How to Have a Year that Matters
January 30, 2013
— Aaron Swartz, Ibiza, John Wayne, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Lance Armstrong, Palpitation, Very Important Person, What's it going to take?
By UMAIR HAQUE of HBR
Let’s cut the crap. Life is short, you have less time than you think, and there are no baby unicorns coming to save you. So rather than doling out craptastic advice to you about Making!! It!! To!! The!! Top!!™, let me humbly ask: do you want to have a year that matters — or do you want to spend another year starring-slash-wallowing in the lowest-common-denominator reality show-slash-whiny soap opera of your own inescapable mediocrity-slash-self-imposed tragedy?
If (congratulations) your unquenched desire to have better than a smoking trainwreck of a so-called life exceeds your frenzied mania for spending another 365 days wallowing in a sea of junk-food wrappers, then — don’t worry, I’ll be gentle — here are a few tiny questions.
Why are you here? I don’t mean to induce a full blown heart palpitation accompanied panic attack filled existential crisis in you (or maybe I do) — so let’s keep it simple. This coming year: why are you (really) here? There are plenty of answers to this biggest of questions — but, no: all answers aren’t created equal. There are poor ones, which will probably lead to a long, dull, dismal, rainy Sunday of a year. And there are better ones — which just might begin to explosively unfurl a life that feels fully worth living. Allow me to break it down for you.
What do you want? Here are some perfectly valid answers, if tedious mediocrity’s the limit of your horizon this year: money, sex, power, fame, keeping up with the Kardashians. Here are some better answers, if a year in a life meaningfully well lived is what you’re after. To make a difference. To transform something that sucks. To create that which transforms. To build that which counts. To experience what’s true. To do stuff that matters.
How much does it matter? Here are some pretty good answers, if a snoozer of a year in a cavernous landfill of a life is what you’re after. To your boss, her boss, his boss, or their boss. To shareholders, to the markets, to “consumers.” Here are some better answers, if you want this to be a year that one day that, in a surprisingly short time, you don’t just remember, but that you still savor: to society, to humanity, to tomorrow. To the timeless spirit of furious impossibility that characterizes the art of human excellence — not just to the zombie vampire robots that make up the bulk of our beige, big-box, yawn-inducingly banal infomercial-for-dystopia of a so-called economy.
What’s it going to take? You don’t get to a life well lived using the tired capabilities and skills built to Farmville the cubefarm. You need to “use” not just your whole mind, but to learn to employ your whole being: mind, heart, soul, and body. If nothing less than a life worth living’s your goal, you probably need to nurture not just the so-called pseudoscientific skills of a sartorially power-suited spreadsheet jockey — counting beans, pillaging the townsfolk, sweetly stabbing your peers in the back, all the while slickly glad-handing your higher-ups — but the arts of empathy, humility, passion, imagination, rebellion, to name just a few.
Who’s on your side? A life meaningfully well lived isn’t a Western, and you’re not John Wayne (although I bet you, like me, look darn good in a cowboy hat). Rugged individualism is nice in theory, but the truth is: if you’re going to make a difference, you’re probably not going to make it happen all by your lonesome. So who are your mentors and allies, friends and peers? Who’s at your back, manning your sails, crewing your boat? Here’s a hint: if you look around and your boat’s empty, learn to lead. Challenge, provoke, inspire, connect — and then, harder still, evoke the best in people. For it is the best in us that, in turn, elevates our capacity to love; the truest currency of a life well lived. And so respect is earned — and love given — not just to those who pander, but those who matter.
Where’s your true north? If you’re going to live a life that matters, you need an ethical compass: a belief system with a true north that points toward values that are in some sense enduringly, meaningfully good. Lance Armstrong’s true north seems to have been trophies — not championships; and the result, I’d bet, is a life that now feels arid, empty, wasted. So what’s your true north? In what direction do you find the stuff that makes life “good”? Does your true north point to consumption, status, transactions — instead of investment, accomplishments, relationships? If it’s the former, I’d bet: a life well lived is going to remain as elusive to you as it’s been to Lance.
