Thursday, July 30, 2009

Embrace Your Human Limitations

(Photo courtesy of patrick h. lauke)

Limitless possibilities are a paradox.

On the one hand, the sense of limitless possibilities can be exhilarating.

On the other hand, it can be paralyzing.

Almost every choice eliminates certain options. Dan Ariely's work shows that we humans are irrationally predisposed to preserving options, even to our own detriment.

Telling someone, "You can do anything" may be a curse rather than a blessing. When they fail to achieve their (probably unrealistic) goals, they feel sad and disappointed.

Happiness results from wanting less than you have. Wanting it all inevitably leads to unhappiness.

Many of us don't like the idea that our possibilities are slowly dying off, but that's our predictable irrationality at work.

That our options decline with age is natural, even inevitable, since we ourselves decline with age, and eventually die.

That is the final reality. When we are born, the possibilities are nearly infinite. When we die, the wave form of our possibilities collapses to a single point. It is quite reasonable that a 40-year-old man halfway through his life feels like he has fewer possibilities than his young daughter.

Depressing? To some perhaps.

But I am an optimist. I believe that knowing and acknowledging the realities of human existence allows us to live better lives.

When we understand the arc of our lives, we can develop a happier mindset. And a realistic understanding of these dynamics makes us appreciate even more those heroes who risk their precious lives in defense of others, and makes their sacrifice all the more poignant.

We are human. We are limited. And that's what makes our efforts to transcend those limits worthwhile.

(Inspired by a post by Tim Taylor.)

P.S. For those who are still a bit down, consider the possibility that Kurzweil is correct, and that the singularity is near. Once we have achieved immortality, the possibilities really are infinite.

P.P.S. Still need cheering up? Some Richard Simmons ought to do the trick!


Jose C. said...

Chris, awesome and timely post. My wife and I are relocating again (I think the count is 17 moves in 14 years...military + corporate). Anyway, no remorse, we embrace the movement, the flexibility, etc. Recently on our way back from house hunting we began having the "good enough" conversation. And even while we can aknowledge the relief in wanting / doing less. We both still have this internal dissonance where we think, "are we simply just quitting, giving up?" We're in our early thirties, two great boys, great job, she's got some plans, solid future, etc...but is it enough? All the while I'm thinking, why can't I just be done? Why is it wrong for me to say, "I'm done. I made it." Even as I write this I waffle - damn self-help, self-improvement books. I haven't quite figured out where the line between ambition and satisfaction dance in harmony. One of these days...

Jackie D said...

Last year, a close friend told me, "You can do anything, and [person X] clearly sees that." When I related this to my shrink, he replied: "You can't do ANYTHING. Don't listen to people who tell you that. Get to know your limitations."

To me, limitless possibilities aren't what I aspire to. I am thrilled by the fact that the possibilities I imagine for myself pale in comparison to what actually ends up unfolding in my life. This has been true ever since I was old enough to escape my parents' rule. If all my dreams had come true, I would have been cheated out of the awesome life I have now.

My Agapic Life said...

I don't quite know how this jibes with telling a child to dream big and work hard. It seems like the energy put into a goal is worth it.

The key is if I can be detached from the results.