by Max Sirak
Knowing what something is not isn't the same as knowing what it is. Being aware that red is not blue, the sky is not the ground, or that dark is not light helps us in the beginning. It lets us narrow down the field and start to figure out what red, sky, and dark actually are. However, eventually we need to stop defining things in the negative (by what they aren't) and begin to work in the positive (saying what they are) if we hope to gain any clarity.
Imagine what it would be like if we had to say “the not-red-green-purple-yellow-not-below-us-which-we-don't-stand-on-is-not-ugly-or-unattractice-in-this-not-dark-with-no-stars,” instead of “the sky's a pretty shade of blue today.” Communicating anything to anyone, including ourselves, would be a nightmare.
Knowing what something isn't is good. Knowing what something is, is better. One operates in the negative, the other in the positive. One leads to a startling amount of confusion in a short amount of time. The other helps elucidate and lets us pretend at sense-making. Which, if we're being honest, is about as good as it gets.
I bring this up for a reason. Until very recently, I didn't have any standards or metrics to measure the success of my life. Because – I don't live a conventional life. I'm 35. I don't have a girlfriend. I've never been married. I've never been divorced. I don't have any kids. I don't have a proper career. I'm not on a corporate track. I don't own a home. I don't have a 401k. All the traditional markers of success for a mid-30s life (house, spouse, career, kids, etc.) are noticeably absent from mine.
And honestly, none of this was ever a problem except when I would spend time with old comrades from high school or college. These were some of my nearest and dearest friends in the world. Folks I've known and kept in my life for decades. People who genuinely loved and cared about me. And, for a couple years now, spending time with them made me feel like shit.
It wasn't ever anything to do with what they did or didn't do or say. There were no sideways glances or behind-the-back snickers. Like I said, these were my best friends. They loved me. It slowly dawned on me – I was the one making myself feel bad. It was me bringing all these crappy feelings to the table, not them.
After a couple years of this happening, I finally figured out why.
I was coming home from a wedding. It was a friend from college. A big traditional Jewish affair. Lots of focus on family, on kids. Lots of small talk with strangers about careers, about work. I was sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight, writing like I do and it struck me.
The reason I felt the way I did, at events like these, was because – in my head – I was using standard yardsticks to judge my non-standard life. I wasn't measuring up. How could I? The stuff of their lives was not the stuff of mine. I didn't have what they had. What's more – I realized I didn't even have the means to measure what I did have. I knew which rulers not to use but not which ones to use.
So, since defining a thing by what it's not is only the first step, I realized I needed to come up with a set of criteria, my own criteria, to determine whether or not I was living a good life. In the interest of helping anyone out there who may be wrestling with similar demons – I present to you…
Max's Meaningful Metrics
- Is my time my own? – Spending my most precious resource in the best way is important to me. Casey Neistat was on an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. During the conversation Casey presented his definition of success. It was about spending as much time doing the things he loved and as little doing the things he hated. This struck a major chord with me. (Though it could have been a sharp, flat, or minor. I'm no musician.)
- Do I have enough energy? – Do I feel like a sorry sack all the time or do I have the physical and mental fortitude to devote to meaningful things I enjoy? Simple enough, sure. But certainly not easy. This was one of the ways I knew it was time to leave my previous, well-paying job. No matter how many days off I had, I never felt like I had anything left in the tank for other areas of my life. (The constant internal refrain of “I fucking hate this. I fucking hate this. I fucking hate this….” was also a good indicator).
- Do I have enough money? – I'm not a guy who likes stuff. I live simply. Why waste time and energy chasing dollars, if my needs are met? It's horribly inefficient to use two more precious resources in order get more of a less valued one, right? Especially if I already have enough of said third one. “But Max – what is enough?” you ask. Well, that entirely depends on you, my friend. Do keep your Kahlil Gibran close to heart though. “And what is fear of need but need itself? Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?” (The Prophet)
- Am I growing? – To me, every person is a composite of four main life realms: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Growing and developing in each of these four directions is a marker I use for good life living. Exercise, eating well, taking care of the body, etc. are physical. Mental growth is your reading, learning, staying curious, etc. Emotional growth is learning how to better accept, work with, and constructively express your emotions. (Instead of pretending they don't exist, we don't feel them, or they are not a fundamental part of our being). As for spiritual – while I know a lot of folks don't like to hear it – but having a belief system and creating meaning for yourself is every bit as crucial as eating your kale.
- Do I enjoy the people I spend my time with? – A good buddy of mine, Jon, says, “Whoever you spend time around is going to rub off on you. And you'll rub off on them. The thing is, you never know which parts.” If you spend a lot of time with people you don't like, the more you're going to become a person you don't like. Fortunately, the converse is also true. The more time you spend with people you do like, the more you'll become a person you like. Deceptively simple, but again, not easy. This one folds back into #1. Spending time with shitty people is not a recipe for a good life.
- Am I loving? – I mean, right now. In this moment. Do I feel love or don't I? Tolstoy said, “Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only. The man who does not manifest love in the present has not love.” Put another way by another author, David Deida, “In any moment we can choose to open or close. Nothing outside of us has the power to limit our capacity to give and receive love.” (Enlightened Sex Manual). Whether it's a titan of the classics or a modern-day sexual healer – the pulse of the message is the same. Choose love. Practice it.
- Am I a Mog? – I don't actually mean – am I a half-man/half-dog like Barf from Spaceballs. I was more referring to the next line John Candy says. Not wanting to speak for others, but personally, my self-talk blows sometimes. It's dark. It's negative. It's mean. It's piercing. It's a litany of things I wouldn't dare say to someone else. Let alone someone I genuinely loved or cared about. Yet – it doesn't stop any of these words, judgments, or ideas from bouncing around the inside of my own skull. It makes no sense that I should extend more courtesy to other people than I do to myself. So now, being a better friend to myself is one of my measuring devices.
- Am I giving? – I struggle with this one more than any other on my list. Being giving is more about a general disposition than, say, tipping well. I've found I naturally tend toward looking at whatever a situation can give me – not what I'm able to give to it to make it better. Yet, I have it on good authority, this is not a way to succeed in life. When my dad was just starting out in his career and frustrated by his apparent lack of success, his father told him, “Gary, you've got to be the one in the room who wants to help the other person. Not the one who wants to help himself.” Sage advice. The more I'm able to press pause and ask myself, “Max – what are you doing to make whatever is happening now better, smoother, or easier?” the better, smoother, and easier things go.
There you have it. My metrics. Eight yardsticks for good life you can use, should you choose. If you're a non-standard like me, maybe these rulers can help you find your way out of the nebula of negative definitions and into the pastures of the positive. If, on the other hand, you think I need to shut-up, find a good girl, settle down, and get a real job – I've only one thing to say…
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