in Tech

Would You Rather Die Happy or Significant?

Image from Chris Devers on flickr

Here’s a meaty philosophical question: would you rather die significant, with an impressive body of work that assures your legacy for years to come, or die happy, with an array of friends and family who adore you yet unnoticed by the world at large? It’s not entirely hypothetical – you’ve already chosen to pursue one or the other, with every little decision you make. We show our thoughts through action, and what you do with your limited time betrays your personal preference.  Let’s look at two extreme possibilities as examples:

  • One man lives a tortured life, constantly striving for perfection in his life’s calling without his work ever measuring up to his imagination. He places his ambitions before his family, and runs through a string of wives and estranged children who avoid him because they never feel wanted. Since he’s never content with his work, he only strives harder, and eventually achieves great renown, as his singular contributions revolutionize his field. He dies unloved and alone, yet his name is remembered in the annals of greatness for centuries to come.
  • Another man lives a happy life, surrounded by a huge family and friends who adore him. He doesn’t care much about his boring job, and only ever works the minimum asked of him in order to comfortably provide for his family. He values his family more than his work, and thus spends as much time as possible with them. He dies with a smile on his face, surrounded by close relatives and friends who universally mourn the loss of a true friend. The world at large doesn’t even blink, and he becomes one more nameless dead stranger among billions.

Which life would you prefer? The second certainly sounds more appealing, given the accompanying joy for yourself. Everybody wants to be happy. That said, your happiness is just a certain neurochemical cocktail within your brain – if that’s what you want we can easily hook you up the Matrix and you’ll live a very happy life. A life that doesn’t matter to anybody else but you.

That’s what the first option is all about – making a difference. Putting a dent in the world, building something greater than yourself, affecting the lives of strangers in a positive manner, through art, business, or otherwise. Leaving the world a better place that you found it.

It’s a hard choice. I tell myself I’d choose the first option, as an ambitious young person who wants to make a difference, but my everyday choices do not always reflect that conviction. The only people I’ve raised this question with who instantly choose the former are members of the rationalist community, who value big impacts more than personal pleasure. Yet even they take time to invest in their own happiness.

Luckily, the two options are not actually mutually exclusive. While we have limited time and attention with which to pursue both, pursuing one does not invalidate the pursuit of another. One could theoretically spend half their time on each, becoming half as successful or as loved in the end, but personally fulfilled.

When I read about the lives of ‘significant’ men and women throughout the ages, this ‘happy vs significant’ dichotomy is often a recurring theme. ‘Great’ people must have achieved some kind of success, and so none of them fall into the second example above. Most are somewhere in the middle, although they skew closer to the first example than the latter.

Just look at the lives of Vincent Van Gogh and Galileo, who toiled in obscurity only to become well-regarded after death, or many of the great philosophers, whose personal lives were almost categorically in tatters. I wonder what they wished on their deathbed, and if it reflects the common deathbed wishes of the masses who all wish that they spent more time with their friends, and less time working hard.

I think that the best solution is a balance between the two extremes, like most things in life. Impact and personal joy are not mutually exclusive – there is space in life for both. This balanced option would sometimes have personal relationships take precedence over personal ambitions, and other times your life’s work would be more important than family matters. So how to make sure they remain in life balance?

Perhaps by blocking out the things that make up our lives (days and weeks) into sacred time blocks where one takes absolute precedence over the other except in dire cases. For example, family dinners are always eaten together, while everyone knows not to disturb Mom when the office door is shut. That way both needs are met without one subsuming the other.

That’s my take on it, anyways. Which do you think is more important: your life’s work or your life’s joy? How can both be balanced?