Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Accomplishment, talent, and happiness

Many people have come asking for advice regarding setting priorities in life. "How do I know what's most important" type of thing, etc. Here's my advice:

Make believe that your doctor c"v told you that you have one week to live. What would you want to accomplish that week?

Those are your top priorities in life.

Then make believe that you had one month to live. What you would want to do during that month are your next level priorities.

Then make believe you only had one year to live. Your list of things you want to accomplish during that year are your third level priorities.

The things on this list are the most important things to you. They are the things that will give you the most satisfaction in life. Make sure you don’t put them on the back burner.

One more important note: When making life decisions, teenagers - and adults - often think of "success" in terms of society's standards. In terms of career, they think doctor, lawyer, SVP, etc. This is a mistake. You need to focus not on what is considered "successful" in society, but on what will make you happiest and most productive. For this, you need good measure of independent thinking, which is a part of being mature enough to be ready to make these decisions. Not everyone is cut out to be what society considers "successful". If you try to satisfy secular society's standards, which have to do with how much money you make, or how much power you wield, you will make yourself into a robotic servant to standards arbitrarily set for you by others.

Hashem puts inside each of us a certain innate desire for a certain profession. He does this in order for the world can function properly. We need all kinds of people to make all kinds of contributions to the world. "Even a tanner's work (i.e. someone who processes hides of animals, a smelly, difficult job) is sweet to him. And Hashem did this on order for the world not to be missing any type of work." (Rashi Brachos 43b).

Instead of focusing on what Hashem put inside each of us that will make us happy, we tend to focus on what will make society happy with us. That’s a mistake. Everyone was put on this world to make his own contribution -- in Gashmiyus or Ruchniyus. When we know enough about ourselves to realize what we are good at and what we will be successful at, and when we are mature enough to be able to pursue that path, then we are ready to make career decisions.

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Is singing or drawing or acting the yardstick of what makes you special in this world? Was the Chofetz Chaim so talented? What make you special in this world are you choices, not if you can play Machaniam the best.

The Baal Shem Tov explained what humility is. Doesn't the humble person know of his great talents?

The answer, he said, is, it's like the guy whose friend grew up to be a king in a far away but magnificent land.

One day the guy finds himself in his friend's kingdom, and decides to visit his old friend, currently the king.

He arrives at the king's palace, a pauper requesting to see the king. Of course, they told him to get lost. But he was persistent, claiming that he was an old friend of the king's. Finally, they brought his request to the king.

When the king heard the name of his old friend, he invited him in, and put him up in the Royal Palace itself. The king wanted to show his friend his entire kingdom, so he gave him royal clothes to wear, and took him in the royal chariot, all over the kingdom. Just him and the king, alone on the royal chariot, with the typical royal entourage preceding them.

The king's friend, the peasant, when dressed in royal clothes looked like a different person. So regal, so kingly. So much so, that onlookers actually mistook him for the king!

"Long live the King" they shouted, as the chariot passed by, pointing at the peasant, ignoring his royal highness himself!

The peasant was totally embarrassed. Imagine: His friend, the king, gives him these royal clothes and rides him around in his royal chariot, and he ends up stealing all the king's attention and praise.

So, too, said the Baal Shem Tov, when a person is talented, or wealthy, or handsome, we tend to praise them and think of them as "special". But the reality is, the credit goes to Hashem. Hashem is the One Who gave the person the talent, like the king giving the clothes. What did the artist do to deserve his talent? Nothing. It’s a gift from Hashem. All talent is - to borrow a phrase - on loan from Hashem. When a talented person is praised as "special" or "talented", if they are humble, they should be embarrassed, because they know Hashem, Who really is the talent behind them, is "standing" right next to them.

The special people are not the artists or the writers or the singers or the actors. They are not those who live off the King's name. The special people in this world are those who make themselves great, by using their choices, their bechirah, which is not Hashem's, but yours.

The Chofetz Chaim was not talented. But he was the greatest of the great. It's only that kind of greatness that counts in this world for anything. Everything else is just Hashem's specialness, not people's.

The Rambam writes that every Jew can be as great a Tzadik as Moshe Rabbeinu. You can, too.

Forget the talents. Focus on what's really special in this world, what really makes people special. Not the illusions. Not the pride that's stolen from Hashem.

In the next world, all the "talented" people will be plain janes. It's only the doers of Mitzvos and the learners of Torah that will be special. It is only they who are special in this world, really. And you are among them. Never forget that.

