The Trap of Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness

One of the most common—and costly—traps of living is the trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness. We do it, we tell ourselves, because it’s not practical or “the right time.”

So what happens in the meantime? We endure work without enjoying it. We suffer through the days. We become resigned to the dysfunctions of our work, and habituated to its anxiety and stress. We sacrifice health, family, and dreams for the job. We neglect precious relationships with family and friends with the rationalization that we’ll make up for it later.

We wait. Hmmm….

Waiting for that “Perfect Time”

“People wait. They wait for the elusive day when they’ll finally have enough time (guess what? — you never will), enough education (there’s always more to know), enough money (no matter how much you make, someone will always have more)…. People wait until that fateful day when they wake up and realize that while they were sitting around paying dues, earning their keep, waiting for that elusive ‘perfect time’ their entire life has passed them by.”Richie Norton, The Power of Starting Something Stupid

For some, this means enduring a mediocre or even miserable, stress-filled present on the bet that if we keep grinding it out today (this year… this decade…), we’ll magically arrive in happiness heaven at some point.

Don’t misunderstand: hard work is good. Paying dues can be valuable. Not everybody is blessed with options.

But here’s the reality: If we spend our days deferring our dreams and postponing our happiness, then our life will be, well, one of deferred dreams and postponed happiness. Too often, the dreams and happiness never materialize. We put them off until it’s too late, or we burn up too much time in deferral mode.

Life is too precious and short to wait. It comes with unknown contents and duration. Is it really worth the wait?

According to Emma Seppäla of the Yale School of Management, “This theory of success, the idea that in order to be successful you have to postpone or sacrifice your happiness, is simply false.”

Why Is This So Hard?

Of course, we understand the dangers here conceptually, yet we still end up falling into this trap of waiting, deferring, and postponing. Why?

First, we undervalue ourselves, subconsciously believing we’re so flawed that we’re not yet worthy of happiness. Sometimes, we learn these self-beliefs or worldviews from our family, born in a different time or with a different outlook.

Second, we fear failure. Our brains are wired for it. We submit to our risk aversion. As we mull our decision whether to wait or go for it, we overweight the cost of potential failure while underweighting the value of failure (from what we’ll learn and the pride we’ll feel for having tried) and neglecting altogether the cost of regret (the anguish associated with looking back and wondering about missed chances).

Third, we’re paralyzed by uncertainty about how to venture forth into the murky territory of our hopes and dreams. There are a couple factors at work here:

  • The “paradox of choice” (with anxiety coming from choice overload, causing “analyis paralysis”), as noted by psychologist Barry Schwartz
  • The belief that we have to find the one “perfect idea” and make the one “right choice,” with advance certainty that all will work and that it will go according to plan. (The reality is that it almost never does.)

An important note: postponing happiness also means postponing purpose—one of the most important drivers of a fulfilling life. True happiness comes not just from savoring the simple pleasures but also from connecting with others in deep, reciprocal relationships and contributing to something larger than ourselves, whether a family, neighborhood, organization, community, nation, cause, or planet.

Related Traps

There many related traps resonant with this trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness, including:

  • Drift: getting carried along by time, circumstances, and outside influences—eventually wondering, “How did I get here?”
  • Empty: feeling empty about what we’re doing, without passion or joy
  • Fear: holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • Golden handcuffs: financial or lifestyle choices that inhibit us from doing what we want (for example, being financially tethered to a job that’s not a good fit)
  • Hedonic treadmill: working harder and gaining more wealth or possessions without increasing happiness or fulfillment (a professional hamster wheel)
  • Inertia: sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because the switching costs are high
  • Settle: compromising or settling for “good enough”
  • Sleepwalk: going through the motions of life and feeling “half-awake”

There’s no magic formula for determining the right time to make a change—or how to go about it. But we do know that if we don’t chase our dreams and aspirations, they’ll die a cold and lonely death from neglect. Is that what we want for our lives?

The most important thing, then, is first to decide to avoid that fate and second to get started.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have dreams you’re deferring?
  • What are you postponing?
  • What can you do, starting today, to begin pursuing your aspirations?
  • What are you waiting for?

