The First Lecture
Randy Pausch shot to great fame with his "last lecture," in which he teaches all the things he learned from life shortly before he departs it. In this writing, I would like to take the opposite approach, and instead present the "first lecture," or things I have learned from coming to consciousness in life.
By coming to consciousness I mean that I was born, my intelligence matured, and then I had to decode the world I live in, since no word means what it seems it should and hidden motivations lurk around many corners. So after years of consciousness, I was finally able to discover a true self-consciousness, and when I had overcome that, a world-consciousness.
Along the way, many steps could have been eliminated and many delays saved had there been in place some social order to pass along to me the learning of past generations. But in a society dominated by conflict, with no clear cultural path, instead you are thrown to the wolves if you ask others for assessments of value.
So here it is -- the first lecture -- what you need to know now that you have woken up, found yourself alive, and are casting about for a grasp on reality and how to handle it.
First lesson: Life is a quest for adaptation.
The quickest way to find happiness in life is to find out what's real. You are not a God, or a machine; you are an animal trying to survive in this place. So you need to realize that your first task is to adapt to reality. Once you recognize that, you are able to throw out all the irrelevant material and focus on that task.
Life has not changed in this regard since the first human, and it never will.
Next it's important to know what "adapt" means. It does not mean be spineless. It means take care of business. You may level the trees and start a farm, but you're going to have to plant seed at the right time, or no food will occur. In society, you may find yourself leaving a bad job for a better one, moving to get away from idiots, or taking action against people who are doing something illogical.
You will need to do all of the above. You know what to do by picking what you can change, and what you cannot. You cannot change the seasons; you can change what you plant, who you associate with, what you buy and how you spend your time. These seem like paltry weapons, but they are not. As you improve your circumstances, you also give yourself a voice of reason and others will emulate you because they too want to succeed.
When you have learned this lesson, you will also learn a corollary. There are two types of people you will meet in life: those who adapt to reality, and those who want reality to adapt to them. Those who adapt to reality consider their situation, make goals, and proceed systematically. Those who do not feel entitled to certain things they can demand from society, but those are never enough, and as their lives become more disorganized they become bitter.
Second lesson: Life is a struggle to the top.
No matter what fond notions people pitch to you of equality, and of being fine just the way you are, life is a struggle for adaptation. Those who rise are hated by those who are too delusional (meaning: they want reality to adapt to them) to rise. Not everyone can rise and not everyone will. At some level, this rising is binary: have you reached a situation where you have what you need materially, are content and like what you're doing?
You will find that people who are not content have made themselves discontented by their own hands. The challenges of life were not fun enough or too hard, so they spent excessive time pursuing their vices -- distractions, intoxication, fornication, self-deception. As a result, they never get anywhere, and have to find something on which to blame their failure. They hate government, they hate nature, they hate society and, if you are content, they hate you.
Read this carefully: they hate you.
If you have more than them materially, are more content within, are smarter or better looking, they will try to smash you. The dumb ones do it with violence; the slightly smarter ones do it by forming social groups with which they can mock others. They feel empowered when they say "But all of us don't see it that way!" as if this is proof. Remember, they're expecting reality to adapt to them.
Time will of course prove them wrong, and they will end up looking over a life that wasn't what they wanted and will have to face at some level that it wasn't what they wanted because they did not organize themselves, adapt to reality and create what they really wanted. In some cases, self-deception prevented them from seeing what they wanted. Still others were fooled by going along with social groups based on delusion.
But in the meantime, we are all ranked by our actions. Someone disorganized but given to pursuit of excessive pleasures stands below someone who took care of business first, and then was able to have time for pleasures. We are ranked by wealth, but this becomes unimportant if you have enough to live on and like what you do for a career. We are also ranked socially, and as celebrities by the media, but it's unclear if this makes people happy.
As you ascend -- in wealth, in personal organization and discipline, in abilities, in social status -- you will find that anyone who did not do what you did resents you and will try to pull you down. Mostly, they do this through passive sabotage: "You can't really like that new job, you're working all the time!" and will try to lure you away with their own excessive appetites.
Underneath their friendly demeanor however is a singular goal. They resent what they cannot have, cannot face the fact that they don't have it because of their own disorganization, and they want to destroy those who have anything so they feel better about having nothing. This motivation underscores almost all human conflict.
Third lesson: Happiness originates outside the self.
Probably the most controversial part of this lecture is the idea that happiness originates outside of the self. People who are disorganized will tell you that happiness occurs when you have the right toys, intoxicants and social status; organized people will tell you that happiness consists in finding a place in life. Place consists of career, family, friends, abstract goals and community.
