Friday, March 20, 2009

Advice From a Failure

“All that truly counts is the relationship to the self—the self as deeply as it can be known, as fully as it can be accepted, as genuinely as it can be lived–for from that relationship all else proceeds.”

A belated happy birthday to Jo Coudert. March 14, 1923. Time flies. But you are ever young. Many people's lives were changed because you decided to put your thoughts down on paper way back in 1965. You are still going strong more than 40 years later. Please don't ever stop. May you live to be a thousand. And, for the record, you were never a failure.
Caution: this is not a humor post.
An essay on Right Livelihood.

Like many people, Relax Max's puppeteer Tom has spent a lifetime trying to answer the same question asked by so many others down through the ages: "Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is my mission in life? What should I be doing with my life?"

Many of us do go through life constantly seeking those elusive answers. As the years begin to slip away, this search for meaning and for right livelihood becomes more and more desperate. The need is to learn "The Secret" of what we should be doing with our lives—and learn it before there is no more life left.

After a considerable period of frustration at not being able to quite define our purpose and our reason for being—not to mention a small fortune spent on self-help books—some of us begin to give up hope of ever finding the answers. We settle for whatever we can get. We begin to live the same lives of quiet desperation that our parents lived, and their parents before them lived.

Some of us get lucky, though, and manage, through persistence, to get at least part of the answer. In this post I would like to share with you some of the things that I finally came to understand during my long search for the mysterious Secret Truth. These truths are deceptively simple, but they have helped me make more sense of my life since I uncovered them. At least I haven't felt the need to buy any more self-help books after that remarkable day.

First, after more than a few years of searching, it occurred to me, as it may also occur to you, that the correct question was not being asked, and that was possibly why clear answers were not forthcoming. In other words, instead of asking ourselves what we should be doing in life, what we really want to know is, "What would make me happy?" That simple reframing of the question changes the dynamic and makes the question easier to answer. 

The new knowledge that I had been perhaps asking the wrong questions didn't help me that much at first, but then I began to contemplate the definition of happiness, and also the nature of happiness. Suddenly, the idea came into my mind that one of the unique characteristics of happiness is that it cannot be made a goal. That is to say you cannot obtain happiness by the usual progressive step-like accomplishments that you do in order to arrive at "normal" goals. What then?

As soon as I realized that happiness was not a goal—or even a tangible thing for that matter—I became liberated enough to think outside the box a bit. If happiness is not a thing to be somehow garnered by accomplishing step-by-step goals, what is it?

That's when the simplicity of it first hit me: happiness is a condition, not a thing. Happiness is a desired emotional state that one cannot make happen simply by beating it over the head or capturing it and dragging it home. It is much simpler, more sublime, than that. It suddenly became obvious to me that all you really have to do to be happy is to begin doing things you truly enjoy, things that bring you joy, and then happiness simply... ensues.

Up until that point, I had assumed that things were what brought happiness: if I had a new car, I would be happy; if I had a new house, I would be happy; if I had plenty of money, I would be happy. Then, I did get a new car that I had been wanting for a long time, and I was happy—for about two weeks; and I did get a nicer house on more land, and I was happy—until a few mortgage payments came and went; and I did, over time, begin making more and more money, and I was happy—until I realized I still possessed the capacity to spend as much as I made. 

You may see what I am getting at. You can't really trade things for happiness. Happiness only comes when you are doing what you enjoy doing. I enjoyed downshifting and sliding around curves in my cool Mustang SVO—and at those times, I experienced happiness. I enjoyed sitting on my patio in the quiet summer twilight and sipping an ice tea and watching the sun go down—and at those times, I experienced happiness. I enjoyed spending money—and as I made the selection to purchase a new set of golf clubs, I was happy.

If you are reading this now and guessing there might be more to this happiness thing than meets the eye, you would be right. True happiness needs to be sustainable. If you are going to sustain the wonderful feeling of happiness, then you need to be permanently doing something that brings you joy. And something that brings such permanent joy can only be that special thing which you were meant to be doing with your life. Pow! The paradox comes full circle. Catch 22. Impossible.

Happily, further investigation shows this is not true. With this new knowledge of the nature of happiness, you are able to reason out the third piece of the puzzle that resolves the paradox once and for all. The knowledge that it is happiness which you are really trying to experience, is the key to the puzzle of "What should I be doing with my life." Suddenly you realize they are one and the same. In other words, to find out what you should be doing with your life, you need only answer the question, "What really makes me happy? What, when I am doing it, makes me lose all track of time?"

