Keep What’s Meaningful

The last few weeks I have been wasting time with thing that are not meaningful. My time and attention have been eaten away by things that don’t add value to my life and leave me feeling slightly guilty.

 

This morning I recognized, when I took advantage of an extra 30 minutes in my schedule, of how important it is to keep valuable things in our lives by cutting out the wasteful things. The easy path through life is filled with distracting, quick, and ultimately meaningless parts and pieces. We stay up too late watching pointless tv. We oversleep and eat low nutrition and thoughtless breakfast foods. We purchase large houses and put up with long and wasteful commutes. We make decisions all along the way that we don’t realize sacrifice our time, attention, and ability to meaningfully contribute to the world.

 

These observations on how society pushes our lives lead me to reflect on our daily decisions. I believe we all need to think critically about what are the most important factors in our lives. From there, we can begin to consider the large overarching decisions that we make to shape our lives. Once those decisions have aligned with our core values, we can start to think about the million small decisions that we make each day. This will bring our lives into alignment with our core values and help us cut out things that do not bring us value. It will help us think about what is meaningful and what decisions will help us  build a meaningful, thoughtful, and fulfilling life. Without this approach we won’t be able to think about how we live and our life choices, and we will fill ourselves with meaningless distractions and wastes of time.

 

Looking back at quotes I have written about, a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be seems particularly fitting with these thoughts. He writes, “Pursuing what’s meaningful is important, but just as important is understanding why we’re pursuing what we’re pursuing and how we’re undertaking that pursuit. Pay attention to the why behind your actions, and the how and what become a lot easier to define and control.” Understanding that why helps us see what we need to do to get to a place where we can have a valuable impact on the world. Each of the daily actions that we can take become more clear when we understand our motivations and what we truly want to work toward. Thinking deeply about purpose and meaning gives us a sense of how to make the most out of the short time we have on this planet.

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.

Seeing Yourself With A Little Distance

In his book The Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes  the following, “You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”

 

In this quote, Holiday is encouraging us to focus on our work and goals in a way that is not flashy and that does not seek praise. He is encouraging us to practice the skill of doing good and meaningful work, even if we are not immediately recognized for what we do. Often, the important work that must be done isn’t sexy and isn’t visible to the people we want to impress. We won’t always be immediately rewarded with a trophy or a bonus for the work that needs to be done, but if we are the one to put in the extra effort and effectively and efficiently do a good job, we can find our way to success.

 

The flip side, and what Holiday is urging us to avoid, is doing work only when people are watching. He encourages us to recognize and work against the expectation that we will be noticed and recognized for our work, because the public recognition is not the most important piece of what we do. If we only put forward hard work and extra effort when we know our effort will be visible and publicly rewarded, then our effort in is not actually about the work, but instead about the praise and status that comes looking impressive. We may like the praise and incentives do matter for human beings, but if we are trying to approach the world rationally and make a difference, then we should recognize that this approach to life and work likely won’t guide us toward making the biggest impact possible.

 

When I was a child, one of the chores I always hated was vacuuming. When I would actually do what my parents had told me and vacuum, I intentionally leave the vacuum out because I knew that my mother would then have to acknowledge that I had vacuumed. I would be sure to get a “thank you for vacuuming, now can you please put the vacuum away?” but if I did my work completely and put the machine back in the closet when I finished, I risked getting no notice from my mother for having completed my chore. This is the childish mindset that Holiday is encouraging us to get away from when it comes to doing important work in our life. We should strive to be successful in life because it will mean that we are making a difference in the world or can obtain further resources to allow us to do more through charity and meaningful good deeds. What we should avoid is working hard to try to improve our status and to have more ego inflating fun trips and toys to try to set us apart from others. Focusing on the first goal will ultimately take us further and lead to better quality work and engagement with the world than the second ego inflating goal. Only performing and doing our best work when we can be praised for it will lead us to situations where we fail to cultivate habits of hard work and focus, and will drive us to positions where we are not working for ourselves and for the good of humanity, but for our ego and to make showy purchases to impress other people that we likely don’t even care much about.

Asking Others What They Really Want

The Coaching Habit is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book about how to become a more effective coach and help the people you work with, manage, or coach to become the best version of themselves possible. His book is full of both theory and practical applications, looking at psychology and building on his own coaching experiences and experiments. One of the suggestions that Bungay Stanier includes in his book is to ask people what they really want and help them build an understanding of what is at the core of their motivations and desires.

 

Bungay Stanier presents what he calls “The Foundation Question” as a tool to help build the ground to understand the direction that people want to go and start a conversation about why people are focused in a specific direction. Getting to the heart of someone’s desires will reveal a lot and will help prepare a road map toward the goals that go along with those desires. In the book, he writes,

 

“What do you want? I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: sightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.”

