What Philosophy should be about?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading two books recently. ‘How much is enough‘, the first one, is a sensible attack on money for money’s sake and the absurdity of it. The second one, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘ is a classic that I read for the second time. This time it became clear to me that the book on many levels was talking about the an ugly outcome of single-minded urbanization. It also questions the apparent superiority of intellect over aesthetics. Of course, the two books are about much more than what I’m describing here but the underlying thread was common – both books urged considering mankind’s total quality of experience, rather than just material wealth or technological / scientific progress.

The idea of rationality holding supreme power to describe the universe is a very strong one and has actually lead to a lot of progress in recent centuries in terms of increased lifespan and other comforts. However, does this mean that in terms of stacking order Science is the end answer to everything? The two books inspired me to try approaching this from a first principles perspective.

So I asked myself where should all human inquiry begin?

In other words.

What philosophy should be about?

We now know that humans are a type of mammal, organisms evolved just like any other we find on Earth. Every now and then since the recorded history, man (a human) has gradually dethroned himself from being the centre of the universe to now a collection of biological cells capable of thought. Every time a Copernican revolution happened in Science, humans got closer to their primate family.

It’s both scientifically proven and commonly observed that much of our behaviour is animal-like. We eat, we reproduce, we play, we take care of young ones. We do pretty much that all biological creatures exist for – passing on genetic information to the next generation.

Since the biological nature of humans is an undeniable fact and impacts us in a very personal way, I believe that is what all philosophies should take as a given. Biological nature of humans should be an axiom. No matter how much theorising is done in Philosophy, one can’t wish away the biologicalness of humans. A lot of our wants, drives and even what’s right and what’s wrong comes from our biologically derived behaviour. So a student of Philosophy should have a very good grasp of subjects such as evolution, animal behaviour, psychology, and even genetics. Without a thorough understanding of how evolution and nature has shaped humans and their wants, all the talks about morals, values, aesthetics and politics would be wishful thinking. Biology is to philosophy what physics is to chemistry. If an experiment shows that humans tend to make irrational choices, one can’t theorise the supremacy of rational choices over what choices actually get made. In other words, in terms of usefulness – which is what Philosophy should be bothered with – intellectual truth is subordinate to human nature and that is what all Philosophies should take as a given.

However, human nature can be shaped.

The fantastic unique ability of humans for elaborate communication and exchange of thoughts makes us different from the rest of biological creatures. Avoidance of suffering is programmed into us (and all other creatures) through evolution. The drive for survival and food lead a creature into suffering-minimizing mode. The drive for reproduction and sex lead it to happiness-maximizing mode. All creatures including humans are programmed to minimise suffering and maximize happiness.

The only way for all biological creatures apart from humans to maximize survival and reproduction is through unconscious, programmed genetic evolution over generations. Humans are special in that regard. In addition to genetic record, we can record our experiences in oral and written form and teach the same generation on how to minimize suffering and maximize happiness — the drives that evolution wants us to optimize for.

I think this basic drive towards well being (where suffering is minimal and happiness is maximized) is what Pirsig refers to as Quality in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We can pass our experiences, experiments and thoughts to others in order to collectively achieve a high Quality life.

I believe that’s what human inquiry should be about – provided that we’re a biological creature, what should we do in order to lead a good life, a life with maximum well-being, a happy and satisfactory life.

The nature of goodness needs elaboration. Goodness for biological creatures relates to their survival and reproduction. Sure, evolution had made our brain seek goodness and rewards it with dopamine whenever it is achieved and punishes it with pain whenever it’s not. However, an argument could be made that if humans succeed in isolating pure consciousness that is unencumbered from biological constraints, what would that consciousness do (or seek)? What would a Philosophy for pure consciousness look like. I doubt we can ever isolate pure consciousness or that it exists but let’s assume it as a thought experiment. This is akin to making a computer which exhibits signs of consciousness. What would such a pure consciousness do?

Suppose there are then multiple such pure consciousness, multiple metaphysical entities. Since we don’t know what such pure consciousness would be bothered about let’s assume that different entities exhibit different behaviours. Some randomly drift. Some dissipate. Some replicate and spread. Interestingly, given multiple varieties of entities, eventually only the entities that replicate and spread will remain and dominate others in the population. In other words, we can hazard a guess that another evolution may kickstart for this hypothetical scenario and that evolution will also lead the dominating consciousness to seek some sort of goodness. The nature of that goodness is uncertain, but in my opinion there’s a tantalising possibility of a universal state that is preferable than other states. In the world of pure consciousness, such metaphysical entities will philosophize on how to achieve that good state.

Hence, given the underlying nature of the beings or entities, Philosophy should really be concerned about maximizing well-being, goodness or whatever else it is called in respective contexts.

Why is there anything at all?

We humans have cognizance of the universe and unlike other creatures we can’t help but wonder why is there a universe in the first place. Why anything exists at all? The fact that there is something rather than nothing and we don’t know why proves that there is a gap in our understanding and experience. Science and rationality cannot be expected to answer the why question. They answer what and how.

No matter how much scientists say that the question of why anything exists is meaningless or impractical, the void always nags and points to limitations of science. Perhaps that void can only be filled with a direct (spiritual?) experience and not through intellectual understanding?

Since the void nags and reduces well being for many (including me), Philosophy should also aim at taking a stab at how such a void can be filled. Perhaps the answer is arts, poetry, morality or beauty. I’m not sure what it is but any valid Philosophy should attempt to provide a total satisfaction – including these nagging questions.

In summary, if you have to begin an inquiry, here’s where you could begin:

Given that human is a biological creature, a product of evolution, what can we do to maximize well being. Bonus points for answering why anything exists at all?

You can then derive answers as to why you sometimes feel enslaved by modern urban life, what is the nature of morality, how much money is enough, is democracy the right form of government and many such questions like that from time to time.

How increased automation could lead to a happier and more egalitarian society

First, watch this video titled ‘Humans Need Not Apply’.

Now answer this question: what would happen when all jobs that humans perform today will be automated?

