How To Discover Your Personal Philosophy in Three Steps
It’s become a bit of a running joke in a group of my friends: hang out with me long enough, especially if you add a few beers into the mix, and I quickly become philosophical. I can’t help it, really. I’ve always been bored to tears by small talk and am often guilty of jumping straight into the deep end of a conversation without letting it properly warm up. While I realize not everyone is like that, I’m occasionally surprised at how many people seem to live their lives without any philosophical context. By that I mean a lot of folks seem to be going about their daily motions without thinking too deeply or asking questions about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Will this decision advance me toward my personal goals? Does that action truly align with my values? Will that next tequila shot make me puke in my Uber? (That answer is usually "yes.")
It’s not that we should be overthinking every little detail of our lives or constantly second guessing ourselves. And it's not that we should be living within a strict set of rules. Rules are arbitrary and restrictive and make you feel bad when you break them. There are no rules in life, and it’s exactly this fact that makes having your own personal philosophy so important; since there are no rules, you can do anything you want at any time (yes, there are laws, but laws don't restrict free will, they simply inspire you to choose wisely). That freedom may sound liberating, but it won’t get you anywhere on its own, and what is life if not a fine chance to explore, discover and work out why we're here? If you’ve ever set a goal for yourself or pursued a dream, you know that to accomplish anything you need direction. We can all benefit from having a set of guiding principles which help us make the decisions that will lead us down the path we're aiming for. Nobody can truly control their life, but you can do a damn good job of setting yourself up for success, whatever your definition of "success" is. Every little decision you make can have an effect on that.
Reading about philosophy, in my experience, often consists of about a paragraph of interesting insight amongst pages of conjecture and theoretical jargon expounding on an abstract concept that was already adequately and concisely described. That’s a broad statement of opinion I realize, but as a self-professed fan of the philosophical I’ve regularly found myself frustrated and losing interest in concepts that initially piqued my curiosity the moment I start reading about the details. Bertrand Russell literally wrote hundreds of pages in the Principia Mathematica to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. In this case, 1 + 1 = 2 is the relevant, potentially thought-provoking concept, while the hundreds of pages of explanation are liable to make my eyelids drop faster than a soccer player in the World Cup. For that reason, I’ve attempted to keep the following sections as stripped to the basics as possible for your attention span’s benefit. And while I will be providing some examples for clarification, this post is not about pushing a particular agenda or school of thought onto you. It’s about helping you decide what your philosophy is, because yours is the only one that's right for you.
I would suggest taking some time in a quiet place to think about this, and writing down your thoughts as you go, because once your brain starts rolling it can be difficult to remember every insight you’ve conjured. I believe you can get a solid philosophy going in three steps, which I've conveniently arranged into an attractive geometrical shape for reference. I've written before about establishing a creative philosophy; now it's time to get personal.
We’ll be tackling our philosophical conundrum in three layers. Below you see the Pyramid of Personal Philosophy, or Pyrperlosophy for a very catchy portmanteau. Er, Pyramosophy. Philamid? I dunno, these are all pretty dumb names. Whatever. The three layers will add up to an overall, apparently triangle-shaped philosophy, but it’s easier to break it down into smaller chunks for the purposes of this exercise. We’ll be working from the bottom up.
Level One: Fundamental
Also known as:
What it is:
The first level of the pyramid is the foundation on which the rest of your philosophy will be built upon. It deals with your broad view of life, humanity and existence, including your place within it. Or if you’re a fan of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books, this is your answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything. From your broader outlook, you can start deducing your overarching, most important goals. This part of your philosophy will wind up fundamentally influencing every decision you make, often on a subconscious level, hence why I’ve referred to it as the Fundamental level. For many people, the Fundamental philosophy is more or less synonymous with one’s spiritual outlook. You can have a spiritual belief without being religious—even an atheist can be spiritual in a way, but if you really hate that word you can consider this part your anti-spirituality—but if you are religious in any way, your core religious beliefs will strongly influence this stage in our philosophy building project.
