Thinker and writer Christopher Ross, author of the brilliant Tunnel Visions, once said to me that if he had to live on social security in the UK he would become intensely involved in something like bridge- a game that provides social contact, excitement, a chance to progress and even make money- all by simply turning up at a bridge club. In other words: meaning. Bridge becomes your mission. And being on a mission loads meaning into your life. Look at the situation- you have to live on a bare subsistence amount of money so if you use it for anything except food and a few necessities you’ll be in trouble. So the meaning for your life must come for free. Hence joining some activity where you can get fully immersed, in a flow state, use most of your intelligence and feel fully tested.
Can you have a mission to make money? I am not so sure. If your mission is to raise money for a certain purpose, then that purpose is your real mission, not the money. And you may find a way of doing it without money. When I was on an expedition to cross Canada by canoe kind people helped me with free labour, saving me thousands of dollars. I found it far easier to get excited about an expedition- and excite others- than about making money for an expedition and paying others. It’s almost always better to cut to the chase, and go for what you want, rather than aiming for the money to get what you want.
Money is meaningless, in itself. Out in the wilderness a ten dollar note is more use to light a fire than anything else. I've even, in dire straits and with no loo paper, wiped my arse on money: literally. Money acquires what meaning it has by its ability to excite us with the things it can buy. The things we can consume.
The need for money also motivates us to do things. Such activities can often be interesting and meaningful in their own right. Having to earn a living has got me travelling to Arizona to ride with a sheriff's posse and to Haiti in search of zombies. I would never have done such interesting stuff if I hadn't been paid by a magazine to do it.
Production not consumption
To try and derive meaning from the way you make money is one thing. To assume, then, that having money will provide meaning is a false step. To assume that money, or enough of it provides enough meaning for living, is a house of sand.
It’s easy to see how you can fall into this trap: I have on many occasions. Money gets you the things you want. You want those things- be they cars, kid’s schooling or foreign trips because you think having them will make you happy. You might even think it is your duty to get these things. These things, you reason, give meaning to your life. Therefore, if money is how you get them, having the money itself will provide meaning.
But not much meaning in life is derived from pure consumption; far more concentrated rations are derived from production- in the broadest possible sense. Why do so many people yearn to be artists, writers and film makers? Partly it is the attention such people get, but partly it is the instinctive desire to be involved in creating things, production, not consumption. More meaning.
Other sources of hi-level meaning: being useful, helping others, and choosing how you react to illness, bad luck, inequity, death.
Meaning is our fuel, consumption is what we do the rest of the time. The more consumption the more meaning you need in your life to balance it.
Being on a mission- whether to help others or play bridge all the time provides a very useful form of meaning. Practically a balanced diet of the stuff. Why? Because you downgrade your consumption needs. You no longer care what others think of you because you have your mission. You no longer need a fancy house and nice clothes because you have work to do.
Of course this way madness lies a few steps nearer. You could become so obsessed you lose the ability to make real contact with other humans. Only so long as the mission serves this ability, rather than usurps it, will you actually benefit. Who hasn’t met a religious nut out to convert everyone he meets? His boring repetitive speech only serving to turn people off, obscuring, even, any real value he might have.
Climb your Everest
In 1924 Maurice Wilson gave himself a mission: fly to Tibet, crash land on the upper slopes of Mount Everest and climb to the summit. His reason was to spread the good news about the power of prayer and fasting. One problem: he knew nothing about climbing or flying. By 1933 he had learnt, kind of. He bought a second hand Gypsy Moth plane and after lots of setbacks managed to fly to India. In 1934 he headed off for Everest. He used equipment left behind by other expeditions to get himself up the mountain’s North East side-though he was so ignorant of climbing (his sole training had been to wander around some low British hills for a mere five weeks) he threw away some crampons rather than use them as a climbing aid. Instead he laboriously cut steps and finally exhausted himself. After 18 days rest at a lower altitude he tried again- but died at 22,700 feet. An optimist to the end, his last diary entry was: “Off again, gorgeous day.”
A mission, self-given, raises the octane level of your existence. Instead of pinking along on 80 octane tractor fuel you’re purring along on 99 grade Avgas, head clear as a bell going fast and straight all the way. A man on a mission.
You may well know the type, often religiously inspired, they have a different energy. They do not necessarily have a ‘strong’ or domineering personality. Maybe they are quiet. But you notice them soon enough. They appear to move in a straight line to what they want to do. No sitting around. Get it done. Man (or woman) on a mission.