The scenario of nobody having a job might seem fancy and theoretical at first, but it’s becoming more realistic with each passing day. Google, Uber, BMW, and a lot of other organizations are on track to release self driving vehicles as soon as next year. And as the video demonstrates so beautifully, this is not just happening to the transportation industry. Automation will impact every sphere of human activity – be it creative, mechanical, cognitive or managerial.

We live in a world of machine learning, APIs, exponentially improving technology, billion dollar disruptions. A lot of such innovations are about making humans redundant.

What will millions of jobless people do?

Taking transportation as an example again, as self-driving cars become commonplace we will rapidly have millions of jobless drivers who are unskilled. As manual labor gets replaced with automation and machines, such unskilled people would find it increasingly difficult find other jobs. Even if they get skilled, gradually automation will reduce the number of jobs available for skilled people. I concur with the video that this wave of people with no jobs will swell into a huge tsunami. Are governments prepared to handle this? In the short term, this will have a very real impact of worsening standard of living for a lot of people. They simply wouldn’t have any money to pay for even basic stuff.

What governments need to do?
Automation leads to concentration of wealth into certain corporations and individuals. A single innovation in automation by a specific company or individual can replace thousands and millions of jobs. Where income earlier used to go to many people doing the job, now the same (somewhat reduced) income will go to one company that developed that specific automation. This concentration of wealth will be sharper because of the network effects (the winner takes it all) and rich getting richer. Consider how Google is using technology to swell its cash reserves and revenues quarter after quarter. If earlier many thousands of cartographers used to get paid to map cities, now Google can just pay for fuel and have its self-driving car + maps software to automatically generate city maps at a detail no human cartographer can match.

Governments will eventually realize the irony of companies like Apple and Google having billions in cash reserves while millions being jobless due to no fault of their own and being unable to afford basic amenities of life. Governments could realize this fact by themselves or protests, activism or even vandalism can make them wake up to this fact.

Higher taxation and “Citizen wage”
As wealth gap increases (more so due to automation concentrating wealth in some hands), governments will have to step in to rectify the situation. I side with the (semi-popular) view of higher corporate and individual taxation. The taxes that are collected from wealthy firms will go back to individual citizens as a wage just for existing. Consider citizen wage like a basic income that everyone gets from the government. This re-distribution of wealth from wealthy corporations to individuals will be justified because lack of jobs is a situation that corporations created. Poverty is not a choice people opt for.

Will higher taxes stifle innovation?
The main argument about capitalism is that it promotes innovation. The lure of money leads people to compete, innovate and provide better services. If taxes are high, why would any corporation care to bring new products in the market? If a government guarantees a good standard of living to everyone for free, why would anyone do anything? Won’t this lead to a lazy, complacent society?

I doubt that people will get lazy. Individuals drive corporations and individuals are typically driven much more by non-monetary factors like satisfaction and having an impact on society. Think Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Page – are they doing this for money or they’re doing this for their own satisfaction? Imagine if everyone is satisfied with a basic standard of living, won’t people come together and still innovate because they like innovating? In fact, if we take money out of the equation and have some other metric to track individual and societal progress, it may increase overall happiness and accelerate the pace of innovation because everyone will be guaranteed a decent standard of living, so people can do what they’re best at without worrying about how they’re going to pay for dinner. Think of all the poets who are forced to drive taxis.

Co-operation between countries
Countries are increasingly interdependent for their economies. Outsourcing of services and manufacturing has left many countries dependent on exports. What would happen when automation causes some countries to become self sufficient? Take India’s scenario – millions of young engineers are dependent on outsourcing of IT services and BPO, both of which are easy targets for automation. This would lead to disproportionate job losses in India. Same would happen to China if manufacturing cost due to automation gets cheaper than the human labor.

Even if one country recognises the inevitability of automation and gives its citizens a wage for existing, other governments might not be in agreement and their citizens will suffer (due to automation-led job losses). I’m not sure if any outside government would be concerned about loss of jobs in India due to automation. India would have to tackle this problem by itself. This tackling could happen in two ways: one is to recognise that automation is real and is here to stay. This means establishing “citizen wage” (just like other governments are doing). The other way for government would be to shut its door to all “imported” automation. This is a very real possibility – there are potentially hundreds of millions of jobs stake and some countries (like India) that are very labour driven could succumb to this. This “banning” of automation will make some countries go backward, become more and more inefficient and less productive, while other countries march forward, becoming more and more productive.

We will reach there

Automation is a strong force and I think the possibility of most human jobs getting automated is very real. This would lead to citizen wage, where people will work whatever they feel interested in, rather than being forced to work in order to survive. However, in the interim, as pointed out in this reddit thread, there will be chaos. In some countries, it might take vandalism and violence to drive home the point. Others might just handle this very smoothly. A perfect outcome requires individuals, corporations and governments work together and admit that basic human survival is at stake.

The real use of money is to buy freedom

As the founder of a profitable software company, I happen to make more money than most office-goers of my age. There’s no shame or pride in admitting that. I don’t dislike money. Having quite a bit of it is simply a fact. Though there must be many thousands of people who have enormously more money than me, I consider myself lucky to have more than I need right now.

However, more than the money, what fascinates me is the nature of money, its ubiquity and how our behavior gets unknowingly influenced by it.

The insecurities attached with the money

I have grown up in a typical middle-class household where one is rightly nurtured into not being extravagant. I was taught to value money (which I thoroughly appreciate). Even though, in my childhood, I always got whatever I wanted, the truth is that I never wanted big, expensive toys. That attitude has lingered on to the present day. Now I know what matters and what doesn’t. I firmly believe that material possessions may end up owning my life rather than I owning them. I would certainly be not happier if the entire day I worry about my new scratch-less Porsche, my next investment or whether my portfolio is currently showing positive or negative returns.

A life spent mostly hoarding money and possessions is a wasted life

Keeping the things you own in a good condition and actively managing and cleaning them is one aspect. The other aspect is the constant worry of losing it all.