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There is no point in trying to find something at which you are better than anyone else. It says this nowhere.

What it does say, is that you should find something – a Mitzvah, a livelihood, a cause - that you ENJOY, and then you know that’s your purpose. If you have a certain Mitzvah, for instance, to which you feel a disproportionately strong attraction, it means that that Mitzvah is from the roots of your Neshomah.

If you find a certain profession that you enjoy, even if it is working in a tannery (which was a smelly, difficult occupation), it is because that occupation was made for you. The world needs tanners, too, so Hashem planted a liking for tannery into certain individuals.

So in Ruchnius and Gashmius, the goal is to listen to what's inside you.


One important caveat, though: In order to “feel” your purpose, you have to be purely objective. You can’t have other people’s opinions and preferences influencing what you feel. You need to find the path that is right for YOU, not the path that will make others think that you are a success. This is not an easy thing, but an important tool in our Avodas Hashem. That is, knowing yourself for what you really are.

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The problem often is that people do not distinguish between being happy, and having fun. There is a big difference.

When you have fun, the pleasure ends when the fun is over (that's not counting hangovers). If the only pleasure you know how to have is "fun", then whenever you are NOT busy with fun, you will not have any pleasure, except for looking forward to tomorrow's fun or remembering yesterday's.

You always need more.

Going to clubs, hanging out, and partying are "fun". The pleasure ends when the party is over and everyone is going home. Right away it's "When's the next party?".

"Fun" feels good because you're doing something pleasurable NOW. If you want to enjoy your whole life that way, you are going to have to attend many, many parties.

And you have to make sure you don't get bored. Because we have a tendency to build up a resistance to "fun" -- eventually you get bored doing the same thing day in and day out. So you need something different or bigger or better or cooler. But whatever, you always need your "fun".

"Happiness" is different. Happiness is where you do something which, after you do it, the happiness lasts. This way, the pleasure doesn't end, but has an accumulative affect. Whereas more and more fun does not add up but merely repeats, more and more happiness makes a more and more happy person.

Accomplishment, fulfilling goals, finishing something, creating something, all give a feeling of satisfaction that lasts long after you have reached your goal.

"Happiness" may not always be as pleasurable as "fun" while you're doing it, but it will be more pleasurable since you will attain a happiness that lasts.

It's like the difference between pigging out while on a diet, versus sticking to it. Pigging out is more fun, but only while you're pigging. Afterwards the fun is over. Sticking to the diet is not so much fun, but you will be happier with the results.

Being constructive makes a human being happy.

G-d made human beings with an emptiness in them. They are constantly yearning for something. This emptiness is the result of a soul which is not so comfortable in a physical body. Souls like accomplishment. Bodies like fun. Souls are eternal. So they like pleasure that lasts. Bodies are here only for a while. Then they become dirt. They like pleasure NOW -- bodies don't know what "forever" means.

Animals have no souls. That’s why they don’t enjoy accomplishment. Humans have souls, so for them fun is not enough.

The reason people are not happy is because they pursue fun instead of happiness. Maybe they don’t know the difference. Its like we're in this world on a diet, and they think pigging out will make them feel good. It will, for a while. But the soul just gets more and more frustrated. To be happy, meaning to be a happy person, you need to accomplish.

Of course, some fun is ok. It's even, ah, necessary. We sometimes need just a bit of ice cream so we don’t go crazy while dieting. But only a little. Too much fun and we start to lose it.

Teenagers are often more into "fun" than "happiness" because they haven't been around long enough to have been able to accumulate a lot of happiness, so they don't know what it feels like.

Now the question is, what is considered accomplishment? What do I have to do to be happy as opposed to "having fun"?

We will discuss that. But first we need to know what exactly it is that we are looking for. Then we can figure out where to find it.

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The problem is, often when people accomplish something it gives them a greater need than even before. Like these people who sped their whole lives working for money when they already have more than they can spend all their lives. I have a friend whose father-in-law is one of the wealthiest men around. We're talking in the billions (and no, it's none of the Reichmans). This elderly man wakes up before 6 in the morning to go to work and comes home after 11:00. His son-in-law asked him when he's going to retire, and he said "When I'm bigger than Edgar Bronfman."

So the question is, when is this man going to be happy? And, is there accomplishment that can make us happy without being bigger than Edgar Bronfman?

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