"THE NEED OF A PURPOSE.--Nor are we to forget that we cannot
intelligently erect our building until we know the purpose for which
it is to be used. No matter how much building material we may have on
hand, nor how skillful an architect we may be, unless our plans are
guided by some definite aim, we shall be likely to end with a structure
that is fanciful and useless. Likewise with our thought structure.
Unless our imagination is guided by some aim or purpose, we are in
danger of drifting into mere daydreams which not only are useless in
furnishing ideals for the guidance of our lives, but often become
positively harmful when grown into a habit"--George Herbert Betts
My life thus far features many advantages of circumstance that benefitted and benefit me tremendously. My parents treated me well and taught me a great deal. My siblings proved entirely congenial, and I've always had a small circle of good friends. An unexpected aptitude for a style of examination called "issue spotting" gave me some late-innings decisive academic success, while congenial clients provide(d) me with a livelihood.
I have a great wife, and kind people all around me. For all this good fortune, I will still seek to think aloud about a few universals which transcend good fortune.
I'm always a bit oriented towards people that prove themselves a bit oriented away from seeing people as "instant sales". I find myself entirely comfortable with advocacy for a position and attempts to persuade people. I employ those devices in my business life and in my personal life. Yet I grow amused and sometimes wary of people who wish to peddle a cure-all such as search-engine-optimization, or the glories of health supplements so effective they cannot withstand the rigors of scientific testing, or, indeed, religious ideas so worthwhile that they require integrity-free hucksterism to promote them.
Yet despite the dangers in advocating a position, and without so much as a "may it please the court", I embark now upon a few ideas about choices and purpose.
I do not have any training in the human mind and its ways. Despite my untutored state, I find a lot of appeal in the notion that a certain kind of what the smart people call "all or nothing thinking" defeats a lot of folks from realizing their potential. "All or nothing" thinking is that way of looking at life that leads one to say "I'm a terrible person" or "I'm the greatest" or "I'm the worst" or even "I'm the sexiest". Almost all people experience these feelings in measured doses, and in moderation they're not as bad as, say, prolonged swigs of absinthe.
When people plot their paths in their lives, though, I think that one particular species of "all or nothing thinking" leads the plow to go idle more than any other. This form of "all or nothing" thinking arises when someone feels that he or she must achieve a given employment dream, or life will be bland and uninteresting.
In our current culture, it's considered a bit vulgar to tell anyone that they cannot achieve their dreams just by wanting them badly enough. The garret of failed ambitions gets glorified--if someone wished to be good at x or y and failed, the beauty of the failed ambition becomes seen as a kind of thing of beauty.
I don't mean at all to denigrate those who pursue a field which proves not to be remunerative, or who try a creative solution which fails to succeed. I sat last year with a physicist whose line of research had failed to bear fruit. She'd spent 10 years of her life--and perhaps did not discover at all what she hoped to discover. Yet to my mind, her effort was a wonderful thing, because science advances through its blind rabbit trails as much as through its progress.
Despite being an amateur at everything but law, I hazard the informed guess that lots of fields of creative endeavor, such as the visual arts, experimental music, and good works for the public benefit, all benefit in some indirect way from the lessons taught by travel down the wrong road.
I speak instead of people who can't take the first step because if they cannot have all of this dream or that dream, then the likelihood of life working for them evaporates. If one cannot possibly achieve x or y, then why bother? Why bother indeed?
That term "magical thinking" keeps getting thrown around these days in all sorts of contexts, like novels from Latin America in which people transmute into birds, curious psycho-babble from HBO shows, and descriptions by skeptics about the things others believe in which the skeptics fail to believe. Though the term "magical thinking" gets over-used, I still believe that a kind of "magical thinking" kicks in for folks to help excuse them achieving things.
I dislike people getting too wrapped up in the "good old days". The "good old days" featured polio, Jim Crow laws, and poverty beyond imagining. I do think, though, that one thing worth recovering from the "old days" is the notion that people need not achieve some huge dream or fame in order to live a worthwhile life. My notion is that not everybody will excel. My notion is that a lot of us will not be at the top of our profession, and that most of us end up using our considerable talents in something less glorious than our fondest hope and dream.
My belief is that it's good to strive to succeed, and it's good to have goals. I think that goals help make us happier, and help give our lives a pointer. When the failure of a given lofty goal arrives, however, then there is what is to my mind a "modern tendency" to forsake all effort. I like the idea instead that adversity should be met with pluck, thrift, and enormous nimbleness. If one cannot be a research chemist, then one becomes the finest forensic technician one can be. One of my dear friends failed in his long-held quest to be a medical doctor and instead assessed his skills, and became a rocket scientist.
Here I think that people underestimate how flexible and capable they can be. The "I am nothing" thinking sets in. Yet history shows that people overcome adversity all the time and go in unexpected directions. Take this composer fellow Rimsky-Korsakov. He got essentially no music training but a little piano and the company of good friends, and was destined to follow his family's calling in his country's Navy. Yet to his surprise, he ended up leading a military music ensemble, helping to pave his way to become an amazing composer. Robert Schumann's great skill was piano, but he ruined a hand. As as musician he was "nothing". Yet he played his hand as well as he could He, too became an amazing composer.
I think that is one virtue of middle-age. One sees the effect of combating over-rigid thinking. I know a vocationally-unhappy chemical engineer who became (and loves being) a speech and language pathologist.
A solid saleswoman, burned out on sales, became a capable supervisor of salespeople. On a more negative note, I knew a fine lawyer who could not imagine practice without all the trappings of material success--who ultimately had no practice at all, for want of it meeting his illusion of grandeur. I know a woman whose learning challenges mean she can only hold certain types of jobs--who is always unhappy because she refuses to see herself doing those jobs.
I like that idea that we are all a varied series of skills and a tremendous potential for a sense of purpose.
It's not as important what our skills are, and, within a spectrum of good, what our purposes may be.
We can all lose the thinking that we are trapped by our limitations and our inability to immediately be the people we visualize being. Almost all of us suffer from a variant of the disease--but it is controllable, and nearly curable.
The first illusion we have to lose is the illusion that we are nothing. Take this fellow George Herbert Betts. He had few advantages, being the Iowa-born son of a Dutch father and Scots Irish mother in a rural farm family. His education was in a rural one-room school room. Even when he got into a college, in his 20s, he worked as rural principal up until his thirties.
On paper, he was nothing--but in 1909, 39 years after his birth, he got a Columbia Ph.D. and authored a book about the mind. He became a respected author. He was "nothing", but he did not live as if he were "nothing"--or even destined to be "everything". He just played the cards he had.
The world is full of folded hands, throwing down cards. Yet people walk in fields of wildflowers,
all within reach, and all fleeting, in the way life is fleeting.
Here in Texas we look for bluebonnets, which we consider special. But if the flower proves to be
an evening primrose, or even the quiet, low but lovely blue-eyed grass, there is purpose and meaning in that, too.
Perhaps "right work" arises when we use our work to find our meaning, and not use our desire for recognition to convince us that nothing has any meaning.