How Will You Measure Your Life?
So I told my boss about Willa’s condition. She was going to find out eventually. I tried to put myself in her shoes in receiving news like this. And therefore I didn’t expect much in a response. It has to be one of the toughest tasks as a leader to let down your guard and show compassion for your people that extends well-beyond the daily hustle. They don’t teach this stuff in business school. Very few leaders get it. I could write a book about all the ways leaders fail at this essential skill all too often. On this day, however, my boss held her own.
As for me, I could not have been more brutally honest about how this whole thing has impacted me. I did not have positive things to say about so many of the petty issues (to be politically correct) that we get caught up in within our work culture. I mean, we literally lose sleep over some of these things. If you are like me, you wake up before your alarm goes off with your mind racing 90 miles an hour. About what? Probably responding to some email that adds little bottom line value, if any. But hey, at least everyone knows you are responsive. Oh and what a great communicator you are. Shouldn’t we be embarrassed by that? That anxiety. That stress. In any event, my boss listened. Too her credit, she had the emotional intelligence to realize there’s nothing comforting worth saying in that moment. Instead, she suggested I read a book – How Will You Measure Your Life? Coming on heels of news about rare diseases and early exits, this seemed like a fair idea. So I did. Not a bad read.
I have to say, though, I did not get out of it what I expected. Maybe I thought it would make me want to quit my job, move to the coast, and start building wooden boats for local fishermen. I don’t know. Wrong expectations. Anyway. The basic take home was this: take the time to be intentional about defining your life’s purpose. If you don’t do it, it will get defined for you by someone or something else. And you may wake up one day and not like what you stand for. The author, Clayton Christensen, takes this a step further by providing guidance on how to actually achieve that purpose through some straightforward principles around commitment and developing a system to measure your actual performance (read: how you behave in real life) against that stated purpose.
Ok. So I suppose I can get on board with that. I mean, how many of us are floating right now? Floating from one moment to the next, one meeting to the next, one deadline to the next, one weekend to the next, one mortgage payment to the next, and so on. We all talk about how “busy” we are, but what does that really mean? Perhaps it’s a cultural norm these days to be busy because, if you’re not, who are you really? Do you even have a life?
I have strong feelings about this word – busy. And they are not positive. I believe busyness is a form of laziness. It means we are too lazy to establish priorities for ourselves. And then we’re either too lazy, or worse too cowardly, to say no to the things in our lives that are inconsistent with those priorities.
I’m not the first person to draw this conclusion. In his book, We Learn Nothing, Tim Kreider describes this concept of cultural busyness as a clear “boast disguised as a complaint”. In other words, we pretend to moan about how busy we are, but deep down, we’re really puffing ourselves up. Put another way, he calls it “an institutional self-delusion”. Kreider’s conversation on this topic is brilliant. Here’s a few snippets:
- This frantic, self congratulatory busyness is a distinctly upscale affliction. Notice it isn’t people pulling back-to-back shifts in the ICU, [or people] holding down three minimum wage jobs they have to commute to by bus who need to tell you how busy they are; what these people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s most often said by people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they are addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
- This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: Obviusly your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are busy, completely booked, and in demand every hour of the day. All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center of our lives.
- Even though my own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since you can always make more money. And I’ve always understood that the best investment in my limited time on earth is to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder, write more, and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more round of Delanceys with Nick, another long late night talk with Lauren, one last good hard laugh with Harold. Life is too short to be busy.
Whew. Can I get an Amen?
Back to Christensen and How Will You Measure Your Life, I would argue that most of us are too busy because we haven’t overtly defined a distinct purpose for ourselves, that we are committed to, and for which we have a system in place to keep us focused on that purpose in everything we do. This book of course doesn’t talk about busyness specifically. It focuses on other perils and pitfalls in our decision-making that lead us to measure life by the wrong metric. I just happened to hear something else when I read it: busy equals lazy, busy lacks purpose, and busy at the expense of your life. So can we all agree to just stop talking about how “busy” we are?
Now, because I’m in utter experimental mode, I took Christensen at his word. And in the continued spirit of authenticity and transparency, I’ll share it with you. Why not, right?
My purpose is to become:
- A man who is kind, honest, and authentically filled with gratitude and love
- A man who is dedicated to inspiring others and guiding them to experience those things for themselves
- A man of genuine faith
I admit. I feel a bit awkward or cliche putting that down, but when you boil it all down, that’s what it comes down to for me. Now I just have to figure out how to truly commit to this objective and measure it. Christensen warns that these last two steps are the hardest.
Using More Complex Sentences
This whole bit about defining your purpose is actually not what I enjoyed most about Christensen’s book, however. The research throughout about parenting and being a better spouse were far more interesting. Which brings me back to Willa.
Did you know the number of words you say to your child within the first two and a half years of life, and particularly within the first year, can alter their cognitive development trajectory for the rest of their lives? And it’s not just about the amount of words you say, it’s about the complexity of the conversation as well. Perhaps this is intuitive to many of you, but Christensen refers to a study by Todd Risley and Betty Hart that proves this out. This of course got me thinking about how we talk to both of our children, but mostly about how we talk to our child who is starting from a cognitively disadvantaged position. The truth. We don’t talk to her the same way. Because we’re playing down to her cognitive ability. Which got me thinking further, is this one of those self-fulfilling prophecies?
Let me stop there and say this. I’m keenly aware of the fact that I’m at risk of publishing yet another blog post that is dangerously long and too much to digest during our busy, daily hustle and bustle (despite the discussion above on busyness, no pun intended). Yet I desperately want to share a more detailed excerpt from this study, unpack it a bit further, and raise some questions related to cognitively disadvantaged children. But alas, I promised my wife that this post would be a shorter read and less emotionally pungent. In an attempt to stay true to that promise, I’ll ask you to stay tuned.
Barring any unforeseen events, more to come on this.