Day 36: Worst Mistakes People Make in Their 20s

My colleague Mike — yes, the same Mike with whom hitherto engaged regarding our different understanding of Schopenhauer and the Buddha in my last post — shared an interesting article on his wall today, and that is about, as the title of this post suggests, the worst mistakes people make in their 20s. 

In my last post, I put forward “the three methods” to be content with life: be happy with what you already have, don’t care too much about what other people say or think about you, and avoid possessing anything or becoming a possession — an object — of anyone at all. Now that I get to think about it, however, the first and the third methods are related. To be happy with what you have, in a way, is to not want to take in more materialistic stuff. Anyway, I failed all of these when I was in my 20s. During the years 2002 – 2012 (my 20s), I thought my life was far from being respectable.

My first photo with John in 1998, before we became good friends more than a decade later.

My first photo with John in 1998, before we became good friends more than a decade later.

So, I would do whatever — even to go extra miles without thinking about the moral consequences of my action — to gain other people’s respect either by possessing what they believed a respected person should possess, or by doing (now I think of it, totally meaningless) things that those guys somehow believed to be the benchmark of a successful life of a man in his 20s. I was totally wrong. So, my debate with my colleague Mike on Facebook, this time, was less fierce, because both of us could somewhat agree that we both did not do very well in our 20s. I, in particular, would like to go so far as to say that had philosophy been a part of my life earlier (i.e., in my 20s), I’d be much more careful with how I’d spent my life then. For instance, I didn’t know what it mean to be “free,” and I simply thought to be free was to be able to do whatever I wanted. That’s deadly wrong. Doing whatever I wanted was not good for me, and because my parents and people around me also wanted me to exercise my freedom, they did not save me from myself. I did all kinds of bad things. I lied to people just to take advantage of them without thinking about consequences of my action (I was free, yah?). By thinking that being free was separate from being moral, I may have destroyed a few people’s lives (which I actually don’t know since I have not been in touch with them). In short, I did so many things that I have been regretting about, — and am still regretting today because I thought “I was free.”

I do not want to be free from morality.

I wanted people — who know more than me — to tell me what was right, and what was wrong even if that would mean that I would be following orders external to me. These people don’t have to be philosophers or anything. They could either someone older than me, therefore had seen more, or simply someone more knowledgeable because they did not spend so much time taking detours in life mistakenly thinking that those detours were freedom. But I was young then, and therefore (almost by definition) stupid, I thought being free meant to listen to no one and to exercise my freedom by doing the opposite of what the society tried to tell me to do. Sometimes, I must say, that the society was not 100% right and in that case I was happy that I didn’t just follow what it told me to do. On the other hands, many estvalished norms were there because they were helpful in creating a society in which its members could interact with one another with respect and could trust each other. To be free, now I know, is to chained to moral values. We only kid ourselves that we are free simly because we act in whatever we want. That’s not free — that’s being chained to stupidity, immaturity, and the lack of moral sensibility.

Had I begun my quest to be free by asking the most fundamentally important question: “to be free from what?” Then, the meaning of being free could be very well different from simply to be able to do whatever I felt content with doing.

Me in 1998, in Bangkok, where I spent years studying architecture.

Me in 1998, in Bangkok, where I spent years studying architecture.

My answer to that question is the same as that of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sarte (Rosseau also writes something interesting, but when it comes to something interesting about freedom I prefer the systems that Kant and Sarte have developed). That is, I want to be free, but only from my natural inclination — the natural drive to lie, hurt, deceive, and trick people just to benefit myself. I, moreover, want to be free from the thinking that things have to be a certain way, and shut our doors to other options, or what Sarte calls “bad faith.” Being free from this way of thinking would need a little more courage, but it’s well worth it, my dear readers. I want to also be completely free from the myth that somehow the universe will solve the problem for me.

I want to live a life that is “meaningfully free,” because I am free to set up a moral system by which I would like to live my life, and able to follow it. The other way to support it is to be extend the notion of freedom into what free beings often don’t do, which is to “live my life to serve others.” In short, we tend to think of freedom as something rather individual and indepedent, but that is a selfish way to think about freedom. I also believe that the absolute form of freedom is to be free to help others. We don’t have to be chained to the ideas that our lives are only for ourselves.

Before I get to that point, let’s talk about the list that Richard Feloni, The Independent columnist, has complied. Here’s the list (and I think it’s worthwhile, especially if you are in your 20s to go through each of the item on this list one by one). I will also add my thoughts to those I think I may have something to add.

1) They neglect their health.

My father died one year after he had retired from his day to day job, at 62. The reason? He didn’t care about his health when he was young. He was a chronic smoker; and he may have realized that was not healthy, and quit by the time he was 40 — but that was too late. The lasting effect of which to his body made his life miserable for the next two decades. I remember so well how frequently he visited a hospital every week. How much he coughed, and how much he felt uncomfortable in his own body because he sometimes couldn’t sleep because of the thick saliva in his throat that he couldn’t get rid of. Growing up in the same house, I knew very well how painful it’s to suffer from not being able to breath (and in the sense, the most fundamental aspect of having a life is breathing, isn’t it?) thanks to my father. So, by the time he got to 50 year of age the doctor had to begin to prepare him for the worst, which came just eleven years after that physical diagnosis that his lungs and heart were failing.

2) They equate happiness with money.

Me in 1998 in Oklahoma City, which I consider my intellectual hometown.

