The ‘American Dream’ and economy shift like tectonic plates, imperceptible until a collapse like 2008 creates both devastation and opportunity. As economic uncertainty and debt mounted, fewer college students saw the corporate ladder as promising. Since then, ‘dream jobs’ have become entrepreneurial, coming to life through the ‘poetry of science and the precision of art’, often times only fueled by the enthusiasm of it’s creators. But for those of us setting our career trajectories today, the question remains: How can I lead a successful, fulfilling life while contributing to a greater cause?
I consider this a ‘lighthouse question’ – one that I can continually orient myself to as opportunities present themselves. My generation loves authenticity and celebrates bringing an idea to fruition against the odds. True achievement has become the ability to better the world. It is acting on the visceral knowledge that there are more worthy pursuits than money alone. This goes beyond idealizing the ‘starving artist’ or sentimentalizing someone who sacrifices a Wall St. position to serve the poor. It is recognition that pursuing what we love requires courage. Success is never guaranteed and risks are real, but the consequences of inaction will always be more perilous than failure. It is difficult to remember that monumental achievements are the accumulation of small actions.
Philosophers have been meditating on this concept of the ‘good life’ for thousands of years; but it wasn’t until recently that we could ask our smartphones. I had to ask Siri- Apple’s “intelligent assistant” that allows you to obtain information by just speaking to your phone.
Me: “Siri, what is the good life?”
Siri: “OK. Check it out: The good life is a term for the life that one would like to live, or for happiness, associated with the work of Aristotle and his teaching on ethics. People who hope for a better world feel the need for a shared vision of the “good life,” a vision that is flexible enough for innumerable individual circumstances but comprehensive enough to unite people in optimistic, deliberate, progressive social change.”
Growing up, I had always assumed that my sense of uncertainty was temporary until milestones were reached like ‘college’ or ‘jobs’ that would guarantee some type of fulfilling future. This naiveté has been replaced with the simple realization that our lives and choices will always be dynamic, as so few things are in our control. Wendell Berry once wrote that, “It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” Pressure, conflict, interruption– can change what I am able to offer, strip me of the opportunity to engage, to be fulfilled.
I believe that the good life is one where we collectively contribute to progress, whether it is scientific, artistic, or familial. It could mean finding fulfillment in the ordinary or becoming the catalyst for tectonic shifts in science or social movements. Above all, it is a search for value. Donella Meadows once wrote that, “the planet Earth develops, diversifies, evolves. It does not grow.” This is also true of personal goals- as our environment shifts; we will all have to change. But distilled to its truest sense, the good life seems to mean returning, in some migration of thought or action to the question: ‘what can I contribute?’ and honoring our unique answers through collective action.