Why Do You Do What You Do?

A book that is on my reading list for the future is called Start With Why by Simon Sinek, you can find a great Ted Talk from him with the same title to get the idea of the book. People, businesses, and groups all need to figure out why they do what they do if they want to truly build something that lasts. Jumping into something, doing some type of work, and having goals doesn’t really matter too much if you don’t have a good understanding of why you are doing something in the first place. If you have not figured out the motivation piece, the basic core element of the why, then it will be hard to sustain motivation and hard to make sure you are always moving in the right direction.

 

Without truly understanding the why, we give a certain amount of our decision making over to our ego. The “why” behind the actions of the ego is almost always about showing off. The ego wants to impress other people, have more things than others, and feel like it is on top of the world. But chasing the goals and dreams of the ego can put us in dangerous places that don’t align with the life we want to live. In my own life, ego has pushed me to plenty of running injuries, drove me to switch my major in a haze of confusion multiple times during my undergraduate degree, and has urged me to generally try to take on more than I can handle. If I could have put my ego aside, I would have run a little slower and avoided a painful ankle injury, I could have been more comfortable with my undergraduate studies and better embraced my time as a student, and I would even today be better at engaging with things that I find interesting and important even if they are nerdy and won’t bring me lots of friends and attention.

 

In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday encourages us to think deeply about why we do what we do and if we are letting our ego run the show. He writes, “So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people.””  Being able to answer Holiday’s question takes honest self-awareness and reflection. We have to acknowledge the motivations behind our actions, and we have to accept that very often our motivations are not as high minded as we would like everyone to believe. This is also the core idea of the book The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. We often act more out of self-interest than we want to admit, and while we can’t turn that off completely, we can at least better understand it and shape the decisions we make in a better direction.

 

Be aware of your motivation and try to pull back on activities and things that you do simply because you want to earn more money to buy a bigger, newer, more shiny, more impressive thing. Acknowledge the ego’s desire to have something that other people don’t have, to impress other people, and to be praised and ask yourself if the sacrifices of time, attention, and health are worth it to obtain other people’s affection. Be aware of the negative externalities to yourself and others that stem from your actions, decisions, and behaviors and ask if yourself if those costs are truly worth what you seek. Over time try to shift your behaviors so that instead of purely serving your ego, they also fulfill a deeper part of who you are and produce more positive externalities than negative externalities. Accept  that you won’t completely turn off your self-interest, but do things that you believe will make a positive impact on the world, and then try to find the glory in doing those things well, even if the world doesn’t pat you on the back for them.

Make an Investment in Yourself

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to push back against the idea of fake it ’til you make it, something that is said from time to time by those trying to become successful and trying to prove their value and skill. Fake it ’till you make it, Holiday argues, is something that is driven by our ego and our desire to be recognized as important. Fake it ’til you make it is not, however, a practical way to develop the skills and abilities that one needs to truly become the person we want to be and the person we present to the world.

In his book, Holiday writes about the marshmallow test, a famous psychology test where children were given the option to eat one marshmallow now, or wait in a room with the marshmallow for a few minutes and get a second one if they can delay gratification. For many of us in our own lives, delaying gratification is as hard as it might be for a child alone with a sweet treat. We know we can wait to make a purchase and have money to pay it off in full, but our fake it ’til you make it culture tells us to buy thing on credit, which leads to payments we sometimes can’t afford and we end up paying more overall than we would have if we had waited. The alternative to this mindset according to Holiday is a work ethic that is driven by delaying gratification.

Holiday writes, “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego.”

Fake it ’til you make it pumps up our image of who we are without adding any substance to ourselves and our abilities. It is impulsive and tells us that we need certain things to be part of the right group, to play the part we want, and to feel successful. Hard work on the other hand is often quiet, out of the way, and not immediately satisfying. Purchasing a new sports car to look the part of a successful person feels good, whereas driving a worn out car and arriving early to get some extra focus work done is just exhausting and sometimes frustrating. In the end however, the sports car doesn’t make you any better at what you do (not that the beat up car does), but the hard work you put in when you decide not to fake it does make you better. It prepares you for new opportunities, opens new doors, and allows you to step up to the plate without anxiety and fear because you know you have prepared for the moment. And if you don’t get the promotion, if you stumble with the presentation, or if the company goes under, you can move forward with less stress because you didn’t purchase a car you can’t afford to show (to people you don’t really care for) how successful you have become.

Delaying gratification never feels good, and it doesn’t necessarily make your future indulgence feel any better, but it does create a more even path as you move forward. Instant gratification can lead to greater volatility which you may traverse just fine, but taking things slower and making more investments in yourself than in your ego and your things will create a more smooth path with bigger guard rails that you can lean on when the seas become choppy. Remembering that hard work will take you where you want to go, and that each small investment will build to your future can help you keep the right attitude to put real effort forward and combat the desire to fake it.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of ourselves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something  special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

Holiday explains the problem with pride by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the – when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from the right college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people. It gives us a reason to believe we are special, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving “others”.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people in our positive lifestyles and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with everyone who supports us in our lives.

Led Astray by the Idea of “The One”

In his book Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright addresses a common idea that we carry with us and frequently see in romantic comedy movies. In dating relationships, we often have this idea that there is one perfect person out there in the world that is meant to be with us. Somewhere there is a person who likes just the right things, acts just the right way, and wants nothing more than to be with us. And all through our lives, fate is operating to bring us together as long as we do our best to seek out that one person’s love.

