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This is Your Life’s Work


Picture a big steel box. Strewn about the box are some child’s blocks, the kind with letters on the sides. We place a rat in the box, to do as it pleases. It has enough food and water to live out a normal rat lifespan.

Then we let nature takes its course. Suspend any ethical reservations you have about putting a rat in a box like that — assume it is perfectly happy with this scenario, and even signed a release form.

The rat will live its whole life in that box, eating, exploring, poking at the blocks, maybe knocking some of them over and pushing them around. Eventually it will die of old age. Its corpse withers away or is removed by the night janitor.

Once the rat is dead and gone, we again have an empty box with blocks in it, same as at the start. It’s almost as if the rat’s life never happened — except there is one difference between the start of the experiment and the end: some of the blocks inside will now be in a different place.

The force that moved them was life itself. This new arrangement of the blocks — however random, pointless, meaningful or beautiful it ends up being — is the net effect of this rat’s life. The new landscape it left is the lasting impact it had on its world. It is evidence that says, “Ratty was here.”

If it had been a particularly complacent rat, it may not have moved the blocks at all. It may have just eaten up its food, daydreamed and lazed around until it died. Upon its death, the state of the box might have been indistinguishable from the one it was placed in. A new rat could get dropped in and never have a clue that this box contains the entire result of another rat’s life.

Your life, though probably a little more colorful and interesting, is essentially the same. Your box is the planet earth, and the blocks are the contents of the planet — physical contents such as landscapes, objects, people and animals, and abstract contents such as philosophies, fashions, trends and cultures. You’ve been unleashed to do your thing on this planet. You will live for a time and interact with this box and its contents, then you’ll be gone, leaving essentially the same scenario (a box with stuff in it.) The net result is the sum of the changes you’ve made to the contents of that box.

When you die, all of your responsibilities and plans — the day-to-day stuff that seems so real and vital now — will evaporate in a flash, and its residue will be worked out by the people and processes that survive you. Your inbox will not be empty. But anything you’ve “pushed around” during your life will remain pushed.

If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you may have noticed this phenomenon. In the weeks that follow a loved one’s death, you tend to notice evidence of that person’s life even though it is over. Notes in their handwriting remain on the bulletin board. Objects they bought and used sit in the last place they put them. Their clothes hang in the closet, duly worn.

My father died a year and a half ago, and immediately I noticed his life was everywhere. He was an accomplished handyman, and my mother’s house is still full of relics testifying to his time on earth. We relax on the deck he built. We sit and visit in rooms he painted. His weekend and summer projects continue to make our lives easier and more beautiful.

Aside from the physical blocks he pushed around during his life, I notice the intangible ones too. He was a science teacher, and taught me about the natural world whenever he could. My interest in science and life on earth is in large part actually his work, set in in motion by his words during his life. And I am only one of his thousands of students.

What are you leaving in your wake?

I had a wonderful day, thanks in no small part to hearing George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” on the radio while I ate breakfast. I walked into town relishing the sunshine, and enjoyed every minute of today. George moved his last block in 2001.

Throughout life you will move blocks around, and once you die your last contributions have been made. Why did you move the blocks you did? Were they meaningful to you? If you lived life as a carpenter, having left hundreds or thousands of houses in your wake — did you do it just to get paid and buy a bigger TV, or does your legacy of bungalows mean something to you?

Do you spend your energy heaving around blocks that don’t matter to you? Are you just doing what you feel like you’d better do in the moment, or is there a discernible purpose behind it? Is your life a project, or is it more of an endless laundry list? Will those who follow you be thankful, resentful, or indifferent towards your life’s work? Do you care?

You may not — there is another school of thought here. Some might argue that all they want to do is make this block-moving period (maybe 70-80 years if one is lucky) as fulfilling as possible, and it doesn’t matter what they leave in their wake.

If that sounds like you, fair enough, but perhaps the block-pushing part is most fulfilling for those who care where they all end up.

Don’t forget: No matter what you’ve been up to, you’ve been doing your life’s work.

Photo by Hey Paul

Boris March 29, 2010 at 5:16 am

Great post. Definitely it doesn’t matter how many dollars you got in your savings, how many properties you owned in your life. What matters is the way that you changed the world and the people around us. And of course, we should enjoy the journey through our life. Life is very simple, isn’t it? :)
.-= Boris´s last blog ..One Earth Hour per year, What a Shame! =-.

David March 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Thanks Boris. I’m off to enjoy the day :)

Eric | Eden Journal March 29, 2010 at 6:12 am

David, I llike the rat in the box analogy. The interesting thing about that is the rat moves those blocks around for himself, without doing it to serve as his legacy. He lives completely in the now, moving blocks as he pleases because it suits his current set of needs. He may move the blocks about to spell words with the letters or create a work of art with the pictures on the blocks. Or he may move the blocks in a more practical manner so that he may get more quickly from his bed to his food. In all cases, it’s done purely for his little rat self.

