The Gradient Ascent of Fulfillment

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” - Declaration of Independence (1776)

Thomas Jefferson penned these famous words some two and a half centuries ago, but the words still find their way in to public speech today. A point to be made, however, is that life and liberty are talked about a lot, while pursuit of happiness seems to be discussed less so. We argue over the role the government plays in regulation of our liberties, and we are currently reeling over the role the government plays in the taking of lives, especially in the context of racial lines. If only life and liberty are under the onslaught of current politics, wouldn’t that suggest that the pursuit of happiness has already been stripped from us? One could easily argue that without life and liberty there can no be pursuit of happiness, and fighting for these last two rights is imperative to the survival of our union.

What did Thomas Jefferson mean exactly when writing the words “Pursuit of Happiness”? The phrase invokes a sense of whimsy in today’s world, again, likely due to the fact that it may not really exist for any of us. But why is that? What happened to this pursuit? Was it government alone that stripped it from us?

All of these are fair and reasonable questions, and I have a bit of a working theory.

The Age of Standardization

When the Ford assembly line started, the world was introduced not only to an affordable automobile at scale, but also to the assembly line itself. The assembly line made the process of building an automobile much cheaper than it had ever been, and it created much more consistency across each instance of the product. Instead of moving humans to where the job needed to be done, we moved the job to the human, and furthermore, we gave humans a single job of placing this bolt here and repeat on the next vehicle made. This led to the time it took to produce a model-T going from 12 hours down to 1 and a half hours. Simply put, the automobile was as cheap as it ever was to produce, and that saving was largely passed on to the consumer.

The unintended effect of the assembly line? Standardization. We began building institutions, processes, and services that no longer fit what you as a human wanted, but to what the system could give you without raising costs. Now this is an over-simplification, but to give a relatable example, standardization is what gave us the modern day university. Universities promote their 200 degrees as if they are “choices”, and sure they’re choices just as much as you would’ve had the choice to put the tires or the windshield on the model-T assemblyline. You see, they’re fixed choices. You can choose from a set, but once you choose you get what everyone else gets. You’re putting the tire on the next 100,000 model-Ts.

When you’re young, people will ask you what you want to be when you grow up. For many of us, this is where the standardization begins, and never ends. You want to be a lawyer? Great, go to college, go on to get your JD, take an internship at a firm, and then pass the bar. The unfortunate truth about this is that this doesn’t leave much opportunity to lean in to the things that make you uniquely, well, you. The path is hardly for the straight and narrow, but suggesting it is and that “you just need to push through this tough class” strips you of the opportunity to explore the other aspects of your talents that may lead you to fulfillment much sooner. What happens when you get to be a lawyer and find out you actually hate it? Hopefully you’d figure that out along the way, but there are many stories of people leaving the profession after spending years getting the credentials, and law isn’t the only example whatsoever.

Simply put, it’s just cheaper for universities to box 500 students into one of their offered majors and move you through in a set amount of time (in which they declare is the right amount for everyone). Professors teach a set curriculum to everyone (and yes you get the occasional “elective”) and everyone gets the same thing out of each class whether it’s easy or difficult. And so the story to be told here is that your individuality no longer mattered in the name of cost savings. That’s not to say that making something cheaper and more accessible for all is a bad thing. In fact, quite the opposite actually. But the issue is that we let this spill over into other aspects of society where it had unintended negative affects.

The Pursuit of Happiness

When Thomas Jefferson wrote those famous words, he was largely taking inspiration from that of Scottish philosophers writing during the Age of Enlightenment. To them, the term happiness stemmed from the root hap- which translates to “an event”. Happenstance is an event that happens due to chance. Mishap is a bad event. Happy was used to describe an event as favorable in circumstance. As Bob Ross calls them, “happy accidents” are accidents that are well suited for the context in which the accident occurs. So to Jefferson, happiness was more so defined as the favorable state of fitting one’s circumstances. In modern language, we would more likely use the term fulfillment. Jefferson believed that the government should protect this right largely for the the survival of the democracy itself. Furthermore, he believed that fulfillment had a positive feedback loop (of course he wouldn’t use such modern language), my individual pursuit of happiness could help my neighbor in their pursuit of fulfillment, having a reciprocal effect that allows all of society to become more of themselves and do what they’re called to do.

So if we’re to believe that we have the right to pursue fulfillment, why do so many of us struggle to find it either until late in life or never at all? Unfortunately, we have a society that values standardization, and the equal and opposite reaction to that is a system that largely doesn’t care about your unique talents, but instead throws a textbook at you (and mind you, you should feel lucky that the textbook is even being thrown) and tells you that if you read it for 10,000 hours then when you’re done you’ll be “fulfilled” or “happy” because you’ve achieved success in society’s eyes. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that for many, they find that happiness doesn’t exist at the other end of the tunnel. So if we’ve just standardized our way out of fulfillment, then shouldn’t we aim to remove standardization in contexts in which it need not apply?

Gradient Ascent to Fulfillment

The path to fulfillment is not sitting on the assemblyline, taking on the tasks that are pushed to you with the underlying agreement that when you’ve completed all of them you’re “qualified”, but rather a pursuit of understanding oneself, one’s talents, skills, likes, and dislikes no matter how small. There is no final destination for any of us, we’re always moving. The idea of a final destination is a framework of standardization, like saying the car is built to completion. For humans, there is always more to learn about oneself, we’ll never fully understand ourselves and that’s something we have to be okay with. If you think about a global optimization problem in which we are trying to maximize fulfillment, these optimization problems are too complex for a computer to solve in one go, so we iterate getting closer and closer to an optimal solution. There may be many paths to fulfillment, but we’re aiming to simply make the best next move towards a fulfilled life. We make these decisions not because the assemblyline says so, but because of what we know about ourself. We’re choosing to no longer stay at the job we hate simply because it puts us on a path to what we think is fulfillment. It’s a return to a world where your individuality matters, and people are no longer valued by their test scores, but by their unique talents.

Perhaps this theory is wrong, perhaps many will disagree. But if you’re to take a message away from this writing, it’s that I don’t believe we can continue standardizing our way to fulfillment. I think you need to lean in to those things that make you click