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What Would Thoreau Do? Finding the Meaning in the Maelstrom

By: Dan King

meaning0310“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”  These words, written by Henry David Thoreau, inspire us to appreciate the little things in life…. but they fail me when I look at this winter’s unrelenting snowfall in Boston.  I know I should try to see the simple beauty of winter in New England, but what I see is just a lot of snow swirling in huge drifts …and my mind drifts more readily toward moaning than to meaning.

Thoreau’s doctrine of simplicity served him well for his time — in life and in work.  “Our life is frittered away by detail,” he wrote.  He could live happily in a simple one-room cabin in the woods at Walden Pond. But here I am, just a stone’s throw away, and I struggle to cope with this miserable winter in a three bedroom house with heat and electricity. Thoreau found the inspiration to write three pages describing the ice cracking at Walden Pond, and all I’ve been able to do is whine for three weeks about the ice clogging the gutters of my house.

It’s harder to appreciate meaningful work when it’s burdened by such details as two hour commutes, cancelled subways and trains, falling ice and seven foot snowbanks.  Unlike Thoreau, when such contingencies hit, we don’t have the option of retreating to the woods.  We work in a fast and furious technology-driven age — and our worklives unfold at a pace unimaginable in Thoreau’s time.  The infrastructure that supports us can be dismantled by a new boss, a reorganization plan, or an acquisition by another company and more.  Added to that we can easily become immobilized by a family crisis, a technological glitch and, yes, an extremely angry weather pattern.

Thoreau would argue, “things do not change, we change.” We have the opportunity to adjust our focus so that, moving forward, we can see things differently.  Weather happens to you, but your career doesn’t have to.  It is within your control.  It needs to be driven by your core values and beliefs, which when threatened by things outside your control, still anchor and guide you through the storms that come your way.

So during this winter of our discontent, I ask: What would Thoreau do?  Here’s some simple wisdom I think he would impart:

“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” Woulda, coulda, shoulda” behavior does little change the forecast for achieving meaningful work today.  Lose the baggage and focus on the inner-strengths that helped you get where you are.  Who and what have had the strongest influence on your best decisions? What training and experiences have had the biggest impact? What would you like to do differently? How do you need to change moving forward?

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”  Imagine that you could do whatever you wanted to do. Is what you’re doing right now what you would choose? Why or why not? What is getting in the way of you doing what you really want to do? What do you get passionate about? How are you unique? When do you feel your best? For what do you most like to be recognized? What motivates you?

“Live the life you’ve imagined.”  Look ahead to your career future. What would you like to be able to say you accomplished 10, 20, 30 years from now? What needs to happen for you to get clear about your goals? What do you need to find out – and from whom? What are you learning now that will better prepare you for what comes next?  Even if it’s more snow.

Thoreau believed than “man is the artificer of his own happiness.”  If he were alive today, he would encourage us to focus on what matters most in the long run.  He would urge that we pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence” — even when the sidewalk is icy.  And he would caution us to not worry “if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”  To this I would add: make sure the foundations are capable of weathering the storms along the way.

MeaningfulCareers.com was created by Mark Guterman and Dan King, two guys with a shared commitment to the power of meaningful work.  They help professionals find greater meaning in their careers, lead happier, more satisfying lives, and instill lasting value through their work.  For more information and resources visit:  http://meaningfulcareers.com


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