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, columnist and humorist
  • “Am I doing things that allow me to live the way I want, serve the way I want, and be the parent I want to be? The last thing we wanted to do was live in a way that was talking about tomorrow instead of living it today.” -Stacey Boyd, entrepreneur
  • “There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?” -Warren Buffett, investor
  • “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time.” -Albert Camus
  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
  • “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic
  • “I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? …. You might demand of it, ‘Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?’ The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: ‘Because it’s fun, isn’t it?’ Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth—not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity?” -Elizabeth Gilbert, author and journalist
  • “The way to live our vision on a daily basis is to understand that right now is the only time we have.” -John Hanley
  • “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” -Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author
  • “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” -Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is: not to take the risk.” -Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher
  • “A lot of times we’re driven and limited by perceived risk. But perceived risk is unrelated to actual risk. Real risk is not starting a business you are passionate about. Real risk is staying at a job that isn’t fulfilling; wasting your life.” -Jim Koch, founder, Boston Beer Company
  • “The most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar, tech executive, entrepreneur, and author
  • “If you truly love life, don’t waste time because time is what life is made of.” -Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor, and director
  • “Instead of your heart beats faster, why not you just act faster a bit; instead of just thinking about it, why not do something about it? Poor people fail because of one common behavior: their whole life is about waiting.” -Jack Ma, entrepreneur
  • “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” -Carl Sandburg, poet and biographer
  • “In the time of your life, live.” -William Saroyan, novelist and playwright
  • “It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is—we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.” -Seneca, On the Brevity of Life
  • “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” -Shakespeare
  • “I must change my life, so that I can live it, not wait for it.” -Susan Sontag, writer, philosopher, and teacher
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman
  • “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, English writer, poet, and academic

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think

We humans are social animals. We’re wired to think about our role in the group and about how others think of us. It matters in our families, friendships, and work relationships. We can’t survive and thrive without tending to these relationships.

But there’s also a big trap here. The problem is when we’re so influenced by what others think—or, to be precise, what we think others will think—that it causes us to make choices that won’t serve us well over time. We avoid the short-term pain of a possible loss in status in exchange for the long-term loss of missing out on better things.

This dynamic can cause us to drift away from who we really are and what we really want to do. To drift toward the safety of what others expect. We can lose bits of ourselves as we seek approval from or try to please others.

These are common traps. And painful ones.

“The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what other people think.”C. JoyBell C., writer

To be clear, it’s not that expectations are bad. They’re needed, and they can be helpful in many ways. The problem is becoming addicted to approval or fenced in by others’ expectations.

Haunted by Expectations

I see this again and again—and especially among young people early in their career. As they navigate through the dark and disorienting maze of career options, they’re haunted by the expectations of their parents—and of teachers, coaches, and peers: Be a doctor. Or lawyer. Or architect. Join the family business. Choose a profession. Go for salary and status. Climb the ladder. (Regardless of who you are, what you love, and what you long for.)

There’s a deceptive calculus at work here. The benefits of the approval flowing from those safe and respectable options can turn out to be shallow and fleeting. We can find ourselves in a career filled with things we don’t like—or even resent—and we’ve signed up for about 80,000 hours of it (the average amount of work people do today over a lifetime). So how does that bargain look now?

Meanwhile, there may be other costs: Paperwork. Time sheets. Bureaucracy. Boring meetings. Energy-sapping colleagues. Lousy bosses. All for what?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, lawyer, architect, or whatever, or with joining the family business, or pursuing a traditional career path IF—and here’s the rub—IF it’s a good fit for you. The key is that it’s your choice and that you’ve tried it and found it to be a good fit for you. That it fills you up with energy more often than it drains you.

Of course, not everyone has a choice. Sometimes we’re buried in debt or mired in financial stress and insecurity, or lacking better options. Many people face structural or institutional barriers or biases. But we usually have more choices than we think. It often comes down to our courage and agency, and to our imagination and hustle, despite the obstacles.

My sense is that we tend to overweight the external factors of approval and status early in life, while the intrinsic motivations quietly and steadily grow in importance as we grow older.

Avoiding this trap of getting pushed off course by the expectations winds is especially hard during transitions, because taking a step back to chart a new course summons potent fears of judgment and disappointment from others, though the reality may be that many are excited or even a bit envious about our new adventure (and most probably won’t even notice or think twice).

The Costs of Caring Too Much about What Others Think

When we’re in this mode of being driven by outside expectations, we tend to:

  • have a hard time communicating forthrightly when there’s disagreement or debate
  • struggle with setting boundaries
  • work too much and feel overwhelmed
  • experience anxiety and stress
  • feel resentment
  • avoid doing things that call to us
  • pass up on potential opportunities

The need for achievement-based approval can become a compulsion. We become approval addicts looking for our next hit, and then the next. When does it end?

Life is too precious and short to let others determine our path.

It gets worse: The expectations of others are a terrible guide for deciding what’s right for us in our own particular context. Those expectations can be unrealistic, or even contradictory. What are we supposed to do with that? If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.

