Happiness is watching Fight Club, reading Nietzsche and thinking about Ecclesiastes
In case you didn’t know, I’m in between jobs.
Largely it was a personal choice. I was employed, but was moving in an imbalanced direction. I took corrective action, but found myself adrift. Personal health is so often contrarian to professional health, isn’t it?
I’ve had the chance to speak to a lot of people during this quieter period of quasi-busyness. We chat about their dreams, my dreams, their lives, my life. We chat about what we hope to be and what we are now. Through most of these conversations, there are themes.
One of them is a restlessness that comes from lives described by the movie “Fight Club” (if you’re not familiar…a source of tremendous insight into masculinity for all of its absurdity, sex and violence):
“I see all of this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowing learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
How people react to this disconnect—this dissonance between intended lives and someone’s current actionable circumstances, gets me thinking a lot about what it is to be happy.
What is happiness? Is it a chemical reaction in the mind, alterable with alcohol and prescribed medications? Is it sexual satisfaction? Is it nothingness…enlightenment? Is it professional achievement? Is it this ‘bucket list’ of stuff people build out?
Is it a job? Is it in having a job? Is it in having the right job? What’s the right job? Money? Relevance? Transcendent purpose?
One of my favorite books of the Hebrew Scriptures is Ecclesiastes. Christians especially get all weirded out by that. “Why Ecclesiastes? It’s so depressing.”
Sure it is—well, really, it is and it isn’t. With the right perspective, it’s tremendously enlightening. My Buddhist friends will completely understand the juxtaposition of futility, suffering and happiness. The rest of you might need a moment.
Have you read Ecclesiastes? It’s fantastic. It’s 12 chapters. You don’t have to read the whole thing, but go take a look at the first bit. And don’t just read the “seasons of life” part that everybody fixates on because of the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds. Get to other parts. See if that stuff doesn’t hit you.
It’s the same stuff Nietzsche talked about thousands of years later (which is strangely apropos, given the parallel Ecclesiastical/Nietzschean idea of Eternal Recurrence).
The author of the book goes through these seasons in his life. He’s a king—thought to be Solomon, said to be one of the wisest persons to have lived. He builds, destroys, acquires, gives away, celebrates, mourns…goes through all of this wrestling with the meaning of life and circumstances, trying to find a meaning behind it.
And he does and doesn’t. He sees that, regardless of what you do with yourself, you’ll die. Regardless of how good of a person you are, you’ll be forgotten. Regardless of what you build and the legacy you leave, it will be squandered by people who come after you, who won’t even know it was you who gave them anything.
However, he’s able to distill down from his tremendous wealth and position a basic set of truths, accessible to all. These truths are independent of wealth or position. They can be gained by anyone. They’re a matter of attitude.
The central truth is this: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil.”
The theme is repeated, with other turns of phrase. Basically, it’s this idea that we have our lot in life…that we are largely powerless to single-handedly alter the course of organizations, nations and the state of the world…that when faced with the enormity of the ocean of life’s challenges—the circumstances of broken humanity at large—we should instead focus on our localized portion of reality, rather than project laments about unrealized idealized outcomes to out-of-reach situations.
Elsewhere Ecclesiastes admonishes that “there is nothing better for people than to be happy and do good while they live.”
So there is an overall purpose to life well lived. It shouldn’t be Hedonism. This is where I do depart from Nietzsche and assert that there is nobility to selflessness and edification of others and that we can induce lasting ripples into the the seeming futility of life. We can enact lasting change through being good people and ushering goodness into the lives of those around us.
But the words “finding satisfaction in their toil” are important—toil, especially.
The author of Ecclesiastes says happiness is found in our attitudes. Moreover, it is up to us to find satisfaction in our work. It is not up to us to necessarily find work that is satisfying.
That’s an important distinction.
When figuring out my next move…what job I should take…where I should live…who I should date…it’s important to recognize the significance of attitude over circumstance.
Better to be a happy janitor than a miserable CEO. Better to enrich and be enriched through the lives of a half-dozen real friends than to amass a shallow one-way relationship with a 1,000 people. I’d rather have someone who would help me move over a dozen fawning well-wishers.
Better to steady my mind and steel my resolve to find satisfaction in my work—my toiling.
Better to find happiness now, rather than wait for it to find me. Because that’s the lie—that we think the world owes us happiness. We wait for it to show up.
Turns out it’s all around.
