Making Your Work Matter: A Buddhist View on Finding Your Career
“Find something you love to do and you’ll never to have to work a day in your life.” — Harvey MacKay
When I was seven years old, my First Grade teacher asked everyone to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. I remember walking around my classroom during parent-teacher night, with the room plastered with drawings, learning all about my classmates’ long-term aspirations. Who knew? It was a room full of aspiring astronauts and baseball players.
I have to admit, I was the odd man out. My picture portrayed a man hunched over a typewriter, working away at his book. Even recalling that photo today makes me sit up straight at the keyboard.
As all of us grew up though, we found ourselves a part of an interesting generation, often referred to as Generation Y. That title makes some sense, as chronologically we are after Generation X, people born between 1960 and 1980.
However, this generation, due to its supposed apathy, gradually earned a new nickname: Generation Why. Apparently we did not follow in the footsteps of previous generations, set on overthrowing systems and causing a revolution. We had video games, and the internet, and that kept us to ourselves.
Then along came a fantastic presidential campaign in 2008. Regardless of what political party you may feel an affinity for you have to admit, “Change we can believe in” has a sweet sound to it. Us Generation Yers came out in droves to vote, and for our dedication we earned a new nickname: Generation O (as in Obama). Many of us felt like finally Change with a capital “c” was possible.
Economic Depression & Lack of Direction
Yet, at the same time, change has not come quickly, and our economic situation has led to widespread disheartenment. My generation was raised with parents and teachers telling us we could be whatever we wanted to be when we grow up. Yet, when twenty-somethings enter the workforce today they quickly come to terms with the idea that notion simply is not true.
Those former classmates of mine who grew up aspiring to sports stardom or wishing to travel the stars may now be settling for unpaid internships. Maybe those internships aren’t even in the field they wanted to pursue originally.
At the time of this writing, we face a time where there simply isn’t room in this economy for the notion that if you work hard enough, you can do anything you want to do. With the scarcity of opportunities in the job market more and more young people are becoming discouraged and looking for any work they can find.
In speaking about this issue with a friend of mine who serves as a therapist, she pointed out that many of the twenty-somethings she meets with feel like they have been told that the economy has improved, and that opportunities are once again available. That means that if these individuals can’t find a job, it’s not the fault of today’s society; it’s their lack of capability. Such a message is disheartening.
On top of that level of disheartenment and lack of opportunity there is the fact that many people still haven’t decided what we want to be when we grow up. I don’t think this term “grow up” applies just to twenty-somethings, mind you. I think it’s prevalent with Generation O, but many of my friends who are in their sixties still don’t think of themselves as “grown up.” However, with Generation O we have been told that we ought to know what we are doing with our lives by 22, or if not by then 25 at the latest. And we don’t. So many simply still have no idea what they want to do.
This has sparked the common term “quarter life crisis.” I remember mine. I felt ready to leave my job as the Executive Director of a meditation center yet the funding for my next job in development had not come through. I remember sitting at my desk one night at midnight, filling out half a business school application, realizing I had to take a standardized test, that I couldn’t do the test and get the application in with the 48 hours left before the deadline, and applying to a dozen Executive Assistant jobs in New York City. Incidentally, these jobs paid $80,000-$100,000 a year, but are apparently miserable. Remember, I was freaking out.
The next day I woke up and practiced meditation and, thankfully, relaxed. I realized I didn’t need to have everything sorted out. I practiced patience, the funding for my development job came through, and only years later do I feel like I am doing exactly what I want to be doing.
About a month ago, I was at dinner with my friend Laura. I was talking about my writing; she about her impending graduation from social work school. Both of us felt on the cusp of something career-like but we had to pause and acknowledge that this year was the first time in our lives we had really revisited that old idea of “what do you want to be when you grow up.” We started mapping out the trajectories for all of our mutual friends. They too had hit their late twenties and were all of a sudden scrambling to figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.
It occurred to me that given the current educational and economic situation in the United States, maybe the question of what you want to be when you grow up is outdated. Perhaps a better question for the thoughtful young person of today would be “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”
10 Steps for Figuring Our Who You Want To Be When You Grow Up
I found that in determining the “who” you want to be when you grow up it is helpful to physically map some things out for yourself. In Buddhism, the term mandala can be viewed in some respect as a sort of organizational chart.
Ah. There it is. As you can see, there is a center, and several concentric circles around that center. This is a very traditional mandala with a deity at the center and then the direct manifestations of that deity and so on.
The idea here is that there is something at the center of the mandala, and everything else is influenced by whatever is at that core. We can think of our lives and livelihood in those terms. Here is a fun exercise I encourage you to engage in:
- Draw a circle, then draw three to five circles around that one, in a concentric manner
- Meditate for ten minutes
- Toward the end of that meditation session, ask yourself, “What qualities do I want to cultivate in myself?”