By surrendering to the Siren call of people-pleasing, we violate a silent sacred pact with ourselves, denying our nature and denigrating our integrity, leading to a downward spiral of self-doubt and inner turmoil.

Why Is This So Hard?

It’s easy to understand this problem conceptually, harder to self-diagnose because it’s emotionally charged and sometimes subconscious, but very difficult to address properly. Why?

For starters, we’ve been doing this for our whole lives—a tough habit to break. It’s been part of our conditioning as children—seeking the attention and approval of our parents and striving again and again to demonstrate our worth. When we did what was expected, we basked in soothing acceptance.

Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards of this stimulus-response feedback loop from our neurotransmitting hormones. This loop began in early childhood and it’s etched deep into our neural pathways. According to the late leadership expert Edward Morler, the stages of human development include moving from a focus on “Am I good enough?” in childhood to a healthier focus on “I am enough” in mature adulthood.

Related Traps

This excessive need for approval can also manifest is many related traps, including:

  • getting too caught up in “climbing mode”
  • constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up
  • conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths instead of blazing our own
  • holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • feeling that others are racing ahead with more clarity or success while we lag behind
  • sticking with a sub-optimal life or career path because we’re afraid of what others will think if we step off the treadmill and start over
  • being short-sighted about what matters in life
  • not setting proper boundaries or articulating needs due to a need to be liked
  • being consumed by a hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • pretending to be someone we’re not
  • becoming addicted to work

How to Stop this Downward Spiral

Okay, so we know it’s a big problem. What to do about it? Here are 8 things we can do to stop this downward spiral:

  1. Acquire more self-awareness (in part by paying attention to our instincts and listening to our inner voice)
  2. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that we’re clear about our deeper why, what’s most important to us, and what we want for our life
  3. Cultivate self-acceptance: Appreciate what we have and do well while shutting down our unrealistic inner critic
  4. Take time before saying yes to a new task or commitment and have clear and high standards for what we’ll spend time on
  5. Gain perspective: How much will what they think matter in a week, a month, a year, a decade? In the final analysis?
  6. Experiment with what it feels like to experience disapproval, sitting with it and getting a sense of how much it matters (if at all?)
  7. Notice how people may respect us for setting boundaries and for being clear and committed to our goals and aspirations
  8. Imagine and pursue the freedom and power on the other side of this mental block—the gift of finally letting ourselves be who we really are and long to become

“The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer

Reflection Questions

  • Are you caring too much about what other people think in some areas of your life?
  • Which ones?
  • Which action steps above will you start taking?
  • Who can you turn to for help or accountability?

 

Don’t waste your time on earth

doing the work of others.

Do your own work.

The sweat of your soul,

 

The lightness in the center of your heart

will tell you

when you are on course.

 

The swiftness of your breath

will slow to match

the tidal pull of moonlight.

 

You will ski effortlessly

down the slope of each day

calling your own name

softly to the trees.

-Elizabeth Carlson, poet, “Don’t Waste Your Time”

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” –Martha Beck, author
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” –Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession. [I was also] driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.” –Warren Brown, entrepreneur
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” –Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” –Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author
  • “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ’no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” –Stephen R. Covey, author
  • “The problem comes when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates.” –Bill George, leadership expert and author
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” –Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “Listen to your heart above all other voices.” -Martha Kagan
  • “‘Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.” –Emily McDowell, writer and entrepreneur
  • “So long as you’re still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself.” –Neale Donald Walsch, author
  • “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, Univ. of California at San Francisco

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.

-Fritz Perls, Gestalt Prayer

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire

Settling for “good enough” instead of what you really want? Getting comfortable with the ordinary? Letting others treat you poorly? Suffering through a poor work situation? Tired of working with people who don’t want to excel or don’t share your values? Playing small, even though you know there’s something bigger possible for you?

Time out. This is your life. Your one and only life, with an uncertain duration and no guarantees. Time to take it back.

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

Why Do We Settle?

If you’re settling, you’re not alone. It’s a common trap. There are many reasons we settle:

1. Fear: We’re afraid of looking bad, of not living up to expectations, of failing. We fear what other people will think or say. So we let these fears box our choices, keeping us squarely in the safe and conventional spaces even though we long for something more. The kicker is that we’re often misreading people and conjuring scenarios of their disappointment and rejection when in fact they’re not even thinking of us, or they have a wildly different take. Too often, we’re just listening to phantom voices in our head whispering about unlikely worst cases.

“So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” Jim Carrey, actor, comedian, writer, producer

2. Self-Deception: We’re brilliant at hiding the truth from ourselves. We rationalize: It’s only for a while. What choice do I have? In these excuses, we hide from the distressing realization that we’re settling for something less than desirable.

