Life Instruction Manual

We all need training to become competent humans. Much of this training is of the ‘on-the-job’ style, of learning while doing. We accumulate tips for successful navigation of life, frequently through examples of  others. The longer the life, the more tips become available to inform us. It thus stands to reason that a Life Instruction Manual (LIM) will best be written by a collection of competent elders. But this is apparently a fantastical concept, for I have never encountered a LIM (secular LIM that is). Which causes me to wonder how our species could not have created such an indispensable aid for living?

Yes, the literature produced by our species is bound to have addressed most of the important content for a LIM. But even in the age of the Internet, it is not possible to find it all. An abridged summary would be invaluable to most of us. And a junior edition would be most helpful for getting school-age children up to speed and on their right paths early on.

Aside: Religious sects do create such manuals for their supplicants, their great good books. But these differ greatly from the archetype of LIM that I envision. Religious manuals seem to be conveyences of an absolute truth authored by a divine oracle. They tell one how to conduct ones’ life, but in a stone age setting where the goal is to avoid pissing off the divine one. Perhaps we could try to do better, since humankind’s conduct towards one other, as influenced by such manuals, makes for an unenviable history. Yet the downside of such truth manuals is not limited to their direct negative consequences on human events. Such texts also suck all the air out of the creative space needed for human approaches to a modern LIM. The potential guilt and reprehension, associated with humanity encroaching on divine territory, perhaps explains why we have so few notable LIM attempts to date.

I cannot recall my mother ever mentioning any of life’s specifics beyond ‘be a good boy’ and ‘obey the golden rule’. This was excellent advice. The religious manuals spend thousands of pages to convey the same sentiments. In retrospect, I only wish she had explained to me the need that I brush my teeth more often. Dentistry isn’t cheap.

My parents did send me to Sunday School every week, and I attended without interruption for several years. The idea may have sprung from a higher moral sensibility, but it is further possible that it served the purpose of giving parents alone time on Sunday mornings.

I can recall none of my religious school teachings, though, until fifth grade summer vacation Bible school. There I learned ‘don’t hide your light under a bushel’. I expect my interpretation was an entirely secular one, since I had come to realize that the religion I was being taught would serve no purpose in my life. It was my genetics, not the teaching, that was the issue, I suspect.

I joined Boy Scouts and committed to memory several lists of proper thoughts and actions. This was practical teaching, and I enjoyed associating with others like myself who committed to travel a higher road through life. I struggle to find what replaces these experiences in the world of electronica-based pastimes pursued by today’s younger folk.

My father gave me an Air Force manual on leadership in Jr. High School that I found interesting, even if it was a stretch imagining how a shy kid could develop the necessary qualities. He also gave me ‘the talk’ about how to avoid VD (now the term is STD), likely simultaneously with stains meeting my mother’s eyes when she did the laundry. I appreciated our awkward talk. Apparently, he gave me a version of the instructions he received when entering the armed forces. Of course, it was all very far from anything I could imagine at the time.

No part of my public schooling ever discussed values or practical life skills. So other than the above lessons, and my own inner compass (intuition), mine has been a typical trial and error life, lived as a series of experiments. Every decision point becomes the start of a new experiment. I am analytical, so I try to embark only on experiments with good probability of success. Competent humans make successful choices.

My life’s experiments have the character of ephemera, transitory relationships and experiences, retaining vitality only while my life actively engages them on a daily basis. Time and distance inevitably allowed portions of each phase to dissipate into the vacuum of neglect. Competent humans do not allow their lives to constantly shed value through neglect.

My inability to feed relationships over distance and years is likely a character flaw that is correctable. I am working on it. Kudos to those who consistently feed relationships. Kudo’s also to those who continuously develop special skills that remain useful and satisfying for life. Competent humans recognize a great investment opportunity, and so invest energy in their lives; they experience a measurably richer life for it.

Moving ahead a generation, we gave our boys a set of ‘The Value Of …’ books, in the genre of morality tales, to illustrate the value of good character. Discussing these books with them gave us a good feeling that, no matter how incompetently we lived our own lives, the kids would be able to analyze what we were doing wrong, and to accumulate corresponding life tips.

Perhaps our LIM should be called ‘The Value of Life’. But in our modern world, such a title would certainly suggest a measure of the economic market value of a life, and not the value of one’s particular life as measured by the satisfaction gained through the  appreciation of oneself by others.

For the rest of the children’s training, we relied on church, scouting, and our public schools. Here, church was involved for its social aspects, getting the children to associate with hopefully well-parented children. For today, as in the past, it is more likely that such training will come to them from their peers, rather than from adult teachers. Which is not all bad, because defensive street smarts likely form a sizeable chapter of any LIM. I can only speculate though, since I have never seen a LIM.

That brings me to the last of life’s phases, the ‘pit gazing’ years. When 80% of one’s maximum expected lifespan is in the past, we begin to vaguely confront our life for what it was, merely a mask that death wears. And it becomes time to take stock, to see if there are yet decisions to be made that could increase the value of one’s life to others, since you can’t take any part of it with you.

While preparing for one’s inevitable unmasking, one pit-gazes, not for the purpose of peering behind the mask, but rather to reflect on what one would have wanted to get out of one’s life, and what one would want others to remember. A collection of such ruminations can better inform the manual writers, keeping the whole tome in its proper perspective, and providing necessary information to younger folk who are still able to act on it.

Postlude:

I am delighted to have encountered a serious attempt at life training for young adults. I was reading the other day about ME104B, a course at Stanford’s Design Center in the Mechanical Engineering curriculum. Finally, a version of a LIM. Created by a couple of notables in the Silicon Valley electronica industry, it is heart-warming to see them promote the human side of the equation, to balance the whiz-bang fantasy world that so captures the attention of young minds (and causes some gray-beards to simply shake their heads).

The course is an exercise of design thinking, for the purpose of designing one’s own life. In the six years it has been offered, it is said to have become Stanford’s most popular class. The class provides a systematic approach to deciding what a student will do in the five years after graduation, her Odyssey Years.

Fundamental to designing an individual life, one needs to understand the person behind the life: what are one’s talents? gives one energy? satisfaction? feeds curiosity? provides sufficient social interaction? provides sufficient personal space? Various techniques are offered for teasing this information out of one’s daily experiences.

Such techniques and tools certainly must also have application in various phases throughout adult life. And though the course sounds highly method-oriented (it’s in the Engineering School after all), a survey course, a 30,000 foot fly-over, might be just the ticket to providing the rest of us with a design point of view sufficient to design coherent, successful life phases. And the design POV will cause one to define success for each phase, rather than aiming for the nebulous concept of happiness.

Other subheadings within this topic offer some more of my life’s observations, together with my notes of others’ attempts to interpret life’s various disguises.

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