The only way have principles but not live by them is to avoid the Truth, to fool yourself into feeling that you’ve honored your principles when in reality you haven’t. In order to do this you create excuses to shelter yourself from the Truth, and thus avoid the fear and uncertainty that comes with facing it.
The Truth is incredibly simple, so simple that proverbs like “When there’s a will there’s a way,” and “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” sum them up as clearly as anyone possibly could. The problem with these proverbs, however, is that although they may represent the Truth, they fail to carry the force of the Truth because we’ve spent so much time learning to ignore them. Over time, our denial of the truth in these proverbs have reduced them to nothing more than lifeless clichés.
We don’t just ignore proverbs, however. We ignore even the powerful messages of great works of art, literature and film. These works express profound truths so clearly that you would think they would be obvious to anyone. And yet, all we do is nod our heads sanctimoniously and come up with new excuses of why the truth in this or that particular book or film does not apply to us. In this way, we can have as many principles as we like, and not actually live by any of them. This is something that I have done more often than I’d like to admit.
Ever since I can remember, I believed it was much more important to pursue one’s passions than it was to pursue comfort, riches or security. I had read many books and had seen many films that reinforced this belief. None of them, however, was more powerful for me than Akira Kurosawa’s film Ikiru (Ikiru is the Japanese word for “to live”). This film had conveyed the message of the importance of a living a meaningful life more than anything I had read or seen before. And yet, despite the power of the film, and despite the fact that it was probably my favorite film of all time, I failed to live by its message.
The Original Preview of Ikiru:
The first time I watched the film was just before I went to Japan to teach English. It told the story of bureaucrat by the name of Watanabe who had spent his whole life stamping papers in a dusty office. For 35 years he kept the same routine. He clocked in, stamped papers, clocked out, went home, went to sleep and clocked in the next day. There were no divisions between the days, and all of it blended together into a single lifeless moment that passed by in an instant.
The film takes a turn when Watanabe finds out that he has stomach cancer, and finally makes the realization that he hasn’t done anything meaningful in his life. At first he tries to distract himself with drinking and the Tokyo nightlife. Soon, however, the weight of his immnanent death is far too heavy for him to ignore. He eventually makes the decision to spend his last six months doing something meaningful. Although Watanabe is on the verge of death, he becomes absolutely committed to leaving a legacy in the short time that he has left.
The message of the film was clear: do something meaningful now, or your life will end before you know it. Although I had heard similar messages before, never had it been as powerfully conveyed to me as it had been in that film. I walked out of the theater with tears streaming, and I vowed to live my life on purpose from that moment on.
How I Managed to Ignore The Lesson
That vow, as soon as it was made, was not fulfilled. I acknowledged the truth of the film but failed to live by it. In order to help me avoid the truth of the film, I came up with excuses:
Excuse #1: “I Don’t Need to Change”
Because I believed in living a meaningful life, I had the conceit that I was more enlightened than Watanabe was. After all, I had graduated with a creative writing degree. My life goal at the time was to inspire people with my stories. I wasn’t about to sacrifice my life to get some boring yet secure government job like Watanabe had. Soon after graduation, however, that’s exactly what I did. I latched on to the first easy opportunity that fell in my lap: a teaching job in Japan. All the time that I taught English I never thought of myself as a teacher, but as a novelist. And although I only fiddled with my unfinished novel about once a month, that was enough for me to sustain the illusion that I had chosen the road less traveled by, even though I hadn’t.
Excuse #2: “My Situation Is Different”
Although I sympathized with the plight of the main character, never did I think that I would end up stamping papers in a dusty office, living a life devoid of meaning. This was the easiest excuse for me to make. I wasn’t, after all, a bureaucrat wasting his life away stamping papers. I was an English teacher wasting his life away repeating the most mind-numbingly simple phrases to students over and over (and over) again. When I wasn’t teaching Japanese salarymen how to ask directions to the post office, I partied with friends, watched television and played video games.