I should point out here that if you do identify with a pre-existing philosophical framework of any kind, now would be an excellent time to re-examine those beliefs and question absolutely everything about them. The beauty of doing this is that if you really, truly believe what you think you believe, those ideals will hold up to intense scrutiny. But if you have any doubts or concerns over shaky logic, they will become very clear. This can be uncomfortable, but don’t be afraid of that discomfort; rather, embrace and explore these new avenues. You never know what kind of insights you may stumble upon. Remember, there are no rules in life that say you have to adhere to the status quo. If you've chosen a belief system that resonates with you, you don't have to agree with each and every aspect of it. Resonance is what you’re looking for here—if something doesn’t resonate, ask yourself questions until you find something that does. You may not come to a satisfying conclusion on every issue, and that’s fine. Just file those things away as topics to explore in greater detail in the future. But you may find that you believe some things simply because someone told you they were true, or because they vaguely seemed right at one time. In order to have true conviction, it's important that we individually lead ourselves to every belief we have. So in order to avoid becoming mindless drones, it is paramount to question our beliefs, why we believe them and what made us believe them. For a long but absolutely brilliant article related to this topic, it's well worth reading Wait But Why’s post about The Cook vs. The Chef.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
- What is the overarching meaning, purpose and nature of life, humanity, the universe?
- Which of my pre-existing beliefs resonate with me on a deep level? Which don’t?
- What seems to be missing from my Fundamental philosophy of life?
- What do I want to contribute to the world? What should my legacy be? What are the most important things for me to accomplish in my life? Why am I here, and why is everyone else here?
- Based on my answers, what are my overall values?
- You may consider yourself a Christian, even after questioning all of your beliefs, because your Fundamental view of human existence aligns with the general tenets of Christianity, and you want to live a life true to those tenets.
- You may be a nihilist who believes that there's no real meaning to existence, and that you might as well put your efforts into gaining as much money and status as you can because it provides some comfort in said meaningless existence. No judgement here! This is about figuring out what you really believe, not trying to fit into someone else's mold.
- Maybe you believe in a benevolent force, but one that doesn't interfere with everyday life, and you feel like your time is best spent serving others and starting a family.
- Here's a simplified version of one aspect of my Fundamental beliefs: I view the universe as one fascinating, interconnected whole, and I think we can transcend mundane, everyday experience through cultivating that connection and creating our own meaning even where there may be none. For me, one of the best ways of doing that is through creating stuff.
NOTE: The above examples are, of course, limited ideas. Yours should be more complex if they need to be. Dive as deep as you can. Write down every belief you can think of, group them together and prioritize/organize. You don't have to label it if that doesn't interest you, though labels can be an easy way to reference each of the Pyramosophy levels.
Level Two: Environmental
Also known as:
What it is:
Next up is the Environmental level, in which we take the principles of our Fundamental philosophy and start to build our world around those values and goals. You don’t have to think on as grandiose a scale for this—as the pyramid narrows, the scope of each level narrows as well—so maybe “world” is too big a word here. You’re simply looking to set up your surroundings in a way that helps you achieve the goals of the Fundamental level. The goal is to make it as easy as possible to live the way that’s most important to you, and you start by controlling what you can of what’s going on around you. Note that I said “what you can,” because life is a good 90% uncontrollable at least. And while part of my personal philosophy is that happiness is gained by learning to let go of the illusion of control, the fact is we actually need a little illusion in our lives; studies have shown that feeling like you have some control over your life can do wonders for your happiness, so it’s time to embrace that 10% of life we really can have some influence over.
