How to Live an Interesting Life
Thursday, 24 July 2014
One of our senior discussion board members (and a contributor the main site) who’s going through a rough patch right now suggested a couple of article topics. One of these was on living an interesting life:
“How to Live an Interesting Life – I feel that my life outside of the occasional woman or pool game is quite mundane. I’m not someone who likes having nothing to do but inevitably my day-to-day living involves nothing but sitting around and twiddling my thumbs right now. So, I’d like to see an article on leading an interesting life.”
I think the most important thing about leading an “interesting life” to understand is that “interesting” is a highly subjective concept... and the way most folks talk about it is best understood from the outside, not the inside.
Exciting or Interesting, It’s for the Outside
“I want an exciting life,” a girlfriend of mine said to me once.
“Exciting like what? Gun shots and alien attacks?” I asked.
Instead, she described the life of an ex-girlfriend of mine she was acquainted with. “Her life is so exciting!” she said. “I’ve never been friends with anyone with as exciting a life as hers. She was so in love with you, and then it broke up, but it was all over a misunderstanding, and then she tried to get you back even though you were dating me, and then she dated her boss, and her coworkers insulted her publicly but she was defiant, and then she fell in love with your friend when you introduced them. And she gets to fly all over the country working on projects in this city and that city and the other city.”
“That doesn’t sound like excitement to me,” I said. “It just sounds like confusion and not knowing what you want and a heavy work schedule.”
“But it is
“And yet,” I replied, “I guarantee you that she would set everything aside if she could just be with me again. She’d switch places with you in a heartbeat.”
“No way!” said my girlfriend.
“You don’t think so? Okay,” I said, “why don’t I call her up right now and tell her I want her back. How fast do you think she’ll drop everything and come running straight back to me at lightning speed?”
”She’s in love with your friend now!” she said.
”You don’t think she’ll apologize to him and come straight back to
me if I give her even a hint of an open door?” I asked, and raised my
“You might be right,” she said.
“And you know what,” I continued, “I bet if she knew everything about your life -” and here I reeled off a descriptor of various things she had going on, “I bet she’d tell you your life is way more exciting than hers is.”
“Maybe...” she said.
“But YOU don’t think your life is very exciting, because you live it every day,” I said. “Just like SHE doesn’t think HER life is exciting, because SHE lives it every day. Yet, you think her life is more exciting, and she’d think your life is more exciting. Why? Do you know? Because I do...”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because exciting only looks exciting from the outside,” I said.
I then explained the thing about exciting: I don’t care if you’re a rock star, an airplane pilot, a party promoter... doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, as soon as you’ve been doing it long enough to be any good at it, it quits being exciting.
Have you ever seen a rock star quit in the middle of a concert to break into euphoria: “OMG guys, I just realized I am a rock star, and holy crap, this is so exciting! Wait, can you guys hang on for a second, I want to call my mom and let her listen to all my fans screaming on the other end of the phone. Hold on, hold on – we’ll get the concert going again in just a second, don’t worry. Let me just call my mom. Hold on. Mom..? Mom! Mom – GUESS WHAT? I’m a rock star!”
How about an airline pilot making an announcement over the PA system: “Welcome aboard ladies and gentleman, and oh, by the way – I get to fly planes. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll be taking a bunch of selfies in every part of the plane so I can post these to Facebook later, because it’s so dadgum exciting that I want to make sure everybody knows it.”
It’s all a grind. Whether you’re working 9-to-5 or flying a 747 or putting on show after show for sold-out audiences, it might be fun... it might be enjoyable... but it isn’t exciting... and interesting is the same darn way.
How’d You Get to be So Interesting?
When we talk about an interesting life, we can really talk about two things:
- Doing things that are actually interesting, to you, and
- Living in a way that
other people find very interesting
Sometimes these things overlap, but not always.
For instance, flying planes and being a rock star are two things I’d probably categorize as usually not very interesting to do, but extremely interesting for others who hear you do them.
If you’re a pilot, most of your time consists of dead
in the air while the autopilot runs the show, just keeping an eye on a
hundred different gauges and taking naps or flirting with the flight
attendants to bide time (which probably sounds fun at first, but isn’t
actually any different than any other kind of office flirtation).
If you’re a rock star, most of your time consists of grueling tour
schedules where you have to go out and put on a show (and if you’ve
ever danced or sung, you know this is WORK), put insane amounts of
draining and repetitive practice in behind the scenes, and deal with
all kinds of legal and logistical and financial headaches until you’re
so big that you have a trusted enough posse of agents, managers, and
handlers to not have to worry about these anymore. Even writing music
and lyrics can be interesting sometimes, but is very often a lot of
work and a lot of grinding it out much of the time (which is probably
why most singers eventually outsource these too – look at how many
ghostwriters most established artists employ. Think your favorite song
was written by your favorite artist? Questionable).
