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On staring at the abyss and figuring out how to spend our time on earth (Part I)
I didn’t expect to ever write a life advice-y piece here, and especially not this soon in the overall lifespan of this newsletter. But if my wiser readers may indulge me for a minute and hold back their eye rolls, here goes: even though I am usually adept at ignoring my birthdays entirely, turning 25 this year felt quite daunting. My toxic trait is that I am morbidly afraid of the passage of time, a theme that has plagued my writing for a while. On my 25th I fell down several successive spirals reflecting on the first seven years of my adult life whose chapters have been demarcated by moving around the world for college, the Trump and Modi administrations, the pandemic and accompanying trauma, and changes in interests and career choices. This fall, tomorrow, I will be starting graduate school.I’ve thus found myself thinking a lot about how I made the choices I made over the last seven years and what kinds of choices I want to make in the next three, five, and ten.
My journey through these choices has been supported by people much wiser than me, and I hope this piece will serve as a synthesis of what I have learnt from them. I have also tried to pay it forward where I can (feel free to share this link with anyone who might benefit). Over the last three years, I’ve spoken to more than a hundred college students or early career professionals. These conversations yield common themes, in both the questions I am asked and the answers I find myself sharing.
I recently wrote up my reflections on applying to graduate school. That document felt too niche to share on this Substack (but feel free to reach out if it might help you) but I enjoyed the exercise of verbalising instincts that now seem very clear to me. This post is an attempt at doing the same for the much broader question of ‘how should I live my life,’ especially as I navigate my own life changes. Some of the impetus for writing this came from Ben Kuhn’s post about the importance of “staring into the abyss,” which he defines as “thinking reasonably about things that are uncomfortable to contemplate.”This self-help post is an exercise in self help for me, as a final act of staring at the abyss before I start a new chapter in my life.
The post will be delivered to your inbox in two parts–the first (today’s) focusses on some values and principles that drive most of my practical decision making and the second (to be written at some point in the indefinite future) will delve into these practical choices themselves, mostly from an early-career perspective.
This kind of writing is not my forte and my creative non-fiction tricks from ENGL 120 won’t apply here–I can’t use multi-sentence descriptions of the texture of grass ground the scene when I am considering more abstract ideas. And so, the writing might seem a little more stilted and dryer than usual. Please bear with me.
As always, this is a snapshot of my current thinking, which will inevitably evolve. Over the last few months I have learnt to make my peace with the abundant lack of finality in life through an essay by Oliver Burkeman, titled “What if you never sort your life out?” He writes:
I think virtually everyone, except perhaps the very Zen or very old, goes through life haunted to some degree by the feeling that this isn't quite the real thing, not just yet–that soon enough, we'll get everything in working order, get organised, get our personal issues resolved, but that till then we're living what the great Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz called the "provisional life."
It turns out my really big problem was thinking I might one day get rid of all my problems, when the truth is that there's no escaping the mucky, malodorous compost-heap of this reality. Which is OK, actually. Compost is the stuff that helps things grow.
I know that much of what I have written here will change and most of these questions will stay with me till the very end (and it’s morbidly gratifying to see older, wiser people grappling with the same questions too). I’ve been trying to find peace in the idea that pondering the same questions for a lifetime isn’t futile, as long as the quest for answers helps me keep growing.
Thirty-year old Surbhi might look back and repudiate everything noted here. That is a risk you are accepting by choosing to read further.
For a long time growing up (and in college), I scoffed at self-helpy and values-based writing. I used to think people offer platitudes when they can’t offer concrete knowledge or skills. This is true in some contexts (see VC-bros on Twitter), but I have found extraordinary growth in thinking deeply about my values and the principles that underlie my choices. I imbibed some of these unwittingly, as a product of my societal context, and others through reflection over time. This is a broad list of some ideas that have brought structure to the listlessness that otherwise plagued the early months of my post-college life, when all of a sudden there were no exams to take and no playbook to abide by.
A lot of our version zero visions of what it means to ‘lead a good life’ are a function of what we see around us–our family’s expectations, our role models growing up, the value society places on certain kinds of ‘achievements’ and so on. Over the last few years I have tried to iterate on this vision regularly to include values that are more intrinsic to me and my assessment of the world (e.g., do I really care about making a lot of money if I lose ownership over my time?).
Exercising my agency and taking ownership of my decisions has been both incredibly scary and incredibly important. All of a sudden I can’t blame others or society for any shitty situation I might find myself in the future (and I most certainly will end up in shitty situations), but I can also proceed in peace knowing that I am being true to myself.
When I go against the grain, I also have to justify myself more to others. This is exhausting but also forces me to constantly interrogate my core values. If I am trying to make good decisions from first principles, I need to know where my biases are coming from. Deep interrogation requires stillness and space, which in turn forces me to take time for myself and step back from reams of to-do lists to think about the larger project of life itself.
