Jun 5, 2008

The third greatest sacrifice?

I began reading Ayn Rand's writings 47 years ago. From the beginning, almost everything I read sounded right. Only one idea didn't fit: the idea of sacrifice. Ayn Rand defines "sacrifice" as "the surrender of the greater value for the sake of the lesser value."[1]

At the age of 17, I wondered, "Why would anyone give up a greater value for a lesser value?"

As the years rolled by, I saw examples of sacrifice. To stop a war, a pacifist burns himself to death (the greatest sacrifice of objective value, life itself). To please her mother, a young woman marries a man she doesn't love (the second greatest sacrifice, happiness in life). To be more "practical," a 25-year-old man abandons his central purpose in life, telling success stories from history, to become a technical writer (the third greatest sacrifice, a passionately held central purpose in life).

Nearly twenty years ago, I met a man who was active in a local network of supposed students of Objectivism. He had all the accoutrements of success, such as high income, professional prestige, a large house with a grand view, and exotic vacations. And he was unhappy.

I asked him why he was unhappy. "Because," he said, "what I most want in life is to do something creative, like writing novels."

I asked, "Why don't you make that your central purpose in life, and throw yourself into the work full-time?"

He gestured to the walls of his living room, lined with paintings and the best of sound systems, a way of living that a beginning novelist could not afford. He said, "Learning to write novels could take decades of full-time effort. I would have to give up all this."

I was too stunned to respond. Now, with better understanding of the issue, I would reply: "So what?"

A PROBLEM. I have seen this situation repeatedly. It is giving up a passionate pursuit of a central purpose in life, a higher objective value, for the sake of comfort, a lower value. I have finally accepted the fact that people do this, and I have tried to understand why. There are several explanations, different for different individuals.

One explanation, which I infer partly from introspection, is mistaken methodology. This individual starts with a lifestyle--his particular set of ways of living, such as hobbies, kind of housing, dining habits, and form of transportation. Then he tries to fit his central purpose in life into that lifestyle. He cannot make it fit. The result? Instead of adjusting his lifestyle, he abandons his central purpose in life. He abandons "I love" for a set of comforting "I like" choices.

A SOLUTION. I know from personal experience, including 15 lost years, that this method--trying to integrate a central purpose in life into a predetermined lifestyle--is backwards. The proper place to start is with the central purpose, not a preferred lifestyle. Why?

"A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man's life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos."[2]

A central purpose is the foundation from which to build a life. By contrast, choosing (or defaulting to) a central purpose life by the standard of a lifestyle is like defining by nonessentials: a reversal of cause and effect. Imagine a young student of architecture in a school of his choice in New England. He likes to swim outdoors. He learns that he can do so, year-round, in the Dominican Republic. He leaves architecture school, moves to the Dominican Republic, and becomes a bookkeeper to earn an income--but swims outdoors every day.

To sacrifice passionate productive purpose for the sake of comfort (or any other lesser objective value) is the third greatest sacrifice. It causes the second greatest sacrifice, unnecessary unhappiness; and it leads to the greatest sacrifice, a wasted life.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Ayn Rand, "Sacrifice," Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 429. [2] Ayn Rand, "Purpose," Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 398.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Laughlin, I'm really enjoying your posts about CPLs. I'm 25, and this last post resonated in a particular way with me. I'm in the process of properly defining my own CPL, but it's not being an easy process (as I expected).

Could you elaborate a bit more on how you discovered your CPL? Did you ever know it, implicitly, or did you applied some kind of method? How did you achieve certainty it was a true passion?

The previous post was useful already. I realized my error in stating a CPL in terms of 'being' instead of 'doing'.

-- Bruno Raymundo

Burgess Laughlin said...

Here are a few quick responses.

1. Identifying and correctly formulating a CPL is indeed difficult for most people. It was for me. The hardest part was, for me, understanding why a CPL is crucial to achieving happiness and what a CPL is. The next hardest part was then deciding what I wanted my CPL to be.

2. What is the method for discovering a CPL (where it is already present in one's mind but only in implicit form) or creating a CPL?

The method, in the most general form, is inductive.

The method begins with looking at a wide range of facts. For example, a slow, methodical review of one's own life up to this point is an effective place to start.

When you were a child, a teen, and a young adult, which tasks did you love doing? That is, which tasks (specific actions) drew your attention, which did you look forward to doing, which "made the time go by fast," which led you to set aside other things of lesser importance?

Example tasks for me were reading, digging things up (like old bottles in the backyard), checking out books from a high school library about Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, and actually holding a Roman coin in my hand and feeling almost dizzy with the realization that two thousand years ago someone in ancient Rome hand handled the same coin.

The method continues by looking for a common denominator or denominators among the tasks you have listed. (It is perfectly proper to love more than one kind of task, even when they superficially appear to have no possible connection.)

For example, did you thrill to science fiction that was realistic in content and dealt with "future history"? (I did.) Did you thrill at stories that made you want to stand up and cheer when they ended successfully? (I did.) Did you feel intrigued when, at the age of 18, you realized that some historians can explain why events happened as they did in the past, and not merely narrate those events? (I did.) Did you become intrigued by the theory of evolution, especially the evolution of humans (in the simple way you learned about it in high school)? (I did.)

