I wanted to be an engineer. My uncle Jack was an engineer, and I love my uncle Jack.
When Uncle Jack’s family visited from Minnesota, he and I would play catch. Sometimes we’d even play a modified, capitalist version of the game 500. Jack would throw a tennis ball (or baseball, as I got older) high into the air. As it ascended, he would shout a price for the catch. For easy throws, the price was a penny. But for high tosses, or ones that really made me run, the bounty could get as high as a quarter.
If I came up with the ball, Jack added the amount to my total. If I missed it, my total went down. An hour in the backyard with Jack usually netted me $4 or $5. And knowing the rules of Capitalist 500 as you now do, you realize that Jack wanted me to win.
I loved to play Capitalist 500. And I love Jack.
So I wanted to be an engineer like Jack. I was good at math, so it seemed a natural fit. I applied to Iowa State (according to the experts, the 22nd best engineering school in the country) and enrolled in August of 2003 as a mechanical engineer.
By December, I was a business student.
Having engineered only dirt bike paths and deep holes in my backyard, I based my decision on little real-world experience. I’d never attended an engineering course. In fact, I spent only a few minutes of my adolescence thinking about what life might be like as an engineer.
And I’m not sure thinking about it for 30 days rather than 30 minutes would have made a bit of difference. Because no amount of thought would have revealed how much Calc II would suck. Or how frustrating it was that even the cutest girls in a class of hundreds required an active imagination to stir my 18-year-old blood.
The Lizard Brain
Your lizard brain is the dumb, evolutionary center of your brain that thinks in minutes instead of lifetimes. Your lizard brain isn’t self-actualizing, it’s just trying to get food and oxygen and avoid death.
If you listen to your lizard brain, you won’t do anything interesting beyond not dying. You’ll think about doing stuff. You’ll think and think and think until you have lots of stuff realized only in your mind.
And those ideas can’t stay in your lizard brain forever. You won’t be able to live with the dissonance between your thoughts and your actions. Not if you want to be happy anyway. Instead, you’ll either:
a) Build the idea up until it seems unattainable, eventually abandoning it for something “more realistic.”
b) Tear the idea down, convincing yourself it lacked merit from the start.
And where does that leave you? Back at your adviser’s office, selecting a new major.
Life Doesn’t End At Semester
Searching for the one thing you’re supposed to do with your life presupposes a defined endpoint of career satisfaction. Or if you have more modest ambitions, at least a job that doesn’t leave you comatose after an 8-hour day.
But seeking an endpoint will always lead to dissatisfaction. Because if you don’t reach the end, you’ll consider yourself a failure. Perhaps worse, if you do achieve what you set out to do…you’ll find yourself asking, “What now?” And the feelings of dissatisfaction return as you create a new, more ambitious endpoint for yourself.
Its Bullshit Anyway
If happiness isn’t found in endpoints, the question “What should I do with my life?” is flawed to begin with.
To understand the full BS-ness of this question, consider one difference between American and Japanese cultures. At my elementary school in Marion, IA, students would brag about how little they studied to get an A, check plus, or whatever else signaled success. In Japan, however, preparation and hard work are valued more than so-called “genius.” Japanese culture doesn’t regard a lack of preparation as bragging, but instead a shameful admission. The emphasis isn’t on the check mark — it’s on the effort that came before.
It’s not surprising that our society values testing. Tests are easy to measure and they provide organization and clarity. But clarity is achieved at the expense of inaccuracy. And when test outcomes are so heavily affected by preparation, isn’t winning an illusion?
Process, Not Results
If you rely on tests to be happy in life, you’ll end up sad. True happiness isn’t found on the test, it’s found in practice. It’s found in the stuff you do every day.
And that’s what you’re supposed to do with your life.
Just wake up and do stuff. Call, write, cook, draw, code, teach, care. If you like what you did today, do it again tomorrow. Soon the stuff you’re doing will transform into a passion. You might even call it a career if you’re so inclined.
It Becomes Automatic
The cool part about doing stuff is this: the more you do, the better you get. And the better you get, the more stuff you’ll want to do. Because doing stuff is fun, especially when you are good at it. Much more fun than not doing stuff.
You’ll soon develop a sense of purpose. You’ll receive admiration and adulation and appreciation from those affected by your stuff. You’ll sleep better at night. You’ll wake up excited in the morning. You’ll contribute something important to the world.
It’s a self-sustaining process, provided you get started.
The act of doing stuff is like a baseball tossed in the air. And the world has a way of rigging the game so that even if you drop a few balls, you come out ahead. Of course, coming out ahead isn’t the point at all. That’s a result, but not the point. The point is the process.
20 years later, I can’t remember a single thing I purchased with the money from Capitalist 500. If I had to say, I’d guess it was spent on baseball cards and Legos.
What I do remember is all the time I spent playing outside with Jack — running and diving for the ball, getting grass-stained and itchy and sweaty and happy, coming up with a difficult catch and turning to see Jack’s face of approval.
To discover what you should do with your life, do stuff with your life. And you’ll eventually realize there’s nothing to discover but the joy of the process.