 

It is hard for us to be self-aware and reflective enough to really know what we want, but it is even harder for us to be able to then take our desires and package them in a way that we can explain to other people. Beginning a process of thinking about what we really want and what drives us will shed light on how frequently we are motivated by selfish interests and meaningless definitions of success. Often our motivations are driven by someone else, outside ourselves, that we want to impress or whose standards we feel we need to live up to. Working through these complex emotions and desires with another person can be a way to help them get on a more stable and productive path. Bungay Stanier’s question can reveal a lot of fear and a lot of goals that sound great but have self-defeating motivations. The Foundation Question helps determine the starting point from which we can build better goals and align work and habits to achieve those goals.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit suggesting that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of them and you will never inspire them to go above and beyond. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and responsibilities that seem unnecessary or burdensome. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future. One approach is to help ensure everyone on your team and everyone you coach understands how their work contributes to the overall mission and goals of the firm. This does not simply mean that you hand everyone a nice slogan about why their position and duties are important, you must actually show how the company plans to move forward and how the department and the individual will contribute to the new direction. A recent challenge for myself that I have been thinking about is how you direct resources and attention to groups to also signal their importance. Without the leadership demonstrating how specific work contributes to overall goals and without time and attention appropriately directed to an individual or department, even important work can begin to feel meaningless or forgotten, and firms and societies will never benefit from the innovation and dedication of great work.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will help preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit and suggests that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of the people working with or for you. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and items that seem like extra and unnecessary steps. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future.

What We Think of Ourselves

Marcus Aurelius constantly sought to become more self-aware by reflecting on himself, his actions, and his thoughts.  He recorded his reflections and the lessons he learned from constantly being present and observing himself and others in his book Meditations, and we can use his wisdom to help improve our lives, nearly 2,000 years later.  One of the starting points for Aurelius is how we think about ourselves, and how we think about the thoughts of others. Throughout the book Aurelius reminds us to become humble through self-reflection, and to become empathetic with others who are doing their very best to live their life in a manner that is suitable for them. He encourages us to build our own strong mental fortification while not basing our understanding of the world on the views and beliefs of others. It is in this spirit that he writes, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

 

Human beings are social creatures and our tribal evolution has stuck with us, pushing us to find groups to associate with for belonging and meaning. This has allowed us to come together in societies and to achieve more than we ever could on our own, but Aurelius writes about a dangerous side of our social dependence. When we fail to become self-reflective and when we do not live our lives according to our beliefs and rational understanding of ourselves we risk becoming an amalgam of what we perceive others to think of us.  Our lives become vehicles to impress others, and the most important decisions we make are intended to satisfy other people instead of ourselves. Living in this manner places our lives in control of others, and leaves us as hollow shells of individuals.

 

Aurelius would encourage us to think about ourselves in a more profound way to understand what our needs and desires are, and to understand where our motivation for achieving our goals comes from. If we are focused on what other people want us to become, he would argue that we are not living up to our true potential. If we are confident in ourselves and value the faculties of our minds, then we must take time to become self-aware to find a true alignment in our lives. We do not need to discount the opinions of others to a point where they are meaningless to us, but we need to be able to recognize whether our motivation lies in the words of another or whether our motivation is born from our own rational thought and understanding of self.

Reevaluating the Track

In his book Act Accordingly Colin Wright dives into the ideas of self awareness and alignment and how we need to have both to ensure that we are moving in the right direction.  Wright explains that it is necessary to be aware of what we are working towards and allow our path to change as we grow, learn more about ourselves, and discover new perspectives. In regards to reaching the place we want to go, he explains that our path should not be a straight shot but that it should have bends and turns as we begin to understand ourselves and the world in new ways. The author writes, “It may be that the shortest distance between you and your ideal lifestyle is halfway down one path, a third of the way down another, a tenth of the way down another, and so forth.”

 

For Wright, all of these changes in paths mean working towards more flexibility and greater alignment with your true motivations and goals.  If you are not self aware and lose focus of your interactions and life surrounding your big goals, then the paths that you chose will not be in alignment with what is best for you, and you may not be happy with the paths you start down.  Wright advocates that we avoid paths that “fall into habit prisons”. This means we should look to maximize agency and flexibility in our lives, which includes our mental perspectives as well as our available time.

 

What I really like about Wright’s quote is that it shows how non-linear our trajectories can be when we set out to reach a point in life that we desire.  We do not have to know immediately upon exiting college or school what we wish to do, but if we focus and apply ourselves in a direction that is aligned with our true self, then we will have new opportunities to take paths that better align with who we are.  I am often stressed that the path I am on won’t deliver the end goals for my life that I would like to see, but after reading Wright’s quote I know that is ok. My path may just be leading me towards a new intersection where I can find another path that will be more direct and aligned with the vision of success that I have for myself.  However, as I move down new paths it is important that I understand what I am aiming at. I have spent a lot of time thinking about and redefining success in my mind.  The vision that I have of success is now much more in line with who I am than my previous ideas of large houses and fancy sports cars.  Understanding my end goal helps me evaluate paths along my constantly evolving journey.

