What Do You Want From Life?

This post is part of a series aimed towards creating a modern vision quest: how to develop your unique talents, circumstances, and personality into a role for yourself as an adult in society.

Two days after I started writing this series, a friend gifted to me a book called The Rhythm of Life. The book begins by pointing out the quiet desperation with which most of us live our lives, and argues that the way to avoid that lifestyle is to become the best possible version of yourself.

Early on, the author tells the story of speaking to a class of high school seniors before they graduated. He looked out at the class, full of eager, hopeful faces, ready to go out into the great big world and become part of it, and asked them, “What do you want from life?” He got in response:

  • Uncertainty as to whether the question was rhetorical,

  • Vague answers probably instilled by society rather than from actual desire, like “I want a million dollars” or “I want a beautiful wife.”
  • Some pretty good answers like, “I want to be a doctor so I can help people, reduce suffering, and make money.”
  • One really good, fully-thought-out answer, from a young man who hoped to be president, and had a plan laid out for college, law school, military service, local campaign involvement, and internships on Capitol Hill.

Most of us have no clear answer to that question. And so you end up living a Jimmy Buffet song:

    “It seems I have a problem in my present-day career:
    My ship she has a rudder, but I don’t know where to steer.”

Of course we feel lost and confused; we are lost.

What does that have to do with my work?

During her year-long happiness project, Gretchen Rubin discovered a principle she labeled the first splendid truth: To be happy, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” People like to make progress; we don’t like to do things that don’t accomplish anything. But one of the most common reasons for feeling like you’re not making progress is that you haven’t defined what constitutes “progress”.

And it’s not a quick and easy answer; success is different for each person.

Example 1
I recently spoke to a software engineer describing a conflict within his company: marketing wants them to build on successful past projects, developing new material for programs that they know sell. Operations wants to build brand-new stuff with inspiration and elegance. Marketing says, “I just want to make you guys rich.” And it’s a compelling argument, because following that advice would make all the programmers rich.

But for most of the programmers, being rich doesn’t count as success. Oh, they’d all like to be rich, and they’re certainly hoping to find a middle road that will allow them to be rich. But almost none of them, if they’d gotten rich by re-hashing old material, would feel successful. They know they can do better work than that, and they would be ashamed to sell anything less than their best.

Example 2
I’m about as introverted as you can get, and am fully satisfied with the circle of friends that I have. I’ve no objection to meeting new people, but I don’t feel any particular urge to seek it out. But I just spent the weekend with some friends who love people. They love to meet people, to learn about people, to spend time with people. And I believe that if, on their deathbeds, they could look back at their lives and say, “I made as many friends as possible” they would count themselves as successful.

There’s nothing wrong with being rich, or having a beautiful wife, or being a CEO. But please don’t believe that those things will automatically make you successful. Only you can define what will make you successful.

OK…So Now What?

Chapter 2 of The Rhythm of Life ends thusly:

    Put this book aside now — and before you read on, spend five minutes or five hours answering the question for yourself. What do you want from life?
    Maybe you have already thought long and hard about this question but have never written it down. On the other hand, if you have never taken the time to seriously address the question, don’t pretend that you have. Take the time. Think it over. Write it down.
    There are no right or wrong answers. Write quickly. Don’t think too much. Don’t analyze or edit yourself as you make your list. Write everything down, even the ones you feel are foolish. Your answers don’t have to be definitive. They will change over time. That’s okay. In fact, some of them will probably change by the time you finish this book. But it is still important to write them down now. It will help you as you read through the rest of this book, and as you venture through the rest of your life. So write your list, and when you are done, date it.
    ….
    Stop reading. Put the book down. What you are about to write on that paper is infinitely more important than anything else I have to say in this book.

Like defining your talents, this is not a one-shot, no-problem exercise. In fact, like every other part of the vision quest, this is an ongoing, never-ending exercise. Start now. You’ll never be done, but you still need to start.

Resources for Further Reading
The Power of Clarity
A refinement of my happiness formula
The Rhythm of Life