It’s graduation season again, and, per usual, sage words to comfort, inspire, and orient young people abound. From parents and teachers to grandparents and friends, we find ourselves looking for something wise, caring, and encouraging to say—many times, to little effect.
Perhaps no advice comes more naturally than to encourage a young person to find what they love and follow it. Figure out what they really want and go after it. Simply put: follow their dreams. It feels less mercenary than offering cold-hearted strategy for the “real world.” And it is. There’s something humane about prioritizing desire over dollars, cents, and social expectations. But it sells our graduates short.
Deeper than our dreams, deeper than the question of what we want, is the question of what is worth wanting. Rather than “what do I want,” it’s worth asking: “what should I want?” Take that question seriously, and pretty quickly the realization sets in that what’s worth wanting isn’t just a set of things, or experiences, or even character traits. It’s all of those things—and more—woven together into a flourishing life.
By “flourishing life” we mean the sort of life that is led well, going well, and feeling as it should. Even if we accept that broad sketch, there’s still a lot to wonder about. What does it mean to lead our lives well, or for life to go well (for us, for others, for the planet as a whole)? How should we hope for life to feel, anyway? Weaving those questions back together, we might then ask: What sort of life is most worth living? This kind of question allows us to de-center the self. It pushes us toward self-transcendence. Our desires no longer decide what matters.
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There are at least two advantages to discerning what’s worth wanting as opposed to trying to find what we want.
First, it’s not as lonely. Our desires are slippery, fickle things. It’s extraordinarily difficult to pin them down, particularly while billion-dollar corporations work daily to unearth and reshape them. And nobody but you can judge whether you’ve found what you really want. Sure, others can offer advice and perspective, but when it comes down to it, each of us is alone with our desires.
When we ask about worth, however, others come back into view—the question is their question, too. We’re asking about the same worth. Ultimately, we’re asking about the worth of our shared humanity. And so we find ourselves with a shared project, a common pursuit.
And it’s not just our contemporaries who come back into view. The sages of ages past reappear as well. When we take up the question of what’s worth wanting, we find ourselves in conversations that have been going on for centuries in the world’s great religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions. When we ask about what’s worth wanting instead of merely about what we want, these wisdom traditions start to feel modern and close at hand.
Second, our desires simply aren’t sturdy enough to handle the weight of orienting our lives. Considered on their own, our desires are arbitrary. Without a background of meaning and worth, they’re insubstantial. When we try to build a life on them, they’re apt to crumble.
Many of us have had the experience of getting to the top of the proverbial ladder only to find that it’s been leaning on the wrong wall. Or perhaps we’ve realized that the dream we’ve been denied wasn’t worth all the energy we put into pursuing it in the first place. We’ve surveyed the things we want and, to our surprise, found them wanting.
These experiences point toward the need to dig deeper than our desires—to seek to discover what desires are worth having and what kind of life is worth living.
Now, discerning what’s truly worth wanting is no easy task. There’s no color-by-numbers procedure; the questions are as big as they come, and even when we think we have it right, we can go astray. We can all think of people who were deeply convinced of the truth and goodness of an abhorrent ideal. Wayward “moral” crusaders, it can seem, are everywhere.
Even so, if we hope that the graduates in our lives will go on to lead lives of substance and significance, they’ll need to wrestle with the question of worth. So, here’s the advice we should be giving (and learning from) this time of year: it’s not about finding what you want and striving for it. It’s about discerning what’s worth wanting and devoting your life to that.
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