Many of us have been asked throughout our lives “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, and many of us have re-visited that simple question again and again for ourselves. This is a loaded question, as the expected answer is around a vocation or calling of some kind. Not an easy thing to know when you are three, or ten, twenty-three or (sometimes) even when you are forty-three. Yet the front halves of our lives are all about the determination and pursuit of vocation, falling into the societal expectation that we have access to the penultimate answer to this question. But have we? Is that even the right question to be addressing? Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of innovation and human resources, argues in his book The Element that most adults have no idea what their true talents are, or what they’re truly capable of achieving. “They bump along the bottom doing what they’re competent in and what they feel they need to do, and wonder why they can’t feel passion or belonging in their commitments”.
We satisfice. We find something we can comfortably do well and we stick with it, even when it doesn’t make us particularly happy, usually because it doesn’t make us particularly unhappy. It is a very unique few who have said “chuck it” to the world and gone on to do what they wanted, whether it was viable as an occupation, or socially acceptable, or not. We admire people who can do that for themselves…but knowing their path, which was bumpy and daunting, we figure we’ll just stick with what we know. And there is nothing wrong with that, but always ask yourself a different question. Rather than the usual “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, ask yourself “What do you want to experience when you grow up?” When you switch the word “be” to “experience” you are accessing a whole different range of important information, one even children catch on to (test it out, go ask one and listen to their answers). Within this question we have more access to wisdom, rather than just a cut-and-dried list of possible vocations. What is your answer to this question? In answering it, do you have access to it consistently in your life today?
If not, this doesn’t mean you have to “chuck it”, and go on a journey of “Eat, Pray, Love” proportions to find it (unless you want to, of course). It simply means you are in a place where the answer to that question may illuminate the path towards greater well-being for you. It is an opportunity to pause and reflect, and if you are contemplating this space in life, as good a place to start as any. In fact, the majority of us don’t need to “rip and replace” our occupations, sometimes we just need to look at how we are fulfilling them to see the opportunity to bring into our lives more of what we want to experience. I agree with Sir Robinson, I see first hand the many individuals who are lacking occupational passion, and often question their commitment to their livelihoods today, but I also have faith that when we go out to be productive in the world, we don’t miss the mark of our own true “callings” so widely that it causes most of us unrelenting suffering. Figuring out what we are good at is an iterative process, one that evolves and changes over time. I couldn’t write the content for these blogs in my 20’s – I may have (if blogging had existed back then) still chosen to write, but it would not have been about helping others fulfill their potential – which is something that was decades of real life and work experience in the making. If you look back over the depth and breadth of your career so far, from what you chose to pursue in high school to where you are today, you likely don’t see a perfectly straight line (A to B, to C…). Despite our best intentions, real life isn’t particularly linear. Even if you don’t like where you ended up, you always have the option to move more closely towards what you want to experience at any time. But there is a catch.
I work with many individuals who are doing just that, moving from executing on a vocation or profession, to taking their interests and passions and pursuing more of what they want to experience. For some it is as simple as committing to use their voice in new and different ways, speaking up with new ideas, asking probing questions, becoming more visible and finding themselves more committed and with a deeper sense of purpose and belonging within the community in which they are working today. For others it is more radical, taking their profession into entrepreneur-ism, being able to apply innovation, or pursue a new level of balance brought about by deeper control of their schedules and professional pursuits. The catch to pursuing what you’d like to experience, is that you need to give yourself permission to experience it. Not just permission to “speak up”, but permission recognizing you are worthy enough to “speak up”, worthy enough to start a company, or to put your own well being first. If you are not ready to acknowledge your own worthiness, you will not be able to consistently give yourself the permission needed to act upon what you want to experience in life (professionally or personally). The result is more like a two-week vacation in a 52-week work schedule than a way of living. When we think about life, this is not how most of us envisioned experiencing it – with only two or three fulfilling moments, weeks or experiences; we aspire to 52 weeks a year of life-worthy experiences.
