Choices for the New Year
Published on Tuesday, January 1, 2013
I was recently asked to consider the question of what I would do differently if I could start over, at a younger age, yet with the knowledge I have now. Would I do anything differently?
I couldn’t answer the question initially as being the logical minded person that I am, I was unable to wrap my head around the reality of the idea of ‘If I’d only known then what I know now…’ with the implication that somehow my life and work would have turned out differently.
There are of course many ‘what ifs’ that I have lived through, as have all of us. Yet I don’t ever imagine going back in time and reliving those events differently.
What I do imagine is going forward, and living my life better. As I have tried to do this throughout my life, one step that has always helped me to stay reasonably on track is seeking out the advice of others. People wiser then myself have often shared with me some of their life lessons, either as their own stories, or as advice specifically for me based on their own experience and what they know of me.
How does someone become wise? I think that happens when we live our lives, learn from events, and find a way to go forward that is more beneficial to others, and to ourselves, than what came previously. The wise people I sought out were often older than me, meaning they’d had more time and more experiences to learn from. Yet not always. The point is that talking with other people, listening to their stories, taking lessons from their experiences, can be a rich and fulfilling way of helping yourself to go forward and live your own life better.
So in the spirit of living my life better, and of helping others on their own journeys, I’ve thought of a few things that I know or believe that I’d like to share. Perhaps these ‘lessons learned’ will help you to go forward more successfully and move through some of the stumbling blocks that I did with a bit more grace.
First, go forward in life with confidence that what you have chosen to do is valuable to the world at large and important to you personally. In order to do this I believe that it is important to think about what you are doing and why. Regardless the specific task, is the work that you are contributing to – building a product, providing a service, raising a child, supporting an elder, producing works of art – adding value to the world and filling your life with value?
On balance, does the time you spend in the world produce more that is positive than neutral, and hopefully very little that would be considered negative? If not then perhaps it is time to think about how to shift your activities to do more that is positive.
Second, take the time needed to choose wisely – pursue a career or way of life at a reasonable pace that enables you to enjoy being alive. This can be difficult for people who accumulate bills to pay, student loans to pay off, or desires for things that require lots of money. Yet as I have become older this lesson has been reinforced to me time and again, and I cannot emphasize it enough.
Slow down or put off the accumulation of debt so that you can have the freedom to move and pursue interesting options. Take longer to finish college than what is traditional, if that extra time means you can work and pay your way, or at least minimize the debt you accumulate. You will be gaining work experience, which can make you more attractive as a job applicant or give you ideas for starting your own business. Without a significant debt burden, you will also have greater freedom when the time comes to make choices.
If you take the time early in your life and work to prepare yourself to make valuable contributions as you gain more experience then when special opportunities or great challenges arrive you will have more resources available, personal and financial, to help you move forward.
Third, to the best of your ability treat people with respect and fairness, without manipulation or deception, so that you are always able to look people in the eye.
Actions that convey respect and fairness can be quite challenging to put into practice as they often rely on sharing. While I believe that human beings are built to cooperate and share – that these qualities insure our survival – I also believe that a self-protection instinct can kick in at times that triggers a desire to acquire more than is needed to live a good life.
I think that one of the great challenges of young adulthood is mastering the tension between the survival instinct to acquire things and the deeper knowledge that sharing with others is a better long-term life strategy.
Fourth, in the spirit of hoping that the struggle between survival instinct and deeper knowledge does help you to come out on the side of cooperation and sharing, I urge you to share, in the workplace and in your personal life. Share the joys and burdens of work with your colleagues and co-workers, and when you have the opportunity to do so, share the rewards as well – fairly and equitably.
From my many years of work with people in great workplaces in which relationships are built on trust, I’ve seen again and again the power of shared burdens and shared rewards. Great teams are built on people’s ability to commit to each other and commit to the vision and mission of the organization. When people share in creating their experience at work the vision and mission become a part of their own lives.
Successful trustworthy leaders in great companies do an exceptional job of promoting sharing and cooperation, thus creating an experience at work that is greater than each individual’s contribution. Successful leaders help people to see the benefits of their cooperation and contributions in part by sharing the rewards of the group’s success equitably.
Sharing in your personal life, with friends and family, will garner similar types of benefits yet the rewards will be different. In our personal lives the rewards we receive are mostly emotional and experiential. We learn in our personal lives of the power of human attachment and the importance of caring.
Finally, I encourage everyone to pursue happiness – our time on earth is brief in the grand scheme of things and a bigger car, bigger house or corner office pale in comparison to being happy.
And what is happiness? Well that’s the big question. From my experience, and from watching the lives of others, I can say that happiness comes from being able to live a good life. Happiness does not come easily, and at times the more challenging the experience we’ve gone through the happier we are at the end. Working hard, using our talents and skills, taking on a big challenge – all of this can lead to happiness.
Laughter and smiles can indicate a happy present state of mind, yet deeper happiness comes from something more. Trusting people, working together to accomplish something, taking on a great challenge and finding a way through the chaos – all of these can bring deep happiness to our lives.
A good life is a balanced life - one in which we are able to make valuable contributions to our own lives and the lives of others. Moving at your own pace is important, as is being honest with yourself that you are neither slacking, nor taking more than your fair share. Thinking through what respect and fairness mean will help you to understand what role you can play in this great human experiment, and wise choices will help you to decide how to share your gifts and talents with others.
There is much that is amazing and positive in the world yet there are many, many struggles as well. Lots of people are caught in lives of pain and difficulty. If you do have the freedom to make choices that will make your life better as well as contribute positively to the lives of others then you have been given an incredible gift for this New Year and years to come. You have an opportunity to bring more good into the world.