Fifty stones and the key to happiness
I’d like to share with you a story that has led to a fundamental change in my life. One that has brought with it some real balance to my work life, reduced my stress levels, and given me a calm and focus that I had struggled with before I turned forty.
I think it’s the key to happiness, at least for me, so perhaps you’ll find something in it too.
When my father-in-law, Rod, turned fifty, he gave his kids – Justin my co-founder, and Jodie, my long-suffering wife – a vase each.
In each vase were fifty stones. The kind of stones you find on the beach. He gave them this somewhat odd gift, and explained to them the meaning.
For each of the fifty days leading up to his fiftieth birthday, Rod had taken a walk along the beach, every morning, and he’d picked up a stone, one for each of his children, and as he walked and rubbed these stones, he thought about a year in his life.
From the year he was born, right up to his fiftieth year, a year each day for fifty days.
The places he’d lived, the jobs he’d had, the people he’d hung out with… it all came back to him, year by year.
And all those memories, they got rubbed into those stones, and when he gave his kids that gift, he gave them a vase full of memories, and those memories made up his life.
So taken with this idea was I, that I did the same thing for my fortieth birthday a few years ago.
I’m not so much a walk on the beach guy, but I am a writer, so I wrote about each year of my life, for the forty days leading up to my birthday.
I pieced together memories, rang mum and dad, spoke to old friends to find out what they remembered, and slowly, day by day, I captured my life on paper.
And do you know what I discovered? There were entire chunks of my life I hadn’t thought about for years. More than that – they seemed like part of someone else’s story.
Important things - people I’d really cared about, who just hadn’t factored into the story of my life I’d constructed because that period didn’t directly contribute to my path, or my goals.
And yet, these were amazing memories, times and people that had really shaped me into the person I was.
And I know this will sound a little clichéd, but I felt a more complete, fulfilled human being on my fortieth birthday than I’d ever felt, because I had acknowledged everything.
Thoughts, fears, loves, desires, shame, failures… they were all me, had all made me the person I was.
And I vowed then and there, on that day, that I would never again let an era of my life go by without really acknowledging it. Without being present. Hell – an era? I wouldn’t let a day go by.
And it got me thinking about fulfilment, and happiness, and it occurred to me that perhaps the reason for so many people’s unhappiness.
People who equate their happiness to the achievement of a goal that they haven’t yet reached - haven’t found the right partner, or received that promotion, taken that trip to Europe, launched their new business, raised that capital…
And then something quite profound came to me, which I’ll share with you now.
Life starts at a point, when you’re born, and it ends at another point, when you die. You can plan for it to go along a certain path, and it might do that.
Or it might take another path, and then another, and end up at another point entirely.
Regardless, when you get to the end point, your life will have been whatever it was. Not the path you planned, not the goals you set, but the path that was - all the dots. Every day. That was your life.
And yet people spend so much time measuring their life by the distance they are away from the path they had planned, or the goals that lie ahead. They don’t acknowledge the dots, the days, that are actually their lives.
And it occurred to me that in the end it matters little what your plans were. Perhaps the only real failure in life is if you’ve always been focused on how far from the path you are, rather than living the dots.
I honestly think that’s at the root of most peoples’ unhappiness. I know that from the moment I started paying attention to this, ever since my fortieth birthday, a lot of my stress, a lot of my anxiety just evaporated.
Acknowledging that no matter what my plans were, no matter what I was working towards, it was this day, today – this moment – this was my life, and I had a choice in each moment how I would feel, and act.
I taught myself to stop, and breathe, and look at my surroundings, and listen, and smell – smelling was a powerful sense to get me in the moment.
If I was working on a task, I would focus more fully on that task. If I was with my kids, or my wife, I would be totally there with them.
And that was living. That was my adventure called life.
So my advice - don’t be so focused on your goals that you ignore the adventure, because in the end, that’s what counts. That’s your life.
Still set goals, and work towards them, but every day – this day, right here – it’s not a stepping stone. It’s your life. Just stop and breathe and look and hear and smell and feel and taste… this day.
And enjoy it.
by Andre Eikmeier, Co-founder of Vinomofo