What you can do today to craft “a life that matters”

At some point we come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.”

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. She posted this past May that people who define their identity and self-worth by their educational and career achievements are likely to ride an emotional roller coaster that sounds almost like manic depression: “When they succeeded, their lives felt meaningful, and they were happy. But when they failed or struggled, the only thing that gave their lives value was gone—and so they fell into despair, and became convinced they were worthless.”

Emily Esfahani Smith
Emily Esfahani Smith

She notes, rightly to my mind, that at some point we can/should/must come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.” That’s a bit hard to absorb and incorporate at the moment, saddled as we are with national leadership that is anything but good, wise and generous. But maybe our national circumstances make it that much more important.

Like a lot of thinking people (okay, that was a snipe), I have found myself consumed on a daily basis with the outrageous behavior coming out of Washington and more specifically, the White House. It’s bewildering, this staggeringly abrupt shift from the high to the low ground, and rejection of anything and everything that makes sense. I can only hope that this too will pass, if not for me then at least for my children’s benefit.

Magritte - Decalcomania

But the point about being good, wise, and generous is well taken and reinforced by contrast.

Esfahani Smith goes on to cite 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson about the three stages of a meaningful life, and the need to “master a certain value or skill at each stage of their development”: developing a sense of identity in adolescence; forging intimate bonds as young adults; feeding a sense of accomplishment and purpose in adulthood, and helping our children and others realize their potential in later life. Erikson relates all of this to the Hindu concept of “the maintenance of the world.”

Maintenance of the World

“In other words, you’re a successful adult when you outgrow the natural selfishness of your childhood and youth—when you realize that life is no longer about charting your own course, but about helping others, whether it’s by raising children, mentoring colleagues, or creating something new and useful for the world.”

Hourglass
There’s a natural evolution as the number of days ahead become fewer than the number behind. No matter how accomplished or not, rich or poor, lucky in love or lonely any of us is, it seems most of us turn our attention to legacy. Esfahani gives what is to my mind a terrible example (that I’m pretty sure I’ve come across before) of a self-absorbed Harvard Business graduate-entrepreneur named Anthony Tjan who discovers, when he runs into the brick wall of the dot.com bust in 2000, that the world just might not be only about him. His dreams shattered, “he felt humiliated and demoralized.” Poor baby. His rebirth is to understand that true success requires he use his immense innate talents and entitlement “in the service of a higher calling” – so he goes into investment banking and funds a nail salon. To simultaneously solve the problem of underpaid manicurists and unhygienic customer experience. I’m all for “pursuing wholeness” but WTF.

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Okay, that’s pretty cynical. By way of explanation, I should note that I’ve been involved in pharmaceuticals and medical devices my whole career and I tend to overweight service to humanity when I look at the value of entrepreneurial initiatives. But really…the guy is probably in his mid-to-late thirties and the whole thing sounds just a bit too neatly wrapped up in the same self-absorbed ball. He’s hardly Gandhi. (Who was also probably, at least in part motivated by his own need for gratification.)

Talking in his sleep
“Stasis is deadly”

I talk in my sleep, pretty regularly by my wife’s report, and she is endlessly amused (ask her) about the night I proclaimed that “stasis is deadly.” In Erikson’s model, he defines stagnation – which I suppose is what my sleeping mind thought of as stasis – as “the gnawing sense that your life is meaningless because you are useless and unneeded.” This isn’t a phenomenon of age. We all need affirmation, and we all need something to do that makes us feel productive. I don’t believe that diminishes over time, and I think that’s the reason change is such a struggle. For much of my life I was very much a change junkie; if things weren’t happening, if I weren’t causing them to happen, I was somewhat adrift. It’s an odd sensation to not feel that so strongly anymore, but I suspect it’s a healthier state of being.

A healthier state of being

I have evidence. After I sold my company in the early 2000’s, I could have retired but experienced a profound need for what Erikson described as “a sort of confirmation of my usefulness.” (I see the same thing in retired executives and other entrepreneurs who have sold their companies – it’s partly needing continued intellectual stimulation but I think it has more to do with the obnoxious voice in our heads that continually calculates our value. Erikson says it’s the same for someone who is involuntarily unemployed, and feels a sense of uselessness and despair, compounded by the inability to provide for the people we care about. His conclusion is profound: unemployment, voluntary or involuntary, isn’t just about economics, but an existential issue. “When people don’t feel they have something worthwhile to do, they flounder.”

Hamlet

Stuff doesn’t fill the void. And for me, based on experience of the last 8 or 10 years, neither does filling the time. I got into education after I sold my company because I love the classroom, I like providing value to other people, and it gave me a constant impetus to get things done. Being effective in class requires preparation, and puts you under healthy deadline pressure. That it also elevates the urgent over the important probably doesn’t differentiate it from any other occupation.