Then, you answer the final question: "What am I good at? What can I do really well? What thing do I do that people say, 'Wow! How did you do that?'"

A light comes on in your head. A silly smile comes over your face. Maybe you hear angels singing in the distance because another human has come to understand what his purpose on earth is. Maybe the goofy smile turns into laughter as you realize that all you have to do now is devise a way to do that thing you love to do and are good at doing, in such a manner that the result will help and benefit other people in some way. And the circle is completed.

I believe with all my heart that we are all born with certain gifts and talents and capacities and aptitudes; that these things in various combinations make us an unique and inestimably important person; that these raw materials are hard-wired into the very fiber of our existence, just as surely as the DNA of our body's physical structure exists.

I also believe many of us spend much needless time looking outside for the clues that will tell us what we were meant to do in life. We look for writing in the clouds, signs in the stars; we wait for a voice from on high to finally tell us what it is we are supposed to be doing. Yet all the time, more often than you might imagine, the answer lies within us; has already been placed in us at birth. Sadly, we too often go through our entire lives without realizing our purpose, because we talk too loudly to really hear; look too furtively to really see; act too frantically to really feel.

The apostle Paul tells us these things are "written in our members."

Socrates said simply, "Know thyself."

Shakespeare wrote, "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

I want to be as plain as possible here. This seemingly simple concept is deceptively hard to explain. If you take away anything at all from this post, I hope it is that there is something you need to be doing with your life, something special you are supposed to be doing. Perhaps it is something that only you with your unique gifts and talents can do, and if you don't do it, it simply won't get done in the world.

I would also have you understand that, more often than not, the clues to what you should be doing are found inside yourself; things seeking constant expression; things that make you feel uneasy and restless when you suppress that expression.

Try to follow yourself around and watch what you do when you are not at work, when you are enjoying "free time" to do as you please. Maybe you like to work to restore things, bringing them back to life with skills that seem to come natural to you. Maybe you like to work with wood in the workshop in your basement, your hands expertly turning out fine furniture. Maybe the watercolor paintings you do to relax are acclaimed by your friends, and it just comes easily to you. Maybe your heart soars when you play the piano, and you play so well, so naturally. Maybe you have the best feelings of all when you are volunteering at the nursing home, or with small children, or with the sick. Maybe you feel you are very much at home when you work with animals, and they sense your love and bond with you. Maybe you are at peace in your garden, nourishing plants, making things grow. Or one of a thousand other things.

The clues are that the thing makes you feel good inside, seems to come naturally to you, and, whatever it is, you do it well—almost as a second nature. And, always, some person outside yourself is helped in some way or receives a benefit from your work.

I don't think I can get any plainer than Richard Bolles stated it in his explanation of our individual Mission: " exercise that Talent which you particularly came to Earth to use—your greatest gift, which you most delight to use, in the place or setting which God has caused to appeal to you the most, and for those purposes which God most needs to have done in the world."

One can spend a lifetime trying to change one's self. Or one can stop and listen to what your inner self is trying to tell you: that you are already somebody who is very special. Your job is not to try to change into someone else's ideal. Your job is to become yourself, what you were always meant to be since the day you were born or perhaps even before; your true self.

If we were indeed created in God's image, we need not to be ashamed of that image; we need not to continually try to be that which we are not.

Finally, I return to Jo Coudert:

"Of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never leave nor lose. To the question of your life, you are the only answer. To the problems of your life, you are the only solution."

[Much of this post consists of excerpts from a book by Tom Osburn on the subject of Right Livelihood which will appear late this year.]


  1. Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

    ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

    I think that about sums it up for me. Sometimes people put too much effort into chasing after this elusive state.

    I think also they expect too much from happiness, that it can be a constant state of bliss, of something approaching ecstasy. For me, it's a deep contentment which may or may not be interspersed with periods of sadness, and these only serve to help me appreciate the happiness more.

  2. I have been blessed in my life, for it has always been the experiences that made me happy, not the "stuff".

    Well written and I believe you are on your path of true happiness as well.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I think we can try too hard to be happy as other people see it.

    Happiness was me yesterday, sitting in the castle grounds with my friends, a cup of tea and the sound of birdsong.

  4. This is a wonderful post, and touches on exactly what I have been thinking about lately. I agree with all that you have said; and I'd add that it is perfectly reasonable, and normal, even if one is happy in one's path, to be unhappy sometimes.

    And I also agree that it is not in the least about the material stuff that one has (although a little extra closet space is always welcome).

    Something to do. Someone to love. Something to look forward to to.
    Not original, but it works for me.

