After writing the previous draft, which was (mostly) about not sacrificing our self and relationships for our work, it only made sense to write about how we always seem to prepare to live our lives, but we never end up actually living it.
When I asked my niece (early teen) what she planned to do after she graduates high school, her matter-of-fact response was she wants to make x money in y years. I was stunned and somewhat disgusted with her answer because I was expecting her to talk about her interests and passions and how she would contribute to the world using her strengths. There is nothing wrong with making money, but we forget that it’s a result and not something that fundamentally drives us. I don’t blame her entirely for that response simply because we learn this partly from parents and from schools to seek out comfort, stability, and security in our lives so we can finally “settle” (whatever that means), and maybe retire one day far out in the future and finally live the life we want. We also forget that every time we choose safety, we reinforce fear. There is no such thing as “job security”, regardless of who you work for (including yourself). Besides, the goal of life isn’t to seek comfort, but that’s an entirely different conversation altogether.
Here’s the thing. We spend years going to school and college to get secure jobs in the real world. For instance, we don’t hesitate for a moment when deciding to give away two years of our life to do that MBA at an Ivy League school (which is overrated, obsolete, and irrelevant anyway) and be indebted for the next however-many years of our lives trying to repay it all back. The reason we want to do that MBA in the first place is so we can demand a higher salary in the job market (only to spend longer hours at work). Then, we spend years climbing the corporate ladder to make partner at a firm only to be unhappy with ourselves later on. Then we ask ourselves what it was all for and are hard-pressed to find an answer. It is not uncommon to see otherwise “successful” executives be dissatisfied with their lives.
It is no coincidence that these people eventually ask themselves if there is indeed more to life. They find out the hard way that “financial success” isn’t all that it’s touted to be and find themselves devoid of any happiness and fulfillment. They may even lack a sense of purpose because they are focused on the What, but never gained a true understanding of their Why. This is when we realize we have been living a life based on other peoples’ metrics and based on society’s conditioning about success without ever questioning things for our own values. This might then lead us on a quest toward spirituality and to seek meaning and fulfillment in life. It is then we shift our focus from ourselves to others. Then we ask ourselves the inevitable question, which is: what are we doing for others?
This is not unlike Gautama Buddha’s life story, who “had it all” to begin with (he didn’t have to learn things the hard way like we do), but gave it all up to lead an ascetic life to pursue meaning and fulfillment and ultimately to know and understand himself in his eventual path to enlightenment.
The thing is we postpone our life today in the false hope of living in some arbitrary future that we don’t even know exists. We don’t know if we will wake up tomorrow morning, let alone at 40 when we want to retire and live the “high life”. By the time we realize we were climbing the wrong ladder (or if that ladder was leaning against the wrong side to begin with), we will have wasted precious years of our lives only to regret much later.
We suffer from the “I’ll be happy when…” syndrome. We falsely believe external things like having a better job, house, etc. will make us happy and fulfilled. There is nothing wrong with having those things, but thinking those things alone will bring you eternal happiness is simply delusional.
We are quite adept at preparing how to live, but we aren’t good at living our lives at all. Our formal education teaches us how to make a living, but never teaches us how to live. We have no problem working hard for years to get the material things in life (only to realize years later it’s not what we truly wanted), but we don’t know what it means to be alive and to live in the present moment. We always find ourselves worrying about the past (which we can’t do anything about) or getting anxious about the future (which hasn’t arrived yet). We spend years of our precious life lusting for things when we very well know we can’t take it all with us when we leave this world. We make money the goal of our lives when it is simply fuel to sustain it. Put simply, we spend our life preparing for life. I hope you see the paradox here.
Given all that, what can (and should) we do to start living in the present and avoid postponing our lives for the future? Here are some ideas for living today as opposed to preparing to live.
First of all, stop living your life in some arbitrary future you don’t even know you’ll be a part of. Start living in the present. All we have is right now and this moment. Be at peace with yourself. Learn from your past, but don’t dwell on it. Stop worrying about the future, because it hasn’t arrived yet. Stop worrying about things you can’t control and start focusing on things you can. Above all, never sacrifice one area of your life (school/work) at the cost of other areas (such as yourself and your relationships). You need to pay attention to all three areas of your life — self, work, and relationships. Learn from your past, live in the present, and prepare for the future. That starts today!
Stop pursuing formal education as a way to get something or to be somewhere in life, but seek true learning instead and use that to contribute to the world. We all have our interests and skills that we can use for the greater good of mankind. Learn for the sake of learning things and not because it prepares you for something in the future. Real education is not preparation for life; it is life itself and it never stops.
You don’t even have to go to school now. You can learn virtually anything online. What’s missing, however, is the desire/interest and aligning that desire with something bigger than ourselves. That’s what we truly need. If you do end up going to school, there are some things you will naturally gravitate toward while there are other subjects you might not feel so strongly about, and that’s okay. This is not a race to being an “all-rounder”, but getting exposure to a variety of things early on so you can find a few things that interest you. After you find your interests, you can make a significant contribution by pursuing those things with all your heart. Remember, we need to amplify our strengths rather than fix our weaknesses.
Start with the end in mind. Most of us don’t know what we want in life. We have vague goals of making “more” money or getting a “better” job, but we have never taken the time to find out what we truly want. We are so fixated on ourselves and our own interests that we lack a (higher) purpose greater than ourselves, which is what ultimately drives us. If you don’t have a strong Why, it won’t matter What you do because your Why will manifest itself in the things you do. Ask yourself what you are doing for others, and commit to something greater than yourself.
Stop pursuing “success” and define your own success metrics. Never make decisions based on money. Be grateful for what (and who) you have in your life so you can be happy now while doing the work. That way, even if you don’t end up becoming “successful”, at least you’ll still be happy. Remember, happiness is a choice we make every day, not some destination we arrive at in the future. Stop seeking out the externals in your life. There is nothing to achieve because there is nothing to prove to anyone.
Never be afraid to question the status quo. Just because others have historically done things a certain way isn’t a good enough reason for you to keep doing them that way. Don’t be afraid to question things. For instance, there is nothing wrong with doing an MBA or a PhD if you know what that entails and why you want to do it. Make an intentional choice and decide if that’s something you want to do.
Stop seeking comfort by way of job security or stability. The goal of life isn’t to seek comfort, but to make discomfort your true compass. That is the only way to grow. You cannot be comfortable and grow at the same time. It doesn’t work that way. You have to push yourself.
One of the underlying assumptions behind preparing to live a life in some future that we don’t even know exists is that at some point we will retire from our work so we can then do the things we truly want to do. But we forget that we are wired to make ourselves useful for others. If we stop using our faculties at some point, they might atrophy, which is the last thing we want. There is no such thing as a “true retirement”. You don’t retire from life. You live it the best you can until your last breath.
It’s high time we stop preparing to live our lives and start living them. Stop dwelling on the past and stop worrying about the future because all you have is today. Do things not because it prepares you for some uncertain future, but do them because that’s what you want to do today. Doing the work is the reward in itself. We owe it to ourselves to use our interests and strengths to make the world a better place.