As I’m quickly approaching the age the Beatles sang about in 1967 on the incomparable album St.Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (When I’m 64), I increasingly ponder the questions of life that I could, would or should have asked myself at a much younger age.
Over the years I have been able to narrow them down to three essentials:
1. What am I going to do with my life?
2. With whom?
3. And where?
I first came across this practical nutshell of wisdom several years ago, when I read an essay by rogue economist Bill Bonner. I thought it was pretty nifty then and I still think to this day, that it is a neatly packaged piece of wisdom. Especially at almost 64, when precious time seems to be ticking away like a roll of toilet paper running towards the end.
Sure, at the beginning of each year, some of us, me included stop and consider the choices we have made, the corrections that need to be made – and the choices we can still pursue, however old we are – so that we can have the best possible lives, considering our particular circumstances.
Here are those 3 questions a little more in-depth.
What Are You Doing?
I guess it is never too late to ask, “Am I doing what I want to do? Is it giving me all of the benefits I want and need? How close is it to my perfect job and how do I accurately measure my progress.”
About 5 years ago I published an essay on this website titled: The Ballad of the Clock and the Compass, dealing with the fact that most people go through life by the seat of their pants, always answering to the urgent demands of the watch, without much regard for the direction of the compass. Sometimes I still catch myself doing that: getting involved instead of saying no, listening to whispers and promises that many times over in my lifetime were just that, allowing mediocrity to slip in where only excellence can prevail. I realize in those moments how strong early childhood influences are imprinted into subconscious behavior.
After all when I grew up, there were many existential and geographic limitations to life’s choices. We actually believed that anyone can be anything they want, right? Well, they can’t.
Had Steve Jobs been born in a different time – or just a different town – he might have spent his days as an illiterate sheep herd in the Swiss Alps. Had virtuoso guitar player Joe Bonamassa been born into a different family, without dad being a guitar player owning a music store, his life’s outcome would probably be different as well. As it was, he could pick up a guitar at age 4 and never look back.
Your circumstances matter
Steve and Joe’s real childhood had what mattered most: the opportunity to stumble upon what they were born to do, and to go completely bananas doing it.
Most of us however had to go about it differently and that usually started in early childhood. If you were lucky enough to have been born into a family that supported the ideas that children are fearless and relentless, need to question everything under the sun and live in a fantasy world without the limitations of reality, you probably figured out early what you wanted to do in life and set your compass accordingly. If not, you may find solace these days in the fact that the internet has given you access to the entirety of human knowledge, to get you closer to your passions.
• Play. The first time baby Joe Bonamassa or Eric Clapton picked up a guitar, I doubt they seriously ran a cost benefit analysis. If you’re trying something out, don’t be in too much of a hurry to take it seriously. Aim to simply enjoy. The effort will come if the passion is there.
• Get reckless. If you really don’t know what you want to do, you’re going to have to try things you haven’t done yet. And you’re going to fail – a lot – trying many different things, most of which won’t work. Kids find this a lot easier because they don’t worry about consequences. They don’t have to worry about them. Parents do. Still I encourage you to do the same. Go ahead make it a proud part of your identity: start fearlessly trying as many things as possible.
• Question everything. You know how everyone knew the world was flat until it wasn’t? You have similarly limiting beliefs in your head right now – probably things like “artists can’t earn a living” or “I’m not smart enough to do this”. Maybe, but have you checked? Have you tried – really tried, like a gun is pointed at your kneecaps – to find an alternative? Most really successful people didn’t just find a way, they created one. And before you start working real hard on creating one, know this: “DO NOT FOR A SECOND believe it is enough to ‘work hard’. Hard work is not inherently a good thing. Hard work is a disgusting waste of your life when it’s thrown at the wrong things.”
• Ignore reality. You know how kids always dream of becoming astronauts, pop stars and giant transforming robots? Barriers don’t apply when you’re five years old. And whilst that seems like a stupid habit that you’d be wise to grow out of, if you’re not sure what you want to do, don’t be in such a hurry to shut your dreams down. Explore the impossible. Often it doesn’t lead to exactly what you’re after (say walking on the moon) but it finds something else instead (like a love of science that starts a whole career). You can’t know this in advance. Just dare to follow where your heart takes you.
Chances are, even if you don’t know what you want, that your childhood at least left you some hints. Are there things you think of fondly, but never find the time for? Start there.
