22 January 2015

Food For Thought #12 // Existential Questions Edition

Source: Oliver Emberton

I can't say if we stumble upon enlightening articles at the right moment - as if put on our way on purpose - or if we get to see, and click on these when we are already on a path of questioning. Point is, I'm in the turmoil of an existential crisis of sorts right now, and here are interesting articles that fuel the reflection.

On Raptitude: Where Self Esteem Comes From
In this article, David Cain proposes a new take on self esteem and what activities our days are filled with. Instead of wondering "do I like what I do?", what happens if you ask yourself "do I like who I am when I do that?" You can enjoy browsing facebook but realize you dont really like who you are when you spend too much time doing so.

I find it a great idea to think about who you really want to be, and what activities you need to incorporate in your life in order to work toward becoming this person. To all those of us who wonder what to replace shopping and other material considerations with, this can be a great starting point as well.

After doing this exercise myself, I realized, among other things, that I didn't like who I was when I was complaining about this crime novel started in 2013 and yet unfinished in 2015. I took my keyboard, woke up one hour early and restarted writing the very next day, regardless of the fact that I played until the small hours of the morning the night before.

On Brain Pickings: How to Marry Money and Meaning
... an animated field guide to finding fulfilling work in the modern world
This articles presents a book (as it is the case with Brain Pickings) called How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric.

This article resonated profoundly with me, treating of safety versus calling, defining your own version of professional success and bridging the gap between material necessity and a fulfilling professional activity. Here is how Maria Popova introduces the subject:

“To not have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself,” wrote Charles Bukowski in his magnificent letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit a soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer. [...] When we find ourselves at the crossroads of safe and satisfying, we don’t always have the courage to let our inner life speak, much less to listen.

In a short didactic video based on Roman Krznaric's work, the school of life  points out 6 tips  to move on the path of a more fulfilling and meaningful career. Among which some have already been discussed here, such as "know yourself", (take the time to) "think a lot". I'm definitely going to take on these tips in the months to come.

"In a peculiar and rather humbling way, it truly does seem as if the difference between success and failure is sometimes nothing less than the courage to give it a go."

On TED - Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit.
After teaching maths for a few years, Angela Lee Duckworth started wondering what made some kids more successful than others, as she discovered it seemed unrelated to IQ and other intelligence or talent measures.

Starting to study psychology, she decided to dig deeper into the question with years of research and came up with a concept that seemed to come back whatever the intelligence, social or cultural background of the kids: grit.

"Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out."
And this is a concept that can be applied to life too. Grit is about perseverence, it is about knowing where you want to lead yourself to, and keep yourself working and working toward this objective relentlessly.

This reminded me of a conversation we had with my jewelry designer friend. She told me very few of her former colleagues from jewelry school were still working in this area, many gave up. But it seemed so obvious to her to keep creating, that she weathered financial difficulties, periods of doubt, lack of sales, and kept working at it. Ten years later? She's still working on her craft, and becoming more successful each year.

According to Angela Lee Duckworth, one of the keys to teaching grit, and becoming gritty ourselves, is to engage in a growth mindset. Level up, remember? This is the idea that the brain isn't fixed. Challenges and failures are opportunities to learn and grow. Knowing this helps persevering in the face of incertitude and failure.

I thought of all these unfinished story ideas and realized I haven't been gritty enough about my writing. But it is never too late to start, is it?

Oliver Emberton - If You Want to Follow Your Dreams, You Have to Say no to the Alternatives
In this illustrated article, Oliver Emberton talks about how following a dream requires to focus all of our energy to it, instead of letting our brain - which he describes as a hive of bees, each representing an idea (I find it quite accurate to the constant buzzing of ideas present in my head anyway) - go in every direction, reaching nowhere, really.

He states the people reach "the impossible" - with the concrete example of creating Google, Amazon or facebook - by turning all these ideas into one giant bee that propels you in the direction you want to go to. The key then, is to prioritize. What matters the most to you now? What would you like to change or achieve in your life now? Then, focus all your attention on it.

It does resemble to the idea of grit mentioned above. I'd say this mindset is very interesting to think on once you know where you want your life to be headed. So maybe the first step to this whole questioning is to start from the first articles of this post: wondering if you like who you are when you do the various things you fill your days with. Then think on all this. What do you like, or dislike? Why? What would be really fulfilling for you? And only when these questions start getting an answer, you can line up your bees in one direction and get your grit going.

I'd say I'm deep into the questioning phase right now. I'm trying to set aside the financial and social status considerations to ask myself the real questions and let the deep answers emerge. Then, we'll line up the bees. What about you? Did you engage in such reflection in your life? Did you change directions as a result? How did you find what's fulfilling for you?

