Lesson 1— Getting a Life
On a recent book tour I was guest-of-the-day on an open-line radio show. The show’s host was a feisty, thirtyish young woman who obviously cared about people. Listeners called in with various concerns about personal growth and wisdom, and she and I did our best to respond. Then a man in his late 20s called. He let us know that he was bored and tired. Nothing engaged his interest, he reported, and very little ever seemed to go right in his life. I responded as supportively as I knew how, and suggested several things that he might do to stir up a little zest for living. No luck; the caller found fault with every suggestion. Finally, the program’s host — exasperated with both the caller’s self-pitying attitude and my over-solicitous approach — took over the discussion. She was direct. Totally up-front with her frustration, she told him to “stop making excuses and Get a life!” He and he alone was responsible for putting his life in shape.
What is involved in getting a life? How do we move from apathy or a blame-others, self-pitying mindset to full responsibility for running our lives? Joseph Campbell knew the answer. He advised his students at Sarah Lawrence College to follow their bliss. What did he mean by that? He meant build your life on what excites you and draws you to it; find and follow some activity that engages your interest and imagination and creativity.
I recently spoke to a group of graduating high school students. I told them that I was sure that their parents and other relatives were all excited that graduation was here, but I was also sure that many of the students themselves were not. I put the following chart on the blackboard, and asked each person to locate the spot on the chart that corresponded to the mental state they experience when thinking about their near-term future.
The first student to share her state of mind with the rest of us picked the spot I have marked as The bliss place: maximum clarity and maximum enthusiasm. Another student picked the intersection of the two lines — not high clarity, nor total confusion, and neither enthusiastic nor terrified — a “life goes on” sort of mindspace. No one admitted being totally confused and terrified, but some responses were in that direction.
As our lives unfold we find ourselves all over this chart. Even those who manage to find their bliss, their flow, their first-choice of a life engagement, may meet circumstances along the way that separate them from it. That’s life. Things happen that severely rock the boat. Yet there exists, always, the possibility of re-entering that mental state of bliss, or flow, or high clarity and enthusiasm. Doing that is made immensely easier if we have created an appropriate life structure; if we have done the right sort of assessing and experimenting. In any case, when we find ourselves floundering around elsewhere on the chart, we can use the bliss place as a beacon. We can let it reassure us when we are on course, and pull us toward it when we are not.
As I see it, creating a life for oneself involves four things:
- becoming clear about the values that we would like our life to embody and promote,
- assessing our talents and skills,
- setting appropriate life goals, and devising strategies for reaching them, and
- seeing how the resulting life stands up to one or more objective standards.
Let’s look at these one by one.
What is worth doing? What kind of life do I want to lead? In what sort of doing am I apt to find my creative opportunity, my flow, my bliss? It all starts with our values, and becoming clear about what is truly important to us. Once that’s clear, the details will follow. Robert Pirsig called value “the leading edge of reality” and noted that “value is the predecessor of structure.” We need to ask: “What is deeply meaningful to me? What matters to me enough to devote the energy and time of my life to it?” Only if I consciously come to terms with those questions can I be sure that the life I create is one that will resonate with deep meaning for me — a life that I can be completely satisfied with, and proud of.
The answer may be deceptively simple. Being a friend is the central value in the life of one wise person I know. For someone else I admire it is raising sane kids. Other (often unexamined) values include making a living, having fun, and becoming rich and famous. For an increasing number of people their own growth and development is a motivating value — the desire to become all I am capable of becoming.
The great task of my parents’ and grandparents’ era was that of building North America — creating the infrastructure of public works, manufacturing plants, and businesses that allow you and me to live more comfortably than prior generations did. Our parents and grandparents succeeded in what they set out to do. North America has been developed — perhaps even over-developed. Now, you and I live in a different historical moment. Other tasks and other duties call to my generation, and that of my daughter and granddaughters.
What are the principles upon which we want to base our lives and our livelihood? Do we follow a livelihood that contributes to present problems, or do we turn to one that contributes to their solution? Are we willing to avoid involvement with what demeans and tears down, even if doing that means changing our lives and perhaps making some sacrifices? Can we actualize higher values such as resolving conflicts, creating beauty, helping others find truth and wisdom?
Once we have played around in the non-specific realm of values for a while, and some sense of purpose and general direction has begun to form, the next step is to assess our capabilities. What skills have I already developed? And what talents do I have that I might develop further? In short, what do I appear capable of doing, now and in the long run? For many, identifying the route to the bliss place requires only this kind of reflection. For others, it involves serious (and sometimes prolonged) investigative work.