Isn’t it funny that one first works hard to earn some money, and then worries constantly about not having it anymore? This insecurity keeps even the richest people actively working to make even more money, while they sweat away their only life, working extremely hard while deprioritizing their friends / families (which of course they will regret at their deathbeds). All this hard work is for the future, though. When will this future arrive, they don’t know. With enough money in the bank, they will feel safe. Except that rarely anyone defines “enough” and no body ever is really safe. A bus could run over you tomorrow, and no amount money could save you if you were destined to die.

It’s true that having money is a good thing, and that if you happen to afford good (and probably expensive) medical treatment, chances of you surviving a crash might be higher. However, I can bet that this life-saving amount would be much lesser than what most people aspire for to “save”. And there’s always medical and disability insurance to take care of this scenario.

Then why do we run after money?

I feel there is an irrational attraction which humans have for security. They are inherent afraid of their mortality and subconsciously or otherwise, will do anything that assures them of a meaningful, comfortable existence. Money is perhaps the best proxy for this permanence that we desire. It might also be related to our evolutionary instinct of hoarding food for the rainy days. Better to have more food than less food, right?

Luxury lifestyle and the hedonic adaptation

People who make a lot of money too soon such as entrepreneurs or lottery winners usually end up increasing their standard of living. Consider how going to expensive restaurants, watching movies on a bigger TVs, or moving into a larger home would make you happy only for a while. After that initial rush, it’s back to normal. This is called hedonic adaptation and I’m sure as we reflect, we can see that this adaptation has happened many times with us, yet we keep falling into its trap.

Some might argue that even the initial rush is worth all the money, but there are many unintended side affects of significantly changing your standard of living. You end up not hanging out with your friends that often because they won’t go into that expensive restaurant. You end up spending a lot of time managing whatever things you’ve bought. You end up feeling bad about yourself because now your comparison is with houses much bigger than yours. But worst of all is that you end up feeling out-of-place at all the places that your earlier avatar once considered luxury, say an economy class airline ticket to Europe because now you prefer traveling business class.

Isn’t it ironic that just because you’re used to a better standard of life, you’ve suddenly excluded so many potential joy-bearing experiences? Sadly, some people never experience this non-correlation between money and happiness, and they end up dedicating their lives to making money while they could have had been much more happy chasing experiences. Money in the bank has rarely given anyone any happiness. All it has given is a false sense of security.

Is money such a bad deal?

I’m not saying that money is inherently bad and that we should keep away from it. Even though the swiss are considering giving money to all its citizens who are alive, some amount of money is absolutely required to stay alive. I’m also not parodying all the poor people in the world who simply struggle to make their ends meet. My point is a subtle one:

After a certain, basic amount that is required for a reasonable daily life, unless put to its rightful use, the extra money could end up consuming one’s life and make one actually less happy than before.

Freedom: the only luxury that extra money affords

Freedom is very important to everyone. The freedom to do whatever one wants, wherever one wants (within moral limits, I hope). The only, legitimate use of money is to be able to say no to things you don’t want to do and yes to things which feel out of reach.

For instance, without money, it is not possible to go on an adventure trip to Antarctica. But that trip may not happen if you’re busy making even more money or busy managing your existing stash. And, although it might be true that certain people just get kicks out of making money, science definitely tells us that certain things make us predictably more happy than others. So people who are irrationally attracted to hoard are just victims of uninformed biases.

Yes, I know that life has no real meaning and that worrying about time running out is futile, but happiness is real and being happy is more important than not being happy. If we make a mathematical model containing life expectancy and value of life, each passing moment of our life would seem to be infinitely more valuable. Then, why not prioritize life over money and recognize that the true value of money is in actually letting us design a happier life which consists of varied experiences, many of which (sadly) cannot be had without money. (One of such experiences is helping needy people. Science tells us that it is an easy way to “buy” happiness.)

In nutshell:

We must constantly question what money really is for because, by default, it has some magical properties of animating most of our non-retrievable waking hours. Let money not guide you.

(PS: A note on managing money. It’s odd when I see people sweating over which investments to make. Typical methods of calculating “returns on investment” tend to forget the cost of our anxiety in deciding and the cost of time spent analyzing, managing and maintaining that investment. Is that extra percent of returns really worth it if you couldn’t sleep even for a single day worrying about whether it was the right decision?)

Life as a question with no answers

The meaninglessness grips him by the throat at any moment of the day. Not caring about where he is and with whom is he, like a ferocious, prowling predator, the feeling arrives unannounced, rips apart his flesh and leaves him half-eaten, bleeding with not blood but streams of shameless, naked guilt. The guilt of meaningless existence.

He has been found caught in a swirling pool of this feeling at all sorts of places where the expected state of mind is one of the common moods such as joy, sadness, anticipation, reflection, or tens of others that people keep talking about. Instead, multiple times a day, what he feels is a sharp confusion followed by an invisible, choking paranoia that he’s going to die one day, and nobody really, truly, deeply cares about his existence. And why should they? They have their own lives to bother with.

Of course, he was not born with this feeling. His first memory is a sweet one; it’s about clutching a two-rupee note, while spiritedly darting towards the candy shop in the neighborhood. He distinctly remembers the sky that breezy day to be a little grey, the kind he prefers. And he also remembers his favorite orange candies which were cheap and abundant, and how they were wrapped in a white paper cover making each candy resemble a well-ironed bow tie. In those days, each kid had its hands full of them. A single rupee could fetch ten of such candies. He remembers how sucking on those candies seemed to have given him infinite bliss, as if the sweet liquid gushing out of it was hallucinogenic. At that innocent moment in his past life, he was perhaps in a childish trance. Or so, that is how he prefers to remember it.

