Each of us seeks fulfillment in our lives. This can take many shapes and mean different things to different people, but for our purposes here, we will be talking about the fulfillment that comes from knowing that the work you do each day is making a difference in the world. In this sense, when you feel “fulfilled,” you feel like you are achieving the purpose you set out for when you chose a specific career field to pursue.
You chose that path for a reason; it is likely connected to a passion or skill you possess that you wanted to put to good use. Few seek careers doing things that they know they will not enjoy, though sometimes it is difficult to tell whether you will enjoy something or not until you start doing it and see its realities from day to day. There are also situations where people do the jobs they do just because they need the job; perhaps they don’t love it, but it pays the bills and they need it.
It is my hope that this account may help others to examine the path they currently pursue, and work to find ways to maximize the feeling of fulfillment it provides. Sometimes, changing a path may be in order, but if it has been established for some time, that is no easy task. It can, if needed, be done. At the same time, there may be ways to augment your current path with new and invigorating options that lead to a greater sense of fulfillment.
I am a secondary school teacher, and have been one for 31 years. I knew that that would be the path I would follow from the time I was a Junior in high school, and I have never seriously wavered in that conviction.
I won’t sugarcoat it though; teaching is an extraordinarily challenging field that requires a great deal of patience, organization, and flexibility. It is both very rewarding and at times frustrating. Many hours are put in outside of the school day in order to stay on top of everything. Planning, evaluation of student work (I am an English teacher, so that means a lot of reading and providing feedback), and early morning meetings are layered on top of the myriad of tasks a regular day demands. So, reflecting back on 31 years of this work and all of its cumulative experiences, do I feel…fulfilled? That’s a complex question.
What I have found to be the most sustaining forces for me over the last 31 years are self-discipline and hope. Notice I didn’t say “motivation.” Motivation is not something to rely upon; it is too fickle and inconsistent. When I ask students how many of them were highly motivated to come to school on that particular day, if I get one hand then that’s a pretty solid response. If given the choice, most would probably wish to be somewhere else, no matter how engaging and practical an experience I as the teacher can provide them. I rise each day through sheer force of discipline to come in and do the work, no matter how I might feel, because it needs to be done. If we (my colleagues and I) don’t do it, who will?
Where, then, does hope come in? It is my hope that something I did or said on any given day will motivate or inspire someone to keep going. Just as teaching is a very challenging field, the students we are teaching lead challenging lives. They need all of the support and encouragement we can give them.
We as teachers often are not aware that those connections we hope to make are actually made, or those inspirations we hope to deliver succeed in their intent. High school students can be challenging individuals to read; they wear metaphorical masks much of the time that cover up their true feelings. If I have reached even one of them, I might not know it right away. Sometimes I may discover a card or gift from a graduating Senior in my school mailbox or clandestinely placed on my desk; sometimes students actually say how much they have appreciated my efforts (a much rarer occurrence); sometimes I get an email years later from someone seeking advice or expressing how much of an impact something I did or said had on them (this is often very surprising, for at the time, I didn’t feel like I was getting through to them). If I can reach even one student each year, and know it, then the work is justified. Sometimes though, even if I reached this one person, I might never know it.
As you can imagine, this can, at times, be wearying. Thoughts such as “Is this still worth it?” or “Am I actually making a difference here?” are never far from the surface. Words attributed to Plato resonate in my head whenever these questions arise: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Their battles are likely greater than mine, and they need someone to fight for them whether they are outwardly showing the need for that help or not. Knowing, even just believing, that I have in some way improved their lives, even for a brief moment, is where I find fulfillment.
So, when that sense of fulfillment is not tangible, when I just don’t know if that difference has been made, when I’ve had a day where it looks like nothing I said or did had the slightest impact and the forces of apathy, ignorance, and illiteracy have won the day, where can I look for fulfillment to sustain me until I see that next candle in the darkness?
First I turn to the multi-volume scrapbook I have kept over the last 31 years of any card, photo, note, or graduation announcement I have ever received. Flipping through that scrapbook reminds me that yes, even though current times might be rough and I may be feeling disillusioned, my efforts of the past have made a difference for a great number of people, and I need to keep working to do so in the future. However, the scrapbook isn’t enough. I work to seek out fulfilling, real-time experiences that recharge my professional batteries and make me say, “Yes. This is what it’s about. This is why I keep doing this work.” I recently enjoyed just such an experience.
The Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Program (HOBY) is a non-profit organization founded in 1958, with a “mission to inspire a global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation” (hoby.org). The HOBY program holds a seminar for a diverse collection of engaged and enthusiastic high school sophomores every year, usually in June, at over 70 locations across all fifty states. The goal is to form and develop skills in individual, group, and societal leadership in those students, referred to at HOBY as “ambassadors,” for that is what they are; they are ambassadors for their schools and communities, and will take back what they learn and help make those settings even better places.
I have been a volunteer for the HOBY program in my state since 2019, and it has proven to be the experience I look forward to the most each year, a time when I know my “teaching battery” will be fully recharged, and no matter what kind of year it has been, I can count on HOBY to remind me why I pursued the path I did. Without trying to describe the entire HOBY seminar experience here, as that would necessitate a bit of a tangent, I would like to focus on a unique situation from this year’s seminar that did more than recharge my battery–it full on replaced it.
Though my usual role at HOBY is that of a Senior Facilitator (an over 18 chaperon to a group of 8-10 ambassadors who guides them through leadership activities and debriefs with them afterwards), I have also served as a guest speaker for HOBY in the past when the opportunity has arisen. I love having the chance to get up in front of a group of kids and share my life experiences with them in the hopes that it will make a difference. Technically, that is what I try to do every day of my working life.
