While Dee and I were waiting to be served in a restaurant, I picked up an Etch-a-Sketch-like toy on a rack near our table, a plaything designed to keep little kids entertained while waiting for food. Curious, I began to write on the screen and tinker with the dials. I discovered a large knob that turned like a dial and moved in a slot horizontally back and forth across the entire bottom of the device.
“What does that dial do?” Dee asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. “It is not connected to anything and does not get anything done. It just gives kids the illusion that they are getting something done.”
Dee laughed. “Sounds like a lot of the office work I’ve done.”
She was kidding, but serious. A certain amount of business work is productive and meaningful. A lot just feels like busywork. Filling out forms; fixing website issues; jumping through multi-layered security hoops; getting stuck in voicemail loops; fending off hackers; dealing with people who don’t pay attention to instructions. While on some level these activities may be necessary in an increasingly complex world, a lot of them feel boring and a waste of time. At the end of the day, you lay in bed and wonder, “What did I do today, anyway?” Perhaps you, like me, would rather do what is meaningful than busywork. I heard that some doctors spend one-third of their time healing people and two-thirds of their time doing paperwork and administrative tasks. Where are our priorities?
Soon afterward, we watched one of my favorite films, Lost Horizon. The movie contains a poignant scene in which high-ranking statesman Robert Conway finds himself in the remote paradise of Shangri-La, where he falls in love with a delightful woman who invites him to stay there with her forever. He explains that he has important work to do back in society. She tells him, “Come now, you know you are going nowhere — admit it!” Conway thinks for a moment, smiles, and replies, “You are exactly right.” In that moment he realizes that most of the work he is doing is not leading to anything of true value. He is rolling the dial to nowhere.
If you are tired of running on a hamster wheel, be honest about what you would rather be doing. How much of your work and daily activities is life-giving, and how much is boring and deadening? How much tolerance do you have for the meaningless? Any tolerance at all is too much. If you are bored, either find a way to make what you are doing interesting, or choose something more stimulating. There are no other options, really. French author Jules Renard said, “I am never bored anywhere. Being bored is an affront to oneself.”
Everything you do is either taking you somewhere or it is taking you nowhere. If there is any value in going nowhere, it is to bring you to the realization of the somewhere you would rather be. Our challenge is that nowhere is so highly populated that it seems like somewhere. When billions of people agree that illusions are solid, it is tempting to pitch your tent in a swamp. But reality is not a democracy, and truth does not depend on the number of people who subscribe to it. Mass agreement does not make emptiness full. It takes an innocent mind to see the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Such people are branded mavericks and heretics, but eventually, when the masses finally catch up with reality, the heretics are lauded, knighted, or sainted. Paul McCartney, who flipped the bird at the monarchy by smoking pot in Buckingham Palace, was eventually knighted.
One day I stood at the ferry dock in Tiburon, California, and watched commuters exit from their workday in San Francisco. They did not look like happy campers. I thought, “If that is what livelihood is all about, count me out.” Zen philosopher Alan Watts said, “The secret to success is to find a way to get paid for having fun.” Passion is the strongest money magnet I know. When you love what you do, consumers are happy to pay you to do it for them. When you find a good reason to wake up in the morning, you are truly turning the dial to somewhere.
If you are doing something devoid of joy, either find a way to bring greater meaning to it, or stop doing it. This is your life we are talking about. You get just so many trips around the sun before you get returned to inventory. None of us can afford to waste time in irrelevance.
There are three ways you can immediately add meaning and value to your life: Follow your joy voice rather than the fear voice; Connect by focusing on the human element in your work and communication; and Serve. When you take care of people, you remember why we are here. Our deepest purpose is to make each other’s lives easier. Everything else is either a means toward that end, or a detail.
Each day we are presented with numerous dials we can turn. Some of them simply provide the illusion of action, and others actually have an effect. May you sleep well tonight, knowing that your day on Earth was well spent.