How to Overcome Existential Anxiety?
Author: Jacob Schwartz, CEO
Have you ever thought about the vastness of spacetime and your own insignificant part in it? Scientists believe that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and average life expectancy in most developed countries is around 75 years. There are approximately 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and billions more galaxies like it in the observable universe. Not only are we alive for a very short time, but our lives are bounded within a tiny region of space surrounding one unremarkable star.
I accept that nothing I'll ever do will matter in the grand scheme of the universe, but what about the society that we presently have here on earth? Let's imagine one person being born, living an average life, and then dying. On the same day that person 1 dies, another baby is born who also lives an average life and then dies. Ignoring the possible change in life expectancy over time, that gives us 150 years as a timeframe to analyze.
How many people who were alive in 1872 still matter today? Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Susan B Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ulysses S. Grant, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt all come to mind. I'm obviously overlooking many influential people from the Gilded Age, but that's only a dozen people. The odds that I'll personally be one of the handful of people who exist in 2022 that the world remembers in 2172 is miniscule. I'm going to die and within 150 years no one will care that I lived at all. Yikes.
Alright, let's all take a deep breath and a step back. We just made the case that nothing matters both cosmically, and within the realm of our own society. Time to poke some holes in that argument to land this plane. Oh, that's right, the Wright Brothers were also alive in the 1870s, so that's now 14 people I can recall from that era, so maybe things aren't so bleak after all!
The first question to ask is, how are we defining “something that matters”. This is inherently a subjective question that depends on one's own definition. Let us instead ask a similar, but more objective question, is it possible for anything to matter? If you answer no to this question, then we are in full on nihilism territory. If this is your perspective, I would recommend pursuing hedonistic pleasure to the fullest extent your circumstances allow because what the hell else are you going to do? If nothing matters, and nothing can matter, might as well get as much experiential enjoyment from life as possible.
However, if you believe that it is possible for something to matter, your anxiety likely comes from the thought that you personally won't matter and that is a failure on your part. If this is your perspective, I recommend pursuing knowledge for yourself and others to the greatest extent possible. Your mind is your greatest strength, and also your greatest weakness. By purposefully directing it towards research, creating content, or building a business, you are working to expand the overall information available to humanity as a whole. When you are locked in and focused on a challenging problem worthy of your intellect, the existential dread will fade into the background as you find fulfillment in achieving the goals that you set for yourself.
A global effort to reduce human suffering, expanding scientific knowledge, and bringing life to other planets are all goals I find worthwhile. In order to accomplish these ambitious objectives, humanity will need more people inspired to learn about math and science. I can make a significant contribution to this effort by helping us rethink educational methodologies that treat people as individuals, instead of Ford Model T's coming off the assembly line. As unlikely as it may be, I'm going to try to be one of the few people that society remembers from this era. Even if I'm not, oh well, nothing matters anyway.