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”Plato, classical Greek philosopher

3. Conformity: We yield to parental expectations, social norms, and conventional paths instead of blazing our own path. We worry about the harsh judgment we think may come if we stand up or stand out, so we shrink back into the facelessness of the crowd. Sure, there’s safety in the crowd. But also boredom—and regret.

4. Inertia: Change is hard. We get stuck in the quicksand of questions: What to do instead? How to decide? How to make it work? Can I really give up the safety of what I have now? The “switching costs” (of changing jobs, careers, degrees, locations, etc.) can be high—especially in the short term, with no way to know the long-term payoff. So we stick with a lesser path because it’s easier to stay the course. But at what cost in terms of lost opportunities and sense of pride and satisfaction for testing our mettle and venturing forth into the terrifying beauty of possibility?

“Never be passive about your life…  ever, ever.”Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author

5. Not tending to the fire: We’re all born with a zest for life (see how babies and children experience the world) and a capacity for dreaming big (go back and visit your childhood dreams). These aspirations require energy, but too often we’ve let that energy fizzle out over time by burying ourselves in busywork, escaping into mindless distractions, numbing ourselves, and making excuses.

There are indeed big obstacles. Not all are fortunate enough to have choices, or a savings cushion, or the ability to escape poverty, financial insecurity, or other debilitating hardship. But these questions are relevant to all, regardless of circumstances, because even in the hardest circumstances we have agency and possibilities for change, whether by hard work, grit, adjusting our approach, or upgrading our skills and outlook.

Often the real issue is lack of clarity about what we want and how we can move forward in the face of uncertainty. Trepidation about being who we really are. Setting the bar low so we won’t be disappointed if we fail to reach it. We lack a clear and compelling why. We have no audacious aspiration to rekindle the fire.

That’s not all. More things contribute to settling:

  • We avoid difficult tasks or conflicts
  • We’re too busy reacting to events instead of driving them
  • We lack confidence about our abilities and prospects for success
  • We’re not seeing the big picture and get caught up in the moment
  • We put things off until later

The Flip Side: Dangers of Not Settling?

We should pause here and note that there’s a danger of taking this line of thinking about not settling too far. We can get so focused on striving for something better that we lose our capacity to be grateful for what we have now. We can get caught up in obsessively chasing success due to an unhealthy need for validation and recognition for achievements.

There’s a danger to some of swapping a life of settling for a life of anxiety and workaholism, detached from family, friends, health, and the simple pleasures: nature, hobbies, quiet time. We can risk losing our capacity for quiet reflection, mindfulness, and pausing for renewal. We should be wary of getting too caught up in “climbing mode.”

Ceaseless and obsessive striving can prevent us from living a full life with a healthy array of meaningful aspects, like marriage, family, career, health, friendships, community, and more. In his book, On Settling, social philosopher Robert E. Goodin notes that if we settle on some things, we’re better positioned to concentrate on others that are more important. Otherwise, our efforts may be too diffuse and never gain traction.

We can have bold aspirations for a better future but still be grateful for what we have and not too attached to a future outcome that’s unlikely to solve everything in our life and bring us unending joy. Life doesn’t work that way. Writer Chris Guillebeau creatively flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.”

So yes, we mustn’t turn our striving into a compulsive crusade. But for many, the bigger danger is settling.

The Icarus Deception

The myth of Icarus is relevant here. You may recall the warning Daedalus gave to his son, Icarus, after constructing wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete: “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

The big danger is hubris, right? Of having the sun melt your wings of wax if you get too full of yourself and fly too high.

But author Seth Godin points out that Daedalus warned Icarus first of the danger of complacency—the danger of flying too low such that the damp sea affects his wings and causes him to crash into the water. The first danger is about flying too low. We must guard against that too.

So what to do?

How to Stop Settling

There are several things we can do to stop settling and reignite the flame in our life and work:

1. Take full responsibility. Be a “LIFE Entrepreneur,” taking ownership of your life, and recognizing your agency. Take your life back. Stop making excuses. No one’s coming to the rescue.

