Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Plateau of Life

At which point do we stop growing up? And which point do we start aging? Which point in our life are we the most alive? Is life linear, or does it follow a "life" cycle? Is there an inflection point in life? Is there an uphill point of life at which we can say, "Its all downhill from here"?

Of course, to answer these questions, we will have to answer a much more basic question and unravel one of the greatest mysteries, namely "what is life?" If we have an answer to this question, and more importantly, if we can quantify this thing called life in some way, then the problem becomes a simple mathematical problem of plotting this quantitative value of life versus time, and try and see where the graph leads us.

But how exactly do we quantify life? For that, it will be important to consider the various facets of life: namely health, wealth, personal life, social life and level of achievement - in no particular order. (Some research on this topic has been done here. However, this time we will make it much simpler, and try solving the problem qualitatively - and also add two new parameters in order to make it more comprehensive.) To make our life simple, we will just add the combined effect of these five factors and come up with a final "value" for life - In Utopian settings, the addition will be through weighted factors, but we are building a base model here.

Lets imagine a "life" versus time 2-D space. We are looking at time at different major instances in your life - and not looking at daily variations. So while a minor bad day will actually lessen your sense of achievement momentarily, or make you wonder about life in general, we are talking about extended periods of time. The time t=0 indicates the time when you are born, and it is safe to assume that at that point of time you are at the origin of the graph. As you grow up, your health and personal life parameters are the first ones to show an immediate increase. As you starts going to school, the other attributes, such as social parameters and levels of achievement (the school debate, making it into the school team) increase as well. So far, so good. Going through college, on a normal day, the social interaction, health and levels of achievement more or less keep on increasing, while there is a substantial hike in personal life if you manage to find love. Otherwise, there is a slight drop, as invariably your relations with your parents starts floundering, as you become the angry rebel, and try to make it up through an even more enhanced social life - and generally a heightened sense of achievement. After college, going for a job, you add a new attribute - wealth and it starts increasing. During the initial honeymoon period, you have a great sense of achievement - actually believing you are making a difference. The table 1 shows these effects in detail (The values given are arbitary - and are just there for understanding of the theoretical aspect).. So far, life is an increasing function with time, and hence all is well.

The Quarter-Life crisis: Now, the quarter-life crisis is such a point in the curve, where life for a small point becomes a decreasing function. After the honeymoon period in your new job is over, you need something more to have a strong sense of achievement. The small increase in wealth is often unable to compensate for the lack of sense of achievement - while there are not much changes in your personal and social life. Hence, the quarter life crisis is the first time in your life that you start questioning, "Where am I headed?"

The Way Out: Marriage or MBA. The former raises the personal life coefficient, while the latter ensures an increase in sense of achievement, and also social life coefficients. Both these factors increase your "life" value and life goes on well - you come out of the crisis. Table 2 illustrates this. Both of these solutions, however, are actually two-edged swords, as a bad marriage can totally ruin your personal life, while a bad MBA can actually remove whatever sense of achievement in life you feel.

Prime of your life: So then, everything starts moving smoothly again. You have children, your personal life is great, you earn good money, and you rediscover a sense of achievement. Your health nowhere close to what it was when you were 30, but you have the gym, and you try hard to rediscover your health. Your social life is going great as well, as you love being the centre of attraction at the various house parties that you now attend, with friends really loving your jokes. Life couldn't be better, and that is exactly when the midlife crisis hits you.

Midlife Crisis: It is not exactly a "mid"life crisis, as you are almost 40 by the time you hit this road, but it is probably the admission that the best part of your life is behind you. The midlife crisis probably starts off by a bad review at work, which makes you question your sense of achievement. Over time, as you start reviewing your life, your personal life also doesnt seem to be too good - the last time you had sex was two years ago. Your social life is also in tatters as you are too busy with your kids to think about your friends. The health is deteriorating fast, and as you pant after doing only 2 kilometers of your daily walks around your apartments, you suddenly realize you are not a teenager anymore. Your graph suddenly takes a sharp dive.

The Way Forward: Is there a way forward? Not really. Yes you are going to make more money over time, but your sense of achievement is most likely going to tumble, and your health is surely going to take you down. Your personal life will depend on your children, who will become the only source of your happiness going forward, and your social life will also decrease over a period of time, as religion starts taking over. You are basically reaching a plateau of life, and life for you has become backward looking rather than forward looking. Your dreams have been replaced by your stories. In other words, you have already lived. And are just waiting for death now. Table 3 illustrates.

The aim of life then, is to postpone the plateau of life and the mid life crisis to as late as possible - and live your life to the fullest. Which path you take to achieve this - however, is upto you. You can be a tennis player, maximising wealth and sense of achievement earlier, and then paying attention to the social and personal life attributes. In other words, live the maximum you can.

(As always, suggestions are always welcome about how to decode life.)