The Earned Life (2022) poses a simple yet profound question: Why does a life of constant achievement often leave us feeling empty? The answer can be found in ancient Buddhist wisdom: it’s not meeting ambitious goals but rather working on meaningful goals that really brings fulfillment and happiness.
Introduction: A new way of thinking about fulfillment.
Buddhism teaches that the only reality is the present. Marshall Goldsmith, the author of The Earned Life, argues that this insight isn’t just useful for spiritual seekers – it can help all of us lead more fulfilling lives.
That’s because a lot of us suffer from a distorted view of happiness. We think there’s a goal out there that will make us happy when we achieve it. For some, that goal has to do with status; for others it’s about money or relationships. Whatever it is, we usually find out that those things don’t really bring lasting happiness. And then we’re back on the treadmill, looking to achieve new goals.
All of this searching and striving doesn’t really get us anywhere. So what’s a better alternative? Well, to follow Buddhist wisdom is to learn to value the present. Fulfillment isn’t something to be sought in the future. And it’s not a box to be ticked; it’s a process. In short, we have to start looking for it in the here and now.
In this summary, we’ll be unpacking Goldsmith’s argument and looking at exercises that will help you put that new perspective into action right away.
Along the way, you’ll learn
- how to honor your past achievements without resting on your laurels;
- why you don’t have to ask complex questions to get profound answers; and
- how to align aspirations with your talents, quirks, and values.
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to profit from the Buddha’s wisdom.
Many centuries ago, a sage from South Asia had a revelation. Life, he realized, is impermanent. Nothing lasts. Pleasure and happiness are fleeting. So, too, are our dreams and sorrows.
For the Buddha – that was the name of this sage – life was constant change. Renewal. Every breath we take, he said, transforms us; we become different people from moment to moment. The only true reality, he concluded, is the present. The past belongs to a past you, and the future to your future self.
The Earned Life isn’t about Buddhism – and neither is this summary. But the author suggests that we treat the Buddha’s insight as a kind of thought experiment. What if you assumed he was right? What if, just for the sake of this mental exercise, you looked at the world through his eyes?
Here’s his bet: this Buddhist paradigm can help everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, to think more clearly about what it means to lead a fulfilling life.
That’s because so many of us are trapped in what he calls the Western paradigm – a view of the world which denies impermanence. The view that says you’ll always be the same person, no matter what happens. That imagines there’s a single answer to all the questions that gnaw at you. That implies there’s a path to permanent happiness – a path that solves all of life’s riddles.
The Western paradigm, in short, promises that you’ll be happy when . . . well, what? In the end, you can’t escape the reality of impermanence. The goal posts keep shifting. That dream house could be bigger. Or smaller. Or closer to your grandkids. The promotion you hoped for doesn’t bring you the status you crave; the pay raise you fought for only makes you realize what money can’t buy. There’s always another goal – the next big thing that’ll really make you happy.
Endlessly pursuing such shifting goals, the Buddha thought, turns us into “hungry ghosts.” We’re ravenous, but nothing fills – or fulfills – us. That’s a paradoxical, futile, and miserable way to live.
So what’s the alternative, and what do Buddhist teachings about impermanence have to do with it?
Here’s The Earned Life’s take: accepting that everything grows and fades unlocks a powerful tool for personal development. Why is that? Well, for one, it’s a license to move on. When you come to see that the person you have been isn’t all that you can be, you open yourself to new adventures. But that acceptance also attunes you to the present by giving you a powerful motive to be better now.
Your achievements, your good reputation, the reciprocated love of the people you love – everything is impermanent. All of it can fade. Such things, then, aren’t “possessions.” You can’t lock them up for safekeeping. You can’t take them to the bank. You can’t invest them and live off the interest. They have to be re-earned. Constantly. Every day, every hour, and perhaps even with every breath. And that, really, is the most important takeaway here: there’s no point at which we finish earning our lives. Not until the moment we stop breathing.
Pay homage to the past you, but don’t rest on old achievements.
So much for the theory. Let’s shift gears and make things a little more tangible. Let’s try an exercise.
To focus on the present doesn’t mean forgetting the past; you’re not throwing every trace of the past down the memory hole. What it’s really about is learning to recognize that there’s a distinction between your past and present selves. That the paths you chose in the past don’t dictate which paths you choose to travel today. So let’s honor the past you – and then move on.
You’ll be writing two letters for this exercise, and the first is addressed to the past you. This letter is your chance to show gratitude to that past self.
Think back to your achievements. To moments of discipline, creativity, and hard work. To the choices that made you the person you are today. It doesn’t matter if it’s something from the distant or recent past – the key is that it’s something you earned, not something that fell into your lap.
