Thoughts on Meaning and Writing

I was once at a dinner party and someone was telling me about her recent trip to Arizona. One of the highlights was visiting a biodome project where scientists had attempted to achieve a totally self-sustained structure in preparation for the colonization of other planets. I told her that Steve Bannon used to run that place. She didn’t believe me. I obnoxiously pulled out my phone and showed her Bannon’s Wikipedia page.

Steve Bannon has lived a fascinating life. That’s not an evaluation of his politics or morality, it’s a statement of fact. Witness Bannon’s life in bullet points:

  • Born in 1953 in Norfolk, Virginia to a telephone lineman and a housewife
  • Attended military prep school and then Virginia Tech for a degree in Urban Planning, was elected president of the student body, worked in a junk yard
  • Served in the navy for seven years in the Pacific fleet
  • While in the navy, earned a Masters in National Security Studies from Georgetown
  • After leaving the navy, earned an MBA from Harvard
  • Got a job at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker in the mergers & acquisitions division, worked way up to a Vice President position
  • Left Goldman Sachs with some colleagues to launch Bannon & Co., a boutique investment bank specializing in media, nabbed a small slice of syndication rights to mega-hit tv show Seinfeld, still receives residual payments from the show to this day
  • While running Bannon & Co., became the Acting Director of Biosphere 2 in Arizona, a project to design a self-sustaining habitat in preparation for the colonization of other planets
  • Dove into film production, executive produced 18 Hollywood films
  • Wrote and directed 12 documentaries
  • With an investment from Goldman Sachs, founded Internet Gaming Media, a World of Warcraft gold mining operation
  • Married and divorced three times, has three daughters
  • Charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, battery & assault, and dissuading a witness based on accusations from his wife
  • Co-founded Government Accountability Institute, a conservative think tank
  • Was senior vice president of Cambridge Analytica, the company known for its influence in the 2016 presidential election and Brexit referendum
  • On the founding board of Breitbart News, served as its Editor-in-Chief and eventual Executive Chair, hosted its radio show
  • Became Chief Executive of Trump’s presidential campaign 88 days before Election Day, was considered the only person on Trump’s staff (including Trump himself) who thought he could win
  • Is generally considered the ideological mastermind behind the “Trumpism” ideology – populist, anti-globalist, culturally conservative, economically liberal
  • Served as Chief Strategist in Trump’s White House
  • After leaving the White House, built an international “infrastructure” for Trumpism by supporting the formation of a dozen significant political parties across Europe
  • Formed a partnership with outlaw Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, pronounced the formation of an independent Chinese state to overthrow the current communist regime
  • Recently arrested for alleged fraud and money laundering connected to the We Build the Wall campaign, currently awaiting trial

Again, I’m not making any moral judgement on Bannon or any of particular actions. I’m just amazed that he has done so much. Almost every one of these bullet points would be one of the most significant events in a normal person’s life.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life in bullet points is also incredible:

  • Born in 1947 in rural Austrian poverty
  • Father was a physically abusive (willing) ex-Nazi wounded at Stalingrad who supposedly resented his son for suspected illegitimacy
  • Brother died in car crash while drunk driving, left behind a three-year-old son whom Schwarzenegger would later support
  • Started lifting weights at age 14 or 15
  • Served in the Austrian army for mandatory one year of service
  • While in the army, won Junior Mr. Europe weightlifting contest, was arrested and imprisoned for a week for going AWOL to attend the competition
  • Moved to London in his late teens to live and train with a weightlifting judge
  • At age 20, became the youngest Mr. Universe winner ever, first won the amateur contest, then won the professional contest three years in a row
  • Moved to Los Angeles, most likely lived as an illegal immigrant for years
  • First won Mr. Olympia at age 23, youngest ever; won contest six more times; became known as one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time
  • Attended classes at three different colleges to attain a degree in Business Administration and Marketing
  • Appeared in a handful of action films, was told by agents that his body was too “weird,” accent too thick, and name too long
  • Started a surprisingly successful bricklaying business and a mail-order business with another bodybuilder, also invested in numerous real estate companies
  • Became a millionaire by age 30
  • Starred in Pumping Iron and then Conan the Barbarian, breakthrough roles
  • Starred in Terminator, Predator, Commando, Running Man, Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Terminator 2, True Lies, and became known as one of the great action stars ever
  • Invested in Planet Hollywood, a shopping mall in Ohio, a restaurant, Dimensional Fund Advisors, a movie production company, numerous fitness magazines, and a fitness competition
  • Appointed Chairman of President Clinton’s Council of Physical Fitness and Sports
  • Ran for Governor of California (the most populous and wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world) and won despite having no political experience
  • Won re-election as a Republican during the height of anti-Bush sentiment
  • Went back to acting and continues to star in movies to this day
  • Married and divorced a Kennedy, had four children with her, plus another child with his housekeeper
  • Current net worth estimated at $100-200 million, may have peaked at $800 million before the divorce

