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What Matters Most? (Part 1)

Summary: “Meaning and relationships matter most.”

Several years ago I was invited to speak to a group of young leaders. The folks asking me to speak were tactful about it, but basically they said (politely), “You are an old leader…we want you to come and speak to our young leaders about what matters most in life.” I thought it was a very interesting topic…I said, “I’m in!”

For years, I have recognized the value of exploring different perspectives when developing responses to such questions. So, I had fun looking at this question from a business/leadership point of view. Then I explored the viewpoint of various mental health experts. Then I checked out the Harvard Grant Study and Glueck Studies that tracked (and is still tracking) a group of Harvard students and another group of disadvantaged inner-city Boston youths for over 70 years. I checked out Gail Sheehy’s books and writings on life passages. Then I looked at Richard Leider’s research on the aging population (in general, people 70+ year-olds); then Bronnie Ware’s work related to people with terminal illnesses; and finally Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey (basically the collective wisdom of about 100 billion people who have passed through this world and left behind life lessons through mythologies, fairy tales, religions, and various other forms of artistic expression). So, that pretty much covers most of the stages of life where people have the cognitive prowess to contemplate such a question…and then some.

To make a long story short, many, many things matter in life. However, two things kept popping up over and over as I explored all these viewpoints: meaning and relationships.

In general, meaning is about being involved with something that is bigger than you. Activity that goes well beyond any personal benefit you might derive from the activity. I’ve mentioned it several times before on this blog, but one of the best resources to help you deepen your understanding of this concept is a video titled Finding Joe by Patrick Tayaka Solomon.

The importance of relationships came up in pretty much every place I looked. According to George Vaillant, who was involved in the Grant/Glueck studies for over 30 years, “Success in relationships was very highly correlated with both economic success and strong mental and physical health. In short, it was a history of warm intimate relationships—and the ability to foster them in maturity—that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” (Unfortunately, as a sign of the times, no women were included in the studies).

So, it seems that focusing on meaning and relationships matters most…among the many things that matter most. Here are more postings on this topic:

What Matters Most? – Part 2

What Matters Most? – Part 3

What Matters Most? – Part 4

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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Sifting – Chapter 1: Bob’s Remaining Days on Earth

A Free Course…

Many of the topics that can help you joyfully and productively participate in life are introduced or addressed in my book titled Sifting: A Story About Life and Well-Being. Therefore, I thought I would use Sifting as a textbook (albeit a somewhat non-traditional one) for a self-study course on well-being and flourishing. Over the next few months (on Sunday mornings), I will post the individual chapters of Sifting on this blog with author’s notes that hopefully will give you some insight on how to live well and prosper. I hope you enjoy the book and ideas. No fees, no tests…just a course to provoke your thoughts. I encourage you to spend some quality time thinking about the issues and questions listed at the end of each chapter. Here’s Chapter 1…

 

Sifting – Chapter 1

Bob’s Remaining Days on Earth 

Sunday Afternoon

Although unable to explain why, Bob Rushing intuitively believed he would live for 92 years. Ignoring leap years, this meant from start to finish he had 33,580 days to do whatever he was supposed to do during his time on Earth. As of next Saturday, only 18,980 of those days remained.

At this point, he wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to be doing with his life; he just sensed that he wasn’t doing it yet. He couldn’t help but think that this was the time in life when he should be settling into some sense of certainty about the meaning and purpose of his life. But all he sensed as he approached his 40th birthday was low-grade, chronic frustration and nagging uncertainty.

His feelings of uncertainty were accompanied by increasingly noticeable feelings of restlessness. No, restlessness didn’t totally describe all he was feeling as Saturday approached. Bob tore off a piece of paper from the notepad on his desk and jotted down a few words that came to mind when he thought about his present situation.

Uncertainty

Restlessness

Frustration

Anxiety

Disorientation

Sadness

Stuck

Bored

Irritable

Curious

He didn’t feel all these things all the time, but these feelings were showing up more often these days…especially anxiety. Only one of the words seemed to offer much hope of assistance with his unexplained dilemma.

One thing was certain; at this point in time, at least his career seemed to be going great. He had places to go and things to do. He would think more about these odd feelings later. Right now he had to get ready for a busy week of traveling, meetings and making things happen!

