Let’s go ahead and start with the textbook definition of Experientialism, which might go something like this:
Experientialism is a life philosophy dedicated to maximizing a lifetime of novelty
Er, that’s still not very helpful. Perhaps we can more clearly phrase Experientialism as the answer to this particular question:
“What can you do to live the most novel, most eventful life possible?”
This is a question most of us have seen, or heard, in various forms before. It’s the manifesto of the Digital Nomad, the quip you read on Quora about ‘buying experiences, not things’, and the new values being taken up by the Millennials and Generation Z.
Knowingly or not, many people have already chosen to follow the principals of Experientialism! But to understand Experientialism, we first have to understand the necessity of a life philosophy in the first place.
Why does anyone need a Life Philosophy anyway?
We’ve all run into situations where we feel stuck in our day-to-day lives, having to choose between Option A or Option B. The is especially true when we’re in the midst of making major decisions.
- Should I live in this city, or live in another?
- Should I buy this car, or that car?
- Vanilla, or chocolate? (Ah, some of life’s hardest questions are the sweetest!)
In most decision-making circumstances, we fall back onto our old preferences (“vanilla please!”), or we use some sort of ‘internal framework’ to rank our options from best to worst. In the end most decisions are about tradeoffs, so ‘decision-making’ is just figuring out what choices get us closest to our ideal life.
Eventually we make our best guess and then stick with the consequences. And amazingly, things usually work out! There’s little use in worrying about ‘what could have been’, so we stick to our guns, and muddle through life as best we can.
Except sometimes the finding the ‘right choice’ isn’t so clear.
These are some of the major life-changing decisions we’re all faced with at some point:
- Should I marry the person I’m with, or wait for someone better?
- Should I take this new job, if it means I have to leave my friends and family behind?
- Should I stay in school, or move on to something else?
Not all of our big questions have easy answers. In fact, I’d venture to say most of life’s big questions are without easy answers. Many times we end up with choices that are not better or worse, but simply different. Perhaps we would be happy taking either of these paths, but neither choice seems to be clearly better than the rest.
And these are not small decisions, or the kind of choices we want to leave to chance. These are often the big decisions, the kind that shape the rest of your life.
No pressure, right?
If you’re ever stuck in a situation like this, without a life philosophy, the outlook begins to look pretty bleak. So you turn to whatever options you have on hand. Flip a coin? Go with your gut? Pick answer choice ‘C’? Whatever the method, the result is the same: making a semi-random choice to guide some of your most important life decisions.
Getting stuck with ‘big-life-questions’ without answers is no fun, and that’s where the concept of a life philosophy comes into play.
A life philosophy is a way to condense a wide range of desires and motivations into a clear
yes / no test, or metric, to help you make decisions when there’s no clear winning choice.
Think of it as a ‘math equation for life’, if you’d like.
What’s a metric?
The main ingredient to any life philosophy is some metric, some single measuring stick, that can be used to consistently determine answers to life’s big questions.
That being said this metric, or purpose, can be based around just about anything. Most people assume a lifelong purpose has to be something noble and almighty, but that’s certainly not the case. It’s far more important that any metric you choose is something that speaks to you personally, not that it ‘sounds impressive’.
Here are some examples of common, and not so common, metrics you could use for your own theoretical life philosophy:
- I want to maximize the amount of money I make in my lifetime
- I want to help as many people as I can
- I want to travel the world and document it for those in the future
- I want to eat as many burritos as I possibly can
Not all metrics are created equal, but the important part is they provide a clear, one-sided method you can use to make big (or small) decisions in your life.
In Experientialism, the primary metric (which we saw previously) is to “maximize a lifetime of novelty”.
We’ll explore the reasoning for this later on, but the important thing to note is that it provides a clear,
yes / no metric to make decisions.
“Does Option A maximize novelty in my life, or does Option B?”
A concrete life philosophy wards off a nihilistic “screw-it-whatever” kind of mindset, and allows you to “make your own meaning” in life. You might find this view supported by philosophers like Kierkegaard and Camus – espousers of the (real) philosophical school of thought Existentialism, on which Experientialism is based.
Finding and choosing a life philosophy is a topic in itself, but the important things to note are that:
- A life philosophy is a goal that allows you to make clear
yes / nodecisions when you’re unsure.
- Following a life philosophy stems from a desire to live “life to the fullest”, whatever that means for you.
Make sense? Great! – Now that we understand what a life philosophy is, we can now understand what purpose something like Experientialism serves to fulfill
– namely, providing us a foolproof
yes / no ruler to use when making big decisions.
