How to Flourish in Life

My grandma / Seoul, 2017

Dear friend,

I wanted to write you a letter on how to flourish life.

1. What is ‘happiness’?

First of all, the closest definition I’ve found to the word ‘happiness’ is from Greek — the word ‘eudaemonia’ — which essentially means “Human flourishing.”

Therefore I don’t see happiness as some feeling of ‘pleasure.’ Because the feeling of ‘pleasure’ are just chemicals, endorphins, and serotonin which is hitting your brain. You can easily mimic the feeling of ‘pleasure’ by taking cocaine, drugs, drinking lots of coffee (as I’m doing now), or through alcohol.

What I think we should aim for is ‘human flourishing’ — by using all of our creative talents, skills, and effort into creating useful, beautiful, and empowering tools for the rest of humanity.

2. Make forward progress

For example, if you are a photographer, your goal is to make beautiful images that uplift, encourage, and mesmerize others. You want to always challenge yourself in your photography. You want to make forward progress. You want to work on photo projects which test your determination, compositional skill, and sequencing skills. You don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again, or else you will atrophy creatively, and die.

If you’re a writer, you don’t want to keep writing the same op-eds for blogs. You want to pursue new ideas. You want to break new grounds. You want to take risks, and utter bold words, that can get you in trouble. You want to utter words that are beyond the lips of mere mortals.

3. Surround yourself with the best

To me, in order to flourish, we need to first fill our minds with wholesome thoughts, concepts, and ideas. I only trust books, which have been tested by time. I no longer trust articles on the internet which are ‘sponsored’ by advertisements. Unfortunately (most) ‘free’ information has a hidden catch somewhere. I trust dead authors, because they no longer have any vested interests in their words. And if their words have survived until now, they probably carry some important weight.

You only want to surround yourself with the best. If you want to aspire to greatness, only consume wholesome information and sources of creative insight. If you want to be a world-class photographer, would you rather look at Instagram all day, or would you rather study the works of the master photographers, and internalize their vision? If you want to be a world-class writer, would you read blog posts all day, or read ancient poetry or classic literature? If you want to be healthy and strong, do you eat McDonalds all day, or fortify yourself with healthy proteins and veggies?

Secondly, to flourish in life I believe we need to take action. To be a good photographer, you need to make photos. You need to work on projects, or concepts that interest you. If you want to be a great writer, you need to write. You need to put your ideas onto paper, or they don’t exist. If you want to lose weight, you need to stop eating sugar, and you need to strengthen your muscles.

Thirdly, if you want to flourish, you need to never give up. I believe this is achieved through building good habits for yourself. Essentially doing more of what you like to do (and want to do) and doing less of what you don’t like to do (and what you don’t want to do). Create the rules of your own life, and try your best to follow them. You will often fall off your horse, but dust yourself off, and get back on the horse.

4. Trust yourself

For me, to flourish in life means to follow your own gut, instinct, and intuition. It means to respect the ideas and thoughts of others, but ultimately making decisions for yourself.

I also believe that we cannot flourish in life when we are overly-distracted. I know for me, in order to get good writing done (like I am doing now), I need long periods of quiet, serenity, and un-interruption. I do this by not checking my email, by turning off my smartphone, and by disabling wifi on my laptop. I also block distracting websites that I am tempted by, and try to check social media as little as possible.

Another practical tip is to not be afraid to piss off other people. Because if you pursue your passion in life, you will always encounter someone who is going to hate what you’re doing. They’re not doing it to be mean, but they just might disagree with you. Picasso had many critics in his life, many individuals hated the music of the Beatles, and Gandhi was killed for following what he believed in.

5. Always think about death

I also don’t believe we can live a good life, and flourish without treating each day as if it were our last.

I know for myself, I cannot plan for a week, a month, a year, and certainly not a decade. I know how I can best employ today. Because I don’t even know if I will be alive tomorrow.

Therefore as a photographer, I don’t think of working on these epic decade-long projects. I just try my best to make the best photos I can today, which bring me happiness and joy.

As a blogger, I try to write the best blog post I can today. I don’t think too much about writing books, because they often overwhelm me. It is hard to sit down and write a book, but very easy to sit down and write a single blog post.

I don’t know what it means to be a good human being, but I know today I can be more patient, loving, compassionate, and less critical of others.

I don’t know how to get 6-pack abs, but I know how to not eat sugar, to not eat processed carbs, and how not to eat dessert.

6. What if I don’t know what my passion is?

It is hard to know what our passion is in life.

My suggestion: what kind of work do you do when you are procrastinating? Often that is what we are passionate about.

I know that I procrastinate on my taxes by writing blog posts. It is my passion.

I know that Cindy likes to do creative writing, video, and poetry when she is procrastinating on her research work. Perhaps that is her real passion.

I know some people who doodle, draw, and sketch when they’re procrastinating. Maybe that is their passion.

Another tip: we don’t know what we are passionate about, but we certainly know what we are not passionate about. Write down a list of things you aren’t passionate about, and you will better discover your passion as a process of elimination.

7. The ultimate test

To know whether you are creatively flourishing in life— ask yourself when you go to bed tonight: “Did I do everything in my power to make the best use of my day, to help empower myself and others?” If you answer ‘Yes’ — you are creatively flourishing.

However if you go to bed with any source of regret, figure out what you can do in your life to change your circumstances. Figure out what to do less of, and figure out what to do more of.

Regardless of what fortune throws at us, you have (some) control over your destiny. Make the best out of today, so you can die without any regrets.


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