End Chapter 1

 

Author’s Notes: 

Main takeaway: As Socrates (and Plato) advised – “An unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s easy to get in a hurry and get caught up in the many traps society presents to us as good ideas; however, if you desire to joyfully and productively participate in life, it’s a good idea to occasionally slow down and examine the quality of your current decisions and where those decisions are taking you in life. Since there is no guarantee that you will be here tomorrow, next week, or next month…the time to begin doing this is right now.

  1. Bob’s last name offers the first clue about how you might alter your lifestyle to more joyfully participate in life. As you will see as the story unfolds, slowing down a bit opens up totally new life pathways and trajectories for Bob.
  2. How many days do you have (if all goes well) to do whatever you are supposed to do during your time on Earth? Life expectancy estimates/calculator. 
  3. Bob’s feelings are all common signs that it’s time for some sort of lifestyle change. Do you experience any of these feelings on a regular or ongoing basis?
  4. Yes, curious is the word that can help Bob sift through all his feelings, draw some conclusions and develop some strategies for change. More about curiosity in subsequent chapters.
  5. Feelings are perhaps our only internal/direct source of knowledge (versus learning things from external/indirect sources like people, books, etc.). Think about that! What do you think all the feelings Bob listed are trying to tell him?
  6. Our feelings are usually pretty good (but not always) indicators that we are going in the right or wrong direction. Pay attention to what your emotions might be telling you.
  7. Beware of getting caught up in the busyness trap; it has a way of helping you ignore things in life you probably should not be ignoring.
  8. Consider watching the video Finding Joe to prepare you for exploring the meaning and purpose of your life along with Bob. It’s an excellent and very thought-provoking video.

 

The entire book will eventually be posted on this blog. However, if you want a copy for yourself, or a friend, you can find it at this link: Sifting

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The Job of a Problem

Summary: “The job of a problem is to get your attention.”

For a moment, shift into the everything-happens-for-a-reason mode of thinking and consider the “job of a problem.” I know we don’t typically think of problems as having jobs. But, I’ve spent a lot of time studying problem solving, and thinking in such a manner is a good way to develop solutions.

If you observed people’s typical responses to problems, you might think the job of a problem is to generate excessive stress, anger or frustration. This is not the job of a problem. The main job of a problem is to get your attention. That’s it!

Before I continue, it’s important to draw a distinction between two closely related activities: creativity and problem solving. The process of creativity brings something new into existence. Problem solving focuses on making something that is already in existence go away. Keeping these thoughts in mind, you can develop a new and healthy approach for responding to problems.

The next time you encounter a problem:

  • Remind yourself that the job of a problem is to simply get your attention…that’s it! There is no need to allocate a lot of your energy to stress, anger or frustration.
  • Clarify the focus of your attention and determine exactly what you want to make go away.
  • Look for a specific skill, process, or area of knowledge that will likely make the problem go away.

This third step is extremely important. In general, knowledge is the antidote for problems.

Here’s a quick example. Say you are having problems keeping up with your work-related reading. First, realize that a problem related to your reading skills is simply trying to get your attention. Next, determine what you want to make go away. In this case, the excessive time you need to allocate to reading. Now, what process, skill or area of knowledge can make this problem go away? It might not take you long to come to the conclusion that you should consider a speed-reading course or book. Do the math: If you need to read one hour a day just to keep up, learn enough about speed reading to double your reading speed (not an unrealistic goal for most readers). If you work 260 days a year, that would free up 130 hours a year (the equivalent of 3.25 40-hour work weeks). OK, now that problem is solved. Next problem!

What will you do with the extra 3.25 weeks? Is figuring that out a problem for you? Looking at problems as attention-getters is a good way to joyfully participate in life.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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The Eight Winds

Summary: “A wise person is not swayed by the eight winds.” 

The above quote comes from the writings of a Japanese Buddhist priest named Nichiren Daishonin who lived over 700 years ago. I’m not a Buddhist, but I will take good ideas wherever and whenever I find them. This was a good idea 740 years ago when Nichiren wrote about it, and I believe it’s a good idea today. So, here are the following eight influences that, according to Nichiren, “agitate and inflame the human heart and mind.”

Prosperity/Decline

Honor/Disgrace

Praise/Censure

Pleasure/Suffering

One unnamed expert in Buddhism said, “For the most part, life consists of repeated encounters with these eight winds.” What would your life be like if these eight influences were unable to agitate and inflame your heart and mind?