Now, it is very important to state right here, that there is no requirement to be on a mission. There is nothing written that says every man woman and child must have a mission. But it does help get you through the day. It does give you something to get out of bed for each morning.
You can’t just ‘think up’ a mission for yourself. You try. You lie in bed thinking “my mission is to break the world land speed record on a wind powered skateboard”. Then you roll over and think “what is the point of that?” Nope, missions come from somewhere other than your febrile imagination.
In a sense the mission must be you. You are the mission. When you know who you are you’ll know your mission.
The power of the mission comes from focussing outwards. It means doing things without expectation of a direct reward. It means helping the community just because that is the thing to do. The desire to be of assistance to humanity and not just a parasite starts the mission seeking program.
But there are many dangers along the way. Off the shelf missions are two a penny. Work for that cause. Do that service job. Volunteer for this. Give your ear to that. Now all this is socially very acceptable and a good way to get out of the house but it ‘aint no mission. The mission is like turning on the supercharger, the afterburner, the final stage of the rocket blasting goodness knows where…
Mission control is the murky lair where all missions are conceived. Mission control is accessible to all, once you’ve found your own way in. The door to mission control is very clever though- you have to recognise your ‘mission self’ from hundreds of other images displayed on the door panel. Naturally you keep pressing the most attractive images first. The ones that make you like a bit like Brad Pitt what with the light and everything. No go. You get frustrated, hitting all those pictures of yourself leaving, of course, the rather ugly and ordinary snapshots till now. But then you try these. Deep down you think- this is me. That horrid lurking pessimist is allowed some air time – yep- that’s you alright. Out of a kind of reversal, a false sense of seeking truth, you hit the ugliest mugs, the worst shots of all. Still no go. Finally only one area has not been tried. The pictures of you that are neither flattering nor shattering, they are simply so close to home you’ve disregarded them until now. Just as you drive a familiar route on autopilot having a conversation, taking turns and indicating without thought, so, too, these familiar images of you are so familiar you do not even really see them. But after trying all the others you’re forced to conclude- well, that might be me, after all.
Set yourself on fire
The Mission is the form or format that sets your vague urge ON FIRE. I wanted vaguely to learn martial arts. I had tried a few times and given up. I wasn’t that talented at it but I really wanted to get better. I realised that only by total full time commitment would I improve. Then I heard about this course that involved training with the Tokyo Riot Police. Now I had a mission. Something more that just me endlessly training alone. I was part of something bigger.
Your mission sets you on fire. It’s fuelled by the higher octane fuel you now are running on. But you are also moving a step or two closer to madness.
Was Maurice Wilson a nut? He sacrificed his life and did not even get to the top of Everest. But in 1934- no one had. And no one climbed it solo until 1980- achieved by the very experienced climber Reinhold Messner. So actually Wilson’s attempt, carried out while fasting, is actually very impressive in its own nutty way. But is this the template, the core reality, of all missions? A kind of superhuman strength derived from being slightly unhinged?
During WW2 SOE trained many agents and sabotage teams to be dropped behind enemy lines. At first they selected leaders by seeing ‘who emerged’ in exercises where no leader had been designated. But they realised they were missing a lot of good people. So they built in exercises where someone would be made leader just as a try out. And they found a full 50% of good leaders for this difficult and dangerous work, it transpired, need to be given the mission. They won’t give it to themselves.
Back to mission control. Some people, about half of the fortunate few we may guess, can give themselves missions. Maybe these are the ‘natural entrepeneurs, leaders, creators’. But the other 50%, just as talented, have to be given a mission. So they wait, and wait, and wait. They get bored waiting so they get a job, where they skull along knowing if only they were given a real mission they’d be on fire. Awaken the lion within O brother!
The whole conceit is to give yourself a mission without it feeling like you are giving yourself a mission. The reason is that a sane human being wants to fit in. Only insane people want to push themselves ahead of all others, only the immature want to shout: me,me,me all the time. And nice as attention is, you only need so much.
To give yourself a mission that isn’t a mission you have to find something outside yourself that’s bigger than you, that you respect, that the people you respect respect, that has growth potential, that isn’t futile, but most of all engages ‘the real you’, that is, the ‘you’ that is ‘your best self’, the one with talent working at full stretch. I love boulder climbing, but I’m not that good. More to the point I don’t want to put in the hours to become any better. Now and again is good enough. It would be silly to make a mission revolve around boulder climbing since it’s only a marginal ‘self’.
