What I'm Here For
A patently absurd proclamation
When I think about my eventual death, I think of two quotes:
My biggest fear is dying and God (or whoever God assigns this task to) shows me a board with a list of accomplishments: physically fit, Navy SEAL, pull-up record holder, inspirational speaker who helps others, etc.
I say, “that’s not me.”
And God responds, “that’s who you were supposed to be.”
– David Goggins
In the afterlife you are judged not against other people, but against yourself. Specifically, you are judged against what you could have been.
These yous are not really you, they are better than you. They made smarter choices, worked harder, invested the extra effort into pushing on closed doors. These doors eventually broke open for them and allowed their lives to splash out in colorful new directions. Such success cannot be explained away by a better genetic hand; instead, they played your cards better. In their parallel lives, they made better decisions, avoided moral lapses, did not give up on love so easily. They worked harder than you did to correct their mistakes and apologized more often.
— Sum, 40 Tales from the Afterlife
I find these profound — they put words to an idea that innately drives me. The notion that I could be more, and I might not become who I could be.
Your first thought may be: that’s a hard way to live life, especially if you stop enjoying it. I certainly see that side to it. But on the other hand I think it’s powerful guiding principle because it encourages you to continue striving for growth. I use these quotes as a compass to help me keep my bearings when I don’t feel like doing something, or if I need extra motivation for whatever I’m working on.
There is a fine line here, because if you get too consumed by this pursuit then you never turn it off, and other aspects of your life invariably start suffering. On the other hand, hard work, in groups and in solitude, yields strong returns. But what is life but a balancing act. Juggling different tugs and pulls, ranging from responsibilities and goals to leisure and other interests.1
I feel good about how I straddle that line; it’s not always perfect, but if you can find that balance between enjoyment and pursuing more, then you end up relishing each step of the process. There’s an innate excitement I have about being here, and I think finding what’s wonderful about the world is a valuable way to keep this ebullience self-sustaining.
This is why I included my favorite quote in the Becoming Better section of Words to Remember:
Success is feeling good about the work you do throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or may not wind up at the launch pad. You can’t view training solely as a stepping stone to something loftier. It’s got to be an end in itself.
—Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
After spending time Becoming a Mental Architect, I’ve identified what it is I want to do now. And it germinated from spending time reading Greek mythology.
Leaving a Legacy
I've always loved Greek mythology. Something about its permanence has always resonated with me. Most of Ancient Greeks’ buildings, temples, and statues are gone, yet the stories remain alive.
I’ve frequently wondered what aspects of my life will remain when I’m gone. There’s a sobering humility knowing that 99.99% of humans are forgotten. Their lives are a faint whisper in the harmonic drumbeat of humanity. They lived, then left.
This is why I've admired the Ancient Greeks. After all this time, we still talk about them, learn from them, and engage with them. See, the Greeks left a legacy — something that outlasted their impermanence. Despite being gone, their accomplishments and stories live on.
This shouldn’t be a surprise I suppose — our brains evolved with stories, and they remain the most powerful way we move information. As I frequently discuss on Embers, Humans think in stories rather than facts, numbers, or equations.
There are the stories we tell us about ourselves, and the stories that others tell about us. In Becoming a Mental Architect I talk about building your personal narrative, and in On Ambition, I (indirectly) discuss how others create their stories of us based on what we choose to do. All of our actions feed into that, and as discussed in Control the Controllables, what other people think, feel, and do, especially with regards to our own conduct, is out of our control. What we control is how we treat people and how we live.
Lately my writing has revolved around more philosophical aspects of life. Having recently turned 25, I’ve reflected on what it means to live a quarter of a century, and how fast it seemed to go by.2 I don’t know how much more time I’ll have, but I have always had an intentionality in which I approached my days here.
As I’ve reflected, I recognized it was time to figure out how I wanted to shape my own story. I’ve spent a large part of my life with a very specific framework for success, fashioned largely from athletics. Competition established the tempo and intensity in which I worked towards goals every day. Year after year, this framework gave me a place in the world. But like all things it came to a close. So now I’m creating another one. One that prepares me for the next few decades as I choose what to do.
For most of my life I’ve known what I wanted to do, and suddenly I didn’t have that clarity anymore. I graduated, and my athletic career was over. I found myself searching for something to do next. So like Odysseus leaving Troy’s shores, I am fashioning my own future. There are endless opportunities of directions ahead. It’s really just a matter of figuring out where to navigate.
Embarking on this new odyssey, I am quite aware that my time is finite. I think this is what drives me to do good: I want to leave an impact. I want to accomplish as much as I can with the life I am given. Striving to make the most of life gives me meaning.
Leaving a legacy is how I’ve come to partial terms with death. I want to leave something behind, just like the Ancient Greeks did. My biggest aspiration is building something that enhances the lives of others, that leaves a footprint in the path of human progress. Realistically, even if I’m successful, eventually, that footprint will fade away, but then again, I won't be there to see that happen.
Why I’m Writing This
I recognize this could come across grandiose, naïve, and maybe even bombastic or obtuse. I’m deciding to post this anyways though, for three reasons:
1. Laugh at Yourself
I’m interested in seeing how I’ll look back on this piece. I actually started writing this over a year ago, and the draft was much different. Even reading that makes me chuckle. Some of it is really cringy! I’m sure some of this will make me cringe later too, but honestly most of the things we do end up feeling that way. I think that’s just part of growing. If you can laugh at yourself, you unlock a much better way of living.
