Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Wasting Your Life vs. Engaging Your Life

As I do most mornings, this morning I skimmed through several blog posts of those blogs I follow fairly regularly. At the same time, I watch for links to new blogs that I may not have been aware of before. I am always looking for information, ideas and topical issues that, of course, relate to me and my life and journey in some manner. Obviously, there is far too much to read in any given period of time, so I look for things that really strike a chord with me and then I read them in depth and often bookmark them for future reference.

But, as I'm sure you're aware, we live in an age of information and frankly, I believe it's more an age of information overload. I'm humbled by the idea that you're taking your valuable time to read this post right now. This is where today's topic comes into play. Have you ever had the feeling that you are wasting your life? I certainly have. And, if I'm going to be completely honest, I've had this feeling over and over again. I'll slip into a bit of a blue funk and ask myself questions like:

Have I lived up to my parents' (both deceased) expectations?
Have I lived up to my siblings' expectations?
Have I lived up to my offspring's' (if you have any - I do) expectations?
Have I lived up to my friends' expectations?
Have I lived up to professional expectations?
Have I achieved success in life?
Have I achieved my own dreams, goals and personal expectations?
Do I waste time doing unproductive things?
Am I measuring up to society's expectations?
Am I wasting or have I wasted my life?
. . . and the most important question of all (that I forgot and had to be reminded by a reader of this blog, Rob, see his comment below)

Feel free to add any of your own questions to this list.

This morning I found and read three blog posts, plus a new blog I discovered through Twitter. Two of the posts I read struck a chord with me and the third presented an interesting idea. Here are links to the three posts. One was specifically on Wasting Your Life. I enjoyed Trent's commentary on the subject, especially since he's virtually half my age. The next one was from Lois, a 50 something woman, born with Muscular Dystrophy and who has accomplished a great deal in her lifetime (the MD didn't hold her back) - Everything That's Wrong. The third post was from Trent again and I believe this can be an interesting and excellent exercise for anyone with a question about how good their life really is - TheJar of Life

So, here are my thoughts on Wasting Your Life vs. Engaging Your Life.


So, why do some of us (if not most of us) harbor thoughts about whether we are wasting our lives? I contend that it's probably because from our earliest memories we have been conditioned to fulfill expectations that have been imposed upon us by external sources. Of course, there are some basic societal expectations we must conform to if we're going to live within whatever society we were born. While human beings are, at our most basic level, members of the animal kingdom, we are far from being the free roaming animals our earliest ancestors were. Now, I know that there are some people who read this blog who prefer to accept the Biblical version of how humans came to be on this planet. While I was raised in a pretty conservative Baptist church in New Jersey, I am more inclined to accept the scientific and historical evolution of our species.

That being said, it is the responsibility of our parents, siblings, extended family, community, educational system and, if we had a religious connection, the religious community to instill us with values, societal standards and an understanding of the kind of behavior that is expected as we grow into full-fledged members of our society. But, that's not all. We are also taught expectations of being productive and responsible members of the society. For the vast majority of the population of most societies, especially in developed countries, the definition of being productive and responsible members of the society translates into possibly obtaining advanced education in some specialized field or discipline, applying whatever education (advanced, technical, occupational or basic) into an income producing career usually through jobs working for someone else, tempering our primal instinct to procreate into a monogamous relationship through a contractual marriage arrangement, bringing forth offspring to perpetuate the species, setting objectives to become stabilized by establishing credit, purchasing property and a home, accumulating, what we believe to be necessities of life, but most often are extraneous wants, working diligently and advancing up some kind of ladder of success and finally, after some 40 to 45 years and being diligent stewards of our earnings, retiring to live out the balance of our lives on this planet in some form of comfort.

