The self-help literature encourages us to have a clear sense of purpose. But defining our mission isn’t always easy. And our priorities can change over the course of a lifetime. How do we decide what matters?
I’ve been thinking lately about my calling, purpose, or vocation. Grief can push you into that headspace, forcing you to revisit past moments of your life. As can relocation, especially moving from one country to another. Or your favourite country suddenly reopening its borders after a pandemic-inspired isolation. Same with major anniversaries, especially if your blog just turned 18, like this one did a few weeks ago.
This is more than enough to make you look back over your life and ask what the point of it is.
Over the years, my work has changed. I’ve been a musician, academic, writer, and photographer, drawing pay checks from making very different things. But despite the varied fields and foci, there’s been a constant set of ideas underpinning everything I’ve done.
People can grow. They can improve. With effort, compassion and support, they can learn and change and evolve.
Work And Love
I’m not drawing a dividing line between the work we do and the people we are. They are intertwined. And they should be. Work shapes our character. It gives us a space in which to thrive and find our value.
“I work hard every day of my life I work ’til I ache in my bones.”
– Somebody to Love by Queen
The idea of work-life balance is simply a way to address dysfunction. Some people’s work sucks. They work jobs they hate just to pay the bills. Some people use work as an excuse to avoid their family. Others find themselves trapped in careers that were good to begin with but eventually stifled them and suffocated their personality. Balance is another way to talk about the disharmony work can create – forcing a gulf between who you want to be and the way you are.
There is no actual “balance”. Your work and life are not at opposite ends of a seesaw.
There’s a saying attributed to Sigmund Freud, though I’m not sure he actually said it, that goes “the purpose of life is work and love .” Whoever said it, I agree.
Work, not just what we do for money, but all the chores and tasks we take on, and love, not just the people we love, but the love we feel for the things that matter to us, be it art, music, nature, whatever, these shape our relationship to reality. They orient us in the universe. And they fill our lives with meaning. They give us a reason to get out of bed every morning.
The things we do teach us who we are.
Understanding Our Potential
I worked on sound and lighting for a high school production of Pirates of Penzance. My school was known mostly for sports. In my six years, only one theatrical production was staged.
The cast rehearsed a lot. But during the rehearsals, once we’d set up, there wasn’t a lot for the technical crew to do. So I started bringing my guitar and finding a quiet corner of the auditorium to practise in. As we got closer to dress rehearsals, I started plugging my guitar into the PA before the cast turned up. It was cool to hear my playing in that big hall. Then a cast member who also played brought his guitar, and we started having little pre-rehearsal jams, playing songs by bands like The Human League, Queen, and The Style Council.
By the time dress rehearsals started, these little jams had become full-cast singalongs. We’d turn down the hall lights and huddle together at the front of the stage. A bunch of nervous teenagers losing ourselves in music. Eyes closed. Arms draped over shoulders. United in song.
Those moments were beautiful, and for me they were a turning point. Music went from being a private hobby to something much bigger. I realized what music does.
It sets us free. It gives us permission to express ourselves, to open a door to our heart that we usually keep guarded and shut.
I’d never have realized this if I hadn’t volunteered to do something as mundane as putting out microphones and cables for a school musical.
Overcoming Self-Limiting Beliefs
My father has lots of sayings he recycles regularly. My favourite is “Don’t say you can’t when you mean you don’t want to.” It perfectly encapsulates what I’ve come to believe about motivation, desire, and having a growth mindset.
Caroline Dweck did us all a tremendous service by explaining the difference between a growth mindset and self-limiting beliefs. I’ve written before about these important ideas, in a 2020 piece called Have Fewer Beliefs, and a 2021 article entitled How To Maintain Your Motivation.
Our mindset is most clearly revealed in the way we look at failure and disappointment. For example, last night I tried to cook Japanese curry rice. It was the first time I’d cooked this dish in months. There I was in a strange kitchen with a new rice cooker and unfamiliar utensils. The results were okayish. I could be disheartened, say my failure proves that I’ve “lost it” as a cook, that I shouldn’t try.
