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Are You Guided by Meaning or Ambition?

If you only had that one remaining year, would you hope to spend more time at the office? Would enriching the financial bank account be your focus? Or would you be seeking something more qualitative in your life?
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Last week, we touched on one of my favorite questions: What do you want out of life, really? Reader responses were all over the place, some placing the inevitable focus on money, while others sought after time to chase more qualitative rather than quantitative pursuits; some noted that loving relationships were supreme, and others argued that with enough money, you could buy just about anything, including peace of mind.

As we noted last week, Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, offered some guiding wisdom here when he said, "You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy." I usually misquote him slightly and say, "You can never get enough of what you don't really want."

With Thanksgiving having come and gone, I thought this would be a great time to continue the mindfulness of gratitude. With that in mind, here's what a few readers had to say, some via comments, and others via e-mail to me.

One very powerful comment came in an e-mail to me from Kelly Larson, who gave me permission to quote her. Listen closely to the profound message contained herein. It is from this short and yet poignant note that I took today's title:

I read your article in the Huffington Post "Life Goals: What do you Really Want?" and wanted to respond. A recent bout with illness has brought this very issue to the forefront in my life.

After a three year professional hiatus dealing with a personal health crisis, I possess a clarity I certainly didn't before, and I no longer feel motivated by a paycheck, a title, or a certain cache associated with a profession. I feel guided by meaning rather than ambition, and now have a real desire for authenticity and passion in my professional life.

However, I find the challenge I'm facing now is simply this, choosing. When one is working towards that next paycheck, that next title, the path is quite clear...when on a treadmill there's little doubt about the direction one's headed, head down, one foot in front of the other, consciousness and presence not required. But having stepped off the treadmill, having stopped listening to the voices of others (most times!) or thriving on the hustle for more, I'm struggling to find my own voice again. What do I like? What inspires me? What experiences am I after? Am I brave enough to try? It's not the destination that's elusive for me, it's the path least for now!

Thanks for letting me respond. Appreciate your time!

Kelly Larson

Another thoughtful reader in an even more distressing circumstance, wrote this in an e-mail to me:

I read your article "Life Goals: What do you really want" and thought I would give you my perspective. I was diagnosed with terminal cancer two years ago and was given 12 months to live. Obviously by the fact I am writing this, I have beaten the timeline somewhat but that is a different story. When I first got diagnosed, I immediately flashed to the movie "Bucket List" and started thinking about what experiences I still want to have. After spending a few hours on this endeavor I found that nothing on that list was important.

With the looming end of life, my focus went back to basic animal instincts - providing what is best for my off-spring. That meant two main themes: Leaving a lasting impression of myself on my kids and making my family as financially secure as possible.

I had been a senior vice president at a Fortune 50 company. This meant that I was on the road a lot. My kids were 6 and 8 at the time. One thing that struck me early on was that I did not have a lot of memories when I was 6 or 8 and I wanted to make sure I was one of those memories for my children. While it may seem counter to the second goal, I decided to stop working, become a stay at home dad and really get to know my children. In that time, my relationship with my son and daughter has grown significantly. I have a much greater influence on them, I believe that they know me as a person much better and of course as they get older, the number of lasting memories will grow. I still ask myself quite often, "What have I done recently with my family that will impact my children positively in the years to come?"

On the financial side, it is more straight forward. We did financial planning. I laid out our finances as if we were retiring and we decided to have my wife go and get her MBA so that she could get a good job if and when I died.

The outlook has improved on my illness and I do reassess my priorities but they are still based on the two points above. However, in almost all cases, the goal is to create experiences that will further them.

I guess my bottom line point is that when our lives seem open ended, many of our desires and goals are less concrete and not grounded in a tangible or explainable rationale. When that ending becomes imminent, at least in my case, we are able to focus on things that really matter to us.

Perhaps KnuckleLady summed it up best when she posted this comment:

What do I want?

I already have what I've always wanted... love of which everyone longs for, but few ever find. I'm the luckiest woman in the world to be in love with my best friend. And with every year that passes, our love deepens, our friendship strengthens, and our understanding broadens.

I am a better person, a better woman, a better mother because of his love. It shows in everything I do and everyone I touch.

When you are loved, truly loved, everything you do, every decision you make, rests heavily on being loved. Everything is right with the world, even when the world isn't right. Things may go wrong, mini-crisis happen, bad luck appears, times get tough, but regardless of circumstance... everything is right with the world, even when the world isn't right. Love does that.

What do I want? I already have it. And I am the luckiest woman in the world.

So, one more time: what do you want, really? If you only had that one remaining year, would you hope to spend more time at the office? Would enriching the financial bank account be your focus? Or would you be seeking something more qualitative in your life?

I would love to hear from you about your ideas, about how you have chosen in the past or what you are focusing on as you look ahead. What do you want, really?

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)