The Examined Life

A useful idea for people interested in narrative-driven decision making is the Socrates quote: the unexamined life is not worth living.

Fair enough, but how do you actually apply this insight? Clearly you need an element of living to provide fodder for the examining. You cannot be born and raised in a dark sensory-deprivation chamber and do any useful examining (in fact, horrendous medieval experiments along these lines generally destroyed the unfortunate victims).

How do you balance examining versus living?

Here’s a quick primer. It’s more subtle than you might think.

Your natural first instinct is probably to do some sort of time-based budgeting. Maybe your life should be lived with some proportion X:Y of living to examining.

Then it will probably strike you that you need to specify the tempo of this model. Here are various obvious possibilities:

  1. Hardy Pattern: Fifty-fifty split, daily tempo: Work in the mornings, reflect/take a walk in the afternoons. Mathematician G. H. Hardy reputedly followed this pattern. He played cricket in the afternoons (clearly an “examine life” activity)
  2. Drone Pattern: 5:2 split, weekly tempo: work during the work-week, devote the weekends to activities that sustain examining. This is the standard industrial-age pattern followed by most people.
  3. American Pattern: 50:2 split, annual tempo: do your examining during two weeks of vacation (in America, this means using up all your vacation time). This is increasingly the norm in America, where weekends are too packed with chores and other responsibilities to do much reflecting.
  4. Vaillant Pattern: 65:20 split, life-level tempo: Work without much self-examination through life; stop and reflect after retirement. Hopefully your life will make sense by the time you die, at say age 85. I’ve named this pattern after George Vaillant, for his pioneering longitudinal studies of complete adult lives.
  5. Proust Pattern: 50:50 split, life-level tempo: I haven’t read Proust, but a friend who has actually read his master work, Remembrance of Things Past, characterized it as “Proust decided he’d done enough living by age 30 and decided to spend the rest of his life processing the life he’d lived.”
  6. Monk Pattern: 0:05:0.05, sub-awareness tempo: live a very mindful life, where every tenth of a second (the smallest unit of time most humans can consciously process) is devoted to “mindful doing” that is equal parts examining and living.
  7. Liminal Pattern: unpredictable split, natural tempo: this is the pattern based on the Freytag Staircase model I introduced in Tempowhere you do the conscious “examining” during the natural liminal passages that occur through life (some people fight these phases and resist the thoughts that occur naturally during them, so it is not a given that you’ll actually do the examining).

You will notice that there is a natural relationship between the live/examine pattern and the live/relax pattern. This is mostly a safe conflation for both practical and psychological reasons. Practically speaking, your relaxation periods are usually the only ones you have available for “examining.” Psychologically speaking, philosophical reflection is a weakness for the majority of the population, and research shows that we are most able to perform in our areas of weakness when relaxed. Personality effects are more complex than that (Myers-Briggs INTPs “examine” their lives very differently from ESFJs for instance), but whatever the mode — be it introspection, writing, drum circles, or group therapy sessions — examining your life is hard work.

But there is a problem with this view. It is not entirely a safe way of talking about examine/live balancing.

Beyond Container Metaphors

The last two patterns are the subtle ones. While the first five can be treated as instances of what communication engineers call “time-division multiplexing” (and what old-school computer scientists used to call “time-sharing” with various degrees of batch processing), the last two involve more than time-division multiplexing.

The “monk” pattern is somewhat better characterized by the metaphor of “frequency division multiplexing,” where the “examining” is happening at a different “level” than the “living.”  But this is still not right. This artificial separation of examining/doing (sometimes called “spectatoring” — a kind of unhealthy meta-cognitive self-observation that can actually hurt performance in any skilled domain) is not really what mindfulness is about.

The best metaphor for it is the most complex communication multiplexing of all: code-division multiplexingThis is still not a perfect metaphor, but it is better than most other metaphors. Here is the basic idea from the Wikipedia link above:

An analogy to the problem of multiple access is a room (channel) in which people wish to talk to each other simultaneously. To avoid confusion, people could take turns speaking (time division), speak at different pitches (frequency division), or speak in different languages (code division). CDMA is analogous to the last example where people speaking the same language can understand each other, but other languages are perceived as noise and rejected.

Think of the monk pattern as living life bilingually, but without the schizoid cross-perception of each language stream by the other as “noise.”

The liminal pattern on the other hand, highlights a different problem with time-division models. Examining is not really about time but information. You need sufficient new information to process, for “examining” to be at all useful. How do you know you have enough to process?

The answer is entropy. If you’ve read Tempo, you know that the liminal passages are triggered when a major deep story in your life concludes, leaving your mind in a naturally high entropy state that you must then work to lower through a retrospective. You turn accumulated noise into information.

The two patterns are coupled: the more mindfulness you are capable of, the simpler the experience that can generate enough information-fuel to drive an examined life.

Putting it Together

The Freytag Staircase represents the creative destruction of your inner mental models through a lifetime. Your internal jihad as Islamic theology puts it; in contrast to the external jihad (the idea of jihad is actually quite interesting philosophically, if you are able to get past the fact that it is today strongly associated with terrorism).

Mindfulness is sort of a continuous attitude that makes this larger narrative process actually productive. It achieves this by strongly connecting your internal world to the external one to the limits of your perceptual capabilities. This is not the same as “feedback” or “iteration.” This is not an argument for more frequent periods of introspection or life-examination.

