Previously I wrote about the time a few years back, when my wife and I decided to stop procrastinating and did one of those “responsible adult” things by contacting a few professionals to make sure our family affairs were in good order. However, we ended up walking away from those professionals with a whole bunch of questions and confusion and a lot less of answers and clarity.
What is your plan? What are your goals? Where are you headed in life? Why are you headed there? These are some of the questions that they raised, and indeed they were (still are) great questions.
Without a single clue where to even begin tackling them, I came up with a relatively simple first step: I will review my schedule and allocate an hour each week to make some space for myself and my thoughts and then use that time to chip away at these things. In the process of doing so, I ended up stumbling into one of my first discoveries: personal reflection and the crazy benefits it can bring when it becomes a habit.
Having that one hour a week to sit down and think about how the previous week unfolded, what I’ve accomplished and did not accomplish, compare that to what I was aiming to achieve and then plan the following week, gave me a very delicious taste of clarity and control, at least around the more immediate, short- to medium-term things in life. In fact, I enjoyed the experiences of weekly reflection so much that I put the existential topics of “why are we here” on hold for a good chunk of a year and instead focused on more practical things, like establishing an exercise routine, making sure my family has a great summer and getting rid of some habits that were not serving me.
Then at the end of 2017, we were once again visiting my in-laws for Christmas, and being away from the daily routine, work, home and personal projects, I ended up with plenty of time for thinking, more so than the typical one hour per week. And it was during this time that the existential itch for some answers and clarity around the greater, deeper topics came back to the forefront of my mind. I simmered and stewed on these thoughts over the holidays and ended up coming back home with a renewed enthusiasm and a sense of determination to make a real dent in the upcoming year.
Before proceeding further, I’d like to warn the reader that this blog post doesn’t really have a clear, consistent message. In fact, if you keep reading and don’t get a sense that I’m going around in circles, you are probably not paying enough attention. I’m writing this to...
And... back to the beginning of 2018...
Having come back from the holidays, I still had no clarity on where I was headed, how I was getting there or where to begin. So just like before, the first few weeks were spent doing some loose exploring and meandering of various topics. Then one day I got to thinking about Stephen Covey and his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and a thought came to me: I’m a workaholic; maybe I should stop being one.
In his book, when describing Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind, Covey mentioned how different people have different centers. Besides my all-time favorite The Work Center, other centers include family, children, money, status, pleasure, and religion. The key is that each of these centers ends up being a focal point and source from which everything including safety, fulfillment and happiness for a given individual stem from. While all these things have importance, being centered solely around any of them results in an individually becoming overly focused on only a small aspect of their life, and worse yet, an aspect they may not even have full control over.
Covey sets out a proposition that a better center that we should all strive toward is one that is based on principles. In his view, this is the only center that allows us to take a step back, look at the wider view of the world and our lives and make decisions such that our actions maximize the impact on everything that’s important to us, not just a single aspect. This would encompass everything including family, children, money, status, pleasure, religion and work.
And so... with no other alternatives to dig deeper into, I set out to find my principles.
What Google has to say about principles...
What are principles? Before an individual can find the principles which are important to them, it would behoove one to actually understand what principles are. I didn’t (not sure if I fully understand them today either). Having spent some time reading up on this topic, the best I came away with is that the principles are a set of rules that a person could establish for themselves in order to live their life and act in a way that supports their core values. Some see principles as the natural laws that concern human behavior and govern our interactions with each other. Given what we choose to do, the principles define the final outcomes and consequences of our actions.
Therefore, the principles that one should focus on would be those which would help that individual make decisions that result in maximizing an impact on what’s important to them. Consequently, it seems that it is impossible to come up with a set of principles without first understanding what is ultimately important to oneself. And... those would be values.
What are my values? No idea. How do I find those? No clue.
Hmm. Back to Google...
Apparently, according to a bunch of smart people, the core values are already in us; part of us. They highlight what is most important to us and fundamentally represent who we are. However, while all of us have core values and possibly even feel that we kind of know what they are, not many of us can explicitly identify and articulate them. I certainly could not.
This is where I took a bit of a detour on the journey. I spent a few reflection sessions attempting to think through what are some of the things which I feel are important to me and very quickly “being healthy” bubbled up to the top of my mind. It did so because recently, having taken control of my eating, sleeping and exercise habits, I started to feel that I was actually healthy for the first time in my entire adult life. It felt great.
Maybe being healthy is my core value, certainly it feels like something that should be important to me. What if I was to approach being healthy proactively and intentionally? What does it even mean “to be healthy?”
