Those who work with their hands, those who spend their entire lives and careers perfecting a craft, seem to know something about happiness that the rest of us don't. This guy gets it. (Photo by Clement Chai on Unsplash)
“Of course I don’t have to do this,” one middle aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. “But look, this table’s clean.” He agreed that the table was clean.
“Usually,” the man said, “I work on alien religions… I catalogue, evaluate, compare. I come up with theories and argue with colleagues here and elsewhere. But the job’s never finished. Always new examples and even the old ones get reevaluated and new people come along and come up with new ideas about what you thought was settled. But,” he slapped the table, “when you clean a table, you clean a table. You feel you’ve done something. It’s an achievement.”
“But in the end, it’s still just cleaning a table.”
“And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?“
He smiled in response to the man’s grin. “Well, yes.”
“But then, what does signify? My other work? Is that really important either? I could try composing wonderful musical works or daylong entertainment epics. But what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure, and people come to a clean table which gives them pleasure. And anyway, the people die. Stars die. Universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? … Because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure.”
from Use Of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks
There’s a scene that I’ve remembered for many years.
I was visiting one of the small hot spring villages tucked into the mountains in northern Japan, not far from the university where I was studying abroad as an undergraduate. It was late winter or early spring, and I distinctly remember the steam rising from the channels by the side of the road where the excess hot spring water flowed down the hill, giving off its distinctive, sulphuric odor. I visited a small gift shop that specialized in simple wooden dolls known as Kokeshi. I had been introduced to these dolls by my host family, and was instantly enamored of them for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on: their refined simplicity and symmetric elegance perhaps, or the variety of styles and designs, or the fact that they were unique not only to Japan, but to the particular region of Japan where I was studying.
In the back of the shop was a small studio where an old man was stooped over a wood lathe, slowly and meticulously giving shape to a new doll. His hands were wrinkled and his knuckles were knotty, but he worked the wood with precision and grace. There were large piles of wood shavings on the floor all around him.
Two things struck me about this man.
The first was the degree and intensity of his focus. Ever since that day, every time I think about a flow state or about “being in the zone,” I’ve channeled the image of that man. He bent every fiber of his being to his task. I could tell just by looking at him that he had become one with the wood in his hands, and the world around him had ceased to exist. He had clearly spent a lifetime perfecting his craft: the very definition of a master craftsman.
The second was a feeling of pity at the unimportance and meaninglessness of his craft, doubtless stemming from my youth and naivete at the time. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This poor man has wasted his entire life making wooden dolls. There’s an entire world out there to explore: books to read, places to visit. There are so many ways a person can have an impact and do good in the world. Yet this old fool chooses to spend his whole life sitting on the floor of a tiny woodworking studio in the mountains, oblivious to the outside world, totally uninterested in the modern world taking shape around him. May I never be like him.”
And, indeed, the path I followed over the following years and the following chapters of my life took me in a very different direction. Yet, reflecting now on the experience—and struck by the way this image has stayed with me across the distance and the span of nearly 20 years—I understand now that that man knew something I didn’t know. He possessed a wisdom which I am only now beginning to grasp.
All existence is struggle. We struggle with our work. We struggle with money. We struggle to be healthy. We struggle with things that upset us, but we also struggle with the things and the people we love the most: our friends and family, our passions and joys. Even the most successful among us, even those who seem to have it all—health, wealth, power, and fame—struggle with pride, loneliness, privacy, and the constant stress of managing a personal brand and reputation.
However, there is one thing that causes us more grief than anything else. There is one thing that we struggle with more mightily than we do with any of the above. That thing is time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all of the various experiences I’ve had in my life, it’s this: we must learn to live with the grain of time, not against it.
If you’ve ever worked with wood, you know what I mean by “with the grain.” When you cut a piece of wood, you can cut with the grain or against it. When you cut with the grain, the process is easy, smooth, and natural, and the final product comes out clean and beautiful. When you cut against the grain, the wood is much harder to work with: it tends to split and splinter, and the result is usually not very pretty. It can be done, but you feel like you’re forcing things and struggling against nature.
This is a simple but powerful metaphor for life. We can live in either of these two ways.
