Confronting Existential Angst: A Toolkit
Following on from last week - Questions such as “What should I do with my life? What would make me happy? Am I making the right choice right now?” Aren’t fun. They’re scary to think about.
But they’re not dangerous to think about.
Gary Erickson – the guy behind American Cliff bars - recently talked about this idea in an interview on a podcast called How I Built This (it’s only a few episodes in, but I highly recommend it).
Our fear response is normally meant to keep us from danger, but it is often misplaced - It’s not scary to check your messages while driving, but it’s really dangerous. Similarly, it might be scary to stand up and give a speech in front of a few hundred people, but it’s not dangerous at all (I'll admit it depends on the crowd and what you say, but it's not inherently dangerous).
Really, one should be scared about not seriously thinking about these existential questions every once in a while.
Otherwise you’ll wake up in 5, 10, 20 years, and be no closer to answers. Worse, you’ll have less time to find them….
Below I have written a bunch of thought experiments and ideas which have, for me, provided much help in resolving/dealing with my existential angst in the past. Perhaps yours is misplaced. Perhaps you should feel anxious. Hopefully some of these might help you find out.
Grit your teeth, here we go.
1: Be someone you would respect
It’s very simple, deceptively so, but bear with me here.
When I first heard this advice, it was in the context of someone offering advice on general confidence, however I think it actually goes quite beyond that - it's a helpful tool to check if you're living according to things you actually value.
Elaboration: Be someone you would like, be someone that if you met yourself walking down the road you would think ‘that person is cool, I want to hang with them’.
Examples: You've probably said, when referring to someone “Oh I wish I had the willpower to do that” or “I wish I had the discipline” or “I really respect people who do x”
For some reason we find it far easier to be clear about our values when seeing others. This thought experiment exploits that.
This can be applied to anything, small or large. Do you really respect people who exercise regularly? Or who play chess? Or do charity work? Or work at NASA?
Obviously, you can respect many things without wanting to actually embody them yourself, but this can help bring some principles and habits you might want into your focus.
“But Jack, this isn’t about big life decisions, most of your examples are about small things”
Yes, but how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. The small things add up.
For me recently, I briefly considered the mild insanity that was me spending around 14 hours commuting over a few days in order to do a pirate improv show.
But using this line of thinking - if I knew someone else who was doing the same, I'd think they were cool for doing it.
So if you knew someone who was living a very similar life to you, who had the same thoughts and beliefs, what would you think?
It's because of this thought experiment I know I’m going to have to become vegetarian soon (my stomach is yet to catch up with my brain, I’m a flawed person).
Because I respect that they’re doing something sustainable, something responsible and something ethical. You probably know this too.
Isn’t this fun? We’re only getting started.
2. On your death bed, what will you really want more time for?
I first read this in Tim Kreider’s fantastic collection of essays ‘We Learn Nothing’. He has a chapter called Laziness: A Manifesto. He writes about the loathsome self-imposed business we inflict upon ourselves, and ends the chapter in a crushing way:
"I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth, is to spend it with people I love.
I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder, write more, and say everything I had to say. But I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more round of Delancey’s with Nick, one more late night talk with Lauren, one more good hard laugh with Harold.
Life is too short to be busy. ”
Kreider readily admits that if everyone thought and acted like him, the world would quickly slide into ruin. And for me personally, there are things I’ve achieved that I’ve worked for which I’ll not regret at all on my deathbed.
But he has a point.
At the end of the day, what really matters to you?
Whether it's something as simple as spending time with loved ones, or something supposedly hollow like making lots of money, be honest with yourself.
Most things, in the grand scheme of everything, don't matter at all. Relax.
Focus on the things that do.
3. When you haven’t found what you’re looking for, sitting still is usually not going to help
So you’re not sure where to go. You’re sitting in a place (physically or metaphorically in life), unsure and anxious. Perhaps you’re already moving, and are worried you are walking in precisely the wrong direction.
Here’s the thing – by not moving, you’ll never see places you could go. If you’re trying to get your bearings, you naturally find a higher place to observe the surrounding areas.
Lacking any sort of purpose or direction, do something. Do something where you will get resources and experiences which will likely be helpful with other endeavours i.e. get a day job.
If you go somewhere, try something, and you loathe it this is useful information.
This and other insights will help you find a place you want to go to.
Take this as reassurance when you're going somewhere blindly in your life. It’s better than sitting around. Go you.
4. What would be a better story?
To be honest, this may be a terrible thought device, just as a heads up.
I have on many occasions made decisions based entirely on what would, retrospectively, create a better narrative.
If you’re on a well-trodden path, whether that be within your day, month, or life, you probably know the ending. Reaching the top of the corporate chain, going to bed at 1am after watching Netflix etc.
How do you feel about this ending?
If you don’t like it, is it worth trying something else?
Because here’s the kicker – if you get to the end of this page, or chapter, and you’re unsatisfied – it’s written, you can’t edit that.
Now sure, you can try something else and it may be worse. But if you’re not going to be happy with the ending anyway, you’re damned if you don’t, but you there’s a chance you won’t be damned if you do. You're generally more irked with yourself over the things you didn't try, than those that you did.
If you try for a better outcome and it doesn't work, at least you have the satisfaction of trying, and no thoughts of "what if I had...."
And hell, I don’t know about you, but in general the best stories to tell are the car-crashes and fuckups. The date plans that backfired, the interview you bombed, the cardboard boat that sank.
You learn to permanently laugh from these. You generally learn more from these too.
And you get to tell them with a grin for the rest of your life.*
*Unless you do something fatal. Don't be reckless on my account please
In conclusion - I hope some of this may have helped you in some way. I apologise if it didn't. Sadly, I do not yet have all the answers - I'm a naive 22 year old in his first third.
I'm working on it, as I'm sure you are. I love talking about this stuff - so if you ever want to discuss it, drop me a message.
As a sort of ending, here are some videos that I find inspiring, which are about life generally:
Tim Minchin UWA Address -- A fantastic life philosophy from a ridiculously talented guy:
Neil Gaiman University of Arts Speech -- I mean, it's Neil Gaiman, if you haven't watched this, it's 100% worth your time:
And of course, Rocky: