Like anyone, I’ve always sought a narrative to base my sense of self around. Events like the near-death of my father, witnessing a terrible crime, and seriously endangering my life are all things I look at and think “yes, this was the turning point in my life, and after this everything was different.”
We like to look at events that hold meaning for us – the end of a relationship, the loss of someone we love – as events that form who we are, and likewise, we look to the future for events – achieving our dreams, finding true love – that will similarly define our lives, and in turn, make them worth living.
The idea that important events define the meaning, direction, and quality of life is central to the accepted idea of personal development. But even more than that, it’s central to the way we all habitually think about the lives of ourselves and others.
Yet to the two greatest authors that ever lived this was precisely the wrong way to look at living.
And it turns out they were right.
MOMENTS IN LIFE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
When we look at life as series of important events, we’re measuring life by very specific, limited measuring points. Life becomes about these events, and it becomes about the quality and intensity of these events.
Relationships become about passion and excitement, life goals become about success and overcoming extreme challenges, and the meaning of life becomes some kind of heroes journey. A journey which we, as the sole most important person, go on and achieve great, important things.
The problems with this are that whilst these events seem important from a desire to string together a narrative, they aren’t actually as meaningful or important as we would think.
Whether we’re looking to get better at being single, kick our anxiety’s ass, or just change our life so we’ll be a little happier – it turns out the answer isn’t where we’ve been told to look, but is just where it’s always been.
Right in front of our eyes.
But in order to explain this, I’m going to need to run a short class on classic literature. Which, I promise, isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds.
A SHORT CLASS ON CLASSIC LITERATURE THAT’S EXACTLY AS BORING AS IT SOUNDS
“Bryullóv (a painter) one day corrected a pupil’s study. The pupil, having glanced at the altered drawing, exclaimed: “Why, you only touched it a tiny bit, but it is quite another thing.” Bryullóv replied: “Art begins where the tiny bit begins.”
That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins – where what seem to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place. True life is not lived where great external changes take place – where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another – it is lived only where these tiny, tiny, infinitesimally small changes occur.” – Tolstoy – Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves
Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky were two of the greatest authors of all time.
The former was a Count, landowner, anarchist Christian, and novelist who wrote enormous, intricate novels always attempting to prove what was true and correct about human life.
It might seem on the surface that these two authors were remarkably different. And if you were to read them without paying close attention that might seem like the case.
But you’d be wrong.
Although seeming to be different, both writers operated from an extremely similar understanding of life; that everything hinged on infinite small moments.
This would undoubtedly be their favorite song.
Seen as a tragic novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is, in fact, a condemnation of romantic love, narcissism, and evil, all of which Tolstoy embodies in the main character of Anna.
Tolstoy tells a story of a woman whose passionate love alienates her from a judgemental society, and whose poor choices in key moments eventually doom her to a terrible and tragic end. So masterfully does he do this that we feel great sympathy for her.
If we were to judge the novel by its big moments the novel would, in fact, be tragic. But behind these big moments, Tolstoy tells another more sinister story.
Littered throughout the novel are small, almost imperceptible insights into Anna’s thoughts, motivations, and psychology that are tucked away in dense paragraphs or various other details. Throughout we are consistently told that Anna believes herself subject to fate, that she consistently neglects the care of her children, that she is constantly looking at her own appearance, that she wants complete devotion from her lover above all, that her life is empty of anything meaningful because she fills it with trifles, that without any of this she doesn’t think life is worth living, and in fact, believes she is fated by an omen to die.
All of these tiny, tiny moments happen so frequently and so imperceptibly, that although it appears that Anna’s life changes in big moments, her life and decisions have in fact been made and lived long before, in all the moments she and we failed to notice.
In thousands of moments throughout the book Anna neglects responsibility, and indulges in narcissism more and more.*
Tolstoy makes this as hard to spot as our own behavior, drowning out these small details in enormous, dramatic moments. And this is precisely what Tolstoy is trying to tell us – that if we perceive life only in big moments, then we fail to understand what determines those big moments, and in turn life itself. We fail to spot the devil in the details.
In Crime & Punishment, the main character Raskolnikov commits two horrific murders for which the reason why is never discovered. Yet throughout the novel Dostoevsky alludes to the fact that horrific evil exists within the hearts of everyone, and shows us, in small details, how Raskolnikov consistently entertains the thought of killing and consistently flees from his conscience – most tellingly through drinking alcohol, sleeping, or consciously choosing to think about something else. Whilst the character, and various other characters discuss all manner of ideologies and theories that justify or explain his action – his actual decision to kill is made in the back of his mind as he goes about his life doing everyday boring things.
Likewise in The Brother’s Karamazov, the young, idealistic Alyosha resolves his faith not in a singular moment of epiphany, but a moment that has long ago been decided, and composed of countless interconnected moments and choices he has already lived.
Dostoevsky, through these small moments, is trying to show us how right and wrong choices exist within us at all times and it is our attention (or lack of) to the many tiny moments in which they exist that guide us towards potential right or wrong outcomes.
