Once upon a time there lived a man who owned a pencil factory. He manufactured, sold, and shipped millions of pencils every year. There was only one small problem. He was losing money.
This puzzled him greatly as business appeared to be brisk. Orders were coming in. The employees were working hard. The pencils were of the highest quality possible. And truck loads of pencils were leaving the factory every day. Even the accounts receivable seemed to be in order.
So he called in an accountant who specialized in business analysis and trouble-shooting to figure out the problem. For two weeks this finance maven scrutinized every facet of the operation -- big and small -- and then he filed his report.
"I have audited every aspect of the Acme Pencil Corporation with a fine toothed comb. The firm is indeed doing an enormous amount of business. The reason the company is losing money, however, is rather simple. It is costing them three cents to make each pencil and they are selling them for two cents apiece."
The owner had fallen into a classic trap -- he forgot why he went into business in the first place. He didn't go into business to make pencils; he went into business to make money.
Next time you get a chance, go to a busy intersection, stand on a corner, and watch... just watch. People are whizzing by -- everybody doing his own thing. Some are moving quickly, others just sauntering.
If you could interview them and ask where they were going, you'd hear all kinds of different responses. Some of them might be going to catch a bus; others would be on their way to school. Some might be going to the gym; others to the doctor. Some might be taking their children to the park; others would be going to pray. Nothing unusual about that.
But if the interview could continue, you'd learn a lot more by asking them a different question: "Why?"
The lady catching the bus might tell you that she is traveling to work. The fellow going to school might explain that he is trying to get a degree in engineering. The gym rat likes to stay in shape and the patient wants to be healthy.
Whizzing people may not take kindly to the "But why" inquiry. They prefer to whiz, not wonder.
But don't stop there -- ask one more question: "But why?" Why be healthy and why do you need a degree?
At this point you need to be a bit more careful. Whizzing people may not take kindly to the "But why" inquiry. They prefer to whiz, not wonder. Your innocent query may be pressing some buttons that they would much prefer never, ever be tampered with. Now you are asking people to seriously contemplate the ultimate purpose of their actions -- how annoying!
The "why" game, as ominous as it may be, can also be a rather protracted one. Why do we go to sleep? To feel rested. Why should we feel rested? So we can work better. Why must we work better? To advance in our careers. Why? To make more money. And why do we want more money? To buy things. And why...
So many of us are zombied into this never-ending carousel of aimlessness -- living for the moment, marching proudly toward some obscure, undefined station. So much of what we do appears to be just a preparation for something else. Life, too often, seems like a giant laundromat. We bring in the clothes, toss them in the washer, add detergent and bleach, put in a few coins, throw them in the dryer, take them out, fold them, wear them and a week later we are back at the laundromat again. Where does it end?
Probing into the underlying purpose of our actions and decisions is something we are resistant to doing. It takes courage to know clearly where we are headed and why, because we may not know exactly how to get there or if our destination is even achievable or truly worthwhile. It's a lot safer to just meander around the block and pretend to be on the road to somewhere -- as long as we look important.
Even more threatening is the realization that we may never really get to where we want to go. So if we design our goals to be eternally vague or virtually unknown, failure may never need to be confronted... how convenient.
And then there is one more "advantage" to avoiding a purposeful life. By never truly contemplating the finish line we can always pretend that whatever it is that we are doing right now is just fine. No action of ours really needs to be goal-directed or meaningful. We can just wile away the time, indulge in our little amusements, guilt-free. Without an itinerary, we can, by default, just choose the scenic route and gaze out the window.
Judaism teaches that living with purpose is not easy. As a matter of fact, one of the primary goals of our yetzer hara – the lower part of ourselves -- is to constantly distract us with enticing diversions, some rather innocent, others less so. All in order to prevent us from realizing why we are here and to dissuade us from engaging in purposeful pursuits.
So how do I know what my particular purpose should be? After all, no two people are alike and your goal and my goal will probably be very different.
Answering this question requires a lot of soul searching, but my sense is that your true calling should at least meet these three prerequisites:
- It must be something that you seem to be naturally good at.
- It must be something you enjoy.
- You find it curiously difficult to attain. In other words, it takes work to get there. If it's too easy, you may be in the wrong neighborhood.
Of course, these same questions could apply for career counseling as well, not life purpose. These are just basic guidelines. When seeking your own particular calling in life, you need to do more. You need to reach down into a different realm of your psyche -- somewhere almost indescribable -- and see if you are truly moved by the experience.
Most people say, "You'll recognize it when you see it, when you feel it." They're right. When you involve yourself in something you enjoy, have talent for, but need a certain measure of exertion and you sense that you are touching something truly sublime, you probably are. But your antennae must be fully extended, to pick up the clear signal.
Tomoji Tanabe of Japan, at 111, acknowledged the oldest man alive today, recently attributed his longevity, in part, to drinking a glass of milk each day. "I don't want to die," he explained.
We all seem to want to live as long as possible and take great lengths to do everything in our power to do so.
The question we need to ask ourselves is, "Why?"