Conversely, someone who’s a laboratory entomologist may have what is for him an extremely interesting day-to-day. In case you don’t know what an entomologist is, that’s someone who studies insects. And while any given day for him may be a thrill ride of bug study, when he meets a cute girl at the bar and tells her that his day was spent studying bumblebee flight patterns, she probably won’t find his life especially interesting to picture.
And there’s the disconnect between what seems like an interesting life to others, and what’s actually interesting yourself to do. They sometimes add up... but usually don’t. And frequently that’s because of the effect of events vs. processes.
I have little doubt that a music fan just discovering the Beatles in 1963 would’ve found them very interesting and very exciting, especially as their popularity started to soar and Beatlemania caught on in a big way. But for John Lennon and Paul McCartney? They’d already been playing 6 years and had over 600 performances under their belt by then. I doubt a concert struck them as anything other than “business as usual, except with more fans” at that point.
The fans see the event – suddenly, these guys the Beatles appear out
of nowhere! But for the person who lived the process, who’s already
acclimated to everything he does, maybe the most interesting thing that
happened to him all day was the weird beggar with a bird on his head he
saw outside the station earlier, and not the concert he performed in
front of 30,000 screeching fans.
Do I Want to be Interesting or Interested?
Just like there’s a big difference between being bored and being boring, there’s also a big difference between being interesting and being interested.
And deciding which one you want to focus on at any given moment of time is going to be important.
For being interesting, there are already a ton of articles on this site. Perhaps the most important two are these:
Being interesting is mainly about:
- Acquiring more and broader experience
- Developing high degrees of skill in one or more areas
- Becoming socially adept at conveying the interesting things about you
- Getting other people telling you the interesting things about
themselves (this actually makes them think you’re
interesting... even if they know nothing about you. People work
For instance, someone who can talk intelligently about visiting
multiple countries and speaking multiple languages is more interesting
for it. Someone who plays rugby or the tuba with a high degree of
expertise is more interesting for it. All of these people can
tell you fascinating things assuming they know how to parse their
experiences for points of interest and tell a good story or an
eye-opening anecdote. They can also make you feel understood a lot more
easily if you share experiences that are remotely related to their
breadth and depth of experience.
If you want to be more interesting, then do more and get better at expressing the things you’ve done, learned, experienced, and seen, and tying those to others’ experiences.
Some suggestions if you need some off the top of your head:
Read. Good fiction and good nonfiction are equally good, for different reasons. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with the classics. There’s always a “latest and greatest” book hot off the presses that everyone’s talking about right now, but no one will remember 5 years from now. Mostly ignore these, unless they’re covering something that genuinely hasn’t been covered better before. Focus on books that are still hailed as masterpieces 30 years after publication... or 300... or 3,000, where possible. I have some of my own recommendations listed here: “Recommended Reading.”
Train. Take training and classes in as many different things as you can find training and classes on. If you live near a university that offers adult learning classes, these are usually pretty inexpensive; or use Meetup.com to find interesting groups that try various things. Have you tried all of archery, skeet shooting, shooting at a rifle range, hunting, fishing, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, sky diving, hang gliding, parasailing, windsurfing, surfing, wakeboarding, snowboarding, skiing, jet skiing, ice-skating, roller blading, tennis, basketball, billiards, cricket, ceramics, painting, sculpting, carving, woodworking, metalworking, or any of a million other sports, hobbies, and activities? Probably not, right? But you’d be a lot more interesting if you had...
Voyage. Where have you traveled to? Different cities? Different countries? Different continents and cultures? Have you traveled wide? Have you traveled far? Have you traveled deep? When you went to Russia, did you only see Moscow... or did you go deep into the countryside and discover what it’s like in the pastoral regions? Have you ever eaten kimchi with a Korean? Pasta with an Italian? How about wat with an Ethiopian? When’s the last time you learned how to say “Thank you” and “How are you?” in a language you haven’t been speaking since infancy? When’s the last time you slept with a pretty girl you could barely communicate with?
Connect. Are all your friends of the same mind you are? That’s got to be pretty boring if everyone you know holds the same political views, the same religious beliefs, and comes from the same background. But even more importantly, you aren’t being challenged, you aren’t growing, and you aren’t being exposed to new ways of seeing the world – or the fault lines in your own ways of seeing it. If you want to be more interesting, spend more time with people you don’t see eye-to-eye with and who come from very different backgrounds from you. Keep hanging out with them until you get it, and fully empathize with them.