Now, let me be perfectly honest. After writing that long paragraph and description of a lifetime, I'm actually very bored. Think about this. Let's use the number 80 as the average lifespan of the average person in the United States. According to the World Health Organization that is the approximate overall average age in the U.S. as of 2013. Eighty years amounts to 701,280 hours. If we establish that the average person will work 45 years at some kind of typical job putting in 8 hours per day plus an additional 2 hours to allow for commuting and lunch/breaks for a total of 10 hours per day 5 days a week we are devoting 112,500 hours to the job. Let's add another 8 hours a day including commuting and homework, five days a week for 14 years (12 years of mandatory education and two years for advanced education or training allowing that not everyone gains a 4 year degree or advanced degrees) for education. This equals approximately 20,160 hours. Let's allow for an average of approximately 7 hours of sleep/rest daily or another 204,540 hours. So, those three activities during our 80-year lifespan will consume approximately 337,200 of our 701,280 hours or approximately 48% of our lifetime.

So, one might be led to say, well, that's great because that leaves about 364,080 hours to do all the things I want to do. However, we have not taken out the necessary time for preparing and consuming meals, shopping for food and other necessities, maintaining our clothing, vehicles, residence (including yard work), periods of illness, extracurricular activities for the offspring and such. That 364,080 number continues to get whittled down. But, this is the life of an average, responsible, productive human being in the U.S. Interestingly, there are something like 32 countries in the world where the average lifespan is anywhere from a couple months longer than the U.S. lifespan to 6.5 years longer. It's another area in which the U.S. is lagging behind.

Wasting Your Life

So, what do you consider wasting your life? Do you feel you didn't meet all the expectations raised by the questions at the beginning of this article? Do you feel like you haven't achieved a large enough or luxurious enough home or you don't have one or more vacation homes? Maybe you haven't been able to acquire all the "Stuff" you feel you should have in order to prove you have not wasted your life. Did you not work enough hours to become the CEO of the company you've devoted years to? Perhaps at the end of the 45-year working plan you can't afford to retire. Maybe you wonder why some people who have taken alternative journeys in life spending their lives doing the things they loved doing, but may not have met with the success that societal expectations place on people.  Perhaps they became artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, inventors, golfers, white water river rafting guides, professional surfers, skiers, crafts people, race car drivers, rodeo riders, actors, circus performers . . . you can add to the list as you are so inclined. Did they waste their lives?

I have often reviewed my life. I have the equivalent of about 17 years of formal education. I volunteered almost four years of my life to the U.S. military. I had a few part-time or summer jobs through high school and college/graduate school. But, starting at age 12 with an independent newspaper route, I have mainly been self-employed. For the majority of my career I worked in excess of 40 hours per week and frequently worked weekends and holidays and seldom took vacations. I created probably a hundred jobs. I did innovative things in the recording, tape duplication, video production and book publishing industries. Not everything I did was successful. Truth be known, probably less than 50% of the things I did were successful. But, all during those years and businesses I was working at meeting someone's expectations including my own. When things didn't go well or I experienced a failure, I felt like I had wasted my life.

It wasn't until I finally realized that a human life is finite. It has an expiration date. I further realized that while there will always be a small number of people who will make huge contributions to society, the vast majority will, in the grand scheme of things, contribute very little. We were not all born with the gifts of Beethoven, Socrates, Shakespeare, Newton, da Vinci, Franklin, Jefferson, Edison, Ford, Gates, Jobs and others. I felt like I was wasting my life when I wasn't contributing something to society that would change the world, as we know it. However, when I did come to the realization that if I could leave the planet just a little bit better than when I found it, my life wasn't wasted. Further, I realized that other than adhering to the basic standards and values of a civil and law-biding member of society, my life didn't have to meet up to anyone else's expectations other than my own. That's when I really began to live free even though I felt I had a living free philosophy most of my life.

I used to feel guilty if I spent too much time reading through other people's blog posts or occasionally glancing through Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn or reading and replying to posts on numerous Internet forums I belong to or watching some favorite TV shows or movies. I felt this was wasting my time. While I was participating in those activities, I wasn't doing something far more important and contributing to saving the world and making it a better place. I've finally grown past that. But, I do ponder what drives people to want to take on extremely demanding jobs, elected offices or sacrifice massive amounts of their finite number of hours when in the end, they will die just as you and I will and revert back to the basic elements from which we came. Personally, the only waste of life I can identify is sacrificing those finite hours either to accumulate stuff, gain status or because of a drive for power over others.