Although the context of my situation was different from Watanabe’s in Ikiru, the essence was the same. Watanabe passed his life away in a government office while I did it in a corporate classroom. I clocked in, passed a few hours of my life, went home (maybe after a few drinks), went to sleep and clocked in the next day. Because of these superficial differences it was very easy for me to buy into the illusion that my situation was different.
Excuse #3: “I’ll Change Later, But Not Now”
Eventually I came to terms with the fact that my work was not meaningful for me. I left the teaching world, and fell into a job as a corporate headhunter. Because my job was 100% commission based, I became obsessed with work. I made an average of 80 to 100 phone calls a day and worked about 70 hours a week, sometimes more. The job was much more meaningful for me than teaching English, but I knew still that the job wasn’t ideal for me. I didn’t want to be a headhunter forever, but I thought that I could make a million dollars first and then go off to do something more meaningful later. It took a very long time to admit to myself that by the time I made a million dollars I would probably become trapped by the lifestyle and comfort that my income provided me, making it that much more difficult to leave and start something new.
It took me five years to finally accept the truth of the movie Ikiru. I had created walls of excuses, rationalizations and delusions to shut the Truth out, but when confronted with the daily realities of my life, my excuses could not pass muster. One by one, they began to fall down. When there were no more excuses left, I had an epiphany: live a meaningful life now, or you never will. This was something I had believed in for a long time, but because I had no excuses left, it seemed infinitely more clear and powerful to me.
It was then that I realized that an epiphany is not a sudden insight into the Truth, but rather it is the moment when when you run out of excuses for yourself and nothing is left but the Truth.
Let me say that again:
AN EPIPHANY IS THE MOMENT WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF EXCUSES FOR YOURSELF, AND NOTHING IS LEFT BUT THE TRUTH.
I distinctly remember the moment when the last excuse came crumbling down. It was the “Not now, but later” excuse. I was sitting in the Tokyo Shinagawa Immigration office waiting to renew my visa when I was suddenly confronted with the fact that I had lived in Tokyo for five years, and had never intended to.
I had originally resolved to stay in the country for just one year, but because I told myself the “Not now, but later,” excuse every day, one year quickly became five. Renewing my visa, and seeing the stamp permitting me to stay in Japan for three more years brought this fact into focus. Although I had known the Truth all along, this was the first time I confronted it without excuses. The moment I saw that stamp on my passport I knew that if I didn’t resolve to leave and start my new life today I would still be telling myself the same “Not now, but later” story in 20 years. The only difference between now and the future was that there would be more stamps. Eventually, there would come a point where I would wake up and realize that, just like Watanabe, I had wasted my entire life.
Two months after I had this realization I quit my job, cleaned out my apartment, and bought a one-way ticket to Seattle. My folks picked me up at the airport and I went back to my old room at my old house. I had no friends, no connections, and no career history in the new areas that I wanted to explore. Was I scared as hell? You better believe I was. The Truth, however, was so obvious to me at that point that I could no longer rationalize against it. I had no choice but to take action.
One year later, I find that I am far from what I can consider an ideal career. I work full-time for little or no income and on top of that I’m still living with my parents, but I have no regrets. In this one year I’ve learned more about myself than any other. I understand my strengths, my weaknesses, my passions and my purpose more than I ever had before. Although I admit that I have few material achievements to my name as of yet, I feel like I’m on the verge of something big. In the near future, I plan to launch a web application which could change the way people do business on the internet. The application itself is complete, and all that’s left is to deal with legal and tax details. Even if this venture fails, I’ll have proof that says to potential employers and business partners that I’m a self-starter and that I follow through with my goals. That right there is worth more than any MBA.
What Are Your Excuses?
Hopefully it won’t take you as long as it did me to accept the Truth. The only way that I can think of to do this is to take a good look at your principles and ask yourself: “Am I really living in accordance with these principles?” If you aren’t, think of the excuses you tell yourself in order to avoid them. The first step in shooting down your excuses is to know exactly what they are. The moment you know your excuses and confront them is the moment you accept the Truth, and will finally start living by the principles you’ve had all along.