The way most people approach life, intentionally or unintentionally, is maximization: we have a finite period of time on the planet and a lot of things to accomplish, so we should put that time to good use and accomplish as much as we can while we can. On the face of it, this sounds like a pretty rational approach. Shouldn’t we strive to do the most good that we can in the limited time we’ve got? This is certainly how I lived my life for the first 30-odd years, and it got me reasonably far. Learn all you can, love all you can, be as generous as you can, that sort of thing. It’s better than a life of regret.
The problem with this approach is that it’s a race against one another and, ultimately, against death. It’s a race that we simply cannot win. It’s therefore a recipe for unhappiness and dissatisfaction. No matter what goal you set yourself, no matter what you set out to accomplish in your finite lifespan, no matter how grand or mundane, you will be dissatisfied. Perhaps you won’t accomplish it in the first place, and then you’ll be frustrated and disappointed. You may even come to feel that you’ve wasted your whole life pursuing the wrong thing. Perhaps you do accomplish what you set out to—then what? You aim higher. A higher income. More impact. A bigger family. A nicer home or car. A better job. More books read, more places visited, more, more, more. Whatever the goal, however well-intentioned, it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction and unhappiness. The very act of choosing a goal is the act of setting oneself up for disappointment. Where does it all lead? When does it end?
To live in this way, against the grain of time, is to always be in a hurry, always going somewhere else, never slowing down to appreciate the process or the present. To live this way is to constantly battle with time, to feel that you never have enough of it.
There is another possible approach to life. To live with the grain of time means to work with time rather than against it, to make the most of the time we’ve got without craving more or seeking to maximize every moment. It means to slow down and appreciate the time we have and to be present as much as possible; to enjoy the process, the means, the journey, rather than always focusing on the ends, the destination. I’ve only just begun learning to live with the grain of time rather than against it, but it’s already brought me more sustained peace and joy than anything else I’ve learned or done.
To me, the secret of happiness is timelessness, to transcend the perceived limitations that time imposes on us and to escape from this race. The way to achieve timelessness is to learn to live with the grain of time.
We cannot win the game of life and time, and we cannot win the race against death, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes the only way to win such a game is to refuse to play in the first place. This means looking Death herself in the face, smiling at her, and saying, “I know you. You don’t scare me. I won’t play your game. Let’s be friends instead.”
Our society is obsessed with narratives. Companies, countries, and individuals need to have stories: a creation myth, a present full of challenges and shortcomings, and a glorious, promised future when those challenges are overcome and some ultimate goal is achieved. For a company, this ultimate goal may be the launch of a killer product, a billion dollar valuation, or an IPO. For a country or a people, this may be winning a war, achieving independence and recognition, or attaining some quality of life metric such as per capita income. For an individual, it could be getting into a good school, getting a dream job, getting married, owning a home, or having children.
Each of these narratives has a beginning, a middle, and an end. They each have a plot, and protagonists that set out to accomplish a specific mission, facing and overcoming challenges along the way. It’s certainly an appealing way to think about life, and the world.
The problem with these stories is that they by definition have a climax, a denouement, and an ending. But in the real world there is no such thing as “happily ever after.” The company that successfully IPOs isn’t done with anything. It’s only just begun, and it has an entirely new set of challenges to face. The country that wins a war isn’t done, either: it has to face the daunting prospects of rebuilding and redefining itself, and of continuing to grow, develop, and ensure a quality of life for its citizens. And someone who gets into school, or gets a new job, or gets married isn’t finishing something, they’re beginning, too, aren’t they? Fairy tales that end in “…happily ever after” are important, but their value lies not so much in showing us the way towards a specific future we ourselves may never achieve, but rather in inspiring us to keep moving forward when times get tough, and in reminding us why we keep struggling.
We must escape from this linear, story-driven mode of thinking and discourse. We must escape the allure of “happily ever after.” It’s one of life’s many great paradoxes: the only way to actually find happiness is to accept that happiness doesn’t mean what most people think it means, and it doesn’t lie where we think it does. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In fact, there is no rainbow.
By escaping from linear thinking, by opting out of the various finite games unfolding around us, by instead choosing to live in the moment—this moment—now!—we can choose a vastly different path and pursue a different sort of happiness, one that’s not dependent upon what we accomplish or possess.
As someone who cares deeply about having a positive impact on the world, it’s important to note that the choice to live and work in the moment does not mean to minimize our long-term impact, either. Quite the contrary. It’s counterintuitive, but by taking a step back and not trying to do too much too fast, we can actually increase our net impact. Think of it this way: do fewer things, better.