When I asked one of the little people in my life what he wanted to experience when he grew up his answers were wonderfully sincere. He wanted to know what it would be like to ride a horse (“what do you do if your hat flew off? Would the horse know to stop?”), and to hold a fire hose spurting water “really, really fast” (“would it lift me up off the ground? That would be cool!”). After exploring some these interesting avenues he became quiet and (without any adult prompting) said, “I guess I would like to keep being happy, like when I play LEGOs”. Children come into this world with “worthiness” baked right in; it is the trials and tribulations of life that can (if we let it) pound it out of us. That is why we like posing these types of questions to little people; as adults we are constantly awed and amused by their beautiful, as yet un-marred point of view. Anything is possible when you are not responsible for car payments and mortgages. But what if in asking ourselves this same question we also dispensed with assuming we weren’t worth it? What if we asked ourselves instead, “What would this give me if I did do it?” What if we paid more attention to the way we want to experience something, the way it makes us feel? Would this enable us to take steps to experience belonging? Would we be more committed to our pursuits and comfortably know we are competent? Does acknowledging our own worth enable the permission to make us happier by pursuing experience rather than simply vocation? Would this give us greater access to a consistent presence of belonging, commitment and passion in what we do?
Is it time to find out?
Many of you have likely seen this video based on Steven Covey’s “The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmV0gXpXwDU - skip to 0.54 to pass by the advert). It is not a long video and what I love about it is its simplicity. It makes so much more sense to plan with a whole project, or a whole day…your whole life in mind, rather then taking everything as it comes (because that’s when things stop fitting in the jar). Every time I use this video with a client who hasn’t seen it before I get the same response “Why don’t they teach this stuff in high school?!”. What this video demonstrates is how to ensure that the important things in your project, in your day or in your life get the time and attention they deserve…and how doing that can allow the little things to be attended to too. Looking at it from a business context this video inspires “right action” to get things done via awareness and planning; on a personal level it is really about mindfulness, because only when we know what is important can we attend to it in a wholehearted way. It begs the question; do you know what your “big rocks” are?
It is impossible to plan for them if you do not know what they are. On the surface this looks easy – big rocks are the things that have to be done by the end of the day no matter what, like pre-planned deadlines and commitments. But are they really “big rocks”? The daily swirl of activity and busyness prevents us from seeing what are the most important things we should be giving our time to, like the quality of the time we spend with others and what we do for our own well being and health. How many times have you traded going to bed at a decent hour for something else that “had” to be done? Or on something frivolous, like watching “guilty pleasure” television because all the other parts of your day were so filled with commitments this is the only time you can do something for yourself (even if it is watching re-runs of re-runs)? How many times have we snapped at the people we love/respect because we are on a deadline or over-subscribed with commitments? How many of us have given up hobbies that gave us pleasure and fulfillment to meet the needs of others? Consider the concept of “big rocks” within the context of your whole life. What would your big rocks be? What would they give you if you made room for them? If you are having trouble seeing them, you are not alone, but without being curious about them and planning for them you will always be pushed and pulled about by circumstance and feel frustrated because this is not quite the life you envisioned, professionally or personally. Leverage that frustration – it points to an (as yet unvoiced) alternate vision, one where you get closer to understanding your “big rocks”…frustration is only present when there is an alternate vision (however unformed it may be), sit with that feeling for a while, paying attention to it is how you get to what is important.
But it isn’t just about big rocks is it? I’d love to tell you that it is, but there is something else we need to be aware of as we plan our bright futures, and big rocks are only half of the equation. The other half is about interdependent conditions. Our life is full of interdependent conditions, those circumstances that lead us to constantly make priority calls and decisions about what gets our attention. The beauty of the big rocks video is it tackles one of the biggest interdependent conditions in life…time. The jar is time; you have a finite amount of it in an hour, a day, in a week. Time is constant for everyone and it marches along without caring if we are ready for it’s advance or not. Time is a great example of an interdependent condition. As Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote in his book Full Catastrophe Living we each “only have moments to live”. Life is full of them, how aware are we of most of them? If you feel like you are careening from one thing to the next, to the next, until you lie in bed exhausted each night, you are likely not getting that much out of the millions of moments in your life. What quality is present in your life? Not in terms of what you produce, but in terms of what you experience. What quality would you like to have present in your life?