“Some people don’t just live: they lead a life. They don’t sit around waiting for a lucky break. They create opportunities. They go after their dreams and bring them to life…. They develop a vision of the good life, devise a plan for how to attain it, go for it, and check their progress along the way. As with any great effort, their work is never done but ever-evolving and, often, inspiring to those around them. Welcome to the territory of life entrepreneurs.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

2. Summon the courage to try. Act in spite of your fears. That of course sounds easier than it is in practice. How to punch through the fear? It helps to realize that most fears are phantoms, unlikely to play out in real life like the nightmare in our head. Also, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying. It also helps if you do what’s next on the list below, to give you a sense of drive and direction:

3. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that you’re clear about where you want to go in your life and work, and how and why:

  • Purpose: why you’re here, and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—including by serving others
  • Values: what’s most important? What are your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior?
  • Vision: what you aspire to achieve in the future, and what success looks like for you

4. Start. Get momentum by trying things. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) and notch small wins. Use this to build toward taking massive action.

5. Build vitality. Develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, wellness, energy, and strength. Be intentional about nourishing habits, rituals, and routines, with visual cues to remind you about what to do and where and when. Choose intentionally what you do, with whom, and what you consume. Eventually you become the kind of person who doesn’t settle without having to think about it so much.

6. Let go of limiting beliefs. Change your mindset. Upgrade your mental operating system. How? Spend time with people you admire. Read books that challenge and inspire you. Take courses that help you develop new skills and abilities. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Work with a mentor, coach, or therapist to shed vestiges of the past that no longer serve you.

7. Set and maintain high standards for yourself. As with our children, we tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. Set deadlines. Focus on results. Hold yourself accountable. Be systematic about learning, development, and continuous improvement. Be clear about the kind of life you seek and commit to it. Choose the life you want, and then get to work crafting it with a hopeful and determined heart.

Temperature Check

How’s your fire? Is it burning hot, lukewarm, or flaming out? If you’re settling, resolve to do what you can with what you have to start turning up the heat.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you settling in any important aspects of your life (family, health, career, etc.)?
  • If so, what will you do about it? When and how?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • What works for you when it comes to reigniting the flame?
  • What are you waiting for?

For a related trap and how to overcome it, see “Are You Drifting through Life?”

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Postscript: Quotes on Settling

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” -Les Brown
  • “If you decide to live in the arena, you will get your ass kicked. You can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you can’t have both.” -Brene Brown, researcher and author
  • “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher
  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, American writer
  • “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.” -Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist
  • “We ask ourselves, ‘How am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Feeling Behind? It May Be a Trap

Feeling behind? Have an anxious feeling that others are racing ahead while you’re lagging? This is more common than we think:

  • Feeling behind in school
  • Feeling behind in knowing what we want to major in, or do with our lives
  • Feeling behind in internship or job searches
  • Feeling behind in the prestige of the jobs we take or the organizations we work for, or how quickly we’re climbing the ladder

At the heart of it for many is a pressure to prove something, and needless suffering caused by social comparison and status anxiety. It’s a toxic combination of what author Jonathan Rauch calls the “expectations trap” and the “social-competition treadmill.”

What measuring sticks are we using for our lives? What accounting are we using when we dwell on all the ways we think some others are ahead of us in some aspects of life, work, wealth, relationships, or health?

Panic Choices

Due to this toxic brew of psychological and social influences, it’s easy to panic and choose poorly (e.g., what we’ll do after graduating, or whether to stick it out in a toxic work culture or a career that no longer grips us), based on factors unlikely to hold up well over time.

The unhappy result? A lack of fit between the work we do and who we are and what we want for our lives. (This assumes we have the privilege of being able to provide for our basic needs first, a huge caveat given all the financial insecurity and inequality in the world.)

The flip side is the cognitive dissonance and social tension we experience when going  against the grain of the “life as a race” paradigm. People don’t know what to make of us when we’re not on the conventional path, and we don’t know what to make of ourselves. We feel vulnerable and exposed. So we bail early. We retreat. (And then perhaps regret.)

90,000 Hours

According to Jessica Pryce-Jones in her book, Happiness at Work, workers today spend an average of about 90,000 hours at work in their lifetimes. How many of those hours risk being misspent if we’ve panicked and chosen poorly because of a dubious sense of feeling behind during our socially awkward formative years with all their outside pressures?

What we’re missing in our decision calculus is that our values and priorities tend to shift as we age. We tend to care less about what others think over time. We learn how little it matters what others think of us, and how much it matters what we think of ourselves and our lives.

Our panic-choices when feeling behind wouldn’t be that big of a deal if life were linear and if we all chose wisely when young what we’d do with the rest of our lives and if we didn’t change as we went along. But that’s rubbish.

Life isn’t linear. We do change. So we need to get good at just being, even when we’re not pursuing, achieving, or winning. We need to get good at periodically evaluating our current course. At experimenting with different possibilities. Leaving situations that no longer serve us. Letting go of our former self to meet the new moment and craft a new self.