Of course, I don't believe I have the answers for everyone or anyone else's lives. I hold everyone in an equal accord and believe that if you want to buy into the burden of expectations laid on us by others and society, it's entirely their right and choice. But, they shouldn't expect me to respect them because they make those choices and they shouldn't disrespect me because I choose not to live under that burden of expectations. I only regret that I didn't truly realize this, much like Trent has, at age 35. Just remember, it's your life and there are no dress rehearsals. This is it, baby, live and in living color and in real time. Spend your time focusing on whatever feels right to you for your time and life.

Engaging Your Life   

Here's the real approach I believe we should all use in life . . . Engage! What do I mean? Simple. It's your life so what do YOU want from it. If you're doing anything other than engaging in the life you want, THEN and only THEN are you truly wasting your life. If you want to entertain then do it. If you want to be an artist of some kind then do it. If you want to operate your own business of some kind get on with it. If you want to travel and see the country or the world then get cracking. This is where your focus should be. It should not be on doing someone else's bidding or wishing or whining about . . . you'd do it, but.

It's important to know and accept that in some ways you can have your cake and eat it, too. But, in other cases, that's not going to happen. If you're tied down to a house or property that is a burden, then eliminate it. If you have a job that demands massive amounts of your time and leaves you both drained and unmotivated, it's time to move on. Don't let the excuse of "the money is too good" or I have to have this much money to get by. Remember, you can't take any of that money with you when your life clock runs out and very few of us know when that's going happen. Figure out what you REALLY need to engage in the life you want and stop wasting your life with excuses and doing others' bidding.

I had a client one-time right after I completed my second college degree. I was running my business part of the time and teaching part of the time at a local community college at that point in my life. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I wanted to be in business for myself, but I needed the income and I was thinking of taking a full-time job. He told me the chances are if I take a full-time job, I will spend the rest of my life in the false security of the full-time job and the paycheck that came with it. I'd probably never truly pursue my own dream of working for myself full-time and when I finally reached retirement age, my business would still be a part-time business and I would have missed numerous avenues of opportunity. He was right! Another man I met at that time told me, "You make your own breaks in life. No one will make your breaks for you. If you want something make your break and go after it." He was right, too.

I just reached my 69th year. It is the commencement of my 70th year on this planet. According to what I said earlier, the World Health Organization projects ten more years for me to enjoy this journey (actually a couple years less because I'm a male). Now, I'm hoping and I'm planning on being one of those who lives to the high side of that average number. So, I may be around for another 15 or 20 years, maybe more. But, I can't count on that. So, my plan is not to focus on how I may have wasted my life. My plan is to engage in all I can in life. I've come to realize that nothing I have done to date was a waste of my life; it is history and what I did at that time. If I want to find a beautiful spot on a beach or a mountaintop and read blog posts or write blog posts or I want to watch a favorite TV show or movie or chat with a friend on the phone, I will so engage. Money be damned. I will live, love and laugh until my journey ends.

My long time friend, Dave Yoho, a man who grew up in a ghetto in Philadelphia and became a self-made millionaire by 30, sent this inscription in a birthday card, "How fortunate are we to live in a time when we have opportunities to express ourselves Creatively, to follow our own Drummer and to Experience Life in a manner of our own choosing. So it is . . . Enjoy/Savor Each Moment." I pass that on to you. 


Rob said...

A big long list of questions but one was missing. Are you happy?
That's the only important question.

Ed Helvey said...

Excellent catch and point, Rob. And, here I am, they guy always asking people that very question when they complain or tell me their life isn't fulfilling. I'm going to edit the post, but you get the credit for adding the most important question of all.