- Write those qualities down somewhere other than your mandala. Be concise — just a few words will do
- Look at those qualities. Let your mind rest on them. As you rest your mind, discern which feel most pertinent to you
- If there is one that really stands out, write that down at the center of your mandala. For some people it might read “feeling less stressed out all the time” or “being more gentle” or “kindness” or “practicing compassion.”
- In the circle outside of that core, write down some people or things that are important to you. You might write down members of your family, or the name of your partner, or hobbies you engage in, or (and I recommend this one) what you do for a living or aspire to do for a living. Continue in the next circle out with other aspects of your life. Do you run? Put that in there. Do you like museums? Jazz music? Put those down. Continue to fill out the circles you provided for yourself with various aspects of your life. The more important they are to you, the closer they belong to that core circle.
- Draw a line from the core of the mandala to each of those things you have written down.
- On each of those lines, write how you might want your core motivation to influence that aspect of your life. For example, if you wrote down “kindness,” what would shift in that connection to your boss? What would shift in how you spent your money? What would shift in how you exercised?
- When you are done writing, place the paper aside and rest with whatever feelings have come up. Then return to formal meditation, staying with your breath for five minutes.
An exercise like this one can help you determine what qualities you want to cultivate in your life. When the Buddha began teaching he laid out what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path. This path is one we are encouraged to follow in order to develop wisdom, good conduct, and meditative discipline. One aspect of ethical conduct includes developing a Right or Wise Livelihood.
Traditionally, Wise Livelihood has referred to being employed in a legal and peaceful way. However, the various opinions about what “peaceful” might mean has changed dramatically over 2600 years since the Buddha originally taught on this topic. It is generally agreed upon that there are five specific aspects to Wise Livelihood:
- You can’t deal in living beings: this includes things like prostitution, slavery, or raising animals for slaughter
- You can’t make money selling weapons
- You can’t make money selling poison
- Or intoxicants
- Or meat
Even these five aspects of Wise Livelihood can be interpreted in a number of ways. If we strictly adhere to this list then no one should be an exterminator, bartender, or butcher. According to a strict interpretation, you can’t even work in a deli making $17 an hour selling sandwiches because you would be profiting from selling meat.
However, to pull back from the traditional teachings around this topic the bottom line seems to be that Wise Livelihood means that we do not cause harm to others or ourselves. If you hold that idea in your heart as you engage your contemplations on career, then you will likely end up causing less suffering to others and you are more likely to enjoy what you end up doing.
Good Intentions Can Right a Society
What you are doing in engaging an exercise like the ten steps above is switching the core of your being away from a set task like what you ought to be doing with your career and instead embracing an idea of who you want to be. As you engage your career path this will be helpful, because you can always cultivate the qualities that are important to you, whereas you may not always be able to do exactly what you want to do and make a living at it.
Furthermore, you can’t define your identity as your job, because you will end up discontent. Sometimes people think that they are their specific job, and if they are fired or promoted they have a bit of a crisis of faith: “I was the pivotal person who held that department together but I’m not there now and they are still operational. What happened?”
The bottom line is that you are not your job. I remember attending a conference on leadership in Halifax, Nova Scotia and walking into the bathroom, only to receive a profound teaching on this topic. Written on the bathroom stall were the words, “This is your life and it is ending second by second.” Sure, I thought, life is impermanent.
Then I noticed that right below that scrawling were these words: “This is not your life. This is a bathroom stall. If you think this is your life you should be concerned.” Brilliant! In the same way, your job is not your life. If you think your life is your job, you should be concerned. Your life is what you make of it, and what qualities you want to cultivate during your time here on earth.
Now, imagine for a moment a world where an entire generation took the view that it is more important that they determine who, not what, they wanted to be when they grew up. Some would still become baseball players and astronauts, but they would engage those tasks with the values that are of most import to them.
If we took on this simple question we would not squander years trying to find the “perfect job” or the “perfect position” within a company. We would discern what is important to us and live all aspects of our life in line with what we actually wanted to be. I am a firm believer that by doing that we would ultimately create that Change in society with a capital C.
The above is modified from Lodro Rinzler’s book The Buddha Walks into the Office (Shambhala Publications, 2014)
Lodro Rinzler is the award-winning author of 7 books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar and his latest, Take Back Your Mind, and the cofounder of MNDFL Meditation. He has taught meditation for over 20 years in the Buddhist tradition and travels frequently for his books, having spoken across the world at conferences, universities, and businesses as diverse as Google, Harvard University and the White House. Named one of 50 Innovators Shaping the Future of Wellness by SONIMA, Rinzler’s work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, FOX, CBS, and NBC. He lives in upstate New York with his wife Adreanna and a menagerie of small animals and is the lead teacher for The Basic Goodness Collective.