We Can’t Pick a Movie. How Can We Pick a Fulfilling Life?

As an HR director, I’ve seen how hard it is to figure out what we want. I have some suggestions.

We’re riding the train south of Munich past Lake Starnberg and our chat is turning to family and career. We both work at a large company that prides itself as a great place to work with many opportunities and loads of benefits. She started about two years ago and has the hang of how the company runs by now.

“Having kids is my greatest satisfaction,” she says. “I’m sad that I don’t have more time with my son. I wish we had family in the area.” Her husband works an ambitious job as well. And our sorts of jobs require some flexibility in our schedule for travel and conference calls and the occasional unrealistic demand.

As we catch the first glimpse of the snow-covered Alps, she tells me she loves our company. But while she likes her current role, she can’t figure out where her career is heading.

This is a common question in our generation. The average tenure at a company in the US is 4.4 years. It’s a bit longer where I live in Europe, but people don’t expect to stay in their job for the next decade. We want to move. We want to experience. We want to earn more. We want to grow. We want to feel important. We want to . . . Do we know what we want?

Netflix, of all companies, has put together a fascinating study about how well we can predict what we’ll want in the near future. It has a nifty wishlist feature—predictions of movies we’ll want to watch when we have time. They found something interesting: people’s wish lists were loaded with demanding movies. Long, epic and profound. However, the movies people actually picked on a free evening were much less taxing. Short, entertaining and shallow. It turns out we don’t appreciate depth as much as we anticipate.

If we can't predict our movie tastes a week in advance, how can we know which career will make us happy? Or where to live and which partners to choose? As an HR guy, I see people making big sacrifices to move on and earn more. But they often end up in places that aren’t as fulfilling as they’d expected. Can we have a more thoughtful, realistic notion of success?

British philosopher Alain de Botton makes an interesting, if gloomy observation: “The strangest thing about the world of work is the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy. All societies have had work at their center; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment . . . that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gates of paid employment.”

Let’s run with de Botton’s line of thought for a moment and see if it gets us somewhere. Most of us—let’s face it—won’t be CEOs or VPs. Most of us won’t live in our dream house or go on all the vacations we want. Most of us to some degree will struggle with marriage and will have plenty of things we wish we’d done differently with our kids.

So how do we find out what makes life rich and meaningful? And if we’re never able to fully know that, how do we deal with our changing desires for the future? From my HR vantage point, here are a few thoughts.

1. Get the space to work on your inner compass.

In today’s world, we must manage our own career and life. With the tremendous options and opportunities we have comes responsibility, says pioneer thinker Peter Drucker: “Knowledge workers, effectively, must be their own chief executive officers." That means we must take the time to update our inner direction and know ourselves. We need more than a superficial, magazine-inspired vision of what we value and hope to do. And so the ancient traditions of Sabbath or retreat are more important than ever. We need to figure out what is holy to us. As the monk Thomas Merton said, “The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.”

2. Build a castle, but live beyond it.

Most people are driven to secure a good future and realize a few dreams. Maybe like making good money or being recognized for what we have to offer. Or traveling and eating well. Or owning a nice place to live and having good friends. At the very least, we do our best to build our own kingdom where we can rest secure and where things are arranged as we like. And yet a paid job can’t be the final destiny in our lives. Neither can running our own company, nor being a rock star, nor having a family. We need something beyond our own preferences.

In my experience, there’s a rediscovered drive in a lot of young people to contribute something to the world, something with other-centeredness in it, something that’s beyond our control and that sets us on a journey in which we’re not the main character. “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people,” said the philosopher Abraham Heschel. I think he was onto something. When we’re clever, we figure out how to use the world for our purposes. When we’re kind, we discover that others are a greater treasure in our lives than we’d realized.

3. As you dream of success, factor in your limitations.

We live in a world that isn’t shy about offering tips on how to get what we should have in life. Our environment is hugely influential in what we want and how we view ourselves. We are highly open to suggestion. When I married my wife, we were in our early twenties (very young by European standards) and had kids soon (very uncommon here—most people have kids in their mid-thirties). My wife wanted to stay home with the kids and invest her considerable talents and energy in giving them a good start in life. When she took the kids to the playground, she was almost always asked by our neighbors in their early forties, “When are you going back to work?” It’s funny: riding a slide on the playground with the ones you love the most can still thrust you into the same pressures you faced at the office—measuring yourself against your friends, being irritated at your lack of recognition, feeling frustration at not reaching your goals, forgetting to savor each day as its own gift.

Einstein said, "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Having done your inner work to figure out what success means for you, you need to embrace that your success might not come with the perks you’d hoped for.

We also have to be sober about what it takes to make success happen. There’s a lot of talk these days about work-life balance. I don’t believe it. “There is no such thing as work-life balance,” says Alain de Botton. “Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” And that’s the crux of the matter: success—whatever it means for you—is a lot of commitment in the same direction. It’s saying no so that your yes means something.

Our train is reaching its destination. The Alps are in clear view. High, snow-covered, beautiful. Unmoved for thousands of years. Far beyond questions of career, happiness and kids. The last few minutes we’ve chatted about how we manage all that—family and fame, ambitions and awful Thursdays. We’ve shared some tricks of the trade like home-office days and focusing on what’s really important. But maybe what’s in front of us is to discover that this mix of self-knowledge, charity, humility and passion takes a kind of effort and an embracing of our limitations that might be the difference between drifting from moment to moment and using the wide open space in front of us for an unforgettable journey.

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