Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I think I know what we're after. And I think we are misguided. After reading and rereading some of our posts, and more importantly the comments left (thank you all!), I think Alex and I are after something specific, something that needs reconsideration. I shouldn't speak for Alex. But based on conversations with him and with many of my other friends, all in the same position as I find myself (with that daunting question of "what do you want to do with your life" hanging over our heads), I think we are all desperately seeking an answer to that question. I mean, how great would it be, if someone asked you, a relative, a coworker, a classmate or friend, what you wanted to do with your life, and you actually had an answer! How incredible! And what if you not only had an answer, but you had a plan. Well then you are going places in life. Right?

Wrong. I am generally in favor of listening to our elders, and usually do it with great respect. After all, they've been through some things, and have a better grasp on how life works than I do (even if I build myself up from time to time thinking otherwise). On top of that, they have no reason to mislead me, and instead have a strong desire to advise me. I know I enjoy advising my younger brother on college and how it all works. We all want to help. However, there is a huge piece of advice that I have neglected. It came in many forms over the past couple of months, from many sources. From my commencement speaker, from my parents, from books I've read and stories I've heard. The nugget I've avoided, with faulty reasoning, is the virtue of going with the flow of life, that you never know where it will take you and no matter how much you plan, life will carry you where you never expected it would. As my Dad said in a comment, and Alex alluded to in his post on our generation, the decisions we make today will not affect our lives as profoundly as we think. To put it another way, if we can't answer that question tomorrow or even in a year, we are not destined for unhappiness.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, to choose correctly, and more importantly to have it all figured out. I have this misconception about careers that once you choose one you are stuck with it. That if I want to work in environmental policy then I am stuck on that track for the rest of my life and I can never deviate, that I have to pick an organization and work my way up. That if I want to be successful, I have to lay out my goals for my career now. I think its easy for us to look at someone who is very successful and think, "Oh, that must have been their goal. They must have planned on writing that book at this point in their career, and they must have planned on that speech at that point." We think this because it is very easy to look at the past events of their career and see how it lead them to where they are today (success, prestige, influence). But how hard would it have been for them, 20 years ago, to pinpoint where they'd be today, and more importantly how they'd get there? Impossible, for most. There are the exceptions, long-term careers that people can be quite content with; doctors, teachers, etc, where they may very well be in one hospital or school the rest of their lives. But for the rest of us, we will move, change companies or even fields. How boring would it be if we didn't? I think it's questions like "what do you want to do with your life" or "where do you see yourself in 10 years" that imply an answer is necessary. What is wrong with a simple "I don't know?"

I am reading "Dreams From My Father," by Barack Obama right now. This book has really been the final kick to get me to come to the other side, to jump in the river, or at least not view the river with such disdain. In the introduction to his book, Obama speaks about how it was some friends in Chicago who convinced him to run for State Senator. About a hundred pages in, he talks about how he slacked off his last few years in high school and even experimented with drugs. To hear his voice as a young man (written when he was 33) talking about himself as an even younger man, it sounds like a very different person. I think the ultimate delusion that is so easy to fall into, at least for me, is the notion that if nothing else, the Presidents of the United States simply must have had that as their goal. They must have been working their whole careers toward that. And even if not all of them did, Barack Obama, possibly the most driven and hard working person on the face of the earth (sorry for the hyperbole) simply must have been working hard since he was born to get to this point in his life, right? Wrong! A friend convinced him to get into politics. And look where he is now! When he was 22, do you think he knew where he'd be at age 48? No. Life took him to where he is. Instead of working toward the presidency as a goal, he did something better. He prepared himself for opportunity. When his friend urged him to run for State Senate, he was prepared, through his education and past experience, to seize that opportunity. Same for his US Senate run, and finally his latest achievement. And he said "yes" when presented with that opportunity.

So instead of grasping for something we can't have, something we ultimately don't want, let us prepare ourselves for opportunity, and be ready to say "yes!" when it comes. Let us embrace the uncertainty of life, and honor it for the joy that it brings. How boring would life be, if we knew where we were going to be when we were 40, or even in 10 years! Would it really be worth living, if we saw it coming so clearly? I'd rather not know. Instead, I'd rather be prepared for the next stage of my life and take opportunity when I see it. I can't answer what I want to do with my life, but I can answer what I want to do in the next year. Let's start there. The fear is that it will lead to unhappiness, to go with the flow without control. But happiness is ultimately much more about your perspective on life and much less about the things you actually do. And the most beautiful thing of all is the ability to change your circumstances. If the flow of life leaves you unsatisfied, you can change it! So maybe, insead of attempting to re-route the course of the river by diverting its flow to fit your plan (nature always wins, anyway), AND, instead of jumping in with nothing, lets bring a paddle, just in case. But in the meantime, enjoy the ride.