But for me, the target of my efforts needs to be solid, and the results fruitful. Frankly, there are a whole lot of students in college who don’t belong there, who are filling the schools’ seats and coffers with their own version of “I don’t have anything better to do” or “I can continue to play for another 4 years before life gets real.”

A lot of them aren’t much interested in learning, they find challenging work a pain in the butt, and they’re more likely to spend time negotiating their grade at the end of the term than earning it during the semester. Teaching has been both satisfying and aggravating, and I had  reached the conclusion after a particularly awful slew of papers last term that teaching wasn’t filling my needs.  Thankfully, I found a university recently that seems to be bucking the trend, and the days I’m there are graced by interaction with courteous, engaged and overall nice millennials.

Of course, there’s always material stuff. Selling a company gives you the capability to acquire way more of it than you could ever possibly need, and there’s a certain pleasure in researching, acquiring and playing with all sorts of adult toys (no, I don’t mean that kind though they certainly could qualify). But at the end of the day I find the chase more interesting than the owning, and it’s consequently pretty transient.

To the lighthouse

I’ve always looked toward the lighthouse rather than the water immediately in front of me as my way to the next shore. It’s a pretty universal observation but no less unique for that in the personal experiencing: the thing that fills my horizon these days is the pleasure of seeing the dent I’ve made in the world: my kids, my wife, people whose careers I’ve influenced, the prospect of grandchildren…

People around me don’t understand when I bitch about feeling unfulfilled in accomplishments. What they don’t understand is that it’s not about what you‘ve already done, but about having something useful to look forward to. That’s going to be a different set of activities and aspirations for each of us. Some of it is scaffolding, part of it is keeping the mind and joints moving, and some of it is no doubt approbation. But the secret, I think, to being relevant to ourselves is to be relevant to the people in our lives who really matter.  And that’s for the long haul…

 

Baubles and Panniers  

We lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it.

 

We celebrated our 10th anniversary this summer (I’ve actually been married 35 years, just not continuously). There were gifts – a set of motorcycle saddlebags for me, a tourmaline, diamond and sapphire ring for my wife – but the best gift we gave and got was a day of just being with each other. I’m not sure why it took a big anniversary to make that happen, but something about the day made us forget to have any expectations other than just enjoying each other’s company and the casual ease of a lengthening marriage.

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I commented on this to my wife on the way home from our anniversary night out, and woke the next morning feeling a need to really take stock. I’ve mentioned Brian Andreas’s Story People before in this column. His offering this morning, a paean to someone he loves called Favorite Places, is a good jumping off place: “I’m not that good at being a tourist because I’m always looking at the way the light shines in your hair or the way your dress opens to the wind & my favorite places in the world are places filled with you.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but my experiences of my own and others’ relationships suggests that we lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it. I acted in a play this summer called The Dinner Party, a lesser-known Neil Simon show about three divorced couples forced back together at a party under false pretenses.  Near the end, after a complex struggle of emotions, I said “…some of us will take a second look at ourselves, what we had and what we lost…and some may make a decision which would have seemed inconceivable before we arrived here tonight.”  My character goes on to describe the nicest thing his ex-spouse ever did in their marriage, as accepting and loving him for who he was.

What else does any of us need than looking at the person you spend your life with and knowing, despite all the crap you inevitably toss at each other, that this is the person who totally floats your boat?

Carole Lombard & Gary Cooper, 1930

On our tenth anniversary, we each posted a favorite picture on social media from the first 24 hours of our marriage. My wife chose one of our wedding dance and I picked the one of us relaxing at a B&B the morning after (above). We compared the number of “likes” and comments on each other’s feeds several times over the following days, but it was the kind of competition that was mutually enjoyed. (Unlike the Parcheesi game a couple of years ago – yes Parcheesi – that had a friend vowing never to play a game with the us again, and could easily have devolved into an emotional restraining order.)

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“BLOODSPORT”

Neither of us looks quite the same as we did ten years ago, but any disappointment I feel looking at those photos has more to do with my own self image than the way I feel about my wife…”the way the light shines in [her] hair or the way your dress opens to the wind.”

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I don’t feel that way about anyone else. I was single for five years between marriages, and infatuated on more than one occasion. Who doesn’t love the electricity of romantic attraction? But the fireball that hit me (and by her report my wife) at our first touch 15 years ago has never and will never come close to being replicated with anyone else. Aging is partly about changes in skin tone and hair color and fluidity of motion, but it’s also about looking at someone asleep next to you with one of those expressions that happens only when we’re asleep, and knowing you’re in the right place. Because if we’re really lucky, and maybe a bit smart, the passage of time enables us to slow things down in a way that enhances the moments. I’m the last person who should be criticizing anyone for rushing through life, given my dispositional impatience, but I really am getting better.

