A self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed. - Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death
The question of "what should I work on?" has been asked and answer in many ways. Kierkegaard's writings offer a framework for answering this question and profound insights into the human condition, but his writings remain relatively obscure and inaccessible to most. This piece attempts to distill core ideas from Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death and articulate a framework for how one should think about what to work on.
In The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard describes various forms of despair. Kierkegaard suggests that we have a tendency to lose ourselves, and this loss, with the suffering that it brings, is what he meant by despair. Kierkegaard thought that the most common type of despair is of a person who both fails to notice that they have lost themselves, and never acknowledged that they had a self to lose in the first place. Here Kierkegaard diverges from contemporary beliefs by positing that we do not automatically become our "true" selves, but instead we must become them through self-awareness and work over time.
Kierkegaard thought that the self had multiple dimensions: the finite and infinite, actual and possible, and eternal and temporal. Each side of these dimensions exists in relation to the other side, and they cannot exist without each other. Our task as humans is to be aware of this and to live with the correct balance in these dimensions. Having too much or too little of one of these factors leads to an imbalance, which can make you psychologically suffer, and even worse, it means you could lose your true self.
The self is not only the above dimensions, but also that part of us that can observe and relate to these dimensions. The self is unique in that it can be self aware of itself. That allows us to become aware of imbalances in ourselves and take action appropriately.
With this very brief overview let us turn to what these dimensions are and what the correct balance looks like.
Vincent McCarthy explains what Kierkegaard means by the infinite: "In speaking of the infinite... [Kierkegaard] is essentially speaking about the power of imagination to carry one beyond oneself towards a 'something more'". Put another way the infinite is our capacity for imagination, abstraction, and relating to ideas beyond ourself. The infinite helps us make sense of the world and provides us belonging, meaning, and motivation. For example, someone may be captivated by an ideology and come to understand their role in the world because of it.
But, without a grounding in reality the infinite can become a fantasy. The infinite connects us to the "something more," but it must always be brought back to the finite, which is the here and now, or the definite world around us. A person who is too much in the finite is like a cog in a machine; simply going through the motions of life as others do, but never stopping to ask why they are doing what they are doing.
In choosing what to work on, find problems that connect to the infinite, but that you can take concrete steps towards solving. Do not be swept up in the infinite or chained to the finite. For example, someone may feel so strongly about time travel that they start a company to bring it to the world. But time travel is so abstract and out of their control to render the whole exercise pointless. The infinite needs to be bound to the finite - imagination needs to be balanced with action that can be taken.
Similarly, the finite needs the infinite. It would be a disaster to simply coast along in life. Question why you are doing the things you are doing and live with intention. Do not take things for granted, and do not let yourself be lost in the crowd, lest you lose your self.
Another dimension in Kierkegaard's self is the possible and actual, sometimes translated as freedom and necessity. It is helpful to talk about the extreme cases to understand these terms. To live entirely in the possible and not in the actual would be like treating all your dreams as though they had been achieved before even the first step towards realizing them had been taken. Think of someone who constantly has ideas for things they should do, but who never sees their ideas through to completion. What is possible does not become meaningful without action taken to bring the possible into the actual.
On the other end of the spectrum, a person who only lives in the actual would see no place for personal initiative and action. In the eyes of this person events are wholly out of their control and their life is being driven forward by outside forces. Without any agency this extreme end of the spectrum leads to apathy, and precisely like the other extreme, a lack of action.
The synthesis that we should strive for is The Narrow Path between them: taking concrete action towards realizing possibilities while acknowledging the constraints that exist. Your goals should be lofty, but they should be possible. For entrepreneurs I think of goals like curing Alzheimer's, building new forms of space travel, or creating nuclear fusion reactors.
Kierkegaard's thought emphasized tension, synthesis, and process. His idea of the self embodies these aspects and attempts to reconcile core truths about the human experience: we are what is (actual) and what could be (possible); we have a concrete existence (the finite) and an yearning ability to connect to things greater than us (the infinite).
I think Kierkegaard's idea of the self is a powerful way of thinking about the work we do because what we work on is an expression of who we are and of our relationship to ourselves, others, and the world. What we work on is not a simply a matter of monetary value, but instead is a much deeper expression of who we are, and our work should be full of passion, meaning, and significance.
That is not the reality of work for many, and Kierkegaard's thinking can help us forge a different path. By becoming aware of the self we can reflect on its imbalances, strive to fix them, and live an intentional life full of purpose and significance. While that is easy to say, it is actually a lifelong task that forces you to reflect on your self, your relationship to your self, to others, and the world. However difficult this may be, it is a task that we must undertake because the alternative - the greatest dangerous of all - is to lose your self.