I’ve read a lot of Wikipedia pages and I find they all end up as bullet points in my head. That’s kind of how I think about everything… as lists of the most important things. Everything else fades away over time.

As you can tell from this blog, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about great people. Napoleon, Cortes, Genghis Khan, Mark Schilling, Hideo Kojima, and Tommy Wiseau are not all good people, but they are great. Each one could easily earn a bullet point list like Bannon’s and Schwarzenegger’s. They’ve all built lives full of notable activities and accomplishments which will live on in history in one way or another.

I don’t think I’ll live on in history for very long after I die except for boring stuff like my tax records. And I’m fine with that. It’s not clear that living a historically noteworthy life is desirable in and of itself.

But I do want a noteworthy life on my own terms. I want my life to resemble one of these bullet point lists within the reasonable bounds of what I can experience and achieve given my abilities, resources, and will. Especially when I’m older, I want to be able to sit at a computer and type out the actions, events, and people that I remember and be proud of the list before me.

This is my personal heuristic for meaning in life. Both in the short and long term I try to do things which one day could be put on a bullet point list about me. Or maybe I just try to do things I’ll remember.

Pick a random year from your life and try to write a bullet point list of things that happened that year. If I do that for any year in the past decade, I usually get…

  • The girl I was dating at the time (if any)
  • Places I traveled
  • The job I had (though I rarely remember any particular thing I did in that year on the job)
  • Significant money I made or lost
  • Significant events experienced with friends
  • It’s a bit harder to pinpoint specific years, but I can always remember the general era when I experienced particular passion projects/activities, like movies/tv shows/books/video games/athletics, etc. For instance, I distinctly remember playing Skyrim in college and Faster than Light while at the office in 2015.

So what I tend to remember are relationships, work, money, and passion projects. I don’t think that’s uncommon, though the weight I give each one might be. Regardless, these are the things that matter to me. They should be my major goals in life. They are what I’ll look back on and remember when I’m 30, 40, 50, and close to death. Hopefully.

There’s this Anthony Bourdain quote I like:

“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and watch old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid and outwit that guy.”

I very much sympathize. Though my version of that is sitting on the couch, watching old episodes of Archer, and playing my hundredth Crusader Kings 2 campaign.

I think what Bourdain’s struggle comes down to is finding meaning every day. It’s the easiest thing in the world to let each day go by filled with nothing but obligations and short term stimulation. Nothing long-term is gained, nothing is remembered, and when you wake up the next morning you’re a day older with nothing important added to your existence. This will be 99.9% of the days in your life.

Resisting this reality is literally a constant challenge. One way I try to resist is to consider which specific actions which will result in discrete memorable experiences. That is, I try to do things I’ll remember even if I don’t remember the day itself. For instance, what am I more likely to remember doing tonight: playing another three out of literally thousands of hours of Crusader Kings 2, or watching a new movie?

The movie, of course. Even if the movie is bad, or boring, or forgettable, I will still vaguely recall having seen it years from now, but there is almost no chance I’ll remember those random three hours of Crusader Kings 2 regardless of how much I enjoyed them.

