The question is simple enough. It seems like a question that I’ve answered before. However, somehow the meaning question – How Will You Measure Your Life? – is one that I, like others, thought I had answered but somewhere got interrupted. I was in the middle of writing the answer of my life and I got distracted. I’m glad that I got back to looking at the question through the lens of Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon’s work.
Lost Along the Way
It’s hard to believe that our careers and our lives are like boats adrift on the ocean without solid wind to drive our sails. However, many people find themselves drifting off course with little understanding of how to get back to where they need to go. The Halo Effect spoke of the probabilistic nature of our lives. While someone might have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Edison thought differently. Small changes eventually led to the incandescent lightbulb. In Extreme Productivity we spent most of the book hearing about Bob Pozen’s life: how he’s used strategies to get ahead in his life, only to find out at the end that his life is filled with the same random connections and dumb luck that has fueled our own lives.
That isn’t to say that planning a strategy for where we want our lives to go and positioning ourselves in that direction is futile – it’s not. While we may be lousy at predicting what will make us happy (see Stumbling on Happiness), we should try to figure it out – because we’ve still got better odds when we’re shooting for something. In the end our lives, and where we end up, aren’t actually about the destination. It’s about the journey. I mentioned my trip to Mt. Rushmore and the powerful push towards understanding that life is about the journey in my reviews of Changes That Heal and Introducing The Psychology of Success. Sometimes getting a little lost and experiencing the journey isn’t bad – as long as you remember to get back on track at some point.
The Fallacy of Sequencing
Too many people make initial decisions to sequence their life so that they can build a strong foundation for themselves, and then get lost along the way with no clear path about how to get back to what they really want. Do you want to know a secret? I know how much money it will take for you to be happy. It’s roughly twice what you’re making now. I know this because, for all but a handful of people, this is the number that they want.
So as gifted people start their careers to put a financial base underneath themselves, suddenly they find that the stable financial base must be larger and larger. Each time they almost make it, the need for stability gets larger. Adding to that, it’s hard to turn away from people rewarding you with financial incentives if the alternative is less money and higher purpose.
The Fallacy of Planning
If we know that life is about change, probabilities, and that we’ll likely not end up where we intended, why then does it make sense to plan at all? After all, 93 percent of all companies must abandon their original strategy because it proved to not be viable. It would seem that, with these odds, you shouldn’t try for anything at all. However, there is a reason that I learned a long time ago from hunting.
I was learning to shoot with a bow and arrow. I was happy to hit the deer target that had been set up for me. I felt good to be able to hit it at all until my uncle helped me understand the importance of having a narrow target. By having a narrow target (right behind the deer’s shoulder blade) I started to shoot better. Instead of being happy with just hitting the deer, I got specific.
Did I hit my target as often as I hit the deer when that was the target? Nope. However, when I changed my goal and I got specific, I got the ability to use valuable feedback to refine my aim, and as a result I hit the deer more often.
Life is like this. We need to have a specific, narrow target so that we can get realigned. We need feedback from others about what we’re trying to do, so that we can refine it and end up with the right target – for now. So, while you can’t plan out your life, it doesn’t mean that planning is meaningless.
It’s a Job
In How Will You Measure Your Life?, the path wanders through innovation, product marketing, and other topics. One of the interesting stops is learning how people buy products. People buy products to do a job. There’s something that we want and the product – or service – is designed to meet that need. The more we know about the specific need of the person, the more we can design a solution for that problem. The book walks through how to make milkshakes better and recognizes there are two very different needs that milkshakes are hired to do. In the morning, they’re something to keep the commute interesting and provide enough sustenance to prevent mid-morning tummy grumbles. In the afternoons and evenings, it’s something that parents can say yes to after a day of saying no to their child all day.
One product – a milkshake – with two different and, in this case, competing needs. The daily commuter needed a milkshake that they could take their time with and savor during their commute. The parent wanted a milkshake that the child could finish quickly. Two relatively opposite objectives. Finish quicker – or finish slower. This is the challenge with aggregating data. The Black Swan, in conversations about unexpected events, exposes the challenge of averages and their inherent hiding of the details and uniqueness of the data.