Favors for Strangers

Continuing with the idea of reciprocity Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little Change a Lot, reviews two studies, one by Dennis Regan and another study M.E. Schneider, which deal with finding the best balance between helping others, and receiving positive results from the favors you provide.  In regards to favors Wiseman writes the following (emphasis mine):

 

“Favors have their strongest effect when they occur between people who don’t know each other very well, and when they are small but thoughtful.  When people go to a great deal of effort to help someone else, the recipient can often feel an uncomfortable pressure to reciprocate.  In a sense by giving too much at the beginning, one person places the other in a difficult position because the law of reciprocity states that the recipient has to give even more in return.  Motivation is also important, as recipients can often experience a drop in self-esteem if they think they are bing helped because they are believed not to have the ability to be successful by themselves, or if they attribute the favor to an ulterior motive.”

 

I am drawn to this quote because it shows that we can not go about greatly influencing the behaviors of others simply by performing favors for them.  The science indicates that we can  make a lasting impression for someone by performing small acts of kindness, making the other person want to reciprocate positive actions back to us.  The research also seems to reveal that people are uncomfortable with large favors, because it puts them in an awkward and unexpected position.  Finding a balance where you perform small favors can help you boost your relationships be creating stronger bonds and friendships with people willing to assist you when you need a hand.

 

Wiseman’s section on reciprocity also shows that people can sense the motives behind favors.  A congressional approach to friendship and relationships (a you scratch my back I scratch your back, or in congress you vote for my bill, I’ll vote for your bill) is not a strong way to build friends and influence others.  Providing favors because you are expecting others to then do something positive for you is going to leave you without friends as others will see your underlying motive. Ultimately this will leave you with no reciprocated goodness, and no friends.

 

Another idea that I was drawn to from Wiseman’s thoughts on reciprocity is the idea of empowering others and performing genuine favors.  When others sense that you are doing favors for them because you don’t believe they can handle the situation on their own, you damage their self confidence and insult them.  I think of a young teenager who does not have the opportunity to make his or her own decisions because their parent is constantly acting for them.  The teenager may just want to have the chance to display their own competence, but the actions of their parent are leaving them without an opportunity to apply themselves.  By acting in ways that we think are favors for others, but actually limit their participation and self implementation we may doing more harm than good.  I believe Wiseman would argue that this contributes to the idea of simple favors having a greater impact than large favors.

Second Best

Diana Wakowski is a poet who authored a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice, a combination of letters from creative people.  In Wakowski’s letter the poet writes, “Try to balance the material world and  the idealistic one, so that your standards always remain high but you learn to gracefully accept and be second best.” This quote is difficult to understand when you look at it from a surface level, and it seems to run against the ideas and visions of success that are programmed into us from the time we enter elementary school.  I think that unpacking this quote, examining our motivation, and defining success are at the heart of Wakowski’s vision.

 

Throughout school we are constantly competing against our peers and being rewarded by congratulatory stickers and medals.  Whether it is academics or athletics the competition aspect of life is built in from a young age.  Success in both areas for many people is driven by the material rewards and social benefits that accompany outstanding accomplishments.  In sports, the desire for shiny medals or trophies may be the motivation for some to spend hours practicing, while in academics, certificates and self satisfaction from achieving the highest possible grade can be the drive.

 

What Wakowski is saying in her quote is that the outward benefits of success that many so strongly desire need to be combined with an understanding of the world we live in.  Striving to achieve a level of success in order to call oneself the best can be detrimental to not just ourselves but those around us.  When we begin to see this, it is important that we consider our motivations.  Working hard is not a bad thing, but pushing ourselves to the point where our health is in question and the relationships around us become strained is dangerous.  If our motivations are based purely on outside recognition and material gains, then the sacrifices we make to our health and relationships will leave us in a place we never wanted to reach.  In addition, striving towards material goals and desires often leaves us working towards goals and lifestyles set by other people or companies. These types of goals are not aligned with our true desires or our inner personalities.

 

In her quote, I do not believe that Wakowski is suggesting that we leave all material desires and outside motivations behind us, but rather she is asking that we become aware of those desires so that we can align them with our true selves.   We cannot do this if we have not spent time trying to understand what our motivation is, and where our desires come from.  Having high standards and expectations is a good thing in our lives, but constantly driving to be the very best may take away from parts of our lives that could be more meaningful than the boost to our wallet or social image.  Settling for second best in this view is not settling for good enough, but rather striving to be excellent at what you do, but not to a point where you are unable to enjoy the success that accompanies the hard work.  If you reframe your goals and desires then your success become more aligned with who you truly are and what you truly enjoy so that you can have better motivation to pursue excellence.