Let’s move on to exploring the meaning and reasoning behind this particular life philosophy, Experientialism.
The Base Beliefs of Experientialism
Earlier, I said the metric behind Experientialism is to “maximize a lifetime of novelty”. This is accurate, but we need to understand what novelty is and why it’s worth maximizing. In other words, we need to understand the two base beliefs of Experientialism:
- Human memory selectively retains novel memories and experiences over mundane, recurring ones.
- These experiences are integral to our personal growth and understanding of who we are.
The first base belief of Experientialism supported by anecdotal evidence, but it’s worth looking into the scientific explanations
Have you ever forgotten what it was like to move away from home for the first time? To go to get that promotion in front of the office? The time you forgot to put on pants on your way to work? Well, maybe not that last one. But it proves a point! And the point is this: People remember events with new, useful information. These memorable events with are not always (or even usually) pleasant ones.
Similarly, are you able to remember (with certainty) the details of every commute trip to and from work? Every meal you’ve ever eaten? Every person you’ve ever met? If you’re like most people, probably not! In fact, it’s anecdotally true that we will forget the majority of our lives in this way.
The vast amount of time we spend doing regular, predictable tasks is lost to us and our memories forever.
This is not always a bad thing! It’s important to eat meals, brush our teeth, and get to work regularly – even if we won’t end up remembering the majority of it. These tasks are important for us to do regularly, but they are not what we would call useful memories. When we talk about useful memories, we mean to say is memories with new and important information. For example:
- What it felt like to buy your first car
- What it felt like to get dumped for the first time
- When your mother tells you when her birthday is (for the third time)
These are events that may be good or bad, but they all teach us important things about the world and ourselves. We slowly learn how to form good financial, social, and relationship habits by through of these big and small lessons – and these lessons can show up at any time!
Although there are many tasks we undertake that are important, there are relatively few tasks that are memorable. Driving to and from work rarely packs many surprises or life lessons, unless something unexpected occurs. The vast majority of the time, however, you’re simply reliving your 301st traffic jam – which you’ll likely never remember.
The human hippocampus (that’s right, the one in your brain) only has so much space for memory, so it’s very selective about what stays and what goes. The easy rule to remember is that the more useful the memory is, the longer it will be retained. Even memories that were once strong in our childhood (like going to Disneyland!) eventually make room for ones that are more relevant today (like going to Paris, or if you’re unlucky, the DMV).
Memories and Personal Growth
This second argument for Experientialism is a much more ‘hand wavy’ metaphysical one, but it has some basis in scientific research. Asking the question “What drives personal growth?” puts us in very similar territory with the classic nature vs nurture debate.
The nature vs nurture debate asks us: “What percentage of our personalities are innate (i.e. determined at birth), and what percentage of our personalities are determined through experiences?”
Current research seems to back the idea that although personality traits (or ‘tendencies’) have a genetic basis, the vast majority of our identity, ego, and higher personality traits develop through our experiences as a child, or later, as an adult.
Perhaps we could make an argument for a ‘metaphysical math equation’ to describe a person like so:
Person = Experiences
An equation like this would argue that the behavior and personality of any person (including you!) could be compiled down from the list of things they’ve experienced before. This has some truth to it, but it seems to be missing some pieces.
- Have you ever woken up on the “wrong side of the bed” – been tired, worn out, or just ‘in a mood’?
- Similarly, have you ever woken up well rested, on vacation, with the sun shining on your face – while birds sing your name and you skip through the flowers?
This person = experiences equation is missing a key component – the fact that a person’s current circumstances (i.e. emotional state) play a large part in their end reactions. Catching someone on a ‘good day’, and again on a ‘bad day’, can give you a completely different impression of their personality. It’s remiss to forget how much current circumstances and emotions overshadow behaviors that might otherwise be common in our day-to-day personality.
So perhaps we revise our ‘metaphysical math equation’ to something like this instead:
Person = Experiences + Circumstances
While this isn’t going to win the Nobel Prize any time soon, this seems to be close enough to reality for us to work with. By taking the sum of a person’s past experiences, and adding in their current circumstances, we can (presumably) get a pretty close idea of who we’re dealing with.
Now of course, there’s no computer you can plug this equation into. So far, there’s no way for us to objectively classify and quantify our experiences and circumstances. But there is something useful here for working on a life philosophy.
