What you can do today to craft “a life that matters”

At some point we come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.”

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. She posted this past May that people who define their identity and self-worth by their educational and career achievements are likely to ride an emotional roller coaster that sounds almost like manic depression: “When they succeeded, their lives felt meaningful, and they were happy. But when they failed or struggled, the only thing that gave their lives value was gone—and so they fell into despair, and became convinced they were worthless.”

Emily Esfahani Smith
Emily Esfahani Smith

She notes, rightly to my mind, that at some point we can/should/must come to the realization that success in life isn’t about career or material acquisitions, but “about being a good, wise, and generous human being.” That’s a bit hard to absorb and incorporate at the moment, saddled as we are with national leadership that is anything but good, wise and generous. But maybe our national circumstances make it that much more important.

Like a lot of thinking people (okay, that was a snipe), I have found myself consumed on a daily basis with the outrageous behavior coming out of Washington and more specifically, the White House. It’s bewildering, this staggeringly abrupt shift from the high to the low ground, and rejection of anything and everything that makes sense. I can only hope that this too will pass, if not for me then at least for my children’s benefit.

Magritte - Decalcomania

But the point about being good, wise, and generous is well taken and reinforced by contrast.

Esfahani Smith goes on to cite 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson about the three stages of a meaningful life, and the need to “master a certain value or skill at each stage of their development”: developing a sense of identity in adolescence; forging intimate bonds as young adults; feeding a sense of accomplishment and purpose in adulthood, and helping our children and others realize their potential in later life. Erikson relates all of this to the Hindu concept of “the maintenance of the world.”

Maintenance of the World

“In other words, you’re a successful adult when you outgrow the natural selfishness of your childhood and youth—when you realize that life is no longer about charting your own course, but about helping others, whether it’s by raising children, mentoring colleagues, or creating something new and useful for the world.”

Hourglass
There’s a natural evolution as the number of days ahead become fewer than the number behind. No matter how accomplished or not, rich or poor, lucky in love or lonely any of us is, it seems most of us turn our attention to legacy. Esfahani gives what is to my mind a terrible example (that I’m pretty sure I’ve come across before) of a self-absorbed Harvard Business graduate-entrepreneur named Anthony Tjan who discovers, when he runs into the brick wall of the dot.com bust in 2000, that the world just might not be only about him. His dreams shattered, “he felt humiliated and demoralized.” Poor baby. His rebirth is to understand that true success requires he use his immense innate talents and entitlement “in the service of a higher calling” – so he goes into investment banking and funds a nail salon. To simultaneously solve the problem of underpaid manicurists and unhygienic customer experience. I’m all for “pursuing wholeness” but WTF.

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Okay, that’s pretty cynical. By way of explanation, I should note that I’ve been involved in pharmaceuticals and medical devices my whole career and I tend to overweight service to humanity when I look at the value of entrepreneurial initiatives. But really…the guy is probably in his mid-to-late thirties and the whole thing sounds just a bit too neatly wrapped up in the same self-absorbed ball. He’s hardly Gandhi. (Who was also probably, at least in part motivated by his own need for gratification.)

Talking in his sleep
“Stasis is deadly”

I talk in my sleep, pretty regularly by my wife’s report, and she is endlessly amused (ask her) about the night I proclaimed that “stasis is deadly.” In Erikson’s model, he defines stagnation – which I suppose is what my sleeping mind thought of as stasis – as “the gnawing sense that your life is meaningless because you are useless and unneeded.” This isn’t a phenomenon of age. We all need affirmation, and we all need something to do that makes us feel productive. I don’t believe that diminishes over time, and I think that’s the reason change is such a struggle. For much of my life I was very much a change junkie; if things weren’t happening, if I weren’t causing them to happen, I was somewhat adrift. It’s an odd sensation to not feel that so strongly anymore, but I suspect it’s a healthier state of being.