Hmm. Back to Google...
What is health and wellbeing? (...and on that note, what did people do before Google and the Internet?) Obviously physical health, how you feel in your own body is part of wellbeing. But as it turns out, there are several other aspects to being healthy, and many people/organizations have gone through great lengths to define and systematize that.
There were multiple weeks of processing the topic of health and wellbeing, which I also wrote about a little while back. As I was doing that, one of the dimensions, Spiritual Health, jumped out at me. I’ve never considered myself spiritual or religious but the description made me pause and think:
Spiritual Health -- Expanding a sense of purpose and meaning in life
And here’s the funny/sad thing: up until that point in my life, I’ve never even considered that anything we (i.e. humans) do has a purpose or meaning. I certainly have never felt like I had, or even needed that. But here I just spent reading ~12 different wellness websites and across the board they are all saying that a healthy person does live their life with a sense of purpose and meaning.
What would that be like? How do you get that?
Hmm. Back to Google…
On a positive note, there is no shortage of websites that describe various methods and tools to help one find a purpose and meaning in life. Unfortunately, none of those websites will do the work for you and the ultimate question, “Why am I on this planet?” is just not an easy question. In fact it is a pain in the behind. It requires thinking and a lot of it.
Many more weeks later, while reading through various articles and blog posts, I came across Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which wasn’t the first time. Stephen Covey’s 7 habits, which set this entire train in motion, also mentions Victor Frankl when describing the very first habit, Be Proactive. It talks about recognizing, as Frankl did, that between the external stimuli and the response, unlike other animals who simply react, human beings have a gap. When we recognize it, in that gap is our freedom. In that gap is where we can always think and choose what our next action will be.
Considering the topic of the week, it seemed it was a good time to pick up and read Victor Frankl.
It is not a happy book. Frankl spent three and a half years of his life in Nazi concentration camps and he wrote the book as soon as he was able to after being liberated (in something like 9 days?). His is an incredible story of survival and perseverance of human spirit. According to Wikipedia, this book made the list of "the ten most influential books in the United States." In the first part, Frankl talks about his own direct experience in the camps. In the second part, he takes a step back to talk about Logotherapy and his own professional psychologist views on the human mind, how it works and what it is capable of.
There’s a passage in the second part of the book, that I found somewhat curious and amusing:
Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days. Now they often refuse to be handed over to a clergyman and instead confront the doctor with questions such as, “What is the meaning of my life?”
For Frankl, “nowadays” was 70 years ago, and I could be wrong, maybe it’s just me, but I think since then our society has continued to move further and further away from spirituality. This was also a second data point mentioning spirituality that I came across in the span of a few months. Together these two data points will come intertwining back but not for a while.
This story is now somewhere in May of 2018 and it feels like I’m onto something worth continuing to pursue.
What is a purposeful life? How do you live with a sense of meaning?
For thousands of years, countless philosophers, religious leaders, professors and amateur bloggers have written multitude of books, papers, articles and stone tablets attempting to tackle these very questions. As far as I’m aware, there are no simple answers. However, there are various approaches, perspectives and schools of thought. We can read through all of them and reflect on what resonates with us and what doesn’t, but ultimately, each individual has to find/make their own meaning and purpose, and some can spend entire lifetime just reading all those texts. Others will not even bother to begin.
After a few months (arguably a very short time, but hey, got to start somewhere) of my own reflection and contemplation on the topic of meaning and purpose, the approach that spoke to me the clearest was this: Life is NOT about a destination. It is NOT about attaining a goal or reaching a place. Rather the purpose is (maybe) in the ever-evolving and unfolding flow itself. For me to live a meaningful life, I would need a deep understanding of what is meaningful to me. If I manage to develop this understanding and then align the things I do every day, week, year, decade with the things that I find meaningful and important, I might be able to develop a sense of purpose. At least that’s what it says on the internet.
So what is meaningful and important? Well... those would be the core values.
At this point a reader who a) made this far down the page and b) is paying attention will realize that we’ve just gone full circle. Yep, it happened. Fortunately/unfortunately that’s part of the experience that many of us cannot escape and I certainly didn’t. Life is messy and it ain’t a straight path, and sometimes you will walk around in circles.
For the sake of not making this post any longer, I will draw a line in the sand here. Having wandered around for a bit, I have gotten to my own personal realization that everything begins with core values. For the next 4-5 months, this is where I put most of my attention, but that story will have to wait till a future post.