In thinking about our capabilities and potentials it’s important to consider all of them. The recent work of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has clarified the nature of intelligence. Gardner says that we have seven kinds of intelligence, and that IQ tests measure only two of them: Linguistic Intelligence, and Logical-Mathematical Intelligence. The other five are
- Musical Intelligence,
- Spatial Intelligence (the kind that artists, architects, and mechanical engineers have lots of),
- Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (possessed in abundance by athletes, dancers, and brain surgeons),
- Interpersonal Intelligence (the ability to understand other people), and
- Intrapersonal Intelligence (the ability to know oneself).
Thomas Armstrong’s book 7 Kinds of Smart is a useful guide to Gardner’s ideas, and is designed to help readers explore their own strengths and weaknesses among the seven.
The schooling process, from Grade 1 through university, rewards people who are skilled at logic, math, and manipulating words. And despite protests to the contrary, many schools give people who are not particularly good at these things the message that they are less valuable, less worthy people than those who are good at them. Gardner, on the other hand, shows us a broader field of competencies. Failure to excel at two of the seven says nothing about our potential in the other five areas. Might not our capabilities in one of these other areas be something upon which to build a life?
As a young person I found my bliss in radio and electronics, and I followed this bliss right into engineering school. Yet that bliss evaporated the very first day. The head of the Electrical Engineering Department gave an introductory lecture to all us new students. At one point in his talk he made a dreadful pronouncement: “If you don’t love mathematics you will never make it through engineering school.”
I was terrified. I loved electronics but not math. Math had never been one of my strengths, and I came rather close to hating it. In the end, the head of the Department turned out to be wrong. My love of electronics, my central bliss, was strong enough to get me to buckle down, dig into this distasteful stuff, and learn what I needed to learn to get through engineering school. I never did come to love math, but I learned enough math to graduate, and afterward to follow my bliss in electronic design work.
My point is this: Becoming involved in an activity that has meaning and emotional juice — and perhaps even excelling at it — does not mean that we have to excel at every sub-skill. We just have to be passably good at those skills. Very often, time, effort, and an average mind prove to be a perfectly adequate substitute for inborn brilliance. How many young women with superb interpersonal skills, and the potential to become brilliant counselors and therapists, have been scared away from university-level psychology programs because they needed to take a statistics course? It’s sad. Let your bliss arouse you and motivate you to do the dog work that keeps the bliss alive and opens new doors.
Once we have at least a hint of where our bliss might lie, some clarity about values, and some sense of our present and potential capabilities, it’s time to consider specific goals, and to select one or more as our own. How we frame a goal can make a difference. For example, becoming a famous rock musician has become the central goal of many young men. Yet become a rock star is too fuzzy a goal to be of much help in guiding an aspiring musician.
To get serious about this, the would-be musician needs to get more specific, more process oriented. Perhaps the important question is, “What are the key abilities which rock stars have that I need to develop?” Beneath all the fluff, style, and hype, it seems to me that the top stars have three abilities: They are superb instrumentalists. They can sing reasonably well. And they write their own material. So the original rather fuzzy goal really involves three concrete, process-related sub-goals: Become an expert instrumentalist. Learn to sing. And learn to write powerful music and lyrics.
Next, we need to select some long-term strategies and short-term compromises that seem likely to enable us reach those goals. We need to assess the practical nitty-gritty stuff — the ways and the means — and then come up with some sort of tentative plan for getting started. Our aspiring rock musician might start by asking: How can I arrange my life to eat and pay the rent and still have time to develop my musical abilities? What aspect of my musical education do I work on first? Or do I work on all three simultaneously? Where do I find the guidance I need? Do I enroll in a school music program? Or do I find a musician who is willing to teach me? And what about forming a band with other beginning musicians?
I understand that Benjamin Franklin at age 20 made a plan for his entire life and continued to follow it on through old age. I am not suggesting that we do anything like this. I’m much more in tune with the idea of living day-to-day and moment-to-moment in response to the promptings of the wisdom within. But moment-to-moment living happens within a context, and it is by envisioning a future, setting goals, and making plans at appropriate points along the way that we choose what that context will be. If Mother Theresa had gone into accounting rather than becoming a nun, her life would have been very different. Certain opportunities for self-actualization would have been denied her, and certain others would have opened up.
Whether we attempt to plan it or just let it happen, each life develops a contextual framework. That structure of goals, work, relationships, and learning activities determines much of what can and cannot happen within that life. My point is that forethought about this contextual framework beats the hell out of just letting it happen. Of course, live moment-by-moment. But do it within a context that you find exciting and fulfilling.
