What You’re Meant To Do: Career Advice from Ancient Wisdom

Source: http://purplebeard.com/how-to-get-started-on-your-it-career/

I live in the DC area and one topic that inevitably comes up is career. Depending on the crowd, you’ll hear about the people still figuring what they want to do for real (while they work as government consultants), people who are trying to figure out the next step in their career, and others who simply want to vent about the craziness of their workplace.

It’s rare that I find people who have their careers all figured out, who feel like they’ve found their calling.

In my experiments, I didn’t find much explicit career advice, but I did discover some deeper principles that are far more useful than the platitudes that float around the inter-webs these days.

You’re meant to serve

One of the more spectacular discoveries that resulted from The Ancient Wisdom Project is my inherent selfishness. I say spectacular because I was so blind to it before. I used to think that I was a pretty “okay” guy. I thought I was just trying to make my way in the world and improve my circumstances. I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone.

But, once you start learning about ancient religions and philosophies, you’ll realize how self-centered you are, and how much your actions and emotions come from your desires for yourself.

Judaism has an expression in Hebrew, “tikkun olam” which is literally translated as “to repair the world.” Though it’s original meaning describes ancient legal guidelines to protect the weaker members of society (slaves, divorced women, etc.), the modern interpretation suggests that individuals have an obligation to repair what is broken in humanity. Jews have an obligation to help ease the suffering of others and to act against injustice.

“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
Pirkei Avot 2:21

Christianity of course, is premised on the idea of sacrifice for others. God sent his son to earth to be crucified in order to redeem mankind. The Bible routinely calls for Christians to become servants to God and to each other.

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
– Galatians 5:13

Islam mandates the practice of Zakat, or alms-giving. Zakat is a mandatory donation of either money or good deeds or behavior to help ease the hardship of others.

A man asked the Prophet, “O Allah’s Apostle! What kind of charity is the best?” He replied. “To give in charity when you are healthy and greedy hoping to be wealthy and afraid of becoming poor. Don’t delay giving in charity till the time when you are on the death bed when you say, ‘Give so much to so-and-so and so much to so-and so, and at that time the property is not yours but it belongs to so-and-so (i.e. your inheritors).”
– Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith (Hadith 4.11)

Of course, altruism exists in the modern secular world, but culturally, it seems to be a sideshow to the primary task of improving our careers and our material circumstances.

I wonder what would happen if we chose to view our careers not as an end in and of itself, but rather, a means to serve others.

I admit, I struggle with this. Since I became an independent contractor, my earnings have increased dramatically. This seems to have lit a desire to make even more money. I have not given serious thought to how I could serve others, now that my circumstances have improved. The Hadith mentioned above warns against exactly this.

When I was in the midst of my experiments, whether praying five times per day or going to Mass every evening, I was constantly reminded of my obligation to others, and I felt guilty when I didn’t fulfill those obligations. Now it seems I’ve returned to my baseline, selfish ways.

But perhaps the reason careerism so often feels unsatisfactory is that it is completely self-oriented. I’ve written about this before, but frankly, it’s exhausting to think about yourself all the time. It’s a welcome break when you can find something that can help someone else, even if it comes at a personal cost.

We can inject service into our work, or maybe the reverse, find work that gives us the means to serve others. This may lessen the inherent selfishness that comes with adopting a careerist mindset.

You’re meant to do what you do now

Another imbalance in the current careerist culture we live in is the constant focus on the future. While promotions are celebrated, what’s even more revered is striving for the next promotion or the next job or the next raise. You’ve barely finished your celebration drinks before you have to think about your next move.

Let’s contrast that with the currently trendy concept of mindfulness. Though the Silicon Valley crowd likes to use mindfulness as a way to relieve stress in order to free up energy for more striving, Buddhism teaches that the practice of mindfulness is a way to rid yourself of worldly illusion.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism teaches us to accept that the process of living is full of suffering, and the root cause of this suffering is our “cravings” or desires to rid ourselves of painful experiences, seek pleasurable experiences, and to figuratively live forever.

The cure for this ignorance is to understand (not just an intellectual sense, but in an existential sense) that suffering comes from these desires. Mindfulness is one way to understand this. Mindfulness forces us to observe reality as it is, our reaction to reality, and then separate the two.

When I attempted daily meditation, it was interesting to see how active my mind was. I was in a low-stimulus setting (my bedroom) and the only thing I tried to focus on was my breath. But of course, my monkey mind wandered to other subjects, and it would take active effort to focus on the only thing that was really happening at the moment: my breathing.

This made me realize how much of what we consider to be “reality” are really just our interpretations of what actually happens. We even make up interpretations of things that haven’t happened yet (the future)!