This is hard. I’ve experienced this many times, for example in transitioning from one industry to another and feeling intimidated by having to start over, and one sector (nonprofit) to another (business). And leaving a growing venture to go out on my own. Moving from the U.S. to Sweden and facing language and cultural barriers and a dramatically new context. And then back again to the U.S. after a decade abroad.

Each time, I gave up some speed and momentum in my career. It felt like stepping off the moving walkway at the airport. But in exchange for those awkward and painful transitions, I got my life back—and big lessons, and wisdom through suffering, and more growth than I would have gotten otherwise. The physics are complicated, changing the trajectory from a straight line to something akin to a swoosh.

Switching Costs

Switching costs are a big problem when it comes to career paths. The cost of changing your career (or degree) can be high, not only financially and in education, training, or certifications that may be needed, but also in terms of identity and social capital. This can make people reluctant to abandon their current path even when it is sub-optimal. So they grind it out. For 90,000 hours.

The short-term costs of switching seem to shout, while the long-term dynamics only whisper, but in the end which matters more? The switching cost problem keeps us bound to a reality that no longer serves us, when what we really need is an ability to let go and move on—to step away and recraft through discovering, sampling, prototyping, and pivoting.

Feeling behind? Here’s the thing: life isn’t race. It may be a common metaphor and mindset, especially among the young and middle-aged, but it’s a trap.

A good life doesn’t come from winning, wealth, fame, power, or outperforming some imaginary rivals. It comes from vitality, connection, contribution, purpose, joy, savoring, acceptance, and love. We’re all different, with different values, aspirations, and experiences, so we should all live our own lives without arbitrary and false comparisons. By languishing in that mental trap, we invite regret.

It’s of course true too that sometimes we do need or want to race, for example a time-sensitive project or a competition with real rivals. I get it. There’s thrill in competition. And there’s strength in testing our mettle in the arena. But viewing life that way will only frame important choices in the wrong light.

One day, we’ll face our own personal reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Feeling behind is a trap. Life isn’t a race.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Choice Overload and Career Transitions

We all face transitions in life and work. The transition from school to work. From one job or career to another. To marriage and family. To a new home. To midlife. To retirement.

So we need to get good at transitions. And that depends on getting good at making choices. Like: What’s next?

Sometimes we get bogged down in choice overload. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “paradox of choice.” He argues that the freedom to choose is one of the main roots of unhappiness today. Choice overload leads to anxiety and “analysis paralysis,” in which we become frozen in undecidedness. We fear making the wrong choice or fear missing out (FOMO) on the “right” choice.

He cites a fascinating “jam study” in which a store gave shoppers a range of six jams to choose among, and a range of 24 jams to another set of shoppers. The surprising findings: shoppers were ten times more likely to purchase jam from a range of six jams than from the much larger set. Being overloaded with choices can easily lead to not making a choice due to overwhelm.

One of the great inhibitors of good choosing is fear: fear of looking bad, fear of not living up to expectations, fear of failing, and more. Fear of leaving a stable job with a stable income. Fear of striking out on our own.

“Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable.”Janet Wojcicki, professor, anthropologist, and epidemiologist

This fear can lead to inertia: resistance to needed changes in life or work. It can mean sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because it feels easier to stay the current course.

“It takes, on average, three years from the time a person decides to leave the company until the day he or she walks out the door. Those are not good or productive years. For me those years were in limbo.” -Harriet Rubin, publishing executive

So we end up settling: compromising or settling for “good enough” instead of what we really want or deserve.

There’s a flipside danger too. When it comes to making choices, we tend to have dysfunctional beliefs that prevent us from seeing things clearly and accurately, and from taking appropriate action. According to Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from the the Stanford Life Design Lab, here are some of these dysfunctional beliefs:

  • I have to find the one right idea.
  • To be happy, I must make the right choice.
  • I need to comprehensively research all aspects of my plan.

Here we face a dilemma:

It’s a big mistake to focus too much too early on only one idea or possibility.

Why? When we prematurely settle on one idea, we almost always end up with a sub-optimal outcome. Our brains trick us into seeing only the good (the possibilities, the upside) and into ignoring the bad (the risks and downsides). It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s a huge and well researched problem.

What’s more, our lives and our future aren’t an engineering problem or mathematical equation that can be solved by finding “the answer.”

There is no one perfect answer out there. We must craft our lives and work as we go, as intentionally and adaptively as possible.

It’s also a mistake to bring a very large number of options in our consideration set.

That may trap us in choice overload and the paradox of choice problem noted above.

