But beware of looking for goals
Ways of life and returning from kitesurfing in La Ventana, Mexico
There is a line from Hunter S. Thompson’s Ninth Path letter that has been in my mind a lot, especially since turning 40 last December. The full text of the letter is here, but the piece I’ve had on my mind is this one:
But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.
If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been a little obsessed with this letter for some time now. I originally wrote about Thompson and path dependency way back in the halcyon days of 2019, a few months after I’d been laid off from a job. And last year, I hosted my first and so far only Interintellect salon by doing a close read of the Ninth Path letter.
Thompson wrote it when he was only 22, to a friend of his who had been looking for advice about what to do with his life and career. If only I’d had Thompson’s wisdom at that age.
Maybe I’m finally getting there though.
The kitesurfing way of life
I spent most of last month in La Ventana, Mexico. It’s a sleepy fishing town in Baja, Mexico, where for approximately five months a year (November - March), kitesurfers from el norte descend for the wind and the ocean and the warm winter days.
Kitesurfing is a sport in rhythm with both the natural world and the modern one. The natural rhythm relates to the wind: the great spots are that way because of natural factors which reliably produce wind at given times during the day and year. Trade winds, thermals, warm air meeting cool water.
In La Ventana, it’s like a natural machine. The wind starts blowing around noon and turns off at sundown. In Lago di Garda in Italy, where I was last Summer, there is a morning wind from the south and an afternoon wind from the north. In Cabarete in the DR, it’s an afternoon trade wind, side-onshore from the northeast, and also turns off at sundown.
These natural rhythms complement modern-day, remote office ones because they provide a predictable schedule around which it’s easy to fit whatever else you are doing for work (at least, provided that work is on a computer). On my trips to Cabarete, I worked in the morning, kited in the afternoon, and in the evenings I went out, danced salsa, enjoyed a long meal, or spent time with friends and family.
It was the same these past three weeks in La Ventana. In the mornings: work, write and calls with clients. In the afternoons, for me usually starting around 2 pm, I would gather my gear, put on my wetsuit, smear some sunscreen, and walk down to the beach to kitesurf.
Even the most hard-core kiters generally don’t kite for more than three hours or so a day. For me, two hours on the water was about right. So by 4, 4:30, I was back for a shower, a rest, a beer, and maybe some time in the hammock reading a book before making dinner and seeing friends.
That’s not a vacation or even a kitesurfing trip — it’s just a way of life.
Beware of goals
When Thompson advised Hume to look for a way of life, he meant as opposed to what he saw as the alternative: living according to goals you set out and are working toward.
But beware of looking for goals, Thompson writes:
How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?
The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?
When I first read that passage, I had a sinking feeling that maybe I was doing life all wrong. Because for the past decade I have been intensely goal-oriented.
The dangers of being too goal-oriented
I think there are two dangers Thompson is warning about in the passage above. One is that you will change as a person but remain rigidly attached to previous goals which are no longer a good fit. To my credit, I think I largely avoided that major pitfall, since my goal-setting process deliberately kept the time horizons very short. There just wasn’t enough time for me to change enough as a person such that the things I was working toward were no longer relevant.
But there's a second danger, which is that the goals essentially distract you from the experimentation and self-exploration necessary to decide which way of life is the one you really want, as opposed to the way of life you think you should want.
Or, to restate: it’s nearly impossible to separate goals you make for yourself from goals you pursue because of mimetic desire.
Finances are an obvious example. Most of us have some idea of the income we want to earn or the wealth we want to accumulate. But to live in such a way that serves those goals is completely backward. The better approach is to decide what way of life you want to live, and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN the way of life.
This isn’t exactly a novel way to look at things, especially for anyone familiar with Tim Ferris, the FIRE movement, or any documentary about surfers (although do note that Thompson’s letter predates all of those by decades). Still, I think it’s amazing how many of us, for most of our lives, only dream of ways of living rather than finding a way to live those dreams. And I don’t exempt myself from that.
In fact, I am beginning to wonder if the goals we have in our heads are more like warning signals; they are hinting at all the ways our lives continually fall short.
Most of us think we are swimming for a destination; in fact, we spend most of our lives floating with the tide. We think we are making free decisions about how we want to spend our time on this Earth, but so many of those decisions are some combination of path dependency and societal expectation.
Thompson’s advice reminds me of a great quote from Dolly Parton, which I recently saw referenced at the end of Paul Millerd’s excellent new book, The Pathless Path: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
That sounds like pretty sage advice to me.
I’ve stopped doing annual strategic planning
Of course, my many years of goal-setting did help me learn about myself. Ultimately, I don’t think goal-setting and searching for a way of life are mutually exclusive.
One of my most-read posts is How I do strategic planning for life, in which I describe the annual process I used through most of my 30s to make sure I actually accomplished the things in life I wanted to accomplish. That strategic planning helped me, among many other projects, to make three short films, a pilot episode for a TV show, and a feature film. One of the things I learned doing that is that I’m a writer first, a director maybe second, and a producer not all.
The planning also helped me achieve financial, social, and other creative goals. I’m really proud of all that the process helped me accomplish. But was I living the way of life I really wanted during that time?
If I’m honest, the answer is mostly no.
This year I haven’t exactly jettisoned all goals, but I have de-emphasized them in my thinking. To start, I didn’t do my annual strategic planning process this year, breaking an eight-year streak. Instead, I’m re-orienting toward the way of life question.
Wiping the slate clean
In order to truly live Thompson’s advice, figure out which path you want to take and what way of life you want to live, you have to mentally wipe the slate clean. You have to think in terms of first principles and break out of path dependency.
For me, I need to be alone for a while: no inputs from my partner, family, or friends, ideally for a few days, or maybe a few weeks.
I make a point of periodically traveling by myself, but you could just as well do this on a long walk. The point is to be alone. Take a break from the news, Netflix, or whatever else you usually use to fill your time.
Be alone with your thoughts and do it in focused contemplation on this question: removing all the current circumstances of your life, how would you then build a new one from scratch? What would this life look like, from the moment you wake until you go to sleep? What would it look like for a day? A month? A year? Where would you be, what would you do, and who would you do it with?
I engage in this kind of thinking pretty frequently. And I am acutely aware of the gap between the ideal days I picture in my head and those that I most often am living. I have a long way to go.
I know I’m getting closer though because two weeks ago I did something I’ve never really done before. While I was still in La Ventana, and without consulting or checking with anyone, I booked a nearby apartment for two months for next January and February. The dates are set.
It’s not that I want to live in a small Mexican fishing village for the rest of my life, but I do want part of every year to be spent in a community where each day I can make time for kitesurfing, a sport which brings me such joy, and where I can admire the beauty of the sun setting against the far desert mountains. A place where I can be in rhythm with work and the wind.
It’s not the whole thing, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. My home in New Hampshire, at the foot of the White Mountains, well insulated from the climate catastrophe and a mile from world-class rock climbing, is another piece.
There is more work to do: in my head, I see time each year spent in Europe, where there are many places where people have figured out a better way to live. I see an olive grove with an outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven and a farm table under the shade of a large veranda, bottles of wine and fresh bread, and olive oil everywhere, and friends to share it all with. It’ll come.
Until then, you’ll find me this Fall, climbing in New Hampshire as the leaves turn, and next winter, kitesurfing in Mexico and admiring the sunsets.