The devil appears to you in a dream one night and offers you a glimpse of two life paths you could go down:

In one, you meet the person of your dreams and it’s love at first sight. You manage to land a satisfying and decently paid job that allows you to settle down and live a comfortable life with enough left over for small indulgences. You raise a family which, while sometimes trying, is full of love and support. At your work, your ambition slowly peters out and you settle into a comfortable, middle ranking role and focus your energies on family, hobbies and your local community. You & your partner both grow old together in largely robust health and get to see your grandchildren grow up before gently passing away in each others arms.

In the other life, you see yourself accomplishing things that have significant positive impact upon many people. You’re definitely not a household name but your deeds & reputation are well known and admired among those who you consider your peers. However, this comes at a great sacrifice. Early on in life, you abandon any semblance of a social life and you die never having known love. The stress of your ambition leads you to indulge in self-destructive behaviors and this takes a toll on both your mental and physical health. You frequently suffer from bouts of deep depression and doubting which is made all the more difficult as you have no close confidantes with who you can share your pain. You end up dying in your late middle age due to the excessive toll on your body, still wondering if you’ve done anything worthwhile in the world. However, the general public over the ensuing decades hails your achievements as having been a great contribution to society.

Which of these paths do you choose?

  • muddylemon

    So a long pleasant and satisfying life vs. a short, painful lonely life? Is that really a choice?

  • Zach Hale

    Wow, heavy topic. This has been on my mind a lot as of late which has me doubting my trend towards the second option. Granted you only itemized the extremes. Based on how you phrased that second option, I don't know why anyone in their right mind would take that path. The question is how realistic is it to have your cake and eat it too?

    Which would you choose?

  • Sjors

    Quite like this topic, of-course no-one in their 'right' mind would go for option two, yet the world has known many great artist, who delivered extreme value and joy to the world but felt forced to take their live on a young age. For me in a way they are statistical exceptions, people who have a terrible live and find in stimulating to create great art. The sad story ofcourse is that many people end up in choice two, but never achieve anything.

    Now for some good news, there is quite a handful of legendary designers, architects, businessmen who's both contributed to society And had a relatively happy life. The trick is probably to stay away from the arts.

  • Hang

    So the interesting thing I've noticed since asking this question is that the answer skews about 60/40 in favor of option 1 but many people who pick option 1 find it unimaginable that anyone would pick option 2.

    It reveals an interesting disconnect in world view between two very different value systems which I'm planning to explore in a later post.

  • Sjors

    I don't think that option two can be picked given the free choice. I think people who go for option two are 'created'. To go for option two you need an internal motivation that goes beyond rationality and also against basic human needs such as love, safety and care. I think that self-doubt is a key ingredient, and a decent amount of suffering also helps. You could probably do some statistical research by finding a list of the 50 greatest authors of the 20th century and the way they've come to an end.

    Maybe you can also look at motivation. What motivates some to go for option one is not that hard, it's just always doing the things that 'society' set's out to be the right things to do. But if you could ever find out what motivates group two, than we could revolutionize the world. If you have some time you could read outliers by Malcom Gladwell he discusses some of these points.

    My favourite theory is that 4 years Siberia make you a better writer, or the other infamous quote “Miserable childhood leads to royalties”

  • Hang

    Part of the reason I started asking this was to gather further data and I don't yet have enough to make a definitive claim but I humbly submit that your claim is factually wrong.

    I would wager that there are societies in which option 2 is overwhelmingly preferred to option one, most notably those from developing worlds and eastern cultures. In my own empirical experience, the skew is towards option 1 but not by much at all.

    As far as I personally go, every time I read option 1, it fills me with a sort nameless dread. There's something so futile, so insignificant about that kind of life. It reminds me of a placid cow, kept happy, dumb & fed until it is one day slaughtered.

  • Sjors

    thanks for your comment.
    Don't you think that the societies of which you speak that prefer option two, that option is preferred because of economical and basic survival instinct. But indeed it's an interesting idea that in a society where 'the good life' of option one is so easily available, many people keep on searching for a deeper meaning to contribute.

    As I was thinking, do you think it's useful to split off the great artists from the great professionals? Judging by the suicide rates, it takes a lot more to be a great artist than it takes to be a great professional. And maybe you could be more clear on how great the contribution is to society. Are we talking here about a contribution so great that only one in a million brings it, or more on the scale of 1 in 1000, or if you claim that it's the favourite career path for entire societies 1 in 2?

  • Hang

    The best way to get into the right mindset is to stop focusing on what's so *different* about other cultures and instead imagine what about your own culture you would have to consider weird to “get it”.

    I think one big part of what it is is an indifference to suffering. In the US & the west, there's an obsessive focus on happiness and contentment. The “good” life is one which is full of love and free from pain.

