At the fork in the road
When I finished school, I was at a frightening turning point. The time for studying, learning, and training was more or less over. It was time to make something of myself.
I was a plant biologist by training, and went into it with the goal of improving agriculture to feed the growing world population. But “solving world hunger” is a pretty broad issue. How would I make my contribution?
Like any other big and complicated problem, I began to do background reading on the subject. What I came to realize was that the issue went well beyond what my plant-science skills could address. I learned how plants work down to the molecular level. However, editing the genes of a corn plant so it makes more corn won’t itself solve the issue of global hunger. Here are a few reasons why:
- Corn alone doesn’t constitute a balanced diet—never mind the fact that it’s still unclear what the “optimal” human diet is.
- Increases in crop yields could be completely canceled out by climate change and limitations on resources like water and nutrients.
- Farmers and consumers in other parts of the world may not want to grow and eat super-corn, and may instead prefer their own local crop species.
- Historically, famines aren’t cause by a lack of food per se, but the distribution of the food that’s already there. There’s enough food to go around, but it’s not in places where the world’s poorest can access it and at prices they can afford.
Thus, what I initially considered to be a plant-science problem became a problem for all kinds of disciplines. And with this complexity came a large degree of uncertainty for my path forward. What should I do? Which venue should I focus on? Is it right to stick to what I know, or should I get retrained in another field in order to have a larger impact? How do you even quantify the size of impact?
This uncertainty quickly became paralyzing, and I was ill-prepared to navigate it. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back, I recognize that what I was experiencing was an existential crisis.
What’s existentialism, anyway?
Up until that point, I had no understanding of what “existentialism” was. Somehow, my years of schooling never exposed me to a proper philosophy course.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon an easy-to-digest resource on the topic during my research on food security. I came across the Crash Course channel on YouTube, which publishes a variety of educational videos spanning psychology, history, government, and other topics. After watching their episode on drought and famine, the trusty/nefarious YouTube recommendation algorithm started pitching me suggestions for their philosophy unit—including a video on existentialism. Neat coincidence.
As I learned, existentialism is best understood by first examining the opposing theory of essentialism. Imagine that you wanted to make a tool, like a knife. There are certain qualities to this tool that you’d consider essential, or fundamental to its core functions. It has to have a handle on one end, a blade on the other end, and the blade has to have some degree of sharpness to it. A knife isn’t really a knife unless it has these essential qualities.
Importantly, you can imagine all the qualities of this tool in your head before you make it and bring it into physical existence. That’s essentialism: the object’s essence precedes its existence.
It’s pretty easy to see how this applies to all the stuff we design, build, and engineer. But does it apply to us? Are humans designed with certain essential qualities aimed at fulfilling a specific purpose?
Well, existentialism says no. The core principle of existentialism is that our existence precedes our essence. We first come into existence, and then it is up to us to decide—through our actions and our decisions—who we are and what purposes we aim to fulfill.
The existentialist’s career guide
Existentialism vests the individual with a huge amount of responsibility. It’s ultimately up to us to decide what actions we’re going to take in life. This degree of responsibility can be frightening—but I mostly find it frustrating.
Thinking back to my career-path quandary, existentialism would say I had to make a choice all on my own, without appealing to some higher authority to decide for me. There was no single “correct” direction unless I decided on one. As someone trained in scientific truth-seeking, the prospect of all choices being equally valid was annoying. There was no objective standard I could use to distinguish them. I just had to pick something—which felt vexingly arbitrary.
On the other hand, some might find this liberating. If each choice was equally valid, then I could pick whatever I wanted. Do whatever I wanted. Become whoever I wanted. In fact, it was kind of exciting.
This existential view dovetailed with much of the advice I received on career planning. Career centers, workshops, seminars, and self-help books all gave a similar message: decide what you want to do, figure out how to do it, and then go do it.
But as I found, it’s nowhere near this simple. I’ve made many attempts to apply these principles in practice, and there’s often been a disconnect somewhere along the way. Even if I pick a direction, and even if I figure out what to do to get there, and even if I do all of those things, I don’t always get to where I’m trying to go.
What went wrong? Did I screw up somewhere? Is existentialism invalid in some cases? Or am I just not understanding it correctly?
Existentialism is about actions, not outcomes
Since the foundation of my understanding was based on a 9-minute YouTube video, I sought out some of the original source material. I eventually landed on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism Is A Humanism, a 1946 lecture aimed at defining existentialism and rebutting some of its critiques. Several concepts and anecdotes from this lecture were featured in that video, so I assumed I was on the right track.
What didn’t make the cut was Sartre’s elaboration on the concept of “despair.” I understood it as the feeling one gets when they realize how much is out of their control. Sure, the individual is free to make decisions and take actions as they wish, but these actions take place amid of myriad of outside factors that the individual can’t control. We exist in a world of physical laws we can’t break, external forces we can’t surmount, and random events we can’t predict. We also live in a society alongside other individuals who have the same freedom to choose and act as we do.
Thus, we can choose our actions, but we certainly can’t choose the outcomes of those actions. Our freedom does not make us omnipotent.
Taken to its logical extreme, it seems pretty hopeless. If the outcomes of our actions have no guarantee, why take action at all? But Sartre insists that we need not have hope in order to act. Instead, we should concern ourselves only with what’s in our control, and disinterest ourselves with whatever is beyond that.
Things don’t always work out, and that can be frustrating, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Some practical advice from armchair philosophy
It’s easy for all this to collapse into idle navel-gazing, but I do feel the existentialist frame of mind carries some practical utility.
For one thing, it taught me something new about motivation, a topic that’s been a big focus for me as of late. Since we have more control over our actions than the outcomes, it may be effective to prioritize actions when setting goals for ourselves. For example, if I wanted to lose weight, an outcome-based goal of losing 10 pounds in a month would be harder to meet than an action-based goal of exercising 20 minutes every day. I encountered a self-help article echoing this idea, so I don’t think I’m too far off.
More generally, it taught me to broaden my horizons. At every junction in life, there’s a choice to be made, and nothing predetermines what you should or must do. And once you realize that, you’ll begin to imagine all the possibilities for what you can do.
All the possibilities for what you can try to do, anyway.
For further consideration
If you’re interested in learning more about existentialism, I’d recommend reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I found these two works of fiction provide a great look at the challenges the individual encounters as they try to assert their identity within a world of countervailing external forces. I don’t have any links to full text online, so consider this a plug for your local library.