Alternatively, you can deal with Bourdain’s problem by trying to make small contributions to greater acts of meaning each day. I’ve kept an IMDB account since I was 13 and I record every movie I watch on it (currently at 1,593), so every additional movie makes a small contribution to one of my life-long projects. That’s one of the reasons I like writing so much; if I write 2,000 words in one day, my efforts of that day will live on in posterity even though I’ll certainly forget every second of the actual day.

When I was younger, I was one of those people who thought that getting married and having kids was for boring conformists. In my mind, the fact that anybody could do such things, and many people did, meant it inherently wasn’t a valuable pursuit. I wanted to devote myself to greater pursuits even though I had no idea what they might be at the time. Just something rarer.

Now I have a far more positive outlook on marriage and kids. Yeah, they’re almost universally available options, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Marriage and kids are basically the simplest default way to create meaning in your life, or to put a few major bullet points on your list. For most people, marriage and kids are literally the most meaningful things they will ever do, and the only real impact they’ll have on the world after they die. I can’t imagine someone who wouldn’t consider committing to a spouse or having kids to be among the most significant events in his life. I even felt the need to put them on Steve Bannon’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lists.

I also used to be baffled by young single mothers. Every possible metric indicates that having a child while young and out of wedlock is the worst possible decision that a young woman can make from a socioeconomic perspective. It essentially dooms the woman to a life of undereducation, poverty, vastly lower romantic prospects, and extremely limited options, and the outlook is scarcely better for her kid. You don’t have to be a data scientist or crawl through the research to come to this conclusion; it should be common sense that a child is a massive time and money sink which will consume a young caretaker and tremendously limit all other resource uses.

But now I get it. I mean, I still don’t recommend it, but I understand it. Having a child is the simplest way to create an enormous amount of meaning in a person’s life (probably especially for a woman, for biological/evolutionary reasons). For a person who is young and doesn’t have a ton of life prospects to begin with due to a lack of resources and/or personal capabilities, having a child ASAP might be considered the fast track to a life worth living. Already at age 16 or 18 or whatever, she’ll have an entry on her bullet point list. And as that kid grows up, starts talking, starts walking, starts going to school, starts making friends, starts becoming a real person, etc., more bullet points will follow. Life will gain meaning.

This bullet point heuristic is also why I write.

I noticed that I would read a book and then forget 99% of it a month later, and I wondered why I was even bothering to read books at all. I began to write summaries of books, and that helped. So then I started writing longer summaries of books, and that helped even more. And so I began to write novella-length summaries of books combined with info from Wikipedia, Googling, academic articles, and other sources, and I found that helped the most. I haven’t reread my Enron piece in almost six months, but I’m fairly certain I could verbally walk through the vast majority of the essay right now if I wanted to. Same for the Hundred Year War, the liberalism of Genghis Khan, and why Peep Show is so evil.

Beyond nailing information and understanding deep within my mind, writing also creates digital permanence and the opportunity to revisit my experiences. I’ve spent many extremely enjoyable nights out with friends having drinks and great conversations and all that, but I can barely remember any of it. I don’t forget because of alcohol, but because of time and the fleeting nature of memory. However, I’ll always remember the two months I spent obsessively reading and thinking about K-pop because I’ve written it all down. When I revisit the essay, I don’t just recapture the information, but the process of discovering it. I remember writing particular sentences, how I found the relevant knowledge online, and the compositional decisions I made to put each sentence in its particular place.

Many people have asked me why the hell I spend so much time writing for free on the internet and that’s the honest reason. It helps me remember. I hope a lot of people read my work, but if they don’t, that’s ok.

I spent hundreds of hours writing and editing a 138,000 word novel. I sent it to 12 literary agents and was rejected by all of them. When I tell people this, I tend to get a mixed reaction of admiration (for having the willpower to write 138,000 words) and pity (for it failing). I can sense that both sides of the reaction will only be amplified as I write more fiction. A friend of mine jokes that I can probably write up to two unpublished novels and still be considered a cool, high-status, creative artist, but if I write a third failed novel, then I’m just a weirdo wasting an enormous amount of his time.

