One Life, You Got To Do What You Should
By Dave Isbell
Like them or loathe them, U2 is a force to be reckoned with. I was a little bit young to appreciate the Joshua Tree when I first got the chance to see them in concert and passed on it. When I fell in love with them sometime around the release of Achtung Baby, I was a little too broke and a little too busy trying to fix that situation. However, last night, U2 not only came to town, but they literally played in the backyard of the office that I work in everyday! So, how could I miss it this time around?
Normally, Spartan Stadium’s biggest attraction of the year is reserved for kicking Wolverine tail from one side of the green and white field to the other. However, last night, it served as the landing pad for an odd space ship, and four friends from Ireland who had managed to lead the crowd into what can only be described as a secular worship experience. Despite all of the constantly changing scenery and flashy light show, Bono, the Edge, Adam, and Larry, engaged the audience with the power of their music in a way that is normally reserved for church revivals and neck-craning car accidents. I literally was so immersed in the music that I did not notice that the giant screen in front of me had changed size and shape and had trapped the band inside of it before they launched into their next song. I have no idea how I became so mesmerized so quickly, but I believe it was U2’s plan all along! Yet, despite their great music and amazing live show there is something else that has always drawn me to U2.
Few casual observers of the band realize that the band started out as teenagers who had no idea how to play instruments, but taught each other as they went. Indeed, these four men have grown up together and it seems that there is a real bond of friendship between them, and that is rare in rock bands that have survived at the top as long as U2 has. Yet, even the most casual of listeners will find traces of the spirituality and righteous anger about social justice issues that informs even their first album. Perhaps this is best attributed to their charismatic leader, Bono, who typically writes their lyrics, which the band supports with appropriate mood for each song. Here is what strikes me most. Bono is a character played by a guy named Paul who also chooses to caricature his own character when it will make great affect upon the message he is trying to share. And there it is, the message.
I love rock and roll, and I always will, and I don’t think every band needs a “message” or a cause other than the joy of music. Yet, the way U2 stands out to me from the pack is that they are trying to do something for the world instead of with it. Yes, I know, they are rock star millionaires with jets, and mansions and sometimes say or do stupid things, yadda, yadda, yadda, but look at their thirty year career and ask what they have accomplished beyond platinum record sales? How many other rock stars have worked hard to be in a position not just to perform at the White House but also to discuss poverty, aids, hunger, and war with those who are in office? It is apparent that Bono (and the other members by way of supporting Bono, when not advocating for their own charitable causes) understands that even if he gives away every dime he makes, the world’s problems cannot be solved only by throwing money at it. Instead, he brings awareness to people, and moves them to get involved. That leads me to the entire point I’ve been trying to get to.
How many people in any occupation step out of their normal role to get involved, much less lead in efforts, to do anything to address the needs of people who are around them? Why would anyone bother? After all, isn’t life all about getting our own “happiness” and taking care of our own family? Why bother about basic human rights being violated on the other side of the planet? Why be concerned for those less fortunate than us in our own hometown, when we are anxious about our own family’s concerns? For some people, these concepts are just truly too big to wrestle with and it feels like they could never make an impact, which stops them from trying at all. I think any compassionate person could understand that kind of apathy. However, let me get back to the question about “happiness.” What does the word “happy” mean to you? How about the word “joy”? What does that word mean to you? My friend, Matt Dugener, put those two words in perspective for me by handing me a new metaphor that made more sense to me than the one I was using.
I have since stolen Matt’s ideas and synthesized them into my own and as much I’d like to just paraphrase Matt because he is awesome, I honestly can’t remember where his ideas end and mine begin! (Seriously, he is an amazing Executive Coach/speaker/instructor and you should meet him.) Anyway, this perspective is that there are only two ways to look at the world. A person either sees it as material, or s/he sees it as spiritual. The material is defined by a life that is driven by doing things and getting things including status, people, etc. Essentially, this is what most of us think about when we think of the word “happy.” The spiritual is more about becoming a person of good moral character, and giving things away, including one’s time, talent, wisdom, etc. This is the essence of the definition of joy. The material life is not necessarily “bad” in itself, but it often leaves people wanting. To paraphrase Matt who was paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, “the person who sets out to find the material will always get it, but will never attain the spiritual. However, the person who sets out to find the spiritual will get the material thrown in.”
It seems that in our culture, we have allowed a very skilled group of marketers to drive us away from joy and toward happiness. At the same time we have worked our lives away to buy happy, we have been robbed of the ability to be joyful! Take a close, hard, look at your life. What is all of your work actually accomplishing? Yes, you absolutely need to be able to take care of your children, have a roof over your head, etc. Only a fool would argue against that! But, do you really need the brand new car, or the bigger house, or the vacation to Disneyland? Furthermore, in the scheme of things, what is the point of trading your time for dollars? If it means little more to you than shuffling papers from one side of your desk to the other, just so you can put food on the table and get to the weekend, or get that next promotion, or raise, then you might want to consider that you are currently buying happy and reverse-mortgaging joy. This is not about “switching jobs,” “finding your passions,” or “using your skills in a better suited job.” That would be just another way to chase down more happiness and you would be missing my point, which is to enjoy the journey that takes place as you seek the answer to the question of what it is that you were meant to do with your time on this Earth! Even more, how much more joyful would your life be if you connected your life, and how you make a living, to how it benefits other people?
I’m not sure if Bono was naturally meant to be an advocate or a performer, but I do know that he is paid to be a performer and has chosen to be an advocate. In other words, he used what he knew, and has worked hard at perfecting his craft, but he has used it as a way to give back in a way that is probably unmatched by any other in his occupation. He would be paid well to perform, even if he was not an advocate, but he chooses to get involved in causes that most of us wouldn’t even talk about in “decent” circles. I don’t know Bono, but I suspect that his level of happiness is at least matched by his level of joy because joy comes in not obtaining results, but in throwing your life at a worthy cause. Before you leap to another job where the grass is greener, think about your reasons for doing the one you have. Are you only looking to buy more happiness for yourself, or are you longing to have the satisfaction that who you are, and what you did, actually mattered? You don’t have to be an advocate for the poor, or in direct service to people, to do worthwhile work. Yet, you will not experience joy if you cannot connect how your life and your work matters to humanity in some shape or form. After all, few people would ever regret low performance on a balance sheet as much as they may regret missing out on their children’s lives so they could make the shareholder’s happier.
Dave Isbell is the Alumni Career Service Coordinator at Michigan State University. He has been a Career Coach since 1999. He is also currently pursuing a Master’s in Social Work/Family Studies at MSU. When he is not working or studying, he is enjoying domestic bliss with his wife and kids, or playing rock music on his bass guitar. You can find him on Twitter (@helpingspartans) and sometimes he writes about compassion, collaboration, and career for this blog, which he owns and begs other Spartans to write for.