The more I learn about the world the more confused I get.
I remember looking up at people in their mid-twenties when I was 10 or so and thinking: “these people have it figured out”. Now at the age of 28, and assessing what I have figured out, I humbly admit the answer is “very little”. Investigating some of society’s current macros trends, it’s more than palpable to conclude that the human race as a whole knows very little as well. The economy and mother earth are fierce adversaries, our status as individuals tends to supersede the value of the collective community, the food we eat isn’t actually food…and the list goes on and on.
Given it’s now safe to at least anecdotally conclude that we as a species know very little; we are left with little able resources to help answer life’s most pressing questions. Maybe the most pressing question that we face as autonomous individuals is: “what should I do with my life?” Since we only have one life to live (that we empirically know of), this question is often met with fear, anxiety, and utter distain. In a bifurcated world of good and evil, success and failure, and all other dualistic representations, we are led to believe there is one set path. That those who diverge are lost. This dangerous belief does not take into account the true networked dynamics of life, and leaves us in a predicament to decide, and therefore kill off the abundant possibilities.
If we are choosing a specific path to take, what are our choices? I would say we have three: fame, fire or famine.
“Fame” is status, traditional notions of success, and power. Fame lives in the realm of one’s identity, which is more of a fabrication of one’s self than an authentic representation of it. Fame is highly attractive and no one is fully immune to its allure. Just like the diet coke that gives you that initial jolt and hint of euphoria while simultaneously killing off your brain sells; fame has the tendency to be a source of short term pleasure while having the capacity to erode one’s soul.
Seeking fame, status, or money is not necessarily bad. Many virtuous professions produce fame, status, and money — one can easily argue that surgeons deserve every bit of their societal status and salary. However, fame in isolation can lead to the adoption of harmful cultural values that prioritize individualism over value creation. Unfortunately, we live in a highly templated culture that has adopted many principles driven by notions of scarcity. We are taught to fend for ourselves and accrue resources for our own self benefit and self worth. We are led to believe that only a select few can ever obtain an abundance of resources or attention — so we fight. We fight hard for “fame”, doing things like preparing for the Ivy League admissions process before we can ride a bike. This may be a necessary process in today’s world of limited access, however it undermines the sacredness of our childhood curiosity and playfulness.
All people pursue some version of fame. The extent to which you pursue fame as your primary focus determines if your life’s pursuit is a worthy one.
“Fire” burns at one’s core. Fire represents the flames of passion inside you that illuminates the soul and if used correctly, can illuminate the world. We’ve all heard stories of our ancestors harnessing the power of fire — how it expanded the practical notion of food, how it protected us from disease and the cold, and how it aided us in developing our understanding of the unknown that night formerly withheld from us. Our ability to harness fire was a turning point in the evolution of the human race.
Today, fire is now ubiquitous and is used in many different forms. However, there is one form of fire that we as a species are still trying to harness. That fire is passion, the fire that we can all generate within us. With an economy driven by creativity taking shape, the cost of consumer technology and communication tools reducing drastically, and with the mass “amateurization” of many formerly professional trades happening before our eyes the foundation for a passion revolution is forming. College graduates leave school feeling lost as they’re left with student loans to pay off and an education that has prepared them to work during the industrial revolution. The young people who are resilient and curious tend to stumble upon something that excites them. If they’re really lucky (and persistent), that excitement evolves into a passion. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of environment fueled by passion, audacity, and hope. I’ve seen people harness their passion, convert it into a market ready idea, and make a life out of it. Of course this case is the minority, however given the information communication technology we have available to us today, the possibilities of harnessing passion and converting it into a career exist like never before in history.
It’s not hard to conceptualize the sheer power of fire. The transformative nature of it’s core properties does not live in isolation, those properties can easily spread (like wildfire) to others. But is it enough? Can you build a life out of harnessing fire? Or is fire merely a mechanism for self service which is inherently limiting?
“Famine”, is indicative of widespread scarcity. However famine in this case represents the personal sacrifice of living in a state of material scarcity, in order to create abundance for others. Beyond fame and fire, famine represents an altruistic state where one’s purpose lives outside their own self preservation. Their contribution to the world is paramount.
Famine is an upstream swim. The powerful current of ego bears down as us as we franticly try to swim ahead. The harder we try to swim towards our worthy cause the more cultural values like status, money and looks push us down. Any outsider witnessing this struggle might be right to call us crazy. However, once you become captivated by this idea of contribution, you realize that it’s impossible to stop. That devoting yourself to a worthy cause (or swim) is aligning one’s work with one’s soul.
Of course in a world of material abundance (a world that the majority of people reading this lives in), pursing this important work does not always require extremely levels of self sacrifice. However, it always requires extreme sacrifice of one’s ego. Throughout our lives, we are conditioned to always put ourselves first. For most, it takes a life changing experience like having a baby, witnessing extreme poverty, having a near death experience to start thinking beyond ourself, and to consider that we might simply be minute contributors to an infinite universe. Regardless of if you have had a life changing experience or not, you can always tap into a sense of pure altruism. If you believe we are all connected, that we live in a vast network of connected parts that is more important than the sum of each isolated part, then you have instant access to altruism, purpose, and empathy.
Fame, fire, or famine — which one is most worthy of our life’s pursuit? No one can answer that for you, however, I would like to make the case for an option. I believe it’s essential that we pursue all three. We are complex beings, living in complex systems. We require recognition and praise for our work. We are fueled by meaning and passion as it sustains us over time. We all deep down have an authentic desire to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Blend the three pursuits together and see what you get. You may find yourself becoming uncompromising when selecting or creating your life’s work. You may find yourself seeing the forest beyond the trees, and blazing a new trail in that forest as your explore.
The world needs people who think creatively and openly about their contribution to the world. By harnessing the powers of fame, fire, and famine we can discover new ways to become more powerful than ever before. Can we transmute our inclination to selfishly drive toward our own success into self worth combined with a burning passion? Can we align our passion with the desire to solve the grand challenges our world faces today? With this blended approach we may have the confidence, desire, and empathy to reshape the world.
Photo: Damian Gadal