I have a ritual of writing a note to myself on every birthday, and this is one of those for I complete forty years in my present state of existence on this Pale Blue Dot.
Life’s passing by too fast, or so it seems. I’m not usually one to make a big deal about my birthday, but as always, it has given me an opportunity to reflect.
“How in the world did that happen?” I asked my wife this morning as she woke me up from my slumber. It seems like yesterday I was twenty, just into college, and with no idea about where life was about to take me (still no idea!).
Now, at forty, do I feel any different? I am certainly feeling older, though Bryan Adams reminds me I can be young the rest of my life, and feel like eighteen till I die –
Wanna be young the rest of my life
Never say no try anything twice
‘Til the angels come and ask me to fly
Gonna be eighteen ’til I die eighteen ’til I die
Can’t live forever that’s wishful thinkin’
Who ever said that must of bin’ drinkin’
Don’t wanna grow up I don’t see why
I couldn’t care less if time flies by
Eighteen ’til I die gonna be eighteen ’til I die
Ya it sure feels good to be alive
Someday I’ll be eighteen goin’ on fifty five, eighteen ’til I die
~ Bryan Adams
Anyways, turning forty has made me look back and reflect on the last four decades of my life. And like I have done over the past four years – see here, here, here and here – let me share one key life lesson – the 40th lesson – that has guided my life over the past few years.
Subtract. Subtract. Subtract.
I read somewhere that we spend the first half of our lives adding things, and the second half subtracting most of them.
As I cross the first half of my life (and I’m hopeful this is just the half), I realize that the answer to most of our problems is indeed found in subtraction, not addition.
Bruce Lee got it dead right when he said –
It is not daily increase but daily decrease, hack away the unessential.
There is, in fact, a term for such a subtractive process. It’s called Via Negativa, which is a Latin phrase used in Christian theology to explain a way of describing God by focusing on what he is not, rather than what he is. Even as per some theories in Hinduism, the word “Shiva” means literally, “that which is not.”
Nassim Taleb has a chapter in his fascinating book Antifragile on this topic of Via Negativa. Therein, he argues that the solution to many problems in life is by removing things, not adding things. Like, avoiding the doctor for minor illnesses or removing certain food from one’s diet to improve health. Taleb writes –
I would add that, in my own experience, a considerable jump in my personal health has been achieved by removing offensive irritants: the morning newspapers, the boss, the daily commute, air-conditioning, television, emails from documentary filmmakers, economic forecasts, news about the stock market, gym “strength training” machines, and many more.
He then adds –
If true wealth consists in worriless sleeping, clear conscience, reciprocal gratitude, absence of envy, good appetite, muscle strength, physical energy, frequent laughs, no meals alone, no gym class, some physical labor (or hobby), good bowel movements, no meeting rooms, and periodic surprises, then it is largely subtractive.
Steve Jobs would agree with the concept of Via Negativa too, given what he once said –
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.
And Charlie Munger too –
It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.
Looking back at my life over the past few years, Via Negativa is one of the most critical lessons I have learned and practiced, and that has helped me simplify my life considerably and brought me tremendous peace.
So right from subtracting the boss from my life, and the monthly paycheque, and office politics, and blame game, and daily commute, and sugar, and refined carbs, and news, and debt, and toxic people, and anxiety, and worried sleeping, and fear of death, and self-doubt, and the need to be liked, and victim’s mentality, and fear of failure, and perfectionism, and multitasking, and the need to control everything, and saying yes often…it seems this journey has brought me a really long way.
I am still far from good, and that’s fine for I have something to work on for the next forty years.
In the story of this life, I’m sure there still are many chapters – happy and sad – to be unveiled, many new characters – good and bad – to be met, and many new lessons – right and wrong – to be learned. These, I look forward to with open heart and arms.
Before I close, I am reminded of what Courtney Peppernell wrote in her nice book titled Pillow Thoughts –
You can’t skip chapters, that’s not how life works. You have to read every line, meet every character. You won’t enjoy all of it. Hell, some chapters will make you cry for weeks. You will read things you don’t want to read, you will have moments when you don’t want the pages to end. But you have to keep going. Stories keep the world evolving. Live yours, don’t miss out.
As I look back at these forty years, I have run into quite a few bumps and climbed over a few mountains. And who hasn’t? But the fact that I have survived to tell you the tale makes me realize how lucky I am to be here, right now, writing these words. And how grateful I should be, every waking moment, for this miracle called “life.”