Break free. The most interesting people are the ones doing the things we all want to do but are too afraid to or lack the resources, knowhow, or follow through to. If you want to be more interesting... become one of these people yourself. Become the rock star. Or the airline pilot. Or the party promoter. Become the guy that every woman wants and every man wants to be. Start your own business or go freelance and break free from the chains of your corporate master. Sell off or give away all the clutter you’ve accumulated over a lifetime of living and get your belongings down enough to fit in a single suit case + computer bag (you’ll be a lot happier spending money on experiences than you will collecting and keeping “stuff” – it’s science). Cut negative, draining people out of your life and permit only positive, can-do people in or bust.
These are the things to do to make your life more interesting to outsiders.
Interestingly enough, they also open up the paths to all kinds of things that will keep you interested, too... though frequently may only interest you themselves for only so long, before becoming routine.
Let’s say your main focus isn’t being more interesting though – you’ve handled that, or are handling it. Instead, what you really want to do is get yourself more interested – in life.
Being more interested is about doing things that are continually
stimulating you. That’s where the overlap comes from between being
interesting and being interested. The rock star who is still pushing
the envelope with what he can do with his music is both interesting and
interested. The one who’s quit breaking out of his comfort zone and is just doing
what he knows how to do is still interesting (so long as he isn’t
slacking off completely... and the music world hasn’t moved on from
what he’s doing now), but he probably isn’t all that
interested any more. Now he’s tuned out, and only in it for the money /
fame / glory / drugs / women.
Being interested means choosing to do things that you are curious to discover what will happen with, but do not yet know.
For instance, if you are playing a game of chess against a worthy opponent, you will probably be interested to see what happens. Will you win? Lose? Draw in a stalemate? Impossible to know – you’ll just have to play the game.
Play a game of chess against a far superior opponent, or a far inferior one, however, and you’ll quickly become disinterested – you know what the outcome will be every time. You soundly beat the inferior opponent, and are soundly beaten by the superior one. Unless you are teaching the game to the inferior opponent, or being taught it by the superior one, you won’t be particularly engrossed.
Everything is like this. Seduction is like this too. It becomes less
interesting when you get good, and more predictable. Still fun, of course – but “fun” and
“interested” are somewhat different things. A roller coaster ride is
fun, but not very interesting, because you know what will happen.
However, if the roller coaster flies off the track, or gets stuck
upside down, now it’s become much more interesting (although perhaps
not quite as much fun).
Therefore, there are two (2) paths to remaining interested. These are:
- To engage in stimulating things, until they stop stimulating you
- To give yourself goals and missions to accomplish
The stimulation process works something like this:
Immersion: you immerse yourself in something new that you wanted to do, and assuming it isn’t too overwhelming for you (which it can be if you weren’t properly prepared or bit off more than you can chew), you’re immediately immersed and highly stimulated. Examples: first time in the big city; first time in an exotic culture; first time scuba or sky diving; first time driving a sports car.
Acclimation: as you become more acquainted with a thing and you learn its nuances, it begins to stimulate you and engage you less, and your brain is able to hand more and more of its sensory processing over to the subconscious. Instead of demanding that you be alert and engaged, this increasingly familiar thing more and more becomes something you tune out and disengage from. That makes it easier to navigate, and makes you look more like a seasoned veteran (and makes you more interesting), but also involves you less and makes the luster it holds for you personally to begin to fade.
Apathy: once you are fully acclimated to a thing and it ceases to offer you new stimulation, you become apathetic about it. You grow bored; you’re completely tuned out; what once was engaging and fresh for you is now old hat. If you want to experience the same level of engagement you did at the outset, there’s only one thing left to do: quit this thing and immerse yourself in something else that’s totally new and completely distinct. Time to change cities, change countries, change hobbies, or change rides... if keeping your engagement up is a priority.
This goes for places, it goes for people, and it goes for activities. The immersion-acclimation-apathy cycle is so far as I can tell universal. Even with things that contain a high degree of variability and randomness, the mind still acclimates and just accepts variability / randomness as part of the picture (like gambling; a longtime gambler doesn’t find the slots exciting anymore, even though he still doesn’t have them “figured out”; they are just what he does).
You can actually get some level of immersion again by taking yourself away from a thing and coming back to it later on (ideally, once you start to miss it). Sort of like how the single man misses the companionship of a relationship and the monogamous man misses the thrill of the hunt. Leave your home country and live abroad for a few years, and on your return you’ll find yourself engaged and alert and perceptive at a level you hadn’t been since you were 5 years old... but it doesn’t last. Within a few weeks, you’ve shifted back into apathy, and it’s time to embark on a new adventure once more.