There really is no such thing as the future, but rather, only a series of present moments. The future is simply a way to add narrative to our lives, for better or worse.

While I don’t advocate fully abandoning narratives, when it comes to the all-important question of what we should do with our careers or more generally, our lives, we should take a stab at understanding our lives in the present.

You may hate your job because you think you can get a better, more prestigious job, and that your current job is beneath you. But let’s say you apply the Buddhist framework to your feelings about your work. Are you making up things in your head about how your life would be better in the future with a hypothetical new job? Are you falling victim to your craving for status, when really, we all know that everyone will get old and die and in not too long there won’t be anyone that remembers you?

I’m not trying to be pessimistic, but trying to figure out what is real and what is just your brain getting head of you is a useful exercise.

“The Buddha asked the monk Sona, ‘Is it true that before you became a monk you were a musician?’ Sona replied that it was so. The Buddha asked, ‘What happens if the string of your instrument is too loose?’

‘When you pluck it, there will be no sound,’ Sona replied.

‘What happens when the string is too taut?’

‘It will break.’

‘The practice of the Way is the same,’ the Buddha said.

‘Maintain your health. Be joyful. Do not force yourself to do things you cannot do.’

This parable teaches that as we seek to become more successful, more enlightened, or more whatever, we must remind ourselves that there is only a “now” that we can focus on. Anything else is superfluous, and we must not let ourselves think that we can force ourselves to become anything.

As you continue this mindfulness practice, you might learn to focus on the present, and understand that there’s nothing you’re meant to do, at least, not in the future. You’re meant to do what you’re doing now, and maybe that will change as time goes on, but in the future, you will also be meant to do what you’re doing at that future moment. As you become better at focusing on the present, you’ll hit that balance between being too taut and too loose.

This career advice, taken to the extreme, might lead to complete career stagnation, but isn’t the concept stagnation itself an illusion predicated on the idea that you are meant to do something specific in the future?

The best way to get the benefits of advancing in your career while not clogging up your brain with illusory thinking is to adopt what could be called “detached ambition.” You focus on doing whatever your current work is extremely well, and as you get better, you try to advance in your field without worrying too much about whether or not your efforts pay off in a material sense. When you feel discouraged, you simply continue to focus on the work, so that at every “step” along the way you are simply focusing on the present. The late Allan Watts described this detached ambition as a game.

“It comes, then, to this: that to be ‘viable,’ livable, or merely practical, life must be lived as a game – and the ‘must’ here expresses a condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work, and the conflicts which it involves must be carried on in the realization that no species, or party to a game, can survive without its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies, its indispensable opponents. For to ‘love your enemies’ is to love them as enemies; it is not necessarily a clever device for winning them over to your own side. “

Alan Watts

The result of this detached ambition, this game-like view of your career, is that you can feel more alive, more in tune with the world as it is, not what you think it should be.

“When there is separateness, one sees another, smells another, tastes another, speaks to another, hears another, touches another, thinks of another, knows another.

But when there is unity, one without a second, that is the world of Brahman. This is the supreme goal of life, the supreme treasure, the supreme joy. Those who do not seek this supreme goal live on but a fraction of this joy.” 

Brihadarankyaka Upanishad

View your career as a game in which winning or losing is irrelevant, and simply enjoy the fact that you are playing it.

You’re meant to live with joy and without struggle

I have made two attempts at starting my own business.

The first time was after I read Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. Because I was into travel at the time, I started a travel company called TrekDek. The main (and only) product was a deck of cards with different travel “challenges” on them that would help you generate serendipitous experiences while you travel. For example, one challenge was to take public transportation and get off at a random stop. The idea is that in your unplanned wandering you might discover something interesting.

While I still like the idea, the whole project, in hindsight, was likely to fail, at least, I was likely to fail. While I had done some traveling, I knew nothing about running an online business and most of my efforts were spent struggling to figure out why nobody wanted to buy my product.

The second time I started a business was earlier this year. I wasn’t a big fan of my job, and I didn’t really like the field I was in. However, due to a fortuitous confluence of circumstances, I was in a strong position to force my company to hire me as an independent contractor for a project I was already working on and for much more they were paying me at the time.

In contrast to my effort to start an online business, getting a successful business of the ground this time was far easier. I seized an opportunity that presented itself, rather than forcing one to happen. I doubled my income this year, and I’m set to increase it again by 50% next year.

We spend a lot of time trying to force things to go our way. We think success is solely a matter of effort, and that if we just tried a little more or learned something new or just networked hard enough, we could end up like Mark Zuckerberg.

But some ancient traditions advocate a different path.

