Bucket Lists, Careers, and The Meaning of Life: Why Do You Do What You Do?

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????What’s on Your Bucket List?

Recently, a friend asked me what’s on my bucket list. He began to name some things on his—mostly travel to various places. I couldn’t think of a place I need to see in my lifetime, though there are a few places I’d like to go. Go or not, I’ll be happy.

Or not.

I no longer have a specific career goal on my bucket list either. Over the last few decades, I wanted to be a noted psychologist, a bestselling novelist, and a nutritionist. I imagined changing people’s lives with my insights and ability to motivate my clients to live a healthy lifestyle.

A more recent career goal (before I became a freelancer writer), was to be an awesome teacher to a special population of kids I really understood. Let’s just say politics got in the way of that goal.

But like I said, I no longer dream of accomplishing a specific career-related goal. I now see how all of these pursuits fit together.

There are a lot of things I’d like to learn—or relearn—before I leave this planet. I’d like to sing again, play tennis again, and I’ve always wanted to learn to draw. I have to learn about technology and digital publishing (but none of that is on my bucket list).

In fact, I’ll be fine if I accomplish any of these things or none of them, as long as I stay engaged in something.

A simple goal: Finding the meaning of life

So what is on my bucket list? What do I need in order to feel that my life has been worthwhile?

Well, it’s simple. I need to know—or believe, because we never really know anything, do we?—that my life has had meaning and that I’ve somehow made a positive difference. Isn’t that what most of us want.

Can I ever know for sure that my life means something? Maybe not. It may have to be enough to just believe. In many ways, I have yoga thank for knowing what’s enough. Yoga has taught me to be myself and to use my gifts without attachment to the outcome of my efforts.

It’s hard though. I won’t lie.

Making a difference

I suppose it’s obvious for some people that they’ve made a difference in the world, and it must feel good to know this. Respected doctors, best-selling authors, Noble Peace Prize winners and the like get some kind of tangible feedback and proof that their lives have meant something.

Do I need to be famous or remembered in history books? Of course not. Does it matter much that I may not be personally remembered by many once I’m gone? Not really, though it would be nice. But I do want to believe I made a small difference somehow. Because a small difference can have a huge impact. It can be part of a whole movement toward the development of good. I know in my heart that this is true, though I can’t point to any scientific evidence to support my hunch.

Your Career is Not What You Do, But Why and How You Do It

The other day in yoga class, my teacher, who always seems to know exactly what I need to hear, read a passage from Marianne Williamson’s bestseller, A Return to Love.  The book is a classic for good reason. It’s simple and brilliantly poetic. It’s about love.

The passage my yoga teacher read was about, of all things, careers. How did she know I’d been wondering about the direction of mine?

My friend who asked me the bucket list question is struggling with a similar problem. He’s at a career crossroad himself. The career thing is very different for him than it is for me in some ways. But in others it’s not. We both want to make a difference.

How to Make a Difference

How can we make a difference in such a complicated society? We have so many choices. On the other hand, as we explore each possibility, we often find our choices are, in reality, remarkably limited. They may lead us down dead end roads until we hit a wall.

And then what?

There is fierce competition for jobs, whether one is a corporate executive or a freelancer looking for her next gig. There is so much that seems irrelevant and pointless when it comes to using our gifts. Are we “qualified,” are we “certified,” do we have experience in a very specific field we know we can succeed in?

Simply using our gifts is not always enough—because of the competition, the bills, the tax laws, the stock market, and information overload. Every day my inbox is bombarded with the latest “secret” for finding clients and well-paying writing gigs. Most of them are regurgitations of the ones I received the week before. At this point in my career, few of them are useful.

But I shift through them all to find that needle in the haystack. Because there still needles to find.

My point (I do have one)

When I forget why I do what I do, I am tempted to give up. I need to remember to serve, and my way of serving is helping people communicate what they do (or know).

We all have gifts. If we use them well, we can craft a meaningful career, though it may not resemble what the textbooks say a career is supposed to look like. In other words, we don’t all choose a profession, get an entry level position in that field, and then slowly but steadily climb to the top until we are making a comfortable living, then retire and look back with satisfaction on how seamlessly our working years progressed. For many of us, this career thing is a mish-mash mess.

Enter the simply brilliant perspective of Marianne Williamson. As a writer, I’m in awe of her brilliant ability to cut through to the point and say it with beautiful simplicity. “Success,” says Williamson, “means going to sleep at night knowing our talents and abilities were used in a way that served others.”

Williamson goes on to say that what we do is not as important as how (or why) we do it. We should do whatever we do kindly. The key to success is to realize how we are connected—that the purpose of our work lives is not different from the purpose of the rest of our lives. It’s all to spread love.