Brainstorm several options and then don’t get trapped in analysis paralysis. Instead have a bias toward action and get moving by learning as much as you can as quickly and cheaply as possible about your options. Talk to people. Try it with a side hustle. Take a course. Build a prototype or a low-cost probe.

Then decide. Once you do, don’t dwell and don’t agonize. Dive into your new reality and make adjustments as you go. Keep learning and testing.

Then, you’ll find yourself at a new set of choices. In the meantime, you’ll start to get good at choosing. And that will help you with everything you do.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Back to Normal? Not So Fast

In fortunate parts of the world, there’s a palpable sense of relief and celebration as life begins to get back to normal after a brutal pandemic year. In some quarters, there’s jubilation—and rightly so after so many shocks to so many for so long. And of course the pandemic rages on, with so many people suffering, struggling, recovering, mourning, and more.

But back to normal? Not so fast.

We sense, beneath the surface, that this is an opportunity to revisit and reinvent.

Surely there are some things we just want to bring back—things we missed. But we should be wary of falling back into old patterns that no longer serve us.

Now that we’ve received stark reminders of our own mortality and that of our loved ones, now is a good time to ask:

What kind of life do I want?

What kind of life have I been living?

What changes would I like to make?

When it comes to the life we’ve been living, a fair assessment will likely reveal some pain points. Consider the following traps of living:

Common Traps of Living:

  • Am I avoiding deeper issues or pressing pain points in my life, and numbing myself with distraction, binge-watching, or other escapes?
  • Have I suffered from burnout?
  • Am I living paycheck to paycheck with unsustainable or dangerous approaches to consumption and debt?
  • Have I been cocooning, losing close connection with family and friends?
  • Have I fallen into the comparison trap?
  • Am I conforming to a conventional path instead of blazing my own?
  • Have I been drifting through life?
  • Am I stuck in ego-centric living, making everything about me?
  • Does my life feel empty, without a sense of meaning, passion, or joy?
  • Am I caught up in pleasing others?
  • Have I been postponing my happiness?
  • Am I chasing prestige?
  • Have I been pretending to be someone I’m not?
  • Am I settling?

These questions, while unsettling, can also be motivating, because they point to the gap between who we are and who we long to be.

We must begin, though, with an honest appraisal.

“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule. Never lie to yourself.”Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer

The appraisal above should lead not only to insight but action. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Where are you doing well, and where are you struggling? You can use whatever system you like, even as simple as a list, writing in one column “What I like about my life” and in another column “What I don’t like.”

The left column (What I like) is one for appreciation, and a place to revisit to make sure you continue the good things and savor them.

The right column (What I don’t like) is one for action. The point is not to wallow in defeat but to take a cold hard look at reality and then decide: What will I do about it? (And how, and when, and with whom?)

Many of us have several pain points in our life. That’s okay. Don’t get bogged down in trying to solve everything at once, or in too much planning.

Begin with the most pressing pain point. Start with small things you can do to make progress, to generate energy and momentum.

Now is your chance. Will you take it?

Reflection Questions:

  • What aspects of your life do you wish to keep or get back to?
  • What aspects of your life do you want to change, and how will you get started?

P.S. – Another level of analysis for the “back to normal” question is the societal level. Surely, there are some things we want to bring back, but it’s also a great opportunity to revisit vexing issues like financial fragility, inequality, racism, political division and disdain, digital addiction and manipulation, climate change, unsustainable practices, and the role of business in society.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Tips for New Graduates on Life, Work, and Making Big Decisions

With graduation season upon us, new graduates have much to celebrate after navigating a brutal year. Now they face a big transition from school to work (or further school, or gap year, or other pursuits). Here are tips to help them craft their life and work–and make big decisions that will serve them well.

Your work now is to find your work. Don’t commit prematurely to the first path you walk. Don’t over-invest in or over-identify with a professional area without having pressure-tested the reality of it against your initial conception of it. Don’t satisfice. Create an intentional process for your search—a quest to discover your calling—and use “low-cost probes” to try things so you can learn where there is a good fit with your strengths, passions, values, purpose, and opportunities, and where there isn’t. Work hard in what you do, but don’t forget to work on finding what you want to do and where you can make a difference.

Avoid making choices for the wrong reasons. You’re probably under a lot of pressure, both from yourself and others. As you look at work options, consider not only external motivations such as income and status but also internal ones such as meaning, values, and fulfillment. You’ll spend lots of time at work, so be intentional about finding a good fit for you. Don’t get caught up too much in climbing mode (focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement) without also complementing that with discover mode (discovering who you are, what you love, and what you long to do in the world).