This may sound great in theory but it’s quite vague and metaphysical. What does it actually mean? What “path” am I referring to and how does one find it?
I suspect there are actually many paths. Each of the major religions offers one and I strongly suspect that they all lead to the same place. There isn’t that much difference between a Buddhist life of renunciation, meditation, mindfulness, insight, and intentionality, and a Christian life of prayer and compassion, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Universal virtues like compassion, empathy, patience, and equanimity are not just buzzwords, they are the waystones that mark the path, wherever you begin.
Here are a few such waystones that I have personally found particularly salient and helpful: examples of what it means to live with the grain of time. Note that these serve double duty as both cause and effect: they are good ways to get started, but equally they’re indicators of progress.
I don’t mean to suggest that this path is easy or straightforward. It’s not. And, not having reached it myself, I can’t promise that it leads to enlightenment. But I can promise that in spite of the struggle, or perhaps because of it, even just starting on this path will bring a great deal of unexpected joy and peace.
Dance to your own tune. Recognize that there is no such thing as a right way to live or a “career path,” so you should not be afraid of stepping off this path. Think less about the destination and take time to enjoy the journey. Try charting your own course entirely. When I first tried this I found it a little frightening but also delightful and intoxicating. I felt a sense of freedom, independence, and excitement at being able to define success for myself. There is a timeless nature to a life lived by one’s own standards and rules, and overcoming the feeling that you must arrive somewhere within some finite span of time is powerfully liberating. By the same token, we should not chart our progress by someone else’s metrics, and we should be especially wary of traditional metrics such as wealth, power, and fame. There is no one right way to live. There is no dishonorable path, or career, as long as it’s honest and true to the virtues described above. A life lived with integrity is by definition a good life. The things that matter the most cannot be measured.
Stop to smell the roses. Enjoy life. Spontaneously take an hour off, or an afternoon, or a week. Take a different route home, one that’s a little slower, a little less direct, and see something new. Stay up an hour or two later to read, watch, converse. Always be open to discovery and new experiences.
Make time for others. Talk to strangers. Make eye contact. Make time for that conversation with your father, your old college roommate, the homeless person on the corner. Other things can wait. There is always time for conversation, compassion, and sharing stories.
Spend time alone. You don’t always need to be in the company of others. Sometimes we all need time alone to get to know ourselves. Don’t be afraid to be alone from time to time. Schedule time and take yourself out on a date once in a while: coffee, dinner, the museum, a walk in the park. Try to find a few quiet moments alone every day to think, reflect, and ground yourself.
Make time for reflection. Stop every so often to ponder and reflect on your experiences, values, priorities, behavior, goals, and progress towards those goals. This might mean prayer, meditation, or simply going for a long walk, whatever flavor of reflection and contemplation you prefer.
Leave space. Don’t fill your calendar. Don’t fully plan the next day, week, month, or year. Instead, leave ample time for delight, surprise, wonder, and serendipity to work their magic. If necessary, intentionally block empty time on your calendar!
Be open-minded. We should strive to open our minds to the near-infinite possibility of the world around us. We should accept that there are realities out there other than the ones we’ve been taught and the ones that we’re familiar and comfortable with. At the same time, we should balance this against staying true to ourselves and our values. Replace expectation with openness, receptiveness, and respect of other perspectives.
Treasure what you have. I can think of 1,000 ways my life could be simpler, easier, more comfortable: ways my family could be less annoying, ways my partner could be more supportive, ways my work could be more effective. Indeed, I always have and always will strive to improve things. But this is not at all incompatible with being perfectly content with things as they are, no matter how good or bad they may seem. This means spending as much quality time as possible with friends and family, and reminding them often that I love them. It means taking the time to enjoy every meal, to really savor the flavors and textures, even when the food is quite simple. It means feeling genuinely grateful every morning when I wake up that I didn’t go to sleep hungry, and that I have a comfortable bed to sleep in and a roof over my head. It means taking the time to appreciate every leaf, every petal, every passerby and every note of birdsong even while walking down my own block. It means treating each new day in your heart as a gift.
