“Strategically, its better to do five big things with your life than 500 half-assed things.” – Derek Sivers, The Knowledge Project podcast
This statement got me thinking. I’ve done plenty of half-assed things in my life, but what are the big things, both accomplished and yet to complete? That’s the real question of a lifetime. I’m likely past the halfway mark on my own life (you never know), so what have you done with the time?
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
— Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
Raising two children to be good humans is one notable accomplishment. An accomplishment that was decades in the making. And if they’re a work in progress, they’re far ahead of where I was at their age. Surely parenthood is one of the five big things. When I look at my two I’m amazed at who they’ve become. I played a part in that (perhaps only as an example of what not to do?). If you have kids be a responsible kid with them, delighting in the world. Most of parenthood is figuring things out as you go, but being a steady, reassuring presence in your children’s lives as they stick their own necks out into this crazy world.
And if parenthood is one big thing, so too must a long, happy marriage? Having gotten this one very wrong once, I celebrate the one I’ve gotten right. And by right I mean I haven’t screwed it up just yet, despite my stumbling through the minefield of time. I’m no expert on the topic, but I’ve learned a few things over the years. Ultimately you get what you put into something, and if you invest the time and passion into a marriage you’ll have a healthy return on investment with the right partner. Marriage is never 50/50 – sometimes you give 80, sometimes you give 20, but with the right partner it evens out over time. So that’s two, for those keeping score, and where do we go from here?
Career? One’s career is a complicated journey full of half-assed things, but if you play it well there’s potential for that big thing over time. If I’ve learned anything at this stage of my career its that relationships and trust built day-after-day matter more than skills accumulated or degrees earned. It all counts, but nothing matters more than how you interact with others. I celebrate being in a good place in a complicated time with the potential for great things should I do the work well. Isn’t that what we all want in a career? One of the key decisions you’ll make in your career is how much you want to sacrifice time with that family and in your marriage for career growth. Choose wisely, for balance is possible. Life is too short to work for assholes.
So riddle me this: Beyond family, marriage and career, what are the next couple of big things that you want to accomplish in life? Starting a business? Meaningful charitable work? Environmental activism? Writing that great American novel? Athletic accomplishments? And what of world traveler? I like to think of myself as an unpaid American diplomat, going out into the world and demonstrating that what you see in the movies and reality television and (God forbid) politics isn’t the real America, but just a part of our story. There’s a lot to be said for climbing the ladder and reaching a hand down to help others on their own climb. The more you’re a student of the world, the more you learn and the more you can apply that knowledge towards meaningful interactions.
“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.” – Joseph Campbell
Focus on the big things, and less on the half-assed things. You’ll know the big things when you find them. At least I’m counting on that as a guiding principle on my own path. And if you don’t eventually get five big things accomplished, maybe one or two is enough. But make them really big things.