Career is easy: find something you like to do that is valuable to others, and you will get good at it and be rewarded.
Family is handled in a later lesson. Friends are those who want you to succeed because they are sure they will succeed as well. They are comrades and equals in the oldest sense, which means they are of the same quality of mind, body and character as you are. Friends never sabotage you. They are not there to help you do what you cannot do otherwise, but they as equals may trade back and forth information about how to live, in a playful struggle that makes you both better.
Abstract goals: this is the category for your music, writings, or technologies you develop that are not necessarily tangible. These are areas in which you compete against yourself to make something great, and you do not expect reward in your lifetime. These are gifts to all of humanity so it may learn from your experience and the wisdom you derived.
Community: You may be sick of many of the people around you. A community is made of individuals, but it is larger than any one individual. The people with whom you collaborate to keep society functional, and the people you enjoy, and the slice of civilization that is local to you comprise your community. Community-building activities include reinforcing infrastructure, adding knowledge, helping those who are going somewhere to get there faster
If you try to live only for yourself, you will find your goal reduced to pleasures and comforts. When these are achieved, you have nowhere to go. You become stagnant. Even more, you're isolated within yourself because others don't care and there's no lasting importance to what you're doing. If you get over your fear of being proven wrong, looking stupid or being unpopular, and act to make constructive changes in your world, you create a feedback loop between the reward of seeing your work pay off and your own self-esteem. You are no longer just an atom. You have a role, a place, and you do things that make other people you respect enjoy life more.
Fourth lesson: Ignore other people and their ideas.
Maybe we should use scare quotes and say: Ignore other people and their "ideas." Real thinkers find a need, and create a theory, test it and then publish. Hollow modern people try to find reasons to justify their actions or rationalize their failures. While real thinkers work forward in time, hollow people work backward by trying to explain why they did something in reasons entirely different from their original motivation.
Hollow modern people, who come from that group which is irresponsible and can't get itself organized so blames you for its failings, have "ideas" which are this type of justification. They're not thinking forward, to a goal, but defensively, as if trying to make the bad decisions they've already made valid with some fancy "logic." Often, they'll try to use "ideas" to make you feel bad about yourself, or feel you should give in to the will of others.
These people are controllers just as much as a bunch of dudes in fancy uniforms with machine guns and an iconic, enigmatic yet threatening symbol. They are bullies. Their job is to belittle you, sabotage your confidence, and make you feel as if you owe them something or should pay attention to their ideas instead of your own.
If you doubt me, compare their ideas to the vast store of information that has withstood the centuries. You'll see quickly these hollow ideas fall short. People who dislike life tend to be deconstructionists, and to embrace a liberal philosophy to make it sound good. Liberalism loves deconstruction, as the resulting chaos makes individuals feel they are hidden in a crowd.
As you go through life, people are going to ask you what you're up to, and some of them will then attack with their own "ideas" to destabilize you. You might think you should carefully consider these ideas so you've got a balance of perspectives. Why do that, when all the classics of philosophy, literature, politics and economics are open to you? Instead of staying in the social reality sphere, crack a book and learn from the true masters.
Fifth lesson: Self-discipline and genetics trump all else.
The ultimate taboo in our society is pointing out that genetics, not wishing it so, make us what we are. However, to really succeed you need more than genetics, and more than "hard work" -- which is rarely hard, but people reference it because they like the idea that putting in 70 hours a week at the office makes a moron rise above a born genius. You need self-discipline. This means being organized, systematic, diligent and alert.
Reams of paper and years of human-hours have been devoted to debunking the obvious truth, which is that intelligence is congenital. You are born with a varying degree of it, and while you can refine this ability with education and diligence, you never get more than you were given. It's like artistic ability. Someone born with a gift for music can choose to take up an instrument or not, and won't succeed unless they work hard, but they'll then be ahead of those without the gift.
Wherever you are in the spectrum of abilities, you will need self-discipline and organization. From my experience, these are the primary skills that determine how effective you are. Knowing where your tools and vital information are, being prepared for the calendar ahead, being able to work on projects ahead of time because you can estimate when they should be complete -- these skills are vital. Without them, even a genius is just chaos.
Sixth lesson: Participate in the life cycle.
Many people do not believe they have the capacity for a happy life. They believe, on the contrary, that they are doomed. This is a pleasant psychological fiction even though it points to an unpleasant outcome; it is pleasant because it lets them off the hook. "I didn't fail at what I tried because I was disorganized, drunk, fat, sloppy, and not paying attention, I failed because I WAS DOOMED!"