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FIREBALL!

My wife and I are and will always be on different sleep schedules. I wake up hours earlier, she needs a lot more sleep than I do, and there’s no stirring her once she’s out. She once slept, literally, through an Alaskan earthquake.  (We weren’t married at the time, but I don’t doubt the story for an instant.)  It’s sometimes frustrating, because I like the soft-focus scene in lots of movies and tv shows where the couple luxuriates in bed in the morning reading the newspaper and doing other stuff. But oddly enough, I woke up this morning, and find myself more often than not doing the same these days, completely unfazed by spending the morning “on my own,” watering and feeding the dogs, having a bowl of cereal, and sitting down to write. This isn’t ideal for me, but it’s not wrong either, and it’s certainly not a reason to ruin anyone’s day. It just is.

Past is prologue. There’s no changing who we were, what we did, or how we muddled through life’s challenges. But really, maybe it’s all setting the stage for now. I might trade lots of things to be younger, or have more energy or the ambition I once did  – and I might do almost anything if I could have more of my hair back. But the thing that always eluded me, and maybe, just maybe is becoming less elusive now, is this increasingly self-evident feeling of contentment. Sure, there are things I’d like to happen, grandchildren for example being on top of both our lists right now. We’d spoil them mercilessly.

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(Actress representation)

But really, what’s better than having bought my wife a ring this summer to recognize an important milestone, to be getting ready to go attach those panniers to my bike, to be looking past the top of my laptop at the sun on the harbor, and to be waiting to say good morning to my sleeping beauty?

Aubade

It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  

au·bade
ōˈbäd
noun
  1. a poem or piece of music appropriate to the dawn or early morning.  (In the middle ages it referred to lovers needing to part with the dawn.)
    Strolling to the shore

It occurs to me how far we all come in life.  I came across this poem by Philip Larkin, one of the great depressive geniuses I studied in college oh, about a million  years ago.  It seems at once relevant and a bit shocking, the kind of thing a young person would study without any particular grasp, or at least not a visceral one, of what is really going on in the author’s head (and heart).  Here’s an excerpt (I redacted the really awful bits, since it’s a rumination on death, but you can look it up here).

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain-edges will grow light…

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

—The good not done, the love not given, time

Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true…

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

From this perspective, and not the one I had when I first came across this 40 years ago, I can’t help thinking of this is a call to action rather than an admonishment to acceptance.  What particularly resonates with me is not the idea that the world goes on per se, but the more important one in terms of transitions that a lot of the stuff I (we?) used to worry so much about is pretty irrelevant.  “…telephones crouch, getting ready to ring / In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring / Intricate rented world begins to rouse.”

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It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  Think about the following passage from a quite different author, someone who is probably unknown compared to Philip Larkin, writing about the simple wonder of a day from the perspective of a pet:

Crystal Ward Kent

When you bring a pet into your life, you begin a journey – a journey that will bring you more love and devotion than you have ever known, yet also test your strength and courage.

If you allow, the journey will teach you many things, about life, about yourself, and most of all, about love. You will come away changed forever, for one soul cannot touch another without leaving its mark.

Along the way, you will learn much about savoring life’s simple pleasures – jumping in leaves, snoozing in the sun, the joys of puddles, and even the satisfaction of a good scratch behind the ears.

If you spend much time outside, you will be taught how to truly experience every element, for no rock, leaf, or log will go unexamined, no rustling bush will be overlooked, and even the very air will be inhaled, pondered, and noted as being full of valuable information. Your pace may be slower – except when heading home to the food dish – but you will become a better naturalist, having been taught by an expert in the field.

Too many times we hike on automatic pilot, our goal being to complete the trail rather than enjoy the journey. We miss the details – the colorful mushrooms on the rotting log, the honeycomb in the old maple snag, the hawk feather caught on a twig. Once we walk as a dog does, we discover a whole new world. We stop; we browse the landscape, we kick over leaves, peek in tree holes, look up, down, all around. And we learn what any dog knows: that nature has created a marvelously complex world that is full of surprises, that each cycle of the seasons bring ever changing wonders, each day an essence all its own.

You will find yourself watching summer insects collecting on a screen, or noting the flick and flash of fireflies through the dark. You will stop to observe the swirling dance of windblown leaves, or sniff the air after a rain. It does not matter that there is no objective in this; the point is in the doing, in not letting life’s most important details slip by.

dog-sniffing-flowers2In it’s simplest form, this isn’t a novel sentiment; we’ve all heard the expression “take time to smell the roses.”  But it’s really more than that, something that is ageless, timeless and offers possibility in a way that we too often take for granted.  For me, it ratifies the conversation I had with a good friend last night, about moving past the urge to be what I was before, to run things the way I did as a CEO, and perhaps a way of subverting or at least taming the sense of annoyance that surges to the surface whenever something isn’t the way I want it.

