The Only Things That Matter

It turns out, the only things that matter, are the things that matter to everyone.

For more than twenty years I obsessively searched for my unique purpose, and how to live it out uncompromisingly. My ideas of what would look like always felt complicated and far off. I accepted that it would involve sacrifice and hard work. My frustration was that I never understood how to find the path I needed to be on in order to get where I was supposed to go.

I watched peers achieve impressive accomplishments while I struggled to define who I was, and what I was doing with my life. Eventually, I discovered that the answers weren’t nearly as complicated or distant as I imagined.

Figuring out what we want in life, where to aim our ambition, and what the point of it all is, determines our real quality of life. As well as what we pass on.

Our lives become the product of how we have answered or failed to answer those questions.

In 1888, Alfred Nobel had the eye-opening opportunity to read his own obituary in a French newspaper. His brother Ludvig died and the paper had mistaken the news for Alfred’s passing. The piece was titled, “The Merchant of Death is Dead”, and explained that he had made his fortune from developing military armaments, chiefly, explosives.

He considered himself a pacifist, and yet his memory would speak otherwise. The experience caused him to re-evaluate his choices. One result of this re-evaluation was a decision to endow much of his wealth for the creation of the Nobel Prizes.

Today, The Nobel Organisation’s homepage begins with…

Alfred Nobel had a vision of a better world. He believed that people are capable of helping to improve society through knowledge, science and humanism. This is why he created a prize that would reward the discoveries that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.

We don’t often step back and view our lives from the vantage point of completion: the totality of our efforts, and what they say of us.

If we did, we’d probably find that most of our energy is poured into activities that don’t bring deep meaning and joy, let alone a legacy to be proud of. Like a pacifist who enriches himself on the bloody conflicts of nations, we often articulate beliefs that are irrelevant to our actual behavior.

Our memory will not be what we claimed to value, but the accumulation of our daily activities and interactions.

But there’s something even more pressing to consider before we get to contemplating the end. In our lifelong search for satisfaction, we’re taught to chase carrots that never deliver. Education, possessions, status, influence, adventure… every conceivable way of indulging our appetites, and accruing personal trophies. All the time, we miss what is freely available.

As writer, David Brooks put it,

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured… It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. 

The Moral Bucket List

After all the carrots have been chased, we discover that pure ecstasy comes from the same things for all people: being accepted for our authentic selves, loving another at the risk of deep heartache, reaching our potential for personal expression, sharing our experiences, knowledge, and resources with others.

A life of joy and fulfillment also happens to be the life that we can one day be proud to have lived. Personal gratification and goodwill toward others aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re the fruit of the same tree. After more than twenty years of my own search, I look at my life and feel like I’ve struck gold. From now on my chief aim is to share the recipe for a purposeful and pleasurable life.