Saturday, December 16, 2006

On What I Want To Do When I Grow Up

Last August, I discussed a telephone conversation that I had with an interesting person I met through the internets. The August post was about her advise concerning dating, but there's something else she asked me that's been on my mind lately. After she had asked me what I did for a living, and I had told her that I was an environmental consultant, she asked me if I enjoyed doing that. I replied that I must, "I've been doing it for over 20 years." She then repeated her question by asking if that's what I loved doing or if that's just what I've been doing out of long habit.

I didn't have an answer.

As a younger man, I was consumed with the idea of creating a career for myself in consultancy and had blurred the distinction between working life and non-working life. I worked typically 12-hour days and still brought work home with me. I socialized primarily with those in the same business as I, tightening and expanding my professional network, and professed that I saw no difference between "work" and "play."

This is not untypical of a man in his 30s. As the years passed, however, I developed other extracurricular activities, beyond the usual distractions of family and leisure, culminating in starting a formal Zen practice in early 2001 and extending into my involvement in civic activities over the past year. These latter interests were not mentioned during my dismissal, but to a degree part of the reason my contribution was not what the company had wanted was that I had become more well-rounded as an individual, and was no longer a one-dimensional, full-time (i.e., 24/7) automaton. Je ne regrette rien.

So life is short, as they say (a ridiculous statement if you think about it: life is the longest thing you will ever experience. Anything longer than your own individual life is just your imagination, not direct experience - you will never know anything longer than your life). But anyway, why squander this precious life doing anything other than what you love? Or to put the question to myself more specifically, why not use this opportunity to move my career from what I've always done to what I love to do?

I see a couple of problems there. First, don't assume that I know what I would love to do. I've not been harboring an urge for all these years to, say, drive a big rig across the country or to write a book about Tuscan vegetarian recipes. And while I obviously love my Zen practice and my civic activities (I wouldn't be doing them for free if I didn't get some satisfaction from them), I'm not sure that these are things I want to do exclusively and for a living.

Also, I think that setting oneself a goal of doing what one loves can quickly become doing only what one what loves, and thereby increase one's dissatisfaction with any moment one finds oneself doing something, anything, other than that beloved activity. The Buddha said that not getting what one wants is suffering and dissociation with the pleasant is suffering. Focusing your goal on doing only what you love sets yourself up for disappointment, longing and suffering.

And finally, there's materialism. Due to my previous karma, born of my own ignorance and greed, I find myself currently in the third year of a 30-year home mortgage, the second year of a five-year note of the Lexus, and other financial obligations. Various entities expect me to live up to the financial obligations that I've made, and as a result I have certain minimum salary requirements I have to meet. As Tyler Durden pointed out, "The things you own, end up owning you."

Of course there are ways out of these obligations (I can sell the house, for example). But the easiest way I know of to satisfy these obligations is to continue on in the career path that I've initiated. And since momentum is everything in consulting (the consultant who disappears from view for an extended period of time is an ex-consultant), if I don't continue on this path, it will no longer exist.

Those of my generation might remember certain juggling acts once featured on televised variety shows like Ed Sullivan, where the juggler has several plates spinning on the ends of long poles, and needs to keep shaking one pole after another to keep all of the plates spinning. Tension is created as it always seems that at least one plate has lost all of its momentum and is about to stop spinning and crash to the floor, but at the very last possible moment, or even what appears to be one micro-second past the last possible moment, the juggler finally grabs that pole and gets the plate back to spinning again, even as another is starting to slow down. And even after he has all of his several plates up and spinning, and is quite busy jumping from one pole to the next to keep them all in motion, he incredibly, impossibly, sets up still more poles and plates.

It often seems to me that our lives are like this - we're constantly working on keeping at least one plate spinning, and then have to jump to the next just before it crashes, and then the next and then the next, all while life keeps setting up more plates on poles for us to maintain.

So while the question of whether I am doing that which I love is an interesting one, and one that everyone should ask themselves once in a while, I tend to agree with the Taoists who would advise to keep following the path you're on, and true contentment will come when you learn to accept who and what you actually are. I further agree with the Buddhist amplification of this idea, that true acceptance of who you actually are is total acceptance of everything, including acceptance of your aspirations and goals. In other words, it's okay to have aspirations and goals, just don't get too attached to them.

So what then would I love to do with the next few years of my life?

1 comment:

chris said...

Thanks for your interesting observations & helpful site.
In regards to your question, & particularly that image about rushing to keep the plates spinnings (or 'balance the bases'), you may find it worth considering 'the fire within' discussion of Covey & Merrill in their book First things first: to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. Best wishes for the new Year with this new contract + in your other roles, & Merry Christmas!