Does Your Work Spread Love?

For some, it’s a stretch to see one’s job as work that spreads love. And some work does not (in which case the doer may want to consider a change). But every job worth doing has the potential to be done with love. Even if your job is to sell used cars—or carpets—you can do it with love. I mention carpets because I once knew a salesman who was joyfully helping people pick out carpets well into his eighties. That kind of thing can be inspiring.

Whatever you do, you can be kind, honest, and friendly while you do it, and your goal can be both making a profit and helping someone else, whether that person is a customer, client, or coworker. If you are doing your work solely for the profit, you may miss a lot of opportunities spread love. That is, you may miss your purpose.

My goal as an editor and writer is to help people communicate. I enjoy writing about others and helping them polish their work as much as I enjoy crafting my own stories. For the most part, I work in a niche that is easily about love—well-being—but it’s not the only way I use my talents. I’m also a technical editor, and I spend a good amount of time pouring over copy about digital imaging products. How is that about love? Well, the team I work with is a great group of people; for most of us, the work is about supporting each other’s efforts. Our collective goal is to communicate an accurate message.

Before I launched myself as a freelance writer and editor, I was a teacher, an administrative assistant, a nutritionist at an upscale gym, a financial aid counselor, and a research editor. Yes, I’ve had many jobs. In Return to Love, Marianne Williamson says the same of her life.

Marianne also says she’s had many jobs but only one career. I say the same.

The reason I’ve had many jobs (and clients) is I’m continually tweaking my work life to align with purpose. I’m looking for the best way to use my gifts to do what I came here to do—what we all came her to do—spread love and make a difference, no matter how small that difference seems.

If I can do that, I don’t need a bucket list.

 

What Are You Supposed to Be? (Hint: There May Not Be a Word for It)

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In “The Great Work of Your Life” – a book about dharma, author Stephen Cope explains that Walt Whitman was 47 years old when he found the “true calling” he had been preparing for all his life. When I first read that, a spark of hope went through me. Until that moment, I’d thought I was hopelessly past the age at which such a thing could happen. And here’s the real surprise. Whitman’s calling was not writing; it was nursing!

It can take a lifetime.

When I read Cope’s book a few years ago, I’d begun to wonder if all the seemingly disconnected wanderings from “calling” to “calling” that I’d been through in my own life were actually leading me to something specific – something that I could call my dharma. I hoped they were and that the “something” would make clear to me why my path was so disjointed and convoluted. I wanted – and still want – to cement the connection between writing, teaching, psychology and nutrition – the disciplines I’ve studied and worked in without ever really crystalizing a specific goal. I can see that there’s a connection. I’m just not sure what to name it or whether it even has a name at all.

Don’t do what you’re not supposed to do.

Surely I’m not the only person on a path that often doesn’t seem to make sense. I’m not sure I know what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I’m not supposed to do. I usually figure that out shortly after I start doing a particular thing – like studying to be a dietitian instead of a holistic nutritionist or taking a job as a financial aid representative when I really want to be a student counselor. But I continue to hope that all of those starts and detours have happened for a reason.

This very topic came up the other day in a yoga class, of course (funny, how that works). The teacher actually said out loud (though maybe not in these exact words) that the best way to figure out what you’re supposed to do is to figure out what you’re not supposed to do. So there you have it.

I’m a writer.

I’m not a physicist (and have never even considered the possibility that I should be). I’m no longer a financial aid representative, and I now know that I’m not meant to be a clinical dietitian. What I am supposed to be is a writer.

The written word has been a part of my life (and my dharma) for a very long time. The kind of writer (and editor) I am now has been shaped by all the things I’ve done or attempted to do before – including certain types of writing. In college, I wrote fiction. Just after that, I did a lot of journal writing that in an odd, Zen-like way, I destroyed in the early 2000’s in order to detach from the stories they told. I wrote journal entries as if I was writing fiction. More recently my writing ranges from technical to creative nonfiction.

No doubt there’s a reason it took me almost 20 years to return to writing after teaching and flirting with the idea of becoming a psychologist and then a nutritionist. I’ve written a lot about psychology and nutrition (and, of course yoga) in the last ten years. And while there may not be a formal title for what I am, I’m pretty sure that, for now at least, it is what I’m supposed to be.

What about you?

Do you know what you’re supposed to be? Have you found your dharma, and if you have, does it have a name? If you’re still not sure despite years of searching, remember this (which I’m paraphrasing from a quote I saw posted on Facebook recently): It takes a seedling many years to become a mighty oak. Loosely translated: Dharma is a journey, not a destination.

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