I keep seeing Darius Foroux‘s writing showing up as a Pocket recommendation through Firefox. Recently, “The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness” was the top recommendation. It ends on this note:
“Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t overthink it. Just DO something that’s useful. Anything.”
Being contrary, it reminded me of this famous Zen quote:
“Don’t just do something, sit there.”
Darius states on his main page that his areas of concern are: productivity, habits, decision making and personal finance. It occurs to me that the modern preoccupation with “Getting Things Done,” efficiency, “time management” and so forth is just a secular version of the Protestant work ethic. It’s an extension of the existing culture, where your value or usefulness is determined by how much money you make.
But, let’s take it at face value. Let’s imagine Elon Musk. He’s reinvigorated the space race, electric cars, energy storage, and other industries. Few people could make the claim that they have been more useful to society.
Elon Musk does not have a goal to be “useful,” broadly defined. He has a specific goal, i.e., to facilitate the colonization of Mars before climate change or some other extinction event closes the window of possibility for humanity. Everything he does is geared toward forwarding that goal.
A society needs people like Elon Musk for its long term survival. But, it doesn’t need a lot of them. So, what of everyone else?
Is usefulness to other people a purpose to which we all should strive? And what then of the people that do not have an obvious use, people that are a burden to society? Or, more ambiguously, people that aren’t useful in any obvious way? Or the fact that almost everyone will at some point be “useless”? How will we find value in our lives then?
This is where the Zen quote really gets to the point. People crave money, power and fame. All of these are “useful,” but they are also a distraction. They reinforce the ego. They make people dissatisfied with what they have or scared they will lose it. They make people less adaptable to change. Defining the purposes of life as usefulness is a recipe for creating unhappiness as our usefulness, however defined, changes.