5 min read | One of our readers (EC in Australia) asked me to write about finding meaning in one’s job. As I’ve alluded to before, I’ve definitely tried a number of things and I’m proud to write that I bucked off a traditional career path about ten years ago, and have met a growing number of people along the way who have created similar paths for themselves (and they are not all wealthy; many are in or come from the middle class). The jobs I have previously held or still do include: professional saxophonist, composer, arranger, valet, lifeguard, health care consultant, physician, Googler, laboratory researcher, clinical researcher, freelance research scientist (see grant attempts here), multi-industry consultant (with McKinsey and freelance), and a few others.
The following poems speak to the puzzle of finding meaning in our lives:
There is no answer, and you know the answer.
— J. Andrew McKee, MD, “Meaning Koan” (July 2014)
All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.
This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place,
I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear, who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Let whoever brought me here take me back.
This poetry. I never know what I’m going to say.
I don’t plan it.
When I’m outside the saying of it,
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.
— Rumi, “Who Says Words With My Mouth?” (translated by Coleman Barks; hat tip, Robert Bly)
My short poem speaks to the idea that as you work to uncover your true self, you learn more of what you should do in life. It seems this develops first as intuition, so you may struggle at first to articulate why you don’t like your current situation. It may help to write it down in a journal. Maybe it’s the type of work you’re doing, or the work environment, or people you are surrounded by.
The poem by Rumi speaks to a number of points that still are relevant hundreds of years later: “Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?” “Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?” And in the last stanza, “This poetry. I never know what I’m going to say,” seems to echo with the mindset I think is critical to exploring your own path. That is: once you listen more to your intuition, you will get clues that are worth following. But you may not know exactly where you are going, or what needs to be said. I don’t recommend that readers hope for a single moment or epiphany that transforms your entire life. While that may occasionally happen, I think more likely is that you piece together clues and discover over months and years more of what you can do in life that you’ll actually feel good about.
It’s critical here to get still – by taking walks in Nature (without books, devices, or talkative friends), meditating, praying (contemplative or centering prayer rather than the “asking for things from God” type), or simply sitting around quietly and not doing anything.
(I think we’ve forgotten how to do these things in our mad rush to touch candy-colored glowing screens for the latest gossip and facts almost completely un-tethered from context or a sense of what to do with the information, view pornography in an ever-expanding variety of ways, watch an excessive amount of entertainment just to distract us from the mind-numbing realities of life, or blow things up in increasingly realistic video games).
At the same time, you learn that there is no single way to do things. We are living creative lives that vary as endlessly as water droplets find ways to jiggle and dance and shimmer as they splash down a waterfall. So when you seek advice from people about a job path or potential decision and they use words like, “correct,” “best thing,” “typical,” “what you must do,” or “the right way,” then I’m sorry – even if you love or trust those people, you would do well to discard their advice. Thank them for it, of course – they’re only doing the best they can – but certain advice is not helpful when you’re considering taking new, life-affirming chances.
When it is time to flower – in the sense of finding something new and exciting that may invite risk – then you want to court the advice of people who are willing to think of life in new and refreshing ways. For instance, life as a garden, with plants growing and needing the right mix of nurturing, tending to, and sunlight. In that sense, your life can unfold in a much more natural, less planned, and less thought -out way. To be sure, there is a place for strategic thinking and planning, but you also can’t analyze yourself into intuition and inspiration. You will likely find that as your self-confidence to create your own path grows, words like “success” and “failure” will take on new and generally less anxiety-provoking meanings for you. You may also find a growing belief or faith in yourself that holds up even in the face of complaints and biting criticism.
And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
— Anaïs Nin, “Risk”
This is our first article in a series at XY Culture on finding meaning in life. Readers, what do you think about taking new and calculated risks in your life? What’s holding you back, and are those reasons worth holding for (sometimes they are!), or merely fictions of a fearful imagination?