What Have I Done with My Life?


Last week I binge watched a documentary series that started with a group of kids in England, and caught up with them every seven years (from 1963 when they were seven years old to 2012 when they were 56). My fascination, and curiosity, grew as I continued to watch.

I couldn’t stop till I was done watching the last documentary.

This obsession doesn’t stop with documentaries. I did it before with reality TV (eons ago), and at one point with Facebook and Twitter—always driven by the desire to know what others were up to.

Why are we so curious about how others live? Why do we want to know more, not just about friends and family, but also about other people in general?

I don’t have a definitive answer. But my guess is:

Looking at other people’s lives gives us a metric by which we can measure our own quality—and sadly meaning—of life.

Are we doing better, or worse, than others? Does our life mean something? Are we living the best life possible for us? All of these questions, and more, boil down to one thing: validation.

And this is what I found myself doing as I watched the kids grow over the years. I kept asking myself: If I were a participant, how would I have fared?

And like the selective and negatively biased human being that I am, I couldn’t help but feel that I could’ve done, and experienced more. I also judged how others were doing, through the same negative lens that I used to judge myself.

But here is the thing: it wasn’t what others did or didn’t do that was the issue, it’s how I took it and personalized it. I made a mistake: I thought I knew the participants, as much as I knew myself (assuming I actually know myself that well).

And this view is problematic.

Assuming that we know other people (close, or not so close) is a trap. We only have a glimpse into their lives—selective, and edited.

In all likelihood, our memories of our lives are quite selective and edited as well.

The edited view of life

Throughout the adult segments of the documentary series, participants indicated that the show didn’t reflect their reality. Each individual probably got about 10 to 15 minutes of screen time every seven years—selectively condensed and edited.

And we tend to do the same when we look at others’ lives. We only get an abbreviated version of a tiny part of reality, and we use it as a metric to judge their lives and evaluate ours.

Social metrics of success are arbitrary

Throughout the series the interviewer focused on a few, not surprising, areas of life.

The physical appearance spoke for itself. The interviews mostly covered career, money issues, relationships (marriage, divorce, having kids), and social status. Religion and faith came up a few times.

There is nothing wrong with discussing these subjects. But they’re only a fraction of someone’s life.

When did society decide that we should be judged by our careers, wealth, and marital/parental status?

It might’ve started centuries ago for the survival and preservation of our species (or a select group/tribe). I’m not sure how helpful this limited scope has been, considering the senseless bloodshed that humanity has endured so far.

The deception of thinking we know

We think we know others. And we think we know ourselves. We may know something about someone, but not his or her entire life. We may know a lot about ourselves—but it’s filtered through conditioning, emotional bias, and personal perception.

And since we can’t judge what we don’t know, it’s best to stop, or at least ease up on, judging others and ourselves.

As luck would have it, I watched the documentaries around my birthday, which is usually a time for reflection and taking stock. So here is the question again and my answer:

What have I done with my life this year?

I invested, made money, lost money, wrote, cleaned, made music, simplified, met friends, spent time with my loved ones, and watched thought provoking movies and TV shows.

I didn’t travel, didn’t write a book, didn’t have kids, didn’t improve my social status, and many other things that I didn’t get to do or experience—mostly by choice, even if I felt bad about not choosing them.

I did live more peacefully, and lightly. I learned to let go more. And most importantly I’m learning to just be okay with where I am—it’s a work in progress. Such changes can’t be displayed, or measured.

What have I done with my life? I lived (and am living it) the best way I know how, moment-by-moment. I wavered between awareness and absent-mindedness, experienced joy and sorrow, felt pleasure and pain, cried and laughed, and witnessed some of the many contrasts of life. And you did too!

As I look into the lives of others, and compare my life to theirs, I realize that:

There is a depth and breadth to life that cannot be quantified by numbers, described by words, or captured by cameras.

We don’t have bank accounts and balances for the amount of laughs we’ve had (or tears, or pain).

The measurable achievements, and observable events only punctuate a lifetime of conscious existence. They’re not a valid metric for measuring success or meaning. Life cannot be confined to feeling healthy or sick, being rich or poor, having an education and a career or not.

Life is meant to be lived—not measured, compared, or filmed. The fact that we’re here is all the purpose and success we need.

  P.S. I highly recommend watching the Up documentary series. It’s available on Netflix. You can read more about it here.