This is a problem.
Not in the sense that I should’ve churned out more content, but rather that it’s too much information. See, all wisdom is worthless if it’s buried like a jewel below the sand grains of the Sahara. It takes constant effort to maintain a clean architecture of ideas.
So, I decided to do some digging. I turned over all the ideas I pondered in 2022 — everything from intriguing books to sparkling conversations. I sieved out all the dirt. And scooped up all the gems from the dunes.
Here are the three most valuable insights that remained.
1. The Meaning of Love
Isn’t it strange that we all use the word ‘love’ to express vastly different ideas? We naively assume that we share the same understanding of love just because we watch the same romcoms and listen to the same love songs. But if that were true, there’d be significantly fewer breakups and Tinder would’ve gone extinct long ago.
The reality is this: our definitions of love are utterly private, locked away in the dungeon of our minds. What’s worse, we’re unable to evert our inner world through the fickle medium we call language. Put differently: We think we talk about the same thing — love — but actually, we speak different languages. Misunderstandings are predestined.
This realization may seem depressing. But honestly? I think it relieves a ton of pressure. Like putting down grocery bags after a long walk home.
Just consider this: When you tell someone, “I love you,” and that person doesn’t say it back, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you at all. It simply means they love you differently. Justifiedly so: Everyone has made a unique experience with love, and so, your definition will vary from mine.
Love to me, for instance, is the ability to be completely vulnerable with someone. It’s the willingness to share my darkest secrets and most embarrassing moments — without the crushing anxiety that I’ll be abandoned. Love, for me, is to feel secure.
Now, you might agree with parts of my definition. But chances are, you’ve cultivated a completely different understanding of love. Because again: everyone’s love story is unique.
So, don’t panic when you tell someone, “I love you” and they don’t say it back. (When you think about it, it’s an extreme coincidence that two people love each other in the same way at the same time.) Instead, offer to explain what exactly love means to you. Then, invite your loved one to do the same.
This doesn’t just create a deeper connection, it’s also the most fertile soil to grow common understanding, kindness, and empathy.
2. The Last Time You’ll Do Something
One of the most poignant ideas I discovered this year comes from Sam Harris. In one of his guided meditations, he shares the following nugget of wisdom: Life is a series of things we do for the last time. Of course, we never know when it’s actually the last time. But that’s what makes every moment so priceless.
One day, you are going to die. On that day, you’ll do even the simplest acts for one last time. Sensing. Thinking. Breathing. But long before your death, a mountain of “last times” will slither into your life.
And paradoxically, it’ll be beautiful.
A few years ago, I did an internship in China. And for the most part, I found the experience thrilling. Sometimes, it felt as if I’d been stranded on a remote planet, observing everything like a scientist. But despite all the excitement, I was desperate to return home after nine weeks. Which is where things got interesting:
As I boarded the plane in Beijing, I didn’t even consider that this could’ve been the last time I went to China. “I can always go back,” I thought. But little did I know that a pandemic would soon erupt further south, resulting in closed borders until the day I write this. Also, the political situation hasn’t exactly prospered since then. It’s unlikely that I’ll return in the foreseeable future.
But the point isn’t to fall into existential panic, nor to desperately squeeze the goodness out of every moment. No. The point is to play with this idea. To throw the question into the mailbox of your mind: “Could this be the last time?” And just to consider it. It adds poignancy to everything you do. A sort of magic.
Had I truly considered that it could’ve been my last time in China, I would’ve taken my time to fully relish the experience. I would’ve strolled down Beihai Park one last time. I would’ve dared to jump in vast seas of people. Talk to more people with my broken Chinese. Sniff the stinky tofu. (Even uncomfortable experiences gain a charming quality when you apply the last-time filter.)
And we could even go one step further.
Because what about the everyday stuff? Talking to friends, drinking coffee, enjoying the sun — we might think that we’ll get to do these things again. But actually, we don’t. Because every time we do something — anything — is the last time we do it in that exact way.
You may keep having the same conversations, but your tone will alter undetectably. You may drink the same coffee, but it’ll hit slightly different taste buds. You may feel the same sunbeams — but their angle, your mood, your body’s cells will vary. Life changes molecularly at every moment. That’s, I think, what the ancient philosopher Heraclitus meant when he said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Ultimately, all experiences are like fingerprints — some look alike, but none of them are entirely the same.
Savor this singularity. Sponge up the impermanence.
3. To Succeed More, Achieve Less
If everyone in your life thinks you’re living to your fullest potential, you’re doing something wrong.
Go ahead, and read that sentence again. I mean it.
And before you jump at my virtual throat, let me explain what I mean by that and why the benefits of underachievement outweigh almost any kind of traditional success.
- It’s impossible to excel in every area of life. Sure, it’s reasonable to be good at some things, sometimes. But outperforming everything and everyone, at all times? That’s simply delusional. We’re all fleeting, imperfect beings, and to pretend you can achieve universal perfection is to deny your humanity.
- It’s risky to strive for excellence in everything you do. More work means a higher chance of burnout. Better performance means more pressure. The higher you climb, the greater the fall. Not to mention, you’ll start attaching your identity to success. The consequence? Once success ceases to exist (which it will at some point), your identity will cease to exist, too.
- Low expectations make a better friend than high expectations. See, striving for less doesn’t banish all success from your life; you simply lower the bar. You go from “Everything has to be perfect” to “Most things can be good enough.” Underachievement doesn’t undermine success, then. It’s quite the opposite: as you lower the bar of success, it gets easier to jump over it — and do so more often. Low expectations beget high payoffs.
But here’s the stark irony: it’s not easy to underachieve in today’s society. We’re told to give 110%. No pain, no gain. Heck, we’re even pressured to turn our dearest hobbies into money-churning side hustle machines.
In my own distressing pursuit of perfection and achievement, I’ve treasured the idea of strategic underachievement (h/t Oliver Burkeman). It goes like this: Define tasks where you decide not to give 100% in advance. Then, stick to your promise, underperform, and, in turn, free up energy for the stuff that matters most.
It’s not that you’re directly aiming to fail; it’s more that you’re not aiming to excel. You’re simply doing the bare minimum. For instance, I stopped folding my laundry as they do in fancy clothing stores. Now I carelessly toss it in the drawer of my closet. And I feel great.
Go ahead: Define your own areas of underachievement. You’ll have the shocking realization that good enough is good enough.
And isn’t that what “success” is all about? Feeling great about yourself (so you can make others feel great)? Let’s stop over-complicating it.
These are the three insights that have impacted me on a highly personal level — so much so that I want to tape them on my wall. Tattoo them on my soul. Share them with you.
And yet, I hope it comes without false complacency that I had a lot more valuable insights this year. Here are a few honorable mentions:
- Catastrophes can also be curiosities. Instead of labeling an event with “That’s awful,” try it with, “That’s interesting.”
- Too many problems are problematic, but some problems are nice. A life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing and would therefore be meaningless. The chief task of life, then, is to worry about the right problems.
- Just because something is good on paper, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Sure, you can move to Finland — the happiest country in the world. But that’s a long way from making you the happiest person in the world. Likewise, waking up at the crack of dawn won’t transform you into a God if you’re a night owl. Find your own frequency. Get in harmony with yourself.
- A recipe for misery: Looking for things outside of yourself that can only be found inside yourself, and looking for things inside yourself that can only be found outside of yourself.
I never say it enough, so from the bottom of my heart: Thanks for reading. Whether this was the first thing you read from me or if you’re a long-time follower — thank you, thank you, thank you. My 2022 got significantly better because of you. If the reverse is only remotely true, that’d mean the world to me.