Go ahead. Tell me all you really want is…a life spent in the furious pursuit of…buying stuff you don’t want with money you don’t have by doing jobs you can’t stand to impress people you don’t like to fit in instead of stand out…just so you don’t have to remember, even for a nanosecond, there’s a truer reason you are here. To live a life that matters.
Sure. You can tell yourself that’s all there is to life. But nobody’s going to believe you. Even you.
And so to begin unearthing a few clues about a life that amounts to more than the soul-crushing futility of all the above, allow me to ask you: quick — what’s your favorite buzzword of the last year? And by favorite buzzword, I mean “what makes your skin crawl and stomach churn”? “Big data”? “Millennials”? The “sharing economy”? “Wearables”? “Leaning in”?
In 1975, R.D. Rosen coined the term “psychobabble”—to refer to popular but often empty pseudo-psychological nostrums, which let people replace insight about their inner lives with something like McWisdom. And today, we might speak of what you might call babble overload…babble about babble...internet-babble about…about techno-babble…about leadership-babble…about econo-babble….about psychobabble…on and on and on…in a vast, endless echo chamber. We’re drowning in an ocean of sleek, streamlined concepts—neatly wrapped in glittering, alluring packages…which give us easy, comforting answers……to precisely the wrong questions. And so we often fail to ask the right ones…the questions that truly matter. Why are we really here? What’s the point? Are we doing great things? Are we living worthy lives?
You probably wouldn’t plan your wedding using Tinder. And so you probably shouldn’t try to find a life that matters in questions that don’t. Therefore. I’d like to rebel against babble about babble about babble. And get back to the basics. The simple, timeless, questions that count. So here, in the spirit of defiance, for the renegades, rebels, and heretics, are my three questions to ask yourself this year, and in the years to come.
Are you doing your best? Being a great leader — or a great person — requires more than mindlessly obeying the blandishments of a sea of babble. What does it require? I’ll put it simply, because living it is anything but simple. It requires suffering, sacrificing, dreaming, falling, rising, grieving, hoping, loving. It means not just having the most that you can have. But being the best that you can be.
Is this the best that I can do? The best. It’s a slippery notion. Or is it? Shall we “debate” it endlessly, just as we “debate” torture, assassination, civil rights, and democracy? Maybe, just maybe, we overthink it — and lose ourselves in needlessly attempting to prove analyzing what even six years olds know to be self-evidently true: the best is simply that which elevates people into the lives they should live. Let me give you a few examples. Michael Porter’s Social Progress Index assesses how economies are flourishing in human terms — not just “growing” in material ones. Malala Yusufzai was a schoolgirl who stood up to extremists and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Will Pooley is the nurse who contracted Ebola, conquered it…and went back to Sierra Leone to fight it again. That is what it means to do your best.
The best is not proud; it is humble; the best is not what is pleasing; it is challenging; the best is not what is selfish; it is going beyond the self. And for those reasons, the best is not easy; it is perilous; the best is not definite; it is uncertain; it is not what is triumphant; it is what is worthy. The great question we must ask every day is this: what are the best things that we can do with our lives, our moments, and our dreams? And to answer it, we must remember: they are things that make the world a truly better place. For it is only in the struggle to do our best that our insignificant, improbable lives discover meaning.
Is your best any good? The best is not just the most, the most popular, the most rewarded, or the most competitive. Not simply the one that wins you the most hearts, likes, dollars, fans, followers, toys. It is that which betters the world around one to the greatest degree. When you can, after struggle, adversity, and plenty of raised eyebrows — for doing your best is never merely doing what is expected, popular, or easy, but what is dangerous, impossible, and maybe even a little bit crazy — answer it affirmatively, you’re beginning. To build a great institution. To become a leader. To be yourself. You’re learning the most difficult — but greatest — art of all: the art of living a life that matters.
Babble, through the ages, usually says much the same thing. It tells us to put ourselves first — without enlightening us that there are many selves we may become; and not all are equally worthy. It tells us to put the prize first — without enlightening us that are many kinds prizes we may enjoy; and not all are equally valuable. We may, as leaders and institutions, win “market share”, quarterly profit, or a rising stock price…bonuses, toys, McMansions. But if these come at the cost of our minds, bodies, heart, and souls — our purpose, our passion, and our prosperity — then what are they truly worth? Just because we are being “rewarded” does not mean that the rewards are worth winning. And so. Your best is not merely what wins accolades, rewards, prizes, or likes. Your best is what betters the world. What elevates, expands, and illuminates life.
So the question is this. Is your best any good? How good is it? Does it cause people to turn into lurching zombies…or does it make them dream, wonder, imagine, create, rebel, dare, hope, love? Does it spark the flame that we call life—or does it extinguish it?
What’s the worst in your best? No human action is pure. No human heart is unblemished. And no human life is perfect. And so to live a life that matters, you must gain an intimate understanding of the totality of the consequences of your actions and intentions. Every thought, every feeling, every action has two sides; which make a whole. And it is the recognition of the whole that charts the path to awareness, consciousness, expansion, and growth. Only seeing the whole will make you whole.
Life isn’t as simple as babble makes it out to be. No; nice people don’t finish first. A guilt-free life is also a deeply selfish life; and thus a perfectly meaningless one. “Being yourself”, if you don’t have a self worth being, is simply a path to irresponsibility, loneliness, and despair. The miracle of love is never merely the animal logic of attraction. And so on. Winning (or losing) does not mean you’re doing something worth doing. A “brand” is not a higher purpose. And so on.
So what’s the bad in your good? Perhaps you hurt the people that love you when you devoted yourself to your world-changing startup, book, film, idea. Perhaps your world-changing startup crashed and burned and you took it out on the people you love. Perhaps you settled for a comfortable, safe career, and you never launched the world-changing startup in the first place.
No. The point isn’t to blame, to punish, or to regret. It’s to understand, witness, recognize…appreciate. So that the next time around, you balance the scales of effort and consequence more justly. So the burdens fall on the strongest shoulders, and the harvests are reaped by the hungriest. There—and only there—will you learn to replace regret with happiness, remorse with meaning, and futility with purpose. And you might, experience, at last, in your secret heart, the worth of life. It is in that constant struggle, that ceaseless quest, that you will find the greatest gift of all.
You. As you were meant to be.
These are simple questions. Perhaps the simplest of all. And yet. No one can teach you how to answer them. There are no textbooks, formulas, or theorems that hold their secrets. Sorry. You’ll have to use intuition, guesswork, passion, and courage. You’ll have to feel your way to your answers to them with your heart, live them with your moments, spark them in your spirit, and touch them with your hands. You’ll be unsure, afraid, expectant…breathless, hopeful, exhilarated. You’ll suffer as you answer them; and in every answer you’ll find both joy and sorrow. And so. Maybe, just maybe, if you’re lucky. Meaning will flood you. Purpose will sear you. Everything will look a little brighter, richer, truer. You’ll be a little bit more alive.
And that is the greatest miracle there is. For it is the only one there needs to be.