I am not sure what is the meaning of life. I don’t believe that there is a grand theme or overarching purpose for everyone. I believe that everyone’s meaning of life is different, depending on the time, temperament, and circumstances they find themselves in. The meaning of life is a moving target and it will change throughout our lives as we rethink what is important to us.
I am not sure if there is a higher power or if there is order in the universe. There are moments where I feel like I see glimpses in mathematics or science that hint at a grand design amidst the randomness, but what do I know for certain? I am just a small, transient speck in time and space. I do not possess the hubris that lets me claim I have the answers for the universe. I am comfortable in not knowing.
I understand why it might feel reassuring or safe for people to need a belief in a higher power. People have told me that they fear my comfort in uncertainty. They must believe in something to give order to their lives. And that is okay. My philosophy has been that if the belief or disbelief in a higher power gets you through your day and makes you a better person and it does not compel you to push your beliefs onto anyone else, then more power to you.
All I know is what I control: my actions and thoughts, what I consume, who I associate myself with, where I go, and how I choose to spend my time. There are many more variables in the universe that I do not have control over. But what I do have power over is what I focus on, where I place my energy, how I treat others, and what specific actions I can take that lead to a healthier body, mind, and spirit.
I resolved that my purpose on Earth is to focus on the things that I do control, which is my self-development. And because my existence on Earth has been an amazing blessing, I must honor this gift by maxing out my potential in the short time I am here. This means striving for a one percent improvement physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, emotionally, creatively everyday. This means aiming to move the needle just a small amount. Even if it is one percent, over a year, this can make a great difference and I’ll prove it to you.
The Power of Compounding
One of my favorite ideas in mathematics and finance is the notion of compounding. By harnessing its exponential power, people are able to build wealth through investing in the stock market. It is also how people can quickly find themselves in an exorbitant amount of debt if they are not careful. In his book, The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel writes
“If something compounds — if a little growth serves as the fuel for future growth — a small starting base can lead to results so extraordinary they seem to defy logic. It can be so logic defying that you underestimate what’s possible, where growth comes from, and what it can lead to.”
Let’s take this concept and say that you start with 100 “life units,” a term I am inventing that represents your full potential at this moment. And let’s say that everyday you aim to improve by 1%. So by the end of the day you have 100 + 1% improvement = 101 life units (LU).
The next day, you re-invest the 101 life units and aim again for a 1% improvement. At the close of the second day, you will have gained another 1.01 LU. Now you are worth 102.01 LU (100 + 1 + 1.01). Y
You repeat the process on the third day, re-investing 100% of your enhanced self to improve again by 1%. By the evening, you have gained another 1.02 LU (1% of the 102.01) and your total balance is 103.03 LU (100 + 1 + 1.01 + 1.02). Pleased by your progress, you continue this for the next 362 days.
This is the general formula:
Here you raise your initial 1% daily improvement to the nth power (which represents the number of days) and multiply it by your initial investment, the 100 life units. Aiming for 1% everyday and starting from an initial value of 100 LU leaves you with 3778.34 LU after 365 days!
In other words, aiming for a one percent improvement everyday results in a 37 times improvement over an entire year. This is the dramatic power of compounding. More importantly, this is the value in aiming for small, achievable, and consistent progress over time.
Some Important Caveats
Of course life is not an exponential curve to living your best life. There are ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs. Life is also not fair. Good and positive people face unintended setbacks, like illness or layoffs, regularly. But for my meaning of life, what is important is that I set the intention to be better everyday. I will not always be successful and sometimes I will fail and regress, but as long as I aim for improvement and progress, I will ultimately outpace stagnation. Even as I get older and eventually slow down, as long as I aim for growth — even if I cannot quite make it to the 1% for the day — the universe will reward me for trying.
If anything, it is in the action of striving where my faith resides, not in determinism or positive thinking or a higher power. As long as I put consistent energy and effort over time into the universe, if I work hard, if I stay dedicated, and if I aim for the 1% improvement (and track my progress), then I will place myself in a position to be open to the opportunity, goodwill, and luck that will move me closer to happiness, make life more interesting, and strengthen my purpose. It becomes a self-fulfilling feedback loop.
Of course, everything in moderation. There is a curse to perpetual optimization. In her fascinating essay, “Always Be Optimizing,” Jia Tolentino writes about how the forces of capitalism and the Internet have squeezed everyone, especially women, into a rigid performance on optimization treadmill under the guise of wellness and self care. More broadly, she states
“In these pursuits, most pleasures end up being traps, and every public-facing demand escalates in perpetuity. Satisfaction remains, under the terms of the system, necessarily out of reach. But the worse things get, the more a person is compelled to optimize.”
Some of the best experiences in life remain inefficient. Out of necessity they must be in order to be fully enjoyed: luxuriating in a hammock with a lover on a warm, Summer day; lingering over a cup of coffee and a good book; wandering a garden with camera in hand; or just basking in the sun while floating in the ocean. How can we optimize these moments without destroying them?
It is also important to note that perpetual growth is easier said than done. Many people have competing obligations that make it challenging to focus on the self all the time: work, family, appointments, unforeseen obstacles or tragedies.
The path to becoming a better person is also uncomfortable. It requires shedding any self-delusions or grandeur. One must give continued effort and practice patience because the payoff will not be apparent or obvious. Compounding eventually becomes exponential, but not before it tests your dedication.
So as the immortal Greek aphorism commands: know thyself. Seek self-improvement in perpetuity but not at the cost of your mental health or self-esteem. Occasionally take a break as this can also be nourishing for the soul. But don’t lose the momentum that you have spent time and energy creating. Aiming for 1% improvement daily is the preventative medicine that will protect you against life’s inevitable and unanticipated 10% setbacks. You will have life units to spare and still be stronger, more disciplined, and more resilient than when you started.
Life is short so we might as well make the most of it. Or, as Hunter S. Thompson once wrote,
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
Thank you for reading.
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