Three Things You Should Never Stop Searching For in Life

Sean Kernan

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The philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It speaks to our changing needs. We get older and recalibrate. We overcome and triumph.

Yet we are remarkably blind to some problems. They seem immune to progress. They mutate and grow. You smack them down. Years later, they reemerge: another crumbling relationship, a second career crossroads, an elusive sense of contentment. You are left wondering, “Have I learned nothing?” And this is why our search for these truths should never end.

The search for definition should never end

There’s a famous story about Abraham Wald. He was a brilliant physicist from the early 20th century. He was hired by the Allies during World War II. They were sending bombers into battle over Germany and too many were being shot down.

They’d decided to add more armor to the planes but could only add a small amount due to the weight. Their fundamental question was, “Where do we add the armor?” They presented Abraham with the data. The drawings showed where all the returning planes had taken the most damage. There was a density of damage on the outer wings and hull. They’d proposed adding armor there.

Fast forwarding the story, Wald realized their logic was wrong. They were only using data from the returning planes. So just by virtue of those planes returning, the damage to those areas was non-critical. They should add armor where planes took the least damage because planes that took damage there never returned. This insight fundamentally changed military research and saved thousands of lives.

This story has deeper implications in our own lives. Wald identified the human tendency to define the wrong problems and solve them. For example, when partners are acting out, when friendships are breaking down, people tend to villainize the other person. They forget that behavior is an expression of a problem, not the problem itself. They resort to finger-pointing and blame-gaming.

The act of analyzing and examining assumptions is what makes solutions appear in plain sight. It’s as Einstein said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Stay in search of the clearest definition of your life’s problems.

The search for your truth should never end

I’ll never forget the vein on the side of her forehead. It bulged as she leaped from her chair, shouting, “Six months? You’ve been paying them overtime for six months!”

Our CFO was brimming with fire and fury. Her target was a soft-spoken project manager, Louis, who calmly and defensively held his hands up, “I told you we had these men on site several times. I told everyone in this room. Why are we just now acting surprised?”

We’d spent a half-million dollars on overtime for our field workers. Ten of us sat in the beautifully designed, dimly lit meeting room. The shouting continued before our CFO stormed out of the room, the door slamming behind her.

Louis wasn’t on my team, but I remembered him telling the CFO about the overtime months prior. It was she who’d forgotten. It was she who was now bypassing blame and putting on a show for the other managers. This was just another day in our turbulent office.

They often talk about ‘the moment’ in a relationship, the moment you know it has to end. It finally hits and there’s an unmistakable sense of finality. With my finance career — this shouting session was that moment. The decision was emotional much like it is with a failing relationship. It was the death of 10 years of effort and education. It was the dissipation of certainty, of a known future. But like most breakups, this moment had long been crawling to fruition. And on the other side, was a future I’d forgotten I deserved.

I’ve found that there is no running from who you are. When things don’t feel right, it reflects a lack of alignment in your life. Who you are and what you are doing are no longer compatible.

I’ve since made a rule that I’d never, ever, stay in a job that made me miserable. No amount of money or glory would change that fact. I’m approaching 40. My family members are getting older. The finitude of life has never felt more apparent. Time spent unhappy is an abject waste. Never stop searching for your true path. Even if you never find it, it's better to die searching than to have never looked at all.

The great tragedy of boredom

On his deathbed, Winston Churchill famously uttered his last words, “I’m just so bored of it all.” Even in his final moments, he was penning famous lines. Yet those words are only fitting. Researchers have found that boredom serves an all-important purpose: it’s your body identifying better uses of your time. What you are doing no longer has its place.

A part of me dies when I hear people complaining about being bored. Adulthood became this time-crunched, suffocating experience for so many years before I escaped. The idea of giving even a minute to boredom seems perverse. There will come a day when each of us knows our time on this earth is limited, and we’ll never look back wishing we’d sat around wondering what to do.

Read a book. Have a conversation. Go for a walk. Even when boredom seems warranted, make use of that time. For example, the average man gets bored of shopping after 26 minutes. I’ve always tried to be patient with my partner during those moments. I usually find a comfortable chair to sit in and read. I figure it’s an easy way to build up some good boyfriend currency. Never stop searching for rewarding uses of your time.

Remember, your time, energy, and happiness are worthy priorities. Your search for truth should never end.

Recap for memory: Always search for these three things

  1. The most accurate definition of your problems. Behavior is an expression of a problem, not the cause of it. Look past the noise and your own bias.
  2. Your true path in life. Everyone is deserving of a rewarding career and a happy relationship. It isn’t too much to ask of the universe.
  3. The best and most meaningful use of your time. Boredom is a painfully wasteful use of your talents.

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