I did a google search on aubade as I was writing this.  It’s apparently a sexy French lingerie company.  Who would have thought?  Take that, Philip Larkin.

It’s all good.

The Intrinsic Worth of Gratification

Nevertheless, I am feeling a strong need to do something with the rest of the time, and an equally strong need to break with the things that formerly defined me. Those have always been work, integrity of intent, and despite an equivocal ability to consistently demonstrate it, a desire to take care of other people.

So here I sit at the cusp of something new. I haven’t figured it out yet, and I’m afraid that AARP’s Life Reimagined doesn’t quite cut it for me personally, though the concept is probably on point. Not going to get overly political here, but the news this week continues to highlight an administration swirling in chaos, one that abuses our allies, struts with imperialist privilege, and is apparently happy to pitch our entire democracy in the dumpster if it’s good for their personal business interests. I’m pretty sure they executed the Rosenbergs for a lot less.

That’s not the point of this post, though. The reason I mentioned it at all is that it fired off some synapses in my head about the future. More specifically, the future my children and their yet-to-be-born children will inherit. And what I want to do with the remains of an hourglass that has undeniably drained more than half it’s sand. While I was ruminating, a commercial came on for Campaign for Nursing’s Future.

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Sponsored by Johnson and Johnson, beautifully crafted with just the right touch of hope, humanity and pathos, about a nurse helping a little girl through an administration of chemo. I got a dopamine surge (or whatever it is that causes chemical surges in the brain of a need to do good), and not for the first time decided that I want to do something to help children who are in trouble.

Now this impulse isn’t exactly Gandhi-level philanthropic. The fact is, I love my own children more than life but I really am not overly enamored of other people’s kids. Babies are okay, because they don’t cause much trouble, and they’re often cute and I get whatever the male equivalent is of maternal feelings when I see them – up to about the age of two. After that, they really do need to accept responsibility for their sometimes awful behavior, and intrusion on my own peace and contentment.

children-at-restaurants-featured.jpgI once told a little boy who was bouncing around a restaurant and repeatedly interrupting a dinner I was having with friends, because his laid-back parents couldn’t be bothered to contain him, to go back to his parents. This of course set him off crying, and as they finally, mercifully got up to go the father called me a prick as he raced for the door.

Nevertheless, I am feeling a strong need to do something with the rest of the time, and an equally strong need to break with the things that formerly defined me. Those have always been work, integrity of intent, and despite an equivocal ability to consistently demonstrate it, a desire to take care of other people. Here’s the thing: The work doesn’t carry the same gravitas with me anymore. Sorry, clients, but it’s not my life’s highest priority whether your new device does whatever it is your new device does. I’ll do a great job, but I’m not invested in your mission the way you are, especially if it has more to do with dollars than improving lives. Nor has teaching, my nominal adjunct “second career” proven much of a panacea.   The give-back aspect is appealing, and I love the classroom, and there are a few really outstanding students that make it all worthwhile, but far too many of them just aren’t worth the expenditure of brain chemicals and oxygen.

oxygen-bar

So what to do?

I’m not brave or adventurous enough to go solve world hunger in under-developed nations, and I’m disinclined to try to reverse the catastrophic effects of negative socialization in the inner city.  Too much like tilting windmills. But I read the Vanity Fair cover story about Angelina Jolie this morning, and whatever else you might want to say about her, she is a woman who has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and wealth to a mission. There really is something to helping other people.

Angelina-Jolie--Vanity-Fair-2017--04-662x1007Look, I’ve got a theory – no, make that a conviction – that philanthropy isn’t the selfless thing people assume it is. We are all the victims of being the species we are, and for humans that means we seek gratification in the things that light up our pleasure centers. Sometimes that means some of us do extraordinary things that make a dent in the goodness ledger of the universe. But even Mother Theresa, selfless as she was, did it for a reason, and my theory is it lit up the gratification centers in her brain.

So I’m struggling to sort this, like so many of us are, and I think I’m on to something of a clue. I’m going to find something that involves helping those who are hurting and blameless in their pain. So no, I won’t give a helping hand to the 14-year old with a zip gun; I’m thinking more about that little kid getting chemo in the J&J ad. It’s not inconsistent – I’ve spent my professional life helping to commercialize medical advances because they carry an intrinsic good. It’s just a small door of insight, but I’m going to try to crack it open.

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“Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open”   

~John Barrymore