The next time someone asks me "what do you want to do with your life?" or any variation on that question, I think I will smile, and say "I don't know; and isn't that great?!"

Friday, January 23, 2009

Two Old Characters Address Happiness

I love public radio. If you didn't already know this about me that makes me kinda sad because it means we probably don't talk to each other enough. Its like there is an army of curious people out there who have made it their full-time job to bring the most incredible, inspiring, bizarre and newsworthy stories from around the world into your life.

I love retelling my favorite stories from the radio to those unfortunate enough to spend time with me right after I get out of the car (the only place actual radios are used anymore.*) Sadly, I have heard too many good stories on the radio to retell them all right now, but one good one is standing out in my mind. It was on the program called Speaking of Faith, and it was all about the concept of 'Doubt'. Doubt is a long conversation waiting to happen, so to keep it (a bit) shorter I will just tell you about two doubting characters that I found fascinating: Diogenes of Sinope and Epicurus.

Diogenes was one of the original cynics. In my own words, a philosophical cynic is someone who doubts that society is constructed in the way it was meant to be. You have probably heard of a few people influenced by cynicism even today. They reject wealth, power, fame, possessions, and even devalue their own health and hygiene. They teach equality of all humans and a return to the rhythms of nature. They do not criticize absolutely everything, as the modern use of the word 'cynic' connotes today, they are only critical of those things which are not an essential part of a truly happy life. A beautiful way to encapsulate all these views is to boil them down to the idea that all suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable. An excessively general idea, but one you would have quite a bit of trouble refuting.

My favorite story about Diogenes is a legend passed on about an encounter he had with Alexander the Great. Alexander admired Diogenes, as they both shared incredible ambition, though one man applied his externally, and the other internally. During one meeting of the two...

Diogenes asked Alexander what his plans were.
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate Greece.
Diogenes: Then what?
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate Asia Minor.
Diogenes: And then?
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate the entire world.
Diogenes: And what next?
Alexander: Then I will relax, and enjoy myself.
Diogenes: Why not save yourself a lot of trouble, by relaxing and enjoying yourself now?

Now, Epicurus was not a cynic, but a materialist. Sounds like the opposite of a cynic at first, but materialism as an ideology does not value shopping and money, but rather suggests that physical matter is the only thing that can be proven to exist, and therefore calls into doubt all things non-physical. What Epicurus derived from this philosophy was the belief that the goal of life was to achieve tranquility and freedom from fear or pain through a life filled with modest physical pleasures. A key to finding happiness through physical pleasure was developing control of your physical desires so they would not run rampant and possibly lead to physical harm.

I personally find materialism to be a bad explanation of the way all thing work, but I do enjoy some of the smaller ideas that were born out of it. Namely, that of learning to control your appetites. Whether we hold physical pleasure as the ultimate good in life or not, we all understand the role hunger plays in the human experience. Food, sex and habit-forming drugs like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are the easiest to identify. But there are some obsessions that are less physiological, though I would argue no less physical, that can be equally consuming. Pride, or ego, power, leisure, possessions...vague ideas that we never feel like we have enough of and are therefore always hungry for more of. Epicurus basically said we must realize that the cycle of desire and fulfillment is endless. Cycling through it faster and faster will not get you anywhere new, but more likely destroy a person. The trick to slowing down the cycle is to learn to enjoy the craving within you as much as the fulfillment of it. Both are equally important to the delivery of satisfaction, but the average person obsesses over only one of them.

After all, when you are truly thirsty, nothing is as pleasurable as a simple glass of water.

You have probably heard the term 'epicure' used in modern language to describe someone who is picky about food or art because of their expensive tastes. This word does come from Epicurus, but ironically has a meaning almost entirely opposed to his views. Epicurus wanted to put so much emphasis on the control of human desire that he recommended abstaining from rich food and drink, sex and lavish possessions. Not exactly what you picture when you think of an epicure, but now you can see why he came up in the same radio program as Diogenes.

I enjoy seeing how ancient ideas about happiness and "the way things are supposed to be" have not changed much over time. Unfortunately, neither have they been implemented very effectively. There is much more to all of this than I have laid out here, so please research these characters and their ideas more on your own. In fact, in my efforts to only relay my favorite tidbits I have misrepresented them a bit here and there, so please don't consider this a philosophy lesson.