Take a few moments now to think about it and take inventory of where you are today. It might help to look at this brief list that identifies what – at least for me – are the most important characteristics of the perfect job.
• I would be happy to do the work I do for free.
• I believe it has value – to me and to the people who pay me for it.
• It is fully challenging. It engages both the logical and the creative sides of my brain.
If you find that the “what to do” of your life is not perfect or still a matter of developing stages, don’t panic. If it involves paying the bills now, it is something we all need to go through. Our first responsibility, as moral citizens of the world, is to support the financial well-being of our families. Once that is on track you’re on your way to question things such as your work falling short in other areas – if, for example, it doesn’t challenge your intelligence and imagination – . If so, commit to making changes.
If you are lucky, you may discover an opportunity to create or slip or into your “perfect” job. More likely, you can move toward it step by step by making adjustments, as I did many times in my life. If you’re good enough at something, there’s a way to make it work by yourself. But don’t expect anyone to tell you what to do or give you permission.
One caveat: you have to be good enough, and you have to persist.
The Perfect Partner(s)
Initially I considered the question “with whom” to be about one’s spouse, and that is probably its original intended meaning. Looking back at the requirements of the process of establishing what you want to do with your life, it would be wise to wait as long as possible choosing a mate/spouse, in order to avoid much pain and heartache. It often turns out that early partners and their dreams do coincide with your journey towards accomplishing the life you dream about. But since that goes very much against human genetic behavior, modern reality is increasingly proving that you’ll end up with more than one domestic partner over a life time.
In this essay I’d prefer to point out the relevance of perfect partners in one’s occupation.
The people with whom you work – your boss, your partners, your investors, your colleagues and your employees – determine to a great extent both the satisfaction and the success you will have from your working life. If you stop to think about the work experience you’ve had, you will realize that much of the pleasure or pain you’ve experienced came from the relationships you had – your interactions with the people with whom you worked or work.
And you may think that you have no choice in these matters -after all, you can’t hire your boss, your client, your guest, your reader- but in fact, you can. In choosing the business or profession you work in, you are choosing your future colleagues, audience etc.
If you find yourself in a toxic work environment (say a work environment that is political rather than entrepreneurial), don’t hesitate to look for a better workplace.
And when it comes time to hire employees, don’t consider only their work skills and talents. Consider also whether or not you will enjoy working with them.
The following characteristics should help you choose the best possible partners:
• He/she respects you.
• You have his/her back.
• He/she has yours.
• You don’t expect him/her to change. You are happy with him/her as he/she is.
These four characteristics may seem obvious, but I managed to ignore them for part of my working life and got punished for it. Gradually however, I came to recognize how important it was for me to make good choices in terms of partners. Since I have committed to the belief that you may question someone’s performance, but you can never question any of the above 4 characteristics.
The Perfect Place to Live
Where you live and work is hugely important too. The physical environment you naturally prefer, very much affects your perfect life. (Do you love the mountains, the plains, the beach? Do you prefer big, bustling cities or tranquil little towns?)
When you are starting out, you may have to go where the work is. But as you move up the ladder, you will get more choice in the matter. This is especially true in today’s world, where in so many industries one can work remotely.
Consider, also, your commute. Some people enjoy spending an hour or more every day commuting. They use this time profitably to relax and listen to music or books on tape and so on.
Other people – like myself – prefer a very short commute. For instance, I have been living on small islands for the past 30 years, locating my office in my house or at a short walking distance.
And even more specifically, the quality of your immediate work environment – your office – affects the quality of your life. Since you are likely to be spending a big portion of your active day in that one place, make sure you like everything about it.
Your office should not be an accidental, junky place that has what you need. It should be a haven where you can work productively and a bit of paradise filled with art, photos and artifacts that give you pleasure.
Putting It All Together
Whether you are young or seasoned, beginning a career or enjoying a retirement job, you can always find good answers to all three questions.
But you do have to honestly conjure up your perfect life. And then begin the process of having it.
And if you think you’re too old to start something new than Google these senior citizens and learn what they accomplished later in life.
Jack Cover, Edmond Hoyle, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Takichiro Mori, Grandma Moses, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Tim and Nina Zagat, Winston Churchill, Socrates, Chaucer, Ogilby, Vaclav Havel.