What is it that you want to do with your life?
I ask myself this question quite often, and just as often I find myself forgetting to answer. The tension associated with the thought of waste dissipates and I’m moving along to the next thing requiring my attention.
Americans hold ambition in such high regard. Usually ambition means money. It seldom refers to the ambition to be happy, although most people assume money equates to greater happiness. It often does, but only up to a certain point where you don’t have to worry and sweat too much for your bread. Time magazine puts that number at about 75 grand a year.
That is a healthy number for most people living in America, excepting of course you New York and California types, and yet were a man to spend his whole life just sitting at $75,000 a year when there was more money to be made, people would scratch their heads and wonder that he had none of this mythical “ambition”. Typically, when people talk about this much revered character trait, they talk about getting a better job, devoting a greater percentage of themselves to acquiring a better house, car, TV, whatever. It always has to be better and more expensive.
Let’s say you had a job picking up garbage that was absolutely guaranteed to support you for the rest of your life. It would keep you just fed, just housed, just OK. For me, that would be about $25,000 a year after taxes. No fortune, but enough to have a room with a desk where you can shut the door to the world and pizza and beer on Friday night. Imagine it is a hard job but a fair one, and while it fails to arise your passion or your interest it lets you plod along financially and survive day to day without much trouble. Of course, you’ll never have kids. You’ll never feel the glow of Paris in the evenings, and it is likely that whatever woman marries you will do so against her family’s earnest wishes for her wellbeing. Would you be satisfied with this situation? Why or why not? More importantly: what would you do when you finished every day at five o’clock, exhausted and hungry? This is the inverse of the guidance counselor favorite: “what would you do if you had a million dollars?”
Guidance counselors, in these difficult economic times, should likely be asking the following question: “What would you do if you had a nine to five job that you felt “meh” about? But we refuse to ask that—we think it proper to fill our kid’s heads with stars so that they will be ambitious. And yet, the question of what you would do after your job at the factory I feel is of infinite more importance, as it is far less hypothetical.
Take my advice on this. I’m an expert of what it means to indecisively amble through important decisions, darting off through the undergrowth while I could have been following the blue blazes of success and self-growth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with just paying your bills. While I would pity anyone without a bit of cash socked away for a rainy day, those lacking the burning desire for more money aren’t necessarily lazy or lacking in drive. But what matters is what these people do with whatever small surplus of energy and time they have after the long work day has wound to an end. Because while lacking the drive for money and financial success is not always a bad thing, lacking a drive at all most certainly is.
The world is a 4.5 billion year old rock in a vacuum filled with other rocks. A man needs a purpose. But why? How can we reconcile these two facts? If I am simply a temporal bag of meat on a lonely rock then what does it matter if I come home from work and bust out a novel or just turn on the television?
Well, in the grand scheme it really doesn’t matter. But for me, the answer to the question is that my own happiness is the ultimate meaning of life, and happiness ultimately comes from having a purpose.
We often forget that sometimes a person’s purpose is rather mundane. For some people, getting the food and the bed and the roof may actually be the ultimate fulfilling of purpose. Some people are happy, and happy with very little. Others make hate their purpose, drugs, sex, and greed. These people are probably content, at least until society punishes them for fulfilling that damaging orientation which stirs them to counter to it.
Like Jack London said about inspiration, you’ve got to chase it down with a stick rather than wait around for it to visit. What I see in a lot of my peers, and am sometimes appalled to see in myself, is the drift. That is, the absence of any purpose; an affliction which I believe is at the core of so much human unhappiness and self-loathing.
We’ve mentioned it before in the piece on apathy , but making and constantly updating the list of things you care about, whether mentally or actually on paper, is a useful exercise in combating the drift. Whatever it is, having a reason to live, and reminding it of yourself every day, is an incredibly fulfilling and enriching mental exercise.
Men build cities, after all. We can’t lie around in the sun all day like a cow lowing in the field. We are made of different stuff. And yet, just like the cow bred for dairy suffers from missing its daily milking, so too does a man suffer from not using himself for some end.