Modes of living

One of the many wonderful things about life is that like a good game, it allows players to develop their own playing styles. This essay is an attempt to document the two most salient dimensions of playing the game of life. Note that there’s no objectively right way of playing and the lack of “best practices” is what makes living interesting.

Think of the following classifications as an example of meta-mental models. Hopefully, a good understanding of the modes of living will help you reflect how you play right now and how you want to play in future.

Your relationship with the world

The first dimension of life is what type of relationship do you have with the world. On one extreme, you ‘live in the present’ and let the world carry you along with it and on the other extreme, you ‘live to change the world’ and carry the world along with you.

Note the difference between the monk’s way of living and the live-in-the-present way of living. It’s easy to mistake that both are same. The key difference is that in the monk mode, you practice non-reaction to everything while living in the present entails enjoyment of whatever life throws at you. Think of monks as stoics while everyone else being hedonic. The hedonic dimension has two extremes: one is where you try changing the world for extra pleasure and the other one is where you try changing yourself towards the same end.

The people at the extremes of the dimension are happiest of the lot. As you go towards the middle from either extreme, the level of happiness decreases because you’re less sure of what’s an appropriate mode of engagement in any particular situation. When faced with a choice, people in the middle aren’t sure whether they should accept things as they are or try to change the circumstances around them. In contrast to that, people at the extremes are always sure of their preferred mode of engagement and hence do not have this cognitive confusion.

That said, there’s no right way of living. Being a monk is not nobler than trying to put a dent in the universe. And trying to put a dent in the universe isn’t nobler than just enjoying the smell of roses in the garden as you’re passing by. Don’t trust the self-help books. The authors of those books are usually peddling their preferred way of living.

Your mode of engagement with the world

The second dimension relates to how you engage with the world. Is it primarily inward-looking or is it outward-looking?

Similar to the first dimension, it’s the people in the middle who’re usually less happy because they can’t decide whether they want to read a book or go to a party. Both extremes of this dimension are an equally valid way of living life. Remember, there is no objectively right way to live life? You must make up your own rules.

Life’s ultimate 2×2

Putting these two dimensions together, we get the life’s ultimate 2×2.

Take a moment to locate yourself in this 2×2. My earlier essay on discovering happiness may help you with triangulation. To reiterate, there’s nothing privileged about any quadrant, including being outside the entire diagram. The key point of this essay is that if you’re in the middle of the diagram, you’ll be confused and unhappy. The more you’re in the extremes, the more you can be sure of who you are and hence actually live more fully rather than continuously thinking about living.

That said, you cannot trivially choose a quadrant that you want to occupy. Your environment, your upbringing, and your personality play a big role in pushing you towards a location in the 2×2. However, once you’re aware of your available options for modes for life, you can make a conscious commitment towards exploring one or more of them.

It’s also OK to drift and explore all modes of life from time to time. Nobody is putting a gun on your head and asking you to always be the same kind of person at all points in your life and under all circumstances.

A perfect equilateral triangle doesn’t exist, but let’s make one anyway.

I find this freedom in adopting a style of living a fantastic reminder that either all ways of living life are wasteful or none of them are. So do whatever makes you happy, and if you’re not sure what makes you happy, keep drifting till you find or create situations that make you forget that you were questioning life. Once you start questioning your life choices again, begin drifting again.

If you never seem to find a settling ground, don’t panic. You, at the very least, will end up producing essays like this one and someone somewhere might end up benefitting from your questioning and unsettled drifting.

Happy playing!

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