Was Sisyphus happy? You know Sisyphus, the guy that was damned for eternity by Zeus to roll a huge boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down once it reached the top. That guy. Do you think he was happy? This is an important question, especially as we start a new year.
One of the traditions around New Year’s Day is to make New Year’s resolutions, which I believe to be a mistake. As part of a life strategy rather than make resolutions, I set annual objectives that align with my life’s goals. I then monitor my progress towards achieving these goals on a daily basis throughout the year. Yes, I said I monitor my progress daily throughout the year. At the beginning of 2020, I wrote about this in detail in a series of posts starting with Four Steps to a Better New Year. The first step in the process is to establish strategic objectives. What I did not address, however, was the question of why. Why do you seek to achieve those particular objectives over others?
Do you seek wealth, to be at the top of the list of the wealthiest people in the word? The trouble with such a goal is that it is never enough. Remember the words of the great poet Bruce Springsteen; “the poor man wants to be rich. The rich man wants to be king and the king is satisfied until he rules everything.”
Maybe you want to build something that is going to stand the test of time? All I need do is remind you of Shelly’s Ozymandias to explain the futility of such a goal. Eventually, everything falls into ruin, especially if you are in the technology business. You’d be lucky to see something you built last a decade, much less a lifetime. Even corporations fade. Do you remember DEC? How about Floating Point Systems?
Perhaps we want fame after we shed this mortal coil to be remembered as a great innovator, a leader in our field of endeavor. Fame is meaningless. In The Iliad, Achilles was given a choice. If he stayed outside the walls of Troy fighting his fame would be eternal, a great warrior known throughout time, but his life would be short. The alternative was that he could return to his farm to lead a long life in anonymity. Of course, since we are speaking of him still, we know he chose the former. Later in The Odyssey, the sequel if you will, Ulysses encounters Achilles in the underworld, but the fallen hero is sad even after Ulysses tells him that songs are sung about him throughout the world, that he is known as a great man. Achilles says that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of the dead. Fame is no more beneficial to the dead than wealth.
We can go through all the extrinsic rewards, all the things that come from the outside world, that people cite as motivation only to find that like the monkey’s paw there will always be a catch. There will always be something that will frustrate our ability to get that boulder to stay at the top of the mountain. In this sense, we are all Sisyphus. No matter how much wealth we accumulate, what we build, or what reputation have we will always end up where we started. So that is why I ask you if you think Sisyphus was happy. Since we are like Sisyphus what happiness can we find knowing, like him, the work we do amounts to nothing?
In his book, The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus uses the story when discussing the meaninglessness and absurdity of life. He believes that Sisyphus was happy. This makes sense. I can see Sisyphus as he rolls the boulder uphill constantly considering new ways to complete his task, more efficient means to achieve his end. I can see him coming back down the hill thinking of how he improved from his previous efforts, how he shortened the time it took him, how much stronger he was getting. As he comes back down the mountain, I can see him experience true happiness. However, as is always the case, happiness is fleeting. Once he began another iteration of his task, the happiness was replaced by determination, striving for improvement, apprehension of being tested yet again. In these moments Sisyphus experienced something greater than happiness, something more permanent, he found fulfillment. This is the lesson to be taken from Sisyphus. We find fulfillment in pursuing our life’s purpose.
While Sisyphus had his life’s purpose, its meaning, imposed on him by the gods, we do not. We determine the meaning we give our lives. I wrote of this in my post The Importance of Liberty. Our work, our daily activities, should be leading us closer to the fulfillment of our self-defined purpose.
I want to be clear in my meaning here. Our life’s purpose and how we pursue achieving that purpose, the things we do on a day-to-day basis, is who we are. If you do it, you are it. Someone once said to me that she would like to be a writer someday. I asked her if she wrote to which they replied she did. I told her she was already a writer. She may not yet have been published, but she was a writer.
We must understand that it is essential we apply ourselves wholeheartedly to this pursuit. If we are to make progress in reaching our end, fulfilling our purpose, every task to which we apply ourselves we must perform better than the last. I once had a manager who told me that I should not look at the system we were building as a milestone in my career. His attitude was to just get it done and throw it over the wall. Done. The box has been checked. What sort of pathetic existence is that? If what we do is who we are, if the quality of our work is a reflection of our quality, then what does it say of the individual who just meets the standard, who does not strive to deliver the best they could? Is it not in our own best interest to do the best we can? This is how we lead a fulfilled life, by looking back on a life of striving to be the best we can.
I began by discussing how seeking extrinsic rewards is futile. What is of substance, what will persist throughout our life is who we are as individuals, our essence. We must focus, therefore, on a process of continuous self-improvement in the attainment of the purposes we have determined for our lives. In this way we transcend happiness, finding a life of fulfillment.
The year 2021 is composed of 8,760 hours. Let us commit to using as many of those hours to achieve our life’s objectives as well as we can.