I value introspection, and I find it’s often a mixture of laughing and cringing at who I was. I’ve always appreciated a good laugh, and over time I’ve gotten pretty good at laughing at myself. I’ve found that having this type of comedic release is a useful way to balance serious aspirations. You have to accept and embrace what makes you weird.
I'm sure I'll look back on this and laugh at how serious I took myself, and how aggrandizing this post is. But I’m comfortable knowing that.
The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.
— Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
2. Build a Personal Balance Sheet
I want to be able to look back upon this and see what I was thinking about, and where my priorities were. If the answer to this essay’s title remains unchanged throughout my life, then I haven’t lived deeply enough. My family and friends are an essential aspect of who I am, and as I eventually build my own family, I know that much of what I write about here will fade into the background. There’s a certain beauty to that.
Part of life is realizing that priorities change as you get older. What matters now might matter less in the future. Kids are the best example, some of my colleagues and friends recently had children, and they note that there’s a mental switch that flips: lots of personal ambitions fade away and your life reorients. That brings us back to the discussion of being a point in time. My finance background gave me the idea of calling it a current mental balance sheet.
Being responsible for another life must be such a special responsibility, and a quote comes to mind:
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
— Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Lastly, it’s also cool to have this catalog of me at this point in time. I know I’d appreciate reading what I was thinking about when I was 5, 10, 15, and 20. And wouldn’t it also be interesting to read what my parents, and their parents were thinking over time? Writing is a useful tool to see what and how people were thinking. I know I will revisit this every few years and make new updates accordingly.
3. Overcome Your Hesitations
I wasn’t sure I should post this, and even now I find myself nervously rereading every sentence.
This isn’t new; I frequently second guess sharing what I write, especially something like this. It’s not really doing anything; it’s not changing anything. But like reading, I’ve found it one of the most transformative habits I’ve adopted. Writing a sentence a day, no matter how good or bad, helps you slow down the swirl of life and gather your thoughts. Publishing it has created the added benefit of sharing how I’m thinking about things, and discussing it more deeply with others.
When it comes to this piece, I really believe that creating and sharing your attitude about existence is a powerful exercise.
An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.
— Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
I’m still hesitant as I hit publish right now, but I decided to be honest and unapologetic about what I’ve written. This is who I am and how I look at the future. There’s value to sharing this, and it’ll also force me to continue reflecting.
It’s kind of absurd to say you know what you’re here for, especially when there’s quite literally endless ways to live life.
It’s kind of disappointing to realize you don’t have enough time to try everything. It’d be really special to operate in a hospital, fly a helicopter, and hunt for dinosaur fossils, for example. While these aren’t in the cards (at the moment), sometimes I let myself mentally wander and pretend I’m living through these different experiences. It’s nothing more than 5 or 10 minutes. I have no way of knowing these abstractions are accurate interpretations without trying it, but at the very least it gives me things to think about. So many experiences we never get a chance to feel. Sometimes it’s entertaining to imagine what some of them are.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl talks about how prisoners who gave up on life and who had lost all hope for a future were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food or medicine than from lack of hope, the lack of something to live for. Specifically, once they lost their ultimate goal in life, the structure of their inner life changed.
If you invert this though, you realize that having a specific goal and purpose in mind has a same effect: its mere presence changes your life. This overarching purpose acts like a gravitational force, invisibly pulling you towards it. How you create your life’s narrative assigns meaning to the different things you experience, especially suffering.
What I’m Here For is an attempt to verbalize what that looks like for me. This is less about what I will do and more about how I’ll go about doing it. Which is probably more important because no one has the foresight to know how life will unfold. There’s too much uncertainty and chance involved. I’m taking ownership of how I’m going to approach life and trusting that things will work out.
Accomplishing anything meaningful takes time and effort, which is why I’m thinking about this now, so that I can put in the time to make it happen. One of the great privileges in life is building something you believe in, with people you like, to help people you care about. Maybe that’s your family, maybe it’s a company.
If I had to distill this piece into a single sentence, I’d settle with this: I have a pretty great hand of cards, and recognizing that, I want to effectively play them well. To return to those two quotes I shared at the very beginning of this piece: that’s why I’m here. Maybe that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s the story I made for myself.
Part of getting older is realizing what you do is impermanent. But life isn’t beautiful because it lasts. That’s what makes it so special.
Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now, and we will never be here again. — Homer, The Iliad
Anyone that tells you they know the perfect way to live is either delirious or immensely unrealistic. Some people figure it out, but what works for them might not work for you. I’m in my 20s, so maybe this isn’t the right way to approach things. So please keep this in mind with what follows. I’m very much still figuring things out — who isn’t? — but it’s served me well so far, and I’m inclined to stick with systems that work.
It’s odd to me that we don’t do more to help people transition out of college. It’s quite a big change, and while I understand colleges aren’t incentivized to offer anything, it seems like it’d be a good idea to help young adults spend deliberate time figuring out who they want to become.
I get that we shouldn’t be holding hands on this, but from my experience, not nearly enough people spend time actively thinking about what life they want to live. Having a societal mechanism to encourage that would be beneficial.