Rather, it is an argument for making your “living” itself much richer, in a way that continuously connects your internal jihad to your external jihad with a higher bandwidth connection.  So when you do have the time and leisure to consciously “examine” your life on a beach, with rum, paper and pencil to help, you’re working off more data-stream-pickled mental models.

All the other time-division multiplexing ideas are really peripheral situational glosses. How you break out your conscious periods of “examining” over days, weeks, years and a lifetime is not as important as how conscious you are of the ebb and flow of entropy in your mental models, and the degree of mindfulness in how you are connecting your situational realities to your internal realities.

You could call this situated philosophy. There are a few good design patterns for embodying situated philosophy in your life.

Memoirs, Gonzo Memoirs, Biographies

The principles and ideas I introduced don’t lead to a single best way of living an examined life. Rather, they lead to many different “refactored” patterns. Compare and contrast the original list of 7 patterns to this one:

  1. The Diarist: High mindfulness, but low peak entropy and volatility. You live life while trying to make it as legible as possible in the process, a pattern often marked by the keeping of a journal or diary. The diaries of Samuel Pepys are a great example, though there were gonzo parts to his life (see next pattern).
  2. Gonzo Memoirs: You try to experience life to the fullest, but with a certain residual mindfulness to raise your life above mindless hedonism. Like Hunter S. Thompson, you may live life large, get drunk, make yourself part of many big stories during your lifetime, and process along the way. Note that you don’t necessarily have to do the examining only when sober. In fact, some of the best gonzo writing happens when drunk or in an otherwise apparently compromised state.
  3. Biographies: You live life as fully as a gonzo, but leave little or no room for self-examination, and your attempts come off as weak or pathetic compared to the grandeur of your life itself. Many famous people fall into this pattern. Others are better positioned to examine their lives than they themselves are. But the life itself must be worth examining. A good example is the pairing of John D. Rockefeller and his excellent biographer, Ron Chernow.
  4. Drunken Master: This post was actually inspired by a Facebook conversation with a few friends about the “Drunken Master” archetype. This is like a gonzo life, except that it involves extraordinary skill in some domain (such as martial arts, the origin of the archetype) that would seem to be at odds with a drunken state.
  5. The Retreat: One of the interesting patterns in the lives of philosophers is the one where a gonzo life (in some sense of the word) gradually or abruptly transforms into a monastic one. This is an example of how increasing mindfulness can gradually or suddenly lower the need for higher apparent experiential richness in the environment. If you know how to see, there’s as much to see in paint drying as there is in the grandest and most spectacular drama. To consciously seek this path of minimalist environmental support for mindfulness is the retreat pattern.
  6. Experience Maximization: I used to really buy into Socrates’ idea in a literal way for a long time. But the more I met (and continue to meet) people who seem to live a life of “experience maximization” (everything from “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Brussels” type frantic site-seeing to furious bucket-list processing at the end of life), the more I realize that challenging the idea through conscious experience maximization is actually a way of examining life in its own right. It won’t “make sense” at the end, but who’s to say that the objective of “examining” life is to have it make sense?
  7. Transhumanism: To fully experience/examine the human condition, attempting to transcend it (either literally, through technology, or metaphysically, in a Nietzschean sense) is another way of approaching the live/examine balance. This, however, is a whole other topic.
So have fun with this (especially those of you on the US East Coast, stuck indoors, possibly with no power, and forced into some life examining by Hurricane Sandy). If you have your own personal strategies for live/examine balancing, do share.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Tempo


  1. Transhumanism – live life, get augments, begin processing your life at 30x subjective time to real-time, spending the equivalent of 3 or 4 subjective lifetimes processing everything, Proust on silicon.


  2. I cracked the “need enough content (fodder)” theme years ago, literally in my teens. Though the question of balancing examining and living has been considered many times over the years I never got beyond a shallow analysis and let the pattern evolve. (Mostly it was phases of Drone punctuated by Liminal and occasional flukes of Monk-like experiences. Recent years have seen more Hardy but not consciously planned or routinized.)

    The way I used to conclude was more like this: tick off a few new things learnt about myself or life in general, recognize the prospects of richer life experiencing to gather more and better content, okay let’s proceed.

    Reflecting/examining can be done fundamentally in three ways and I add a fourth.

    1. Contemplation
    2. Writing
    3. Discussion
    4. A variant of contemplation is the wandering thoughts that occur when reading on a related topic.

    For me, 3 and 4 are what have worked. 1 does not. 2 has occasionally and would work I think but I haven’t spent time on it. 3 has a dependency on finding suitable people to discuss with.

  3. There is an obvious omission in your discussion and that is the life of Socrates itself which was ( according to his biographers ) one of confrontational dialogic rationality. It isn’t quite that he retreated and explored himself in solitude following the monk pattern – is there anything he could believe to find in silence? – but as a figure on the “marketplace of ideas”, which determined also the mode of examination: he is debating the roles and ideas people have about themselves, their supposed moral virtues and claims. The procedure of examination has a fixed-point, which is the life that is consistent with its own self-description, which is what it claims to be and nothing else.

    This is very different from story telling ones own life, a stream of more or less interesting trivia, a bubbling and babbling memory. It is also distinctive from the non-pathological schizophrenia of the two voices, where a loving God is constantly channeled ( or remains absent if one has bad luck ). Finally he is sober, he neither strives for mystic experiences, beautiful intoxications nor physical or psychic boundary transgressions. Of course he wasn’t a posthumanist either, expecting such experiences after prosthetic body enhancements ;)