While the Fundamental level is rather abstract and conceptual, the Environmental level is far more grounded in immediate, material reality. It is this level that helps inform you of where you should live, what kind of job you should have, what you should own, the kind of people you should surround yourself with, how you interact with those people, etc. But while we’re dealing with a lot of tangible things here, don’t mistake it for superficiality. This level is also when your personal goals, morals, values, social habits, even political leanings start taking concrete shape, because they are an inextricable part of your world. The broader Fundamental principles start forming into everyday applications in the Environmental level. Think of your "world" not only as your immediate physical surroundings, but as your ideal lifestyle both in the traditional sense and the "spiritual" sense (sorry for using that word again.)
As you figure these things out, you may come to realize what's missing in your life. With this realization comes a plan to obtain those missing pieces. All this will come into clearer focus in the next section, but you should now begin to understand what your definition of success is. It's time to set yourself up for that success. Opportunities really only present themselves when we allow them to. Do what you can to make those opportunities start appearing.
It’s worth noting that you’re probably not gonna figure all of this out on the first try. These steps usually take more than just a few minutes of thought; start paying attention to the things in your daily life that stick out as seeming particularly important, and gradually incorporate them into your ideas.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
- What are my more immediate goals, based on the broad values I’ve established?
- What environment (living, working, social, etc.) is most conducive to me achieving those goals?
- What currently isn’t working in my life, and how can I change these things?
- What can I control in my life?
- What physical and mental state should I achieve in order to be successful?
- The Christian might need an environment where she's surrounded by a like-minded support group, including a local church community, and might seek work with a company whose values align with her own.
- The nihilist may want to pursue a career with a high probability of great financial gain and live in a busy city center where he can live as fast and exciting a life as possible while he can.
- The family and service-oriented person might want to live in a town that's great for raising kids and has lots of community volunteer opportunities.
- I need an environment where I can find peace and quiet so I can focus on things I find meaningful, like creating. I like simplicity with minimal distraction, so I try not to have things that I don't need or use. I benefit from some structure and routine, and I think in order to spread happiness in the world, I need to be healthy and happy myself first.
Level Three: Mental
Also known as:
What it is:
Now we’ve reached the top of the pyramid: the Mental, or behavioral, level. This takes the Fundamental values we first established, which now exist within an Environmental context, and provides a practical mindset to help you walk the walk of your personal philosophy in everyday life. It’s really only this level that you’ll be tasked with keeping in mind during your day-to-day activities, but it was useful to flesh out the lower two in order to really understand the “why” of the Mental level. Otherwise you’re just living by an arbitrary code that has no real depth or meaning. Or worse, you’re living by a code that’s based on someone else’s philosophy rather than your own. Or maybe you’re just picking and choosing inspirational-sounding quotes that kind of "sound right" without considering if they truly reflect your authentic self. This is the level many people start with when they think of a personal philosophy. That’s a mistake, but one you no longer have to make. Because now that you’ve established yourself as a true individual with his or her own thoughts, you can feel confident in finding the way of your Mental level. High fives all around.
It's time to figure out what you need to do on any given day to live a life that’s true to those values and goals you now know are most important. What actions can you take to help fulfill that promise a little bit every day? “Little” is a key word here; you can absolutely aspire to grand, important things, but every big accomplishment is just a series of little accomplishments that add up to something large. As we ascend the Pyramosophy (nope, still sounds stupid), the big concepts get slowly broken down into baby steps, tasks into subtasks, grand aspirations into small, daily habits. You may want to change the world, but you’re still only living one day at a time—what can you do today to create the future situation you feel is ideal for yourself? How can you remind yourself to stay on track? Your mental state helps bridge the gap between where you are now and your Environmental ideals.
Since you’re now trying to create habits to keep you on track, it’s handy to come up with clever mnemonic devices like acronyms or catchy slogans for this stage. Anything that will easily stick in your head is useful, because if you can’t recall your own philosophy, you won’t have much hope in living true to it. This level is all about execution. Execution comes from action, so whatever you decide, it should be actionable. Here is where motivational quotes often fail, because many are a clever assessment of a situation but don't provide any useful advice for what to do, just how to briefly feel a little better. If you choose an action step that doesn't seem to fit in with your two lower levels, that's OK—if it's truly important to you, it belongs somewhere in your philosophy. You can always revisit and revise as you go.