At the seminar this past June, a situation arose where a scheduled activity just wasn’t going to work out, and that created an hour and a half gap in the Saturday schedule. The Programs Director came to me Saturday morning to ask if I would be able to speak that day. Could I put together an hour long presentation with a 15 minute Q and A session, with basically no prep time, as my crew of ambassadors would get a wakeup call in about fifteen minutes and I would be with them all day long?
My response? No problem! Go big or go home! I had just delivered a keynote address at my high school’s Senior Tea ceremony two weeks earlier that would fit the situation nicely. I just had to convert it from its 20 minute original form to a presentation of three times the length. Nice. Time to brainstorm, elaborate, weave in some role play from our HOBY alumni volunteers, and do the topic proper justice.
To summarize, the presentation took three stories from ancient mythology and philosophy (Hercules at the Crossroads, the Myth of Sisyphus, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave) and gave them timely, practical relevance to a modern, young audience. Timeless themes of choosing virtue over vice, seeking challenges to improve ourselves, and engaging in a constant search for the truth were embedded in the presentation, with ample time for volunteers to act the stories out and keep the audience engaged. Suffice it to say the speech was very well received, and I felt pleased that I was able to rise up and draw on one of my skill sets to help the staff deal with a significant scheduling issue.
Now, remember back when I asked the question “do I feel fulfilled?” From 3:30 pm (when the speech began) until 10:00 pm (when all of the ambassadors were bed-checked for the night), I felt like I was in what I could only call my “fulfillment zone.” Not only did I have the opportunity to speak to an audience of young, enthusiastic leaders about topics very central to my own life philosophy (Roman Stoicism), but I had the additional pleasure of being able to sit with those same ambassadors for hours afterward, answering their questions, and expanding on themes from the presentation and how they could apply them to their lives.
We talked at dinner, we laughed in the common social space, we shared stories and scenarios of how the presentation’s content could apply in their own unique schools and communities, I had kids asking me for reading recommendations (what?!), and I even had individual ambassadors invite me to come and speak at their schools in the future.
Earlier when I spoke of the brief feeling of fulfillment that comes from receiving a graduation announcement or card from a student, this was that times a hundred; that one seven hour span provided years worth of genuine, heartfelt fulfillment. I was completely in my element, basking in a sense of valued community. You know that feeling when you are fully convinced that you are where you belong and are doing what you were always destined to do? I hope you do. That’s what I was feeling. Genuinely spiritual experiences are rare for me, but this met that standard; it almost felt otherworldly, like I had been transported to an alternate reality of eternal joy, enthusiasm, optimism, and acceptance. It was beyond inspiring.
What I hope, readers, you are able to take away from this account is the desire to seek out ways to find that fulfillment in your own current life and work situation. Think of your skill sets, those unique talents and abilities that you are valued for in your personal and professional life. They are likely connected to your life passions, as reading, writing, and speaking are integral to my own work but are passionate hobbies of mine at the same time.
How can you call on those skills and passions to enhance your sense of fulfillment? Life is much too short for us to sit there in quiet desperation, wishing that we had made different choices earlier in our lives. In Robert Frost’s famous but frequently misunderstood poem “The Road Not Taken,” the speaker never actually did take that road that he described as the one “less traveled by”: “Oh, I kept the first for another day!/Yet knowing how way leads on to way, /I doubted if I should ever come back” (poetryfoundation.org).
We can’t go back; we can’t take the road that we had the chance to take long ago, but opted not to. That particular opportunity is gone. We are where we are now, but we are not forbidden from seeking fulfillment on the path we are now navigating. There is still time for you to make a difference, to find that particular means of impacting the world in that unique and special way only you as an individual can.
I am 54 years old; I have fewer years ahead of me than I have behind me. I know that any given day could be the last one I am given. The Stoics refer to this idea using the Latin phrase Memento Mori: “Remember you will die.” There is nothing morbid in carrying with you the realization that your time here is limited, as it will remind you to make the most of the time that is left to you, however long it is, by seeking to make this world a better place than it was when you first entered it. We are here to help one another. Find fulfillment in an individualized way of doing that. Some possibilities could include:
–Locate a local organization such as a Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, or Lions Club that you could join, offering your own specific skill sets to address needs in your community.
–Contact the local middle and high schools to volunteer as a tutor in math, English, or whatever subject in which you feel you have something to offer. Young people will benefit greatly from your wisdom and life experience, and the schools will be very grateful for your efforts. If the school at which you choose to volunteer does not have an established tutoring program (perhaps as an aspect of an AVID program), be willing to brainstorm the possibility of creating one.
–Donate to or volunteer at your local food bank to help make a difference for those in need of greater food security.
–Run for offices in your community such as city council or school board. New perspectives and fresh energy are needed in leadership positions at all levels.
–Volunteer at your local library to help keep it a center of community literacy.
There are countless other opportunities for you to get involved and put your own unique skills to work that would help you enrich your own sense of fulfillment. You would be helping to improve the lives of others, and there is no more noble or virtuous use of your time and skills than that.
Of course, you could also volunteer for the HOBY Seminar in your state! You don’t need to be a teacher, a public speaker, or have tons of experience working with kids. You just have to want to make a difference, and they will find a perfect place for you and your skills. You will come away inspired with a new sense of hope for the future.
A common phrase we often hear is “These kids today…” Usually that statement is finished in a negative way: “…are disrespectful,” “…don’t read anymore,” “…can’t stay off their smartphones.” The list goes on. One of the other (actually scheduled) speakers at my seminar turned that on his head, reducing it to “These kids today…are pretty awesome.”
You know what? They really are. Some give them a bad rap, but when you clear away the propaganda and get boots on the ground on the front lines with them, you’ll see there is still a lot of optimism, talent, joy, and energy there; they just need a light to show the way. That light could be you.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.
Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” poetryfoundation.org. Accessed 12 July 2023.