I first read about the eight winds years ago and immediately decided I wanted to seriously play around with this idea. For those who know and interact with me personally, I may have to eat these words someday…but I believe I’ve made significant progress on my quest to avoid being blown around by external circumstances – good and bad.

I practice “not being swayed by the eight winds” by applying it to ordinary garden-variety life circumstances. For example, I no longer suffer as much in the “12 items or less” line at the grocery store when someone gets in front of me with 20 or more items (while talking on their cell phone, and not having their payment ready, and using a pile of coupons). I practice in traffic. I practice it when people ask for my advice and promptly ignore it. I practice it when people say incredibly nice things about me (accepting the comment respectfully, but not taking it too seriously). I practice it when people criticize me (accepting the comment respectfully, but not taking it too seriously).

After years of practicing this, I feel a remarkable difference in my inner state in these situations. In the past, I would probably seem calm to observers, but my mind and heart would be “agitated and inflamed” and I would not be so internally calm. I’ve still got plenty of work to get where I want to be, but I’m making significant progress! Most of the time in “eight winds” situations, I now feel no sense of agitation on the inside. For example, recently on an international trip…with a front-desk check-in (computer app didn’t work so I had to do it the old fashion way), a TSA check-in, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection check-in…followed by a four-hour delay with four gate changes, and various other hassles…my nervous system remained very calm – outside and inside. It appears that neuroplasticity has reformatted my nervous system.

Working on developing “eight winds” resilience is a good way to joyfully participate in life. In my case, I like my new nervous system much better than my old one.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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The Perilous Plight of the Peppered Moths

Summary: “Be aware of your environment and be adaptable.”

It’s good to be smart and adaptable. If not, you have to take what life gives you…and if you are a peppered moth that could mean becoming a snack for a hungry bird. Here’s the highly summarized story of the perilous plight of the peppered moth. The facts:

  • Some peppered moths are predominantly light colored.
  • Some peppered moths are predominantly dark colored.
  • Some trees (where peppered moths hang out) are predominantly light colored.
  • Some trees (where peppered moths hang out) are predominantly dark colored.
  • Birds think peppered moths are tasty and like to eat them.
  • Birds are most likely to eat the peppered moths they can easily see.

So what’s a peppered moth to do…or more importantly…where should a weary peppered moth land and hang out for a few minutes of rest? You can mentally run through the possibilities and finish the story. For help with a visual image, check out this article with photos and this short video. Look closely and you can better understand the benefits of matching your characteristics with your environment and the perils of not doing so. So what can we learn from the peppered moths that can help us improve our chances of career survival and success? Let’s use the facts above related to the plight of the peppered moth as a template and apply them to humans. Here’s just one example of how the story might unfold:

  • Some people are predominantly extroverted and spontaneous.
  • Some people are predominantly introverted and methodical.
  • Some careers call for people to be predominantly extroverted and spontaneous.
  • Some careers call for people to be predominantly introverted and methodical.
  • Downsizing often eliminates people who do not seem to fit their job.

Once again, I think you can finish the story. Now let’s draw a few conclusions:

  • Moths are not smart enough to know they should adapt to their environment.
  • Some people are like moths…they land a job that calls for them to be extroverted when they are introverted or spontaneous when they are methodical…or vice versa…or they mismatch some other predominant personality trait.
  • Other people understand the implications of trait mismatches and take the time to fully explore and understand their predominant personality traits and then…they wisely select an environment and career path (or make changes to their current career path) that will most likely allow them to take advantage of their strengths and minimize their struggles.

Being adaptable and aware of your strengths, struggles and environment is a good way to joyfully participate in life.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

 

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Thoughts on Assertiveness

Summary: “Embrace assertiveness; avoid aggressiveness.” 

Sometimes people want to be more assertive, but they fail to do so because they are a bit confused about the difference in assertive and aggressive behavior. These two labels that describe behavior are often used interchangeably, but assertiveness and aggressiveness are not really the same thing.

The term aggressiveness often describes behavior that can be classified as hostile (perhaps even violent), pushy, bullying and inappropriate. Aggressive people show little respect for people’s boundaries and use forceful and intimidating tactics to get what they want.

Assertive people, on the other hand, might also use forceful tactics to get what they want, but they do it in a way that is appropriate and respects other people’s boundaries.

Failure to clearly distinguish between these two types of behavior discourages some people from asking for what they want, especially in stressful or difficult situations.

