Sleepwalking Through Life

Then time happens. And we end up on a path. And that path becomes our life’s story.

People say we live in bubbles and echo-chambers and wait I thought echoes were about babies. I don’t think that’s true (I’m not sure about the babies part).

There’s more confrontation with those characters who have other opinions than ever.

If you don’t buy it, just ask your grandmother how many non-Christians, or non-Muslims, or non-Hindus, or whatever — you get the point — she had talked to when she was your age.

Conforming to your tribe used to be the only game in town but now we’re calling it confirmation bias.

I often ventilate an impression I have about “most people” but actually sit at my desk like all the time. Yet if I’m right about how the internet can provide knowledge about the big wide world, and we are less, not more, secluded than in the good old days, that isn’t super weird.

For example, I recently said most people presume they need to deserve happiness (while they need not).

Of course, I take writing intensely seriously so I wouldn’t make these statements up out of thin air. Still and all — it’s not like I can back these theses up with survey data.

That’s one reason I like talking to my friends so much. They’re doing other things than I am, moving in different worlds. Most of them haven’t attended university and they are active in all kinds of areas of society.

It feels as if they give me a tiny peek into what’s happening out there.

In self-improvement circles, there’s an image of “most people” going around that worries me.

Most people…

For instance, Darius Foroux makes the case that most people suffer from a “sense of aimlessness”.

And Mark Manson writes:

Many men have been caged into the same day-to-day grind,wasting away, spending their life doing things they don’t truly enjoy and that don’t truly express their identity and personality.

When I read that, I can’t help but apply that to the people I know and love.

Are they doing things they don’t truly enjoy and don’t truly express their identity and personality?

… are sleepwalking through life?

Another example: in the final part of its epic series on Elon Musk, Wait But Why throws nuance out of the window and states:

We spent this whole time trying to figure out the mysterious workings of the mind of a madman genius only to realize that Musk’s secret sauce is that he’s the only one being normal. And in isolation, Musk would be a pretty boring subject — it’s the backdrop of us that makes him interesting …

How did we end up so scared?

Wait — Elon Musk is the only one being normal? And we are ‘scared’?

Isn’t he the guy who works 5.000 hours a week to make homo sapiens a multi-planetary species if plan A fails and he can’t stop the knuckleheads from making the earth uninhabitable for humans? (All honor to him for his noble intentions and personal sacrifices.)

Yet, Musk is not quite the typical dude.

Nonetheless, the sense in which he is ‘normal’ is that he, Wait But Whyexplains, bases his convictions on actual data. Most people, by contrast, do not, and have ended up with, the article tells us

  • a set of values not based on their own deep thinking;
  • a set of beliefs about the world not based on the reality of the world they live in;
  • a and a bunch of opinions they might have a hard time defending with anhonest heart.

On the one hand, such bleak descriptions strike me as off. Are these guys saying that most people I know and love — after all, why would they be any different — are living, as Darius claims “like passengers”, “sleepwalking through life”, in Mark’s words?

That doesn’t match with my experience.

On the other hand, I believe there’s a grain of truth in this. I more and more catch myself noticing “there are only a few [people] who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river,” as the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote over 2000 years ago.

Active vs. passive mindset

When it comes to being passionate about something, or desiring to keep growing as a person, or having a deep interest, many of us cultivate a passive mindset — an attitude, an assumption that life happens to you and you’re not responsible.

Embodying this passive mindset, most people are only willing to commit if there was a prior discovery about how much they like this thing.

“Offer me something I’m passionate about and I’ll show up with all of my energy, effort and care.”

As Seth Godin points out, that’s not how it works. Nothing is good enough to earn your passion before you do it. Consequently, what we do affects what we feel passionate about. So the theory that we can’t influence our enthusiasm about stuff is bullshit.


Yet, it’s very widespread. I find that surprising.

Let’s see if we can make sense of it.

I have a candidate explanation I’d like your thoughts on.

Research on what is known as learned helplessness shows that when individuals feel they have no control over what happens, they tend to simply give up and accept their fate.

‘Caring about something’ might be one of these things with respect to which we’ve come to feel powerless.

It shocks me how common the belief is that living a self-directed life is open only to a select few is here and now.

That means its cause is probably ‘in the system’ rather than ‘in the individuals’.

