I believe there are three ways to live life: working to live, living to work, and living to make a difference.
There are those who simply work to live and are caught up in the “daily grind”. It’s possible they could be living hand-to-mouth. Most of them never end up going beyond the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They work simply so they can pay their bills and, somewhat ironically, enjoy the occasional break from that work.
Then there are those who live to work (such as some of my friends). These are some of the “successful” people in the eyes of the world. They may have a big house, fancy car, etc. but, for a variety of reasons, are ultimately slaves to their work in one way or another. Some of them are simply working to be happy at some later date when they may have achieved x or y.
They might use the number of hours spent at work—not to be confused with actual hours worked—as a badge of honor. While some of them do enjoy their work (though often working to their detriment), there are those who use work as an escape from their life’s issues for reasons they believe are outside their influence. But they are far from alone in that.
Some of the most “successful” heads of organizations have their lives in disarray. You can’t be successful if you are only successful in one area of your life at the cost of the other areas, such as personal growth—never mind the fact that your relationships are suffering.
Here’s what Gandhi said:
A person cannot do right in one department of life whilst attempting to do wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole.
It’s possible you may in fact be successful in all three areas—doing work you love, increasing your personal growth, and having great relationships—yet you don’t feel successful.
For instance, we may be making lots of money in our business, but to what end and for what purpose? What’s the point of accumulating wealth mindlessly? You still have to give it away in the end, ’cause you can’t take it with you. Why even bother in this pointless pursuit? The thing about the “rat race” is that even if you win it, you are still a rat (or pick a rodent of your choice).
Here’s the thing: No amount of external success can fill that internal void in our lives. This is why some of the most “successful” people yearn for meaning after spending years of their life pursuing fame and/or fortune based on the things they have been conditioned to have by society.
Here’s what Jim Carrey said about success:
I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.
Most people are short-sighted and are playing a finite game. They are unable to look beyond the month, quarter, or year. They find themselves forever seeking status, playing the social hierarchy game, trying to keep up with the Joneses, or simply living to work for work’s sake without any greater purpose. They get so caught up with the material world that they are unable to transcend it.
Put simply, most of us don’t begin with the end in mind. Towards the end of our life, we ask questions:
- Did my life matter at all?
- Was I able to make a difference in some way?
- Will I be missed when I am gone?
Of course, this kind of thinking happens too little too late towards the end of our life, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The question we need to ask ourselves now is, what is it all for? Why are we doing what we are doing? Are we doing these things as an end in itself? Or are they the means to reaching a higher end? If so, what is that higher end?
There are some folks I know in the spiritual community who preach that we should not be limited by our “lower selves”, because we are more spirit than physical matter. They say our bodies are temporary, while the soul is eternal. And while some of them even live their life with this eternal mindset, they do so without any higher cause in mind.
There is nothing wrong with leaning towards a higher self, but even they are in many ways also playing a finite game in their daily lives. For instance, when you talk to some of them about their work, they would respond with, “meh”. To them, it’s just a job they do and nothing more. There is no sense of joy or wonder, let alone having a raison d’être.
The thing is, it’s monotonous to show up at a job day in and day out without any higher purpose. It’s a mistake to think that it’s the work we do that drives us to show up every day.
These folks just happen to work at an uninspiring job, serving clients every day. While they may continuously strive to be better human beings through their weekly spiritual study, they also tend to fall into the category of those simply working to live—but maybe at a slightly elevated level, if you will. I believe they also never end up living to their true potential, which in some ways is ironic, considering their spiritual study.
I have found the third option, “living to make a difference”, is the only one that inspires you to wake up every morning to do work that matters (i.e. in the service of others).
You have a vision of the world you want to create, and you work every day inspired to bring this vision to life. The work you do is only a means to realizing that vision, as it should be. This is what drives you to do your best work every day.