Have patience. Patience is hard, especially in today’s fast-paced world. To have patience is to understand that all things have a season, and that not all seasons will be easy. It’s to appreciate that all things, good and bad, will eventually come to an end—so the good must be appreciated while possible, and the bad must be tolerated, abided, respected. It also means letting go of the good when the time comes to do so, without clinging. Patience means doing the best work I can every day and trying to effect positive change in the world, but recognizing that that change may take years, or a lifetime, or even a millennium, and truly being okay with that.
Be ambitious but balanced. Ambition allows us to improve our lives and the lives of others, but we should not be in a hurry to do so. And we should make sure that our ambition is motivated by the right reasons. To me this means thinking carefully about my life’s work and about the impact I intend to have, and about how my day to day life and my daily actions fit into that.
Reread books. We should not hesitate to reread a favorite book three, five, or eleven times, rather than chasing novelty and feeling that we always need to consume new content. How much you consume, whether books, news, video, music, or any other medium, is much less important than what you consume, what frame of mind you cultivate as you consume it, and how you later reflect and build on what you’ve consumed.
Give more than you take. Stop calculating what you personally stand to gain from an act or interaction. Do good for the sake of good, for the sake of the beneficiary, rather than for yourself. In a finite mindset, you might wonder why you should bother investing in relationships with people who seemingly have little or nothing to offer, e.g., the uneducated, poor, or elderly. In an infinite mindset, these relationships can be deep sources of joy and inspiration for both parties.
Don’t wait. Do as much good as you can for as many people as you can today rather than planning to do so at some indefinite point in the future. I know how tempting this way of thinking can be. Trust me, the day will never come when you will have earned your target amount of money or achieved that specific objective and can miraculously transition into giving mode. Making compassion and giving a part of your life today.
Be present. It’s one thing to be present and engaged when doing something engaging like having a conversation or working on something challenging. We must strive to be mindful, present, intentional, and genuinely curious even when engaging in the most mundane tasks: washing hands, cooking, walking, breathing. These moments are some of the best opportunities for slowing down and exploring the idea of timelessness, and when we learn to be present while doing them, they are a remarkable source of joy and wonder.
Do less. Instead of trying to maximize how much we accomplish, we should seek to do work that we are proud of. Prioritize quality over quantity. Take the time to really hone a craft. Stop trying to multitask, overoptimize, and do multiple things at once. When finishing something, don’t immediately rush on to the next thing. Take time to reflect on the task you just accomplished and consider how it could be done better the next time. Do fewer things, better and more mindfully.
Respect nature. Nothing embodies timelessness better than Mother Nature and there is no better place to learn to understand and appreciate timelessness than surrounded by nature. Go on trips, take walks and hikes, explore the countryside, climb mountains, swim in the ocean, and spend as much time outdoors as you can. Cultivate a profound respect for the beauty, power, wisdom, and timelessness of nature.
Relax. Don’t worry too much if you forget something, miss an opportunity, or fail at something. Missing one opportunity almost inevitably results in others appearing sooner or later. Herein lies another of life’s great paradoxes: when we feel under less pressure to accomplish specific things within a specific timeframe, we relax, perform better, and are more likely to accomplish those things!
It’s taken many years, but I’m beginning to see the wisdom of the old artisan I observed in Japan. Perhaps he really had spent his entire life and career perfecting his craft. Perhaps he had done something entirely different before. Perhaps he had traveled the world, and at some point, had decided that he had seen enough. Perhaps he had even gone to war, and when it was over, decided he just wanted a quiet, peaceful life. It makes no difference. He had achieved something most of us never will: a sense of total oneness with his work, and of purpose and satisfaction. I could see it in his eyes, in his hands, and in his work. He was living completely in the moment.
There isn’t really a good word for this state of being in the English language, this unique form of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction. “Enlightenment” is a bit too strong. A better word is eudemonia, a Greek word which means a “state of excellence characterized by objective flourishing across a lifetime, and brought about through the exercise of moral virtue, practical wisdom, and rationality,” described in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as the ultimate form of happiness. Another possible word is simcha, a Hebrew word used to describe the happiness associated with any joyful occasion which has deeper meaning in Jewish philosophy: “the experience of the soul that comes when you are doing what you should be doing.”
It’s a state that most of us would be lucky to reach a handful of times in our entire life. To enter this state regularly, to be able to enter it at will, is rare indeed and is tantamount to enlightenment. We could do worse than aiming to achieve it in our own lives.
I don’t know the whole way there there, but I know that it starts with timelessness.