J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Month: May 2014

Why Is It Important to Define Your Life Purpose?

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It sounds intimidating, to define the purpose of your life. It also sounds unnecessary. Why not just live? Why not just enjoy life, and take each day as it comes?

I don’t think there is any ultimate purpose to life beyond what we decide is important. I think James Altucher puts it well in this post:

“People get depressed now if they feel they are not fulfilling a purpose in life.

Here’s what I think purpose is: the universe doesn’t know anything. So it cut off tiny pieces of itself to go out there and experience things, any things, and then come back home when they were done.

That’s it. So whatever you are experiencing today, good or bad, the universe is learning and happy and grateful to you because it is exploring new things about life.

BAM!

No other purpose.”

I don’t believe in any kind of singular, universal purpose (not even the poetic purpose Altucher describes), but I do feel better and live better when I live by my own principles. What do I think is important? How much am I willing to bet on those values? How ’bout everything. All in.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a beautiful response to a question on a reddit (“What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?”) gets to the core rationale for defining one’s own purpose in life:

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

Love, meaning, and motivation all work together. You can discover what gives life meaning (for you) by listening to your heart (in fact I think this is the best way to discover meaning). For Tyson, increasing personal knowledge and reducing human (and perhaps also animal) suffering reflect his core values (codified into purpose, or “main philosophies” as he puts it). He advises the young man looking for motivation to decide what is important to him, and then act on it.

If the word “purpose” rubs you the wrong way, consider defining your “core values” or “life philosophy” instead. For you, what gives life meaning?

Motivation and Goals

Does motivation automatically flow from purpose and meaning? Not necessarily. Low motivation can be a sign of low dopamine in certain parts of the brain, depression, and/or overstimulation.

But jacking up the neurotransmitters involved in motivation doesn’t actually lead to productive or helpful activity unless there are already well-established habits in those areas (yes, the movie Limitless is a fantasy). For example, bromocriptine is a powerful dopamine agonist. Side effects include gambling and compulsive shopping. Reward-seeking behavior, in other words, but not really what most people think of when they think about motivation. Drugs like modafinil can enhance concentration, motivation, and cognitive abilities, but come with disruptive and potentially health-damaging side effects. Videogames are designed to jack up reward-seeking behavior, and sometimes the dopamine boost can overflow into other life areas. But just as easily, videogames can suck time and energy, providing the feelings of motivation and drive (achievements! points! levels!) without any real-world effects.

Goal-setting can also temporarily increase motivation, but if a goal isn’t purpose-driven, the motivation boost will be short-lived. If I don’t care about money very much, setting a “goal” to become a billionaire isn’t going to do squat. Even if I come up with a plan and work that plan like a maniac, I’m going to lose steam if I don’t actually care about becoming rich. Goals shouldn’t require motivation, they should provide motivation. And goals only provide motivation when they line up with life purpose/core values.

Here’s my own system for turning purpose into action. Feel free to steal it (I’ve stolen all the bits from other people).

1. Make a 5-year commitment that is true to your life purpose (and/or values and/or life philosophy). Where do you want to be in 5 years? As Steve Pavlina points out, we often overestimate what we can do in a single year, but underestimate what we can do in five years.

2. Choose a single actionable goal that supports your 5-year commitment. Give yourself a target date. If it appeals to you, set up additional rewards (completing the goal will be a reward in itself) and “kick-in-the-butt motivators” (I prefer this phrasing to “punishment”) around the goal. For example when I was trying to finish the first draft of my most recent novel, I promised myself I wouldn’t consume any alcohol until I finished (which resulted in this post, and also finishing my first draft).

3. Commit to a daily practice (don’t break the chain!) that moves you closer to your goal. If you can, complete this practice early in the day, when your willpower and concentration are at their highest. If you don’t have that luxury, just carve out some time every day. Even an hour a day of focused work will get you somewhere.

Even if you don’t choose this kind of structured approach to living your life, it’s still worth it to choose your own purpose in life. At the very least, you’ll have something to fall back on when the “What am I doing here?” question pops into your head. And oh yeah, you’ll live longer.

Why Dungeons & Dragons?

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I play Dungeons & Dragons almost every week (and sometimes more). I love games in general, but D&D is my favorite game. Here’s why:

1. It adds knowledge.

As a kid, D&D sharpened my math (especially probability) and expanded my vocabulary (especially martially: cuirass, hauberk, greaves, trebuchet, arbalest, spetum, glaive). As an adult, world creation pushes me to expand my knowledge of geography, climatology, history, ancient religions, and literature.