From listing such experiences (and others that did not fit the pattern so well), I saw that one common denominator was people taking action over long periods of time and getting better (making progress). Realizing that history was a common denominator didn't take long, once I had the list. The important thing is gather facts first: what specific actions thrilled you?

Introspection (another form of fact-gathering) told me that I had an emotional yearning for more than reading others' stories. I wanted to create such stories myself. But how? No one in my world did such things. Doing such seemed hopeless at first.

A long time passed before I realized that I could learn to tell such stories. The learning would involve the acquisition of many skills (acquiring research skills; learning certain languages, at least at an elementary level; learning the main elements of a story, that is, its anatomy; learning to conceive, outline, write, and edit a story, and so forth).

Eventually I began to see that I wanted to tell success stories. That part was clear. Because of my very dark sense of life at that time, I assumed that meant fiction. I set myself an assignment of writing two practice novels. Neither was good enough to publish, even after investing four years into developing them. But in writing the second one, which was a historical novel, I more clearly realized how much I had enjoyed history--of a certain kind--when I was young. I then recognized that fiction is not what I wanted, but the field of history was the right area.

So my CPL emerged as "telling success stories from history." Which aspect of history? I loved the great sweeping stories of broad movements and casts of thousands. When I realized that philosophy causes history, telling stories from the history of philosophy was a logical area to focus on.

Note however, that my CPL is "telling success stories from history" and that adding "of philosophy" is a narrowing of focus that might not apply throughout the rest of my life. For example, after I finish my current book (in about two more years), I might apply my CPL to other kinds of success stories. I don't know yet.

A CPL is a broad abstraction. It subsumes a wide range of interests underneath it. That is part of the beauty of having an abstract CPL. It gives you a lot of room to pursue projects underneath it, projects that appeal to you for a time, but not forever.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Once you come up with a list of the specific actions (or perhaps types of projects, each of which involves various actions), do not be dismayed if they seem to have no connection tying them together.

The classic example is the young woman who is fascinated with learning new languages but also is deeply intrigued by chemistry, as a science that demonstrates in all its details the lawfulness of nature.

Should she choose one as her CPL and set the other aside, perhaps as a hobby? I would generally suggest not doing that. First a hobby should be primarily recreational, not a lot of work. A CPL is a lot of work if one has the virtue of ambition.

Second, she should consider forming a "double" CPL, one that integrates two seemingly disparate activities. For instance, an obvious choice (once one has seen it!) is to become a scientific translator. That would give her a chance to learn new languages and continuously study chemistry as new discoveries are made.

Another example: Love of history and love of mechanical engineering. Solution: history of mechanical engineering (or, more broadly, history of technology).

Another example: Love of teaching (understanding a subject so well you can break it down and present it in the right order to an alert mind) combined with love of chess. Solution: teaching (in person, in lectures, in books and articles) others to play chess.

Anonymous said...

Burgess, thank you for your posts. They are not only fascinating reads from the perspective of content, but also impressively well-written! That is very inspiring to me.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is a reader's comment that is very much welcome to me personally:

". . . thank you for your posts. They are not only fascinating reads from the perspective of content, but also impressively well-written! That is very inspiring to me."

(My post for Making Progress, November 18, 2007, specifies the rules of etiquette. Those rules [which are experimental] include using one's own name, at least in the text. Sadly, I must turn away or edit those posts that do not comply. But compliments are welcome!)

Joseph Kellard said...


I found your recent two posts on a central purpose inspiring.

Thank you,
Joseph Kellard

FMS said...


Could you say a little more about your current book project?

Fred Seiler

Burgess Laughlin said...

I have completed the first draft of my current book. The subject is a certain intellectual debate, one with a long history. I am very selectively sampling that debate.

My main concern is what the selected intellectuals did to get their ideas out into the world. A secondary concern is the ideas themselves. Ideas cause history, but those who support the ideas must themselves take action and are thus part of history.

I am confident about all the chapters (there are eight) except one. That one chapter, the most difficult for me to develop, is now again in flux (as a result of a critique I am now evaluating) and might require much more time.

I prefer to say nothing more at this point, except that I have loved working on it.

Unknown said...

Your posts on CPL, especially your explication of a method for discovering one's CPL, would have been very valuable to me fifty years ago. It might have saved me from my "shotgun" approach; I tried too many things at once and got entangled in some of them.

I hope your posts on the subject reach many serious young people.
--Ken Barclay

Tenure said...

Just read this today. Loved it. Very good post. It's very good advice for me, a confused teenager, not sure where to go from here.

Burgess Laughlin said...

If anyone has questions about the nature of a CPL or a method of discovering one, please ask. No one can discover a CPL for anyone else, but sometimes discussion helps in making connections.

Please be sure to reread the comments here. They provide guidelines.

I wish the best to all those seeking a CPL--as well as all those who have already discovered one and are busy pursuing it.

Galileo Blogs said...

Excellent post, Burgess. I only just now found it. It resonated with me.

You make clear how goals such as current financial status are secondary to one's central purpose.

Of course, if one can achieve both, great, but if one is in conflict with the other, perhaps temporarily, the choice must be the non-sacrificial one.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Indeed, a central purpose in life, passionately pursued, is the core of life. It isn't all of life, but it is the center of life. I arrange my other highest personal values around it: for example, my closest friends and my favorite leisure activities.

In the last days or hours of my life, I won't be thinking of the gadgets I bought or didn't buy. I will be thinking of the work I have loved, most of all.