Probably the greatest cost to a person living life without a clear purpose
is that he won’t reach a fraction of his potential. He will become like the
young man who was a yellow belt in five styles of karate.
When this fellow was in grade school, he was fascinated with the martial
arts, so he convinced his parents to let him study karate. He enrolled in a
school and learned the stances, the kicks, and the punches. He was a
diligent student, and after about a year of training, he was ready for his
yellow belt test, the first rank. He took the test and passed.
Shortly after that, his family moved to another city, but the only karate
school he could find there practiced a different style of karate. So he
began again from the basics, with new stances, new kicks, and new punches.
Again he progressed well, and again he took his yellow belt test — now in
the new style — and passed.
Soon the time came for him to go away to high school. In that city, he again
searched for a karate school, and the only one he could find taught a third
style of karate. So he had to start from the basics with the new stances,
new kicks, and new punches. And in this style as well, he was awarded a
yellow belt. Midpoint through high school, he switched yeshivahs, and began
the same process again.
At the end of five years of disciplined training, this young man had
attained the rank of yellow belt in five styles — a beginner! Had he spent
the same amount of time and effort in one style, he would have attained the
rank of black belt — a master. The ironic part was that he applied himself
and worked hard, but because his focus kept changing and he had to start
from the beginning over and over again, his advancement was stymied. At the
end, he remained a rank beginner.
This story has a message. Most people spend their lives with changing
priorities. That which is important at one stage becomes insignificant at
another. To a young boy growing up in America, sports are king. That is what
really counts in his world. But that doesn’t last; it is soon replaced by
friends and being popular. As he matures, grades and what college he gets
into become the measure of success. Within a short while, his career and
making money are all that really matter. Yet this also passes, and shortly,
he will trade away huge amounts of his wealth to build his reputation. As he
nears retirement, his health and his future nursing home become his primary
Throughout life, whatever is precious and coveted at one stage becomes
devalued and traded away when new priorities take over. The currency is
constantly changing. The result of this is that while someone may do well at
each stage in life, the totality of what he accomplished may not amount to
much. He became a yellow belt in five styles.
Where Are You Headed?
One of the costs of not asking the fundamental questions of life is that
people end up in some rather sad situations. Often, at the end of a person’s
life — when it is too late to do anything about it — he has bitter regrets
about the way he spent his time.
The Mesillas Yesharim teaches us that the first principle of leading a
successful life is knowing what you want out of it. Know where you are
headed. Know your currency, know your value system, and then set goals in
accordance with it.
But therein lies the problem. How does a young person know where life will
bring him when he is older? Which human is wise enough to know where he will
be in twenty years? How can anyone know what he will consider important and
valuable when he is in a different stage of life?
When you ask a five-year-old, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he
might tell you he wants to be a fireman, a policeman, or a basketball
player. In reality, he isn’t telling you what he wants to be when he grows
up. He is telling you what he wants to be now, if he were grown up.
He is telling you, based on his five-year-old understanding of life, what he
values and considers important. He can’t tell what he will value when he is
older. He has no way of knowing what he will consider important and
significant then. He is telling what he wants to be now. And according to
his current understanding of the world, he would like to be Superman, Batman
or a UPS driver.
In this sense, one of the most difficult things for any human to do is to
set a life course that will make him happy thirty years in the future. How
can anyone possibly know what will be important to him then? How can we know
what we will consider successful then?
The Mesillas Yesharim tells us that Hashem didn’t just create man and leave
him to figure it all out. Hashem didn’t design an entire world for man, put
him into it with a mission, and then stand aside saying, “But I am not going
to tell you what it is. It’s a secret. Go figure it out.”
Hashem gave us a clear, definitive blueprint, an exact guidebook with clear
directions on how to live our lives and the underlying reasons for it. The
key to true success is to open that book, learn its words of truth, and mold
our lives accordingly.
This is an excerpt from the new Shmuz on Life book: Stop Surviving, Start Living. It is powerful, thought provoking, and life changing. The book is available for purchase at Judaica stores, Feldheim.com and TheShmuz.com.