PS: On TED - Elizabeth Gilbert - Success, failure and the drive to keep creating.
I already mentioned this talk in a previous Food for Thought post, but I find this to be very relevant to today's subject: finding a calling, a"home" to come back whatever the cost, and just dedicate time to it. It comes back to the notion from the video above of "giving it a go". Of course, one had to know where their "home" is first, but that's worth investigating, isn't it?


  1. Thank you very much for these links! I am looking forward to making myself a cup of tee and reading/watching them. I am really in love with your blog because there is so much mindfulness in it. I really like how you keep addressing the small things that make life wonderful while still keeping the bigger ambitions in mind.

    1. Thank you very much, I'm very touched! It is sometimes difficult to keep the balance between gratitude and joy for the smallest things, and questioning, thinking about bigger stuff. I'm happy if you like both aspects :)

  2. I have found the concepts of 'growth mindset' and 'fixed mindset' to be life changing. One of the things I love about growth mindset is that you can practice it in any circumstance even if there are still a lot of self questions to be answered. In fact doesn't growth mindset go along with questioning/learning, I believe it might.

    1. I agree with you! And it baffles me that this isn't explained to children in class. Our brains are learning, evolving, and a failure is nothing more than an opportunity to grow from it. I think a growth mindset goes along with some questioning & learning indeed, as it pushes us to evolve, whereas a fixed mindset leads you to believe you are who you are and that's immutable. I think the best perk of a growth mindset is to turn mistakes into opportunities, instead of letting them discourage us and affect our self esteem, confidence and morale.

  3. This post really spoke to me as i am really taking on many of the issues raised in this post. At the age of 61 I realize it is "now or never" and the project of letting go of all the other "bees" to focus on the your big thing or dream, or the person you want to be. I have manifested"grit when it came to my career, family responsibilities but never my own desire to be a creative person in the world. Lots of food for thought indeed.
    Accidental Icon

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I have to admit I admire you for taking on such a path. When I see how much harder it is to face my insatisfactions and try to change at 30 than it was at 20, I can't imagine how it must be at 60. However, I find it to be extremely inspiring as the path never ends until the very end :) Thanks for that I'm really touched :)

  4. Lovely links, I especially liked the one about "do I like who I am when I'm doing this?". That's an excellent barometer that I'll definitely have to use.
    I feel you on the existential crisis. I've found that a lot of my friends (we're all in our mid to late twenties) are starting to ask questions like this, and it's been difficult. Of course, we all joke that we're just in the midst of a quarter-life crisis :) They're important questions though, and not easily answered.

    1. I loved this idea too - do I like who I am when I do that - it isn't a question we often ask ourselves is it? Yet it goes for every aspect of our life, from the career we've chosen to something as trivial as binge eating a pot of ice cream in front of TV. I think it helps figuring out who we want to be, while tuning out the social norms and all. And I think it helps getting motivated to do things we don't like doing but help us toward our long term goals (like sports for example?)

      I also noticed a lot of questionings at that age - I'd say, between 25 and 35 or so? One of my university colleague decided to do some theater at 25, another left for New Zealand at 30, yet another finally left Japan despite it being her childhood dream but she wasn't happy there. My sophrologist changed careers when she was about that age too. Even without going as far as changing careers a lot of people that age seem to be questioning the established version of success around me these days.
      But I wonder if it isn't also linked to the fact that we work as much, if not more, than our parents, but without reaping the benefits - low salaries, high rents, not as many social benefits as before, little chance of evolution within a company... I don't know how it is in the US, but here in France there is a significant drop of lifestyle for the younger generations while the older ones since enjoy their privileges, and it leads a lot of us to reconsider giving so much time and energy to a company.

  5. Thanks so very much for this post - it really couldn't have come at a better time for me. I'm planning on moving to France, and that decision was really kind of a "why the hell not" thought that struck me a few months ago as I realized that I'm just totally *bored* with everything. I took a very conventional path through life, faced very few challenges, and did the proper grown-up thing by getting a cushy office job in the same city where my ass has been planted for the past 7 years. Now I'm just like... wait up, 30 is right around the corner, what have I actually *done* that's ever presented any sort of challenge?! So beyond applying to a total reach/dream school to study in a language I'm not actually totally fluent in, I'm also thinking this would be the perfect opportunity to try to switch to completely freelance work and get rid of the slacks I'm tired of wearing every day while I earn my measly 15 vacation days a year. If I wasn't so bored with everything, I'd probably continue living this way indefinitely; but I guess it all comes down to having the courage to change it, right? :) At least that's what I hope!

    1. Oh it's really interesting to see other people going through that kind of questioning. It sounds like going to France is a dear dream of yours, I hope it works out! I agree that in the end, it comes down to having the courage to give it a go. Provided you know what it is you want to do. But it's true that within our comfortable daily life, we don't aways dare going for an adventure, it's harder to leave our comfort zone, the older we get. It reminds me of the movie "the secret life of Walter Mitty". Absolutely fantastic, and struck the hell of a cord with me (partly because I daydream a lot too, maybe?)