Privilege and obligation
My recognition of my agency has been accompanied by a deeper realisation that even having this agency is a privilege. Most people in the world have most of their lives laid out for them the day they are born–because their circumstances leave no room for choice or because they are constrained by a lack of resources to even begin to think of alternate paths. Amartya Sen first laid this out in his book “Development as Freedom'' (which I’d strongly recommend to anyone remotely interested in societal well-being). This review summarises his thesis as:
Sen gives two reasons why freedom should be the primary element of development: first, the only acceptable evaluation of human progress is primarily and ultimately enhancement of freedom; second, the achievement of development is dependent on the free agency of people.
A lot of mainstream media coverage of modern day philanthropy involves some framing around the benevolence of the philanthrocapitalist. I don’t think doing good should be a choice for only the most benevolent among us. As a person who largely achieved anything she has by virtue of being born in the right place at the right time to the right family, it’s morally incumbent upon me to use my privilege to help more people around the world exercise their own agency. Here I am cautiously influenced by Peter Singer’s work on doing good, summarised by his ‘drowning child’ thought experiment. In a podcast interview he says:
We live in an affluent society where we often have considerably more than we need to meet all our basic needs, enjoy life, and make reasonable provision for the future. We also are living in a world in which there are millions of children who die each year from preventable causes and there are effective organisations that would gladly accept a donation from you that would increase their ability to save some of these children. So, if you’re not helping to save some of these children, then are you really all that different from the person who walks past the child in the pond?
Empirically stated, this obligation can be summarised in this chart:
If you are reading this, you are most likely in the top 15% of the global distribution and likely much higher after accounting for other non-monetary privileges.
Taking this obligation further, I also sometimes feel racked by guilt. These words from Larissa Macfarquhar's Strangers Drowning have stayed me with me for years:
When people heard that I was writing about do-gooders, many of them said, But aren't they mentally ill? An extreme sense of duty seems to many people to be a kind of disease—a masochistic need for self-punishment, perhaps, or a kind of depression that makes its sufferer feel unworthy of pleasure. Surely those who suffer from a disease like that must live dark, narrow lives, overcast by responsibility, forcing themselves always to think about the misery of others and to endure misery themselves. Surely they must be perpetually crouched in some dank office, bolting a bowl of reheated noodles before racing off to the next emergency.
In fact, some do-gooders are happy, some are not. The happy ones are happy for the same reasons any-one is happy—love, work, purpose. It's do-gooders' unhappiness that is different—a reaction not only to humiliation and lack of love and the other usual stuff, but also to knowing that the world is filled with mis-ery, and that most people don't really notice or care, and that, try as they might, they cannot do much about either of those things. What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on know-ing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is pur-chased with other people's joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.
I often hear similar push back that a world view seemingly ridden by guilt is unsustainable. This might be true and I can update you in a decade once I am thoroughly burnt out. However, consumerist society is also intent on helping us ignore this suffering. Blinders are handed out at every other storefront on Fifth Avenue and it’s relatively easy to become guilt-free through ignorance. I hold both my guilt for my unearned privilege and gratitude for having the ability to (hopefully) put it to good use.
Hope and cynicism
I am very intrigued by the literary trope of the misunderstood, brooding, cynical, usually-male, protagonist. I am guilty of liking these characters too, especially in their British-crime incarnations (content recommendations: Broadchurch, Slow Horses). When did cynicism become cool? Why do we like these characters who we probably wouldn’t want to be friends with?
I’ve also been guilty of being a cynic, especially using cynical comedic relief as a conversational crutch. I felt very seen when I read this in a John Green essay:
It feels like the only way to survive life is to cultivate an ironic detachment from it. If I can’t be happy, I at least want to be cool. When my brain is playing "What’s Even the Point", hope feels so flimsy and naïve—especially in the face of the endless outrages and horrors of human life. What kind of mouth-breathing jackass looks at the state of human experience and responds with anything other than nihilistic despair?
But of course the problem with despair is that it isn’t very productive. Like a replicating virus, all despair makes is more of itself. If playing "What’s Even the Point" made me a more committed advocate for justice or environmental protection, I’d be all for it. But the white light of despair instead renders me inert and apathetic.
My cynicism, however light-hearted, was also limiting the horizons of my imagination. It helped me absolve myself of responsibility because ‘the world sucks anyway what are we going to do about it’. It was an easy way of alleviating my guilt.
Especially over the past year, I’ve started trying to cultivate more hope in my thinking and it’s been a lot harder than cynicism ever felt.
Maria Popova describes this better than I could:
10. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lies dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.