Like most human psychology of justification, this translates to a simple dogma: it's not my fault. I was wronged. I am innocent, and other people are responsible for my failings. You will find this kind of justification in every part of society where failure or misery has occurred. A good memory trick: think of an alcoholic who wants to keep drinking. What philosophy lets him not feel bad about his life, yet keep drunk? "I was wronged. Someone else did it."
These people who blame life, others, government, abstractions, symbols and feelings for their own failures will try to convince you to join them in failure. They don't say it that way, of course... they tell you that they're more enlightened, progressive, hip, wise, cool, or just friendly. Their goal is to destroy all of your natural inclinations, including your knowledge that life is finite and there are different stages to life.
Now, when most adults use the phrase "different stages to life," it is specific to them but not to younger people. Let me put it more clearly: your enemy is not death, but decrepitude. Starting in your teens, vital systems begin the process of slowing down with age. This means that with each year of life there are decreasing options available to you. So you need to plan ahead.
Even more than that, you need to go back to Lesson One -- the goal of life is to adapt to living. That includes you. So if you believe in yourself, and believe in life, you're going to want to do all the stages of life. A feast of delights of curiosity when young; a stabilizing as a young adult; a spouse and family, then extended family; finally, solitude and peaceful contemplation when old.
The hip and progressive will tell you this is nonsense and you can stay an eternal child. This is their way of sweetening what they're actually saying: come join us who cannot plan ahead in life, and don't believe in our own lives, and you failing like us will help reinforce our illusion that we're not failures. Misery loves company.
They will tell you horrible things about responsibility. How having a family is work, how you don't get to have fun, how taking a career seriously is stupid. They would rather you do something trivial, like a rock band, than really stretch yourself in a symphony or by writing a novel. They would rather you join them in food service careers and doofus indie bands for life instead of reaching higher.
But when you look at their lives, they still always complain about work because they're always working. They still have obligations. And when the youth crusade is over, and they wake up in their 40s, they have nothing to their name. No real accomplishments -- teenage bands aside. No family. No career. Nothing but more hanging out with the boys, putting back a few cold ones. What kind of life is that?
Seventh lesson: Live clean and honestly and you will not dwell in filth.
I will admit to hypocrisy here. I have known and loved many bong hits, and many beers. In fact, I'll tell you right now that the best high on earth is four cups of water, two cups of strong coffee, a bong hit of high-potency cannabis indica sinsemilla with 15% tobacco, and a shot glass of whisky. But that high has little to teach past the first experience, and eventually, becomes a means of avoiding life itself.
All substances feel good, like a burst of energy from another world, but there's an insidious dark side to that: if it feels good, life without it seems empty and unfulfilling, which means that the great high causes you to end up hating life. Unless, of course, you can get high again. And while you're getting high, other opportunities -- mainly time -- go by, and you miss out.
If you want to live well, live (mostly) clean, keep yourself and your place clean, and maintain what you own. You will not end up hating life. Your cool hip progressive friends think it's ironic and interesting to live on the edge of a ghetto in filth and experiment with heroin; this is more of their process of realizing they're going to fail life, and so inventing reasons to hate it.
Dwelling in filth seems like a form of rebellion until you think it through. Foolish people will try to convince you that the problem is government, authority, or order, and the only real life consists of "fighting back" by living in squalor and pursuing stupid, empty activities. But you aren't fighting anything except your own possible happiness. You're making excuses.
Eighth lesson: Idle talk is less than even microscopic action.
As you go through life, you will run into many people who talk a good game. They talk a lot, and they talk as if they were important, which makes them feel important -- and that's the goal, as you'll see if you stick around. They don't actually do anything effective, if anything at all. They talk. And keep talking. That lets them pretend they're important and have big ideas (see Lesson Four) while making you feel less important.
Think about it this way: if their ideas were that important, they'd write them down in a book and spend all their time trying to form a political movement around them. But they are, instead, starting as if they had a political movement -- it's "let's play pretend" again -- and then spouting ideas so that you can see how important they are. Watch: in ten years, they'll be on to something else that makes them feel good about themselves.
The universal human disease is negativity. Low self-confidence, fear of the future and mortality, bitterness, fear of lack of control, resentment, fear of unimportance, depression, fear of one's own lack of self-control. You can make those go away for a short time by making idle talk that makes you seem like the new Martin Luther King or Lenin, new Hitler or new Buddha. People love to play pretend, but what is their goal?
