I was recently at breakfast with two friends. The conversation turned to existential matters. One of my friends would be mad at me for saying existential matters because he says I am trying to sound smart. So, in other words, our discussion got deep.
On one side we considered that life is all chance. We are “tormented atoms in a bed of mud” according to philosopher, Voltaire.
On another side, we considered a benevolent and powerful God.
As I laid out the options for my friend his voice heightened as he peppered me with questions. Some I had answers for, others, I did not. If we keep going down, down, down into the foundations of option 1 or 2, there are some pretty tough “why” questions that require an honest observer to finally say, “I am not sure”.
That made him angry. “I am not sure!”, he exploded “ That is all you have for me?”
See, Bertrand Russell wrote in “Why I am not a Christian” that evil was either God’s fiat or it was not. If it was not, he reasoned, we could not be sure God would ultimately triumph over evil.
There are great answers to this question about the origin of evil with a good God, but if the answers were irrefutable then the debate would not continue. So, I have to admit, there is a problem for mine and all other belief systems on this question.
I gave him option #2 though. Voltaire’s option. If there is no God, there is no objective good or evil at all. These are only terms that benefit those in power to control the rest of us.
The arguments to support either position are not for this writing. I only point them out because if you ask “who says so?” enough times you can poke holes in every position about our existence. However, the question remains to the examiner, “So what now?” To which they will have no answer because they have undercut all bridges to find out what is true or useful.
My friend, who is in construction, unsatisfied with my response then set out to show me how “I am not sure” was unhelpful. He told me that if I came on his job site and picked up a saw and held it upside down, he would come over, tell me how to hold it correctly and tell me to saw on THIS line. “I would tell you how it works if you didn’t know” he said. His point was to show me that “I am not sure” was not a good enough answer if he was teaching me how to saw.
Do you think that is a good example? I did.
So, I asked.
“Where does the power come from to power the saw?”
“You plug it in”
“So the power is in the socket?” He started to see my point so I answered for him.
“No, it comes from a power plant?”
How does the “power” get there?
How is the power generated?
How does the “power” travel along these wires and how does the saw come on when the power arrives?
I will admit that these questions actually have answers, but no one at our table could spell them out.
See, what we do not know does not keep us from acting on what we do know.
I don’t know if it is as powerful reading it as it was at that table, but we all three stood up and walked outside. We had arrived at a profound moment and I have been reflecting on it ever since. The “deep” questions above have answers that give us enough information to act. We do not need to know everything to act. Sometimes we do not act because we are waiting for “more information” when really the “more information” is simply things that cannot be known. We wait to act because we do not know how to make electricity when we should just cut on the line. My friend had learned to do this in his cutting, but not in other matters.
It made me think about the questions we ask about work that cannot be answered. The questions that keep us from acting, but are really just like the deep questions that we addressed. “I am not sure” is a proper answer.
We seem to have endless options. We probably do not have as many as we think we have, but we at least seem, to have endless options. “Endless Options” is the underpinning of work advice like, “just do what you love and don’t worry about anything else”. “Endless options” is what causes so many of us to disengage from our current work because we are thinking of our next job. “Endless Options” is what makes it difficult to choose a path. These are the similar questions we hear from others and in our own head.
What if we choose the wrong path?
What if we are really underutilizing our talents?
What if we are not even sure what we would “love” to do for work?
What if no one appreciates what we love to do?
How can I be sure of future outcomes?
All these are like the deep why questions, they require us to admit that we lack some information that would be helpful.
So What Now?
How do we turn all this data (or lack thereof) into deeds.
The skill we need is self-management. Self-management is a skill that helps us turn data into deeds.
We have to be able to recognize what we know, what we do not, and “so what now?”
In Last to Least, my approach to self-management, I ask three questions that we DO know the answers to.
- What is the guiding purpose of work?
See, if you do not know what the purpose of the saw is, you can never use it properly. If I tried to use that saw as a hair brush I may always feel like, “there is just something missing…this doesn’t feel right”. As you read you know the proper purpose of the saw and you see that it is obviously NOT to brush hair, so this seems silly.
But when I ask “Why do you work?” what comes to mind?
-Take care of family
All great reasons, but at the core of work there is a need to be met!
The answer to Question #1 is “needs”!
Last to Least is managing yourself by learning to forget yourself.
We teach because students NEED to learn, not because teachers are passionate about education. We sell because clients NEED our products, not because we get a commission. We treat patients because they NEED healing, not because it is a respected career.
Every piece of work is to meet the needs of someone else, not my own!
And now that we think of it, of course that is true….so why did that not come up when I asked “Why do you work?”
Answering this question that we DO know the answer to is the first step in managing yourself through frustrations and disappointments that come with all work.
With all the endless options available the first question to answer before what I love or what makes money is “what do they need?” That is the central purpose of work and this will build a foundation to begin to bring stability to the 1000 directions your mind is being pulled in by “endless options”.
My friend was able to act on cutting his line without knowing how to build a power grid. If you answer question #1, you will be able to be productive and engaged in your work without knowing the answers to all the questions peppering your mind.