‘Hope’ for me is continually working towards an improved vision of the world for the sake of it, with a wide ranging scope, from minor acts of care extended to strangers to more ambitious projects for infrastructural improvement. I recognize my own cosmic insignificance and don’t think there is anything I can singularly do to make an outsized impact. I don’t want to instrumentalize this hope only for its potential for impact. I only want it to fill my day-to-day acts with a presumption of goodwill from others and an intention for delivering the same from me.
And while I am trying to let go of my cynicism, I still hold fast to my scepticism, especially of forces incentivized to make me think a certain way to either exploit my labour or induce my consumption.
In thinking hopefully, I’ve also been able to expand my horizons on what I deem possible in the world. A lot of societal structures we take as given today–the nation-state, capitalism, atomized families–did not exist two or three centuries ago. Capitalist structures in particular bias towards a presumption of selfishness, greed, and non-cooperation–values that I perceived to be all pervasive and which undergirded my cynicism.
My college education taught me how to look at history and assess the present in light of it. I wish it had helped me also envision hopeful futures informed by our past. What if we stopped judging individuals on their ability to accumulate wealth? What if we stopped expecting mere ownership of capital to give us exponential returns? What if we truly started treating animals with moral consideration?
I’ll admit that so far this utopian thinking has largely been an intellectual exercise. It’s fun to think about (just as it is fun to read science fiction and fantasy) and holds some lessons for more present-day, object-level considerations. But I can’t tell you what it would take to establish the moral importance of g > r and keep it that way. However, keeping utopianism in mind helps me stay more humble about whatever band-aidy intervention I am working on. It’s helpful to remember both that there are ravishing possibilities for a better world around us, but also that whatever I am doing can only help so much and there are radical but realisable futures out there.
Self-limiting beliefs and imposter syndrome
For most of my life I believed I couldn’t jog. I was never a particularly athletic child and my temperament makes me violently unsuitable for conventional sports coaching–PE teachers screaming at us to run harder invariably ensured that I’d give up right there. I also have a minor case of knocked knees and I had been told by various physical therapists to not put stress on my knees. This was advice I happily accepted because it gave me an excuse to not jog for most of my life.
However, at some point my inability to independently move myself from point A to B through any means other than an average walk started grating on me (I barely bike or drive). Last year, I lived next to the most beautiful jogging track in the world and I started jogging haltingly, expecting this to be another doomed exercise. I’ll skip the cliched couch potato to jogger arc but at some point things clicked and I actually started enjoying it.I don’t lay any claim to being a proficient jogger, but I can jog now.
Over a few months I was able to undo a self-limiting belief I had carried around for 25 years. I started wondering what other facets I have been inadvertently holding myself back on (and the list turned out to be fairly long). I am trying to not be my own worst enemy and identify such beliefs more proactively (ClearerThinking has helpful exercises for this).
During college, like most people around me, I suffered from a non-trivial amount of imposter syndrome. During consulting I realised most adults don’t know what they are doing either and my imposter syndrome went away. Most people are just playing out their best guess at any given time–internalising this idea made me both less critical of others and more generous with myself.
Inertia, risk appetite, and hedonic treadmills
A lot of my friends in typical elite, high-paying jobs often describe a feeling of being trapped. In general I empathise with these woes–it’s always hard to leave a stable path for uncertainty and most of these professions go out of their way to lay out that path, all you need to do is stay on it. However I am trying to recalibrate my understanding of my inertia and risk appetite. Like most readers of this Substack I am a relatively high-skilled worker and any ‘risk’ inherent to switching careers etc. is low (unless I go ahead and decide to be a pop star). I get more irritated when I regularly hear macroeconomics as an excuse for inertia–sure hiring might be slow now but you only need one job and it doesn’t hurt to start looking. Also, very few decisions in life are irreversible and the hedonic treadmill will keep you running unless you decide to get off it. Yes, your next job might not pay you high six figures, but it will hopefully help you grow in innumerable other ways. Psychologist Paul Bloom describes the importance of ‘chosen suffering’ to lead a fulfilling life. What are the hard things you want to do that will likely feel miserable in the moment, but will make your life better in the longer term?
How am I feeling about starting school? Honestly, terrible. Suffice it to say, Boston is not New York, the T is not the subway, and being a student is not the same as being a working professional.
Kuhn’s blog was one of the biggest inspirations behind starting this Substack. His post “You don’t need to work on hard problems” at least partially informed my decision to take up my current position, which can effectively be distilled as “sending money to more people in extreme poverty, faster,” hardly the sexiest job out there. I often marvel at all the “simple” but still unsolved problems that have the potential to make the world significantly better (basic infrastructure IT systems are a very pervasive example).
Maria Popova provides related advice on the importance of changing one’s mind: 1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
I actually remember exactly when it clicked–I was in Lilongwe for work and the hotel gym had a single treadmill with no speed control, once you set the speed and started, you were locked in for the run. After 30 minutes of painfully uniform running, I experienced my first ever runner’s high.