What’s your Myth?
What myth do you live your life by? A myth in this context is the overarching concept or belief that keeps you going in life, that is your motivation to live another day, that gives you an earnest energy, that guides your life decisions. Religion is probably the most durable myth, but there are many.
I’m intentionally abusing the typical definition of myth here. Typically, a “myth” is some fictional story about some sort of religious or fundamental event in the past, that confirms a certain set of values and norms. Or, it’s often used simply to mean “a lie”. These sorts of definitions have been somewhat consistent for millenia, stemming from ancient Greek and Latin. But there are some contemporary philosophers (i.e. Joseph Campbell, Alfred Adler) who started to look at it more broadly. In particular, what does mythology mean to a secular person? If they have no myth that they believe in, then what guides their actions?
Talking about the meaning of life is a topic that can come with many preconceived notions. As such, I’d like to be up front about my intentions.
I want to:
- Explore the concept of a “myth” in plain terms, with many examples
- Describe my personal myth
- Inspire others to consider this question
- Gain feedback, and perhaps change my perspective
In contrast, I’m not trying to:
- Answer some ultimate meaning or purpose of life
- Convince others that my myth is a good myth to have
To illuminate what I mean by a myth, I’ll share some common examples:
- Religion, in many forms. Like to fulfill one’s god-given purpose, or to live a life that best follows the ideas and values of the religion.
- Family and/or community. Doing whatever is necessary to support, or create, one’s own tribe.
- Pursuit of knowledge. To gain knowledge and understand the universe. This excerpt from a podcast with Demis Hassabis is my favorite description of this.
- Making the world a broadly better place. Strangers Drowning is an excellent book that dives into the lives of a wide variety of people that go out of their way to help improve the lives of people and other beings in a neutral and calculated way. This often involves helping people entirely outside of one’s community.
- Stories and adventure. I might categorize frequent travelers and a variety of youtuber’s here.
- Joy seeking. Simply expecting that there will be future joy in life can be really motivating. The joy itself is worth living for.
And finally, there are many people who don’t have a strong myth. This could be for a variety of reasons. There’s a nihilistic view that there is nothing worth striving for, and anyone that has a myth is deluding themselves. Or instead, a person might not have their basic needs met like food, shelter, safety, and love. Without these, the question of a myth is relatively unimportant because the answer will have little effect on the person’s priorities. They will still focus on obtaining their basic needs.
Another reason a person may not hold a myth is that a myth is too simplistic of a concept. A person might instead have a wide variety of aspirations and visions for their future self, none of which stand out as the most important. There are also people that are content with the things that they care about day-to-day and simply don’t find this question important. An example is a high school student striving to get into a good college. They’re doing whatever it takes to achieve that specific dream, and perhaps will consider life-meaning questions when it seems more relevant to consider.
There’s also a broad category of motivating factors that I didn’t mention: passions. The term “passion” seems synonymous with a myth, but I claim that the two are distinct. A passion is somewhat attached to reality, whereas a myth is more metaphysical.
I would not consider the “pursuit of knowledge” or “joy seeking” or “religion” to be passions. They consist of deeper, more enduring values that a person has. If the person were to step back and look at the world at large, they would find it more pleasing if these values were proliferating and progressing. Or said another way, the world would be more aesthetically pleasing when those myths are followed.
In contrast, a passion seems to be largely one of:
- A desire for a certain thing to exist in the world (i.e. Nuclear fusion, an artist’s music)
- Or a certain activity (i.e. soccer, being an actor)
- Or a certain cause (i.e. incarceration, nature conservancy)
These are more grounded in reality, individual, and perhaps less durable. By “less durable”, I mean that a variety of circumstances may change a person’s passion. A professional soccer player that has lost their leg might have a hard time holding the same passion for the sport, but a dedicated scientist will rarely lose their interest in the pursuit of knowledge.
I have a sense that most passions have some sort of broader myth behind them, but I personally don’t think the distinction is that important. For me, understanding someone’s myth and/or passion is already the most interesting part. They both serve similar purposes – to guide and motivate an individual.
I largely identify with the philosophy of “making the world a broadly better place”, though I do also aesthetically resonate with “understanding the universe”. My general focus is on the former. I have no concrete answer as to why this is an important thing to do. Part of it is that it seems like a good bet – I don’t see myself regretting my actions that result from this, even if I change my philosophies. But my core thought is that I love beauty, I love stories, and I especially love beautiful stories. And focusing on a philosophy like this has the best chance of creating a world where there is abundant love, kindness, and curiosity.
