“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”
– Joseph Campbell
Let’s cut the crap. Life is short and you have less time than you think. So rather than doling out the standard patsy advice, let me humbly ask: do you want to have a meaningful life?
Or do you want to spend it floundering in the lowest-common-denominator of inescapable mediocrity?
If your unquenched desire to have a better life exceeds your comfort zone for spending the next 20 or 30 years wallowing in more-of-the-sameness, then don’t worry, I’ll be gentle. Here are a few tiny questions.
Why are you here? Why are you (really) here? There are plenty of answers to this big question. But all answers aren’t created equal. There are poor ones, which will probably lead to a long, dull, dismal, life.
And there are better ones — which just might begin to hurl your life in a direction that feels worth living. Let me break it down for you.
What do you want? Here are some perfectly valid answers, if more mediocrity is the limit of your horizon: a raise at work, actually taking your two week vacation, a new HD TV, keeping up with the neighbors.
Here are some better answers, if a meaningfully well lived life is what you’re after. To make a difference. To transform something that sucks. To do stuff that matters. To create. To experience what’s true. To feel alive every single day.
To whom does it matter? Here are some pretty good answers, if a snoozer of a life is what you’re after. It matters to your boss, her boss, his boss, or their boss. It matters to shareholders, to the board, to “consumers.”
Here are some better answers, if you want this to be a life you don’t just remember, but that you savor. It matters to your Soul, to the timeless part of you that yearns to express the art of human excellence, to your friends and family that look up to you as a force for creative genius.
What’s it going to take? You don’t get to a life well lived using the tired capabilities and skills built in the cubefarm. You need to learn to employ your whole being: mind, heart, soul, and body.
If nothing less than a life worth living is your goal, you probably need to nurture more than just the skills of a middle management spreadsheet jockey. You will need to embrace the arts of empathy, humility, creativity, imagination, confidence and intuition, to name just a few.
Who’s on your side? A life meaningfully lived isn’t a solo act. Rugged individualism is nice in theory, but the truth is: if you’re going to make a difference, you’re probably not going to make it happen all by your lonesome.
So who are your mentors and allies, friends and peers? Who’s got your back? Here’s a hint: if you look around and your supporting cast is lean, learn to lead.
Challenge, provoke, inspire, connect — and then, harder still, evoke the best in people. For it is the best in us that elevates our capacity to love; the truest currency of a life well lived.
What do you value? If you’re going to live a life that matters, you need a set of ethical guidelines: a belief system that points toward values that are in some sense enduringly, meaningfully good.
Bernie Madoff’s values seem to have been greed and deceit — not trust and respect; and the result, I’d bet, is a life that now feels empty and wasted.
So what are your values and beliefs? Do they point to consumption, status, transactions — instead of investment, accomplishments, relationships? If it’s the former, I’d bet a life well lived is going to remain as elusive to you as it’s been to Bernie.
What breaks your heart? Follow your passion, we’re often told. But how do you find your passion? Put another way: what is it that breaks your heart about the world?
It’s here that you begin to find what moves you. If you want to find your passion, surrender to your heartbreak. Your heartbreak points towards a truer north — and it’s the difficult journey towards it that will most often unveil your purpose in the world.
What’s it worth? Here’s the inconvenient truth: it’s going to take more than the tired old refrains of hard work, dedication, commitment, and perseverance. It’s going to take very real rejection, heartbreak, grief, and disappointment.
Only you can decide how much is too much. Is it worth it? Van Gogh, famously died for his art. A life well lived always demands what one asks of one’s self.
Is the heartache worth the breakthrough?
Is the desolation worth the accomplishment?
Are the moments of fear and trepidation balanced by the jubilation and celebration?
There’s no easy answer. The scales of life always hang before us. And always ask us to weigh the burden of our choices carefully.
Sure, you might read all the above and mutter: “Duuude? Lighten up. All I really want is a mega-bonus, a lifetime membership to the golf club, and the keys to a BMW Coupe.”
Welcome, then, to mediocrity. For mediocrity isn’t the poor immigrant cleaning the bathroom at the 7-11: it’s the cubicle dwelling middle manager who could’ve, just maybe, lived a life worth living.
The simple, timeless truth is: You’ll never find the euphoria of accomplishment in mere possession, or the wholeness of meaning in the mere desire of more stuff. You can find them only in the exploration of the fullness of human possibility.
We’ve been taught to be obedient rationalists. And the rationalists say: there’s no magic in the world. But they miss the point. There’s a kind of quiet magic that each and every one of us has in us. The capacity to magnify life beyond the mundane, and into the meaningful.
And it’s when we reject this that we have squandered the fundamental significance of being human.
And so this almost magical potential you and I have is something like an obligation that we must live up to. For it’s only when we not just accept it, but employ it at its maximum, that we can fully embrace the fullness of life.
I don’t pretend any of the above is revolutionary, or new, or anything less than obvious. Yet, the lessons of a life well lived rarely are: they’re simple, timeless truths.
So let me ask again. Why are you here? Do you want this to be a life set on cruise control that gently glides along, half-hearted, barely remembered, dull with dim glimpses of what might have been?
Or do you want this to be a life that you savor, for the rest of your surprisingly short time on Earth?
The choice is yours. And it always has been.