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Tom Greene: We’re all just trying to matter

Tom Greene is a 55 year-old executive, husband and father. He’s the author of “Wit and Wisdom” and writes frequently on topics like happiness, family, spirituality and friendship.

In 2006, actress Reese Witherspoon was awarded the Oscar for her epic role in “Walk the Line.” In her acceptance speech, she summarized her thoughts on her career.

“I’m just trying to matter and live a good life and make work that means something to somebody.”

The key word in that 2006 speech is matter. Witherspoon was just named by Forbes as the world’s richest actress, with a net worth of $440 million. I’d say that’s enough good work and cash to matter for a lifetime.

We, as human beings, possess a remarkable, innate desire to create meaning and purpose in our lives; to matter in some way. We each seek our own path, our own unique way to imbue our lives with a degree of significance. Like Reese Witherspoon, we are all just trying to matter. It’s a blessing and often a curse. But, why?

It’s a blessing because trying to matter can be the inspiration for an enormous amount of goodness. However, it can be a curse if we spend our entire lives embracing the wrong things. That embrace can fuel a lot of bad decisions.

You see it in high school kids. That burning desire to be known, to stand out among the crowd. It causes those angsty kids to do some truly, epically stupid stuff. (Okay, epically isn’t a dictionary word, but it should be.)

Anyway, that desire to matter never really goes away. In fact, for some, that desire to matter grows over time—like gasoline tossed on a smoldering campfire. It can explode into a blazing inferno of chasing money, power, influence, and fame. (More on that in 60 seconds.)

In the years leading up to the French Revolution, France operated under a rigid hierarchical system known as the Ancien Régime. Under this system, you were born into your social class and you stayed in that class forever. If your father was a commoner and a stone mason, then you were a commoner and a stone mason, forever.

With your job and social status fixed, the expectations for your life were low. You weren’t expected to play up, take chances, or hit it big. Taking few risks meant avoiding personal embarrassment from failure. The only way to matter was to build something extraordinary that would outlast your time on earth.

I often wonder whether people were happier under that strict social hierarchy. Sure, they were stuck banging rocks together, but they learned a valuable tradecraft. Their dreams of being a Court Jester may have been dashed, but they knew from birth it wasn’t going to happen. Yes, they toiled in a dead-end job with no chance of upward mobility, but imagine being content in that job. Envision yourself knowing that the last three generations of men in your family worked on a cathedral that will stand for thousands of years, long after you are gone. Pretty cool, huh?

I’m pretty confident that today’s youth might see this a bit differently. Our kids are filled with messages from birth that they can do anything. In 1990, a famous “doctor” wrote a book on the subject:

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

– Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Yet, despite all this flexibility, our young adults are more anxious and depressed than ever. Would they be better off if their future was predestined? Perhaps.

The message to our youth today: You can try a million different things and fail a million different times. Each one is a lesson in learning what you don’t want to do. However, all that chasing of the wind can leave kids adrift, bereft of any tangible results. Bereft of anything that truly matters in life.

Let’s get back to the point. Why are we all hardwired to live on the struggle bus and spend our lives trying to matter? Because if you matter in this world, there is a great likelihood that you are wielding some level of power.

For example, Reese Witherspoon recently sold her fashion design company, Draper James, to a Private Equity firm for an undisclosed amount of money. The sale of Draper James came two years after Ms. Witherspoon sold her enormously successful media company, Hello Sunshine, to Blackstone Private Equity for $900 million. That kind of success and power is more addictive than heroin.

Some people seek power to have more influence in their lives. That’s the healthy kind of power. Others seek power to have control over other people. That’s often the unhealthy kind of power.

Otherwise, how can you explain why two, cranky octogenarians are heading for another showdown for the White House next year?

I mean no disrespect to either of these men. We should be grateful for their willingness to serve (even if you hate one of them, which you undoubtedly do). So far, Father Time is undefeated on this earth, and both of these candidates are deep into the extra innings of life.

Is eating a fried Snickers on a stick at the Iowa State Fair or having pancakes at a diner in New Hampshire really what they envisioned for their last few years on earth? I wrote more about that topic here. No, in reality, each of these men likely wants to retain or regain power — and not the healthy kind.

The late Henry Kissinger gave us a unique perspective on power in 1973. When someone wondered aloud what the pasty, overweight former secretary of state under then-President Richard Nixon was doing with Hollywood actress Jill St. John, he wryly responded: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

It makes you wonder if any of these power-seeking politicians in Washington, DC have a real life. Their spouse, children, faith, and pets are often props used to facilitate, well, more power. Their entire identity is built on a foundation of sand, not rock. It’s all based on the power and influence they wield. I can imagine that once you feel that kind of power, it’s very hard to live without it. How flimsy that power must feel in the quiet moments of their lives.

Once we get a taste of power, the wildfire can explode, consuming everything in its path. It’s one of the reasons you often see former high-profile politicians get into so much trouble.

Once you’ve had a taste of that power and influence, some will do nearly anything to get it back. For example, four previous Illinois governors have gone to prison. All were likely trying to regain some sense of power. All were trying to matter … again.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was just popped with a $148 million defamation verdict for accusing a mother and daughter of tampering with the 2020 ballots during the presidential election. Whether you agree with the verdict or not, like Icarus, he was surely flying too close to the sun.

That kind of fall from grace, for a man who was knighted by the queen of England, reminds us that a life built on money, power, influence or fame is a flimsy foundation; a foundation built of sand, not rock. Surely there are better ways to matter in this life.

To put all your eggs in one basket is to bet the farm (and the chickens) that the eggs won’t spoil somehow. It’s a gentle reminder that everything on earth will eventually rot or rust. It all eventually ends especially money, power, influence and fame.

As we turn the corner into a new year, it’s a great time to ponder what matters. Are you embracing money, power, influence and fame? Are you clear on what really matters? Are you building a foundation on stone? If not, now is a great time to bang some rocks together.

Dr. Jordan Petersen is a Canadian psychiatrist, speaker and author of “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” The book quickly became a bestseller in multiple countries. Petersen shares unique and often controversial views on life and living. One such example involves his lengthy comparison of humans to lobsters. Strange, huh? But humans and lobsters share some unique traits.

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