I’ve seen a few posts on various blogs in the last few months discussing legacy. I’m not sure how I feel about the concept yet, but I’m leaning towards not giving my legacy much thought. My current theory is that I do things for myself, as I am the only person on this entire planet that I can control. If the things I do influence others for the better than that is great, but I must serve myself first to be of benefit to others. For example, I started a blog as a means to spur my creativity and as an outlet for my writing. It’s possible that I may create a legacy, but maybe I won’t. I’m not sure it’s important for people to remember me several generations down the road. It is important, however, that I partake in all the physical experiences that I am meant to experience while I’m here. My theory is a work in progress, but that’s where I’m at for now.
.-= Eric | Eden Journal´s last blog ..Embrace Lame Mutant Powers with a New Perspective =-.

David March 29, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Well I’m not advocating legacy so much as purpose. Purpose affects the quality of your present moments. It also tends to make for great legacies.

Jay Schryer March 29, 2010 at 6:38 am

Once again, you’ve proven that you are the master of analogy. This is a great way to look at life and to understand our role in it.

If one were to ask me, I would say that my purpose and goal is to rearrange the blocks so that the box is more pleasant for everyone left behind. I don’t always know which blocks I should move, and sometimes I push the wrong blocks, but my ultimate goal is to make the box a better place to live. I suppose I’ll never really know if I have been successful or not; that will be left for future rats to decide. I can only do my best with the knowledge and skills that I have.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..A Pirate Looks at 40 =-.

David March 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Hi Jay.

Leave a better box behind, words to live by :)

I would rather be one of the Masters of the Universe than Master of Analogy, but I’ll take it for now.

Michael Ehling March 31, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Tee-hee; I once worked with a guy who, upon encountering a frustrating situation, would say, “When I’m made Master of the Universe, NONE of this will be allowed to happen.” Love that. Good luck on getting your promotion!
.-= Michael Ehling´s last blog ..Do More of Your Good Work with…Poetry? =-.

Avi March 29, 2010 at 9:19 am

Great post! I have the feeling I’ve seen this idea before, my gut tells me in Fahrenheit 451. When I go home for Passover I will check, I haven’t read that book in a while anyway

David March 29, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I really should read Fahrenheit 451. I loved Dandelion Wine, there’s a good one if you like Bradbury.

Avi April 1, 2010 at 1:37 am

Didn’t get a chance to check my copy of the book so I looked on Google. It probably is the quote I was looking for but I’m not certain. “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”

Vanessa March 29, 2010 at 12:54 pm

this makes me think of my rat pablo, in his boring cage. i should put some blocks in there.

David March 29, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Haha… he’s probably aching to make something of himself :)
.-= David´s last blog ..This is Your Life’s Work =-.

Maria March 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm

You just invented a new graffiti tag: “ratty was here”. I guess we are all part time archeologists.. Enjoyable & thought provoking.

David March 29, 2010 at 2:13 pm

It’s amazing how early on human beings invented graffiti.

Jessie May March 29, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Love this metaphor! May I use it with my coaching clients?
.-= Jessie May´s last blog ..Women’s Circle =-.

David March 29, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Sure. Metaphors are meant to be shared.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) March 29, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I want the box to inspire hope in others who sometimes doubt that their box moving has any purpose.
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..Studies on Track Chat~ FREE WiziQ class, 29th March, 2010 =-.

David March 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm

The way I see it, you either have to choose a purpose, or live out the ones nature and society have given you (reproduction, will to power, survival.)

Cam March 30, 2010 at 2:21 am


Still brilliant, if that’s you.

Joy March 30, 2010 at 3:28 am

Quite thought provoking.
My inital response is that I don’t push blocks at all, I allow the univeres to work through me to gently guide them to decide to move on their own. If they chose to move I celebrate, and if they do not chose to move then I make them as pretty as possible in the spot they are in, then move to the next block:) I like groups though, so sometimes I persuade pyramid building or such games, sometimes I prefer to be the lone block sitting quiet enough to be led to the next block. Sometimes I’d leap to the edge of the box to see what else is out there, or for the excitement of leaping….

David March 30, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Hi Joy. I like that perspective. I guess at the end of the day is is just the universe working on itself. We do appear to have free will to decide how the universe is going to do that though. But if it ain’t broke don’t fix it :)

Cheryl Paris March 30, 2010 at 5:52 am

Hello David,

I like the idea of explaining the purpose of life here. After all it does matter what are my values, beliefs in life.
Finding the life’s purpose with correct intentions helps us focus in our daily lives.

