How Life is what we make of it
(ft. “The Martian”) 🛸

Book Analysis • Productivity • Philosophy

August 7, 2022

by Yassen Shopov


We can broadly categorise people into two different philosophies:

  1. Those who believe life happens to them (external locus of control)
  2. Those who believe they are responsible for what their life becomes (internal locus of control)

In reality, it's true that we cannot control every little or big thing that happens to us, so to an extent, we can't have a completely internal locus of control. What we can do, however, is treat life as something that we make out of the randomness around us.

A book that helped me visualise this concept in an amazing manner is, surprisingly to me, the science-fiction survival story, "The Martian", by Andy Weir.

"The Martian" follows the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut sent on a mission to Mars in 2035. Things go haywire really fast for him when an accident during evacuation leaves him stranded on the red planet - alone, without his team, and with no way of communicating with Earth. None of his crewmates knows he is alive on Mars, and he is left to his own devices to survive with the little resources he has.

Luckily, Mark is a botanist by education and manages to develop a DIY garden for potatoes on the desolate Mars base. That, plus using what little leftover food he had from the mission, allowed him to physically survive and not die of malnourishment. This is just one example of the ton of ingenious tactics Mark uses to survive and to even attempt to return to Earth.

In this article, I will be going over the ways in which this science fiction novel inspired my "Life Engineering" philosophy, and how it provides a healthy mental framework for dealing with life's adversities.

The Survival Scenario

While we are (luckily) not exposed to the elements in the same way Mark is, life can still be described as a battle for survival in a way. Yes, most of us live a relatively privileged life, knowing that we will always have some sort of support network to fall back on. However, in order to propel our lives forward, we mostly rely on our own capabilities and resources - the definition of survival.

What fascinates me about the story in "The Martian" is the realistic storytelling. It would be a bland story if the main character always took the correct decisions with scientific precision and never got in trouble. That would read more like an instruction manual than a novel.

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It becomes even more interesting, because Mark Watney actually is a scientist. The decisions he takes are grounded in his knowledge of astronomy, physics, botanics. And still, realistically, his analysis sometimes overlooks something obvious, he is sometimes clumsy and forgetful, and even when his plan seems 100% fail-safe, there is always something additional to consider.

This all reflects very well what it is to be a living, breathing human. You can definitely improve your life with some planning, but we’re never in full control of what happens to us.

Scarcity VS Abundance


You may have heard of “scarcity mindset” and “abundance mindset” before. They refer to two different modes of thinking about the world.

People with a scarcity mindset believe that there are limited resources in the world - not everybody can be successful, not everybody can be rich, and there is not enough of anything for everyone. This often leads them to be more stingy, overly cautious and protective, because of this innate fear of resources running out. And as you can deduce, there is not a lot of space for growth in this type of mindset.

People with an abundance mindset, on the other hand, perceive the world as an endless supply of opportunities - wealth and value can be generated from thin air without necessarily taking from someone else. People like that are often more generous, take more risks, and are less afraid of potential losses.

In my opinion, this is where personal growth truly happens. Now, back to “The Martian”.

The main character finds himself often in a situation where he has a limited supply. Mark can run out of food, oxygen, heat, water, and all of those could be fatal. However, if he had a scarcity mindset, he would have remained in his base for all eternity, afraid to stray away from his safe place, and would have never [SPOILER ALERT] returned back to Earth. It was the abundance mindset that got him out of the hole, and it was what gave him hope in the first place.

The purposelessness of modern tasks

While Mark’s mission in Mars almost always consists of life-critical tasks and responsibilities, he manages to keep a good mood some of the time and doesn’t let his hope wither out.

Surprisingly, the average office worker at some corporation may have less drive and motivation under even the most perfect working conditions than Mark Watney has while his life is in danger and it seems impossible to survive at times. However, there is a simple reason behind that.

In modern society, we have developed business models that operate in a very farfetched manner. Sometimes a worker in a factory may never actually use the products they are creating, and often in a corporate setting, employees may be largely detached from the goals of the company. And usually, the bigger the company is, the less attachment the average worker has to their actual work and day-to-day tasks.

This is the reason why Mark is motivated to succeed in his tasks. His life is always on the line. Imagine if your life was directly affected by your day-to-day actions - if you don’t make yourself a healthy dinner, you die the next day, for example. It’s pretty much like that for the main character in “The Martian”, where he has to take into account almost every action of his, and any mistake can turn out to be fatal. Meanwhile, for us, our actions or inactions usually only affect us in the medium and long term. Everyday mediocre work may only lead you to get fired further down the line, if ever at all, in some jobs. If you miss out on workouts, it will only show when you’re 70 and pain starts forming in your joints.

This is why it’s important to strive to have a job with a mission, or at least one that you can closely see the effects. Higher-purpose jobs like vets, medics, social care workers, and others, see much higher “Gratification” rates when compared to other, usually more lucrative professions, and it’s the sense of purposelessness that dictates that.

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