In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman proposes “…life is just a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires… the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one”
Reading this, I recollected a quote from Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul where he writes brilliantly, “Every moment of your life is either a test of celebration.” Ryan Holiday has a similar message in his book, The Obstacle is the Way.
The problems and stressors in your life appear a bit more invigorating with the view that any obstacle is an opportunity to test yourself and maybe a chance to celebrate something truly unique.
Humans are problem solvers. Our bodies and brains have evolved to create tools, innovate, and detect predators — all in an effort to protect ourselves and ensure our species survives. With the rise of industrialization and capitalist markets, we began pushing all facets of society to get bigger, faster, smarter, better, and more efficient. We treat everything we’re doing as valuable insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else. The unintended consequence of this is that we inevitably will never be satisfied or feel like we have “enough.”
Life is all about solving the next problem, one after another. Each one is either going to be a test or a celebration. We worry about the future all day long, yet most of us would probably admit that we’ve been able to get through life without having much influence on the future whatsoever.
We will never gain more time. Time is not something you get when you solve all your problems. Time, rather, is what we exist in — like a fish in water. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel after accomplishing your life goals. Give up the notion that you can “clear the deck” to make time for the things you value. It’s not a sign of admitting defeat, but rather shifting your frame of mind to understand that you will always be busy. If you’re not, you will find ways to make yourself busy. And if you don’t make yourself busy, life will undoubtedly throw an obstacle right in front of you when you least expect it. “Don’t worry about whether things will be hard. Because they will be,” author Ryan Holiday writes. Instead, focus on the fact that these things will help you. You will always have problems. Learn how to enjoy life while you are solving them.
The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important — or just for enough of what feels important — is that you definitely never will.
-Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
The purpose of life is to experience it. We waste so much time worrying about a future that we legitimately have no control over. Yet, stop and ask yourself how have I made it this far despite not knowing what lies ahead of me. How much time was wasted wishing things were going differently? “This shouldn’t be happening!”
Buddhist scholar Greshe Shawopa commanded his students, “Do not rule over imaginary kingdoms of endlessly proliferating possibilities.”
Life is just a series of moments. You can plan all you want, but a plan is just a thought, a dream, an expectation. The future is under no obligation to comply with your expectations. In Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman adds that “the most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise – to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans.”
I recently took my first surfing lesson in Hawaii. It was difficult to get up at first, but once I started getting a feel for the timing and the rhythms of the ocean, I stood up and surfed my first wave. Each wave presented a different challenge that I had to figure out. While one wave might calm and slow, the next wave was frantic and barreling quickly. For the thirty or so waves I surfed that day, each time I had to re-calculate and adjust in real time. It was a metaphor for life.
I was enamored with the process of learning from the mistakes of each previous wave and then rushing to paddle back out to correct my error and adjust my technique on the next one. Just like learning from failures in your career, relationships, and otherwise.
You have no idea what problems life will throw at you, what circumstances may befall you, or how much time you may have. You just have to ride each wave as best as you can, learn from your mistakes, and keep getting back up after you fall to paddle back out to meet the next wave with a smile.