Nathanael Garrett Novosel, September 27 2023

The Magic of the ‘How’ in Life

Most people focus on the “why” in life as the big questions—mainly because they feel more personal, more subjective, and more unanswerable and so they can be analyzed for a lifetime. But “how” questions are just as interesting, just in a different way and susceptible to the human arc of wonder->boring.

Imagine going to a magic show. The magician seemingly saws a woman in half, teleports, makes objects disappear and reappear, and guesses your card without looking at it. Because these illusions make impossible feats—teleportation, mind-reading, etc.—look possible, they leave a sense of awe and wonder in the people who witness them. Cynical people who want to spoil the illusion will often shout, “He’s obviously using mirrors!” or other comments with a sense of distain for the trick and an attitude of disinterest. This attitude is a good encapsulation of the journey of learning and how you can use it to fill your life with instances of wonder.

Despite the cliché that people hate learning, people actually really love learning. You see it in social situations when people adopt the mannerisms, language, and fashion of their peers. You see it in magic shows, as we just discussed, but you also see it in video game speed runs (“How did he beat that game in 17 minutes?  It took me 12 hours!”), sports, man-made wonders of the world, and art. It’s more about interest than anything; learning to fix a car or hit home runs might be more interesting to one person, while knowing the entire lore of a fantasy series might be more interesting to another. All of this wonder revolves around how things work: how to get good at a game, how to master a skill, or how a sci-fi universe’s science and physics work.

However, people can also become disinterested by things. For example, some people will see how their first magic trick works and immediately say, “Oh, that’s dumb,” whereas others will think they discovered a field they want to spend their lifetime pursuing. Because people have a typical set of postures toward any topic that correlate to why they are interested in how something works:

There are likely more, but these are examples of what drives a sense of how and wonder. For example, most people love magic shows for the novelty and admiration of the performer because, even though they know it’s a trick, they can’t believe someone devised such a sophisticated method to entertain. Others love to admire beautiful buildings because of the work that went into such a sight. Some learn stories because they teach them about life. Others want to read instruction manuals to reproduce the results that they saw someone else attain. Some want to spend hours learning about a field’s history, whereas others just want to know how to use a product and then forget about it. Finally, of course, some people don’t care at all.

The “why” might be important to motivation, but the “how” is important to practical application. So if you want to feel more wonder in life, it can often be found in learning how the universe works (e.g., from human behavior to space to throwing a football) as much as pondering why we’re here or where we came from. It’s the approach that I took in The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose, as I ran into quickly the reality that you cannot scientifically prove the existence of anything non-physical (because, by definition, science is the study of the physical world). I am very much a “Causal Relationship” and “Implications” person using my model above, trying to understand how things work and what that means for how I can optimize things (though, I don’t claim to develop mastery past what gets the job done, hence not citing “Skill/Expertise” as one). As such, the idea that I could understand how people found meaning in their lives—vs. focusing on what the source or reason for existence was—was much more fascinating to me.

What I found in completing that book, however, was an interesting reaction based on someone’s posture toward knowing how things worked. There is a general trajectory from awe/wonder->learning->understanding->mastering->losing interest in people’s understanding of any “how” topic. For example, people will be amazed by driving, completely overwhelmed at first with all of the components of a car, and then finally they practice driving until they become good enough to drive on the road and it becomes habituated enough where people space out during their drives and even try to avoid it because it’s not that engaging. Imagine that trajectory from being completely overwhelmed to being bored by the exact same thing based on how much exposure they’ve had to it and how much interest is still there. As I mentioned earlier, some people want to become race car drivers, while others only know in case they don’t have anyone to drive them.

A few things to take away from these two truths (i.e., the varying degrees of interest and the typical journey from awe to “meh”):

The “how” in life can really be magic: it can create a sense of awe and wonder in you; it can help you do amazing things; and it can help you get your life on track by following a system or process that works for you. You just need to find something that you’re interested in, in what way it interests you, and learn as much as you need to get what you want or need from it. Once you do, you’ll know what it’s like to capture the magic of something and can reproduce it as you begin to master things, lose interest, and want to move onto something else.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


Previous Defining and Improving Your “Life Architecture”
Next Belief Is the Difference Between Excitement and Longing