Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.
– Tennessee Williams
This question comes from an old friend in response to Quests and Questions—A Path to Your Self. When a Facebook friend said she was struggling with the same question, I decided to put off blogging on “Why do we procrastinate?” and grapple with this one instead.
If you have to stick with your job to pay the bills, then you may feel that asking this question of yourself is pointless. But it’s not. Rich or poor, young and old, we all dream of something different, something better, if only when we gaze at the stars. And, regardless of our lot in life, we can give this perennial question a new answer—either by doing differently what we’ve been doing, or by pursuing something else on the side.
To those “nine to fivers” who feel stuck in their jobs, I want to say that what you’re doing with your life isn’t just what you’re being paid for. No matter how humdrum or even hateful your job, “what you’re doing” consists not only of the tangible product of your labor, but also of the effects you’re having on others as you go about your work and life.
The actual contribution made by people emptying bedpans is less the clean pans and more the dignity or indignity sown among those for whom they’re working. The indelible contribution of a teacher is less the knowledge she imparts than the confidence she builds in her students. What you give a child is not your time, but your self.
Even for those who love their work, a job has two aspects: what we do and how we do it. The “how” may trump the “what” and so displace it as a truer description of the impact your life is having on others. And, in the end, isn’t our effect on others the best measure of what we’re doing with our lives? A “nobody” janitor may spread wellbeing among his co-workers, while his “somebody” boss makes his subordinates ill.
If finances require you to put up with work you’d never choose of your own accord, you can nonetheless begin doing your job in a manner that endows your life with renewed purpose. We all know people who, while coping with personal hardship, bring out the best in everyone they touch.
Like many of the questions listed in Quests and Questions, this one benefits from tweaking. If you say to yourself, “Yipes! I probably have only twenty years left! I better get going and do something significant,” then you’ve raised the bar on yourself and made it all the harder to risk a new venture.
Every quest begins with a single step, and baby steps are wobbly. Moreover, we never know if we’ve got twenty or forty years, or ten minutes. It seems to take most of us about ten years to get good at anything, but typically we have a lot more time than that. Even at seventy, age is not a convincing excuse for standing pat, because when you stop growing you start dying.
So, let’s recast the question in age-independent form, and simply ask “What shall I do with my life?”
Where to look for the answer? How to identify your quest? I know of no better advice than that of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:
Look back upon your life and ask: What up to now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what ruled it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and see how they form a ladder on which you have so far climbed up toward your true self.
In our formative years, we fancy ourselves doing this or that, but life may have led us to do neither. Later, in maturity, what draws our attention is usually something that has bid for it on previous occasions. Our early loves keep calling out to us: Don’t forget me, please don’t forget. Even when we’ve labeled a relationship a disaster, there is usually something about a spontaneous affinity that remains pertinent to our present predicament—if we could only locate the baby in the bathwater.
If we can but give our loves their due, they will guide and motivate us for a lifetime. This is not as easy and painless as it might sound, however, because becoming a novice and revisiting virgin terrain means dropping the pretense of being in control. This should not be surprising: a quest is not a quest if the end is known; a question’s not a question if the answer’s given.
We love certain things and people—books, ideas, films, music, art, characters in literature, and the special people in our lives—because they offer hints to realizing the dreams of our youth. Each of those dreams is a rung in the ladder of love on which we’ve climbed toward our self.
But the self towards which our loves lead does not pre-exist. Rather, we build it as we climb the ladder in pursuit of our quest. Step by step we forge a more integral identity, a more selfless self.
To figure out what to do with your life, take stock of your past enthusiams and passions. Line up the objects you’ve revered, the things and people you’ve loved, and then extrapolate love’s arrow. It won’t point to the end of your quest, but it may suggest your next step. Risk that step. Then another. Three steps and you won’t look back.
You can’t know where your quest will take you, but as you go forward, the bridge that connects your old and emergent selves will rise out of the mist, like a developing Polaroid, and come into sharp focus. Not only you, but others, too, will recognize and acknowledge your new vocation.
The price you have to pay for the vitality and joys of the questing life is uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes the certainty of multiple failures. As Samuel Beckett says, “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” And then, fail better still, until, little by little, you come up with something you want to share with others. As it happens, that’s enough.