This line comes from a letter Jung wrote in response to a fan (psychologists have fans?!) who wrote in asking that most basic of questions—how to live her life. The culture around her told her to get married and do whatever her husband bade her do, and that didn’t sit right with her. The line above, with some additional context thanks to The Marginalian, because you already know I love me some context:
But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. And then you know, too, that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.
This idea is perfectly in line with my thinking about enough and minimalism and resonates strongly right now. Having started a new, incredible full time writing job at Flexport just a few months back, dealing with my knee…situation (moderate arthritis according to the MRI and my orthopedist), working on getting out on the trails as often as humanly possible, trying to work up something that at least vaguely resembles a schedule for posting here on ILHYT, and when I feel like there’s space left in my brain pounding out a page of my novel. That’s a lot at the best of times, right? And seeing as now the present cultural moment can be described as a lot of things, “the best of times” not among them, it’s even more for my poor INFJ mind to juggle.
In the spirit of adding context, Let’s look at each of the words in Jung’s quote and see what we can glean. Specifics will be relevant to me as that’s the only context I have immediate and complete access to, but I’ll try to expand out and encompass other perspectives where possible.
Aside from the obvious connection to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” the idea of going about your business without broadcasting far and wide has a lot of appeal. If more people adhered to this idea, rather than the Twitter model say, there’d be a lot less discontent in the world.
I do pretty much everything quietly, always have. Between being strongly introverted and my sensitivities directing me to favor of quiet surroundings — this is just how I am. Quiet. Unless I’m listening to the Dead, then all bets are off. As I began my career shift around 2018, I surprised several close acquaintances, not least because they had no idea how miserable I was in IT. But also because they just didn’t think I had it in me to do something they all saw as radical for a 40-something. I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t realized how little I gave away in terms of how I was feeling at any given moment, or what I had been planning for months if not years.
There’s power in moving quietly through life. Less chance of someone or something becoming a stumbling block if they don’t know what direction you’re going.
With all the focus on productivity in recent years, I fear the inevitable backlash. With all the to-do methods, note-taking wonder apps, and TED talks…I honestly believe we as a culture are heading toward a time when people will be unable to function without a beep coming from their pocket to remind them to breathe. We’ve largely lost the ability to function on intuition — whether it’s been beat out of us by overbearing managers or it’s because we’ve also lost the ability to remember anything for more than 3.5 seconds.
That said, I don’t keep great to-do lists. I mean, I generally know what I need to be working on at any given time, but not in any sort of officially sanctioned way. For work, someone gives me a Jira ticket with a deadline, and I work on that until I need input. Outside of work…all bets are off. See this nascent blog (coming in January?! Adorable) or my book draft (draft? 3 pages? Close enough.) if you need more proof.
Instead, I move by intuition and in my reading, so did Jung. What comes next is what feels like should come next. When I’m staring at my work Jira tickets, they have deadlines attached, so it’s fast and easy to know which one to pick up work on. Outside of that, I know if I need to wash the windows or pull weeds when I look at the front of the house and one or the other jumps up and says “me, me!”
Not ‘or.’ Not ‘then.’ And is a powerful word because it acts on our subconscious, telling us that both of these factors need to be in play for this to work. I’ve been trying out using the improv technique of replacing “no, but” with “yes, and.” It’s doing truly interesting things in my work meetings and general conversations with friends. I’ll have more to say on this in relation to coaching in later essays.
Most Necessary Thing
Not just the next thing in line. Not the absolute pinnacle of necessity. I know this is a combo of 3 words, but the first two modify the last, so I’m treating it as a unified phrase. To me, this idea means you can’t just have a rough list, you have to also have at least a rudimentary prioritization of that list. That’s the only way you’ll know what is not only next in line, but where it needs to fall in order. At the same time, you don’t necessarily have to stick to that priority. Things change. Shit happens. So adjust accordingly.
You’ll find intuition coming into play again here. How do you know what’s ‘most necessary’ unless it’s by stepping back and assessing the context? Say it’s 3:00 Saturday afternoon and you have a chore list running into double digit pages long. What comes after mowing and washing the car? Weeding? Fixing the squeaky hinge on the bathroom door? Walking the dog? Take a breath or three. Look around. Is it getting cloudy? Maybe get the weeding and dog walking out of the way before it starts raining, then move inside for the hinge. Or may the dog is looking longingly at their leash, they deserve it so take them first, then reassess. Either way, tasks got checked off the list, the dog ends up snoozing happily on the couch, and you can move on with your Saturday.
Simplicity first came to my attention via the tongue-in-cheek heuristic K.I.S.S. or, Keep It Simple Stupid (origin unknown to me). That was back in high school, yet it took me until well after college to realize you could apply this idea to literally all facets of life. That led to minimalism, to which I subscribed while living overseas a decade ago. Then I came home to Seattle and realized the dogma surrounding that word was making it untenable more-so than the actual way of life.
So when I read an essay (later to become a book, albeit a short one) called Enough, I was intrigued. The idea is so simple as to break my brain if I think about it too much, which of course, I have.
Only have enough to live the life you want.
See what I mean? On the surface it seems almost too…simple, doesn’t it? But if you ponder for a bit, maybe while watching a river roll by (or that may just be me), you’ll realize how profound and powerful the idea truly is.
Then you’ll start applying it, and before long you’ll realize you haven’t bought a new pair of pants in a year, resoling your Chacos keeps them happy for years, and your 3 year old Macbook works just fine for your needs (OK, this is being written on an iPad Air, I’ll explain later). And before you know it, quotes like Jung’s above resonate so strongly you find yourself struck dumb the first time you see them. Again, that may just be me.