There’s always never enough time
Ever notice that? Regardless of how much time you might have, there never seems to be enough?
You get off form work Friday—hooray weekend!—poof, it’s Sunday evening and you haven’t really done any of your to-do list items. You get to a period at work when a certain project is about to be complete. Now, things will settle down, you say. But they don’t. Things stay busy.
My married friends will roll their eyes and say, “Oh boy, just you wait until you have kids…think you don’t have any time now? Uh huh.”
And that’s my point. No matter how much time you might have, it is always fleeting and it always doesn’t seem to fit the amount of things we want to do at any given moment.
Nature abhors a vacuum, as we know, and this applies to our free time too. Perhaps our minds fill in any perceived gaps in productivity. Perhaps when we think we’ll have some quieter periods we allow ourselves to be distracted with all of the shiny things in our lives.
There’s the old zen saying that you should find 20 minutes per day to meditate and if you’re too busy for that, find an hour. It’s nothing new to say that our lives are full of more “stuff” and yet we often feel empty—this isn’t a post about that.
This post is about getting to work, in Steven Pressfield style. Get to it! Do the work!
Want to work on your masters? Want to write a book? Want to go to Fiji? Want to get it shape?
What’s stopping you? Are you too busy? Pffft. Look at me. I’m unemployed—no wife, no kids. And I run out of time every day if I let myself. I’m too busy. I have to say “no” to projects because my schedule is pretty full.
And if I am constantly running out of time, there’s no hope for anyone.
The point is, though, that it’s all a bunch of crap. There IS time, if we choose to MAKE time.
Yes, we have the mystical power to MAKE time. We can make something a priority, go without 20 minutes of something else and get it done.
Easier said than done? Sure it is! But I would assert wherever in life you are, it will never get any easier. Bills won’t be for less. Kids won’t get cheaper. Job won’t get less stressful (unless you lose it, whoops…but there’s more stress for ya’).
So, what are you waiting for? Waiting until you get married? Until you have a mortgage? Until your kids are in college? Until what? You’re 80?
I started working on my MBA while in Iraq. I’d take my textbooks on missions. At night or during a lull, I’d bust out my LED headlamp and read. When I’d be back on camp, I’d do my postings and assignments. Sometimes I couldn’t log in because our camp was on black-out comms where they’d shut down all communications. Sure I didn’t want to. Sure it would have been easy to justify not keeping up with it. It was a bit of a challenge.
I helped get a film company started before my time in the Army. We had no money, no real direction, no assurances that we were doing anything correctly, nothing. But we did it. And it rocked.
I was tired of being dumpy, so I started getting up way early and going to the gym. I started cutting out foods I absolutely loved. I dropped around 25 pounds since New Years. Sure it sucked. But when else was I going to do it? Getting up a couple of hours earlier
Now I’m writing a book. It might be terrible. It might be awesome. I’ve never written a book before. It’s hard.
I’m not trying to brag, but I’m just saying it’s not magic, it’s just a matter of starting to do it. People with often compliment me by saying that I’ve accomplished a lot of stuff, implying that they haven’t or that they couldn’t, because of some hangup.
I’ve been busy my whole life. I’ve never had enough time to do anything. Whether it was in high school, college, in the Army of afterward, my life has always been full of stuff. There never is enough time and there never will be.
At a certain point we have the choice to be one of billions who just never got around to being who we wanted to be…or one of thousands who did. And for the record, I’m not there yet either.
A few day’s reprieve
After going gangbusters for the past week and a half with seminars, it was time to sit and catch up. I took a look at my notes from the Vegas and D.C. events and started typing them up. I’ll get a wiki or some such going. It’s the best way for people to come and go with the collected data.
I forgot how much I enjoy not having much to do. My old roommate from D.C. let me crash at his place once my second event concluded and he went to work like normal, leaving me to my own devices Thursday and Friday. The hours sort of hurried by as I watched the Twitterstream. Now that it’s Friday, I feel almost guilty that I don’t have all of my notes transcribed.
Not too guilty, though. I am using personal days for these final few days in D.C., so I’m not technically on the clock. If I’m a little sluggish is responding to work email, so be it. The purist in me would say leave the work phone off altogether. But I know it’s better to chip away at the email mountain now than try to climb it flat-out when I get back to the office. For all the “you’re not allowed to use personal sites at work” sentiment that still persists in many circles, I don’t think those particular managers realize how much work life already permeates personal time.
