A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.

The Ego Drives the Wrong Outcome

The idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, shows up over and over again in children’s movies. We frequently see main characters who have incredible ambition but are not patient enough to learn from the wise elders of the show. They set off with confidence that they can be great, take on the mighty challenge, and achieve some impressive feat only to fail and return to gain knowledge and insight from the wise leader whose advice they previously ignored. The message is to be confident in yourself, to push yourself, but also to be patient and learn from those who have come before you. In other words, the message is to control your ego.

 

We see this all the time in children’s movies, but in our own lives, that message often seems forgotten as we plunge into AP classes in high school, 20 credits our first semester of college, and into a new career with an eye toward the corner office. We set out to be recognized in each of these areas, driven by our ego, with the advice of our elders falling on deaf ears unless that advice is really just someone telling us that we are great and will get into a great school, will get a great job, and will make boatloads of cash. Our ego takes over and the focus is not on doing great work and learning, but on getting something so we can show off.

 

What is worse, when we are under-prepared for challenges that we face in this situation, we tend to let the ego drive us forward as if it is our will that will push us where we want to go. As Holiday put it, “We tend to think that ego equals confidence, which is what we need to be in charge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect.” We face challenges and want to look strong and prepared for what we face. We want others to be impressed as we handle these difficulties without breaking a sweat. We try to be a leader by inflating our ego and standing tall in front of our desk with our arms crossed, the cliche magazine cover image of a CEO.

 

How we actually reach our goals and become successful is a different picture. We learn from grunt work. We set stretch goals and challenge ourselves, but within reasonable bounds that we know will force us to grow. This is completely different from setting goals that we know will impress other people. Trying to be the leader through sheer ego will make us look small and put us on a path toward isolation. Becoming a leader through experience and a willingness to learn from others will actually make us great, but it is something we can only do if we can control the ego and allow ourselves to learn from others. It all requires self-awareness and a dose of humility to put our ego aside and learn from the wise people in our lives and to take on our ambitious challenges when we are ready.

The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.

Solving the Wrong Problem

I work for a growing but still small tech start-up in the healthcare space based out of the bay area. The company has a great mission and is amazing to work for, but we have certainly had a lot of growing pains and unanswerable questions over the last four years that I have worked for the company. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is making sure we answering the right questions and getting the right solutions to the right problems in place.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at these types of problems and takes them on in his book about coaching, The Coaching Habit. His book is full of recommendations to be a more effective coach and manager, and one of the benefits of his techniques is an improved understanding of the problems and questions that organizations must face. In the company I work for, things have always been in flux, and that means that sometimes it is hard to know what the real issue is and where we should be focusing all of our energy. If you polled the entire office about what the biggest problem is right now, you would get different answers from everyone. Bungay Stanier described the situation like this:

 

“You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out. They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.”

 

Effective leaders don’t just jump in when a team is discussing the issues they are facing and they don’t just take on all the problems in an attempt to solve everything themselves. Good leaders try to drill deeper to understand what is really at the heart of the collective issues facing the team, and then work to empower the team to tackle the problems they face. In my next post I’ll describe the conversation that Bungay Stanier recommends to help us find the right problem to solve, but for now I’ll describe the question he uses to get to the heart of the issue, “What’s the challenge?”.

 

In my career I have solved a lot of problems and fixed a lot of issues, but often times I have spent a lot of energy on problems and issues that end up not being very important. Something might be a little bit off and something might be an inconvenience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to spend a lot of effort fixing that individual thing. Perhaps what everyone complains about is frustrating and annoying, but it may just be part of a larger problem or something that would go away altogether by solving a bigger picture item. This is definitely an area where growth is possible for me, and is something that all organizations struggle with, especially if we are quick to action and don’t make real efforts to dive further. Asking ourselves and our team, “What’s the real challenge?” and looking upstream from the stated problems to possible larger causes is one way to make sure the work we do matters and is one way to galvanize our team around the most important solutions.

Do We Actually Want Our Goals?

In the book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright is honest about his goals and explains a feeling that I think is not well addressed by most people. Focusing on the times when the direction of our life seems to be able to shift, Wright comments on the difficulties and challenges of pivoting. He encourages us to reflect on our path and destination, and be prepared for moments when our path takes a sudden turn, and we find ourselves moving toward a new destination. At these times, when our course changes, he encourages us to ask why we were on our original path? What set our goals and built our motivation to reach those goals? What are the stories we have been telling ourselves as travel toward our goals? These self reflective practices dive deeper into who we are and what we want than we often allow ourselves to think, and they can help us be more flexible in our journey, and more aligned toward goals that actually help us get to a place where we belong.

 

Wright asks, “If one’s goals are suddenly within reach but one doesn’t take them, what does it say about one’s knowledge of oneself and the truth of those goals?” I interpret this quote in two ways. The first being that we are complacent and our goals are impressive, but not more important than the status quo in our lives. And second, that we strive toward goals that were never in alignment with what we actually wanted. Wright continues in the book to detail what the second interpretation means, and I will explore both briefly.

