Every time we wake up, we face choices centering around our work and our life disconnected from that work. These “waking-up times” (since it is not just isolated to the morning for many people) can vary dramatically. Some days we see the world as ours for the taking. The possibilities seems endless and we make plans to do great things. At the other end of the spectrum, we wake up to the crushing realization that we have to go at it again.
This spectrum reveals the humanity of our work. Work does not merely constitute a slice in the pie chart of our lives. It connects who we are with who we are becoming. No matter how much we might try to avoid it, our work seeps into our identities and begins to define how we see ourselves and how we experience the world.
It’s at this nexus—this deep connection—between our life and our work that we begin to discover who we really are. Sometimes, when we overlay this self-discovery on top of our dreams, we encounter a massive gulf. How we resolve the inescapable conflicts between who we are and who we want to be exposes our deepest commitments, dreams, and fears.
Dreams vs. Reality
One of the most common questions we ask kids is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In our earliest years, we usually respond with some predefined category of work that holds some special significance in our minds. I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Why? Probably because I had helicopter Legos and they were pretty cool.
The point is that when we’re young, the world lies open before us, and every path seems possible. We dream as big as the skies.
For most of us, this naked idealism loses its hold as we grow older and as society dictates that certain career paths are more financially attractive and viable (why do so few want to be firemen when they’re older compared to when they’re younger?).
Despite these false dictates from society, there’s a very real narrowing that occurs as we grow and most things become less attainable. We begin to see our futures as constrained by what we’ve already done.
In one sense, this is true. If I wanted to become a world-class gymnast, it’s just not going to happen. Age and aging have a real effect on our bodies and put some things forever out of reach.
But these are exceptions and few things are ever completely out of reach. We frequently tell ourselves lies about what we’re capable of achieving in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes with living less than we want to.
For many things in life, it’s not a matter of innate talent, but rather of time and commitment. The burgeoning science of expertise and skill development is pretty clear on this point. It’s a matter of what we choose to sacrifice.
All work is a form of sacrifice, and work is the way we accomplish things in this life. Sacrifices are inevitable, but the deeper question is determining which sacrifices to make and for how long. But in pursuit of the best, we almost always have to make stops at the second best. These stops are frustrating, especially when we have big dreams.
The danger is that sometimes we end up staying at the second best. The normal has a way of suffocating us into apathy, and we end up leaving our dreams behind as time rushes by.
Determining Our Dreams
Many of our dreams are possible if we simply devote the effort and time, but how can we possibly determine what we truly want—what is best—when we do not know the end result?
In my view, this is one of the most paralyzing questions. How can we know what we want? I won’t address all the philosophical assumptions buried in that question, but the feeling of impossibility is very real. We want to experiment with many different careers and directions, but the economics of family and survival severely limit our options. We struggle with whether we are making the *right* career choice or working with the *best* company.
Most decisions in life, especially as it relates to our work, are not ethical—there’s no simple right or wrong choice. But they do shape who we become, and in that sense inherit an ethical weight by association.
In my view, the goal is to craft a dream in which you are the best version of yourself, leveraging your passions to influence those around you to become the best versions of themselves. We want to find something where the effort to balance work and life becomes less of a pursuit and they intertwine in harmony.
As I mentioned before, our stops at the second best are the most frustrating parts of pursuing our dreams. We know these stops are not where we want to be, but we also know we can’t get where we want to go without them.
Even in pursuit of our dreams, a large percentage of what we do is routine. When work consumes us, it's easy to begin to start ascribing significance to the most menial tasks. It's often the way we deal with the cognitive dissonance that arises when we are not expanding the horizons of our capabilities or not reaching for our full potential.
Surviving the “second-best stops” requires inhabiting the grind with healthy doses of mindfulness and reality checks about what is truly important. We must place a premium on what the consequential in order for the day-to-day necessities of making a living not to crush us.
We are most human in the struggle to become who we want to be. Our identities can blossom or be crushed by our work—all dependent on what we choose to sacrifice. This choice is deeply personal and subjective. Some people sacrifice a promising career to provide a better future for the children they bring into the world. Others sacrifice a family in pursuit of something more valuable in their eyes. But what we choose is not as important as that we choose.
The goal is clarity, choosing our path with eyes wide open to the costs with an accompanying humility that recognizes we are far more than our personal choices. The network of lives within which we live has far more to do with our futures than our subjective notions of free will. When we are present within our sacrifices with our eyes steadily on our dreams, we find fulfillment in the little things. Now is what we will always only have. And now is where we make our dreams come alive.
A Note on Privilege
I’m writing this from the perspective of a white, middle-class male with parents who sacrificed and provided far more than I’ll ever understand. Thus, I must pause to acknowledge that the luxury of chasing our way in life is a notion primarily enjoyed by the privileged. We tell our kids, “You can be anything you want to be.” In many cases, this is true. But wherever it is true, it is deep sign of privilege. Contrary to many pop success books, success is not simply a matter of working hard.
Many people throughout the world do not have the ability to choose their careers due to health issues, deep structural poverty, environment and societal crises, and structural racism. So as we consider and wrestle with merging our dreams with our work, we should do it with gratefulness that we are riding on the achievements of our ancestors.