There’s something to that. But I don’t regret writing my novel for a second. I had dreamed of writing my own fantasy story for as long as I’ve been reading; I used to come up with plots during long car rides and manage chapters/episodes/sequels in my head as the story expanded. Writing a novel was one of my life goals and I accomplished it. The story itself is flawed but has great moments that I love all the more because they’re mine. The conversations I’ve had with the five friends and family members who have read my book have been some of my favorite in my life.

And most importantly, when I’m on my death bed 50+ years from now, I will remember writing my novel. I won’t remember 99.9% of my life, or 99% of the people I meet, or 99.9999% of the meals I ate, but I will remember the story I created. It’s a part of me.

Maybe that’s what my bullet point heuristic really is. It’s not just a method of creating memories, but a method of creating myself. The important people I know, the passions I’ve pursued, the things I’ve written are as much a part of me as my personality traits, IQ, physique, or anything else. They are what occupy my mind, my time, and my existence, for better or worse.

So I guess I’ll keep writing, for now.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Meaning and Writing

  1. I think about the bullet points bio concept quite a bit as well.

    When I was in late high school and college, I was influenced by a lot of creative types, many of them in New York City, that seemed to be involved in a ridiculous amount of cool projects. One of my old college friends, Brian Moore, is a great example. Starting around age 19, he developed this knack for tapping into the public Zeitgeist to create interesting things that would go viral. He’s only in his early 30s, but his website is already a pretty strong bullet list of “quirky single-use things you might have seen on the internet”: https://brianmoore.com.

    On the other end of this spectrum is, well, a looooooooooooooooong tail. It’s amazing to me how many people have basically zero bullets to their name. They never do anything noteworthy or interesting, they just go to school, get married, have a kid, and die. There’s no real body of work (other than their progeny). And maybe that’s all right with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. re: the bullet point list examples, I can’t help but feel that the highlights of someone like Bannon’s wiki page are ‘cheating,’ in a key sense. The magic ingredient is listed pretty early on: VP of Goldman Sachs, then founded his own investment bank. With that kind of money, (I am assuming), why not produce films, be the director of big projects (like Biosphere II), start yet more companies (like Breitbart), etc.? And without looking into the specifics of each line, there’s no telling what or how much he work he did for each bullet point, or whether it’s simply a title he gave himself. So perhaps one needn’t be too impressed or intimidated by the list.

    The more general idea of seeking out bullet points, though, is a good idea – one can go too far, it’s important to enjoy in the moment as well as afterwards, not all pleasures need to be new – but it is, indeed, a useful measuring stick to have.

    And the idea of writing things up so that you’ll remember them really resonates with me! I’ve been saying for years that I can read books but they don’t ‘stay read,’ unless I write about them – and even then the compression’s lossy! – and one could say, likewise, that one’s own thoughts vanish. The thing I’m wondering there, though, is whether writing something up well enough to publish (on a blog) pays off in terms of more fully developing up one’s thoughts for one’s future self, as opposed to writing quicker and messier text files that never see the light of day.

    Like

  3. Hey, I just wanted to say thank you for writing these blog posts. I find myself looking forward to each and every one, and wishing for more 🙂

    It’s very difficult to decide which of your posts are the best, as they are all extraordinary in the quality of writing and subject matter. The one’s I think about the most though are your book reviews on Napoleon and Cortes. It was fascinating to read about these historical figures; they seem almost alien in their ambition and risk-taking.

    This post hit a lot of topics I’ve been thinking about: “what do I want to do in the future? What do I consider a successful life?” I have sketched out several vague career plans, which vary from high-risk-high-reward to a normal-office-worker. When I consider the second — working for some company, having a family, retiring at 60 — I always feel a sense of loss. “What would it be like to be Napoleon? Or Cortes? Or Elon Musk?”

    I haven’t encountered the life-as-bullet-points idea before, but it was very intriguing. After reading this post, I’ve started thinking about my own list, and how I want it to grow. I like your bullet point heuristic, and will start applying it to my own life.

    Like

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