At the end of his life, a man devoted to accumulating wealth said, “I only plowed water.” What a threatening image. How do you know your life and work will make a lasting impression? This question leads some people to a buck-shot approach, over-committing in hopes of striking some significant target.
Other people say “yes” and “no” with great confidence, having found their niche—a clear intersection between passion, gifts, and personality. Os Guinness illustrates this point in his book, The Call, by describing Jazz legend, John Coltrane–
After one extraordinary performance of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane stepped off the stage, put down his saxophone and said simply, “Nunc dimittis.” (Latin words quoting Simeon after blessing the Christ child: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Your salvation.”)
Simeon felt prepared to leave this life with a great sense of hope that the world was about to become a better place. Is this kind of assurance possible for the rest of us in our daily work?
From Success to Significance
One mistake we make in pursuing significance is to fixate only on measurable results. That drive towards the next concrete goal could simply be the nature of one’s work; or it may be a signature of fear over one’s past–as if performance creates distance from it. Some of us accelerate down life’s fast lane trying to ignore what still looms in the rearview mirror. In this scenario, the only satisfactory measurement is “just a little more.” The threshold to peace keeps shifting forward as they try to step through it.
It explains why some over-achievers will sacrifice relationships and reputation for a mirage—in pursuit of a goal that will finally register satisfaction, or finally flip the “I’m okay” switch.
Many people feel trapped by their work. Their daily “what” does not seem to line-up with their “who.” If you have ever experienced a moment when you have thought, “I was born for this,” then you have glimpsed the fulfillment of doing what you are. But you need not pine for the perfect vocation or mythically perfect mate, as though the next marriage or higher rung on the ladder will make all the difference. As Kierkegaard once wrote:
The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”
He suggests that anything ultimately worth living for is worthy dying for, and no mere vocation is worth dying for. Daily tasks, art, medicine, or even relationships will not remain meaningful through performance alone. If what you do each day is going to be deeply satisfying, then you (not “it”) need to line up with what is ultimate. Kierkegaard is saying truth must be experienced personally—pursued, understood, and embraced on a personal level. But he does not suggest truth is merely subjective, or “my own personal view of truth.” Deep conviction about Ultimate truth assures us even our smallest efforts will plow more than water.