That’s self-limiting beliefs in action – my one failure saying somehow permanent things about me and supposedly “proving” that who I am cannot change.
“The past is our knowledge, the present our mistake
And the future we always leave too late”
– My Ever Changing Moods by The Style Council
But maybe this disappointment just shows I have some learning to do. Maybe I should re-read the rice cooker’s instruction manual. Maybe I should pay more attention to how this different kitchen works. Maybe the ingredients aren’t the same in a different country. Maybe I just wasn’t concentrating.
Those are the kinds of questions a growth mindset invites you to ask. Since your abilities aren’t fixed, and can change, you’re more likely to see setbacks as an opportunity to learn, add to your talents, and gain a deeper understanding of what you’re doing.
Your mindset shapes how you move through the world.
Thinking And Making
Our culture prioritizes work done with our minds. It’s almost as if a job could be done by a brain in a jar, then it deserves to be more richly rewarded. Work done with our hands and our bodies is so often seen as inferior.
This is an odd notion. For starters, it can’t account for the premium we place on art and music and sport.
Also, it doesn’t explain why there is so much wisdom to be found in the writing of people who work with their hands and their bodies. Some of my favourite books on how to live well are by writers like Matthew Crawford, Gary Rogowski, and Twyla Tharp.
There’s a wisdom that comes from working in the physical world.
A recent New York Times piece, Tea Caddies That Last for Generations, by Vivian Morelli, explores this. Kaikado, a Japanese company, makes metal canisters for storing tea. For six generations, the Yagi family of Kyōto have crafted these canisters. The process of making them requires tremendous skill. And it also opens the door to fascinating insights about craft, education, and how to work well.
“The best craftsmen are not good from the start… They develop their skills over time, and that is how they can continue for a long time.”
– Seiji Yagi
I love Chef’s Table. The Netflix series is so beautifully filmed. All the food, all the dishes, all the restaurants are so inviting. But at its core the series is about creative people finding their voice, their unique contribution, their mission. The wisdom the chefs share is often as compelling as the food they make.
“Memory is very important. It’s a vehicle to get to know who you are inside.”
– Dominique Crenn
The Ever-Changing You
During my twenties, I spent a lot of time in the church scene. I played in various church bands, spent hours praying and bible reading, preached, travelled to Zambia and Zimbabwe to see various kinds of charitable work, went to theological college and trained for the ministry.
Eventually, I became disillusioned. Not so much with the beliefs as with their practical consequences. I grew tired of the negativity, of the harsh view of human nature and human potential. It left so little space for art and creativity and all the small quirks that make us unique and special. And as good as churches were at pointing the finger of judgement at individual “sins”, they were largely unable to address the big things that made so many of our lives miserable, like racism, social inequality, and ecological degradation.
“But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you”
– Don’t You Want Me by The Human League
Still, I started that journey in search of wisdom and I’m thankful I found a lot of it. It was my path into academia and a world of learning. It introduced me to people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met. And it taught me practical skills – meditation, empathetic listening, conflict resolution, and public communication – that I use every day.
I went in hoping to help people live better, and I left with the desire intact. A lot of the early years of this blog was me going through that struggle to find another path.
Thankfully, what science continues to show us, whether it’s epigenetics or neuroplasticity, is that personal growth isn’t some fringe idea. It’s hard wired into the chemistry of our bodies. We have tremendous potential to improve ourselves at almost every stage of life.
As long as we don’t lose hope.
The Future Begins Yesterday
A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles about creativity and mental health. It set the tone for much of my recent writing. This site isn’t a “wellness” blog. But what I share here is born of thinking and making, doing and reflecting, trying something and then figuring out what I can learn from its failure (or occasional success).
Which is to say nothing is changing now beyond an increased commitment to this core idea that’s been behind almost everything I’ve done with my life – people can improve.
This paradigm invites a cautious optimism about us and the systems we create. There’s not enough of that. We’re too quick to buy into the idea that everything is getting worse and there’s nothing we can do about it.
I’m not onboard with cynicism and nihilism. It’s never been appealing. The universe is just too wonderful. There’s too much beauty in the world. People just have too much potential for creativity, and kindness, and love.