I’m very task-oriented, so in high school, I parsed out my career needs into tasks:
1. Find a career you like.
1a. Will you make enough money to survive?
2. Make a plan to get into that field
3. Climb up in that field until you’ve reached the pinnacle
3a. Can you strike a good “work/life” balance?
4. Be happy.
It’s a caricature, but it’s also the basic outline that many middle-class teenagers know. Recently, though, I’ve added a key element that I’ve thought about but never dared to add to the list:
What does this mean to you?
It starts out somewhat shallow — something maybe about helping people or creating beauty or doing something you love. But quickly it challenges your beliefs about the world. Finding meaning in any action, especially in the quiet comfort or your bedroom, can be difficult. Most of us spend a third of our lives in some type of job, and doing these actions simply because it’s what we do is, well, sad. There needs to be meaning for there to be any chance at happiness — at least for me. No matter how many philosophers weight in on the idea (and many have tried), everyone gets there on their own.
I’m lucky enough that I don’t wake up every day thinking about how to survive. But for so many of us, that means we wake up each morning and perform some hollow task that makes the world go round in just the way some powerful person planned for it to spin, because we’re still biologically programmed to believe it’s part of our survival — that we do our every day tasks so that we may live. But there’s a friction between that and our knowledge that, even if we stopped doing what we are doing, we won’t die. We are still conditioned to survive, yet most of us have nothing to survive from.
So I find there are three types of people in the world (as far as this is concerned):
1. Those who don’t think about meaning in their lives, and are in what is essentially The Matrix.
2. Those who understand this — and have found meaning in what they do.
3. Those who understand this — but have not found meaning, or can’t work their mind around it.
A lot of homeless people I meet are in that third category. They are very in-tune with the world, but it’s overwhelming to lack meaning beyond basic survival. Because of this, I’ve waded between No. 1 and No. 2 — too afraid that if I push too hard into the second category, the momentum will push me into the third.