You are no longer motivated by money to simply serve clients/customers. You are thinking way beyond simply having a business, which is nothing but a way to sustain the cause you truly care about. It’s not about you anymore, but what you stand for and the cause you want to bring to life.
In order to live to make a difference, we need to identify with a vision that we want to bring to life. One way to do this is to find a vision by ourselves. You may ask questions to identify that vision:
- What kind of world do you want to live in?
- What do you strongly care about?
- What do you find yourself naturally resisting?
- What is it about the status quo that you would like to change?
- What do you stand for?
Of course, we don’t all have to be visionaries to identify a vision. We can also find someone else’s vision that resonates with us, and we can work towards bringing that to life.
Working towards a vision is akin to reaching for a distant horizon; we may never get there, but we may die trying. In the process, we inspire others to carry forward our cause long after we are gone.
You are doing work that matters, so you work towards bringing your vision to life. You find others who believe what you believe so you can spread the gospel and start a movement.
Let me share an example of someone who found a vision that resonated with him. It’s no secret that former US Vice President Al Gore has been championing the cause for climate change for more than 40 years. He has inspired others to spread the word and take action in not just reducing but reversing the effects of climate change on our beloved blue marble. He has done more than anyone I know for the cause of making our planet sustainable for future generations. In doing so, he’s inspired many people who believe what he believes, and started a movement in the process.
He must have given over a thousand talks around the world educating people about climate change. I think at some point he must have realized he didn’t want others to solely depend on him for bringing this cause to life.
One of the things he did early on (more than 10 years ago) was provide climate change leadership training to those who believed in the cause (i.e. early adopters), who in turn continue the fight alongside him today to spread the word to take action (against those with vested interests) to reverse the effects of climate change on our planet.
Although one could argue that he was among the first to voice his concern against climate change on a global scale, he wasn’t the only one, nor was the movement about him personally. Sure, he received a Nobel Peace Prize doing this work on climate change activism, but it was the cause itself that he dedicated his life to, which inspired people (including Leonardo DiCaprio) to join him in bringing this vision to life.
When you have a cause you want to bring to life, you dedicate your life to it. This is what inspires you to wake up every morning to do work that matters. While the vision you work towards may not come to fruition in your lifetime, you can ensure the movement carries on without you.
Let me close this piece with a personal example. In the last couple of months, I have had a breakthrough. I realized I wasn’t thinking big enough—I wasn’t playing a big enough game, so to speak. I was selling myself way short as a consultant, but I realized it was only one of the things I did to realize my WHY. In other words, it was simply one of the WHATs to my WHY.
Suddenly, it wasn’t about me or my business anymore, but something much bigger than myself. It was about championing this idea of living a less but better life and inspiring other people to do the same. The business part of it was meant to spread the gospel to sustain the movement.
This reminds me of a Walt Disney quote:
We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.
Of course, I later realized that this life philosophy was at the heart of creating a more sustainable planet—something I cared about deeply. Even though I had created a manifesto a year ago for my business, it actually turned out to be a vision of the world I wanted to be in. It wasn’t only something that I simply believed every word of, but also something I wanted to actively dedicate my life towards bringing into reality.
Suddenly, I found a Higher Purpose. I had a reason to wake up every morning: to inspire people to live a meaningful life, so that together we can change the world. One of the ways I do that is encouraging people to live a less but better life, which has far-reaching implications towards having a sustainable planet in every way. I felt a certain responsibility towards this. I realized…if I don’t do this, who will?!
So here’s the thing: We need to think beyond ourselves. We need to live in service of others. We need to find a cause greater than ourselves.
As MLK once said,
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
Once you live with this mindset towards a vision you care about, it’s no longer about you. When that happens, things like pursuing money simply for money’s sake does not interest you anymore. You are now playing a much bigger game with an infinite mindset towards something you deeply care about.
When you live to make a difference, it’s no longer about you but about bringing your vision to life. It’s about finding others who believe in your cause and spreading the word. Then, the work you do simply becomes a means to achieving that higher purpose.