Me in 1998 in Oklahoma City, which I consider my intellectual hometown.

And therefore, as many (including Dalai Lama) have said doing all kinds of things that are bad for their health and their time to make money, just to find out that they won’t actually have the chance to turn them into happiness. I was like that too, until I realized that I couldn’t use the money I had to buy happiness – which, to me, when I was in my 20s was to take my father on a trip because he liked to travel — because by the time that I had accumulated enough money to do so, my father was already dead. So, I had wasted so much time making and saving money for the person whom I loved, just to realize, in a hard way, that I could have spent those time with him and be happy right away. Now that he’s dead, it doesn’t matter anymore how much money I have.

3) They give up when things get tough.

I guess I don’t have anything to add to this because I never give up. I don’t take things for granted when they are easy, and I don’t give up when they are too hard. I solider on to test the limit of myself. Moving on.

4) They let others define them.

Right. This is the true kiss of death. Young men and women, please don’t let anyone tell you what you should be or should do, who you love or should love, and what to do with your own body. By letting yourself being succumbed into others’ object of deliberation, you are subjecting yourself to “bad faith,” and that will be the end of it — I mean, the end of your life since it will no longer be meaningful. You will no longer see the need to be free, and will be spend the rest of your life doing things that will only lead to slow death. Also read Day 28: I Was Just Lucky.

5) They are impatient.

I was young, and I was impatient. I thought I had everything, including the privilege to not having to wait. The attitude costed me a fortune. At one time, when the global economy was still doing okay, I thought I could “bypass” all the rites of passage to get at where I’d like to be, simply by taking out loans. Many people had spent years to earn enough to go abroad. I didn’t have that patient, and decided to take out a lot of money from the bank to pay for my own path. The result? The economic downturn hit the whole world very badly (in 2008) and my debts increased threefold. I had to spend almost 5 years after that to pay off my debts.

6 +7) They try to please everyone + They think all friendships can last forever.

Yes. We can’t please everyone. That’s just not possible. Even if we think are can, we can’t, and that’s because we are not in control of what other people think. As simple as that. The only mind that you are in control of is your own, and the best advise is to stick to what you believe is the best way to follow your own system of morality. Some people might not understand you at first, and they might never will, but that’s the path that you have chosen. It could be that it’s their false — it’s their loss — to not be pleased by you, and they might or might not know that. But there’s nothing you can do about it. Friendship, also, doesn’t last forever. Sometimes we come to the point that we can’t agree. I have all the tolerance of differences, as long as it’s the beliefs that are not egregiously in direct conflict with my own moral standards, which is actually not that high actually. All in all, I can be friends with anyone who believe that we might not be able to change the world, but we can do our part to make it better.” That’s the foundation of my moral standards. I did “unfriend” (in real life) a number of people who did not share with me this very basic foundation. So, friendship is important, but you shouldn’t let yourself sink that low neither if the way in which your friend thinks about his or her role in the society is in direct conflict with yours. Sooner or later, either both of you will do whatever just to serve your own self-interest, or you will no longer be friends. By the way, do savor, and keep the good memories though. So, live by your own moral standards, play by your own moral rules. Also see Day 35: How I Come Up with a Topic about Which to Write. 

8) They think moving somewhere new will solve their problems.

Maybe it can; and maybe it can’t. I actually think it can. It depends on the nature of your problem. I have been moving around a lot — not to run away from my problem though — and every time I am in a new place, the way I think about my problem changes. I believe there’s a merit in getting out of the place with which you feel familiar, and move your body and soul into a new terrain that might make you feel as though your problem isn’t that intense, bad, or difficult. So, in fact, I have to disagree with this point. I think moving somewhere new could help solving your problem. It might not change the problem, but it could change the way you see the problem and that could mean a lot.

9) They create bubbles around themselves.

See Day 31: Why Modesty is Bad for the Society.

10) They see things in black and white.

Yes, you shouldn’t. Most of the things we see in the world aren’t in black and white, so why should you be seeing them in black and white to begin with? The true answer, usually, lies in the grey area. In one episode of the Philosophize This podcast, the narrator Stephen West talks about the two opposing viewpoints of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine on how society should progress and implement change. While Burke advocated the slow and gradual “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken” kind of change, Paine only accepted “fast pace and all at once” revolution-styled kind of change as the only way to solve any kinds of problem. They are both right, despite the fact that only Burke was thought as being “on the right” then (pun, yes, intended). Paine here represented “the left” who couldn’t see that as the solution because most of the problems, to him, are deep-rooted and therefore the only way to solve them is to re-do the entire foundation. The thing is we are both left and right depending on the situation we are facing — well, we have both the left and the right hand. Each hand has their use. Sometimes we’d like gradual changes, and sometimes we believe that re-structuring the whole problem is the only way to fix the problem in long-term. Yet, even though sometimes we know that we need a structural change, but still prefer the slow and gradual change because we don’t have the means (e.g., money) to go ahead with the face pace one, so we do whatever we can and work with whatever we have. And sometimes we know that slow changes are better, but we have to go ahead with the face pace program because most of the people would not buy the idea of the slow changes. Also see Day 34: Waking Life.

11) They look for their “soul mate.”

See Day 15: All About Nana

12) They try planning years in advance.

See Day 26: On Death.

13) They think they’re the only one of their friends struggling.

You are not. We all have our own problems.

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