Bye for now,

David March 30, 2010 at 6:01 pm

I agree. I will talk more about purpose in the coming months.

Michael Ehling March 31, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Ahhhh, thank you. Hoorah for purpose!

“Am I a Ratty who’s awake to purpose? Or am I a Ratty who could care less? Does it really matter which sort of Ratty I am?”

I say, “It depends.” Would you like to be rid of something in your life? Would purpose help rid you of that? Then be an awake Ratty.

And if you want to be an awake Ratty, here’s one way to think about your block moving, one route through the rat maze, if you will: decide what you care about, describe what you’re good at, and make sure you know and cover your own needs. Where these intersect, use them to serve the needs–any needs–of others–any others.

Thanks, again, for the great Ratty images.

Gotta go clean my whiskers,

.-= Michael Ehling´s last blog ..Do More of Your Good Work with…Poetry? =-.

David March 31, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I remember Steve Pavlina described a similar process for articulating your purpose. Ask four questions:

What must I do?

What can I do?

What do I want to do?

What should I do?

The answers that fall under the overlap of all four are your purpose.

Purpose is a huge topic and I’m just delving into it now. Expect more posts on this in the near future.

Tommy W April 1, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Just stumbled across this site and that is one of the most beautiful and eloquent article I have had the pleasure to read. Thank you, that really hit home to me.

Andy Parsons April 1, 2010 at 9:04 pm

I was almost tempted to say that I fall into the category of those who don’t think it matters about which blocks you push around as long as life is fulfilling. But then I realised that life cannot be fulfilling unless there is some meaning in how you push your blocks around (whether those “blocks” be physical objects or less tangible things that affect the lives of others).

I agree that we all leave our mark on this world, but I’d say that for the majority of us that mark is a barely noticable one that soon disappears, for the most part.

Perhaps the best mark we can leave is the lasting impression we leave on those who knew us. If we’re lucky they may even pass on some of this to the following generation. After that, for most of us, we cease to exist, at least in this world and as far as we know for sure.

Therefore I believe it is the difference we make to others whilst we are alive that counts most.

Michael Ehling April 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Or, if I may, “What are you waiting for?”

.-= Michael Ehling´s last blog ..Do More of Your Good Work with…Poetry? =-.

Jojira April 2, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Memonto mori.

Somehow, reading this is enlightening, but if someone told me this, I’d call them rude.

David April 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

I’ll take that as a compliment.

Ernesto Mercado April 2, 2010 at 9:15 pm

If the blocks are the embodiments of physical and abstract concepts we find in life, then what are the letters?

Maybe the letters could represent the characteristics of concepts and how they fit in with one another.

I think that how we move the blocks is just if not more important as the fact that we moved the blocks at all. Then again, some people are satisfied with just making a change at all, whether for better or for worse, sadly.

Just a thought.

Dario April 10, 2010 at 3:24 am

I tell you I found it quite very touching :)

Bum February 17, 2011 at 11:13 pm

I have the same problem as Jojira. For some reason, discussing things like this in person always makes the person listening uncomfortable, usually to an extent that they take measures to change the subject.

David February 18, 2011 at 6:27 am

For sure. The big picture is scary, because it includes death.

Michael Ehling February 18, 2011 at 9:59 am

And the extent of your comfort with death further opens the door to having others get easier with these discussions.

Stephen Hilchey April 20, 2011 at 5:19 am

Hi David, you forgot to mention your father’s most important legacy – you!

And you’ve moved a lot of blocks just with this blog.

Cheers from Nova Scotia

Barbara April 27, 2011 at 11:53 pm

“You’ve been unleashed to do your thing on this planet.”
I didn’t catch exactly when this was written, but this particular line gave me a serious case of the giggles. This was probably as much because it struck me funny in a visual sense as a delayed response to having just completed reading the entire array of comments in the “Non-conformist” post. Either way, I think I’ve had enough for one day and will have to come back and read some more. Duly bookmarked.
Ms. B

David April 29, 2011 at 6:35 am

Hahah… yeah reading it again there are a lot of places you can go with the mental images.

Elyn September 14, 2012 at 1:00 am

After losing my mom years back, I, too, came to the realization that life “hangs around” awhile… yet the pieces of that life slowly fall away. When my mother’s favorite glass pitcher broke one morning in the midst of domestic hustle, a part of me broke with it. It was then I realized that we don’t lose anyone all at once, we lose them in pieces. And the physical absence is only the beginning.
Wishing you well on this journey, David. Hoping you are still writing and posting. I’ll be sure to tune in, and thank you.

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