My perspective on what jobs “do good”
Most people are “making the world a better place”, at varying levels of scale. High frequency traders ostensibly are making the world a better place in a small way because they’re increasing liquidity and reducing stock spreads. Delivery drivers are helping people save time. Vaccine inventors have a more significant impact – they’re saving thousands of lives.
Conversely, I believe that being an engineer that finds out a new way to extract oil is a net negative, because I believe that we should be taxing oil more. But since that’s hard politically, anything that makes oil cheaper is harmful. Helping pass a law to entrench expensive tax software like Intuit is also probably bad. That’s because I believe the US should make tax filing free, like it is in many countries. But it’s not significantly bad, just worse than not doing anything. Building an algorithm that makes people more addicted to their phones is probably bad. Building tools that promote disinformation is probably bad.
Work might also be harmful when considering the best alternative. If a principal of a school is making less good decisions than someone else who would be willing to take the job, those actions are unfortunately harmful. That’s despite the situation when every action in isolation is good. Practically, this is challenging to measure. Try calculating the positive impact of a principal’s decisions, let alone how good the next best alternative would be. But I think the general philosophy is sound.
There are also simply net-zero jobs. Playing professional poker is neither bad nor good for the world. Maybe all the related actions (being on TV, mentoring other players, donating the proceeds, etc) could move the needle in the positive/negative direction, but the playing itself is entirely neutral. Playing professional sports is similar.
Some jobs are proxy jobs, like an executive assistant. In these instances, the impact is proportional to the impact of the company or individual that’s being supported. Being an executive assistant to an oil engineer, instead of a pandemic preparedness lobbyist, can have drastically different levels of positive impact.
The positivity of a job may also be context dependent. There’s an argument that working for Lyft is more worthwhile than Uber simply because the former is the smaller competitor. That’s because it would be bad for a single company to monopolize app-based transportation service. They could increase prices or decrease their service quality without consequences. So working on anything that prevents them from doing this would be helpful, and anything that supports them in doing so would be harmful. But if the leader of Lyft was toxic and abusive and the leader of Uber was humble and philanthropic, the balance might flip.
The fungibility of jobs may also be worth considering. Assuming there’s a queue of excellent job candidates available, the total benefit of a person’s decision to work with either Uber or Lyft would be significantly reduced. That’s because if they chose one, then candidates would just fill in jobs at the other place. So now they have to compete against that other candidate instead of competing against an absence of a person.
A somewhat related concept is the desirability of a job, and this one in particular is hard for me to get comfortable with. The desirability of a job is inversely correlated with its positive effect, because some other great employee would be willing to take the job instead.
One can go mad with these calculations. And, like everything in this essay, much ink has been dispensed discussing this topic. What about being a soldier in a war? What about opening a Walmart that may wipe out many small shop owners? My point here is not to come up with a perfect framework of “goodness”, but to instead reveal some of the considerations I take into account.
Doubts and Practicalities
I’m slightly hesitant about my myth. For one, I wish it was more specific. Given how general it is, it can make decisions hard, as there’s always going to be some opportunity that does more good for the world. And comparing those goodnesses can be simply impossible. It’s also challenging in that my motivation to go deep in some area might be smaller than if I had a specific passion in that field. My minor remedy is to lean towards action and decisiveness in situations of uncertainty.
I’m also keenly aware of how my personal interests and the most impactful work can vary widely. For example, what I really enjoy doing is building innovative things with people, but there are few projects that really require this. I may need to try to branch out on the sorts of work I’m willing to do.
There’s a large body of work around psychology, myths, and folklore that I haven’t deeply explored. They likely have more compelling and succinct ways to describe and categorize what I’ve done here.
I enjoyed reading about Jung, Freud, Campbell, and Adler. I didn’t realize that The Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced popular ideas like the Hero’s Journey archetype to the global consciousness, and I knew almost nothing about Adler whose perspectives I now find really fascinating. I also knew so little about Jung that I wasn’t aware that he wrote a whole book titled “Jung on Mythology”. But he seems so caught up with his dream fascination that it was hard to clearly understand his perspective on myths.
Nevertheless, these philosophers/psychologists don’t seem to answer the questions that I’m interested in. I in particular find their theories often too far-reaching and reductive. Typical comparative mythology seems more compelling, but it mainly focuses on the more traditional myths.
There are a few things I’d love to read, if I could find them:
- What are some additional categories of enduring beliefs secular individuals have that keep them motivated?
- How do they change across cultures, and generations?
- What’s the impact of not having such a belief?
- How are these beliefs created for people? How do they manifest through the developmental stages?
- How truly durable are myths for people?
Your myth, your feedback
I welcome all feedback, and I have a few questions for you, because I’m really curious:
- What’s your myth, if you have one?
- Am I missing some popular myths?
Send me a message, I answer all cold emails: