The great Hunter Thompson wrote a letter in his 20’s to a friend who was seeking life advice. He told his friend that the secret to making a life is to make a choice between floating along the path of the river or swimming toward a goal. This is a relatively simple bit of advice. How many people have seen the Disney movie “Finding Nemo” and have adopted the mantra of “just keep swimming”? However, Hunter goes on to ask the simple question, what is wrong with floating? Especially, if you don’t know where to swim to?
This question has been dogging me lately. In a quest to find fulfillment, we are always chasing the perfect job, the perfect life, the perfect spouse, etc. However, the cynicism that hides inside all of us makes us wonder whether we are going in the right direction or we are better off just staying where we are. Maybe the new job or career is not anything different, maybe it will be worse, maybe it is not there at all? Maybe we are not as skilled as we think we are and are not going in the right direction. In other words, swim where?
The secret Thompson goes on to discuss is not in what we are going to do, but who are we going to become? We need, first, to realize that the place of fulfillment is going to be different for every person and no two people are going to find fulfillment in the same way. The more we know about ourselves, the better the chances we have to be happy. For if we don’t know ourselves, we are going to be swimming to a goal that will make us worse off than where we were when we started.
I saw this happen up close with the nice couple who built a home next to ours in Florida. The house was a big place that was custom design from the garage to the roof. Every bit of it was planned and executed based on an idea that had someone spent years designing. When it was finished, the nice couple from New York moved in. He had owned a successful printing business in Buffalo, and his wife sold insurance. She wanted to retire from her job and work part time at Disney and he wanted her to be happy. He sold his company, built their dream house in Florida and retired in style. After about 6 months, he found he didn’t like golf. He read everything he wanted to read. He had reached his limit of trips to the theme parks. So, he then thought, maybe, he would start working part-time at a print shop in Florida. He started doing that, then moved to full time, and, finally, bought out the owner and was working just as hard as he was up north.
One Sunday he and I were chatting and he told me that he feels like a fool. All he wanted to do when he was working was to stop working. After he stopped, all he wanted to do was go to work. “Nah” I told him, “I think you are the exact opposite of a fool”. “Why is that?” he wondered. “Well, you know who you are. You know what makes you happy, and you are doing it. The fact that it is not what you thought it was going to be is not a failure. It is an awakening.”
Just like that old fable of the turtle and the scorpion, my neighbor had to realize that we are who we are. Trying to be something other than that is always going to be a bust. Our goal in working should not just be to find a good job or career, but to find out who we are and go be that person. Fulfillment and happiness will follow.
So, if the secret is knowing ourselves, then that means that the best job is the one that looks most like us? Well, not really. The person who is the happiest in his or her career is the one who is working in the job that lets them do what they do best, in the most productive way. In other words, the job that lets us use our abilities to the fullest potential.
I think of a great salesman I know. He loved selling his product and he was great at it. He was so good that he decided to open his own company. The company took off and started to grow. He was out there selling and working with clients. He was the happiest when he was meeting people, talking up his product and solving people’s problems. He gained renown and was considered to be the shining star in his industry. Things took off and the sky was the limit. The problem was that he loved selling and moving forward. The mundane running of the business was less of a focus. The making payroll, paying the bills, hiring employees, and taking care of the day-to-day was not what he liked. As a result, his company grew too big, too fast and fell in on itself.
After this setback, he revaluated what he wanted to do. He knew he was an asset. He knew who he was. He needed to find a place that let him be him. Fortunately, he found a company that gave him that ability. He can move and sell and help solve problems, and is not hamstrung by the other aspects of the business that were holding him back. He is in the right place, and is using his abilities to the fullest. Fulfillment for him was not in “being your own boss” but in being in a place that let him be the best he could be.
One of the reasons his story has a happy ending is that he never lost faith in himself. That is a key to moving forward, but it is also easier said than done. All too often, when we suffer a setback, we go inward looking for someone to blame. While looking inward is the right idea, we need to do it for the right reasons. To find strength and determination, not a place to hide. One of the things that is going to determine our level of success is not the breaks we get, but how we handle them. Like Chuck Swindoll said “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” We need to have confidence in who we are and what our strengths are and find a place to let them soar.
Just Keep Swimming
Probably the biggest take away I got from Thompson’s letter was that we need to BE something. People who are trying to make a change in their lives sometimes lose contact with this and get lost. Imagine being on a highway overpass watching the busy street below. It is filled with cars moving very fast and going to very specific destinations. When you are contemplating a change, you can feel like you want to be on that highway, going fast and having fun, but you are stuck driving around looking for the on ramp. You have a lot to offer and you don’t mind doing it, but you just need a chance.
Well, keep driving around, my brothers and sisters. You will find it. You will BE something. Just know that the best place for you is the place where you can BE your best. It may not look like what you think it should, but it is out there. Just keep swimming.