An essay by eileen walz
At the start of 2021 I made a commitment. We were deep in the winter of pandemic isolation and I was craving the type of soulful, interpersonal connection my life has often been decorated with. I knew I would have to be more intentional if I was to have more conversations about what matters the most to me. So I set out to explore a question dear to my heart: What is worth doing? It’s not a question asked out loud very often, which means we must absorb answers to this question without explicit discussion. Which made me curious to also ask: How does one know what is worth doing? And How does this evolve over the course of one’s life? I am interested in this question from a personal lens, from the microscopic level of day-to-day doings to the macro-sized lens that tells the story over the course of a lifetime, of a civilization.
Because all of us are shaping our world by what we are doing. Mapping this space more clearly for young people ensures our collective wisdom, desires, yearnings, and hard-earned lessons can be more wisely used to guide our future. This feels essential as the speed of development accelerates towards a tipping point of no return. In many ways what I’m really asking is: How can we as a society better support young people as they begin making big decisions about how to design their lives? Which is the question I hope we can answer through action not writing. It is the question I carry in my soul and aspire to live out in my work.
I am an educator who dislikes teaching. One who is always carrying questions and dropping them like breadcrumbs for others. I spark learning by designing experiences and asking what we can learn from them. I am constantly inviting others into my learning journey, and this project is one example of that.
My exploration of these questions has led to some of the most beautiful conversations I have ever had and offered me insight into people I would otherwise never have known. For instance I sat down with Jean, a 70 year-old pioneer for women in climbing whose life was defined by a skull-shattering rock fall caused by an overconfident climber. Throughout the course of our conversation she kept coming back to patience and gratitude. Before and after the accident. She explained to me how she truly learned to listen during her process of healing, which included needing to relearn basic human functions such as walking, eating, and talking. After our conversation, she left me the sweetest voicemail explaining that she wasn’t satisfied with the response she gave about what climbing has taught her. She then proceeded to list the following: resilience, courage, decision making, problem solving, overcoming obstacles, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, trusting oneself and others, how to deal with adversity, how to think clearly, teamwork, joy, humility, self acceptance. & if you’re wondering, she has never stopped climbing.
Since January, I have recorded 20 conversations with folks ages 17-70 who sat down to share how they navigated life’s junctions. In this article I will share some of the insights from these conversations, reflections on my own path, and years of working with ambitious, often befuddled 20-somethings. Our conversations were winding. The interviews I conducted were grounded in a few core questions but with space to wander. I walked away from every one with an inspired smile on my face.
This is Going to Get Personal
What is worth doing? is a deeply personal question – and one that concerns us all. It requires knowing yourself and developing an awareness of what values you hold closest. It also determines the course of our collective future. How we all decide to use our energy determines what gets done, what gets talked about, and what is possible. When answered with intentionality What is worth doing? quickly expands to encompass the ones you care for, the ones you may one day care for, and the ones you only abstractly know of but include in your circle of care because they too share the desire to live a full life.
What is worth doing? may also be phrased as: How can I best love my community? How can I most fully show up for those in my world? What do I need to feel whole? Or How can I have a positive impact? It’s worth noting that determining which question to ask and how to map a response is the journey. When sharing what was worth doing to them, almost everyone I interviewed immediately began sharing personal stories, often going back to childhood, about how they have become who they are.
It makes sense. What we deem worth doing is enmeshed in our backgrounds, our families, our cultures. From the moment we are born we inherit ideas about how to spend our time. We observe the everyday patterns of those around us and they seed our own patterns. Before you can talk, the answer to ‘what’s worth doing?’ is already being acted out in front of you. How did your parents spend their days when you were growing up? What activities occupied your family’s free time? Every single person I talked to – age 17 to 70 – talked about their family and how those collective patterns significantly impacted their own.
Camille, now 27, spoke to me of how her parents were eager to buy her books and art supplies and encouraged her to go to theater camp. Now she is an artist and tinkerer who creates beautiful, upcycled objects through sewing, painting with organic materials, and woodworking. She carries the confidence to experiment, make mistakes, and tread lightly. She has lived in a monastery, traveled abroad and is someone who feels at home in herself.
Ultimately, how we as individuals spend our time and what we choose to do for our careers is what creates our communities, and increasingly, our global society. If you devote your professional life to deepening our understanding of genetics – that knowledge will be shared around the world and may well determine how future generations are birthed. If you devote some of your money to supporting the most effective charities, you may be able to expand the amount of positive impact you have in significant ways.
There’s this idea that has gained popularity: You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. If you look around, it rings true. We are social creatures, and we learn first and foremost through absorbing the behaviors modeled around us. One of my favorite pieces of advice I heard on this was from Naryan. His approach to growth was to identify people he aspired to be like, and then to go spend time with them. For him, this meant folks involved in Less Wrong, system thinking, and effective altruism. It allowed him to weave a web of people approaching problems from different points of view and become an incredibly self- and systems-aware person.