The answer to the time conundrum is usually “just until this project is wrapped up”… or something similar. We often knowingly trading quality for quantity…but do so without paying attention to the outcomes of that trade. The rational here is simple, nothing in life is forever and it is easy to point to some beautiful, as yet unmarred future vision where everything falls into place and the big rocks and interdependent conditions magically sort themselves out. Possibly because we tell ourselves “I am a good person” and it is the kind of thing that is “just supposed to happen” according to the mythology of raging optimists and others who are completely in denial about the interdependent conditions at play in life and the impact of the quality of our experience (both in moments and over time). Humans are creatures of habit, if we habitually take on more responsibility then we really have time for (at least within the context of life and fitting in everything that is important) there is nothing stopping us from doing it again, and again, as it’s always worked out in the past and we will keep telling ourselves it is “just until…”. This is part of our autopilot conditioning and if you can see yourself in this example then you are likely paying no more attention to your big rocks then you are to the moments in your day. Or maybe you have found a way to fit it all in, but are enjoying none of it.
This comes as a surprise to many. Planning to get personal time (for fitness or a hobby) along with family needs and work commitments all packaged into a day is a miracle! One that many people perform on a daily basis. But are you enjoying any of it? Or are your days so chock-full of responsibility that nothing is soaked in, enjoyed or treasured? Responsibility is another interdependent condition and if we are not careful it pulverizes big rocks (those things that give us fulfillment and well being through experiencing them, or achieving them) into pebbles and sand. Poof! Feeling trapped or overwhelmed, especially if it is consistent (even persistent) is a good indication that the interdependent conditions in life have taken over your big rocks. Interdependent conditions are ever present, and they take many forms. They can be something as easily understood as the finiteness of time, and as complex as your current level of maturity on a given topic in life (road rage anyone?). Or the developmental stage your children are at (you having to dress them, versus them dressing themselves – makes a difference in the mornings doesn’t it?). From workplace attitudes on risk-taking to the weather, interdependent conditions are all around us, some we control, many we don’t.
Awareness of both what is important in our lives (big rocks) as well as the context in which we are living (interdependent conditions) is key to being able to plan for the right things in life, meeting them with right action. There is an analogy here – in sailing it is about being very aware of what is happening around you moment-by-moment, using what you learn to make small adjustments to your sail, subtle course corrections to parry the wind or whatever force is at play, allowing you to maintain your course. Such is life, which is why it is important to know what your big rocks are and be able to realistically plan for them in an ocean of interdependent conditions. There is a great quote from Publilius Cyrus “Anyone can hold the helm while the sea is calm”. Life is rarely calm; life is supposed to be about constant re-adjustment and re-alignment, but if you don’t know what is important, you’ll never get it. Another quote to think about; “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor” - know we each get better at this with experience and time…but put the big rocks in first.
All of us face the reality that we will have ups and downs in life – no one is surprised or unaware of this. However, from time to time we also experience a period of being “parked in neutral”…and that sometimes has a bigger impact on us then the positive or negative occurrences. Both positive and negative happenings act as catalysts for action, allowing us to identify preferences, and while you may assume that a positive instance nets you a positive outcome (and negative a negative) that is not always the case. As an example, a friend of mine has been offer the opportunity to go on an all expenses paid vacation for a week in the Caribbean – great opportunity, right? Not for him, and he has the unenviable task of letting his family know that he is not able to go due to other circumstances outside of his control. In this case a positive happenstance has had a negative outcome, and he is unhappy that he cannot take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, much more unhappy then if the opportunity had not presented itself at all.
Negative happenings may sometimes be cause for positive outcomes. When faced with adversity we can think of a dozen or more people who made something positive out of that adversity (Nelson Mandela comes to mind, so does someone who has enhanced his or her life ten-fold by rising above the permanent effects of a medical disorder). In the midst of these positive and negative happenings we may not be able to predict the outcome, and more often then not a windfall will net a positive outcome while a bad day builds on itself, sometimes turning into a bad week. But in both happenings there are external instigators literally driving our need to chose how we will respond and, being human, respond we do.
