What’s your ministry?

Jim Carrey’s commencement address at Maharishi University is quintessential Carrey: mostly hilarious, sometimes awkward, and very deep. Among the many parts that stayed with me, this was one of my favorites:

I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, like my dad. When I realized this, I dubbed my new devotion, “The Church of Freedom From Concern” — “The Church of FFC”— and I dedicated myself to that ministry. What’s yours?

To a young Carrey, his purpose wasn’t just to tell jokes onstage and get paid. It was greater: He wanted to free people from their everyday concerns, from the worries of their workaday lives. The Church of FFC. And over his almost 4-decade Hollywood career, he has preached his message to countless acolytes.

His use of the word “ministry” is particularly interesting. He doesn’t use the words mission or passion, not once in the speech. He specifically calls his life purpose a ministry, and he uses the Church metaphor to hammer his point.

Wikipedia defines Christian ministry in the following way:

Ministry is an activity carried out by Christians to express or spread their faith, the prototype being the Great Commission. [It is] “carrying forth Christ’s mission in the world”, indicating that it is “conferred on each Christian in baptism.”

Religious wisdom is a big interest of mine. I try to spend some time each day learning from and practicing different religious traditions. Even if it is a few minutes reading from my Personal Bible, or ten minutes of quiet morning meditation. I don’t consider myself a dyed in the wool member of any labelled tradition (here is more about my approach to faith, inspired by Sri Ramakrishna). I find uplift and community in going to Church on Sundays (and like to sing the songs). I receive calm and clarity from long meditation sessions. Feel a sense of discipline and rigor in learning about zakat and salat in Islam, wisdom in reading excerpts of the Talmud and Midrashim. So Carrey’s anecdote got me thinking: What is my ministry? What is yours?

Within the realm of self help and productivity, we are often taught the value of having a life mission, a personal mission statement. To me, the concept of a personal ministry differs from a mission in at least two important ways:

  • A ministry is evangelical. The root of “evangelism” is good news. As an evangelist, your job is to spread the good word, the good book, the good news. If you have a ministry, a core part of your job – if not the entire job – is to spread your message, because it is the right thing to do. A mission, on the other hand, could be something you keep to yourself
  • A ministry is about changing others first. A minister’s job isn’t to transform herself but to serve and lead others. Your mission could be to visit every country in the world. But you wouldn’t call that a ministry unless the main reason you were doing all this travel was to inspire others to follow you. To help others, it helps to be clear about your potential community, your hoped for target audience. Pastors call this their flock. A mission, meanwhile, could start and end with yourself, and doesn’t require an audience

Put differently, you can think of a personal ministry as an outward focused, people first mission. Seen this way, it becomes clear that many of today’s most successful people are essentially such ministers:

  • NYT columnist David Brooks’s ministry is to teach his educated audience how to think deeply about the moral and spiritual dimensions of life. To live more conscientiously and purposefully amidst all the new technology, the fomo, the hyper speed distraction. Brooks uses the term “moral geniuses” to describe behavioral exemplars like Atul Gawande and Dorothy Day. They are saints in his ministerial canon
  • Startup investor Paul Graham preaches the value of starting a company, and the power of writing software. His flock is some combination of everyone who can write code and everyone who wants to start a company to control their career destiny. His good news is captured in 100s of essays. His church is the Y Combinator school and his many thousands of dedicated essay readers.
  • Tim Ferriss has a very dedicated flock who will follow him anywhere: These people want to achieve the dream of a 4 hour workweek, want to optimize every aspect of their lives from their bodies to their relationships to their morning routines. He ministers through his podcast, his blog, and his books

What’s your ministry? I’m slowly discovering mine. Some themes on this blog include the power of habits to give your life structure and meaning, the value of studying all religious traditions for their life advice, and the need to free yourself from outdated and perhaps even harmful social structures — whether the corporate ladder, the addiction to prestige, or the college admissions mouse trap (I prefer “mouse trap” over “rat race”).

Who are the flock you want to attract, inspire, and support? What is the insight bigger than yourself that motivates you to get up every morning and spread across the world?

I leave you with a favorite Indian proverb:

Every morning you wake up and ask yourself, what good things am I going to do today, remember that when the sun goes down at sunset, it will take a part of your life with it

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

12 favorite YouTube talks that will be part of my audio bible

I wrote previously about the concept of having a personal bible, a collection of text that has changed your life and will continue doing so the more you read and review it. A sort of wisdom manual for your life. One that grows and changes as you do.

Maybe there’s a better word than “bible” but I suppose it communicates my point. The idea of a personal bible is like the actual Bible, something you read and re-read and discuss and share with others because its contents are that important, that powerful.

And along with a personal bible of just text, it makes sense to do the same for audio. So I’m starting to collect and save my favorite podcast episodes and TED talks and YouTube speeches. Below are 12 such examples.

Still not sure what the final format will be. Ideally I’d launch a podcast to publish all of them in one place. A podcast is a great format: you can listen at your own pace, access the archives on your own time, and share with others. But publishing rights prevent me from doing so. There isn’t a way to create a curated podcast episodes playlist like you can create a YouTube videos playlist, a user created list of episodes that people can subscribe to and listen to at their pleasure. But maybe someday.

So here are 12 of my favorites for the audio bible collection (please note, this doesn’t include specific podcast episodes, because I’m still collecting them, and will publish a future update):

1. Richard Hamming, You and Your Research

“Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.”

2. George Saunders’ commencement speech at Syracuse University

“they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.”



3. Jeff Bezos on using regret minimization to make decisions

4. David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

5. Robert McKee on writing and writers

“Many years ago the worst thing that could happen was you’d die. So stories were about how to survive. There are far worse things today. People in living hells. People could understand the plague. Who today can understand banking? Parenting?”