There is a concept from Taoism called “wu-wei” that is roughly translated to “non-action. “ The idea is not to mimic the lifestyle of a sloth, but rather, use your energy and efforts judiciously. If you’ve ever assembled furniture and tried to force things into place, you’re likely doing something incorrectly. Wu-wei means being patient and working with your circumstances rather than against them.

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.

In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

Less and less is done

Until non-action is achieved.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.

It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Chapter 48, Tao Te Ching

In my case, wu-wei is an apt description of how my current business became far more successful than my first one. I wasn’t even trying to start my own business, but the opportunity was far too good to pass up. My first business seemed like a lot more fun, but it was mostly wasted effort in terms of business success.

This is one way to discover what you’re meant to do: don’t try to find it, just be open to it. Benjamin Hoff describes this method as the “Pooh Way” in his book, The Tao of Pooh.

“Those who do things by the Pooh Way find this sort of thing happening to them all the time. It’s hard to explain, except by example, but it works. Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least they do when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, ‘This isn’t supposed to be happening this way,’ and trying hard to make it happen some other way. If you’re in tune with The Way Things Work, they work the way they need to, no matter what you may think about it at the time. Later on, you can look back and say, ‘Oh, now I understand. That had to happen so that those could happen, and those had to happen in order for this to happen…’ Then you realize that even if you’d tried to make it all turn out perfectly, you couldn’t have done better, and if you’d really tried you would have made a mess of the whole thing.”

Epicurus also had an interesting take on the well-lived life. Epicurus believed that we are meant to pursue pleasure. His philosophically was fundamentally hedonistic. However, his version of hedonism is not modern hedonism. It is a rational hedonism based on discovering what truly gives us pleasure and causes us pain, and to increase the former and decrease the latter. The result for classical Epicureans was a sort of minimalist lifestyle.

While naturally, we think our careers should be about adding things (more money, more excitement, etc.), Epicurus believed in subtracting out the unpleasant elements of life, which may include things like the search for the perfect career.

One who understands the limits of the good life knows that what eliminates the pains brought on by need and what makes the whole of life perfect is easily obtained, so that there is no need for enterprises that entail the struggle for success.


I spent a month attempting to subtract a few things from my life to see what would happen. I minimized variety in my diet (I ate the same thing every day for a few weeks) and I stopped watching TV on weekdays.

What happened was that because I rid myself of what I thought were pleasures in my life, I naturally gravitated towards activities that were actually meaningful. I read more, spent more time with friends, exercised more, it was great! This was the result of a “subtractive” approach to figuring out what I should spend my time on. Subtraction of harmful pleasures leads to addition of positive pleasures, naturally.

So if you were to adopt a hybrid Epicurean/Taoist approach to discovering your vocation, you would begin by assessing what displeasures you can subtract from your life, because subtraction is available to anyone at anytime. Then, you would learn to cultivate patience and an eye for opportunities that you could exploit with the right level of effort. A reduction in TV time might lead you to spend more time with friends who learn you are keeping your eye out for new jobs. Or, maybe you just end up reading great books, which give you ideas for a fun blog to start that adds some meaning to your life.

Though I’m not 100% convinced that the Epicuren/Taoist model is the best way, I believe it’s a helpful one for those who continue to struggle unsuccessfully with their work and are becoming discouraged or cynical.

Final thoughts

Even within a given tradition there are contradictory dictums, so I find it’s more helpful to switch heuristics or paradigms as appropriate. It is a way of getting “unstuck.”

For example, in a previous post I wrote about the value of struggle in your life, and how different forms of struggling can be beneficial. But in this post, I’ve advocated a Taoist/Epicurean non-action or non-struggle approach to your work or career. You can’t apply both models at the same time.

But models are, by their nature, simplified ideas used to understand a certain aspect of reality. Reality is always messier. So it may be that a certain point in your life, say, when you are in your twenties and don’t have any real skills, you must struggle to become valuable to others. Then later, when your struggling seems to have reached a personal limit, you learn to take your foot off the gas and let opportunities come to you. Finally, when you have a little more stability and success, you might be in a position to meaningfully serve others.

There are many career advice articles online that seem to advocate only one way of thinking about a career, and if you subscribe to only one point of view, you will hit a natural limit to your progression.

As the saying goes, the opposite of a great truth is also true. Thus, it sometimes pays to be detached than to become a passionate crusader. Other times it may be better to slow down the tempo and become an expert in patience and opportunism. Contradictory maxims or heuristics are not a problem if you understand that they are context-dependent.

Let’s learn from the ancients about how to live a good life and let our careers be guided by their principles, rather than forcing our careers to give us the good life we all seek.