THE EVERYDAY EXISTENCE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT MOMENTS
“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” — Aristotle
The point both authors are making is this:
Whether it’s good, evil, love, meaning, anxieties, fears, success, failure or the direction of our lives – all of this is decided in everyday, boring moments that we pay zero attention to.
It’s not the breakups, deaths, and parties, but instead the stuff we don’t notice ticking away in our minds as we roll around in bed, go about our day, and do our boring, everyday chores.
This is a much deeper version of Will Durant’s quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”*
According to Gary Saul Morson, the prosaic good and evil of our lives depend on what we pay attention to, and what we neglect to pay attention to.
For example, the character in Anna Karenina who lives the most rightly is a character called Dolly who pays attention to her life, her happiness and the needs of those around her, particularly her children. Happiness for her is in small ‘boring’ everyday moments.
In contrast, the characters in Anna Karenina who are the most evil are Anna and her brother Stiva, who continually turn their backs on ‘boring’, everyday life, shirk the responsibilities of people who need them most, and continually pursue a life which they feel it would be ‘impossible’ to live without. Happiness for them is in pleasures, trifles, excitement, and neglect.
What this means for us is that everything we want or do not want is happening not at the moment we think it occurs, but right now.
When you cheat on your partner, you don’t do this at the moment you cheat, but in the thousands of times you entertain the notion of it or neglect your attention to intimacy. You don’t cheat when you leap into bed with someone, you cheat in the small moments where you watch pornography, scroll through Instagram looking at girls, rather than pay attention to what you already have. I.e that ‘boring’, everyday partner you have next to you.
When you’re single but experience anxiety that stops you from approaching a girl, this doesn’t happen in that moment but was in fact created thousands of times before, in tiny moments where you chose not to be socially outgoing, didn’t speak to that random cashier, avoided looking at people on the tube, and didn’t speak up in class despite having an opinion. To say nothing of those constant thoughts that said: “you can’t approach.”
When you have dreams of starting a business but all your attempts to begin end in procrastination, this doesn’t happen when you open your phone and start browsing the internet, get lost in youtube, or suddenly get sprung with the desire to do anything else but what you need to do. It happens in those little moments where, when lying around or doing something entirely different, you continually think to yourself “how hard the day is going to be” and how much “you don’t want to do it.”
When you fail to be happy, it’s because you fail to make the right decision long before you’ve actually “had to.” On the flip side, when you are happy, it’s typically because you constantly make the right decision without even noticing it.
My family often say that when my dad almost died, we all worked together “in that moment” and that ever since “we’ve had a stronger bond”.
But in reality, this is complete bullshit.
Rather than work together in one moment, we actually worked together because of the thousands of moments beforehand that we’d paid zero attention to (and often found boring). Having dinners together as a family, encouraging open communication, being upfront with confrontation. All of these everyday occurrences meant that when the big moment finally came, the decision had already been made – our tiny choices had already made the ‘stronger’ bond that would see us through.
It was the simple moments right in front of us that made us happiest all along.
This is true not just of family life but of just about anything. What is the pleasure of sex compared to true intimacy with another person? What is the excitement of a party compared to appreciating the company of a good friend? What is the pride of success compared to the simple pleasure of many days of hard work?
The most important parts of life are incidentally the ones we enjoy the most. We just constantly fail to notice that they’re right in front of our eyes.
PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT 101 – SWEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THE SMALL STUFF
Now, you’re probably thinking – this sounds like a lot to think about all the time.
But it’s not.
This isn’t a question of absolute control, it’s a question of attention. How much we have, and where it’s directed.
The solution to this problem is provided in another book of Tolstoy’s. The gargantuan War and Peace.*
Midway through a battle, a group of generals is discussing strategy for the coming day. The decision maker amongst them pays little attention throughout the strategizing, and then at the end recommends everyone gets a good nights rest.
It’s a fairly comical moment that’s easy to overlook, but Tolstoy is making a deliberate point. Because all life consists of infinite small moments, then war, like any activity involving humans is simply too complex for any strategy to truly apply. It is contingent at all times.*
The best solution we have is to get a good nights rest so that the next day we’re alert enough to pay attention to the small opportunities that occur and react to them advantageously.
There are five techniques we can employ in order to capitalize on these advantages in our own lives and pay attention not just to the small moments but also the thoughts we entertain.
- Get plenty of sleep (not enough, not some, plenty).
- Think about how little you need.
- Think about what you already have.
- Pay attention to the kind of thoughts you’re thinking.
When we get some sleep we give our mind it’s alertness. When we meditate we bring our brain back to the here and now. When we think about how little we need, we bring our attention to only what we truly need, and to what we already have. Allowing ourselves to build a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with each. When we pay attention to the kind of thoughts were thinking, we bring our attention to the life is unfolding inside us in every moment.
Because that’s the art of personal development.
We usually think of personal development as the process of building the life we want, but the true art of personal development comes less from building the life we want, and more from paying acute attention to the one we have and are living right now.
Not only will this way of thinking help us get what we want. It’ll help us be happier with less, and in turn, stop chasing happiness in the first place.