 

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor and author, is relentlessly striving to wake people from what he describes as the complacent class. He believes that people too often favor the status quo, don’t push for change, and don’t have a strong enough drive toward worthwhile goals. My first interpretation of Wright’s quote aligns with Cowen’s views on the complacent class. Sometimes our goals are out there and within reach, but we need to take uncomfortable steps and put ourselves in challenging positions to reach the goals.  We can achieve what we tell ourselves and others that we want, but we make excuses for why we can’t actually achieve our goals or why this moment isn’t the right time for us to take the tough steps toward our goals. When we stop and reflect, we can see how far we truly are from success and begin to ask what we can do to move forward. If we see that we can achieve our goals, but do not put in the effort to reach them, then we must assume that they are not important to us, and that we are more comfortable where we are. This can exist at a base level of an individual who says their goals is to get a job, but instead plays video games, or at the executive level with an individual who states that they want to be a CEO, but never steps forward when an opportunity arises.

 

The other view of Wright’s quote is that we are striving toward goals that other people have set for us, or that we have adopted to try to please others. It could be that the individual in my second example above has felt pressure to be a CEO because her parents always wanted her to succeed and challenge barriers in society, but she may feel perfectly in alignment with her current position and lifestyle. When we put goals in front of us that do not fit who we are and what we truly want, steps toward our goal will actually be a detractor from our overall happiness. When we see the way to reach out goal, and we recognize that we are procrastinating, we should reflect to determine whether our goal is something we actually want and if it is in line with who we are or want to become. If we see that it is, then we should lean into the obstacles that slow us down, but if not, we should redirect ourselves and find goals that better fit who we are as opposed to who others want us to be.

Helping Others

Ryan Holiday has a solution for overcoming fears and personal anxieties – thinking beyond ourselves and our immediate situation. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday helps us see ways in which we can reach greater growth by learning from the challenges we face and changing our thought process when we encounter difficulties. In a section I find quite moving given my recent obstacles, Holiday writes, “when we focus on others, on helping them or simply providing a good example, our own personal fears and troubles will diminish. With fear or heartache no longer our primary concern, we don’t have time for it. Shared purpose gives us strength.”

 

Holiday’s message is that our own personal growth can be something that benefits others and provides for more than just ourselves. Seeing our connections with those around us and learning to focus on ways in which we can benefit others through our own perseverance in difficult times helps us to reduce our own internal demons. When we recognize that our actions to overcome obstacles will benefit those who watch us advance or will provide opportunity for us to help others with advice and future guidance, we are able to find deeper motivation for positive action. Rather than walking away from difficulties, we can see ourselves as pioneers, leading a charge and building a pathway for others to follow.

 

A benefit of the passage above, beyond the reduced fear and anxiety that Holiday addresses, is the ability to develop stronger friendships. The message fits in with a discussion I listened to in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast hosted by the director of Vox.com. Klein interviewed author Tim Ferris and at one point in their discussion Ferris introduced the idea that friendships can be strengthened by shared experiences of trials and struggles. He offered anecdotes about doing tough physical exercise with friends to build greater bonds and discussed friendships he had forged from meeting people in situations that are often difficult and challenging to sort through (like graduate school, volunteer projects, or athletic competitions).

 

Combining Ferris’s idea with the quote above helps me see that we can better connect with the world around us by reflecting on our challenges and seeing the ways in which our successes can benefit others. By pushing through tough times, reflecting on the challenges we face, and being open about our struggles we can become better human beings, and we can assist those who go through similar hard times. This will lead to better friendships, and gives our life more meaning. Our connections with others helps our mental state, and our success becomes the success of all, reducing our stress and anxiety as we understand the difference we can make in the world.

Energy and Endurance

“Life is not about one obstacle, but many.” Author Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday looks at life as a series of challenges and views our success as being measured by how we respond to the road blocks and obstacles we face along our journey. In this view, the measure of success is not wealth, or career titles, or any of the other myriad of ideas of success we have gained from popular media, but instead, it is how well you adapt and adjust along the way. Popular visions of success may be byproducts of overcoming obstacles, but rarely are they a true measure of our success as Holiday sees it. Successfully navigating a sea of obstacles and challenges should be our focus because we never reach a place where difficulties subside and life becomes simple. Our attention should constantly be on self-improvement and self-reflection to guide us through the difficult times. Holiday writes,

 

“We will overcome every obstacle,—and there will be many in life—until we get there. Persistence is an action. Perseverance is a matter of will. One is energy. The other, endurance.”

 

By expecting that life will not be easy and that we will not reach a place of simplicity, we can prepare ourselves for what we will actually face while we grow. Aligning our actions to match our expectations and directing actions toward obstacles will help us reach success. We will not be judging ourselves against a ruler built by someone else, but instead we will judge ourselves based measures of our own efforts. This measure will be calibrated by the impediments, adversity, and luck of our own lives. Our actions build to become the rings on the ladder lifting us further against our ruler.

 

To continue our path requires constant focus and motivation. The perseverance that Holiday discusses comes after we have studied our challenges and identified the best path forward. The path is rarely the path of least resistance, but rather a path filled with questions that will challenge, push back, and ultimately help us grow as we learn and climb. The quick energy needed to surge forward with new ideas and perspectives can only come if we have a strong level of endurance to support our efforts over the long haul.