6. Jack Ma on startups, technology, and changing the world (wrote about it here)

“I don’t understand technology, I’m afraid of it, as long as it works I’m happy”

7. David Brooks’s commencement speech at Dartmouth College (wrote about it here)

“In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime.”

8. A discussion between Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Business School (wrote about it here)

“The third thing about juggling, though, is you’ve got to catch the falling ball. The most important ball is the one that’s about to hit the ground.” – Howard Stevenson

9. Glenn Greenwald’s TED talk on privacy

“he who does not move, does not notice his chains” — Rosa Luxemburg

10. Rupert Sheldrake’s banned TED talk on the science delusion

“Terrence McKenna likes to say modern science is based on the principle, give us one free miracle and we’ll explain all the rest”

11. Tim Keller’s sermon on faith and work (wrote about a related sermon here)

12. Jim Carrey’s commencement speech at Maharishi University (wrote about it here)

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.”

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Jim Carrey: “So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.”

Who doesn’t love themselves a good graduation speech? Like an inspiring sermon, sans the sometimes awkwardness of religion, plus more ceremony and uplift. You get to hear a thoughtful person tell you the best stories and lessons of their life, in the most punchy and succinct way they can manage.

Among my favorites are David Brooks’s at Dartmouth on the importance of commitments, George Saunders’s at Syracuse on the failures of kindness, and I can’t leave out David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College: “This is water. This is water.”

To that list I’ve now added Jim Carrey at Maharishi. The speech is like a medley of his greatest acting hits: profound, personal, peculiar, and very funny.

Here are some of my favorite bits:

I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.

You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.

So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.

My father used to brag that I wasn’t a ham — I was the whole pig. And he treated my talent as if it was his second chance. When I was about 28, after a decade as a professional comedian, I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, like my dad. When I realized this, I dubbed my new devotion, “The Church of Freedom From Concern” — “The Church of FFC”— and I dedicated myself to that ministry.

You can join the game, fight the wars, play with form all you want, but to find real peace, you have to let the armor fall. Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world.

I’ve often said that I wished people could realize all their dreams of wealth and fame so they could see that it’s not where you’ll find your sense of completion.

No matter what you gain, ego will not let you rest. It will tell you that you cannot stop until you’ve left an indelible mark on the earth, until you’ve achieved immortality. How tricky is the ego that it would tempt us with the promise of something we already possess.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

The majestic you versus the redemptive you (a story of two Adams)

Abreha_and_Atsbeha_Church_-_Adam_and_Eve_01For Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam is a very different and changed man between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. He explains this idea in an essay called The Lonely Man of Faith. I came across the concept in a David Brooks lecture.

Genesis 1’s Adam is majestic while Genesis 2’s Adam is covenantal. Adam 1 transforms the world, and is master of his domain, whereas Adam 2 is redemptive and sacrifices a rib to gain a companion in Eve.

“Adam I is the external Adam, it’s the resume Adam,” Brooks explained. “Adam I wants to build, create, use, start things. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. To live and be is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam I, the resume Adam, wants to conquer the world…. Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for.”

Within each of us are an Adam 1 and an Adam 2 fighting to control our personality, our decisions, our future.

Our Adam 1 wants more and greater, and our Adam 2 wishes to enjoy what we already possess.

Our Adam 1 wants to win, but Adam 2 doesn’t want life to be a competition.

Our Adam 1 wants to do things his way, no matter the cost. Our Adam 2 wishes to work in a team, to compromise and enjoy success together

“I think we mean that [Adam 2] is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions, they have a profound spiritual presence,” Brooks said. “In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.”

Thanks to Uri Friedman at The Atlantic for the above quotes.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

“It’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free” – a collection of insights from David Brooks (@nytdavidbrooks)

David Brooks is another of my favorite writers / thinkers. Like this post on Alain de Botton, here’s a collection of notes that I’ve taken from David Brooks’s writings and talks. There will be a part 2 at some point. There was too much for just one post.

“In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.” – David Brooks (from The Atlantic)

The Moral Bucket List [NYT]

  • “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral”
  • “You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity.”
  • “But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin”
  • “But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”
  • “The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. […] They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.”

The 4 Types of Commitments [YouTube]

  • failure advice sucks, don’t fail
  • happiness peaks in 20s, then declines until bottoming out at 47, then climbs again
  • “you need an agency moment, when you’re deciding your own criteria for judging success”
  • making commitments is key, there are 4 types:
    1. to spouse and family
    2. to career and vocation (“a vocation summons you”)
    3. to faith or philosophy
    4. to community and village
  • morality has an inverse logic: give to receive, failure leads to success, find yourself by losing yourself
  • society today values skills over character
  • “it’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free”

The Heart Grows Smarter [NYT]

  • “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”
  • “In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability.”

The Service Patch [NYT]

  • “But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options.”
  • “Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation.”
  • “Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.”

The Thought Leader [NYT]

  • “The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited.”
  • “By his late 20s, he has taken a job he detests in a consulting firm, offering his colleagues strategy memos and sexual tension. By his early 30s, his soul has been so thoroughly crushed he’s incapable of thinking outside of consultantese. It’s not clear our Thought Leader started out believing he would write a book on the productivity gains made possible by improved electronic medical records, but having written such a book he can now travel from medical conference to medical conference making presentations and enjoying the rewards of being T.S.A. Pre.”
  • “The tragedy of middle-aged fame is that the fullest glare of attention comes just when a person is most acutely aware of his own mediocrity.”

The Haimish Line [NYT]

  • “We live in a highly individualistic culture. When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights. But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.”

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.