Our nephew Sumner is graduating from the University of Oregon this month, and we’re having dinner in Eugene with him and his girlfriend Laura this Friday night. Like millions of other college graduates around the world, they are both looking for jobs, haven’t yet found jobs, and are anxious about that. Then too, my blog-stats showed me that people have been searching for and landing on my post of a year ago titled ‘The Best Advice For College Graduates’. This morning I woke up, smelled the coffee (and drank it) and realized it might be a good service to reprint that post. Here it is.
What is the most meaningful work you have ever done? How happy did it make you — both then, and now, thinking back on it? Was it the work you had originally planned on doing?
New York Times writer David Brooks points out in his excellent editorial today that some bad advice is being given to this spring’s large crop of college graduates. Mr. Brooks reports that many commencement addresses are reciting the standard-issue United States litany that the college graduates should march to the beat of their own drummer, follow their dreams, find themselves. And doing this, they are told, will yield them a successful, meaningful life.
He doesn’t think so. Neither do I.
Rather, a successful life involves finding problems that need solving — that we then help solve, by working in a relevant job. It typically involves ongoing teamwork, not being a rugged individual who does his or her own thing. Our heroes — from President Obama to people like Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and Rosa Parks (of bus integration fame) were and are people who worked with hundreds of others, all of whom saw problems that needed solving.
Meaningful work and right livelihood is one of the paths to happiness that I emphasize at Diamond-Cut Life (along with relationships, connecting with nature, and entertaining ourselves instead of being passive consumers of entertainment). David Brooks points out that the people we most admire aren’t necessarily the happiest, but the biggest contributors.
Here are some answers I would give myself, off the top of my head, to the question I initially posed on the most meaningful work I’ve done in my life. None of the below were things I did in service to ‘finding myself’, or pursuing pre-conceived dreams I thought would make me happy.
- Counseling late-stage, low-income alcoholics and drug addicts in 1989-1991. Very hard work, but deeply soulful, and done in teamwork with a staff.
- Helping my mother in her end-of-life process earlier this spring. I have never traveled holier ground, nor felt so needed and able to be of service in alleviating suffering. Again, I was part of a team.
- Being a volunteer camp counselor several summers at a Christian camp. Being in nature, doing Ropes Course and hiking with young people, and entertaining ourselves as a group with singing and campfire programs, all in the context of liberal, inclusive Christianity, was both meaningful and wildly fun.
- Writing this blog. 110,000 hits to date, while modest by the standards of many blogs, lets me know that many people are considering my body of thought and practical tips on consuming less while cultivating joy. I see Diamond-Cut Life as a resource that will become increasingly relevant as global warming proceeds, fossil fuels are in shorter supply, and our lives change dramatically, whether or not we want them to.
Paradoxically, all of these did help me find myself, and make me happy — even though I showed up to do for them for other reasons.
As David Brooks entitled his column today on pursuing a successful, meaningful life, “It’s Not About You.” His final sentence: “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.” — In service, I would add.