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Like a lot of you, some of my big ‘life’ questions resurface towards the end of every year. You might notice yours on the drive to work or during your morning shower. Mine appear on my morning walk or when I’m out for a drive. Lately, there have been two questions vying for attention.
Both popped up last week after I walked Tommy to school. In seeking to answer them, though, I noticed that both are something of a trap, eliciting reflex responses instead of truthful ones. The questions are:
1. What do I value?
2. Who am I living for?
They’re simple little questions; less than five words each, yet the answers can have a profound effect on our lives. If we’re not asking them and then thinking deliberately about the answers, life will hand us a bunch of shitty ones like:
What do I value?
- Buying a new truck
- Getting that promotion
- Getting more followers
- Being admired/respected/envied
- Being fashionable
- Looking like I’ve made it
Who am I living for?
- My boss
- My followers
- Big corporations
- Marketing agencies
- My fragile little ego
I have a habit of writing long posts, so let’s just look at the first question today. We can tackle the second one some other time.
Anyone who’s been around me a while knows that I’m someone who hates small talk, abhors group-think and lives by the mantra, “The majority is usually wrong.” So when I’m tempted to answer a question quickly because it’s easy or it’s obvious, I have to collect myself and say, ‘Hang on, is that the real answer?’
Questions That’ll Change Your Life
Just this morning, I finished reading a book written by an amazing friend of mine. I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve read it as he’s continued to refine and develop the content. It’s called ‘Happiness – The Ultimate Goal’, and in it, Jon asks some simple but powerful questions. The most profound but equally deceptive one is, “Who am I?”
Like “What do I value?”, it’s a question that triggers a catalogue of reflex responses. And likewise, most of them are incorrect, or only half-truths.
For example, the answers many of us would give to my first question (“What do I value?”) would be:
- My family
- My health
- My career
- My home
- Honestly and integrity
- The environment
- Political stability
- The freedom to love who I want
- The choice to have a child or not
- The freedom to choose my religion
- The freedom to choose my sexuality
- The freedom to become all that I can
Jon says that “Who am I?” is our most persistent question. It’s something we ask (consciously and unconsciously) throughout the day and it directs everything we do.
In my opinion, “Who am I?” and “What do I value?” seek to deliver three things:
- Meaning – what actually matters
- Purpose – what I should be doing
- Happiness – in love with life
If we know what we value; and if we can truly grasp who we are, we can then know what to do, what to think and how to respond to any situation. We’re able to face the world and all its complexity and contradiction with confidence and grace. We can become the cause in our own lives.
Spotting Bullsh*t Values
So the question becomes, how do we prove to ourselves that we really do value something? The answer is, we devote a sizeable portion of our time or money (which is usually an exchange of time) to it, that’s how.
It’s not how often we think about it. It’s not what we say about it. It’s not even what we believe about it. Ultimately, it’s how much focused time and attention we give to it that determines something’s value to us.
For example, it’s one thing to care about a 16-year-old girl or 60-year-old man sitting homeless on the corner of Bourke and Russell. It’s another thing to stop for a moment, offer them some words of comfort and then reach into your pocket and give them as much of your money (time) as you can.
Here’s another. Both America and the UK are more openly divided now than they’ve been in years. As a citizen, this might concern you, and perhaps you have strong views about it. However, if you don’t get out and vote, or talk to people or organise – perhaps you don’t value your country’s political fate as much as you think. As Elie Wiesel said,
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I could go right down the list above and ask how much time, money and attention you give to the things you value, and I bet some would be questionable.
I know we all have work to do, bills to pay, clothes to fold and dishwashers to stack. There’s stuff that has to get done, and there are only 24 hours in a day. But we all have the same 24 hours; and just like money, it’s up to us where we spend them. Almost everything we do is a choice. We might not like the outcomes, but the choices remain.
What you value determines what you do.
I realised many years ago that time was my most precious and finite asset. From that moment, I made the decision to make decisions deliberately. Here’s how it’s played out so far.
- I don’t spend time with anyone I don’t want to. I don’t care who they are, the occasion, or what protocol I’m ‘breaking’ – if I don’t value their company, I don’t give them my time.
- I don’t go to meetings unless I believe it’s the best way to produce the desired outcome. Most meetings are a waste of time and betray the reasons we give for having them.
- I don’t commute because I’d rather see my kids before and after school and because my most productive times shouldn’t be wasted in traffic.
- I value autonomy, flexibility and freedom over status, job title or recognition. You’ll notice I don’t mention money, here. That’s because freedom and money are not mutually exclusive. You can reject corporate protocols and linear career paths and actually make more money.
- I work how, where and when I like – not to be precious or vexatious – but because it produces the best outcomes. I’m more energised, creative, productive and happy. It works.
- When Friday’s forecast is a sunny 23°C / 73.4°F, I know I can take my convertible into the hills and work beside a lake. That’s priceless.
It’s only a short life, and as far as I know, a one-time deal. So why cede control to someone else? I’d rather have agency over my wellbeing than get tossed around like a leaf in the wind.
Most people live by circumstance, not conviction. They lead lives of quiet desperation. Making deliberate decisions about where and with whom we spend our time is life-changing. It’s the ONE thing we must control if we want meaning, purpose and happiness.
So what do you value?
The Ultimate Goal – A Dedication to Jon James
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