We remember Oscar Wilde as a poet, a playwright, a player who’d write. Most of us associate him with drama, both in his work and life. The Picture of Dorian Gray, a few pithy lines, an early death.
But when I look at the sea of thoughts that unravels when you click on the author of the most popular quote on Goodreads, I see none of that. I see a philosopher, full of contrarian ideas, paradoxes, and lots of new angles to look at life from.
They remind me of the beliefs of a philosopher we can still talk to: Naval Ravikant. After reflecting on an interview he did with Shane Parrish, I can’t help but notice that some of the most popular sentiments floating around Medium and the web are, well, just sentiments.
“Everything popular is wrong.” One of Wilde’s many polarizing statements. It may be hyperbole, but it’s a starting point for originality. In the echo chamber of self-improvement, some ideas have been circulating for so long, we’ve stopped questioning them.
What if we considered the possibility that these ideas are false?
1. Diversified Learning
The general consensus is that you should learn as much as you can, from as many sources as you can. When it comes to money, food, work, and material possessions, we all readily agree that more isn’t better. Why shouldn’t that apply to books? Illacertus thinks it should.
We rage against materialism, but we condone mental overstimulation. If you want to read 52 books each year, isn’t that just as much of a rat race as assembling a huge shoe collection? Why not pick your sources carefully and deeply understand them?
Maybe some of history’s greatest and time-tested books — the Bible, Tao Te Ching, Don Quixote, each hold all the advice you could ever need. Maybe, you just have to keep re-reading them. For almost all modern bestsellers, you can find a book that’s 50, 100, 500 years older and says the same thing – except it usually does it better.
The same applies to people.
2. Surrounding Yourself With Great People
We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with.” We’re encouraged to keep running around, trying to find the best five people.
In reality, the only person you’re surrounded by 24/7/365 is you. Life is a single player game, as Naval puts it.
“Socially, we’re told, “Go work out. Go look good.” That’s a multi-player competitive game. Other people can see if I’m doing a good job or not.
When it comes to learn to be happy, that’s completely internal. No external progress, no external validation. 100% you’re competing against yourself, single-player game. We are such social creatures that we don’t know how to play and win at these single-player games anymore. We compete purely on multi-player games.
The reality is life is a single-player game. You’re born alone. You’re going to die alone. All of your interpretations are alone. All your memories are alone. You’re gone in three generations and nobody cares. Before you showed up, nobody cared. It’s all single-player.”
How many of your greatest insights, your most blissful moments, your most trialing challenges, how many of your “holy shits” and “oh my gods” and “I don’t knows” have happened in group sessions?
Mentors, teachers, motivators, these are all overrated. Learning to be with yourself and compete against yourself? That takes a lifetime.
3. Constant Growth
If you’re now scared because you think “Really? Living in my own head? Fighting my demons, all the time? Won’t I go mad?” then that’s an indicator for another common piece of advice gone awry. Because there’s so much motivation out there, we feel like we constantly have to keep working on ourselves.
But you know what? You don’t. You don’t need to move forward all the time. You can stand still, too. It’s just that no one tells you that’s okay. But maybe you want to take care of your kids, or your spouse, or help a friend. Or even do nothing for a while. What’s wrong with that?
What’s more, even when it comes to your bad habits, sometimes, you can just accept them. Make tradeoffs. I bite my nails while writing, all the time, but at least I write good stuff. I’m not gonna stop writing, even if it means I never stop biting my nails.
But maybe one day, I’ll stop both. It’s not like…
4. You Need an Identity to Have a Life
The reason we’re so easily sold on perpetual self-improvement is that we’re assembling a puzzle of who we are, and personal development feels like we’re filling in the gaps. With each new habit comes a new label you can put on yourself.
“What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am.”
But that’s really all habits, goals, accomplishments are: Labels. The more proudly you wear them, the less you’ll be able to take them off when you need to.