If you want to practice being more assertive, start with a few minor issues that you might normally overlook just to avoid conflict. Rather than sucking it up and tolerating these issues, ask for what you really want in an appropriate manner…and be persistent. Hopefully being assertive with some of these little issues will help your nervous system get more comfortable being more assertive when the stakes are higher. If you want to further explore this topic, consider reading When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel Smith.

Remember, you are not being aggressive, or pushy, or inappropriate when you respectfully ask for what you want, speak your mind and stand up for yourself.

Being aggressive is a negative character trait that can easily get you in trouble and damage important relationships. Being assertive is a noble character trait that can help you joyfully participate in life. 

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

 

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Emotions Are Contagious

Summary: “Feel the way you want your counterparty to feel.” 

In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise walked into a room full of women and told Renée Zellweger, “You complete me.” As I watched that scene I rolled my eyes and thought…pleeeease…give me a break!! However, as much as I dislike admitting it, there is some scientific support for Cruise’s eye-roll-inducing dialogue.

As it turns out, most of us are capable of “tuning in” to the internal emotional state of others. As a matter of fact, in some cases when you are interacting with another person, your two nervous systems, in effect, become as one (hence, Renée completes Tom…in the movie).

Even without considering the science, most of you intuitively know that feelings are contagious if you have ever watched a comedian or performer absolutely bombing on stage. How do you feel when that happens? Does your nervous system usually “tune in” to their discomfort? Or on a positive note, how about when this song became contagious in My Best Friend’s Wedding? Or watch this short TED video.

Take a look at a very interesting book called A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amini and Lannon if you are interested in the science behind this contagious emotions phenomenon called limbic resonance and limbic regulation. Here’s an interesting passage from the book: “But because human physiology is (at least in part) an open-loop arrangement, an individual does not direct all of his own functions. A second person transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function, and more – inside the body of the first. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulated the physiology of the second., even as he himself is regulated. Neither is functioning whole on his own; each has open loops that only somebody else can complete.”

Fascinating stuff – don’t you think? You can actually alter someone else’s hormones, like cortisol and oxytocin.

Delve into the science if you’d like, it gets even more interesting. However, here’s the main point if you want to convert this knowledge into something useful on a day-to-day basis. Learn to psyche yourself up for important interactions with people just as you would to compete in a sporting event.

Try to at least enter into important interactions with your boss, clients, prospects, spouse, children, friends, and others feeling the way you want them to feel. For example, if you want them to feel trusting, trust them until they prove that you cannot do so. You may not “regulate” them every time, but you certainly stack the deck in favor of doing so. I guess the alternative is to go into interactions with negative expectations. Either way, emotional contagion will kick in and do its thing. Which one do you think (and feel) will most likely help you joyfully participate in life?

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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The Slippery Slope of Spending and Satisfaction

Summary: “Be careful with any spending beyond the ‘enough’ point.” 

Let’s take a look at the relationship between spending and satisfaction and see what we can learn about whether or not money can buy happiness. For example, what happens as you increase your spending in terms of (a) how much happiness you are buying and, (b) how long the happiness you are buying will last?

Here’s the way things seem to work. If you spend money on fulfilling your basic needs, you get a lot of satisfaction out of the expenditure and the satisfaction lasts a long time. You have, in effect, bought some happiness – so far, so good. As you prosper and begin spending money on comfort items, you still experience some satisfaction, but not as much and it doesn’t last as long. As you become even more prosperous and begin spending money on luxury items…yep…you still experience satisfaction, but not as much and it doesn’t last as long (are you beginning to detect a pattern?).

At this point, prosperous people often shift into a full-blown “more is better” strategy and something unusual begins happening. They discover they must spend more and more to get the same level of satisfaction…and their worldly possessions begin to pile up. As this continues, big spenders eventually reach (allow me to introduce a highly technical term with regard to the science of spending) the “enough” spending level. Any expenditure beyond this amount will usually decrease, rather than increase, happiness. Graphically they’ve reached the slippery slope and “cross over the spending hump.” In other words, their satisfaction curve begins to move in a downward direction with additional expenditures. By the way, I am talking about spending money you have. Buying these things on credit adds significantly to the diminishing returns.

For those of you who have owned multiple houses and cars (as I have in the past), you understand all to well that assets can easily morph into liabilities that require maintenance, insurance and absorb all manner of resources whether you use them or not.