 

This idea is powerful and can be reassuring and motivating, but Wright explains that this idea can also be very harmful and have a negative impact on our lives. This idea, according to Wright, is also simply not true. Regarding this concept he writes:

 

“In real life, however, The One is a concept that isn’t just irrational, it’s potentially harmful. The idea that there’s someone out t here who is customized to make you whole implies that you’re not capable of being complete on your own. It also implies that everyone other than The One is just a stepping-stone toward grand fulfillment, which is a horrible way to approach relationships.”

 

My wife and I have had several friends who have had trouble finding a romantic partner with whom they would be comfortable settling down. It is a challenging process and one that is full of “what if” questions and situations that are hard for anyone to work though. One piece of advice we frequently give is that they need to be happy with who they are themselves before they try to become happy with another person. Asking someone else to be your other half and to complete you is an incredible ask of another person, and something no one can do. You cannot rely on another person to complete you and make you whole, because it would require them to be less of who they are in order to be more of who you are.

 

A better approach to relationships is to become fully yourself and learn to be comfortable with yourself and who you are before entering a romantic relationship with another person. You can then approach each relationship individually and develop a real and meaningful connection with another person. Abandoning the idea of the one, and being willing to accept more nuanced complexity in a relationship gives you a chance to let the other person be themselves and to let each other become a real couple, a more productive and realistic way to approach a relationship than as if you were looking for one perfect person to compliment you.

When You Live With Your Mind in the Future, You Will Miss the Future When it is Here

I can remember a time as an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada when I was becoming a bit depressed and frustrated by the fact that the excitement and magic of life seem to be disappearing as the reality (and banality) of work and earning a pay-check set in. I was working at a restaurant to make money, taking classes that were just ok, and worrying constantly about what my future would look like. I wanted to have fun and exciting things to live for, but it was becoming clear to me that my life would likely be quite boring in many ways. I was recognizing and understanding that I would not be a Marvel superhero and every day would not be an action packed adventure in the most interesting places on the planet.

I was not living in the present moment and enjoying the positive pieces of my life. I was stuck in a future mindset, worrying about realities that did not exist and unable to experience the present moment. I was exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to avoid becoming in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Hanh writes, “Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.”

We can spend all our time thinking about the future, ruminating on the past, and interrogating our present self in a way that worries about the thoughts that we have. Or, we can work to become more aware of the present moment, of the smallest details of our current activity, and of the experiences we have at this very moment. Living in a different time (by spending all our mental energy in the past or future – or even by thinking about how dreary our lives are compared to the perfect lives lived by our friends on Facebook) is what drains the magic and the wonder out of life. When we cannot see the fortune of the present moment, then nothing is of value to us and we cannot actually live.

Hanh also writes, “If you cannot find joy in peace in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by you, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present.” This was the state I found myself in during my undergraduate degree. I would look ahead and be excited about a new movie, a basketball game, or the weekend, but because I had not trained my mind to live in the present, that moment would fly by me and I would be worried about the drought of exciting events that would follow the event, and I would fail to enjoy the actual thing and the actual moment that I had looked forward to. Rather than bring me joy and meaning, the present moment was merely a shadow while the future loomed as a tidal wave of fear and depression. Turning inward and becoming more self-aware allowed me to begin seeing the present moment, and seeing the present moment restored the joy and value of small things, such as reading, writing, a short walk, a good exercise, or even just a conversation with a friend. These experiences are the only real things in life (at least as they happen) and the magic is in fully experiencing and living these moments.

The Need Behind Requests

Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.

 

This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.

 

We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.

 

First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”

 

When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).

Translating New Insights Into Action

A challenge in my life lies between my routines and adjusting to implement changes that I want. Routines help me get more done, help me make sure I get a workout in, and allow me to build a productive flow to my day. They also take some of my agency away and put me in a place where I am just reacting to the world flowing past me on auto pilot. I want to be engaged in the world and like anyone I crave change from time to time, but I also like the stability and comfort that comes with routines.

 

The tension between routines and the changes we want to make came up in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Stanier has three reasons why training and coaching sessions likely fail to make a big impact in our lives and fail to change our actual behaviors. First he argues that training is often overly theoretical and doesn’t get into the practical realities of life and the changes we want to make. Second, he writes, “Even if the training was engaging — here’s reason number two — you likely didn’t spend much time figuring out how to translate the new insights into action so you’d do things differently. When you got back to the office, the status quo flexed its impressive muscles, got you in a headlock and soon had you doing things exactly the way you’d done them before.”

 

For us, change needs to be concrete and practical. Theoretical ideas and assumptions about change just wont do, and ideas about change that require us to alter our behavior on our own often fails to make an impact. The routines that we build are important and need to be continuously monitored and evaluated. When we see that we are becoming too set in our ways, it is important to make adjustments. When we sense that we are too comfortable or that something we have adopted into our routine is not helping us be the best that we can be, we must find a way to remove that thing.

 

Doing this however, is not an easy task and requires that we change more than just an individual item in our life. For example, I like to write in the mornings when I wake up, but I have had a habit of being distracted on my phone rather than getting my writing in. Simply deciding I won’t be distracted by my phone has not been successful, but what has helped move the status quo is leaving my phone plugged in when I wake up, so that when I write it is not in the same room as me. I had to alter the status quo and my physical environment to ensure my routine functioned as well as possible. Even then it is still a challenge since I use my phone as a light to walk out of my room in the morning. A small flashlight has been the other key change in my routine, but simply deciding that I would change my behavior by not looking at my phone was not the change that worked for me as well as changing the system and environment.

 

Awareness of our routines, of what we are happy or frustrated with, and of concrete actions that can change our routine are key if we want to function at our highest level. If we want to make a change we need to be self-aware and understand our routines and habits. Without awareness, we can only ask ourselves to adopt a different behavior while the status quo remains the same and pushes us back to our old habits.