Self-Awareness

Sebastian Junger (pronounced Younger) was on Bill Maher last night. Junger is an award winning Afghanistan war correspondent, and director, and his latest documentary Which way is the front line from here? has been proclaimed a success at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

During the interview Bill asked why war felt like an addiction to some soldiers. In particular, what psychology drove this behavior? To that Sebastian responded:

“The consequences in war are huge. The consequences even of small things. You don’t tie your shoe, you trip in a firefight, someone gets killed. And it gives you this strange almost Zen like focus on the details of life — and everything starts to feel very meaningful, and friendships feel meaningful, everything has this kind of intensity. And soilders miss that sense of meaning and the bond that arises in that situation”.

That’s a very insightful answer, and it’s probably why it stuck with me. No matter what I was doing I kept thinking about what he said, and how it applied to everything we do. His response wasn’t that soldiers do it for our country, or that they do it because they want to help humanity. While I am sure there’s a component of that, the reality is from an individual’s temporal perspective these grand reasons are too hard to see and therefore can’t be the reason for motivation. I think to a certain degree the same is true for most professionals – it’s arguable to compare a soldier to another profession but the general idea still applies. For instance, as software engineers, we build things that can change someone’s life, and we like to think that is the reason why we do what we do. But is it really? When we are trying to solve a hard technical problem at midnight, are we really doing it because it has an impact on someone’s life? Or is it something else? Self-awareness is key to happiness. If we know what it is that attracts us, we can certainly accentuate it or maybe even find other activities that lead to it.

Without self-awareness the truth tends to hide behind social norms and hypes around you. The truth could hide even from yourself if you’re not careful. If you are lucky enough to love what you do, spend a day, take a walk and ask yourself: what it is that you really enjoy. Keep peeling away until there’s no more, and hopefully what you’re left with is your kernel of happiness.

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