Do you remember that dancing game at the arcade? The one where you had to hit different flashing arrows?
Left foot here, right foot there. The more arrows you hit, the more points you get. You won by hitting all the arrows without making any mistakes.
That's a little bit what my life has been like.
I studied for the last five years - tax, accounting, and law. Five years, two degrees, a bunch of A's, and an invite to the honours society.
If studying was like dancing, I was a pretty good dancer. Left foot here, right foot there - moving smoothly and progressing steadily - focused on nothing but the next arrow.
I looked up near the end and realised that I had no idea why I was playing. No idea why I was blindly following the arrows. I'd taken no time to think about whether I liked dancing, or to look at the other games on offer.
A few months and a lot of self-reflection later, it turns out I'm not a big dancing guy. Once I realised that I didn't want to be stuck in an endless loop of arrow to arrow, the decision to stop was easy.
Actually stopping - abandoning everything I'd done in my adult life - not so easy.
Here's why I did it.
I don't know if there's a correlation, but the happiest people I know love what they do.
Not "My job is cool, I don't mind doing it all day." Rather, "Holy shit, I can't believe I get paid to do this!"
As a 23-year-old in search of happiness and fulfilment, those people seemed like a good place to start.
A long human life is ~750,000 hours. Our childhood takes up ~175,000 hours, and the stuff which you need to do to stay alive - eat, sleep, exercise - takes up another 325,000 hours.
We're left with 250,000 hours.
Our career is responsible for 20% to 60% of those remaining hours.
It's a no-brainer to be very deliberate about picking a career. If you spend 60% of your free time doing something, it’s important that you enjoy it. Life will be miserable if you don’t.
If I woke up each morning dreading the day ahead, I'd lose something inside of me. It'd kill a little more of me each day. That's why I was prepared to abandon everything.
I wasn't prepared to give up on living a life of purpose, at the age of 23.
I'm sure many of you have asked yourself, "Is this what I want to spend the rest of my life doing? Is this really all life has to offer?"
These are important questions to ask. It's easy to find yourself doing something which makes you feel as if you're wasting your potential. These questions are the first step in avoiding that.
It ties in with an idea from ‘The Happiness Advantage’:
“Most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: if you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. The problem is, ... this formula is backwards. Success does not beget happiness.”
That's the exact formula I followed when I was a naïve 17-year-old trying to decide what to do with my life. Success, and the money that comes with it, was the name of the game.
Don't get me wrong, money is important and I aspire to be wealthy. It improves your health, education and quality of life. Those things aren't about happiness though, they're about ease of life. We use money as a proxy for happiness, but it doesn't make us happy, it makes our lives easier.
Happiness is about being with people you love, and doing the things you love. It's more important than money, yet we optimise our careers for money, instead of happiness.
By working as an attorney for the next 40 years, I would have money, but I wouldn’t be happy. I think that's a terrible way to approach life.
Reason #1: Time is limited. I won't waste mine doing something which makes me miserable.
MAKING THINGS BETTER
We all have the desire to achieve something bigger in life. It’s Maslow’s self-actualisation theory - the desire to achieve our full personal potential.
For me, I'm not certain what that is yet. The world is fast-paced and full of surprises. It's ignorant of me to think that I could predict it.
One thing I am certain of is that it isn't going to come with law. It’s not because the legal field doesn't do important work. It’s because whenever I studied, did an assignment, or attended a lecture, I spent half the time convincing myself that it was bearable. You can't do important work like that.
Important work makes things better than they currently are. It might be building the next Google, or it might be leaving your children with lessons to guide them through life. It's anything that you do because you believe it'll make the world around you a little bit better.
'Better' strikes a nerve. It implies that what we currently have is broken, and fixing it means making changes. It's on us to make those changes. That responsibility is frightening, but it doesn't mean we can avoid it.
Everything that we use and continue to use, is possible because somebody decided to build it. In a few decades, it'll be a question of whether or not you've contributed to building. I know how I'd like to answer.
We should strive to make things better - to do important work. It's the one thing we leave to the world when we die - who wouldn’t want it to be remarkable?
Reason number 2: The world needs people to keep building it. Why not me?
NO LONGER A DANCER
Risk and I aren't friends. I don't like roller coasters, I'm afraid of heights, I love rules, and I put my money in trusts.
That's why radical changes frightened me. Doing anything outside of the norm felt risky.
But it's not as frightening as I thought it would be - in fact, it's liberating.
While it's early in the dance, it's one that I'm happy to be a part of. It's one where I get to be the choreographer, instead of the dancer being told which step to take next.
If there's anything you take from reading this essay, I hope it's this:
- Time is limited. Don't waste it living someone else's life.
- Follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.