One of the moments that remains most vividly in my memory during my time at Oxford University was attending a class given by Ronald Dworkin about The Good Life. The University College classroom was packed with attentive students, some of them sitting on the floor. Dworkin loved debate: he was a magnificent speaker, eloquent, sometimes provocative, and never indifferent toward his audience. Referring to his ability to argue a point during his many years in the legal profession, he was once described as “that lawyer that beats them all”. On one occasion he came to Madrid, and I had to transcribe a talk he had given without any notes. The text required virtually no editing, reflecting his mental discipline and oratorical skills.
Dworkin was a great lover of art, and the analogy he used to describe what to him was a good life was creating the best work of art possible, depending on our personal opinion. He explained that assessing the success of this artistic endeavor should not focus solely on the outcome, the work of art in itself, or our achievements in life, but more importantly on the process that has led up to that outcome. In the same way that in the artistic world what matters is the genesis of a work of art or a style, for example, Picasso’s move from his blue period to cubism, rather than a particular painting, which after all can be copied by somebody else, when evaluating our lives, we need to focus on the itinerary, on the path we take through life: “We value human lives well lived not for the completed narrative, as if fiction would do as well, but because they too embody a performance: a rising to the challenge of having a life to lead. The final value of our lives is adverbial, not adjectival—a matter of how we actually lived, not of a label applied to the final result. It is the value of the performance, not anything that is left when the performance is subtracted.” (1)
An important part of what gives our lives meaning is work: it takes up an important amount of our time, provides us with the means to live, and hopefully can be a source of satisfaction and personal development. That’s why it’s so important we like our profession. Sadly, most people in the world do not enjoy their job. But if you are reading this post, then in all likelihood you’re among those lucky few who have chosen their profession. This freedom of choice comes with the responsibility of carrying out that profession to the best of our ability; in short to be a consummate professional.
Fortunately, we live in a diverse world, one that offers us the opportunity to choose how we want to work, as well as to reach our own conclusions about what constitutes the good life, conclusions we must always reach as a result of our own experiences: others can tell us about their lives, we can follow their model, but in the final analysis, how we live is down to us.
Dworkin’s advice that we see life in terms of a process rather than the outcome can be applied to any manner of topics, and has even become a mantra for many golf coaches in recent years. Regardless of the position we might occupy in an organization, or even if we have reached the pinnacle of a company, it is the experience and the development process that really gives meaning to professional endeavor. That’s why there is no point in feeling frustrated if we don’t get this or that position. What counts is what we have learned and experienced in trying.
In fact, many psychologists say that we get more pleasure from the effort of trying to achieve something than we do once we have it. The analogy of life as a journey, in which the more intense emotions happen along the way rather than when we arrive, may be a common one, but as we get older, the sense in it becomes ever clearer.
Clayton Christensen has been advising graduates of Harvard Business School about planning a career for many years, which he has distilled into an intriguingly titled article, How Will You Measure Your Life? (2) Before reading it, I assumed that it would provide a model, based on management theory, which would allow us to measure the personal worth of life itself. Can different people’s lives be evaluated? Can we calculate the value of our own lives, assigning values to the lives of people we know?
Such an exercise would make little sense, because we put supreme value on any human life. Closer to home, we feel that the lives of the people we love are of incalculable value, and are even prepared to sacrifice ours in their place. At the same time, we consider our own lives to be beyond any price, and our experiences cannot be itemized according to the valuation models we apply to things, or even animals, although it has to be said that some people would definitely put their pet’s life over that of many humans.
In short, human lives cannot, or should not, be subject to economic factors or transaction costs. At times over the course of history, humankind has practiced slavery and traded in people, and tragically, there are many places in the world today where human life seems to have little value and people are treated shamefully. All right-minded people feel that it is their duty to combat such practices, regardless of the perverse arguments sometimes used to justify them, and to eradicate them forever from our world: little wonder that we admire those who dedicate their lives to fighting inequality and poverty.
Surely few right-minded people would accept the idea of measuring a life in terms of accruing a fortune and amassing material goods. Money can be an instrument of freedom, and having the necessary resources means being able to live in relative comfort and to provide wellbeing and access to opportunities for our loved ones. But most intelligent people understand that once our basic needs are met, happiness is dependent on other factors, and mainly on the relationship with those we love.
Returning to Christensen’s advice. Aside from recommending his graduates to design a personal strategy focused on talent, time, and the energy required to implement it, he offers particularly wise counsel in assessing our personal lives: “I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life”—Christensen is devoutly religious—“isn’t dollars, but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”
Perhaps one of the golden rules for living the good life is never to see those around us as means, but instead as ends in themselves. This can apply to all kinds of contexts: with loved ones, friends, work colleagues, as well as everybody we deal with.
If we see existence as evolution, then thinkers such as J. David Vellerman, believe that life is better if over time it improves rather than drifting into difficult situations: “Consider two different lives that you might live. One life begins in the depths but takes an upward trend: a childhood of deprivation, a troubled youth, struggles and setbacks in early adulthood, followed finally by success and satisfaction in middle age and a peaceful retirement. Another life begins at the heights but slides downhill: a blissful childhood and youth, precocious triumphs and rewards in early adulthood, followed by a midlife strewn with disasters that lead to misery in old age” (3)
Which of these two lives would you prefer? Vellerman believes the second is the better, although I imagine he would accept that his thinking is flawed. No life is that lineal: we experience ups and downs at different periods. At the same time, although it is possible to describe somebody’s life in terms of progress or decline, to do so is more an exercise in literature than a reflection of how we ourselves see our lives. David Copperfield and King Lear are powerful characters, but much of their older lives bears little relation to our own experiences. What’s more, the good life is one that develops by weighing up the important things, as well as knowing how to mature and grow old regardless of adversity, health problems, or the loss of those we love.
Looking back over our lives, there are two feelings we should avoid at all cost. The first is regret, particularly as regards how we have treated others at certain times. Regret is best countered by asking for forgiveness. Saying you are sorry is healthy, and helps us to overcome guilt, and sometimes can even win back relationships we thought were lost forever. In turn, to forgive, to truly forgive, brings inner peace. Let’s not forget that forgiveness was a power once reserved for the gods.
The second feeling that we tend to fall prey to as we get older is nostalgia. But unlike memory, which can revive experiences, particularly happy ones, nostalgia is simply the feeling that time has passed us by, holding us hostage to the past and preventing us from facing the future with optimism. Cultivating it is ill-advised and quite simply a futile exercise that will take us nowhere.
In Ancient Greece there were three kinds of biography (4): the enkomion, which was originally a song sung to honor the winners of the Games; the peripatetic biography, influenced by Aristotle, focused on the virtues and characteristics of the subject, based on the belief that a person’s character was reflected in their actions; finally, there were scientific biographies, which outlined somebody’s life in chronological order rather than exploring their character and tended to be drier, and focused on facts. Which of these three categories would you like your biography to fall into?
(1)Ronald Dworkin, What Is a Good Life?, The New York Review of Books, February 10, 2011 Issue
(2)Clayton Christensen, How will You Measure Your Life? Don’t reserve your best business thinking for your career, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010
(3) J.David Vellerman, “well-Being and Time, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72 (1991), pp. 48-77.
(4)Suetonio, Vida de los Doce Césares (Madrid: Gredos, 1992); Introd. by Antonio Ramírez de Verger