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.

wtf

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…

 

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.”

waiting-for-a-call1.jpg
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.

If you have to ask…

This blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I thought for a while about what to call this blog … until Age Spots popped into my head, and seemed the perfect holistic expression of what I’ll be talking about on this site.  If you’re of a certain age, I don’t need to explain.  If you’re not, you might find the blog useful or amusing in an “old people say the funniest things” kind of way.

Sunset (just as inspiring as sunrise)

Getting back to what this is all about.  I’ve reached that point in my life where the balance of prospective to retrospective has pretty clearly shifted to the latter.  So have a lot of my friends and business colleagues.  We talk about all the stuff we’ve always talked about, but especially about what it means to find ourselves here.

We still listen to rock music, but our idols are getting scratchy of voice, crabby, and too frequently “moving on” – for good.  Many of us still work, at least part time, but careers seem less a central focus and certainly don’t involve the same amount of angst or carry the same ambitions they once did.  We strive to remain vital and relevant, but face the reality that we rejected as the baby boomer generation that yes, Virginia, moving body parts do start to get just a bit creaky.

Most of all, we seem to struggle with the hurdle of remaining relevant in a youth-centered world that we made that way.  I once lived in the university town that is now my daughter’s home, and loved it for the fact that everyone in town seemed to be under 30.  While the place has grown threefold or more over the years, that essential characteristic remains.  Except that when I visit now, the place can make me feel like an alien.  We visited a very hip cocktail lounge last time I was there, and the bartender rolled his eyes and couldn’t accommodate my “exotic” drink order – a bloody mary.  Seriously.

So this blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  I will write my thoughts, usually in response to something in the news, or an article that caught my attention, or something intriguing from the fields of art, science or literature.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I invite and encourage your thoughts, and will facilitate the conversation by maintaining the dialogue in subsequent posts.  In the immortal words of that great sage Timothy Leary, thanks for tuning in.

~Scott@agespots