A healthier state of being

I have evidence. After I sold my company in the early 2000’s, I could have retired but experienced a profound need for what Erikson described as “a sort of confirmation of my usefulness.” (I see the same thing in retired executives and other entrepreneurs who have sold their companies – it’s partly needing continued intellectual stimulation but I think it has more to do with the obnoxious voice in our heads that continually calculates our value. Erikson says it’s the same for someone who is involuntarily unemployed, and feels a sense of uselessness and despair, compounded by the inability to provide for the people we care about. His conclusion is profound: unemployment, voluntary or involuntary, isn’t just about economics, but an existential issue. “When people don’t feel they have something worthwhile to do, they flounder.”

Hamlet

Stuff doesn’t fill the void. And for me, based on experience of the last 8 or 10 years, neither does filling the time. I got into education after I sold my company because I love the classroom, I like providing value to other people, and it gave me a constant impetus to get things done. Being effective in class requires preparation, and puts you under healthy deadline pressure. That it also elevates the urgent over the important probably doesn’t differentiate it from any other occupation.

But for me, the target of my efforts needs to be solid, and the results fruitful. Frankly, there are a whole lot of students in college who don’t belong there, who are filling the schools’ seats and coffers with their own version of “I don’t have anything better to do” or “I can continue to play for another 4 years before life gets real.”

A lot of them aren’t much interested in learning, they find challenging work a pain in the butt, and they’re more likely to spend time negotiating their grade at the end of the term than earning it during the semester. Teaching has been both satisfying and aggravating, and I had  reached the conclusion after a particularly awful slew of papers last term that teaching wasn’t filling my needs.  Thankfully, I found a university recently that seems to be bucking the trend, and the days I’m there are graced by interaction with courteous, engaged and overall nice millennials.

Of course, there’s always material stuff. Selling a company gives you the capability to acquire way more of it than you could ever possibly need, and there’s a certain pleasure in researching, acquiring and playing with all sorts of adult toys (no, I don’t mean that kind though they certainly could qualify). But at the end of the day I find the chase more interesting than the owning, and it’s consequently pretty transient.

To the lighthouse

I’ve always looked toward the lighthouse rather than the water immediately in front of me as my way to the next shore. It’s a pretty universal observation but no less unique for that in the personal experiencing: the thing that fills my horizon these days is the pleasure of seeing the dent I’ve made in the world: my kids, my wife, people whose careers I’ve influenced, the prospect of grandchildren…

People around me don’t understand when I bitch about feeling unfulfilled in accomplishments. What they don’t understand is that it’s not about what you‘ve already done, but about having something useful to look forward to. That’s going to be a different set of activities and aspirations for each of us. Some of it is scaffolding, part of it is keeping the mind and joints moving, and some of it is no doubt approbation. But the secret, I think, to being relevant to ourselves is to be relevant to the people in our lives who really matter.  And that’s for the long haul…

 

Hyperloop

Most of us, most often take the safer route, but we do it at a cost: “…our biggest regrets are not our actions but our inactions – the chances not taken.”

To explain the psychology of risk, I asked my college students yesterday to commit an hypothetical investment of $10,000, to either: an opportunity with a 5% probability of turning into $100,000, or one with an 80% chance of turning into $20,000. They could keep the difference, but had to give back the original $10,000.

10kThe choice I gave them was between a profoundly risky situation with a spectacular result, and one that carries a lot less risk but yields a less impressive return. If you flip it around and look at the risk side of the equation, they were weighing a 95% chance vs. a 20% chance of losing the initial $10,000.

In real life, we do this all the time. We choose between getting less than 1% interest on our savings with no risk to the principal and the possibility of earning five or ten times that annually in the stock market, the latter carrying the risk of losing our initial investment. We choose between taking the faster route to our destination on the interstate, with the likelihood (but not certainty on a busy weekend) we’ll get there faster, even knowing that taking the scenic route is more interesting and offers the chance of getting happily, temporarily lost. We choose a mate who might be easier to get along with over the firecracker who will drive us crazy (in both a good and bad way).

risk-reward

One of my students astutely observed that it’s where you are in life that determines the value and the meaning of the reward, because it directly influences how much risk we’re willing to tolerate. When I said they’d have to put up their own money, everyone was solidly in the 80% risk camp, but the same smart kid suggested this was because they are students and $10,000 is a lot of money at this point in their lives…and noted further that investors with a lot of money probably don’t see the world the same way. When I changed the equation to the possibility of getting a million dollars out of an initial investment of $100,000, several students moved over from the classes’ prior, unanimous decision to take the lower risk option.