Others do realize that, and it’s why I’m very okay with people taking a few minutes to look up that thing on Amazon they were wondering about. Sure, it technically is “time wasted,” but so is eating lunch. So is saying “hi” to a coworker. As much as I thought the message of “give a little, take a little” in terms of personal/work time had already been established in workplace circles, I’m still surprised how often I run into organizations who still believe their workforce is 100 percent productive between the hours of 8:59 a.m. and 5:01 p.m. Most Internet sites are forbidden. Hours are meticulously tracked. I’m surprised they allow talking in the halls.
People have been wasting time since the beginning of time. Facebook isn’t the problem, attitudes and people are.
Luckily, I work for a place that’s not THAT strict when it comes to logging and tracking every second of my day. I’m allowed to check on social media sites and whatnot so long as it doesn’t affect my productivity. If so, my manager fixes what is a management issue. Cool, huh?
But there is the other side of the coin, where employees also need to know when to unplug. As I type, there are five or six brewing storms that I’m going to be sucked into when I return to work after this little break. I could sit here and fret about them. I could furiously write reports to estimate and try to mitigate perceived risks and problems, even if those perceptions are bound to change and shift. I could, but I shouldn’t. I’m off the clock. That’s why they have a clock. Being “on” too much will burn a person out.
So I sit and watch the sun set, looking over to where the light switch is in my roommate’s apartment. Later we’ll go out and chill with some people. And I’ll let the work tempest brew. Only eight-12 hours in the workday, after all. They can’t fire me for not working during personal time. At least I hope they can’t :p
Corporate life and the new civilian
It’s something that gets a lot of cheers and jeers. Some people celebrate the free market, the captains of industry, all that jazz. Some people lament the cubicles, the Office Space and Dilbert characters that seem to be everywhere.
And, like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Things aren’t so amazing that I soil my pants with joy every hour. Things aren’t so bad that I’m vitamin D deficient from the life-siphoning fluorescent lights.
A few military friends have asked what it’s like. I went into a bit of what it isn’t a couple of posts back, where I talked about all the ways I didn’t have to stay on edge. So this time, I’ll get into a little bit of what it is.
Now, I do need to qualify some things. I’m not in full-blown corporate America, as much as people seem to slap that label on every circumstance they are personally in—like how troops say they’ve “been to war” whether they were in the Korengal or lounging poolside in Qatar. Are both extremes closer to war than those at Starbucks? Yes. Am I so deep into corporate America that I can claim to know what it’s all really like? Not really.
So, that said. It’s pretty cool, from a guy who tries to take things in stride. A lot of movie and comic stereotypes are here. I guess that’s why all those movies are so funny.
There are the people who live in total fear that their every move is watched.
There are those who have been around the company for a decade or two, working themselves to the bone, but always in ways that create more burdens for themselves without getting ahead.
There are the meetings…lots of meetings…lots. I have five hour-long meetings today alone. Geez.
There are the power walkers in the halls. There are the gym guys who say “boss”…or is it “hoss?” Dunno.
There is the aversion for all things provided. Eating at the cafes is so passé for some. Screw that, there are like five different cafes here! I’m hungry!
There are motivational banners up. There are core values and virtues posted on all the walls like some recruiting drive.
There are coupons! Cell phone belt holsters. I’m asked to focus my efforts on what is good for the member.
People laugh. They like being around people who laugh. There are the fashion conscious and those (especially guys) who need a couple of issues of GQ.
All to say it seems pretty “normal” from a guy who is new to “normal.” I like it, but I’m at a different point in life.
Already there have been a few projects that have come up where my coworkers flip into full freak-out mode because of some perceived need or expectation from higher ups.
It’s EXACTLY the attitude that followed generals around. There would be the “good idea fairies” who would create a crap-ton of work for the average Joe, all to anticipate unstated needs by the big bosses.
So, being a former NCO who has seen this scurrying-around-for-no-reason hundreds of times, I just get a soda and let people freak out. Once they settle down, I’m able to ask questions like “Did she say she wanted it three weeks early? No? Then why are we thinking she does? Ah, she’s going on vacation next week? Did someone ask if we could send it to her while on vacation? No? Let’s do that.” Turns out the boss would love a one-way-one-time update on the status of the big project. Problem solved.
So, corporate America? Sure, it works. I don’t let the small stuff hang me up. Five hours of meetings? No prob. Paycheck still goes through whether I’m working or listening to people talk all day. Doesn’t bother me at all.