Also, check out Public Radio. Some of my favorite programs include:

To the Best of Our Knowledge
The Story
Speaking of Faith
This American Life

*Please note that live online broadcasts and archived podcasts now allow you to listen to radio programming almost anywhere, anytime. This means you can be listening even if you don't spend much time in your car.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Happened...?

Movies have a pretty incredible power over us sometimes. For two hours or so you get wrapped up in a story that you don't want to end. You want it to be true, you want to live it. At least if its a good one. I had the good fortune to see an excellent film today with a friend that got me thinking a lot. The movie is one I'm sure you've heard of, as it will undoubtedly be up for many awards; Milk. To give a quick summary of this biographical picture, Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist in the 1970's. The movie chronicles the growth of the gay rights movement that began in San Francisco but grew to national proportions. Throughout the film, we see the transformation of Milk from a 40 year old insurance agent in NYC, to a hippie business owner in San Francisco, to a suited up political activist that has the power to move a crowd of thousands to their feet to march. Powerful stuff, and Sean Penn is amazing.

For obvious reasons, the movie made me think about changing the world. I saw parallels between Milk and Barack Obama, as both started as community organizers with no name and only their ideals to guide them. I will admit too, that I was taking mental notes; "how did he organize that group," "what did he say to make that change," "where did he start and how did he know what to say?" The answers to a lot of these questions, I figured, had to do with both the times and the cause. The cause, in the sense that, the cause of gay rights was both pretty black and white, and very personal for Milk. Black and white; they were being discriminated openly, so it was easy to tell who was on who's side. And personal, because Milk was gay, so he knew what to say and when because he himself was discriminated against, as was his community. It came from the heart. Easy enough, I suppose... But, the times?

This second idea got me thinking. Milk benefitted from the time period in the sense that the 60's and 70's were already times of such drastic social reform and civil rights awareness. With other minority movements in full swing, as well as anti-war protests, peace movements, and an entire generation that rebelled wholeheartedly against the establishment of their parents', the gay rights movement fit very nicely into this cloth. But if you look at the 60's and 70's in the context of the last century they seem like an anamoly. I mean, when you think about the 40's and 50's, you think leave it to beaver and the family from A Christmas Story. You think innocence, and unfortunately still lots of intolerance. On the flip side, when you think of the 80's and 90's, instead of seeing them as a continuation of the change from the previous two decades, it seems like change hit a wall. There were no more protests, no more social movements. In fact, it was a step back for the environmental movement, with Reagan repealing much of the work of the 70's movement. What happened..?

The answer I can come up with is one that calls for hope for today, and that is that change oscillates and is generational. For whatever reason, the young people (people who were 18-30's in these decades) of the 60's and 70's just could not accept the establishment and fought their hardest to change it. Maybe their parents raised them to be dreamers of a better tomorrow; or maybe it was quite the opposite, that their parents bought so fiercely into the system that they alienated their children enough that they could see the built-in injustices for what they were and could fight them. It's probably that. Regardless, they brought change. Then, the young people of the 80's and 90's stopped this momentum. Why? Well, a lot of change had already happened, so there was less injustice to enrage the youth, and likewise there wasn't a horribly unpopular war to demonize. But I think the answer is more generational. If you look at who raised the youths of the 80's and 90's, who taught them in school, it was people who were young in the 40's and 50's, the time of American innocence. At home they were taught of the good old days when kids listened to their parents and didn't do drugs or march on the streets, where order and discipline were respected. Their teachers in school were of the same persuasion. Growing up in that kind of environment, you'd feel more inclined to buy into the system, to believe in the end it will work for everyone.

Which brings me to my point. Who were we raised by? Our parents were those kids in the 60's and 70's who didn't listen, who didn't buy into the injustices of a broken system, who decided it was time to unite and rise against the discriminators and bigots and polluters. Our parents were dreamers, and if they didn't march in the streets themselves, they knew 10 people their age that did. Our teachers were the same way. All the people sculpting our minds from day one were people who saw real results from fighting, protesting. I always wonder why protesting went out of style. It seemed to get things done.. at least eventually. People are too serious nowadays; they can't justify missing that day of work or school to go walk around in the streets. They don't believe anything will change if they go, or they believe the tired argument of "what's one more voice going to matter anyway.."

At my college graduation last May, and at the high school graduation of my brother a month later, I heard speakers across the board mention the hope they had for our generation. They kept saying things about how like no other time in history we need change, and just from talking to students in the halls or dining halls they knew we were dreaming of change too. And they expect a lot from us. Because even though it is our parents who are at the peak of their careers and have the most influence they have ever had at work and in their communities (a place someone with youthful ideals drools over, a position with influence), ultimately it is the young people who dictate change in this country. It is the idealism reserved for the freshest faces, those of us who have yet to give up hope in the face of the system. Our parents and teachers expect so much of us because, as Alex said in his post about our generation, they have told us from day ONE that we can do anything we want to, that the world is full of endless possibility, and that we CAN change it.

