“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This question is closer to the root of all evil than we’ve been giving it credit for it.
Let’s set aside that no young person in their right mind should – or really could – have any solid idea of what they want to do with their lives. Let’s set aside that people typically switch professions many times throughout their adult life. Let’s set aside the implication that our jobs define who and what we are.
What really makes this question so counterproductive is that it instructs us to think about our profession in concrete terms. What sector of society do you want to work in? What job title do you want? What outfit are you going to wear?
I know now that the answers to these questions are really only superficialities – merely signposts that point to a more essential part inside of us. But it took the Right Livelihood Quest to really discover this.
The difference between a job and a livelihood
When I was a teenager, I was asked this question incessantly, seemingly by anyone I talked to older than 25.
Early on, I found an answer that seemed to satisfy them.
“I want to be a doctor,” I found myself saying.
Saying these words immediately earned me praise. Friends and family congratulated me for following in my father’s footsteps. They told me what a noble and dignified career it was. They reminded me how big of a house it would buy me.
Believing these words was an easy bypass to a sense of direction and purpose. I knew where I was heading and everyone approved. For me, it was a commitment to working diligently, to being clear-headed, stoic, and duteous. I was making a contract with the universe that if I did what was expected of me I would belong somewhere.
The problem was I didn’t actually consider whether it made sense for me. I didn’t ask whether it aligned with my talents and interests or whether I’d actually like the daily realities of being a doctor.
I asked myself what job title felt good, not what I wanted to do with my life. One can be a doctor and do harm to people. That would be a job. One can spend her life healing without ever going to school and stepping foot inside a hospital. That’s a livelihood.
What I couldn’t see when I was a teenager was that the essential roles of healing and caregiving underneath the title of “doctor” didn’t particularly resonate with me. They are noble and of tremendous value, certainly. But they aren’t me. They’re not my right livelihood.
Identity breakdown #1
This declared job title – and the identity that I took from it – persisted for years. I mulled over what medical school I’d attend, agonized over what specialty I’d land on. I planned which of these signposts would comprise future me.
So when my SAT scores finally arrived, they were deeply destabilizing, even painful.
As a soon-to-be-doctor, I expected and needed high Math scores. To hell with that touchy-feely Verbal bullshit. I was going to be a Doctor and I needed to excel in the right or wrong, black or white, tangible and practical world of analysis and calculations.
Unfortunately, what I began discovering then was: that wasn’t really me. My scores suggested I excelled in Verbal and was proficient at best in Math.
If this identity I had begun forming in my early teens started to crack then, by the time I left college, deep fissures were forming.
At Simon Goland’s and Alison van Buuren’s Right Livelihood Quest, it shattered to pieces.
Time for another adventure
In the summer of 2015, my now-wife Sara and I attended the Quest on Cortes Island in British Columbia. Simon was a faculty member at my business school and many alumni that came before had urged me to give it a try.
After driving up I-5 from Seattle to Canada, we took a ferry from the city of Vancouver over to Vancouver Island, drove up the island for a few hours, took another ferry to Quadra Island, drove across the island, hopped on yet another ferry to Cortes, drove across the island, and then walked in a mile or so into the site.
The long journey felt almost absurd, like I was Bilbo Baggins making my way to the Lonely Mountain. Fitting, I suppose, for a quest.
Over the next four days, we joined a group of ten others seeking insight on what to do with our lives. We all, I think, had a sense of incompleteness in our lives. There was something we yearned for that kept alluding us, there, but just out of reach.
Having just finished my first year of business school, I came in hoping to uncover some concrete new direction in my life, some tangible, actionable sense of what job I’d go into or what business I might build.
I didn’t get that.
But what I did get has been endlessly more impactful and lasting.
Through a series of processes, discussions, meditations, and other indescribable, uncategorizable moments, I began exploring questions which I had never really given their proper due: What has my life been preparing me for? What are my true talents? In what roles am I most “me” and most able to share my gifts?
With each day, each session, we went deeper down the rabbit hole, deeper inside, looking for pieces of our gold that had been buried for too long.
Identity breakdown #2
Days later, I left the Quest with many specific nuggets of insight on my talents, my ideal contribution to the world, and more. In particular, I found that I really thrive in the role of “building roads” – making new ideas or possibilities accessible for others, enabling and empowering others to journey to a new place of discovery. I wanted to be a connector. Another attendee resonated with the role of being a “safe harbor,” while another was a “shining light”.
But what has truly stuck with me – and most deeply affected my life trajectory – was something even simpler.
“I am an artist.”
On the last day, standing on a big rock overlooking the Salish Sea, in front of the rest of the group, I found myself quite dramatically declaring – owning – these words.
Part of me judged myself immediately, disgusted and embarrassed. The words felt trite, vague – the type of thing someone says to convey depth of thought and feeling without really saying anything at all.
Even more, I felt unworthy. To me, truly being an artist, a creator, a visionary didn’t feel like an option for me. To that part of me, my only gifts were in working hard, getting shit done, and doing what was expected of me.
But I found another part of me at the Quest – one that had become impossible to ignore. With these words, that part of me felt a deep sense of release, like there had been a lump in its throat that finally dislodged itself. I felt joy.
The practical value of finding of the Right Livelihood Quest
That moment was deeply therapeutic for me. Simply getting the insight and the release that came with it was immensely valuable in its own right. I shed a burden I’d been carrying too long.
But it has also been highly practical and informative for my life since. At no point did I figure or intend I’d go home and buy a set of watercolors or a pottery wheel. This is not what being an artist meant for me. For me, it meant simply living in my creativity. I wanted to color outside the lines and bring something new into being. I wanted to think of myself – and be seen – as someone who was able to bring new insight and possibilities in the world.
Since then, I’ve launched Kindling – an online magazine about imagining new possibilities for our world. I have stepped into being a writer, allowing my thoughts and feeling, not my concrete actions, to be my gift. At my job at the Pacific Institute, I’ve transitioned from a research role to an engagement role. Now instead of conducting research and writing up reports about it, I find ways to grow an audience for that research, to “build a road” to its insight and value. I make it accessible so others can benefit. I find this far more satisfying for me.
These shifts would not have happened without the Quest. Since that summer, I’ve had a newfound sense of purpose and clarity.
And that’s what your right livelihood is all about. Beyond the titles, beyond the outfit, beyond the salary – what has your life been preparing you perfectly for? Whether personally or professionally or otherwise, how do you want to live your life?
How do you want to be right now?