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How to Find Direction in Life

··802 words·4 mins

Dear Adam (pseudonym),

Life is messy, isn’t it? I wouldn’t call it a glorious mess; although it can be. Most of the time we operate under uncertain conditions and with imperfect information. Somehow we manage to get things done.

The heart leads. Wisdom (the mind) rules.

Emotions organize rational thinking.

What you value is a reflection of how you feel about things.

Where to go depends on what you value; to discover what you value you must tune into what you’re feeling.

Think of life as the ocean you float in.

Are you adrift on a log or on a boat?

If you don’t know what you value you’ll stay adrift on a log of unknown size and shape.

Your values give shape to your boat. What type of boat are you building? A sailboat? A yacht? Your values determine the type of boat you find yourself on.

The people you surround yourself with determine the size of your boat. Do you want a mega-yacht or a small sailboat? Choose your people wisely.

The strength of your relationships determine how likely your boat is to capsize when life’s waters get rough. Size isn’t everything; remember, the Titanic sank.

Pick the wrong friends and they’ll poison your true values, maybe even corrupt them permanently. You don’t want a boat full of structural weaknesses that could cause a leakage and potentially make the boat sink.

You need to reflect regularly on how you’re feeling and what those emotions tell you about what it is you value.

You could label them (e.g. health, freedom, education) but I find that people don’t feel compelled at all to act on labels, but rather on the stories we tell ourselves.

That is your first task.

Assign a (short) story to whatever it is you value. Then remind yourself of them as often as you need to. The boat metaphor works for me, but you may need to think of one yourself for it to stick.

A man who is master of himself can end a sorrow as easily as he can invent a pleasure. – Oscar Wilde

Task two is to learn how to steer the boat. Wilde called it self-mastery.

Values describe what is important to you; virtue, what is moral/good.

It’s only through living that you’ll learn how to live and find your way.

Nobody becomes a virtuous person by accident.

This is what it means to steer your boat; you align how you feel (i.e. what you value) with what it is you do every day.

The real challenge is to do this under all circumstances (i.e. show you have integrity).

What does virtue look like?

Here’s an excerpt from my notes to give you a better idea of what you should be doing. I again encourage you to track what it is you value in the form of little stories.

After a while you’ll be able to reduce your stories to one-liners and immediately remember what you’re about.

Courage — life without courage is no life at all.

Patience — a patient mind is a resilient mind.

Moderation — he is free who has few desires.

Tenacity — stay the course under all circumstances.

Modesty — being modest eases relationship building.

Empathy — life is suffering, be kind to all.

Sincerity — living under perpetual pretense is tiring.

Silence — mind your tongue, it can wound another.

Cleanliness — don’t expect anyone to take you seriously looking like a slob.

What makes a value a virtue? Values live on a continuum. For instance, some mistake recklessness (vice) for courage (virtue). Monitor for extremes. Don’t rock the boat unnecessarily by taking on extreme views and ideals.

This is how you learn to pick your battles while navigating the sea. You will learn how to spot waves that might capsize you from afar and steer clear.

Even if you manage to build a strong boat and become a seafaring person you could still get unlucky and face waves no boat was built to handle.

Life is rife with tsunamis from which no man is safe.

Remember that.

It doesn’t matter how big and strong your boat is; the Titanic sank because it hit an iceberg. A tsunami would have made short work of the Titanic all the same.

And there’s no guarantee you’ll survive the hit; death hangs above you. If you do survive, boats can be rebuild, but each time it will look and feel different.

The way forward is to do things of increasing difficulty that show you you are worthy of your own trust while building healthy relationships and developing a deeper understanding of what it is you value.

Understand that very little in the world is under your control. Seek what is. Once you master yourself the oceans are for the taking.