What Really Matters?

Last night I had a great conversation with my friend, Matt C.. I had called to tell him I’d see him in Boston in a few short weeks but, as most of our chats go, our conversation turned towards more meaningful things than when a flight gets in.

Matt’s working on business school applications and so is having to tackle wonderfully easy questions like: “What matters to you most and why?” and “When have you, as a leader, exceeded your expectations?”. Although my knee-jerk response to these kinds of questions is to cringe, it does create some good food for thought, especially on what matters most.

"It is the depth at which we live" (Found on the wall while checking into my hostel in Alaska)

When I was sixteen, my high school boyfriend’s pesky and ambitious brother asked me over Dominos pizza: “What do you want out of life, Courtney?”. He had just talked at length about wanting to go to Sweden to become a doctor (they were duel citizens) and the steps he was taking to get there. It was, needless to say, pretty intimidating stuff to follow up.

But I said what felt true and that’s: “I want to be happy and bring happiness to others.” He was not very satisfied and, at the time, I felt pretty embarrassed by the simplicity of my answer too. It seemed wanting, too small, and maybe too self-serving. I felt like it should be bigger — and yet, anything bigger felt forced.

Beauty and mystery in the small details

But maybe I was on to something. Looking back on it, I think what I said is still true for me today — find what makes you happy and build a life around it, fight the hard fights to keep it, and give what you can to the world along the way. It actually is a big thing — a big answer — and an ambitious pursuit to follow. (Giving my 16  year-old self a hug right about now.)

Pam Houston writes in A Little More About Me, a collection of autobiographical stories: “[I’m] coming to the understanding that success has less to do with accumulation of things and more to do with an accumulation of moments, and that creating a successful life might be as simple as determining which moments are the most valuable.”

Putting her somewhat conceited book title aside, I like what she says here about how to measure a life. Sometimes, I think, we have the right goals for ourselves but the wrong tools for measuring if we’re getting there — or if we’re, perhaps, already there.

What’s the most common tool we use to measure our lives? Our jobs. And what’s the most common question asked in all new settings: “What do you do?,” as in “What do you do for a living?” (because in our culture living equals work.) I pretty much despise this question. And I really have met very few people who get much out of the asking or the answering of it.

It’s because it narrows us down so quickly. “Oh hello, you must be your job. Tell me about that.” Never mind that I volunteer, read, think, love, create, question, breathe… My friend Clara B. lived in Spain one summer and I remember she came back with the greatest news: “Courtney, they don’t ask you there what you do! They ask what you’re about.”

Doesn’t that sound much more fun to answer? Doesn’t the way you’d answer it sound truer to who you really are? And, what is it about our culture anyways that we need such a narrowly defined way of seeing each other?

"We learn and learn, but never know all, about the smallest, humblest thing." -- D'Arcy Thompson

Matt told me about a great response a friend gives, whenever she is asked the “What do you do?” question: “Well, let’s see, I garden, I run…” i.e. she shares the activities she does that matter most to her. It could be her job, too, but I think the point is that it doesn’t have to be.

Last August I crossed the border back into the U.S. from Canada near a beautiful spot called Lake of the Isles. The border patrolman was somewhat suspicious of my packed-to-the-gills car and had some questions. “Where are you from?” Chicago. Massachusetts, originally. “Why were you in Canada?” To stay at my cousin’s in Guelph. “What do you do?” Oh come on! Well…I’m…unemployed…?

Coming back to the U.S. at Lake of the Isles

It felt like a total stranger was answering. I mean, it’s a true statement — but it feels like a lie. It’s not how I define myself or this period of my life. I’ve chosen to not have a job and for good reasons. “There’s more to me!,” I wanted to shout to him as he let me pass. (The whole wanting-to-get-back-into-your-own-country urge, fortunately, won out. I drove on to New York.)

Or forget me — take my father for example. He was trained as a chemical engineer but then chronic back pain put him out of work for most of my life. He became a stay-at-home Dad instead. He taught me fractions. He became an artist. He taught himself piano. He made good investments. He kept our house from falling apart and built a dock every summer so our family could enjoy the river. That’s what he “does.” That’s what matters.

I would never attempt to know what the unemployed are feeling at this moment in our country. Like I said, I’ve chosen to not have a job (and am very very aware that it is incredibly unfair and unjust that I can make this choice and others can’t.) But, I think, they must dread this question too. It creates a distance between people that I think keeps us from really connecting. And I have to say this — in a country where job growth is non-existent for the first time since 1945 and close to 1 in 10 of its citizens are unemployed, should we still be asking ourselves to measure our lives by a job?

Or, even in a booming economy, is that how we want to define our worth? Is that the real measure of a man, of a woman? I think not. I think I’d rather hear what matters.


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