There are plenty of places to find guidance on what other people have to say about the right way to live. You can look to thought leaders, self-help books, religious groups, activists, life coaches… even your local sports fans. I wouldn’t say this is bad or even surprising. How to live is a giant question, and one we have only recently (in evolutionary terms) have had time to explore. For thousands of years our ancestors chose one of the handful of livelihood options presented to them within their community. In our modern world we are made to believe we have the options to be anything our heart desires – to live anywhere and to manifest our own destiny whatever the whims of that may be at this moment.
But what if we had wiser ways of listening in to the role we are best designed to play in our communities? What if we had learning practices that actually prepared us to support the world around us with the unique gifts we were made to offer? Or at least cultivate awareness of what they were, and have more models of people living those gifts our into the world. This pursuit has been called our Soul’s Journey 1 and can lead you into a life you otherwise couldn’t imagine. It requires recognizing the full spectrum of our values-based, axiological needs2 and pursuing uniquely suited manners of fulfilling them. It requires quieting the loud, prescribed societal ideas about success that focus on wealth, status, institutionalized authority, or degree-centric measures of intelligence.
Experiences That Shape Us
Life is a process of becoming the next version of ourselves day after day after day. And how we choose to show up each day is something we can influence in a myriad of ways. Zineb, an activist and educator summed it up this way: “Who you are is not a given, who you are is something you build intentionally. The process of becoming is part of your education and there are exercises you can do on character development; by picking a trait and practicing it once a week. The same way you decide a major you can decide to be a kind person. Your process of becoming is up to you.”
While some may subscribe to a static idea of self, the reality is that we are always evolving. In some seasons of life this happens quickly, while in others we may spend years feeling more or less like the same person. Certainly there are life events that will define any person who experiences them, like losing a close friend or family member, trauma, or making a drastic change to your lifestyle. These types of experiences do come up when I talk to people about what really matters but I also notice trends in referencing other types of formative experiences. Such as:
- Leaving home, where “home” is the collection of spaces that feel most comfortable and welcoming
- Spending extended amounts of time in solitude
- Saying ‘yes’ to an inner pull
- Building growthful habits
- Immersing yourself in a new community
- Developing your ability to introspect, connect with others, and feel empathy
It is common for elements of this list to be layered together. Someone may leave their hometown and root themselves in a new community in the new place they have arrived. Or someone may say ‘Yes’ to attending an event that suddenly links them to new people that inspire them. Take India for example, who ‘reverse engineered’ her ideal gap year which began with spending 3 months backpacking in Europe. She said she spent more time alone in a handful of days there than she had in the last 4 years. It confronted her with the question: “What do I want to do to fill this day?” and in responding, she learned a great deal about herself. She then spent the second half of her gap year volunteering with an environmental nonprofit in rural Peru. The awareness she cultivated during this time curved the path of her life significantly, causing her to orient her learning towards environmental anthropology and indigenous agricultural practices.
It is not uncommon for lifelong answers to come from the smaller day to day answers. I spoke with Michael who offered this: “What’s worth doing? Something that challenges you mentally and physically, that you can share and connect over with loved ones, that’s fun but testing at times, and that exposes you to nature’s elements, environments (harsh and comfortable) and other living beings. Surfing has done that for me. It amazes me how it has had such an impact on my life, even at times when I wasn’t aware of where it. … It influenced my interest in nature and sustainability, and would determine what I would study at university. Later, it would pull me away from the corporate world, and through a surf trip with lifelong friends, serve as the igniter behind EcoSwell, my life’s project. [Surfing] is it’s origin.”
From a scientific perspective, there is no agreement on how much control we have over who we become. However I believe that our sense of self-determination has a significant impact on how we choose to live, and ultimately shapes our degree of contentment with life. If you feel you have some control over the person you are becoming you can lean into the process of identity development, heal past trauma, and set your sights on a future horizon. While this can involve more nebulous self development, there is also value in focusing on our daily patterns. Carson, who is now 45, has cultivated a strategy to build daily habits that over time have become instinctive behaviors. To do this he used a process called incremental habit building3. “In my mid 30’s I started focusing on incremental habits, and now regularly practice things like journaling, not being on social media or reading news in bed, drinking a liter of water before I start my day, getting 7 hours of sleep, taking cold showers, doing micro-workouts, and spending time in deep focus. It’s made a huge difference.”
But beyond daily habits, for myself and the majority of the people I talked to, there is a sense that to truly know who you are and what is most worth doing, you need to see yourself in novel environments. A need to expose yourself to diverse things. You need to be challenged – physically, emotionally, spiritually – before you can really understand what matters.
Many of the younger people I talked to referenced a vague awareness of social and familial pressures telling them that they “should” be focusing on getting a “real job”, finding stability, and picking one of the narrow, pre-packaged versions of Success. Angel, a first year college student, talked about how making a decision that strayed from his parent’s ideas of his future was challenging. He knew that becoming a doctor or engineer was not the future he desired – even if it would assure him of more stability.