To give you something to work with, here are some of the things the author’s clients have thanked their past selves for when they did this exercise. One man, for example, thanked himself for going vegan eight years earlier – a decision he credited for his present good health. Another thanked his 18-year-old self for picking the college where he met his wife. A writer, meanwhile, thanked her 10-year-old self for deciding to look up every new word she encountered. That small habit taught her the value of keeping notebooks – a vital part of her job as a writer.
Often, you’ll discover forgotten cause-and-effect links between the past and present. As the cliché has it, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. You might just realize that you, too, were a giant. Take a deep breath, and start writing. Thank yourself for all the gifts the past you gave to the present you. Now take another deep breath. It’s time to talk about a new you – the future you.
Your next task is to write a letter from the present to that future self. To the person you will be next year, or in 5, 10, or 20 years. This letter is about showing your future self that you’re not content to remain as you are right now. That you’re investing in who you will become.
So what investments are you making in your future? You’ll want to think about big, obvious things like your career – but don’t restrict yourself to what seems obvious. Knowledge, skills, relationships, and health matter, too. Maybe you’re meditating because it clears your mind. Or cooking because it’s a great creative outlet. Or maybe you’re making an effort to meet new people. Whatever it is, get it down on paper. Focus your mind on the efforts you’re making today that’ll bring you and the people you love the greatest return in the future.
Basic questions can elicit profound answers.
Scientists guess that we make about 35,000 decisions a day. That’s a ballpark figure, but it gets at an important truth: choices account for a huge part of the mental energy we expend each day.
Lots of decisions are trivial. This morning, for example, you probably made dozens – even hundreds – of choices that were pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Maybe you decided what temperature you wanted your shower to be. Or you chose to put milk in your coffee rather than taking it black like usual. Or to walk instead of taking the bus. To check your mailbox when you get back later rather than on your way out . . . .
These are low-stakes decisions, but they still take up time and energy; you have to think about them. Add in the more consequential decisions that occupy your brain – decisions about getting married, or buying a house, or saving for your pension – and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Constantly deciding is exhausting. Where, then, are you supposed to find the mental energy and resources to make the most consequential decision of all – choosing to lead an earned life? Where, with all that choice, do you even begin? Here’s the author’s idea: reduce complexity. Ask yourself basic questions.
“What do I want to do with my life?” isn’t a basic question. “What can I do that’s meaningful?” or “What would make me happy” aren’t basic questions, either. These are deep, multifaceted queries that don’t have quick or easy answers – they take a lifetime to answer. Basic questions, by contrast, address a single factor. That’s what makes them so powerful. Major life decisions, after all, rarely require six or seven supporting reasons – one’s usually enough. We marry people because we love them, and that simple explanation steamrolls every other reason, for or against.
“Do you love him?” is a basic question. So is “Will this work?” or “Can I afford this?” These simply phrased questions force you to confront the facts. Your abilities and intentions. They demand deep, soulful, and simple answers. In short, they reveal the truth. “Do you love him?” is a yes-or-no question. Answer it honestly, and everything becomes clear. Basic questions give you clarity.
In his work with clients struggling to decide on their next move in life, the author has found that one basic question is particularly helpful at getting to the heart of things: “Where do you want to live?” It’s so basic – so obvious – that people rarely stop to think about it. But everyone has an answer. An idea of where their ideal life takes place. You can probably name that place with little hesitation.
Don’t stop there, though. This is where things get interesting.
What would you do all day in this place? Can you find fulfilling work? Will that work support your ideal lifestyle? Would the people you love be happy if you moved there? Is it somewhere you can raise a family? Is it somewhere you can meet inspiring people? Does it matter if you can’t? Once you start fleshing out the details, you’ll see a picture of your real priorities and desires emerging – of what you really want and how closely your current life resembles that ideal. That’s clarity.
Aspiration is more fulfilling than ambition.
What lies between the present (the person you are now) and the future (the person you wish to become)? What bridges the gap between those selves? How, in other words, does change happen?
Those are pretty philosophical questions, so let’s ask the American philosopher Agnes Callard for some help. Her answer is that aspiration drives that transformation. Let’s break this down.
There’s no hard stop at which one phase of life ends and another begins. You don’t become a new person on any single day. It’s a gradual and long process.
Callard asks us to think of the life-altering decision to have a child to illustrate her point. Before we become parents, we’re free to enjoy our childlessness. We can work long hours to advance our careers, or stay up late talking with friends, or go rock climbing on weekends. Having a child changes that equation: there’s less time to do whatever we like. We might worry about coming to resent the loss of our carefree former selves. But we can’t be sure. We can’t know how fulfilling it is to cradle our newborn children, or take care of any of the many baby duties our pre-parental selves dreaded.
