In our hurried lives, we rarely have time for reflection. From the moment we rise from our beds, we’re rushing to the next thing: the next email, the next phone call, the next board meeting, the next subway station. Our lives embody what the ancients called the vita activa, the path of action, rather than the vita contemplativa, the path of reflection. When we do carve out time for contemplation, it’s usually to weigh the pros and cons of practical decisions: we might spend several weeks researching the purchase of a new car, many years deciding upon the right career. Yet we devote almost no time to what ancient philosophers believed was the most important goal of all: understanding ourselves.
In his insightful field guide, A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, lengthen our life, and listen to our boredom, beloved philosopher behind the School of Life, Alain de Botton, suggests we can only find contentment if we truly know ourselves. Rather than take the time to define our own tastes, he argues most of us “assume that what will work for others will work for us too.”
We most certainly are not other people.
While many might enjoy the bright lights and blaring electronic music of a dance club, we’d much rather spend our Saturday night cozying up in bed with a cup of chamomile tea and a good book.
While some might rejoice in the excitement of an evening with strangers, we despise dinner parties and would rather get a root canal than have to ask, yet again, “so what do you do?”.
And while some might love the effortless model-off-duty look of athleisure, we prefer heels and dresses to sneakers and sweatshirts.
Artists— more than anyone— can teach us how to know and be who we are. According to de Botton, what we call a great artist is someone who has the strength to “discover and then stay faithful” to themselves. Van Gogh, Andy Warhol: each was committed to their own aesthetic, their own vision— regardless of anyone else. Did Picasso sanitize the strange shapes and brutal anti-war imagery of “Guernica” to have more commercial appeal? Did he abandon his monstrous bull and dying soldiers for a classic bowl of fruit and pretty daffodils? No, he refused to paint in a way that was more traditional. Picasso— like all artists— uncompromisingly defended his own point-of-view.
All of us are artists of the everyday: we get to make our lives as beautiful as we want. Instead of mindlessly follow the masses (go to sweaty dance clubs, engage in empty-headed chatter between bites of spinach quiche, spend hundreds of dollars on trendy Lululemon pants and sneakers), we— like Picasso— can refuse to conform to convention and discover what genuinely gives us pleasure.
Imagine a first date. We look lovingly across a candlelit dinner as a sharply-dressed man in a pinstriped suit plays the piano. What makes the evening so charming is not the romance of the music or our glass of Merlot but the fact that our potential paramour is endlessly curious about us. Where did we grow up? What’s our favorite book? our favorite film? Where would we live if we could live anywhere in the world?
We should adopt a similarly inquisitive attitude toward ourselves.
What kind of work do we enjoy? Do we feel happiest when we’re collaborating with people or working alone? Do we like using our hands or find gratification in the intellectual challenge of solving complex problems?
What are the most important qualities of a romantic partner? charm? intelligence? ambition? a good sense of humor? emotional intelligence? empathy and understanding? a willingness to examine their own issues? Is it important that our partner can provide financial security? that he/she has a 401k and a stable job?
How do we most want to spend our weekends? Browsing a book store? Going hiking? Having a midday picnic? Would we rather spend our Friday night baking a cranberry apple pie or hitting the hottest club? Is our ideal Saturday morning an early yoga class or a ritzy mimosa brunch?
What sort of books do we pull off the shelves? Fiction or non-fiction? Bloody true crime or heart-racing thrillers? Are we obsessed with trashy paperback novels or do we exclusively read New York Times bestsellers?
What is our dream destination: meditating on a hilltop in Thailand or leading the dolce vita in Rome? How would we like to spend our getaway: doing daring deeds like climbing mountains and swimming with sharks or lounging on a beach in a tropical paradise? Do we prefer every hour of our itinerary to be jam packed with action and activity or do we like to have a few aimless hours to sunbathe in our swimsuits? Would we rather explore magical cenotes in Cancun or appreciate Italian renaissance art in the Louvre?
As de Botton so succinctly sums up, “which of our hitherto stray or guilty pleasures might we dare begin to focus and anchor our days around? What might we learn to say no to and, in contrast, to emphasize going forward?”
It is only when we ask ourselves such probing questions that we can unearth our authentic selves. “I was drifting without rudder or compass swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen,” Marion Milner once wrote in her aptly titled memoir A Life of One’s Own. Like Ms. Marion, if we want to be happy, we must find our own compass instead of rely on the winds of convention to determine our direction and propel our sails.