Here are a few ideas to offset this slippery slope. Spend money on experiences rather than things. Spend money on small indulgences that require no ongoing expenditures related to storage, maintenance, insurance, etc. Spend money on other people important to you. Spend money on causes that are important to you. Here’s a radical idea – save money and consider it money spent on buying freedom of choice in the future (see posting on Monkey Traps).

Bottom line, if you want to joyfully participate in life, be careful with any spending beyond your personal ‘enough’ point. Enjoy your money, but make sure it is serving you and not vice-versa. If you are already beyond the ‘enough’ point, I predict you will get more joy from getting rid of things than from acquiring things. Try it and see if it is true for you.

Want to know more about money and happiness? Read Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Pay close attention to the Fulfillment Curve in the first chapter.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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Life Path Analysis

Summary: “Examine the emotions associated with your various life pathways”

If you look at your life in the aggregate, what is your answer to the question: Are you joyfully and productively participating in life? If the answer is ‘no’, what do you do next? Here’s an idea: disaggregate your life and subject each major aspect of it to an “emotional-association” evaluation. Allow me to further explain.

Your emotions are perhaps one of your best sources of direct/inside knowledge. By that, I mean most things you know came from an indirect/outside, source – a teacher, a parent, a coach, a book, a video, and so forth and so on. Just as physical pain is a direct/inside source of knowledge telling you to pay attention to something about your body, your emotions may be telling you to pay attention to something about your life. Hold that thought a moment and consider the following three things.

First: One of the more common breakdowns of life includes the following components (in alphabetical order, I’ll leave the order of importance up to you): Career, community, educational, family, financial, social, and spiritual. You can add to this list if you’d like, but this should cover most of the significant life pathways.

Second: One of the more common breakdowns of emotions includes the following categories: joy, sadness, anger, and fear. Each category includes a wide variety of mental states: joy, from calm contentment to exhilarating exuberance; sadness from mild melancholy to clinical depression; anger from mild annoyance to rage; fear from slight discomfort to terror. Again, you can add other categories if you’d like, but these four should cover most of the emotions you will likely experience on a typical day.

Third: Now just combine these two ideas. For each of your life pathways, is the overall pattern of associated-emotions joy, sadness, anger, or fear. These patterns of emotions (not isolated/temporary occurrences) are excellent guides. These guides are internal/direct sources of knowledge, programmed by Mother Nature, telling you that you are either on the right path, or that it’s time for a change.

If it is time for a change, you basically have three options: change something about yourself (the least used, most effective option), change something about someone else (the most used, least effective option), or change something about your environment. Or, of course, you can keep doing what you are doing and keep getting what you are getting.

Take time every so often to think about an emotional-association analysis of your life. It’s a good way to joyfully participate in life.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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Metacognition: Thinking About Your Thinking

Summary: “Think about your thinking.” 

How often do you slow down and seriously reflect on the content and quality of your thinking? Most people live busy, cluttered, chaotic, stressful lives nowadays; so my guess is that most don’t spend too much time reflecting on such matters. If you are one of these people, slow down for a moment, take a deep breath, relax, and think about the following statement.

“Nothing can come from corn but corn.”

Okay, I know this is a corny statement, but this happens to be one of my favorite statements from a book titled As A Man Thinketh by James Allen. First of all, James was definitely not among the masses caught up in chaos. He got up an hour before dawn each day and walked to the hills overlooking his village and the sea…and thought about his thoughts. Biographers describing his daily routine often said he would go to the hills and meditate. However, if you read his works, he seemed to be doing the opposite of meditating. Meditation is about clearing your mind of thoughts. Rather than clearing his mind, James would focus on a specific thought (such as, nothing can come from corn but corn) in an effort to clarify and anchor his beliefs related to the thought. Here’s one of his conclusions related to thinking about corn:

“A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.

Thus, nothing comes from corn but corn. Think about it!

James also clearly articulated the significant benefits of thinking about your thinking: “Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. Its presence is an indication of ripened experience, and of a more than ordinary knowledge of the laws and operations of thought. The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. People will always prefer to deal with a man whose demeanor is equable. He is like a shade-giving tree in a thirsty land, or a sheltering rock in a storm.

I encourage you to get in the habit of thinking about your thinking. Especially your thinking related to your career, marriage, parenting, relationships, money, religion, politics, success and happiness. Spending a little high-quality time with your mind will help you escape the chaos and become “like a shade-giving tree in a thirsty land.” A version of Allen’s book titled As A Woman Thinketh is also available for those of you with no Y chromosome.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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