Becoming a parent isn’t a single, discrete event, however. Even the decision to have a child is only the start of the journey. Between childlessness and parenthood lies the aspiration to become a parent. During the months of pregnancy, we try on the emotions and values we hope to hold one day. In Callard’s words, we have an “anticipatory and indirect grasp” of the goodness to which we aspire. For her, there’s something heroic about aspiration. There’s no guarantee, after all, that we’ll get what we expected to get – or that we’ll be happy with it when we do.
But aspiration isn’t about end points or achieved goals. What it really refers to is the way we come to care about new things. It’s about having the agency to choose new values and learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. That’s what fuels our transformation. We set out on a journey not knowing where it will lead us – only that undertaking it will change who we are.
This is the aspirational act, the act of bridging the gap between our old selves who had an intention and our new selves who are realizing that intention. Callard’s conclusion is that this journey is one of the keys to fulfillment. Why? Well, let’s compare aspiration to ambition.
Ambition gives us goals to achieve: a promotion to strive for, a marathon to run, a competition to win. Achieving those goals makes us happy – for a while, anyway. But we can’t put that sense of triumph in a display case like a trophy. Soon, it fades and disappears. Like hungry ghosts, we’re soon off looking for the next meal – the thing that will bring us lasting happiness.
Aspiration is different. To stick with Callard’s example, there’s no day on which we can tick the box and say that we’ve achieved the goal of being parents. To be a parent is an act of constantly becoming a parent – of rising to new challenges, accepting new setbacks, and responding to new phases. That, Callard thinks, is why aspiration is fulfilling. It roots us in the present and aligns us with the reality of impermanence. It makes us realize that we become a new person with each breath.
Resolving dichotomies can help you choose realistic aspirations.
So, what do you aspire to? Let’s wrap things up with an exercise.
One of the author’s friends, the Turkish designer Ayse Birsel, once said that if she were stranded on a desert island and could choose just one creative tool, it’d be dichotomy resolution.
Dichotomy resolution is the part of product design that resolves either/or quandaries. For example, should a new car (or vacuum cleaner or coffee maker) be modern or classic, small or functional, a standalone or part of a series? Sometimes, dichotomies aren’t necessarily contradictions: you can reproduce a classic design with modern materials, thus resolving the tension.
But lots of dichotomies in everyday life resist integration. We tend to be optimists or pessimists, joiners or loners. We can’t be both – we have to pick one or the other. This brings us to the aspiration process: Which side of those dichotomies should you choose? Unless you want to completely flip your personality, your best bet is to tailor your aspirations to your personality – to the bundle of preferences, quirks, and virtues that make you who you are.
So here’s an exercise that will help you do just that.
The first step is simple: write down as many interesting dichotomies as you can think of. To get you started, here are some common ones that crop up in life. Are you a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person? Conservative or progressive? Trusting or suspicious? Do you value reason or feeling more? Does money matter or not? Are you quiet or loud? A people pleaser or a go-it-alone type? Ironic or sincere? Do you prefer instant or delayed gratification? Do you confront problems or avoid them?
Now go through your list and cross out every dichotomy that doesn’t apply to your personality or play a role in your life. What’s left? The final step of the exercise is to go over the remaining dichotomies and cross out the side of the pairing that doesn’t apply. For example, if the leader-versus-follower dichotomy is an important part of your life, decide which side of the equation fits you.
The words left on your list should give you a good idea of your defining qualities. The qualities which influence both what you aspire to and whether you’ll be willing to earn that aspiration. If you’re feeling brave, show this list to the person who knows you best. Do they agree, or have you skirted the truth? Remember, this exercise is only helpful if you’re honest with yourself.
If you’ve been honest, you’ll now have a strong sense of what kind of aspirations will work for you. This is your blueprint for an earned life.
You’ve just finished summary to The Earned Life, by Marshall Goldsmith.
The most important thing to take away from all this is: The earned life is a life in which the choices and effort we make in each moment align with a greater sense of purpose, regardless of the eventual. outcome.
About the author
Marshall Goldsmith has been recognized as the world’s leading executive coach and the New York Times bestselling author of many books, including What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Mojo, and Triggers. He received his Ph.D. from the UCLA Anderson School of Management. In his coaching practice, Goldsmith has advised more than two hundred major CEOs and their management teams. He and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee.
Motivation, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Happiness, Personal Development, Religion, Spirituality, Business Culture, Business Motivation and Self-Improvement, Motivational Management and Leadership, Leadership and Motivation, Self Help, Business, Philosophy, Psychology