What breaks your heart? Follow your passion, we’re often told. But how do you find your passion? Let me put it another way: what is it that breaks your heart about the world? It’s there that you begin to find what moves you. If you want to find your passion, surrender to your heartbreak. Your heartbreak points towards a truer north — and it’s the difficult journey towards it that is, in the truest sense, no mere passing idyllic infatuation, but enduring, tempestuous passion.
What’s it worth? A life well lived isn’t partytime with the airheads at the McClubs in Ibiza. And here’s the inconvenient truth: it’s going to take more than the tired old refrains of hard work, dedication, commitment, and perseverance. It’s going to take very real heartbreak, sorrow, grief, and disappointment. Only you can decide how much is too much. Is it worth it? Aaron Swartz, who packed an astonishing amount into his short 26 years, was relentlessly persecuted by an overweening prosecutor — and tragically took his own life in part for it. Van Gogh, of course, famously died for his art. A life well lived always demands one asks of one’s self: is it worth it? Is the heartache worth the breakthrough; is the desolation worth the accomplishment; is the anguish balanced by the jubilation; perhaps, even, are the moments of bitter despair, sometimes, finally, the very instants we treasure most? There’s no easy answer, no simplistic rule of thumb. The scales of life always hang before us — and always ask us to weigh the burden of our choices carefully.
Sure, you might read all the above and mutter: “Duuude? Check me Broseph. All I really want is a mega-bonus, a lifetime membership to the VIP room, and the keys to a Maserati.” Welcome, then, to bootylicious mediocrity. For mediocrity isn’t the poor, hardscrabble immigrant cleaning the bathroom at the 7-11: it’s the lucky trust fund kid who could’ve, just maybe, lived a life worth living — and thinks a life worth living is a loft, a corner office, a sports car, and a designer coffee machine instead. All that stuff’s nice — but entirely besides the point. Of life. For the simple, timeless truth is: You’ll never find the rapture of accomplishment in mere conquest, the incandescence of happiness in mere possession, or the searing wholeness of meaning in mere desire. You can find them only — only — in the exploration of the fullness of human possibility.
Hence: every moment of every day of this year, and every year that follows, what I want you to map is the uncharted shore of potential: the capacity of life to dream, wonder, imagine, create, build, transform, better, and love; the infusion of the art of living into the heart of every instant of existence.
We’ve been taught to be obedient rationalists. And the rationalists say: there’s no magic in the world. But they miss the point. There’s a kind of quiet magic that each and every one of us is condemned to have in us, every moment of our lives: the facility to exalt life beyond the mundane, and into the meaningful; beyond the generic, and into the singular; through the abstract, and into the concrete; past the individual, and towards the universal. And it’s when we reject this, the truest and worthiest gift of life, that we have squandered the fundamental significance of being human; that the soil of our lives feels arid, featureless, fallow, a desert that never came to life; because, in truth, it has been. And so this almost magical facility you and I have, potential, is something like an existential obligation that we must live up to: for it’s only when we not just accept it, but employ it at it’s maximum, that we can reconcile ourselves not merely to regret, but with mortality; that we can escape not merely our own lesser selves, but the all-destroying scythe of futility; and come, finally, to find, at the end of the day, not merely time’s revenge on life, but life’s revenge on time: an abiding grace for both the fragility and the fullness of life.
I don’t pretend any of the above is revolutionary, or new, or anything less than obvious. Yet, the lessons of a life well lived rarely are: they’re simple, timeless truths.
So let me ask again. Why are you here? Do you want this to be another year that flies by, half-hearted, arid, rootless, barely remembered, dull with dim glimpses of what might have been? Or do you want this to be a year that you savor, for the rest of your surprisingly short time on Planet Earth, as the year you started, finally, irreversibly, uncompromisingly, to explosively unfurl a life that felt fully worth living?
The choice is yours. And it always has been.