Success is mostly defined in terms of having material possessions. Or, to put it in other words: having the money to acquire those as money is undifferentiated purchasing power as my long ago economics teacher Jef van Caldenborgh would have it. And this kind of success seems to be the only one that matters. At least to us in the western world.
But is that really true?
Working as a coach I’ve met dozens of people who were really well off but somehow lacked a sense of fulfillment. They have asked me what they needed to do with their lives in order to experience this fulfillment again. Now, I’m not preaching to let go of all material comfort and retreat to some faraway desert or on some high mountain top. But on the other hand: those clients of mine defined themselves as being stuck in the money game. They saw no way out because of what they thought they would need to give up. They would define success as having money. Lots of it. Or holding some kind of high ranking job in some organisation (with matching remuneration of course).
In my novel “The Glass Dome” (http://www.geerthofman.com/glass-dome ) the main character is not really an exception to this, although there is something on the back burner coming alive again after he is trying to rescue this integration project for his employer. Although he meets a number of people who share their life experiences with him, he doesn’t see how his original beliefs are hindering him from seeing and subsequently embracing the life he’s called to.
The people he meets and who have done so are involved in varying occupations: amongst other they are a carpenter, a cleaner, a monk and a catholic priest. Let me share you two examples of Peter being confronted with beliefs he wasn’t aware of he had those and how they impacted him.
First there’s this unfortunate encounter with Kevin who is a cleaner at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. One morning when Peter is rushing to the gate for his flight to Nice in France he runs into Kevin and his cart. Chaos big time. From this event and from Peter trying to make some conversation out of politeness an unexpected yet interesting conversation follows:
“You’ve been doing this job since long?” Peter asked to make some conversation.
“About five years,” Kevin replied.
“You like it? I mean, on normal days when you don’t get bumped into by hurried passengers at full speed?”
“Yes, I like it,” he said slowly nodding his head again.
Kevin looked at Peter who didn’t know what to say to that. He showed his big white smile again.
“That’s great,” was Peter’s superficial comment.
“Well, I know what you must be thinking. What kind of fulfilment can a guy get from cleaning the floors and bathrooms in a wing of a giant public space, right?”
Peter felt totally embarrassed and didn’t know what to say.
“I choose to create a space that can make the travellers feel better when they pass through it. Well in any case not worse, if they notice it at all.” He burst out laughing, loudly and Peter noticed a few people turning their heads at them as they passed them by.
“So you don’t care what people think of your work?” Peter asked.
“Nope, I don’t. I do this work for myself. Just for myself,” was the unexpected answer from the cleaner. “And there’s nothing else I’d rather do,” he added.
Peter thought about how to politely end this conversation and move on to his gate when Kevin asked a direct question, adding to Peter’s embarrassment.
“I know you find this difficult to believe, right?”
That hit home.
“Well, no, not really,” Peter replied courteously not being able to hide his discomfort with the situation. Not only did he find it difficult to believe, he didn’t believe it at all. Although, there was something about the way in which Kevin spoke. He badly wanted to go to his gate but hesitated, triggered somehow by the tone of the cleaner’s words. Not that he expected to get his moment of enlightenment here but he was fascinated enough to being prevented from moving on.
“I know that what I’m doing is what I’m called to do and that gives a deep sense of fulfilment to me. There’s nobody’s approval I’m depending on. Ignorance doesn’t hurt me. I’m doing this work for myself and I get rewarded by it every minute.”
The word ‘called’ got Peter’s attention.
“Can I ask you what it is that you feel called to?” he asked.
“It’s about making my part of the world a bit cleaner. No one likes to live in dirt. Nothing high can live in a scruffy environment. Being in a clean space allows for different thoughts, gives different possibilities and, honestly, I consider those better than those emerging from dirt.”
Kevin paused for a bit while seemingly studying Peter.
“What kind of work do you do? Do you like it? You look to me as a high-placed person. A VIP! You could be someone who is running a company. Maybe a huge company with offices all over the world.” As he said this, his right hand drew a wide circle to underline how big that would be.
“I couldn’t do that and hence don’t want to. I don’t think I have the talents for it and, more importantly, I would not be doing what I want to be doing.”
This now had turned into another clear confrontation for Peter. A confrontation with what he had actually always thought about people not making it to the highest ranks. He had heard it before that they would say that they were happy with the lives they had but clearly Peter never believed that. Probably many said they were happy but essentially were not. And for the others who were, Peter had never been able to hear that. But the importance of doing what you are supposed to do and be happy with that, no matter what, had just become very clear to him. Series of colleagues, former colleagues, friends flashed through his mind and he could see them all forcing themselves to adapt to something they think others expect of them. With deep dissatisfaction, bitterness, cynicism, disappointment as the unavoidable end result. He thought about Karen for a moment as she too seemed to fit this picture. It is about doing what’s meaningful to you. Not about what you think is meaningful to others and hope that this would make you look good when you start doing that. Neither is it about doing something big for the sake of its supposed grandness. The cleaner had made clear to him that it’s about what’s meaningful to you.
Here’s another excerpt from the original text: In the conversation on new year’s eve with the catholic priest Père Jean that I mentioned in my previous blog, Peter tries to be empathetic to what Jean says about how he sees the essence of religion. obviously he understands that Jean’s beliefs and consequent practices don’t make him an ideal candidate for climbing the organisation’s ladder. But Peter doesn’t see that this is his set of beliefs he is projecting on Jean’s life. It is him who comes from his corporate set of beliefs where success means: moving up the ladder
“I guess that makes clear why you did not make a splendid career within in the church,” Peter was too quick to comment.
“When you mean with career ‘moving up the ladder’, my life has been a total failure,” he [Jean] looked at Peter and burst out laughing.
Their glasses refilled, they toasted again while Jean was still laughing.
“When you mean with career ‘living what you’re called to be’, it’s a tremendous success and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. Besides I have the privilege of working with young talented managers from all over the world as I’m a visiting professor at a business school nearby as well.”
“I understand my viewpoints may sound conflicting with the laws and rules of the church as you may have come to know them. In that respect it’s no different from working for a company. If you don’t share the same attitude and beliefs, you’re no longer part of the inner circle and your career won’t advance. I’m sure you know about this yourself.”
How about you? Where are you in the process of recognising your beliefs and how they either serve you or block you from having a more meaningful life? Let me know what you think! If you like, I’m happy to share how this process took place on my end (and still is taking place for that matter).