If you look at a bird making a nest, you see that it knows how to make the nest instinctively. It doesn’t have to go to nest-making school to know how to make a nest. Although the nest itself can be quite elaborate and splendid, the bird only knows how to make that nest in that way.
Contrast that with humans. Do you know how to make a house? Is there a blueprint for houses that you instinctually build from? No there isn’t, and that’s one big difference between the human experience and that of other living beings. We are capable of a larger scope of choice. What kind of house do you want?
I am free and that is why I am lost. ~ Franz Kafka
This freedom of choice and self-determination is on one hand a marvelous gift, but it also presents on the other hand a difficult challenge. If we are capable of choosing what we want, what should we want? What is to guide us? How do we make sense and meaning?
What kind of house do you want? What kind of spouse do you want? What kind of career do you want? These are questions that we have a responsibility to explore and define with our lives. We will come to find that there is no meaning “out there”, but the meaning comes from within. We have spent all our lives looking to others and society to help us find meaning, but finally, we have the realization to return to ourselves.
Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.
~ Joseph Campbell
Stage 4: Developing Your Unique Gift and Taking Responsibility for Your Unique Contribution
Returning to our mountain-climbing story… You and your group are now near the summit. The last push is tomorrow. The camp is quiet; there’s not much to say. Everyone is exhausted and their thoughts are with themselves. Although they are satisfied with their efforts thus far, they know the final endeavor ahead will challenge their last reserves of strength and will. It will reveal their deepest inner character, a place that no one in the group has gone before.
In your career, if you have successfully navigated stages 1, 2, and 3, you will be known and respected. People will rely on you and your leadership. They will bring the most challenging problems to you, knowing that you are the most capable of solving them. It is at this point that you will begin to feel an inward pull, away from the demands of others. You begin a shift away from solving other people’s problems, which seem to be never-ending. You move towards the inner, spontaneous, authentic you and the desire to express yourself from that place.
Spontaneous Action Instead of Calculated Action
When we were younger, we knew how to play. It was natural to play; we were spontaneous in our play. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we created a fort out of cardboard boxes?” Then we just did it. We didn’t think, “What’s the point of this? A fort out of cardboard isn’t going to protect anything!?”
Then we learned how to work. We learned that work was serious and we can’t just do whatever we want. We needed to discipline ourselves to work in order to earn money and to support ourselves and our family. We put aside our play and spontaneity and adopted a calculated persona for our work.
As we enter this last stage, we begin to integrate work and play. We find that our best work often comes out of a playful attitude, and seek to re-introduce our spontaneous, playful selves back into our lives. For some, this may mean stepping out of conventional work (i.e. make money, get promoted, become established) into areas of personal interest and significance. For others, this may mean creating new roles within the organization which maximizes one’s personal interests and talents with one’s experience and expertise.
What does the work-play integration allow you to do? It allows you to create. The spontaneous side allows you to conceive of something novel and unique. The calculated side gives you the tools and skills to implement it.
Question to reflect upon: How do I combine my work with my play?
Creating Instead of Copying
Alan Watts (a zen philosopher) once said, “The physical universe is basically playful. There’s no necessity for it whatsoever.” Everything in the physical world is temporary; there is nothing that we are doing here that will last. Everything you make will eventually crumble, and everything you do will eventually be forgotten. That sounds a bit depressing…but only if we take ourselves seriously. Looking at it a different way, we exist on the beach where we play, making delightful sandcastles that will wash away with the tide.
During our play, we can create anything we want. However, the challenge is that before integrating work with play, we have only our calculated, logical selves. At that level, we can only take what exists and copy it. In our work, we measure ourselves by things that outside authorities deem important. If our society says that having a large expensive house is important, we “copy” that set of values as our own.
Once we have integrated our work with our play, we have the ability to stop copying and start creating. If having a large expensive house isn’t what I really want? What do I really want? Once you start asking yourself this question, this is the beginning of creating.
You will find that the house your really want is a house that is unique to you. Nobody else wants exactly that same house that you most want. What is that career that you really want? What is the life that you really want? Those things are unique to you as well. You cannot copy them from someone else, you must create it.
Why do things change all the time? Why doesn’t everything just stay the same? It is said that life is inherently novelty-seeking and creates change and newness in order to experience that novelty. You, as a part of life, have the ability to generate something unique and novel, and in creating something unique, fulfill a larger desire of life to experience itself in new and fascinating ways. You are called upon by life to be an original creator.
Questions to reflect upon: What do I want to create that would reflect my authentic perspective? If I were to write a memoir, what would be the title?
Wholeness and Gratitude Instead of Partial and Seeking
Once you have done the work, what is there left? I remember back to the story of creation in Genesis regarding the seventh day: And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day…Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it. God didn’t say on the seventh day, “Wait, I forgot to put a few more llamas in Africa. Also, the seas might need a little bit more fish.”
The lesson of the seventh day is about completion and wholeness. There will be a point in your career where your work is complete. At that point, we are to step away and review our work…and be grateful for the life and career that we had the privilege to experience and create.
Questions to reflect upon: Why am I grateful for this life?
Summary of Career Stage 4: Authenticity
Alan Shepard, a NASA astronaut, once reflected: If somebody’d said before the flight, ‘Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?’ I would have say, ‘No, no way.’ But yet when I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the moon, I cried.
When we look at the earth from our terrestrial perspective, it can seem like a mundane and problem-ridden place. When we look at the earth from a celestial perspective, it is a place of immense beauty and wonder.
It is the same with our lives. We must look at it from the proper perspective. In order to gain this perspective, we must make the climb. Our career is our climb. It will take us to many places, but ultimately take us to a place where we have the best view of our authentic selves. From that perspective we get to look at our lives, appreciate that it is a magnificent gift, and respond with gratitude and awe.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
~ T.S. Eliot