A dive into Existentialism

I reread “Notes From Underground” by Fyodor Dostoevsky and ‘re-enjoyed’ it very much. I remember reading it on a plane to Albuquerque and having finished 30 pages by the time I landed. I was 24 at the time and I remember it making a big impact on me. Hell, that entire trip out west changed my entire trajectory in life.

At the time I felt I shared similarities with the narrator. I imagined myself to be dark and broody, but in reality, I was just a dumb ‘kid’. Now, after rereading the book with 50-year-old eyes, the book and narrator takes on a different meaning to me.

…I couldn’t give two shits about philosophy and history.

I ordered the book using our interlibrary loan process and got it from a few towns over. Our local library does curbside pickup of books and I find this to be a true treasure. It feels great to order a book online from my library and then be able to pick it up later in the day.

I was elated to find that the book I got had notes in the margin. I used to hate finding someone’s notes in books, it felt like they defaced a work of art, but now I enjoy reading a marked-up book. It means someone took the time to read and understand what a particular author wrote, and it was these notes in Notes from Underground that led me to Existentialism.

When I was 24 and on that plane, to Albuquerque, I couldn’t give two shits about philosophy and history. I was into punk rock, thought Buddhism was cool and wanted to get laid. I wanted to go hike the mountains and start making money working as a Civil Engineer. The four years I spent in Albuquerque was the best times of my young life and I look fondly on them to this day.

Yet, all was not roses. There was a dark side to taking an impressionable young man and grinding him through the corporate system. I started to hate it. I asked myself, “Is this all there is to my life now?” I called it a mid-life crisis at 25 but in reality, it was an existential crisis.

…you should live your life in a way that benefits ‘the common good.’

I continued to be ground through the corporate machine. I worked at different jobs. I found love and lost love. I made many stupid mistakes and flirted with self-destruction. I felt lost until I went back to my library. I started reading books on how to get wealthy and leave the rat race because that’s what I thought would save me.

I needed a way to get out of this dehumanizing process and live life how I wanted to live. I read nonfiction books about authors who did ‘escape’ and I enrolled in business school. I thought that if I got my MBA I could chart my path to independence.

That was partially true but the system taught me about ‘labor units,’ it taught me that we are expendable resources for the big capitalistic machine. The same machine that’s destroying our planet. Why do I want to take part in that?

MBA school did give me independence in a way, it allowed me to escape my Engineering career for the Startup World. You can argue that I’ve traded one rusty cage for a gilded cage and I would agree with you, but I have more freedoms now and the ability to work how I want to work.

These days I question what it means to live a life.

I was exploited as a young man, exploited by the corporate machine that forced me to work overnight on projects that are forgotten or have never been built. Why? The only reason was for my corporate overlords that wanted to make more money. I resented this because I felt like I was smarter than them, I was like the narrator from Notes.

I look back on this now, it’s in my history and I can learn from it. Yes, we must work to earn a living but we shouldn’t live to work. These days I question what it means to live a life. Life on my terms.

Enter philosophy.

Stoicism

Philosophy, that thing I thought was stupid as a young man. Now, as an older man, I find it to be a worthy endeavor. I was introduced to Stoicism from a former CEO of an old employer. He strived to live the Stoic principles, summarized below:

  1. Live in agreement with Nature
  2. Live by virtue
  3. Focus on what you can control and accept what you can not
  4. Distinguish between good, bad, and indifferent
  5. Take action
  6. Practice misfortune
  7. Add a reverse clause to your planned activities
  8. Amor Fati - love everything that happens
  9. Turn obstacles into opportunities
  10. Be mindful

Overall the message of Stoicism is that you should live your life in a way that benefits ‘the common good.’

I find that message and the basic principles to be a good framework for anyone to live their life. Hell, I try to incorporate these principles in my daily life and I ask the question ‘did I become a better self today in my daily journal.

This very selfishness is what’s destroying our world right now.

I go through writing spurts in my journal. Sometimes I do it every day for months and then there are multi-month gaps. It’s there when I need it and there when I don’t.

However, Stoicism doesn’t address a big concept. What is the nature of being? Of our being? What does it mean to live for the common good?

Notes from Underground is considered the first Existentialist novel ever published. It’s considered to be a backlash against the current philosophical thoughts of ‘rational egoism.’ Rational egoism is what’s so entrenched in our world right and it’s the main cause of our problems.

Rational egoism, simply put, is a method of ethics is “any rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings ‘ought’ – or what it is ‘right’ for them – to do, or seek to realize by voluntary action”, via Wikipedia. It’s what gave birth to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and Communism, both extremes of selfishness.

Stoicism at least addresses one part of Existentialism, the goal of working on yourself.

This very selfishness is what’s destroying our world right now. Alan Greenspan was a follower of Any Rand and he aided in the deregulation of the US economy that led to the massive 2001 and 2007/2008 market crashes. It infiltrated the Tea Party and Ted Cruz likes to be a Cockwomble about it.

Here he is quoting Ayn Rand to obstruct Obamacare.

This is not Stoic philosophy, but an extreme version of Rational Egoism. I wonder how being selfish makes society and your life better?

Stoicism at least addresses one part of Existentialism, the goal of working on yourself. To make a better society you need to become a better version of yourself first.

Existentialism proposes that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or “authentically” via Wikipedia.

Authentic Life

I stumbled upon this term while exploring concepts from Notes. I was led down the path toward Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. It was there that I learned about what living an authentic life means.

From my notes if you focus on a particular truth, the subsequent linking truths blur out. You can only focus on this one truth at a time. There are so many truths out there that they’re begging to be discovered. Your discovery of those truths is what’s important. It is important because, on its surface, it lets you strip away the forced societal, cultural, and even economic boxes you were put in by other people.

My Journal Notes about Existentialims

You have to be true to who and what you are to live an authentic life. To live a life free from the constraints that others have put on you AND for you to discover the truths that are relevant for you.

Covid 19 Pandemic and Questioning

The Covid 19 pandemic has turned society on its head and it’s frightening to the corporate giants and existing power structures. People are realizing that the perceived control they have over you is not very strong indeed.

The old Civil Engineering firms that forced you to come into the office every day because they didn’t believe in Work From Home are now embracing it.

Now, go live your authentic life.

Millennials question the infrastructure that the Boomer generation built to entrap them. They’re ripping it apart and building a new world, liberating themselves in the process. Social Media and the Internet routinely form groups - for good and bad - of disparate people.

Young people are questioning what kind of world they want to live in and how to do it on their terms.

This sounds like the days of Rational Egoism being entrenched in our society are being chipped away, and I think it’s great. Our entire planet is dying1 and we’re busy maximizing shareholder’s wealth.

I think this is a small silver lining in the Covid 19 pandemic but I must express caution here. We have to make sure that we’re not trading one rusty cage for a newer gilded cage.

Now, go live your authentic life.


  1. Dying in the context of ability to support diverse life ↩︎