There’s endless advice out there about following “the road not taken,” but you’ve got to factor in this matter of where you are in your life. Most of us, most often take the safer route, but (as Frost suggests in the poem that originated the phrase) we do it at a cost. The “safe” savings account at the bank pays so little interest it actually loses money to inflation. The “safe” corporate career path runs into the brick wall of “downsizing.” The “safe” interstate route misses all the peculiar, amazing sights and people we’d encounter along the byways. The “safe” relationship gets pretty dull over time.

calvin_relationship_conflict

As an inveterate glass-half-empty guy, I’d like to endorse another famous dictum, eloquently expressed by Adam Grant that “our biggest regrets are not our actions but our inactions – the chances not taken.” In other words, we are more likely to regret the harder/scarier things we did not try than the easier things we did. Previous generations, including I think boomers, bought into the idea of a traditional and linear progression: from high school to college to career, from infatuation to engagement to marriage to children, from your parent’s house to a crappy shared apartment to renting or buying your own place.

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Have a look at any given group of millenials: this no longer computes, the sequence is all over the place. Kids first marriage later, group hang outs instead of steady dates, renting or boomeranging back home instead of taking on a mortgage, building a career with a single employer to a half dozen jobs before age 30. I don’t know if this is about a fundamental shift in the culture or individual risk tolerance, but it is different. Ask a roomful of college business students who wants to start their own business and it’s most of them. Ask the same room who wants to pay their dues on the road to the success and personal satisfaction of owning that business and it’s virtually none of them. They don’t and won’t necessarily process this as risk tolerance so much as about impatience to achieve their birthright. But I’d suggest it has an awful lot to do with wanting to upend the traditional equation and separate risk from reward.

BoardMeeting1
Last Century

Elon Musk, the guy who used his gigantic windfall from PayPal to start Tesla and Space-X and is now pursuing the possibly crazy concept of hyperloop transportation, is at the extreme end of the risk-taking spectrum. He’s the ultimate entrepreneur, willing – no compelled – to risk it all because of the absolute surety that he can accomplish anything by force of will.

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This Century

Most of us live at the quieter end of the spectrum, where we have a certain tolerance for taking chances, but once we’ve achieve security in our finances or career or relationships, prefer if given the choice to remain on the same path. I know a guy who turned down a job offer that carried a $30,000 increase in salary for reasons known only to him, but which I suspect had to do with the perceived risk of stepping outside the familiar.

I’m the last one to think you can do much about human nature in general, or about personal predisposition in particular. We are what we are, and change, if it occurs tends to be evolutionary rather than sudden. Most of the time I’m a lot less intense than I used to be, but push the right button and I’m rapidly, if less persistently the same impatient guy who demands destiny bends to his will rather than the other way around.

resistance-to-change

I used to be a change junkie, and while change continues to stimulate my synapses, I’m troubled about a creeping resistance that is actually a reversion to childhood form. I like new experiences but have to overcome the hump – for example, I’ve wanted to travel “down under” for a long time but tempered the impulse by thinking about 22+ hours on a plane, even if it is decorated with koala bears. I hate the occasional squabbles of any long-term relationship but know the true center from my underlying feelings and understand that I need to be with someone wicked smart and challenging.

So what and where is the right balance? There’s no generalizable answer, but I know this and return to it as an axiom to live by: I once knew a smart and accomplished woman who lived well, traveled the world, stepped into and ran a business with no formal training, and had in her forties a succession of successful and interesting suitors. Whatever it was, maybe just too much angst, maybe that encroaching resistance to change, maybe just a desire for some domestic calm, she ultimately remarried, to someone whose inability to deal with the world ultimately reduced her world to four walls of an apartment. It cost her everything to accommodate him, and while it affected other people that was her choice to make. But to my mind it was a bad one and it is my reference point when I feel I’m becoming too still to do something.   There’s no perfect balance point for risk and reward, but we probably all have a variety of object lessons in what not to do. Those lessons have provided me with a roadmap, and it’s served me pretty well in having the kind of life I wanted.

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