Now is the time to take a good, hard, critical look at yourself and your behavior. It's not always pretty, but it's incredibly important to be self-aware as you build your philosophy. Only you are responsible for getting where you want to be. Nobody else has a say.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
- What do I need to do on an everyday basis to live a life that’s true to my values and goals?
- What should I remember in order to walk the walk of my personal philosophy?
- Are there any clever ways (acronyms, mnemonic devices, etc) for me to easily remember actionable guidelines? How can I simplify the big concepts so I'm not tasked with memorizing a novel?
- Can I create any visual cues as reminders, like decorations at home or phone lock screen backgrounds?
- How do I turn my beliefs into actionable habits?
- What could I do differently to ensure that I stay on track? How am I holding myself back?
- The Christian might remember Bible verses that resonate with her, perhaps those reminding her to reserve judgement or forgive others.
- The nihilist might remind himself that any day could be his last, so it's important to embrace risk and live the moment to the fullest. Or he may need to recall good financial advice to make sure he is comfortable and stable in the long term.
- The family/service person could find ways to remember that giving is best and selfish urges can be overcome with willpower.
- I have little sayings and symbols that remind me to spend as much time as possible creating, exploring, noticing and connecting (among other things), because those are the everyday activities that I think are most important. I fail often, but these personal slogans help get me back on track when that happens. Straying from them doesn't cause me to feel lost, because I have a firm grasp on what I believe is real and important.
If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably done a lot of critical thinking by now. Hopefully you've reached a new level of self-awareness. It's time for one last once-over. Take a look at everything you’ve written down, take a metaphorical step back and reassess it all from a broader perspective. Does it all jell? Does it seem like it’s missing anything? Does it need simplifying? Does it feel like your own? Do you really need that part about watching a minimum of 20 episodes of reality TV every week? You don’t have to make up a name for your philosophy, though sometimes it feels nice to do so... Kind of like you’re taking all the work you’ve just done and neatly placing it in a container for whenever you need it. Either way, the pyramid is still a pretty simplified and easy to reference symbol for your new system. Congratulations! You've got yourself a personal philosophy. The final step is to go out there and put it into practice to see how it fits your life. Work out the kinks and tweak it to taste. Most importantly, use it to discover what changes you can make right now, if any, to start properly living according to your philosophy.
Before we finish, though, there is an important note: your beliefs will change. They have probably already changed many times in your life. They may have even changed while you were doing this exercise. This is natural, a good evolution of the self, and it should be embraced. But that means eventually your pyramid may become obsolete. The Christian I used as an example may stop believing in god. The nihilist may realize that money and social status isn't nearly as important as he initially thought. Or it could be a more subtle shift. I recommend revisiting and revising your philosophy at least once a year. Reevaluate how you’re doing with living according to its principles. Adjust your goals and parameters so they're up-to-date. Never be afraid of questioning everything once again.
Sometimes you will stray from your philosophy because you are human. That’s OK. Learn from those mistakes, forgive yourself and get right back to it. The point of having a philosophy is to have a home base that you can return to when things get off track. It’s much harder to right the ship without it. Pretty sure that was a mixed metaphor, but f#$% it.
Having a personal philosophy will not solve all of the problems in your life, nor is it designed to. It’s more like taking a medication for anxiety or depression—the right one can help get you to a good place where you’re able to more effectively tackle the source of your problems. But it still takes a great deal of hard work and concerted effort to get your ducks in a row. It’s a tool, albeit an important tool. And as the world around you continues to become more complex, more intense, more crazy, you will have a solid foundation on which to build your life. At least, that's what I hope for you. Now go skip the small talk and start philosophizing.