Today, this memory – and many other similar ones where only the happy parts are remembered, not the boring ones – evokes two simultaneous, yet diametrically opposite emotions. When he reflects on the memory, he feels immensely proud of having lived through such a wonderful time, of being born as a human capable of having such memories (and not a simple-minded cockroach, leech or a snail), of being lucky enough to be able to afford this memory (and not having perished as a poor, destitute and malnourished kid). This feeling of airy joy fills his lungs and leaves him with a relaxed sigh of being alive, and giddies him up about the capacity of future to gift him many more such times. But before long, his sweet stillness is pierced by the painfully clear thought of his own death in future, and how that certain event would render his entire life (and all its associated memories) meaningless. In fact, he feels that his future death, in a way, renders his life and his actions meaningless today, not some distant tomorrow. It’s because one day his death will surely arrive and that day would be just like any other day. Today could be it. Any day that brings him death would be today on that specific day. Days are never special, he thinks. The only subject that occupies a man on his deathbed is his own death.

At such moments, for the briefest of moments, he catches a glimpse of his own flood of thoughts inside the vast ocean of constantly turbulent mind. Truth be told, it makes him proud and amused that mind is able to accommodate the existence of happiness and dejection at the same time. Isn’t that interesting? Though, sadly, this pride of holding mixed emotions doesn’t help in resolving the unease about the questions that have no answers.

Ironically, what brings him relief from these semi-frequent bouts of dejection about death is the thought that he’s going to die in future. His constant contemplation on death has inevitably made an impression on his intuition, further strengthening his resolve that one’s short life on this planet, even though meaningless, should never be sad. Happiness and exhilaration is what he seeks (and often gets). No doubt, even on a happy day, like everyone else, he would get faint, fleeting feelings of guilt and sadness, but he likes to imagine that unlike others he just carries on with the happy feelings while leaving behind the sad ones to rot. He has no hang ups about the past, and at will, he’s able to erase all negative feelings of guilt, shame, sadness and anxiety. Once he told a friend that the constant awareness of death brings genuine happiness. He also jokingly referred himself to be an Übermensch. His friend didn’t care.

He doesn’t know whether he should qualify it as a sad feeling, but one feeling that he constantly runs away from is that dreaded time when his mind is completely blank and the time around him shamelessly hangs on the wall, refusing to march forward. Yes, he feels boredom quite sharply and the possibility of it makes him tremble from the inside. Why can’t he just relax and enjoy the endless time, you may ask him. Try getting an answer from a depressed, suicidal person and you’ll get your answer on his behalf.

Even though he does not hate life, he would have been perfectly at peace if he were never born. It isn’t as if he prefers not to exist, it’s just that existence doesn’t matter to him. The question of life is moot. Meaningful life is an oxymoron. This indifference might seem cruel or pompous, depending if you love him or not, but that’s what the truth is and he’s unable to change it. Multiple times, he has tried shouting at the sky, demanding the universe some sort of an answer, but he has never got one.

Now, he has given up shouting. He isn’t tired of shouting; only that, now he feels he should be occupied with things that make him happy. Today, he has his memories that he treasures, a life that is a source of happiness and clarity of what life is about and why one must enjoy it at all costs.

Existential drivel

The problem with us humans is that we want everything to happen today. The reason we are so impatient is because tomorrow is really a bet that we’re uncertain to win. Whether we will be alive to see tomorrow unfold or not, we cannot say for sure. That’s why we want all the love, excitement, significance and exhilaration to arrive one after the other without many breaks. In fact, sleep or exhaustion often feels a guilt-ridden letdown to an over-anxious mind. Why sleep when you could be living, for it is uncertain that you will wake up tomorrow.

It’s funny though how this emotional want for right now and the thin sorrow of not being able to make the best out of the limited time we have conflicts directly with the vivid realization that time shouldn’t matter at all precisely because death is a certainty and all these moments that one so desperately wants to capture for the eternity will fade with oneself. The sun will explode, the universe will become a nothing once again.

I guess the only resolution of this irritating, recurrent conflict is constant reiteration of the fact that even though life is meaningless, one has to make the best of it. Or, maybe not! What you make of life really does not matter. But it is certainly unavoidable that life has to be lived and why not! It’s a chance to become a small part of the mysterious phenomena of the universe being there at all without any purpose whatsoever. If the universe doesn’t care about its existence, why should we?

Why do I then care about writing this piece at all? I could have avoided it and my life, the universe and everything else between it would have been as absurd with or without my words.

But if not for vomiting these attention-hogging thoughts of mine, how else would I put my overanxious mind to sleep? It’s all for that sleep, where the absurdity ends but so does the fun too!

On being okay with boredom

Imagine a usual Wednesday evening. A week earlier, there was a similar Wednesday evening, and of course, next week, there will be another Wednesday evening. These Wednesday evenings never stop arriving and all of them look essentially the same. Wednesday evenings are insignificant, boring chunks of time that you cannot avoid.

Finishing his work a little early, he comes home tired, mechanically changes into nightclothes, eats a tasteless dinner, and, on the dinner table, engages in a forced chitchat with his wife. As he opens and closes his mouth to utter careless words, he keenly feels the insignificance of the talk because all the significant conversations have already been done in the past. All that is remaining to talk about is trivial curiosities about food, work, travel and other miscellaneous stuff. He forces himself to think of something interesting, but nothing worthwhile strikes his listless mind. He believes he loves his beautiful wife and usually the same chitchat gives him a warm, fuzzy feeling and makes him happy, but today does not seem to be one such joyful day. Today, he is utterly bored.

He is bored because this Wednesday is an unimportant day. The hate for Monday has subsided and the excitement for a Saturday hasn’t arrived yet. Wednesday is just a large expanse of time that has to be filled with something substantial. He feels the weight of being happy at this particular moment.

The pressure to do something meaningful is immense because any day in the future he might die. He’s scared of death so he wants to feel relevant while he is still alive. He wants his every moment to count for something special. He wants magical, larger-than-life days.

Unfortunately, Wednesday is not magical. It’s dull and he knows that quite vividly. While his wife is cleaning the dining table, he drifts towards his room and realizes that the monotony of this evening is killing him. But he has no energy left to rebel against the dullness that is crawling besides him into the room. He is a silent observer to his own life, watching time swoosh by every second, day-after-day, Wednesday-after-Wednesday, year-after-year, death-after-death. He asks himself: what’s the point of it all. He waits for an answer but all he hears back is some distorted, incoherent echoes.