Circumstances are just that: circumstances. They change, they get better, they get worse, and they go in circles. Although we can often influence our circumstances, there’s often a large measure of ‘luck’ that plays into it. Getting stuck on a delayed plane, or in the middle of a downpour, are not things we plan for, but are circumstances we find ourselves in all the time. This is also why philosophies like Stoicism place heavy emphasis on controlling our own reactions to circumstances, instead of pretending we can ‘plan’ our way to happiness.
Our experiences though… those are something we have control over!
However, our experiences are only valuable in this equation if they’re something that will be remembered. Eating breakfast every day probably won’t change you very much as a person. Watching TV for a few hours probably won’t lead to any new personal insights.
But getting married? Moving around the world? Taking those surf classes? Those are things that lead to strong memories. And those are all things that, big or small, will make an impact on who you are. Even better, finding these novel ‘life changing’ events is something we can optimize for.
Hopefully we can focus on building our lives with novel, meaningful events, instead of filling it with ones we’ll eventually forget.
Is this life for you?
Experientialism serves a purpose, but it’s certainly not for everyone.
Like any major decision, we should get a firm grasp on the ups and downs. So what are the upsides to Experientialism?
Benefits of Experientialism
- Our perception of time is driven by the number of memories we make. Time will literally seem to ‘slow down’ as we accumulate more memorable experiences.
- Boredom is rarely a long-term problem. “Getting stuck” is the perfect opportunity to cut loose and try something new.
- Wild success and abject failure are both equally valuable teaching aids. Even heaven gets boring after a while, and very rarely are we in heaven.
- You will experience the full range of human emotion – and this is good. A sheltered existence may protect you, but you’ll only get a small taste of what life has to offer.
- Experientialism is a hard, clearly defined life philosophy. This helps reduce the fear and pressure of undertaking big, audacious goals. You no longer need to existentially ‘justify’ every major decision you make.
Downsides of Experientialism
- It’s possible to get stuck chasing small, trivial novelty instead of making major life decisions. ‘Trivial novelties’ are small changes (like waking up one minute earlier) that don’t contribute to any appreciable difference in life satisfaction.
- Forming deep, strong relationships can be made much more difficult. Novelty involves change, and change often means moving around and trying new things. Relationships are built on repetitive and gradually deepening understandings between people, which often takes a backseat to chasing new experiences.
- Experientialism requires a different kind of mindset – a life of safety and security are no longer assured. For some people this is acceptable, but for many people a sense of safety and security is more important than creating ‘new experiences’
- Adopting the Experientialist mindset is not easy at first. Prioritizing new experiences requires having options – and having options often requires money and a lack of prior commitments (like children).
All that being said, Experientialism is not a philosophy just for the rich and famous. It’s very possible to build a life rich with new experiences without jet-setting across the globe, and spending weeks away from work. It’s a very simple decision to prioritize taking “the road less traveled” instead of immediately defaulting to the mean.
The rest of these points are raise real issues, no matter your personal situation.
Over time it’s possible to train yourself on what constitutes ‘real’ novelty instead of ‘trivial’ novelty, but it’s an acquired skill. Relationships will be easier for some people, and more difficult for others. Nonetheless, Experientialism is a highly independent philosophy of life. You will have to find kindred spirits where you can, and accept that personal growth means you may grow apart from old friends faster than you may have otherwise.
Safety and belonging are jives in among the Digital Nomad community, but they are very real (and valid) human desires – they’re on both the first and third levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
It’s a very tempting and dangerous view to believe these needs simply don’t apply to you.
Adopting a philosophy like Experientialism requires accepting that in many cases, control of our safety and security are often an illusion. Car accidents, heart attacks, and ‘spontaneous combustion’ happen without warning to anyone, anywhere.
Fulfilling the need for social belonging often requires adopting a very open mindset – becoming active in the making and keeping of social connections with others no matter where you may be.
Experientialism requires accepting that life is not without risks, and that the world in general is much safer than we think. Some people go as far to accept that, taken from a nihilistic perspective, that there is nothing to fear from death itself.
If you’ve ever fallen asleep, you’ll quickly realize how completely uneventful a quick death could be.
Do you really want to coast through a full life without ever having lived?
Is Experientialism for me?
Experientialism is not the life philosophy for everyone, but it offers a clearly stated alternative to the time-honored choices of “going with the flow” or “just not thinking about it”.
Younger generations and their culture have already started to lean away from traditional materialistic mindsets towards more experience based ones, and this philosophy may help some of you ‘codify’ those desires.
We all get one shot in life. It’s important that we all make a choice to pursue the things we want, and minimize the things we don’t. We all are eventually forgotten, and we have nothing to fear from the other side.
“Embrace change, because change is the only constant”