    In eastern culture, suffering seems to be taken as just a natural part of life & not really something that should be escaped from. The Chinese gaokao system for university entrance exams is a brutal misery and a good example of this. This is not a system for elites or only one type of person, it's broad based in society.

    When I figure out a better way of explaining it, I'll write a seperate blog post but this is the best I have off the top of my head.

  • Sjors

    Maybe you could restate the question as 'What is the price you are willing to pay to achieve great things” Would you give up your house, your family, your friends, your health.

    Second; what is a great achievement? Is that health and safety for your family, and industrial breakthrough, enormous wealth, the best book ever written? (And how great is a great achievement)

    And third what motivates you to strive for such an achievement. A miserable childhood, a life in poverty and hunger or a hunger for recognition.

    If you are right, than depending on in which culture you ask these questions the answer would vary.

    Thus-far I'm most familiar with the western approach, and only vaguely familiar with the Russian notion of constant suffering. I'll do my best to understand more of those 🙂

  • Hang

    Implicit in your rephrasing of the question is the assumption that option 1 is the normative one. I'll say it again: There are some days where I wake up and feel a deep yearning to live life like option 1, there are other days I wake up and the thought fills me with horror. If the devil showed up on those days and told me that was how my life would turn out, I would rather not to have lived at all than to live as a prolonged corpse, suffocating in happiness. It's this deep ambivalence that I think you're failing to appreciate.

  • Sjors

    Maybe my point is that very likely the devil will never show up, and you will just mildly suffer like everyone else.

    Dostoevsky has a nice paragraph on this topic: “One of these luckless men…is the guardian angel of his family, maintains by his labour outsiders as well as his own kindred, and yet can never be at rest all of his life! The thought that he has so well fulfilled his duties is no comfort or consolation to him; on the contrary, it irritates him. 'This is what I've wasted all my life on,' he says; 'this is what has fettered me, hand and foot; this is what has hindered me from doing something great! Had it not been for this, I should certainly have discovered — gunpowder or America, I don't know precisely what, but I would certainly have discovered it!' What is most characteristic of these gentlemen is that they can never find out for certain what it is they are destined to discover and what they are within an ace of discovering. But their sufferings, their longings for what was to be discovered, would have sufficed for a Columbus or a Galileo.”

    (Part IV, Chapter 1, page 433)

  • Hang

    Sjors: I'm wondering if this post has any resonance with you:… . I just noticed it in my archives just now and it explores some of the same themes from a different perspective.

  • thisisananth

    A big question.. !!!

  • bssrikanth

    well in today's world can one do both and still leave an mark in th world
    the pt. is for leading a good life – u live by rules well-laid, be practical, conformist and just take care of our NEST( your family) and make sure you are not out favour in your social circles. (IQ, SQ,). TODAY .mnay try to create SQ, but it EQ that is what stands out and makes genuine leaders in all spheres of life.

    the choice of option-2:- it may be a long road, but how many will even care to understand it. if u are eccentric nd erattic and unwavered in your attitude then its taken as a case of being abnormal generally.

    the way is do great things is by doing small things and have incremental approach largely, that is how we create a legacy for all near and dears!

  • Lijing1821839896
  • Ross Lee Graham, PhD

    These cartoon bifurcations certainly stimulate arguments. I say cartoon because they tend to be expressed with a clarity of distinction that simply does not exist in life. I say stimulate arguments because people who get taken in by such bifurcations expressed with false clarity rarely give a second thought to the falseness of the implied clarity. To think that we can aspire to greatness as if there were a well-defined path for this high level achievement is an absurdity. Rousseau thought his ‘Social Contract’ was one of his worst achievements and yet it was a foundational inspiration for the American Constitution, the oldest surviving Constitution in the world today and used as a model for many others. When Rousseau came to Paris with his new mode for writing music, it was this that he thought would establish world fame for him. Today hardly anyone knows he was a composer and wrote an opera and invented a new way (that no one uses) to write music. The point I am getting to is that for human achievement the only real choice we can make is based on how much time and effort we are willing to give to any endeavor that we consider. It is left for history to establish its significance to others. In a sense this involves us in the very basis of why economics has become a major study. If we had unlimited resources for our endeavors we would have no need for economics. The subject of economics is at its foundation is concerned with  the allocation of limited resourses.  As humans, our first limited resource is TIME. It is limited by the length of our life and it is limited by our division of activities and how much time we wish to allocate to each under the restraint that our time is limited. Intelligence occurs with differences in types of mental abilities. There are differences in physical abilities. And in our society FREEDOM is often related to MONEY, etc… Finally I suggest that the only real choice we have in anything is whether we shall apply ourselves with the best of our abilities or seek a less energetic effort. Even history has its ups and downs in judgments made on achievement.