Because this empty, dejected Wednesday evening makes him aware of the passage of time so vividly, he fears living through it. Time is unnaturally slow today. He desperately wants to run away to somewhere else, but where should he go? He wants to escape, but he also knows that time runs at the same discolored pace everywhere. No matter where he is, he knows that life will always keep pushing such boring, never-ending Wednesdays at him. One day, even if he finds Shangri-La, he knows he will get bored there too. What is he going to do then? Escape again? Escape to where? There really is no running away.

So, what should he do now?

He tries to distract himself by watching silly kitten videos followed by dejected scan on Facebook where everyone else has an awesome life. These trivial activities fail to lift his mood. His room is dark, he is laying on his stomach with his nose plunged inside the pillow. With his body numb, mouth dry, and eyes unfocused, he probably just wants to sleep early.

Most people grasp the true meaninglessness of who they are and what the universe is up to on a day like this Wednesday evening. When boredom strikes, the desperation to end it is immense. Since his boredom is so deep and real, he cannot hope to escape it with shallow distractions. Half amused, half depressed, he thinks he has no choice but to either kill himself or learn to be comfortable inside his own skin, while fully being aware of the absurdity of being so. Really, he has to be either distracted and happy, or bored and real. He cannot expect to be real and happy at the same time. It’s logically impossible.


Interestingly enough, boredom never lingers on. A magical Saturday evening appears once again and he is happy as a duck once again, totally forgetting how dreadful that Wednesday evening was. Thank god he’s human.

What is freedom?

Nonlinearity rules our world, and human minds are often too simplistic and shortsighted to comprehend it fully. People in general will agree that happiness is a (if not the) goal in their lives. However it is ironical that in spite of aspiring for happiness, they still wouldn’t be honest with themselves to pursue that goal single-mindedly. Why honesty and authenticity is important in life? Well, that’s a different post altogether, but briefly speaking, in the face of our inherently meaningless lives, why will anyone prefer a dishonest life over an honest one is beyond me. At least, one should be honest with oneself, if not with the entire world.

An example of such dishonesty is the utter ignorance of what freedom is and why happiness cannot be ensured without freedom.

What really is freedom anyway? I’m talking about freedom in a very broad sense. Doing work for someone else, having a job or loving someone has nothing to do with freedom. Freedom is NOT doing whatever the heart desires right now. Freedom is the possibility of doing whatever the heart desires right now. Freedom is the possibility of breaking free, if and when needed. Freedom is the confidence of not being chained in an unhappy state. Pursuit of freedom is to continuously ensure that one is not relenting control of life to any person or any sort of circumstances.

No one but you has any right on your life.

What limits freedom?

Inherently, everyone is free. Slowly, society and its associated conditioning creeps in and binds one to behave in certain paradigms. For example, freedom is easily limited by the following:

Moral commitments about the future. If you promise someone about something, you ought to stick to it, even if it means restriction of your freedom. Why morality and future commitments take precedence over freedom is an important topic and it deserve a fuller treatment in an another post. Briefly speaking, in order to maximize happiness for everyone (hence to maximize your own happiness, averaged over a lifespan), expectation of reciprocity is what should drive our world. If I deviate from my commitments, I should not expect other people to stick to their commitments. However, if other people’s commitments and honesty is important to my happiness, I cannot and should not renege on my commitments.

This means that one should be careful about the future. Promising someone about something far in future is not a good idea because closer to the present a commitment is, more confidence you have to fulfill it without impacting much of your happiness. Who knows which commitments of yours conflict with your future. When such a conflict appears, at that point you don’t want to run away from your commitments just because you didn’t have foresight not to promise things you can’t fulfill.

Government, state and the law. Perhaps the gravest limitation on your freedom is from the laws your don’t agree with. Due to facticity, this is especially interesting because you don’t choose the country you are born in. You are simply thrown into a set of laws that you are required to obey. Your only hope is that in the country you are born in, freedom is a value that is vigorously defended. For example, if you happen to be born in Indonesia and you don’t believe in God, you’re in big trouble because being an atheist is a punishable crime there. In such case, what do you do? Do you lie about your beliefs? I say no, you should NEVER lie if you uphold authenticity in life as a key value. So, there are really two actions you could take: a) Don’t speak up and refuse to talk about your beliefs (apparently, even that is not possible in Indonesia. You have to choose among one of the five state “sanctioned” religions.), or b) fight for your freedom, even at the extent of getting executed for blasphemy and other such nonsense.

Photo by Peter Szabo

States and governments have infinite more power as compared to the individual, so if one’s freedom conflicts with their rules, his only option is to defend his freedom and absorb a lot of discomfort that arises from this conflict. As long as one goes down fighting for his ideal, I think it is honorable and totally worth it.

This is also why we should promote and talk about freedom as much as possible. Governments should understand the concept freedom better than anything else, otherwise they don’t deserve to remain in power.

Respect and love trumping rationale and logic. I’m sure many of us have been in situations where our own happiness and freedom conflicts with people we love and respect. But sacrificing one’s freedom and feeling unhappy about it, simply to avoid a conflict with people we love is just very wrong. Nobody but the individual himself/herself has the right on his/her life and freedom. That’s why I say disrespecting parents is the mark of a thinking man, and one should be ready to ditch relationships (if one hasn’t committed unconditionally), and why we should not have heros in life.

I’m not saying that we should not love or respect other people. We should be as kind hearted and full of love as we can. However, we should have a very clear awareness that we love ourselves more than anyone else, and if others intrude on our freedom, we should be ready to break ties and let go without many emotional hangups. Whenever there is conflict, we should listen to arguments that others put up, but if we don’t agree with their rationale and logic, just out of respect or love, we should NEVER do something that restricts our freedom.