The answer is a tautology: their goal is making themselves appear to have a goal so that they appear wiser, sharper, braver and more altruistic than you. That means this is just more posturing and an attempt to take from you what you have created, on the credit of being assumed to be witty because they have ideas that sound like a goal! Ignore such people.
Ninth lesson: Natural selection is with us every day.
The Darwin Awards are popular now to keep track of people who drive their sports cars into tree chippers and the like. But the real natural selection is more insidiously normal. Do you beat your kids? Do you treat your wife badly? Do you live sloppily and eat badly? All these things determine how well you survive, and how well your kids survive.
Why are kids important? You're not going to last forever. In fact, starting in your teens, there's a death curve by which each year there are fewer people your age. You can never beat it; at some point, approximately 120 years after your birth, the death curve will be complete. What lives on? Your good deeds, your ideas, maybe, but your family definitely, if you do it halfway right.
Reproducing is not the end of the process. It's the beginning. If you raise self-confident, cheerful, brave and honorable kids, but also remember to tell them the things in this first lecture, they will also have good kids and you will live on. If you rape your kids, beat them, neglect them, undermine their confidence, or forget to instruct them in the ways of life... might as well just pitch 'em in the tree chipper.
Tenth lesson: Most people are oblivious to reality.
Almost every human being agrees that most other people are morons, idiots or crazy. It's more direct to say that all of us are limited in abilities, and without someone to teach us knowledge gained from experience, we cast about in chaotic and unproductive activity. When we do that for awhile, we throw in the towel and start compensating, or doing things we think make us happy because we've written off the world.
Most people are caught in the feedback loop of chaotic activity, bad results, "small rewards" like excessive pleasures, and then their own lack of self-esteem at having a chaotic, pointless life. They are not all morons; they are not all insane; however, all but a small group are acting like insane morons because they haven't had someone to show them the facts, haven't read the right books, and have thrown in the towel.
With this in mind, you can stop trying to compete with them or make them like you for doing your own version of what they're doing. They are all hungry and thirsty for a clue. The only way you can give them this clue is by living intelligently, and never looking back. That includes ignoring what 99% of your species is doing, writing off their "ideas," blowing off their worries and demands, and doing what you know is right.
They value comfort and oblivion over facts about adaptation to reality because they don't believe they can adapt. Even before they've tried, they consider the game lost, and themselves doomed, because it's easier to blame someone else than to do a little bit of hard work getting yourself organized, educated and directed at constructive activity. They would rather dis-engage and start making excuses.
As you go through life, you will be surrounded by these people. They will be doing stupid, pointless, unproductive, careless, clueless, useless and otherwise distracting activity, and will look at you blankly like you're the idiot. They're just trying to bring you down to their level. Misery loves company. If you point out that they're doing something stupid, they will turn and attack viciously because they cannot think beyond themselves, so are oblivious to consequences to others, so interpret any notice of these consequence as an unprovoked attack.
Eleventh lesson: Beware false altruism.
Philosophers like to argue that altruism does or does not exist. They say that we know no motivation except for ourselves. I say that real altruism is an outgrowth of self-interest, in that if we like being alive, we want the world to keep improving so we help improve the infrastructure of our community. That's a type of altruism. But there's another, false type.
Competitive altruism is when individuals vie for social status by doing nice things for those who can't do such things for themselves. Competitive altruism exclusively targets individuals or groups, but not improvement of social process, and is a race to find the most helpless victims possible to help, because the worse off they are the more like a hero you look for helping them.
We have a better word for competitive altruism: marketing. The goal isn't to help anyone. It's to be seen helping others. It's a way of promoting yourself. People compete with altruism to try to appear like the biggest Jesus Christ of them all, the nicest person, the guy you want to know because he's that cool. But if he was really that cool, he wouldn't need the publicity, right?
Since most people cannot understand cause -> effect reasoning (every effect has one cause; every potential cause has multiple potential effects), they do not understand that competitive altruism has a goal of marketing the altruist to others. It isn't like spending time on a neighborhood barn-raising; it's like having the news cameras ready when you give the crippled impoverished burned cursed-by-God orphans free toys and the accidentally mention your furniture business. The promotion of the furniture business was the end; the altruism, just a means, like giving free candy to kids at the store entrance.
