Thursday, September 15, 2011

You are what you did

How do people define themselves?

Their are many ways to do it. One can look at the circumstances of one's birth ("I am an American"), the college one went to ("I am an Ivy League graduate"), the skills one has ("I am a computer engineer"), the qualities one thinks one has ("I am a friendly person"), one's spouse and children ("I am a husband and a father"), and so on.

Another way is to define oneself by one's goals. "I am a seeker", "I am an entrepreneur", "I am a student", ...

Yet another way is to define oneself by one's opinions, likes and dislikes.

I think all of these can lead to delusions about oneself.

Let me propose a much more tangible way to describe and evaluate oneself, and thereby, to describe and evaluate others.

Ask yourself, and others, what they did.

Not what they are going to do, what they think they are going to do, what they think they should do, what they think others should do, what others think they should do, what they want from life, what they regret in their lives, but what they did.

A corollary of this question is that one must have been in a position to make a choice about what one did or did not do. Hence, childhood is mostly excluded, so is schooling (unless one chose to drop out!), one's family, one's ethnicity, one's basic appearance, the economic circumstances of the region one was born in, etc.

So, once again, ask yourself, and others, what they did when they had a choice in the matter.

This will lead to surprising insights. This will cut through the projections, the illusions, the idealism, illusions of distinction and individuality, and of course the blame-games.

People like to think they are different. But when it comes to action, humans behave in surprisingly similar ways. People will say money is not important to them, people will tell you that they are altruists, and they are explorers, people will tell you they are forgiving and loving. Those people include yourself.

In effect, the putting forth of this question is asking for Evidence.

An unintended effect of holding this question with you as you go through life is: one must live with the fact of one's past acts. If your primary identity is through your past acts, and if you wish to improve yourself and "be" a better person, then you must act in better ways, starting today.

Not tomorrow, today. Everybody is going to be better tomorrow. That doesn't count.

Another unintended effect of defining oneself in this way is to reduce the influence of consumption, even mental consumption. Reading, watching TV and films, web-surfing, listening to music, window shopping or actual shopping, eating, are all non-acts. They are a preparation for action, if anything. What do you do after you've provided energy to your body and food to your mind? Sleep?

Writing is an act. Reading is not.

Cooking is an act. Eating is not.

Traveling is an act. A package tour is not.

Computer programming is an act. Buying or having a smartphone is not.

Discussing a film is an act. Watching a film, and reading others' discussions about it is not.

Doing work is an act. Getting a paycheck is not (in itself) an act.

Spending money is an act. Saving money passively is not (though portfolio management is an act).

This also means, that you must get out of your head and start interacting with other people and other objects. Intellection is useful, no doubt, but a small act is infinitely better than a big idea which never sees the light of day. Thinking about loving someone is to delay the act of loving that person.

Before one knows it, years go by and one's mind becomes a graveyard of thoughts not acted upon, ideas still-born due to lack of motivation to express them, opportunities lost because of indecision, adventures not undertaken because of fear, people shabbily treated because one wants to be achieve one's goal and then be generous or good...

If a typical day goes as: wake up, read the paper, watch the news, go to office, read the emails, go to meetings, respond to requests for information, have lunch, surf the web, read more news, absorb office gossip, go back home, watch TV, have a few drinks, eat and sleep, then it may be time to wake up. And no, Virginia, I don't mean for you to look through a catalog of vacation packages.

An old quotation goes something like this: Life is what happens while you are busy planning for it. A more precise phrasing of this would be: Life is what does not happen while you are busy planning for it.

Pondering over this, one might find that one seems to be alive, but not really.


S. Hall said...

"Nothing to be done."

-Estragon, "Waiting for Godot"

Pankaj said...

i think it is a great thing as a personal yardstick, but quite despairing too, for those of us who didn't really do anything.

i read something similar by an existential philosopher. and it left a bad taste. according to them a human is in fact nothing more than what they did, because that is the only trace they leave of themselves. so much for human transcendence.

Sridhar said...

"Before one knows it, years go by and one's mind becomes a graveyard of thoughts not acted upon, ideas still-born due to lack of motivation to express them, opportunities lost because of indecision, adventures not undertaken because of fear."

This is what I fear the most, especially as I get older (just turned 30). The feeling that time is running out, and every day needs to count or matter in some profound way, is inescapable.

Anonymous said...

Harman made this blog. So the making of this blog is Harman.All that Harman writes here defines Harman.
If so Harman must be a chauvinistic,cynical,highly opinionated, most unkind,.................................
person in the world!

Dear Harman,What one thinks or says is not less important than what one does.
You are also what you do not think, say or do. As much as I am what I do not think,say or do.
It is when both the "You" and "I" recognize that, relationships of peace and harmony happen...

Anonymous said...

I guess the IITians committing suicide these days see themselves in the light as shown in this post. This is a prescription for getting yourself depressed.

Anonymous said...

Monkeys can also come up with the works of Shakespeare if they are given a typewriter and they just keep pounding it with their fingers.

Harmanjit Singh said...


Monkeys can also come up with the works of Shakespeare if they are given a typewriter and they just keep pounding it with their fingers.

I am not sure what you mean.

In case you are referring to the recent news item, it was about randomized algorithms coming up with adjacent word phrases which occurred in Shakespeare's fiction.

Ajar Vashisth said...

The best part about your blog is that it forces people to think ! On the other hand it presents a very polarized view of the frail and over burdened society of India. It fails to recognize that India is a train of 1000 wagons pulled by a century old second hand Steam Engine with uncountable patches. The same steam engine which was designed to pull a chain of 10 luxury wagons in its time.

People like you and I don't care about the discomfort of those traveling in those 1000 overcrowded wagons. Because we have been gratified!

Jogeshwar said...

Like the famous Benjamin franklin quote goes
"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. "

Unknown said...

It is always the people who get out and do things that matter and are successful.
Milton was so off the mark when he wrote - "They also serve who only stand and wait"...

Anonymous said...

Have you ever wondered who you are? You're not your body, because living cells come and go and are generally outside of your control. You're not your location, because that can change. You aren't your DNA because that simply defines the bou...ndaries of your playing field. You aren't your upbringing because siblings routinely go in different directions no matter how similar their start. My best answer to my own question is this:

You are what you learn.

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