Ego combined with shortsightedness. Freedom dissolves entirely when someone else sets the rules of the game and one follows him/her blindly, out of ego or peer-pressure. Such confused actions do not constitute freedom. That’s slavery to the universe. A simple example is probably related to money and work. If your friends are pursuing an MBA and you do the same just because you think you might get left out if you don’t enroll in an MBA program as well, and you fear that your friends may start making more money than you in that case. So out of fear induced by your friends’ actions, you do something you never wanted to do. Would you call it a free choice? Your friends are setting the rules, and you are just following those rules unquestionably.

In business context, same is with competition. In my startup, the reason I consciously avoid looking at the competition and then do things they are doing is because I do not want someone else to dictate how I run a business. Even if I don’t act on what I observe, the mere act of knowing what the competition is up to creates a subconscious bias. If competition raises funding, does that mean out of fear we raise funding too? If raising funding was an independent decision, I’d be happy but if it were done in response to some events you I don’t control, that is simply relenting my life and freedom to others.

Why people are happy if they make poor choices related to their freedom?

This is interesting. Actually, the relationship between freedom and happiness is probabilistic. You could be chained, yet the point of unhappiness may never appear. Many chains of love, respect and commitments in fact usually cause a lot of happiness. However, when things go worse, only then such chains are noticed and cause extreme amounts of unhappiness because one wants to break free yet one cannot do so without being dishonest to oneself and to the world. And dishonesty and inconsistency of one’s value system is what causes incurable unhappiness. In other words, if things are going good, freedom takes a backseat. However, we should always be concerned about absolutely the worst case to ensure in those dark and trying times that we have always chased freedom, so we have been authentic to ourselves, it is just that now circumstances have gone sour. This thought alone gives a lot of happiness and confidence in the worst of periods in life.

How to ensure freedom?

One ensures freedom by taking decisions that ensure if at any moment in future one decides to do whatever the hell one wants to do, one is able to do that without being dishonest and without failing at any past commitments. So, commitment becomes an expensive currency that should be thoughtfully used, if at all. For example, following situations ensure freedom:

  • If you are working for someone, this means being ready to quit at any moment without any notice or with a minimal notice (if you have committed to that)
  • Future is as uncertain as it can get, so this means not signing up for something that won’t let you change direction if that seems to be the most appropriate one in future
  • Having courage to even stake your life if freedom is intruded by state or others. Many freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh understood the concept of freedom very clearly and, even though they died in the process, they were actually free within themselves while others lived (probabilistically) unhappily or happily, but forever chained. And those chains could any time cause immense amount of unhappiness. Is a chained life really worth living?

What does freedom ensure? Why is it a value worth dying for?

What freedom ensures is that you, and only you get to decide about your happiness. It detaches you from external, could-have-been-controlled factors that cause most amount of regret. Freedom ensures you a regretless life, which gives confidence to be happy even in the worst of circumstances. Freedom lets you become an individual capable of conquering the world, all by himself.

Freedom is self-confidence in the face of complex present and uncertain future.

Actually, anyone can be free by saying any time fuck-it-I-don’t-care without doing any deep thinking about future commitments. However, that is not moral. Morality is a higher ideal as compared to freedom. Morality is a given.

Many decisions that relate to freedom ultimately end up being counter-intuitive to what society expects. For example, striving for freedom means probably failing at trying to do a startup than taking up a nice, cozy job. It also means disagreeing with people you love and respect, even at the expense of leaving them. It means maximizing possibility of future freedom (remaining bootstrapped) by letting go of short-term happiness and comfort (raising VC funding). However, being able to say fuck-it-I-don’t-care while still remaining true to your commitments, value system and morality is the greatest source of joy!

Since the effect of freedom on happiness is probabilistic, all we can hope for is to maximize it and leave the rest to uncertain and complex turn of future events. Future may bring happiness or unhappiness. However, we will always have the comfort of having made the right decision of ensuring we are free and hoping it leads to happiness.

Everydayness and the longing for the magical

It’s interesting how poets, writers, artists and philosophers have to go through their daily ablutions. They have to eat, drink, defecate and clean their bodies every now and then, actually, in fact on a regular basis. A writer may sit in a café for a few hours, churn out some of his best work and feel like he has been transported into a universe where words come alive and his characters are real, but as soon as his coffee finishes and the waiter presents the cheque, he is jolted into the same world he inhabited a couple of hours ago, a world that is very much his. The same world where he was born. The same world he started despising for its endless boredom and repetitious chores that drearily inhabit it.

However, that world is the only true reality he has got. The longing to step away from our everyday lives and get transported into a magical land is so strong that many of us give up little beauties blossoming all around us to chase a scene that doesn’t exist. We read a character sketch truly engrossing, or we watch a movie where lovers are kissing with the Eiffel tower at the backdrop and soft jazz playing melodically through the gentle cool breeze and we sigh and say, gosh this is lovely. Why is that scene lovely and why you watching a sitcom all alone, eating popcorn on a regular Wednesday evening not lovely?

I presume it’s because we’re overly familiar with ourselves. We are bored of being with ourselves. We are bored of our homes. We are bored of our offices. Our own life appears humdrum. But consider this. Imagine your very own life being cast into a movie, a beautiful, magical movie. A frame shows you arriving home, tired and jaded, and you meet your lovely life and instantly the frame zooms into that little glass trinket you have on your dining table, and guess what, the trinket is shining, cutting white light into millions of colors onto the table and the frame then shows the sun setting in the backdrop and probably a Beatles song is illuminating the whole scene. Won’t you find that magical? I do.

We usually miss a lot in our life. The longing to be somewhere else, to be with someone else, and to become someone wrenches our souls so much that we forget that we are someone else for someone out there. What we find as boring might be the most fascinating thing ever. Someone out there might be envying us right now.

The longing for the magical never ends. The longing never culminates. It’s temporary and constantly changing, but our very own world is permanent. Once you force yourself to come to terms with the reality that engulfs your life, our very own world becomes magical.

You are the lead character in a movie, the protagonist in a novel, the subject of an art piece, and you are immortal in your own life. Stay happy, spread bliss and enjoy the fuck out of your every day life!

I love you.

Please don’t let yourself get stereotyped. You’re infinite. You’re beautiful.

