Life reflects the decisions we make each day. This monotonous collective compounds over every passing year into something far greater than each individual action.
There is a comparatively small number of tremendously consequential decisions which can shape our life: Where we go to school, where we start our professional careers, who we consistently spend our free time with as adults, and who we marry. The intense gravity of these decisions is only appreciated looking backward. These are major milestones in our lives, and once made, we can relax a little bit. Take the foot of the gas and just be. Eventually, everything feels the same, but when we look back, everything is different.
The force at hand here, is inertia. Our lives are shaped tremendously by inertia – the small collection of mundane and similar tasks each day to build toward something greater. This dynamic – compounding of action – is necessary to achieve anything meaningful. An issue grows from this when we get blinded by inertia as it drags us into the future.
“Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to any change in its velocity. This includes changes to the object’s speed, or direction of motion. An aspect of this property is the tendency of objects to keep moving in a straight line at a constant speed, when no forces act upon them.”1
Choices like professions and romantic partners sit like anchors in the sea of our life. They are two of largest boulders for which the sand should fill in around.2 This is because of the outsized impact they have on our lives (understandably so).
When we get these things – a job that can be a career, a semi-healthy relationship, a collection of hobbies we want to do – we get an identity. We feel like we won the game of life as we now get to put a big red check mark in some of the most important boxes on the existential checklist.
This is a duplicitous dynamic. While on one side we have objectively important markers of progress in life and society3, the other side is the soul crushing fear we experience whenever we threaten the stasis of those achievements.
Cue the existential dread and cosmic panic.
Starting down the path of asking about purpose, meaning, and even simply “and then what?”, we can end up in a dangerous spot. The fear of loss of all we have achieved so far can blind us. We think we can’t jeopardize what we have, as we may end up with nothing. So, we end up evaluating our life in the boundaries of what it is instead of what it could be. We separate and trap ourselves in a finite prism of our current existence.
Fixing issues with our career only focuses our feelings toward our current job or finding a better role at a different firm. Subpar relationships that may or may not be worth continuing find life support in awkward happy hour jokes and more independently withdrawn partners. Disappointing consistency in habits are vapidly supercharged via Instagram gurus and productivity hacks.
The reality is, it’s hard for us to ask why and what else. While fixing our current life configuration is very challenging and intimidating, flipping the whole board to redesign the configuration altogether is incomprehensible. It feels reckless.
While it feels impossible, we can’t help but wonder what our lives would be like if we did it. Even for those of us that wonder, thinking about the change – starting over, the gap between where we are and where we may want to go, the insanity of what it is we may want to do – can manifest as a such an imposing mental monolith we feel wholly discouraged. We see no purpose in even starting. We’ve already done so much, who could bear the idea of starting anew?
So, we strap in, and let inertia carry us forward. Time rolls on, we continue our everyday struggle, but the trajectory remains unchanged because we can’t comprehend making the change now, so we settle for wondering about it again in the future.
Nudging A Meteor
That fear is very real and very valid. Most of us will fail or be average at everything we do. It’s simply a numbers game that we can’t win. That doesn’t stop me from desperately trying to make my one odds defying success be winning the lottery. I don’t know how much longer I can keep my fingers crossed. They might be stuck like this.
Just because we can’t do anything and everything, does not mean that we should do nothing. What a depressing way to see existence. That mindset harbors the struggle with inertia. We fear starting too late and too far behind, so we start nothing. A little bit of human nature with a sprinkle of sunk cost, and we just let the milestones we’ve already checked off carry us forward. Things may change a little, but we’ll stay on that path because we can’t imagine ever reaching the end of a different one.
Then don’t plan on reaching the end. Plan on fighting relentlessly to get there. And accept that no matter when you start or how much planning you do, it all starts the same way: the first step.
We see our unrealized potential and visions for a different life like a meteor hurtling toward Earth. The only possible solution we see is destroying the meteor, and then seeing how impossible that is, we give up. We surrender to the destruction and inertia of the Universe.
But the meteor doesn’t need to be destroyed, it needs to be nudged. If it were to have its course adjusted by even several dozen feet far enough out, by the time it reached Earth’s positioning, it wouldn’t be a threat at all. It wouldn’t be anywhere near Earth.4
Our trajectories and life paths can be materially altered by unforeseen disasters and edge case events, but that’s not the norm. The norm is the choices we make each day, the monotony that builds into mastery. The inertia of our life doesn’t need to be destroyed; it needs to be redirected. Everyone wants to turn the nuclear launch keys on their life, no one wants to rebuild it thoughtfully brick by brick.
We don’t need an ideological or existential extinction event, we need a deliberate, faithful nudge. Once we accept that, the real work begins. Choosing what to nudge.
“We all make choices in life, but in the end our choices make us.”5
1 – Wiki for inertia
3 – Maybe more accurate to say dictated by society, but I will leave that rant for another day
4 – Hugh Howey uses this allusion in his interview on The Knowledge Project
5 – This quote is said by a protagonist in the first BioShock game; but follows the philosophy of Sartre as well