Finding meaning in ditch digging

Jacklyn and I were talking this morning over coffee, about the career assessment tests we had taken in middle school. You know the ones, the modern day oracle’s, half personality profile and half aptitude, that divine your entire future from the patterns found in multiple choice questions like so many rune stones cast upon a students desk.

We were talking about how different the course that was plotted out for her was (politician, actor) from what she was doing. And I started to think just how long it takes to learn about ourselves. She knew she was good at public speaking at that time, but how could she have known she’d be a great web designer or a great product manager?

But more interesting than that, I thought how little I knew back then about the basic human truths that underlie the choice of a life’s work. At first I believed I wanted to work to make money in order to allow myself to have the type of life that would be rich and fulfilling and fun. Then in my mid-20’s I realized that so much of your life is your work, that if your work isn’t fulfilling then it’s a losing battle. You just can’t make up for it in your free time. And that seemed to make a lot more sense, do something you love doing and everything else will follow, so I did that for a while.

But eventually I discovered there was a flaw in that thinking as well. The thing is no matter how passionate you are about what you’re doing there’s always going to be aspects that are pure drudgery. If you’re a successful writer you might spend 10 o more hours editing and crafting for every one hour of new content. If you’re a musician you can spend 100 of hours rehearsing for every one hour of performing. Although this new view was definitely an improvement over pursuing money, it still had the same trap, you’re paying for one moment at the cost of other moments.

And then I came along to the place where I am now. That finding meaning is the only answer. It’s the only way every moment can have value. It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it. Of course it’s a bonus if you enjoy most of the work as well. But, given the choice I’ll take meaning any day. Give me a shovel and a path to a village that needs water. Tell me that it’s vitally important that I dig a ditch across the dessert to that village, that the water just isn’t going to get there without me. Make me believe that every pile of earth I lift out is getting me closer to that goal, and I’m going to be the happiest ditch digger in the world.

I’ll wake up each morning long before the blazing sun. I’ll think about the efficiency of the arc of my shovel stroke as I lay in bed exhausted each night. And I’ll look behind myself at the long ditch I’ve dug with an unmitigated pride, and on my death bed I’ll think back about that ditch and the water that flows through it and I’ll pass gently into the night.

And this is the heart of it, I really don’t think anyone’s any different. Everyone just wants it to matter that they were here, to know that the planet wasn’t indifferent to your existence, that something was just a little bit better because we made it so.

So, I think those tests need some revising. There’s what you have an aptitude for, and then there’s what you enjoy doing, and that’s all well and good, but what really matters is what you care about. What means something to you?