I am optimistic about the dawning awareness that the success that is sold to us is not actually the pinnacle of life; that it may in fact be toxic in ways we are just beginning to put out in the open. Amassing wealth and stuff does not equate to an increased quality of life. Working a high powered job does not ensure you can look back on life and feel content. Increasing the size of one’s house does not assure you an increase in overall life satisfaction. In short, the narratives of how to live we have been told (and sold) are not holding up under close consideration. It is up to us to critique the direction our culture is moving and recommit our day to day lives to the way of being we want to be a part of.
Once you’ve unearthed a way of being that speaks to you, what can be more difficult than finding your center is holding on to it. So many in our culture are being significantly influenced by forces outside of themselves. Decisions are being made for us by the underlying currents of convenience, elaborate monopolized systems, and other mechanisms that drive wealth and power to a greedy few rather than communal wellness. There is much evidence demonstrating that we are living on a precipice4, an integral moment of history that will almost certainly be a titled chapter in the Story of Earth. Which is what makes this question particularly important and particularly urgent to consider. While this article is not the place to discuss the complexities of this deterministic moment, it does however, feel necessary to acknowledge it.5
Our collective actions will determine the future. And it is important to keep in mind there are things you can do to retain (or regain) control over what you do, what you buy, and who you become. The same way a bicycle needs to be maintained, the way wheels sometimes need to be trued to stay on course, so too does our soul need to be recentered, regrounded. This may mean spending time in Nature, tapping into your creative side, or spending time with those whose values and behavior patterns align with the ones you aspire to. It can also be helpful to find a rhythm in which you recommit to your values and desired ways of being. Some use the start of seasons, a new year, or the lunar cycle to pause for a moment of reflection. This can be a helpful time to tune into your sense of alignment.
It can also be necessary to distance yourself from voices who tell you to live other ways – particularly so in times of transition or confusion. This is when we are most susceptible to losing connection with our internal voice and intuition. At 17 Harper, who at the time fell into the category of overachieving high school student, found herself facing one such moment. She had just stepped down from a leadership position on student council when she decided to take a gap year before college: “I cannot be in school right now because I need to process the world and process myself and understand things without the context or pressure of school.” It takes self-awareness and courage to distance ourselves from the default paths put in front of us – and it is so worth doing.
In reflecting on and synthesizing the colorful palette of conversations I had with twenty distinct individuals I became certain of one thing. What is worth doing is a vast ocean, one that stretches wide as well as deep. It depends on you and it depends on the creatures you cohabitate with. It depends on the unique moment in which you are asking this question as all of life is evolving in a myriad of ways.
We have so many tools for learning at our fingertips, no not the touch screens of our devices, but timeless tools we have been using since the beginning – we just need to be clearer about how and when to use them. We need to spend more time in Nature, understanding our inseparable bond with all life. We need to know solitude so we can know our intuition. We need to ask better questions – not to find answers, but to learn from the process of seeking.
We need to remind ourselves that our worth & our wealth are not equal. The more we can separate what we make from what determines what we do, the healthier the collective becomes. We do not need a bigger economy, a six-figure salary. We need an increased ability to care for one another, and to know that this is not just referring to our human companions. It is up to each of us to determine what is enough and what we do with the abundance of naturally renewable resources that exist: love, beauty and creativity.
I loved the moment that would often arrive in many of my conversations, the one where we reached a shared understanding that the answer to what is worth doing is not so complicated. It is through close relationships, powerful lived experiences, memorable moments, supporting your community, and supporting the collective that we will derive a sense of satisfaction – and true success – from our time on Earth. We will only be able to stay true to directing our lives in the way we truly want to live them if we have explored and mapped who we are and made a commitment to living authentically.
If this writing stirred something in you, get in touch – with me, with the ecoversities alliance, with whatever lies at the center of yourself.
— With deep gratitude to everyone who shared their stories & the learning it offers all of us.
- The Journey of Soul Initiation by Bill Plotkin offers a beautiful vision for how to relate to profound evolution one can undertake with proper preparation.
- Manfred Max-Neef’s work offers a framework for beginning to map human’s axiological or values-based needs, which can be read about here: What are Fundamental Human Needs?
- James Clear’s Atomic Habits was referenced by Carson as influential for his habit formation.
- The Precipice by Toby Ord discusses the uniquely critical moment humanity is facing and has since helped fuel a movement to explore what to do about it.
- Joanna Macy & Molly Brown have both written and dialogued extensively about the Great Turning, which can be explored in their book Coming Back to Life
Things Worth Doing | An Unordered, Spontaneous List
- Learning how animals, fungi, and other creatures exist on Earth
- Protesting things the world is more whole without
- Speaking up about things the world is enhanced by
- Staring in awe at the night sky, wondering what is out there
- Writing, singing, performing music
- Identifying a pattern you want to unlearn, and imagining the path to unlearning it
- Foraging for food
- Telling your friends and family you love them
- Drawing a feeling-scape to get to know your emotions
- Cooking a meal with friends or family
- Joining a citizen science project
- Putting something that reminds you of your dreams on your mirror
- Reading poetry aloud (even to yourself)
- Finding shapes in clouds
- Hospicing someone in dying
What else? What types of things fill your list?