking enough (or sometimes any) action, and the excuses are always cliche. The truth is they are getting older, and this aging will continue whether or not “circumstances” and “spare time” treats them favorably.
Living one’s life believing you will achieve a goal without consistent action (and subsequent results to back it up) is living in a fantasy.
I learned this the hard way, with my own dream. Very similar to #3 above, I often fantasized about a similar scenario – earning my living full time as a DJ. I went through many years of putting in “passive” time – here and there I would work on music – perhaps on a weekend while recovering from a night of partying. It wasn’t until I both re-evaluated my goal of “being a famous DJ” and simultaneously made a system of commitment to the craft of music that I realized the distance between that dream and reality of my skill level. Accepting that I wasn’t where I thought I was, especially coming on 30, was – and has been – a reality check. I’ve put enough time and action in to know exactly that – the truth.
I notice dreamers hold on staunchly to “not giving up,” despite their actions speaking otherwise. While there’s certainly times to push through self doubt, it’s a risky balance beam.
“The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.”
― Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Giving up sucks because of sunk cost (lost time you can’t get back) for one, but beyond that and making it even harder to let go, is that it risks damaging one’s identity.
If you’ve told everyone you’re a photographer for the last 10 years, and then you stop taking photos altogether, what the hell do you call yourself? Identity should be based on action, right?
There’s a hefty dose of survival bias in our society today – we only hear of the ones that “made it.” The try-hards, and the phonies get lost in the depths of the past, despite their far greater proportion. Giving up is not the ultimate failure; consistently thinking of action instead of taking it is.
I still believe you (and I) – or almost anyone reading this blog – can shift their dreams to the plane of reality, but only if we ground ourselves with honest evaluation. I’m an optimist, and dare I say still a dreamer at heart, but I’m trying to root it not in affirmations or epiphanies or far off goals, but realism.
Life vs Death
While all the subjects at the beginning might seem somewhat disconnected, I think they all tie into what 30 means to me. Especially here. My Mom dying in 2015 was not a catalyst per se, but definitely opened up my mind and heart more to what really composes a “meaningful” life.
I often hear men talking about creating their legacy (Gary V rings that bell), but I can’t help but think of it as a fool’s game to pursue such a lofty endeavor. Like chasing fame, it eventually dissolves in the passing of time. Reading Stoic writers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius really touch on this more than I ever could, but to tie it back to everything I’ve written so far: to be on the road toward a dream or goal that you haven’t yet attained – what meaning does your life have in this moment right now? Is the meaning tied up in the completion of a future event? The fact that you’re striving towards a future event?
So many “events” happened in my Mom’s life…what defined her?
Does it really matter that I went to X, Y, and Z country? Or dated X number of women? Or wrote X number of books?
What’s the point in these “measures of achievement”? What’s the real barometer of success?
I recently read “When Breath Becomes Air”by Paul Kalanithi – who wrote the book after being diagnosed with Stage 4 Terminal Cancer in his last year of residency at the age of 36.
A young nurse, one I hadn’t met, poked her head in.
“The doctor will be in soon.”
And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.
Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
And separately, from the Stoic philosopher:
“Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… “
– Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
The irony of “turning 30” – it means so little and so much. It means I’m lucky to have made it this far – to have made it to 30 – and still be on this planet living and breathing. It’s not just a number. My body has its subtle signs of aging, even though this marker is still considered “youth.”
It begs the question: am I living a meaningful life? Have I already “lived” a meaningful life?
“If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses
I’m old enough to be called a man, but can I call myself one? Am I a person of values; values not subject to external ebbs and flows of fortune?
That’s what I aspire to be with any circumstances that might befall me in my 30s and my possible life beyond.
I’ll end this piece with a quote by Paul himself:
Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.
Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
Books I Read Recently:
All The Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Mark Manson
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams
Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday
On the Shortness of Life, Seneca
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi