Of course we've been watching the Olympics this week--watching and enjoying the competition. It brings to mind, however, something I've been thinking about for some time, something that was touched on at the Blissdom conference which now rises to the surface as a post.
Kevin Carroll was the opening keynote speaker and held his audience captive with the story of his nomadic childhood, kept from education and stability by a mother who was constantly on the run. Despite these disadvantages, he eventually rose through the military, professional sports and a life overseas to be a spokesman for Nike and is now an inspirational speaker who travels the world talking about importance of play and loving what you do.
As you listen to him you can't help but feel his enthusiasm. He's someone who is genuine and warm, full of life and eager to share his enthusiasm with others. But . . . and there's always a but isn't there? I have been thinking about how consistently we're fed this message, how beautifully and perfectly it's packaged and presented but yet how hollow it can be.
Mr. Carroll is what you'd call a success story and I'm thrilled for him but no matter how many times I hear the words "Find what you love then do it" or "Follow your dreams" I have to remember that it's a sound bite just like any other slogan from an inspirational speaker. This is going to sound harsh and cruel but at what point did we as a society decide that life was all about loving every minute? About feeling joy and contentment about your job? Where did we decide that the greatest goal we should have is to have a career that fulfills our every need?
The truth is--and again, pardon my bleakness here--life is not about fun. Sure it can be lots of fun, don't get me wrong, and I enjoy my life but the majority of it is work, hard work. Work that makes you sweat and grunt and I don't recall seeing any kind of a contract that said that we'll achieve success if only we'll find our passion then follow it.
Let's Be Realistic
As Mr. Carroll happily spoke about the necessity to find what you love and then do it I couldn't help but think of all the people he left behind in the projects. He stood before us as a success story but surely there were others who had dreams just as great as his and didn't get the same breaks? I just can't believe he was the only worthy survivor.
While I would love to have everyone in a job that makes them jump out of bed each morning in eager anticipation the fact of the matter is that most of us will never have that kind of an experience. We will work because we need to to survive, we will work because we have people who depend on us, we work because we need to have something to do. Most people will never have jobs that bring them fame or fortune or thrills but then is that really so wrong? Should I apologize for pulling back the curtain and talking about such a depressing issue when it's true?
Having a job you love is a great thing but, quite frankly, it's not the norm. Look at the multitudes of humanity and tell me that all those farmers, serfs, monks, factory works, salesmen, store clerks, laborers or middle management executives had the luxury of following their dreams or doing exactly what they loved. We do ourselves a huge disservice to expect that the only job worth having is one that is fun. If what we do is honest and sustains us is it any less important or valuable than a job that brings fame and fortune?
Merit v. Luck
You may think I'm cynical but what has got me thinking is the misconception that if only you want something badly enough you can get it. Every evening newscasters interview the winning team which says, "We just wanted it more and so we did it."
What?? I doubt that if you went to the other team's locker room and asked them if they'd "wanted it" too they'd say, "Well, not really. We only kind of wanted it and that was why we lost."
The Olympics are full of stories about children who once drew pictures of themselves winning medals and are now standing on the podium with their medals around their necks. Surely the pictures prove that they had bigger dreams than the rest of us, right? Not that they had parents who were willing to do pretty much anything to allow their children to play a particular sports full time from the age of five and that there were hundreds of other parents who did the same thing but aren't hanging out in Vancouver this week. They must have wanted it more. Definitely.
We're a society that has become accustomed to thinking that whatever we want we deserve--whether it's houses, vacations, prestige or a career. The truth is, having a job is a privilege and if you happen to be so lucky as to enjoy what you do then you're twice blessed. It's doubtful that you wanted it more or followed your dream when the next guy didn't, it's most likely that you were in the right place at the right time, having worked hard to prepare yourself to take advantage of the opportunity when it came. You deserve some credit for being wise and prepared and for working at it--maybe even sacrificing more than another guy--but you also have to tip your hat to luck.
Why is this important to understand? Well, first it's important because if we go around thinking we need to follow our dreams all the time we end up unhappy and dissatisfied with our lives. I've seen mothers deal with this issue in raising their children. Going into motherhood thinking that it's there to fulfill your dreams and that you'll spend your time staring in rapture at your sleeping child's cherubic face just sends you running for Valium the first time the baby won't stop crying from colic and the toddler gets sick in the night and leaves you cleaning the hall carpet. You wonder what's wrong and why you're not infinitely happy when it would take the patience of Job not to break down in tears.
Life actually is wonderful and amazing, but you don't have to have any amazing dreams to discover this. Just realizing that life is work--and that the work can be satisfying as well as trying--can be the difference between being content and happy and chaffing at your lot in life.
The book Good to Great examines why some companies succeed and others fail and it talks about prisoners of war. Those who were realistic in their expectations for getting home--that it might never happen--were more likely to get through the experience. Those who were unrealistically optimistic about their chances for rescue only ended up succumbing to disappointment while those who recognized that they may never be rescued but they had to do whatever it took to get through anyway became stronger from the experience and survived.
The moral of the story? Optimism and hope can be good things and I encourage cultivating them but when they're channeled into unrealistic expectations they cross the line into vain ambitions and can betray you.
The other problem with focusing too much on following your dreams is the cost. If your life is focused on making it big you're likely to notice causalities along the way as you sacrifice responsibilities on the altar of self-indulgence.
I sit here with the Olympics droning in the background while one of China's coaches speaks of his devotion to his work. He loves it, it's been his life for more than two decades. So much so that he's been gone from his family for twenty years, missed the birth and growth of his son and has given everything to his job. And this is good? Perhaps one might be persuaded that it's acceptable given his success but still . . . success at all costs? I wonder how his wife feels about the last twenty years. Thank goodness for television or his son might not even know what his father looks like.
We admire those who have been successful and prominent in their fields and while the dedication and work that it takes to be at the top is admirable I don't know that I've ever seen anyone in a hugely successful position that isn't unbalanced. To have the kind of focus that breeds success usually requires the elimination of all other distractions be it marriage, family, spirituality, physical fitness, education, whatever doesn't fit in with the focus of study. It's as if they've spent so much time exercising only one muscle in their body into perfection that all the others have grown weak and atrophied.
Going after something with all your heart, following your dreams, whatever you want to call it isn't wrong per se--all it means is that you darn well better be sure of what your real dream is before you go after it. Is your dream to be the best in your profession? To have a job that gets you your fifteen minutes of fame? Travel the world experiencing everything it has to offer? Or are the relationships you build more important than your empires?
We find ourselves in the age of mid-life crises because we don't feel fulfilled. Because everyone around us is telling us that by forty-five we really should have achieved quite a bit of greatness and prestige, that our dreams should have been gratified. Sometimes we even look around at our relationships and wonder why they aren't as thrilling as the movies have been telling us they should be and we become dissatisfied with those as well. The only way to avoid this trap is by gauging your success on what really matters: are you a good person? Are you a good son/daughter/wife/husband/sibling? Have you made a difference for good in the world around you? Have you worked hard? Or have you spent life trying to find ways play and have fun?
So thank you Mr. Carroll for a delightful and fun half hour. I thought your speech was entertaining and fun and I admired your excitement and achievements but please don't think I'm awful if I simply say, "Yes, of course it all sounds wonderful to 'follow your dreams,' but . . . ."
Instead I'm going to close with a fabulous quote from journalist Jenkin Lloyd Jones that, while not as emotionally charged or pleasant to contemplate, is a much wiser way to live your life:
Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he's been robbed. The fact is that most putts don't drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just ordinary people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. . . .Follow your dreams if you must, just make sure those dreams are on the right track.
Life is like an old-time rail journey--delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.
Sponsored by Annette Lyon, whose new novel Band of Sisters is now in print.