Take the English writer Tom Hodgkinson- creator of the Idler magazine- he gave himself the mission to spread the good news of doing less and enjoying life more. He’s written books about being free and he’s just started an academy to put the interest back into learning subjects long reviled in ignorant circles such as Latin. Actually he seems to be working darn hard at it…
His mission started with a something he obviously was in tune with- rejecting the conventional work ethic and replacing it with a less robotic approach to life. The mission is him, he’s the mission.
Albert Schweitzer gave himself the mission to start a leprosy hospital deep in the jungle. He wasn’t a good doctor. He wasn’t a doctor at all. He was a world class musician. Which he gave up to learn medicine and head out, aged 40+ to start his mission in the African jungle. So here someone gives up what seems to be ‘them’, to start something late in life to fulfil their mission. Being a musician, however brilliant, isn’t ‘a mission’ unless you are trying to achieve something outside yourself. Lots of missions involve trying to ‘change the world’, hopefully for the better, but in a sort of warrior frame of mind rather than assistant tea boy frame of mind. Being a warrior for some cause or other is the template of the mission.
So, to recap, you need to find these activities that your best self partakes in. You need to then find a warrior style activity that can be welded to your interest or skill. Typically that will involve building some project that does some good or confers some benefit to the world.
How do you tell the difference between taking the easiest possible route through life and actually being aligned with some task, so you are not lazy but simply unwasteful in doing it? I think you can tell if what seems easy to you seems hard to others then you obviously have some kind of talent, even better if you enjoy it, even better if it seems meaningful. It’s all about lining up these ducks to get the right result.
I’ll say it again, though- I am not even sure everyone needs to have a mission. It’s too close to madness for some. Look at poor old Maurice Wilson on Everest- so powered up and yet so ignorant at the same time.
Solo missions are obviously less dangerous than the kind that involve crowds. The kind of crowds that want to invade countries and incinerate the oppostion. But most missions do involve some element of ‘raising consciousness’ , of spreading the word, of gaining converts.
I think you can apply a little test- if you want ‘the whole world’ to follow your plan- then you’re heading in an odd direction. But if your mission is to address an imbalance in the world. That you are there to try and nudge things back on course a bit, then you’re probably OK.
Give me the money anyday
Despite all this stirring talk of missions you still need to earn a living. If you work full time at a job you like, to earn enough just to live, then that is tolerable. If you have to work full time at a job you dislike just to live then you are doing something wrong. Explorer John Harrison for years worked six month on six months off- going on expeditions using the money he had saved. In the middle east it is said that a carpet maker should be able to live for three months on the money he makes from a carpet that takes three weeks to weave. In order to achieve that kind of leverage you need to either lower your costs or get involved in something more highly remunerative.
This logic leads people into working for banks and announcing they will retire at 35, and indeed I have an old college buddy who did just that. But most people don’t want to work for even one year yet alone fifteen at a job they consider mercenary and boring. I mean, they rightly reason, I may not even get to thirty five. I might be dead tomorrow. So they look for activities with more meaning. More sense of mission.
The problem is, if you are not fully stretched and involved in something pretty compulsive- such as bridge, martial arts, climbing, competitive fishing or ornithology- then you will feel the censure of society for being without cash, driving a crap car, not having enough money to send the kiddies on school trips. Only if your life is pumped FULL of meaning will you be able to bear the brunt of society thinking and expressing its view that you are a loser.
Entrepreneur Matthew Leeming once told me that “Entrepreneurs drive tiny little cars until they make it huge and then they get a Roller.” In other words, when they are on a mission to make money they couldn’t give a monkeys for what society thinks of them. Then, when they have succeeded, they like to show off a bit. Contrast this with the drug dealer- anxious to have his flash beamer even when he’s living in a council flat. Since the drug dealer isn’t on a mission he CARES what society thinks of him.
Being on a mission is like having concentrated space rations of meaning. Instead of having to get dribs and drabs of meaning from all your daily interactions you get it in a big concentrated wallop from pursuing your mission. That’s one reason I love being on an expedition. You can hug your mission to yourself like a hot water bottle- as you pass through the lives of regular folks, you dressed in rags, they with all their fine things, you feel not a whit diminished. You have your mission. Explorer Bill Tillman used to prefer using a sailing boat to get to remote islands instead of flying because it made the expeditions longer. It extended the delicious sense of being on a mission.
Money can’t provide enough meaning for most of us. We need a sense of mission in what we do. Missions have dangers, but handled right they can provide higher energy fuel to what we do. Don’t think in terms of vague urges think in terms of missions- micro-missions and macro-missions. Use the excitement of being on a mission to get you going.