Expectations are interesting in forming one’s identity. As the CEO of an A/B testing software startup, I am expected to behave in a certain way. I am expected to be on Twitter (@paraschopra), constantly devouring and commenting on funding news on TechCrunch, participate in lean startup discussions, track and gossip on movements of Apple stock and debate on how India can have interesting startups as well. If I’m a cool CEO, I will be expected to hang out at places like Hacker News and Reddit. Within local startup community, I’m expected to frequent startup events and chat about latest and upcoming startups and things like what can be done to improve the “ecosystem”. All in all, the mere label of ‘CEO, software startup’ describes majority of who I am and how I spend my time.

Now, add an additional label like ‘A/B testing‘ or ‘marketing’ and you’d end up describing the remaining modicum amount of my identity. Most people defined by labels of similar fashion. Someone is an MBA grad from Harvard, and you’d guess what sort of person s/he must be. Someone is into fashion? Ah, s/he must be attending fancy parties. Someone is a journalist? Oh, must be an interesting person to talk to. Did you graduate from a design school? OK, so Where’s your portfolio?

I find it immensely demeaning to label people, and I consciously work hard not to judge people from such labels. So what if someone is a doctor, can’t s/he be playing in a death metal band during free time and weekends? Can’t startup CEOs have interest in Nihilism, digital evolution and comics, all at once? People can, and should, be much more than a few labels they get associated to.

Human identity is infinitely complex and fluid. I say complex because (even though most are afraid to do so) people can behave in unpredictable ways. I say fluid because the self can be changed at any point of time. A religious person can become an atheist once given the right exposure. (And I have seen people change drastically). In spite of this essentially indefinable human nature, we all use labels that conveniently abstract and compress information about people.

People don’t have to be something

We tend to label people because it is very convenient for us. If we see a person dressed in leather jacket and having pointy hair, we’d immediately call him or her a “Punk Rocker” and associate many other attributes automatically. However, this is demeaning to the individual being judged because s/he could be anything s/he wants to. S/he could be a punk rocker who is majoring in neuroscience. It’s OK to have incompatible tastes in life. That’s the fun of being a human.

You are actually a constantly evolving mix of numerous attributes. Your ideas, your aesthetic sense, your dressing style, your take on worldly issues, your interest in metaphysics, your liking for movies (and many other elements that compose you) are to be defined by you, and not a label. What society likes to do is to take one of your (major) attributes and simply extrapolate it to the other ones. It’s easier for them to see (or worse, expect) you behave in a specific sense. Would anyone care to hold megabits of information about you? They want an easy to understand label that fits their mental models so they could sleep well at night knowing that the world will behave in an orderly way, they way they expect it to behave.

But you don’t have to care. Don’t help the society stereotype yourself!

The proper functioning of the world is none of the business, especially if it comes at an expense of your freedom and your definition of your identity. However, interestingly, part of the problem of this stereotyping lies within us. And that’s because probably we’re the first ones to stereotype ourselves.

Many people in search for their identity end up hopeless and anxious, feeling they don’t know who they are and where they are placed in this universe. That moment of uncertainty is precisely when people fall into the trap of stereotyping themselves. They take a hard look at their (randomly stumbled) professions or passions and try to construct their identities around the way they’re expected to behave in such professions or passions.

Take for example an accountant who likes soccer. He has friends who are accountants who like soccer. He reads blogs and articles on accountants and their lives. Best practices. Tips. Tricks. And articles like 5 best vacations for accountants. He dresses formally in the morning, goes to office at 9 am, does minor chitchat with fellow accountant colleagues on lunch, comes to home at 5:30pm. On the weekends, he likes to watch soccer or go for movies. Life is easy, fun, simple but eventually the accountant gets bored and jaded and he wants to try something new and interesting (hey, sculpture sounds fun!), but unfortunately now it’s too late. He’s fully convinced that he’s an accountant and that means he’s not supposed to indulge in art.

As long as the accountant is happy with his life, I’m fine with the stereotype (after all, what else does one need from life if not happiness). However, I have major problem if this stereotype starts impacting the well-being of the person, once it starts crushing the freedom and potential of the person who merely happens to keep books for a company. The complex feedback loop of the society trying to stereotype the people who want to be stereotyped is quite apparent, but it need not be that way. If you’re an accountant (or an MBA grad or an investment banker or an artist), you don’t have to be necessarily defined by that label. You can be anything you want want and you need not take anyone’s approval to nicely fit into labels the society tries to apply to you.

Shock the goddamned society!

One easy way to not fall into trap of stereotyping is to actually keep people guessing who you are. In fact, by constantly changing and exhibiting varied interests and behaviors, you would actually be send a very clear message that you cannot be defined. (A fact that is essentially true for all humans.)

Go for scuba jumping when you’re 80. Have an obsession for human skulls. Love black lipsticks. Become a hipster, or don’t become one. Fantasize about working at a sweatshop, barely able to survive. Write boring poems. Admire villains. Be devoutly religious and research on particle physics (or, actually, maybe not). Do whatever the hell you like to do and do it often as society doesn’t take a lot of time to form opinions. Always push the boundaries of people’s expectations. If they think you’re normal, become weird. Once they start thinking you are weird, suddenly become normal. Shock the hell out of people and do it regularly! If for nothing else, please do it for the lulz (since nothing matters, all we want from life is a constant dose of lulz).

The point, of course, is not to be a contrarian for the coolness sake alone. Well, if you’re happy that way, fine. But it’s not cool to be a contrarian knowing you’re faking it and actually feel unhappy/pressured to keep up with that contrarian label that is now you. The point, however, is to be whatever you want to be, believe in whatever ideas you want to believe in and be as incompatible as you want to be without caring what the world thinks and how people may judge you.

As long as you’re happy, moral and indefinable, it should be fine.

So, do you promise to do at least one activity that is completely unexpected of you? I promise that the entire episode would be super enriching, maximally fun and you’d definitely thank me for hat! Did I just write hat? Which hat? Maybe I meant that. Or, maybe I didn’t.