2. It stretches my brain.

A game of D&D unfolds as a sort of structured improvisation. Ideally, the dungeon master (who creates and runs the world) and the players co-create the storyline. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. The mental challenge of impersonating a character is difficult and exciting. Some of this happens on a superficial level (imitating various accents is not a required part of the game, but for me it’s a fun part — right now I’m working on a South Irish accent for my druid Shoren Shallows, something like Nathan Young on Misfits). Some of it is deeper. In real life I’m sensible, sane, and reasonable (most of the time). The characters I play in Dungeons & Dragons are usually kindhearted, but also eccentric, unreliable, erratic, and slippery. When I run a game (as dungeon master) I play villains and monsters who are cruel, malicious, conniving, greedy, and psychopathic. At the very least this kind of role-playing is cathartic. At other times it even feels therapeutic, as if I’m exploring or reconciling the shadow aspects of my personality.

3. It makes me happy.

In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks cites research claiming that joining a group that meets at least once a month produces the same happiness gains as doubling your income. Playing D&D definitely boosts my own happiness. I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it has something to do with hanging out with friends and drinking beer. Maybe it’s because the activity itself is engaging and challenging but not overtly competitive; the players might want to impress each other but there is nothing to prove. I’m not recruiting here — D&D (and tabletop role-playing games in general) aren’t for everyone. Many would find the pace too slow, or the record-keeping aspects too work-like, or the role-playing too awkward and stressful, or the people who play to be too nerdy. But for people who enjoy simulation, improv, fantasy, strategy, and cooperatively generating narratives, there’s nothing else like it.

4. It’s cheap.

D&D and other tabletop RPG’s (like Pathfinder, Fate, 13th Age, Numenera, Call of Cthulhu, and Runequest) can be expensive hobbies, but they don’t need to be. Resources for 3rd-edition are available for free under the Open Game License. To get started you need a group of people (ideally at least three and no more than seven), a rulebook or electronic rules document, polyhedral dice, a few miniatures, pencils and paper, a table and chairs, and plenty of time (at this point in my life the time is the most expensive element). Compared to almost any other form of entertainment, D&D is a bargain. A single night of clubbing in Vegas could easily set you back a grand. That much money invested in D&D gear would result in an epic collection of hardcover rulebooks, dice, miniatures, and terrain. It could even get you started on converting the spare bedroom into a medieval tavern.

5. The nerds won. So why not join them?

We’re in a strange cultural epoch. Watching Game of Thrones counts as mainstream entertainment, programming computers counts as a regular job, and jock types play a game called “Fantasy Football.” So D&D might be a notch less nerdy, relatively, than it was when I was growing up, because collectively we’re all nerdier. Some of my friends and family still shake their heads a little at my refusal to give up my nerdy childhood pastime, but mostly they get it; it’s entertainment.

THE REAL DANGER OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS

In the seventies, during D&D’s initial run of popularity, there were some hysterical reactions linking the game to devil worship and teenage suicides. These are the same people (mostly fundamentalist Christians) who are aghast at the popularity of Harry Patter (witchcraft!) and consider our culture to be awash in “occult influences.”

I agree that D&D is a threat to Christianity. Polytheistic pantheons are a part of the game, and I could see how reading Dieties & Demigods could lead to a relativistic view of religion (it did for me). To some Christians, this is a threat.

But overwhelmingly, role-playing games are a force for good. If you have any doubts about this, watch this video — it might change your mind.

But there is a real danger of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Sitting for hours, consuming soda and/or beer, and eating salty snacks is bad for the waistline and bad for cardiovascular health. D&D works best as a lifestyle element if there is some other outdoor/exercise-type hobby to mitigate the sedentary calorie consuming. Something like larping. Or for the hardcore types who aren’t afraid to lose a tooth, there’s this:

RPG Renaissance

D&D and other tabletop RPGs are enjoying a surge in popularity. Sometime in the next year Wizards of the Coast will release their new edition of D&D (even more remarkably, Forbes is covering Dungeons & Dragons). Celebrities like Wil Wheaton and Vin Diesel have championed the game. Nerd culture in general in on the rise. I think we’ll see tabletop RPGs rise in popularity for some time. I predict they’ll steal “market share” from television and video games.

But if it doesn’t go that way, I’ll still play. D&D has been my favorite game for thirty years, and I don’t see why I can’t keep playing for at least another thirty.

What’s your favorite game that you keep coming back to, year after year? And why?

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