But what about neutral? Sometimes neutral is a very positive thing, like when we know we are too sick to be of any use to anyone, sending in our regrets and turning off our phone for a day or more of uninterrupted sleep and healing. There is something about the “permission” in being temporarily ill (and truly too exhausted to even worry) that allows us to say “I’ll pick it all back up later, for now I rest” – putting all our energies into that rest because it is the only thing we can focus on. That is one example of neutral, but this example demonstrates a choice, one that is time bound one because as soon as we are back to feeling ourselves we quickly re-enter the stream of life. Neutral shows up in other ways as well, as when we find ourselves in a place where there is no imperative to do something in the immediate future. This isn’t a deliberate lack of action, or a withdrawal. It is a reaction to the lack of stimulus, or a need to exercise preference that creates this vacuum where there is either no set timeframe in which to act, or no apparent path to follow (or so many paths to follow that we actually are at a loss for what it is exactly we want to do). As long as there is no rush, we’ll just hang out here not making a decision. This space comes about sometimes through job loss, or an unforeseen circumstance; something perspective altering. It can last for a few hours, a few days, or longer.
Like weightlessness in space, neutral has it’s own “feeling”. It can be hard to describe, but often is characterized by the expression of frustration. As expressed by one individual, “When I was employed I could plan family meals, a birthday party, work on a major project in the evenings and I got everything done effortlessly. Now that I don’t have to be anywhere in particular I can’t even seem to get my small ‘to do’ list done each day!”. We’ve all felt this ambivalence at some point in life, and been confused by it. We know what we are capable of, and there is a will to do it, until there isn’t the need to make a choice between what will and will not get done in a given time frame…and as a consequence (sometimes) nothing gets done.
This is different then the context of staying in one’s pajamas all day, which is a sign of withdrawal. Neutral is ordinary people getting up each morning as they usually to do to face the day and then quickly losing the intrinsic motivation to get something done because there is no real rush, or need, to do it today. Neutral also presents itself for people who are at a cross road in life, either through retirement, or experiencing the need to re-think some things and taking the time to do that. Here neutral sometimes presents itself as “everything looks good, and nothing looks good”. From hobbies to careers you can get excited about something, but as you head into looking into it more deeply (in preparation to execute on it) all the wind disappears and your sails collapse leaving you still on the water, and you don’t know why. Many people who have experienced this neutral place use phrases like “untethered”, “can’t find my footing”, “scattered”. You get the idea, you’ve probably had this feeling; it can be very frustrating.
We don’t get stuck in neutral solely because of an external factor, we get stuck in neutral because there is an imbalance in our available range of options. On the surface having the time needed to let us “figure stuff out” seems to be the optimal way to approach decisions, especially those involving life changes. It is a gift (one that we may have given to ourselves or was thrust upon us through circumstance), but what we may find when we get all this time and space is our need to make decisions, to identify preferences, is imbalanced. As with the example at the start, being “choice-less” due to circumstance signals an imbalance in our preferences (we can’t exercise our preference), but so too does having a great wide field of boundless time and options (too many options to determine preference). As humans we work much better where there is a balance, when we have a context that allows us to make a choice between option A or option B. What is optimal is not the time to make a choice, but having optimal options to choose from. The path out of neutral is curiosity and discernment, guiding you to identify those options, understanding why they are preferred options, and then creating the environment where you are in a position (possibly even having an imperative) to make a choice. As Dan Gilbert puts forward in his TEDTalk “The Surprising Science of Happiness” there is unanticipated joy in being totally stuck – it gives us the imperative to have to make a choice and this makes us happy. Enjoy your choices in life.
To learn more about this phenomenon, and how it impacts our happiness, take a look at this TEDTalk from Dan Gilbert “The Surprising Science of Happiness”. http://www.ted.com/playlists/171/the_most_popular_talks_of_all?gclid=CKeAiIDp78oCFQoNaQodNkYG9g