I think the problem that we are running into now, the problem that Alex explained so perfectly, is that we have been instilled with all this hope, this vision, this dream, our whole lives, that we want to do something immediately, and more importantly we think we can do it immediately. We don't know our own limits, which is scary, in a good way. Yet, the institutions for us to express this passion, this dream, are not in place to serve us. The system exists today as it did for our parents. In the 60's and 70's politicians and non-profits and communities did not go to local college campuses to recruit optimism or outrage. When our parents and their peers graduated college, there wasn't an organization called Change, Inc., or Protesters and Co., or Civil Rights Conglomerate that recruited young talent for their causes. And good riddance. No, our parents fought the institutions that existed because they didn't believe that this was all to life, that you had to get a job in an office and raise a quiet, neat family and look away when their neighbor was beaten for being different. They stared that injustice square in the eye and acted. It's time for us to act. We aren't going to get that call that Alex referred to. No one will call tomorrow saying, "look, man, the globe is warming, poverty continues to ravage the third world, we are overpopulated, malnourished, oh, and there is war in the Middle East...think you could help?" That call will not come. We have to make them hear our voice. The time is now. We have to fight. Our survival depends on it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

To My Generation

Devin and I recently had the rare privilege to have a conversation, in person, regarding the things you just read about in his last post. The conversation was far too short, but if you were paying attention to what he wrote, you know we made the most of the time we had.

Talking about making the most of all of the gifts and time you have been given is fun and easy enough, the tricky part is figuring out what exactly it is you will be doing when you busy yourself not wasting a minute. Yes, I am talking about discerning one's vocation. A daunting task for anybody, and one that can surely consume a thoughtful person at any age, but I imagine there is a uniquely terrifying character about it when you are seriously addressing it for the first time in your early twenties.

You see, at this age we are naive, and we fear that we have only a matter of months to make the plans that will determine whether we will be happy or depressed for the rest of our lives. This misconception aside, we youngsters have another problem: we are extremely reluctant to take a stance on what really excites us. After all, how are we supposed to know, of all people? We only recently recovered from a debilitating condition known as "childhood."

Childhood is characterized by years upon years of praise and encouragement flowing over you at all times. Children, the most common sufferers of this ailment, are often told things like "you can do anything you want to" and then given minor obstacles to easily overcome, affirming the idea that they really can do anything. It is normal for children in this situation to start holding the concept of conquering small obstacles in very high regard – even as an end unto itself. For in the world of children, there is no end to the parade of obstacles coming before you, each only a little more difficult than the last. At the same time there is no end to the support you receive along the way, nor the applause when you daily find yourself capable of a little bit more than you were the day before.

Then one day, you and your buddy are going for a car ride through the snowy potholes of Chicago and you realize the river of childhood obstacles ran dry a short while back without you noticing. You feel a little lost, and you question your own ability to make decisions. It occurs to you that your inclination to apply to grad school may be just the latest manifestation of your addiction to sequential obstacle conquering; the easiest and most logical way to prove yourself once again. Even worse - what if that was the only reason you marched off to college so boldly? You suddenly can't remember the last time you did something because it was your own original idea, leaving you feeling rather weak and disappointingly...childish.

But you have decision to make. How are you supposed to do it now?

Remember the first mistake I mentioned young people making: assuming they have a short amount of time secure a future of happiness for themselves by choosing the right career. Just because you don't yet know exactly what sort of work carries you away and makes the hours fly by with a thrilling and fulfilling rush, it doesn't mean you can't start trying things out. In the roughly quoted words of Benjamin Button, "I hope that when you find yourself in circumstances that don't suit you, that you have the strength to start over and change them."

One reason the pressure to choose correctly is so intense is because of the generally false correlation in our society between success in your career and happiness. Even more disturbing is the common belief that success if defined by money. Now, I don't need to be the next person in line to act like I am special for knowing that money is not what is important in life. That is really old news, even if it is still generally ignored. But these societal forces are acting on your troubled mind at all times. Should you follow your childhood passions to a life in the lower middle class or use your talents to achieve the sorts of things that will be rewarded with large amounts of money?