Just because I’m introverted does not mean I can’t walk into any room and be the life of the party. I’m writing right now, but that doesn’t make me a writer for life. The more pieces you add to your identity construct, the easier it breaks. Identity is fragile. You aren’t.
If you put down the labeling machine, you can stay flexible and change your mind at a moment’s notice, if that’s the best option.
5. Leaving a Legacy
Now, you might say “But who I am is important, because that’s what the world will remember me for.” It’s the ultimate reward for constantly growing, for shaping an identity worth admiring: legacy.
How ironic. We jump through all these hoops to get more control, to focus more on the knobs we can turn, to shape who we are, only to try and shoot for something that is completely out of our grasp. Isn’t that absurd?
No one cared about you for thousands of years before you were around and no one will thousands of years after you die. What difference does it make whether your book sells for 10 or 50 or 0 more years after you’re dead?
Imagine you couldn’t leave a legacy. Wouldn’t that allow you to focus more on what we need right here, right now? The only thing that’s guaranteed is the time that you’re here. Nothing that happened before, nothing that’ll happen after.
Maybe not even that.
6. Freedom Equals Happiness
If we’re not hustling for legacy, we’re hustling for freedom. Freedom to spend our time where we like, how we like, with whom we like. I’m guilty of this. We think all we need is money, health, and maximum choice, and then we’re free.
But maybe that’s just another self-constructed prison. Maybe there are diminishing returns to freedom. As Barry Schwartz explained, we experience anticipated regret whenever our pool of options grows too big. It hurts us even more than regretting a bad decision:
“Anticipated regret is in many ways worse, because it will produce not just dissatisfaction but paralysis. If someone asks herself how it would feel to buy this house only to discover a better one next week, she probably won’t buy this house.”
So mostly, we’re looking for the wrong kind of freedom. In the long run, travel won’t make you happier. First class seats won’t make you happier. An empty schedule won’t make you happier. But maybe not desiring those things will.
Naval says that’s because we can’t find true freedom on the outside:
“My old definition was ‘freedom to’, freedom to do anything I want. Freedom to do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like. Now I would say that the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom.
It’s ‘freedom from.’ It’s freedom from reaction. It’s freedom from feeling angry. It’s freedom from being sad. It’s freedom from being forced to do things. I’m looking for freedom from internally and externally, whereas before I was looking for freedom to.”
You could be a wage slave or an actual slave, but still find happiness. Don’t put your discontent on a lack of external freedom. But maybe, even getting rid of that inner resistance is a mirage.
7. Happiness Is the End Game
I don’t like the word ‘happiness’ because it conjures such a distorted image. We connect it with excitement, with passion, with euphoria. It’s a state, a feeling, ‘happy,’ but turning it into a noun makes it feel permanent.
We now think we can reach a stage where we’re always in that state and that’s just not true, nor would we want to live that way.
“Happiness to me is mainly not suffering, not desiring, not thinking too much about the future or the past, really embracing the present moment and the reality of what is, the way it is. Nature has no concept of happiness or unhappiness. To a tree, there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad.
Nature follows unbroken mathematical laws and a chain of cause and effect from the big bang to now. Everything is perfect exactly the way it is. It is only in our particular minds that we’re unhappy or not happy and things are perfect or imperfect because of what we desire.”
I think we should replace ‘happiness’ with ‘balance.’ It’s not about constant positivity, but about cultivating the belief that nothing’s missing. And there’s never anything missing.
The Only Thing That Remains
Sir Ken Robinson once explained why all children are geniuses:
“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
“Everything popular is wrong.” No wonder we love kids. They misstep all the time, but they do it with bravado. What’s genius about this is not that they come up with so much original stuff. It’s that their default behavior remains the same in all of life’s situations: be true to yourself, whoever that is in any given moment.
What you learn, who you’re with, how fast you’re going, what people know you for, who will remember you, how free you are, and even whether you’re happy, none of these things matter.
What does is the one thing no one can ever take away from you: You are. Right here, right now. And it’ll always be this way.