A useful way to think about this, I realize, is three-pronged.
a. Understand oneself
b. Understand the world around us
c. Improve both
Achieving even modest levels in each can result in a satisfactory and contented life, & death.
They are not sequential. They can, and often, co-exist. However, without some a, b & c become very difficult. And some a & b are required to achieve some c. The thresholds may vary across people & age.
Some of us trudge thro life without achieving even a modicum of all 3. Some flutter around all three, confused and bleary. Quite a few don’t even think about these, and pass away perplexed & unhappy.
Its important to start with knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, limitations, constraints, beliefs, interests, talents etc. Not much of b & c can be achieved without knowing ourselves. It’s important to understand how our thinking about ourselves has evolved over the ages. How should I live? Should I fear death? How should I conduct myself? How have people lived & conducted themselves in the past? Is that useful to me now? The wisdom of the ages is useful to improve our understanding of ourselves.
Understanding the world around us
This becomes more laborious as the world becomes more complex. We don’t lead simple hunter-gatherer lives anymore. People, culture, technology, aspirations etc. are getting more complex. To understand the world around us, we need to understand the basics of many disciplines – hard sciences, social sciences, and so on. Being a specialist in one discipline is fine, but a true understanding of the world is possible only by studying various disciplines. For eg. a basic knowledge of politics, economics, psychology, & history, among other disciplines, is required to understand how the capitalist world works. Why should we understand the world? Because it impacts both a & c.
Why am I rich or poor? Why am I struggling to achieve my goals, even though I have talent & interest? Why are countries fighting each other? How can I make my family happy? How can I contribute to the society? These questions can be answered only by understanding the world around us.
Improving both ourselves & the world around us gives lasting satisfaction & contentment. Ask anyone who has done well, either for himself or the people around him (ideally both).
We certainly have to start with a. Studying philosophy is helpful. Critical thinking about our own thoughts & actions is a must. Tendency to go deep into ‘a’ should be checked, and balanced with sufficient efforts on b & c.
Studying various disciplines is mandatory for b. Many disciplines overlap and contradict each other, and so we need to develop our own understanding of how the world works. Our understanding may be different from others. So its essential to learn from others too, especially the eminent, living & dead. More importantly, the world keeps changing, so our understanding has to constantly evolve. And, we need to constantly reflect on a & c, as we learn more about the world.
Some a & b automatically leads to c.
The challenge, of course, is to balance all three, throughout life, which is fun, when we get the hang of it.
That fun is also the purpose of life.