My own experience also indicates that during the process of setting goals and selecting strategies it helps to get specific about time. About ten years after starting my engineering career I began to think about a career change. I said to myself, “In the long run, I’m going to write,” but I didn’t get specific about when. It was ten years later before I finally told myself: “The long run is here!” and began working on a book. Yet things still moved slowly. Eight more years passed before I began writing full time, and another eight before my first close-to-the-heart book was published. That’s 26 years total! It’s clear to me now that this new career would have taken off much more quickly if I had
- set more-specific goals for myself,
- linked goals to specific dates and periods of time, and
- given more thought to ways, means, and strategies.
I’m not suggesting that we should establish cast-in-stone time lines, but I am suggesting that we think through a five-year- or two-year- or seven-year-plan that makes present sense. And then change or abandon it as the reality of our life unfolds.
Related to creating a plan is the idea of running life experiments. If the activity under consideration has some appeal, but we’re not sure that it should become a major focus of attention and energy, then the most sensible thing is to run a time-limited, resources-limited experiment of some kind. We try. We test. We find out. The idea is to get deeply enough involved to know if the activity is capable of transporting us into that mental space of enthusiasm, and high clarity that this is it. Naturally, the how, what, where, and when of each experiment will be different, and setting one up is often a creative challenge.
Finally, we ask ourselves, “How does this life I have imagined for myself compare with various yardsticks of successful living proposed by myself and others?” In choosing values on which to base my life I have also chosen the way I will measure the success of that life. When I compare the actual living and doing with the values my life seeks to emulate and actualize, is it a success? Or perhaps I’m just in the process of planning a life. In that case, are the specific goals and strategies that I’ve decided upon in harmony with those values, and are they likely to make things happen in accord with those values?
Many other standards have been proposed, and it might be instructive to compare the intended life with a few of them. Three that I have found helpful I call The Existentialists’ Test, The Saints’ Test, and The Universe’s Test.
The existentialists — Sartre, Camus, and others — rejected the handed-down-from-heaven moral codes of organized religion, and said, instead, that humanity must define itself, its purposes, and its own rules of behavior. The Existentialists held that human nature is not something determined in advance which our lives merely reflect. Rather, human actions come first. Human nature, to the existentialist, is an after-the-fact concept determined by what people actually do — by their behavior, by the lives that they live. You, and I, and everyone else define what it means to be human by the choices we make, by the way we live our lives. In the Existentialists’ view, good intentions don’t count; what counts is what we actually do, how we actually live. Thus, The Existentialists’ Test involves asking ourselves questions like: What are the lasting effects of the life I have chosen to live? What is its significance in the larger scheme of things? Am I happy with way that my life defines human nature?
If spirituality is central to one’s life plan, then it seems appropriate to bring out that cluster of qualities I call The Saints’ Test. They include: Living attentively. Non-harmfulness. Acceptance. Courage. Equanimity. And behavior that benefits others.
Thinking about behavior that benefits others carries me back to my university days. In the engineering lounge there was a frame on the wall into which, each week, a new card would appear that displayed some helpful saying or aphorism. One week the card carried a statement by the 19th century Quaker, Etienne de Grellet:
I shall pass through this world but once. If, therefore, there is any good thing I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
It made such sense to me. I copied it down, and carried it in my wallet for years. I can’t imagine a better definition of everyday saintliness.
The outpost of universal process called Earth is going through rough times these days. Nature, by way of that group of activities we call evolution, has created wondrously complex and sophisticated systems here. Unfortunately, several billion systems of a type called the human being are behaving unwisely. They are, in fact, threatening the very continuation of the Earth Experiment. The Universe’s Test involves putting ourselves in the position of the universal process itself, and asking whether this life — as I am living it — is helping the process or hindering it. Is my life
- helping to create a sustainable process?
- helping others to develop whole-process understanding — that more connections-oriented, complete, and long-term way of comprehending the reality around us?
- helping the universe to actualize its highest potentials?
In summary, Getting a Life! is no simple matter. The alternative, however, is to waste the precious opportunity we have to make the most of the one that the universe has given us.
Brief quotations from ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, by Robert M. Pirsig. Text: Copyright © 1974 by Robert M. Pirsig. By permission of William Morrow & Company, Inc..
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
If you decided to “follow your bliss,” to “find and follow some activity that engages your interest and imagination and creativity,” what would that be? Write about your “bliss.”
What kind of vocation or pursuit or work in the world is worth doing for you, and why? Explore that.
Assess your capabilities and limitations. What are your talents and strengths? How would you like to develop them?
Can you now set some goals for the next five or ten years of your life? And can you propose some ways, means, and strategies for reaching your goals?
Can you find anything to trigger your writing in Macdonald’s three ways of examining and testing your values: the Existentialist’s Test, the Saint’s Test, and the Universe’s Test?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.