  5. Lovely post. I'm eager to read more.

  6. @A. - Ah, yes. The Elusive Butterfly of Love. Wait. That was Bobby Goldsboro. I think. Hawthorne, eh? You read Hawthorne. I believe you. How about: "Man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?" Some English guy.

    Constant state of bliss? Something approaching ecstasy? Hey, I was only talking about how to find the right job. That's pretty hot talk for a shy little Irish lass. Settle down. :)

  7. @Debbie. Stuff? Pfft.

    This from a lady who has a wine cellar in her golf cart. Sigh.

    But you know I'm smiling right now. See: :)

  8. @Alison - Oh, Alison. AlisonAlisonAlisonAlison. I'm guessing Scotland again. But no mention of an umbrella and macintosh. And Bird singing. And pipers piping.

    Teasing. Of course. All the best castles are there. And even better with you sitting there in the snow (grass?) sipping what you claim to be tea. Thank you for your comment. Caution: now is the time not to get lost. The Entrecard thugs have been known to kidnap. Just saying. :)

  9. @Lidian - I really liked your comment and found it very interesting.

    And so true, not about the stuff at all. Money can't buy love, they say.

    But it can sure put you in a better bargaining position.

    Ahem. I know you didn't come here to be browbeaten. So I will thank you for your insight and ever-so-apt adage. I believe that. :)

  10. Dear Mysterious Lady Sarcasm (I almost slipped up and called you by your actual name. But I will never spill my guts. No one here knows who you are.)

    And I am eager to write some more as well.

    You always knock me out when you show up to comment. Thank you. :)

  11. "Man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?", Browning. Andrea del Sarto. I read that too, believe what you will. That's about striving for perfection. My point was that we shouldn't be striving for happiness.

    Sorry about the ecstasy, didn't mean to get you all worked up. I was saying happiness *isn't* a state of bliss.

  12. Do golf carts and wine cellars count as stuff? Drat, then I guess I will have mend my ways. Or not, but definitely one of the two!

  13. @A. - Thank you. That was my point too. You can't strive for happiness because it is not a thing. The more "strive" the more it will elude you. Is this thing on? ::testing. testing. one two:: Or is it just you who are trying to give me trouble? No striving for happiness. Instead do things that you like to do. Soon you will be happy. Magic. And forget the butterflies too. :) :)

  14. @Debbie - Anything that is deductible does not count as stuff. So you are ok. Close your eyes. Relax. Picture a pink golf cart. Picture it on a lazy summer afternoon on lush green grass. Good. Just relax. Now picture a small door in the floor of the golf cart. Can you see it? Good. Door goes to wine cellar. Bingo. Tax deductible because it is necessary for therapy. Not stuff. Wine is sill stuff though, but not cart and cellar. $250 please....

    What are you up to? Why no kayaking yet? Oops. Sorry. That's stuff. :)

  15. Very deep! As usual you have made everyone think and that is a good start.

    I agree with you that God has given each one of His remnant a gift He wants to use when working THROUGH them. The closer you come to your Creator the more you discover how easy it is to be happy when you allow Him to work THROUGH you. To discover what the gift is you have to stop rushing after worldly things and spend quiet time so that your "inner self" can show you the way to it.

    I enjoyed your post very much!

  16. kayak is in the shop having the wine cellar redone, then I will be back out on the open waters

  17. Lessons I have learned which I wish I had learned in 1980 when I started college. Especially the "what will make me happy?" as opposed to "what does everyone else think I should be doing?". Many years wasted. But whatever.

    The stuff thing was brought home to me again this weekend as we helped some friends pack up most of their belongings to go into storage so they can build a new house. Canning jars, anyone?

  18. And you do plan to let us know when the book is available for purchase, yes?

  19. @Frostygirl - I apologize for seeming deep and also for making my friends think. I assure you I was only rambling on and so making anyone think was not my intention. :)

    And I agree with everything you said. The first step in our quest for mission must be to quietly stand in the conscious presence of God and just listen. Thanks for your input.

  20. @Debbie - Your are too funny for me to keep up with, but I will keep trying anyway. :) #3.

    @Janet - I know you have learned these lessons long before I came along. One thing that makes ME happy is your comments on my blogs. :)

    I will set up a dedicated sales blog whenever a book is available. Thanks for asking.

  21. I like this whole idea of happiness, though I find myself more often leaning toward contentment. It is always easy to think that more fill-in-the-blank would make us happy, and for a while more does.

    We are happier when we have enough, but not greatly happier when we have a lot more than enough. Still, we all like to think having more will make us happy.

    I like the little link thingie that took me to more of your posts on happiness, for example.



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