Why time is not running out

I have a friend who thinks time is running out for her. I’m sure she’s not alone, a lot of people share that feeling; I definitely was one of those people who constantly worried that life isn’t moving ahead at a pace that I’d be proud of. Everyday before sleeping, I’d look back and wonder: ‘Gosh! Did I just create a presentation today? How would it help my career?‘. Then I’d have nagging thoughts such as these: ‘Oh god, I’m 25 and I haven’t experienced Sky Diving yet and I haven’t even learnt how to play a guitar.‘ Then when I read about revolutionaries, artists, writers, philosophers and scientists, I couldn’t help but think if I’m wasting my youth chasing money and creating software while I could be a guerrilla artist instead.

Is the clock ticking?

The what-I-could-be-doing-instead syndrome

Having a list of interests, goals and wishes is by no means bad. In fact, I have a list of things I’d want to do by the time I turn 30. However, such list merely serves as a gentle reminder of what I like to do rather than what I should be doing. If the only role your goals (or such lists) perform is to constantly make you feel worthless or unaccomplished, what’s the point of having such a list?

Why passage of time makes one worried?

On this fine Saturday late morning, for the past one hour, I have been sitting idle while drinking a cup of milk and listening to some dubstep and classic rock mix. Yes, I know, instead of this I could be making plans, pitching to a new customer, watching guitar lessons on Youtube, refining my book’s manuscript or doing a number of other activities to make “progress” in life. But here look at me, all I am doing is listening to some pretty good music, scribbling a few random thoughts and in general feeling immense joy. Should I feel guilty of not doing something worthwhile? Am I really “wasting” my time or is this life in its core essence?

Expensive watch, but still worried!

Eons ago I thought that one should feel guilty of not solving world’s greatest problems (Having re-read my post, I think I was — and, to a large extent, still am — inclined towards solving great problems because of the challenge and fun, but not because of any inherent value contained in solving such problems). Now I have come to believe that the passage of time makes one worried when an individual expects to do something great in her life but by sheer odds finds herself to be leading a pretty ordinary life. In fact, since the definition of great is always changing as one keeps achieving greatness, no matter what one does, there’s always something more to be done in life. So what if one is an accountant engaged in a standard 9-5 job? Isn’t it personal greatness as compared to millions who have to struggle daily to put food on their tables, let alone affording the luxury of going to school and graduating as an accountant?

Should I be mistaken, let me clarify my position. I’m all enthusiastic for great goals such as “one day I will travel the world or write a book or do my own startup or will take my startup to an IPO”. But if you feel worthless right now for not having made sufficient progress, consider that even after achieving these goals, you will keep on feeling like shit because by then your goals would have changed to something even greater. Once published, a mere book with your name as the author won’t satisfy. Now you would need to write a bestseller book! What if your book debuts as #2 on New York Times list but you still feel it isn’t as great as it could have been? Only if you had put in some more effort, it could have been #1. Or if your startup does IPO eventually, there’s always a company in the competition that is doing better than you! Isn’t it true?

You have to choose to be happy in spite of non-achievement (or achievement) of goals.

And since no matter what you do, there’s will always be something else you could be doing, key is to relax, go easy on yourself and just enjoy the phenomenon called life. (But don’t let this pressure to be happy actually make you unhappy! It’s OK if you are not happy today, there’s always a tomorrow.)

Life is awesome!

Why we actually have an infinite amount of time in life

Like myself, if you subscribe to the philosophy of Nihilism and consider that life is inherently meaningless, you should find this worry about time passing away dissolve pretty easily. Consider this truism that you didn’t exist before you were born and you will of course not exist after you die. You don’t observe time when you are non-existant. So, essentially, for you, whatever time you spend living is all the time available in the universe. To clarify, for example, if were unable to complete your assignment today and (god forbid), you die tomorrow, you won’t be there to notice the tomorrow and then of course the non-completion of your assignment wouldn’t bother you. Similar is the case with all of the life’s great goals. It’s nice if you achieve them but it’s totally fine if you were unable to do so as it really doesn’t matter after you die. Regrets people have on their death beds don’t matter to them once they die! They (and everyone else) should go easy with their lives because: a) they never really had much freedom to influence their lives; b) as long as they are happy now, the past doesn’t really matter and future won’t matter after their death.

Clocks and anxiety

In spite of all such rationalization, looking at a clock does make one anxious. At least for me, clocks generate anxiety to act. When I look at a clock and see that the time is 3 am, I immediately ask myself if I should be sleeping? Or, if it’s 9pm on a Saturday, shouldn’t I be out partying? Why am I wasting my life doing things? What else could I be doing right now that is best optimized for the current hour and day?

Run, clock, run!

It used to be like this until one fine day I decided to remove clocks from my home and disabled time on my MacBook Pro. If only my iPhone would let me disable showing time on homescreen, god knows I would do that in a jiffy. Instead of push-based time where photons reflecting from the clock constantly reminding me of passage of time, what I want time to be is pull-based. For example, if I’m bored, I type ‘time‘ into Google and know what time and day it is. I realize that running a software business with such idiosyncrasies doesn’t take one far but I rely on reminders to tell me if I have a meeting or a commitment rather than regularly looking at time and then wondering if I have a meeting. Pull-based methods let one be in control of time rather than time controlling one’s life and activities.

Conclusion: it all boils down to happiness (as always!)

I believe that the only thing a person can reasonably aim for is to be happy. If you buy that theory, it makes absolutely no difference to what you are doing as long as it makes you happy (ideally, while staying within the bounds of morality and not impinging on others). So the feeling of time running out is nonsense because it relies on an assumption that future will be happier than the present, but ironically the only people who worry about time running out are the well-to-do ones (have you ever stumbled across a poor chap who’s worried about this?) and for them happiness does always remain in future! (Side note: I really like a phrase and it goes something like this: “Future is the source of all worries!”)

LOL :)

Don’t complain, relax, listen to some french jazz and maybe sip a glass of wine too. Trust me, there’s nothing better you could be doing right now!