By Alan Cohen
While Dee and I were waiting to be served in a restaurant, I picked up an Etch a Sketch–like toy on a rack near our table, a plaything designed to keep little kids entertained while waiting for food. Curious, I began to write on the screen and tinker with the dials. I discovered a large knob that turned like a dial and moved in a line horizontally back and forth across the entire bottom of the device. “What does that dial do?” Dee asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. “It isn’t connected to anything and doesn’t get anything done. It just gives kids the illusion that they are getting something done.”
Dee laughed. “Sounds like a lot of the office work I’ve done.”
She was kidding, but serious. A certain amount of business work is productive and meaningful. A lot just feels like busywork; filling out forms; fixing website issues; jumping through multi-layered security hoops; getting stuck in voicemail loops; fending off hackers; dealing with people who don’t pay attention to instructions. While on some level these activities may be necessary in an increasingly complex world, a lot of them feel boring and like a waste of time. At the end of the day, you lie in bed and wonder, “What did I do today, anyway?” Perhaps you, like me, would rather do what is meaningful than busywork. I’ve heard that some doctors spend one-third of their time healing people, and two-thirds of their time doing paperwork and administrative tasks. Where are our priorities?
Soon afterward, we watched one of my favorite films, Lost Horizon. The movie contains a poignant scene in which high-ranking statesman Robert Conway finds himself in the remote paradise of Shangri-La, where he falls in love with a delightful woman who invites him to stay there with her forever. He explains that he has important work to do back in society. She tells him, “… you know you were going nowhere—and you know it!” Conway thinks for a moment, smiles, and replies, “You’re absolutely right.” In that moment, he realizes that most of the work he’s doing isn’t leading to anything of true value. He’s rolling the dial to nowhere.
If you’re tired of running on a hamster wheel, be honest about what you’d rather be doing. How much of your work and daily activities are life-giving, and how much is boring and deadening? How much tolerance do you have for the meaningless? Any tolerance at all is too much. If you’re bored, either find a way to make what you’re doing interesting, or choose something more stimulating. There are no other options, really. French author Jules Renard said, “I am never bored anywhere; to be bored is an insult to oneself.”
Everything you do is either taking you somewhere, or it is taking you nowhere. If there’s any value in going nowhere, it’s to bring you to the realization of the somewhere you’d rather be. Our challenge is that nowhere is so highly populated that it seems like somewhere. When billions of people agree that illusions are solid, it is tempting to pitch your tent in a swamp. But reality isn’t a democracy, and truth doesn’t depend on the number of people who subscribe to it. Mass agreement doesn’t make emptiness full. It takes an innocent mind to see the emperor isn’t wearing clothes. Such people are branded mavericks and heretics, but eventually, when the masses finally catch up with reality, the heretics are lauded, knighted, or sainted. Paul McCartney, who (supposedly) flipped the bird at the monarchy by smoking pot in Buckingham Palace, was knighted, along with the other Beatles. (Editor’s Note: The claim about smoking pot in the bathroom was disproven later.)
One day I stood at the ferry dock in Tiburon, California, and watched commuters exit from their workday in San Francisco. They didn’t look like happy campers. I thought, “If that’s what livelihood is all about, count me out.” Zen philosopher Alan Watts said, “The secret to success is to find a way to get paid for having fun.” Passion is the strongest money magnet I know. When you love what you do, consumers are happy to pay you to do it for them. When you find a good reason to wake up in the morning, you’re truly turning the dial to somewhere.
If you’re doing something devoid of joy, either find a way to bring greater meaning to it, or stop doing it. This is your life we’re talking about. You get just so many trips around the sun before you get returned to inventory. None of us can afford to waste time in irrelevance.
There are three ways you can immediately add meaning and value to your life: (1) Follow your joy voice, rather than the fear voice; (2) Connect by focusing on the human element in your work and communication; and (3) Serve. When you take care of people, you remember why we’re here. Our deepest purpose is to make each other’s lives easier. Everything else is either a means toward that end, or a detail.
Every day we are presented with numerous dials we can turn. Some of them simply provide the illusion of action, and others actually have an effect. May you sleep well tonight, knowing that your day on earth was well spent.
Alan Cohen is the author of the inspirational book, Enough Already: The Power of Radical Contentment, and many others. For more information about his books and videos, free daily inspirational quotes, online courses, and weekly radio show, visit alancohen.com.