"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
This is the third installment in the Meaningfulness Project series, an essay project devoted to exploring a sense of purpose through long-term commitment to core values.
One quirk about me is this: I’m very prone to frequent “existential crises” and the feeling that I must start my life over, from square one.
This typically involves spending a day scouring books, journals and the Internet for inspiration. I search for a vision of the future that puts today’s actions into perspective. I want to feel like I’m making steady progress toward something special. Simply living and enjoying life is not enough.
Often, I’ll slip into one of these spells of ennui after learning about particularly impressive, magnificently focused people. The usual suspects might include Elon Musk, Amanda Palmer, Noam Chomsky, Beatrice Potter … recent highlights in my pantheon. The example these people set in their own lives and early trajectories seems to set my own choices in deep relief. Thus, I enter my monthly (sometimes weekly) tailspin.
To try and put a stop to this cycle of self-doubt, I’ve implemented a new daily ritual: Write your values.
Over the last month or so, I’ve formulated and re-formulated a list of ten key values. These are values that organize the past ten years of my life and education, they organize my actions in the present, and they help me visualize what my ideal future might look like.
My Ten Core Values
(If you click on the links, you’ll find source material that heavily influenced me to adopt these values)
Values from Previous Iterations
All of the values I tossed from the list are still relevant. If anything, on further reflection I found that they were redundant. Pursuing a deep knowledge of permaculture, for instance, brings about self-reliance as well as nature appreciation and a zero-waste lifestyle. My current understanding of optimal health also requires a whole foods, plant-based diet (check out nutritionfacts.org).
Each morning I write the list of my ten core values. Sometimes I annotate the list with that day’s plan to act out one value or another. When I’m in a rush, I might just say my list of values out loud. What’s more, this simple but reassuring ritual isn’t relegated to the morning, either. It’s always there when I need it.
As a result, I’ve found that my existential crises are less frequent. When they happen, they don’t hang around as long. I have more of each day to dedicate to my strengthening vision of a beautiful future — a future imbued with my values.
Also, when I’m pursuing something intensely, I’m not as troubled by the idea that five other passions of mine are languishing on the sidelines. For instance, I know that it will take me at least three months of intense work to get to a conversational level in a new language, and at the moment I’m fine with postponing this intense focus until I settle on a new travel plan (the culmination of my “multicultural” training).
It also helps that some values are really areas of personal mastery (permaculture, optimal health), some values are really techniques to achieve mastery and put it to work (creativity, curiosity, deep work) and some are important lifestyle choices that don’t necessarily require time-consuming effort (mindfulness, minimalism).
It’s my hope that by reaffirming my chosen values on a daily basis, I’ll be more prepared to commit to these values over the long-term, thus bringing me a critical step closer to living a meaningful life.