While discussing this question with friends recently, the intriguing words of an accomplished doctor were relayed to me fourth hand. He said "I can afford anything, except my own time." This doctor may very well have been following his passions when he applied to medical school, but now he has a problem. Too much of his time is demanded from him and the compensation he receives for it is money. It is a sad situation to find yourself in, but certainly one that we are all encouraged to pursue, at least implicitly. There almost seems to be shame associated with not being willing to put in the incredible amounts of time required to prove how important your career is to you. But I think that is backwards. Perhaps we should be ashamed of how much of our lives we are willing to sacrifice for such worthless rewards as riches or fame.

Even if you feel unfazed by the allure of money and acclaim, the pressure to succeed is not gone. You still want to do your best and make a real difference in the world. The illusion that time is slipping away from you may even be greater for you as you watch society's problems worsen faster than you can address them. So regardless of your motivations, the ability to resist the pressure to succeed ASAP requires obnoxious amounts of patience. In the real world, the chance to make your mark is not simply a matter of finding the right organization and signing up. No matter how impressive your list of previously conquered obstacles may be, you must start at the bottom to work your way to the forefront of the issues that concern you. Making a difference happens in small pieces that add up over a lifetime. You can’t call something successful until it is finished, and you are only just getting started.

On the positive side of being young, a lifetime of childhood and a successful college career can have you feeling extremely valuable and capable. Two important things for a young person to feel as they try to make their way in the world, but you need more than abilities and pride to make it in the end. You sit at home, mental and social tools in hand, waiting for the phone to ring. Somebody out there must have an important job that needs to be done and you know you are up to the task. But the phone just isn't ringing... What childhood and college often do not equip you with is a sense of direction and ambition. You are the perfect candidate for any job that you are told to do. The one thing you need to practice a little more is deciding what you should do.

An older and wiser man, upon hearing the plight of the talented college graduates sitting and waiting to be told what to do next remarked that it is a trend he has noticed in my generation. A sad trend, because he thought the desire to succeed is not compatible with the desire to be told what to do. I thought about this myself and realized that I would put it this way: the desire to lead is not compatible with the need to follow.

I said to Devin during our conversation about these things, "I would gladly be a leader, and a damn good one too, if someone would just tell me that's what I should do." Slightly paradoxical, but that is the struggle we face right now. We have time, talent and confidence; we just don't know what to do with them yet. Let's not allow that to bother us, or make us feel like we are lagging behind. Let's not search for the easy answers in the wrong places and pay for it later, or sit around waiting for opportunity to come knocking, let itself in and make itself at home. We will enjoy every moment we have, using them to boldly move forward with a slowly developing sense of purpose. We will remember that no matter what happens, we have the power to change things, and that happiness is always close at hand.

Or we'll try to at least.

Monday, January 12, 2009


So I had an epiphany the other day. Acutally it was more like a couple of weeks ago. It came about because of a trip home for the holidays that was wayy too short. Because of its extreme brevity, I had to seize every moment possible, which meant not allowing myself to be tired. I slept enough, but even after a good night of sleep I usually can't sustain a full day of activity without succumbing to some level of fatigue, for at least a couple of hours. But I couldn't allow even the briefest glimpse of tiredness to sneak its way in. I also realized that a lot of being tired is allowing yourself to be (and also comes about by negative thoughts, but more on that in another post). Anyway, the pull of friends and family made me realize that I had been wasting time being lazy, making excuses, letting life pass me by while I napped; that perhaps the cliche was correct, that we should "live in the moment." I always used to cringe when I read that on someone's facebook quotes, but it is true. I think I always doubted the sincerity of those people's facebook profiles. Facebook just strikes me as a poor medium for wisdom.

This realization (perhaps that I was prepared to assimilate a bumper sticker to my core beliefs) was compounded by a sentiment that hard work is just as key as seizing every moment, and in fact the two work well in concert. The inspiration for this piece of wisdom came from a slightly more abstract source, our President Barack Obama (I will forego the -elect part, as its only a week away, and I'd like this blog to have a timeless effect to it...) The man is where he is because he worked hard, hands down. Sure there was natural talent, but he worked damn hard. And he did so by not wasting a moment, an opportunity, to learn something new, to give it his all. I know he hasn't really done anything yet (shoot there goes the timeless effect) but he will, I don't care what the cynics say who claim "well he's still a politician..." He is, but get over it, he is different. But that is beside the point.

Idea - life is better when lived to the fullest. How do you get more out of life? By not wasting time. We don't have time to be lazy. In 50 years when we look back on our life, it will be defined by what we did, not by what we thought about doing but never got around to. Our biggest regrets will be those moments we didn't jump on, opportunities we let slip by. So - seize life. Take it. Stop making excuses. They don't matter. Just, do.