How to Live a Meaningful Life

I graduated from college in 2008, and as I continue to meet people with fresh degrees and bright eyes looking to find their way in the world, I frequently hear some version of this sentiment:

How do I do something meaningful with my life?

It's a big, powerful question, and I admire anyone who struggles with it. If you're thinking along those lines, that means you're curious about extending past your comfort zone and you're interested in making a difference to some degree.

What I know for sure, being 7 years into the "real world," is that people who do meaningful things with their lives are extraordinary, and they all have two things in common.

They are experts at follow through, and they are service-oriented.

The first part is really that simple -- following through is the single quality that will set you apart from anyone else in every single aspect of your life. Being reliable matters SO much, and an ability to be resourceful to complete actions is worth more than any other talent or quality.

Extraordinary people do not necessarily have better ideas, more access to resources, a trust fund, or unusual talents. But they do follow through on their efforts in the sense that they get shit done. They respond to emails. They show up for the meetings. They say yes when they mean yes, and they are honest about saying no when it's not a good fit. They make time when they can. They take notes. They call people back. They keep moving forward even when they get a million no's.

Slowly, over time, all those minute efforts add up to something incredible, something meaningful, something extraordinary.

I've noticed this quite a bit lately, as related to some local service initiatives. My community is full of big dreamers, of people who have lovely ideas and are quick to say, "Wouldn't it be great if we . . .?" and "I wish that . . ." or "I would like to get involved with . . ."  And yet, time and time again, those same people do not follow through. This pattern creates a negative cycle: the same people end up doing the same work within a community, and they get totally burnt out, then frustrated, then jaded and then efforts begin to trail off or cease entirely. 

I get it, I do. Everyone has constraints on their time, money and energy, and it's vital to respect that for yourself and for others. What's valuable work to one person may not be to another, which is actually fairly important, because each community needs different people to utilize their strengths in diverse ways. Most of the extraordinary people I know here in Des Moines are in fields totally outside of my expertise or interest; they're creating change or adding support in technology, finance, photography, homelessness, art, etc. Truly, I respect people who can say "that won't work for me" or "I don't have the capacity for that right now, but I appreciate you asking"; I think it shows integrity.

Except . . . I know a lot of people who don't prioritize giving back to their communities in a service-minded way. And I don't understand it. I find it challenging to accept such choices, and it's hard for me to relate to those mindsets.

Perhaps the difference is that I grew up extremely service-minded. My high school required 200 hours of service before we could get our diploma; my sorority mandated service hours; my first job out of college occurred at a large church with service-minded programming. In every aspect of my life thus far, service is a non-negotiable -- it's just part of who I am and what I do. 

Which is why I feel quite bold about this next part: if service is not a part of your life in some way, you need to check your priorities. If your life feels really comfortable and awesome and all about YOU, then you need to check your priorities.

We forget this, sometimes. (I do, too, trust me!). It is unbelievably easy to assume that you don't need the help of other people or organizations . . . until you do. Until you lose your job or your kid or your house or your sanity. We get on high horses, even with our service projects, thinking we're being so good and so great at helping other people (when it's convenient for us, of course) -- and then, when it gets hard, we're like, "I don't really need to do this" or "I don't have time for this" and return to our comforts as quickly as possible. And it's a gray line, because we all have to care for and honor our minds, spirits, bank accounts, bodies, families, relationships, and more.

But . . . we need each other. And we need to use our skills to help other people, however we can. Serving your community means that you're making it a better place to live, for yourself and your family and all of us. And if your service efforts do not feel uncomfortable or challenging or difficult, at least a little bit, you're trying to have your cake and eat it too. That's not the point.

Shauna Niequist puts it like this:

So these days, I’m on the lookout for grace, and I’m especially on the lookout for ways that I withhold grace from myself and from other people. At first, showing people grace makes you feel powerful, like scattering candy from a float in a parade—grace for you, grace for you. You become almost giddy, thinking of people in generous ways, allowing for their faults, absorbing minor irritations. You feel great, and then you start to feel just ever so slightly superior, because you’re so incredibly evolved and gracious.

But then inevitably something happens, and it usually involves you confronting one of your worst selves, often in public, and you realize that you’re not throwing candy off a float to a nameless, dirty public, but rather that you are that nameless, dirty public, and that you are starving and on your knees, praying for a little piece of sweetness, just one mouthful of grace.
— Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet

We often draw a line between "us" and "them," when it comes to service and getting things done. We assume other people will do the work or show up, so we don't have to. We forget that even if we don't need the grace of service today, we might need it tomorrow. 

If you find yourself asking, how can I live a meaningful life? Start with service. Start following through on what you said you would do; say yes when you can and no when you can't, and mean it. What can you do for other people in your community? How can your strengths or talents make a difference? And why do you keep thinking you'll consider it tomorrow?

Start today.