A year and a half ago, after I had initially secured my first book contract, I was talking to a former colleague (a lawyer) who asked a simple, and honest question, about my new life, and career, endeavour:
Are you getting paid for that?
I smiled and said,
I hope so, I have a royalty contract, but no advance, so I guess I have to sell some books first to technically get paid.
It was an honest, and reasonable question, and afterward I chuckled at how much the question fit so many classic stereotypes that unfortunately plague the legal profession – such as the perception that lawyers only care about money, or the belief that they only work if they are sure that their bill will actually get paid (and that they can collect a retainer).
I know that this isn’t true for all lawyers (but it definitely applies to some). I’ve reflected on this statement a lot over the last year and a half, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t the attitude the legal profession that is the problem. In fact, I don’t believe that lawyers, on the whole, think proportionally different than society at large.
We live in an unbelievably material culture where success and achievement is primarily judged by whether or not a person has been able to acquire money and “stuff”, or whether they have been able to obtain a position of respect, power, or admiration. We don’t seem to celebrate the people who voluntarily reject these objects, and live a personally fulfilling self-prescribed path. These types of people, we often think, either don’t have ambition, couldn’t make it in the first place, or have simply given up at some point. These people are not our “leaders”. They aren’t the ones we celebrate.
As a result, I believe that many, many people judge the worthiness of an activity by whether or not they will gain something from it – whether that be money, prestige, acclaim, or status. I know, for sure, I have been caught by this many times, and that a large number of the personal decisions I’ve made in my life have been based on a desire for personal gain.
I’ve been reflecting on this concept a lot over the past couple years. It has really occupied my thoughts. Here’s why:
I’ve realized that getting stuff, and earning praise, is actually quite hollow, and it leaves me just wanting more, and that there are some things that I do that may never translate into wealth or status, but I still love doing them, and I never want to stop.
So I’m a bit confused. Society rewards money and status as “achievement”. You don’t hear many TED talks about the Junior High teacher who teaches because he loves to teach. There are lots of books on Steve Jobs but hardly any on the farmer who chooses to farm because he loves it, and he’s willing to sacrifice money and status to do what he loves.
We don’t celebrate those types of people.
This is why it is real challenge to do anything that doesn’t translate into money or status. Money is nice. We get to buy stuff and go on vacations. We get to make our life more comfortable, who doesn’t like that? Status is nice as well. It feels good to have others tell us how successful we are, how smart we are, how special we are. It satisfies, for the moment, our insecurities.
But neither of these ultimately satisfy. We always seem to need the newer car, and we are constantly planning the next achievement.
But here is why I think somewhere along the way society got it wrong:
There are some things that are enough. There are some things that satisfy, independent of “earning money”, or achieving status or success, and I think that if a person is to be truly satisfied in life they need to do more of these types of things.
Allow me to illustrate with three clear examples from my life. In each of these endeavours my motivations are not making money or gaining status. Yet I really enjoy each one of them, and I’m highly motivated to continue pursuing them.
The first activity is writing. From the bottom of my heart I am not motivated to write by a desire to be rich or famous. The odds of that happening (with a run away best seller) are very very low. Sure I would love it, and it would be a dream come true, but I can tell you, as a person who has written approximately 500 words a day for over two years now (in either a book, or a blog), that if you don’t love writing, you won’t write. It is too hard. The chance of a nailing an iconic book is so low that if that is your only motivation you’ll quit.
So why do I write? I write because it makes me happy, independent of the rewards. Writing is meditation for me. It calms me, it soothes me. I love it. I will do it whether or not I become rich or famous from it, and I won’t judge my personal success by whether I am rewarded by society. For me writing is enough. So I am motivated to continue. I’ll keep pumping out blogs and books as long as my mind is lucid and my fingers work.
The next activity is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. There is a 0% chance I will ever be a world champion or professional. In fact, it is likely for me to take decades of constant training to get a black belt. I go to class, roll, and continually get tapped. But each class I feel great, and my motivation to learn more, and get better seems to constantly grow. I leave feeling good about myself, regardless of the outcome of any particular match. For me, the act is enough, the belts, the ranks, the status is irrelevant.
The final activity for me is spending time with my family. I don’t get money for this. I don’t get status for this. I don’t do it because of what I will receive. I love spending time with my wife and my kids because it is enjoyable. No other reason. It is fun to hang out with my kids. It is fun to play sports with my youngest son Seth. It is fun to watch movies with my 10 year old daughter Maci. It is fun to go swimming with my son Cohen. I love talking with Meghann. They are enough. I don’t need any motivation to want to do this. They are their own motivation.
So I think society has it all wrong, and I have openly decided that I don’t care about society’s praise. That realization has made me happier than anything in life.
There is about a 0% chance that I will ever show up on Fortune Magazine’s “50 Greatest Leaders List” because I am far more likely to do things that make me personally satisfied, and not chase “success” or “praise” just so that I can feel good about myself.
Here is the magical discovery of my adult life:
I don’t need any of it to feel good about myself. I just need to do the things that make me happy.