Outsourcing Core Competencies
Another sidestep from our measuring our life is the discussion of how some organizations, like Dell, sometimes end up outsourcing so much of what they do that they eventually outsource their core competencies. That is, the thing that made the organization great eventually becomes something that you rely on other organizations to do.
In our personal lives, this has an interesting implication. What are the things in our life that we need to keep because they power our uniqueness, and which do we need to let go because they’re something that someone else can do better, faster, cheaper? An easy question is whether you should do your own lawn maintenance or not. If it’s something that brings you joy or energizes you, the quick answer is keep it.
However, what if you, like me, perceive it to be a chore that must be done? It’s just one more burden of an overburdened life. I can do my lawn maintenance. I am “qualified.” I even have all the tools. However, if I don’t find it enjoyable, should I pay someone to do the work instead of me? Should I outsource this activity so that I can do something else? In my case, the answer is yes. I’d rather write an article a month to cover the cost of doing my lawn maintenance rather than doing it myself.
In the case of lawn maintenance, for me, it’s not a core competency. Writing, on the other hand, is. If I could take a few hours and “crank out” an article and make enough to pay for the lawn maintenance that month, which is a better use of my time? Of course, this assumes that I can get the article assignments.
Breaking the Shell
The chick is struggling to break out of its shell. You can see its struggle. You can imagine yourself in their position. You would want help. Shouldn’t you help the chick break free from its shell? Only if you want to sentence it to death. You see, chicks need the struggle to break out of their shell, just like we as humans need our struggles. (See How Children Succeed for more about our need for challenges.)
It turns out that, if we don’t have challenges, we never develop the toughness that’s necessary for our long-term survival – and for our ability to thrive. If you’ve not been able to struggle, then you’ll grow up believing that others are there to remove all the barriers in your way. It turns out that this self-centered approach to life isn’t good for your contribution to society – or to your happiness.
Happiness Worth Devoting Yourself To
Happiness is hard to come by. Finding lasting joy is a life’s work, and one that many have tried to capture directly or indirectly in their writing. (See Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis for two direct approaches to finding happiness.) Time and time again, studies reveal that people are in relationships are happier. Married people report being happier on average than their non-married friends. That is to say, those in marriages had an intimate connection with another human being. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s work on social connections.) Certainly, some marriages are dysfunctional and doesn’t provide that connectedness, but on the whole, this connection added happiness to both lives.
If we look back at John Gottman’s work, as described in The Science of Trust, we find that he identifies “Make Life Dreams Come True” as one of the key foundations to sound relationships. How Will You Measure Your Life? describes it as “the path to happiness is about finding someone who you want to make happy, and someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to.” One key to how I’ll measure my life is my relationships – with my wife, with my family, and with those who I have the privilege of spending time with. Spiritual Evolution remarks, “Nevertheless, on their deathbeds more people probably rejoice in having raised children than in having achieved precious moments of meditational Nirvana.” The One Thing quotes from The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Second on that list is “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends – too often they failed to give them the time and effort they deserved.”
Jobs for Experiences
When you’re searching for your next opportunity, there are all sorts of variables to consider. You can consider the financial gain you’ll get. The authority that you’ll have. Perhaps it’s stability that you crave and that you’re seeking. (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for Reiss’ 16 factor model for understanding peoples’ motivations.) One of the useful and longer-term views is to look at the next opportunity from the lens of whether it will create the experience that you want in your life.
Once you’ve determined what you want in your life, you can start to architect your decisions on the path that is most likely to lead to that goal. You may not become a famous author or a motivational speaker, but if these are your aims, there are steps you can take to get closer. You can join writing workshops to learn the skills necessary to become a better writer. You can take classes to become a better speaker. (Or do something crazy like take a class on stand-up comedy like I discussed in my post I Am a Comedian.)
My Measuring Sticks
For me, I’m not looking to keep score. Somewhere along the line, I missed the class on status being important. I’m quite happy to drive an average car. I’m happy in the home that I share with my family. I’m going to measure my life based on the way that I can positively impact others. My wife, my family, and my friends are the way that I’m going to measure my life.
To get there, I’ve got to continue to make money through work, but I’ll do that too from the lens of trying to help others. That, is how I’m going to measure my life. So How Will You Measure Your Life?