What happens in and after school

I think the way we’re, from a young age, formed by the school system is a big factor here.

People see curiosity as a natural born talent, but it’s actually much more of a way of thinking. But society pushes us into the opposition mode of operation.

From the beginning, school systems train us to be passive.

In his famous TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson argues we’re killing children’s curiosity:

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

This is what happens when you make learning about competition, scores, metrics and targets.

And after we get out of school, nothing really changes.

“We’re entering a revolution of ideas while producing a generation that wants instructions instead.” — Seth Godin

When we leave school for the last time, the guidance we’ve become so accustomed suddenly stops leaving us standing there, with no idea how to be the CEO of our life.

Then time happens. And we just happen to end up on one path or the other.

And that path becomes our life’s story.

Training your will

What I’ve been saying is that (1) most people subscribe to this stupid idea that what we want and care about and are interested in is something that just happens to us (or not). This might be because (2) our education system molds us into un-curious cogs.

On Medium, our in-house psychotherapist (in other words, someone who reprograms cognition for a living), speaks from experience when he writes:

Our culture shies away from this idea, but it is possible to manage and cultivate one’s desires. — Nick Wignall

Just like school trains us out of curiosity, we can become more curious. Yet, you’re not going to stumble upon this spark — this feeling of purpose. The only way for that to happen, is if you make it happen.

And here the mistake happens.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the thing most people see as impossible.

They’re convinced you’re either curious and interested in personal growth instinctively, or you have lost the lottery and now are condemned to eternal boredom. If you’re not naturally stumbling into fascinating projects and causes, deep interests and continuous learning are just not in the cards for you.


Research by Professor Linda Caldwell of Penn State University shows that the ability to attract deep interests is not an inborn trait but can also be learned.

For their experiments, Caldwell and her team tested a group of middle school students, a subset of whom were randomly selected to receive a six-week training course called TimeWise. The goal of the course was to teach them to make better use of their free time (their theory was that less bored teenagers are less prone to malicious behavior like drug use).

One of the lessons, for example, taught students how to balance what they “have to do” with what they “want to do,” while another provided strategiesfor following up on an idea that seemed interesting.

As Caldwell described the results, the group that received the training showed “higher levels of interest (and thus lower levels of boredom) than the [control] group,” they also “scored higher … on initiative … the ability to restructure boring situations … and the ability to plan and make decisions [about their] free time.”

This is an amazing result.

We tend to think about curiosity as an innate trait possessed by a lucky few, but Caldwell and her team revealed that a few common-sense lessons were enough to make a significant difference in the measured interestingness of randomly-selected teenage kids.

Deep Workauthor Cal Newport, in one of his earlier books, discusses Caldwell and concludes:

When it comes to living a fascinating life, we’re not constrained by our genes. It’s instead something that with the right instruction anyone can choose to do.

If these basic lessons had such an impact on bored middle schoolers, imagine the change possible for someone committed to the goal of spending your life doing things you enjoy and express your identity.

“Most people”

It’s time to wrap up.

I’ve been speculating about a giant (unintentional) self-fulfilling prophecy in a loose attempt to explain why, in our society, many people seem plagued by a sense of aimlessness.

We’re falsely taught that our will and desires are not under our control → wecultivate a passive mindset about our curiosity and passions → we tend to give up and accept our fate regarding our ability to attract deep interests and live a self-directed life → this ‘confirms’ that these things are out of our control (you are or aren’t ‘that kind of person’) → we teach this to our children → and it begins again.

Thankfully, research shows that all hope is not lost. What in fact seems to be going on, are terribly costly false ideas about what’s in our hands and what isn’t.

There is widespread confusion about what we can and can’t control in our lives.

And what about the stronger charges about how most people don’t merely suffer from a sense of aimlessness, but also spend their lives doing things they don’t enjoy nor express themselves?

I still find it hard to believe.

Be that as it may, I need to think more about what empirical facts would be relevant for settling this question. For example, most people report they’re pretty happy and the number of unfortunate souls with a “bullshit job” seems lower than previously thought, hovering around 15%.

But maybe these are the wrong measures, and the mental health crisis of my generation is the more revealing data point. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to connect the self-fulfilling prophecy about losing the ability to attract deep interests to the fact that more than 300 million people suffer from depression.

I don’t know.

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