Your other option for upping engagement and interestedness, of course, is goals and missions. Perhaps you’re an advanced martial artist, but it no longer engages you like it used to. How do you fare if you climb into the MMA ring? Chances are, you won’t get in and proceed to go straight to the top – most likely, somewhere along the line, someone’s going to hand you your ass.
And at that point, if martial arts was something you were very interested in being good at before, and now consider yourself pretty good at, this’ll serve as a wake up call – and that’s exactly what it is. You have “woken up” from your disengaged autopilot treatment of the subject, and now you have a new mission: win in MMA tournaments (or defeat the opponent who defeated you before).
Just like that, you’re right back in it.
Competitiveness is one of the best motivators there is. Having an enemy you are trying to defeat – someone who’s wronged you or slighted you – is a terrific motivator. It heats the passions and kicks the cogs in your head once more into gear.
If you want to get reengaged, the easiest way on Earth is putting yourself in a position to go up against someone better than you and failing. Imagine this in chess – you might be coasting on autopilot, trouncing people left and right, but then suddenly, inexplicably, you’re beaten – and, after smarting a moment, and maybe declaring that you’re done wasting time on this pointless game, you collect yourself, steel yourself, and resolve to step your game up to a level it’s never been at before.
If you’re creative, you can engineer encounters with people who can “beat” you in almost anything:
Big city? Why not try and get a job at a top firm in town, or jump the line at the hottest nightclub? Can’t do it? I guess you haven’t mastered this town after all.
Exotic culture? Why not try to start a business there, or court a wealthy local official’s daughter? Can’t pull it off? I guess you haven’t figured out this culture so well after all.
Sky diving? Why not try wingsuit flying? Not enough sky diving hours? I guess you aren’t cut out for it yet after all.
Unless you are the best, there’s almost always another notch higher you can take things... and when you get apathetic, it’s generally not because the world’s run out of stimulating things for you, so much as it is that you’ve quit challenging yourself to step it up out of your comfort zone and chase that stimulation down.
How Important is It to be Interesting or Interested?
You know, this is one of those things you could spend your entire
life not tending to and never worry about. It depends on your
Leading an interesting, unconventional life is difficult. It means continually operating in that paradigm we talked about in “The Civilized Man”: constantly pushing your way into things that everyone around you tells you are too hard, too bad, or too useless, only for you to come out on the other end being lauded for your achievements. That’s too unpleasant for most people to bother with trying to do... it’s just easier to go with the flow.
And leading a life that keeps you continually interested is probably even MORE difficult. It’s one thing to choose a few things to add into your life that interest you... it’s another entirely to periodically ratchet up your goals or rotate out your sources of stimulation in order to ensure that you stay interested.
Most folks pick things/places/people that interest them at first, and then keep those things until they become routine, at which point the fire in their eyes dies and they become the autopilot zombies you see out there. Nobody starts out on autopilot... it’s just where you end up. That’s probably okay for most folks though, who don’t want to change all the time. They just want to get somewhere safe and relaxing.
In fact, if I had to list priorities for most of the world’s
population it’d be: be safe and be relaxed. If that’s not enough for
you... you’re one of those weirdo outliers (don’t worry, I’m one of
those crazy “live with uncertainty and be uncomfortable” people too,
more often than not – though we all have our own thresholds for how
much uncertainty and discomfort we can “comfortably” tolerate. I’ll
stay in a hot, seedy hotel with slow Internet, bugs crawling on me, and
my hair curled up from the humidity for a while and be fine, but after
a few weeks of this I will probably want the Ritz with air
conditioning, a hair dryer, and fast connection speeds).
If you’ve realized you’re someone who needs something other than “be safe and be relaxed” though, and you’ve realized you’re on autopilot and you want to get off of it, well, you know what you need to do: get engaged. Get stimulated. Set goals, challenge yourself, and get to work.
This is one of those things that’s entirely objective. You may be perfectly happy as a normal person living a normal life and not having to be engaged. Most people want things to remain relatively predictable, and not change too much, and not have to do too much, remember.
But if you want to be more interesting, and/or more interested, then stimulation, newness, uncertainty, and challenge are your lifeblood. New skills and experiences to be interesting; new challenges and sensations and discoveries to be interested.
If that’s you – and you want to be more interesting, or more interested – the path is clear: do more.
And make sure, whatever it is you will do, that it isn’t too easy or too predictable, because the apathy ease and predictability bring is the total opposite of the activity and enlightenment that struggle and uncertainty do.
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