Other people will try to use competitive altruism to appear higher in social status to you. They know they can fool a mass of the dummies we described in the Tenth Lesson. Confused, depressed, disorganized people have no way to feel better about life except through little gifts: another bong hit, some TV, maybe some porn, buying themselves junk, and so on. They love to see altruism and cry over it because it makes them feel (briefly) alive.
There is only one known defense against competitive altruism: emphasize how you have no dependency on it. "I don't need to show others I'm a good fellow, so any charity I do is private," will not fool the masses, but it gives you a good counterattack: "Why do you need to show us this?" Then casually remind the few working brains in the audience that the altruism is just marketing, and the altruist, just promoting himself or her product.
Twelfth Lesson: Live for positive goals.
Nihilists refer to most people as pungis because they resemble an ancient device of war, the pungi stake. These nasty devices are sharpened bamboo spines smeared in feces and hidden on the likely path of your adversary. If he isn't careful, he will get cut by them or impaled by them and die of a nasty infection. Either way, he's off the path for some time.
Your average person functions in the same way. They hate their job, which they're "forced" to do, and their hate their life, which is obviously someone else's fault. They want to destroy anyone with more than what they have. They also want to make themselves appear important, when they haven't done anything important. While crushing them will eventually be necessary for humanity to further evolve, in the meantime you need a positive goal.
The definition of positive goal is tricky. I can say constructive, creative, or affirmative, but really what I am saying is that you need to have something you're reaching for, instead of defining yourself by what you're against. The pungis I mention above know what they're against, and what they blame, but they have no idea what they'd like to see instead. You can beat them by starting first on what you'd like to see.
If you think about it logically, if you act toward what you want, it will be like the species of more successful birds that drives others out of a valley simply by having too many members for others to have any room. You want to populate the world with things that work better, ideas that are smarter, symphonies that are more intense, anything that's a goal you're reaching for instead of something you're running from.
In this you find the true meaning of life, which is that in order to love yourself, you must love your world, and want to engage with it and make things happen that you find beautiful. Many are functional -- better flushing toilets, tastier grapes -- but the big things in life are subtler. You want to find those things that are worth doing and push toward them aggressively, letting no way force you off the path.
From this mental process, you can see what it is to be a hero. A hero is someone who figures out what they believe, from that constructs a vision of what is right, and does it -- regardless of the cost. Modern people confuse hero with "victim," like when they call people who die in plane hijackings heroes. Being a hero isn't to be a casualty. It's a state of mind and putting your life on the line for what you believe in.
At that level, you have "sacralized" life, or through a process of reverence made a religion out of living. Instead of being fixated on the negative, you have seen that destruction and creation together create life, and that in life, you have a chance to make what is beautiful -- and that this alone is more important than all else. Reach toward the beautiful and never say die.
You were born into a rotten time. Just like we start young and age then die, civilizations get old and as they get old, they get obese and calcified. This comes in the form of people, thanks to specialization of labor and herd morality, cutting themselves off from an understanding of cause and effect. Instead, they stick humans in the middle between cause and effect, basically assuming each thing we do is a personal choice directed at them.
This paranoid, defensive, reactionary outlook inevitably leads to liberal politics. The person does not want anyone to tell them what to do; like a hermit crab, they want to retreat into themselves. They trust their own personality, and other personalities they can control, but to their blind eyes nature is random and pointless and they hate it, especially that "personal mortality" part.
In the name of that fear they run away from reality and make a real mess of things. They tell each other delusional ideas, and force others to agree with them, making all of humanity a big circular logic argument for human solipsism. Social status and exchange of witty comments based on public entertainment replaces any kind of knowledge of reality. Much as the individual goes into his or her self, humanity has receded into itself.
You can end the retreat in yourself. Don't deny your mortality and end up throwing reality out with it; embrace both. You know you die, so make life count. This will help you discover how life is beautiful and important, and escape the negativity and depression that underlies modern society. Instead of trying to palliatively treat pain and suffering, ignore them so you can surge forward to the beautiful and powerful.
Because you have occurred in this time, you are surrounded since day one by toxic lies. People don't even mean to tell them to you; they were half-truths that sounded more right than the really crazy stuff, but they're designed for adults to use to justify their participation. To young people, they are baffling paradoxes and a justification of illusion as more important than reality itself.
Despite all of this, there is no need to despair. Actually, you should be cheering: all of this chaos is slowly filtering out the clueless and the deceptive by forcing smart people to separate themselves from the herd. If you educate yourself, starting with this document, you will be able to view life again through cause/effect logic and so free yourself from the crowd "thinking," and so be able to rebirth society after the decay.
July 2, 2009