Work on something that matters. Your days, weeks, and months all add up to something called your life, so make sure it’s something you’re excited about now and that you’ll be proud of when you look back. How will you have served others and made a difference?

Choose work where you can drink lessons out of a fire hose—where you can learn a ton from great people and daunting challenges. Invest in learning, growth, and development, and lean into challenge. These pay big dividends that compound over time.

Lead your life—your whole life—including your professional endeavors, your health, mind, body, spirit, relationships, education, and whatever else you choose to pursue in life. Do you think you can presume to lead others without learning to lead yourself first?

Play the long game. These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time. The power of the long game is astonishing.

There will be a reckoning for your choices. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind, with so much to capture your attention. Don’t forget to look up and see the larger sweep of things. Some day in the future, you may find yourself wondering:

How did I get here?

Is this what I wanted?

Did I choose this?

Is this a good life for me?

Get good at taking stock of the path you’re on. And be brutally honest with yourself. Better to face hard questions now. They get harder the longer you wait. Be like the buffalo and run into the storm, not away from it.

Here’s to celebrating all you’ve done so far, thanking all those who’ve helped you get where you are, and blazing your own path in life with courage and conviction. You’ll thank yourself for it someday.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s new online course on “Crafting Your Life and Work” (limited time only), his manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Are You Playing the Long Game?

These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time.

The power of the long game is astonishing, but the short game is alluring. We see it in many realms.

We see it in business. Clayton Christensen noted, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

We see it in startups. Steve Blank notes that many startups incur what he calls “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” Common examples: a lack of good onboarding and training, missing job descriptions, chaotic compensation, puny HR budgets, and more. While these compromises can help keep the cash burn rate down, they “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare.”

We see it in our climate. We’re making a harrowing gamble with our children’s future as we fail to address the gathering dangers of climate change.

We see it in our health. Many of us are sitting longer, eating poorly, sleeping less, and pinging through life in a state of perpetual busyness or burnout.

We see it in our relationships. Caught up in our careers, we lose touch with family and friends—something we’re likely to regret. Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, working in palliative care, found that two of the top regrets of people as they approached their death were: wishing they hadn’t worked so hard, and wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends.

We see it in parenting. Years ago, a colleague of mine, also a father of young children, said a few words that changed me as a parent: “They’re only young once.”

We see it in our careers. When we’re young and in school, we face pressures about what we’re going to do next, with expectations from parents and peers, and without much basis for making big decisions. Too often we make big decisions based on the pressures of the moment in ways that don’t stand the test of time. We follow the herd into that high-status profession. Or we choose solely based on the paycheck.

We see it in life. One day there will be a reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Did we fall into the following short-game traps?

Conforming to what others expect.

Drifting through life without direction.

Staying in a job we don’t like.

Getting nowhere (or nowhere good) in a professional hamster wheel.

Deferring our dreams because it’s “not the right time.”

Settling forgood enough.”

Continuing to climb even though we’re on the wrong ladder.

The idea of playing the long game isn’t new. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle advised, “Plan with your whole life in mind.”

Now more than ever we need to reorient our life and work to the long game.

Questions for Reflection:

  • In what areas—business, health, relationships, parenting, careers, life—are you playing the short game?
  • What ideas do you have to start making changes?
  • Who can you connect with for help and accountability?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Designing Your Work for Flow

 

We’ve all heard of flow—that remarkable state of being in the zone and operating at our best. Many of us have experienced it.

But what exactly is it? And how do we get into it?

First, we note that the deep concentration and absorption associated with flow is becoming much harder to attain these days with all our alluring devices and their dopamine-driving distractions.

Just when we need it most, it’s becoming more and more elusive.

Complete Absorption

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor now at Claremont Graduate University, has dedicated much of his life to studying flow. In his interviews with athletes, artists, chess players, and rock climbers, he found that many of them moved into a state of flow—a “state of complete absorption in an activity and situation.”

Why did he call it “flow”? Many of the people he interviewed described the experience as if a rushing current of water carried them along. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic captures it beautifully:

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal… I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along—something powerful and generous…. I lose track of time and space and self…. I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love.”

Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow as a state of “optimal experience”—of almost effortless attention and peak performance. In flow, he says, we feel “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”

Flow changes everything. Once you experience it, you’re changed forever, having glimpsed a different way of working. After jockey Red Pollard’s come-back ride aboard Seabiscuit at the famous “hundred grander” at Santa Anita, a spectator said Pollard looked like “a man who temporarily had visited Olympus and still was no longer for this world.”

In flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity…. You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

Nature of Flow

What is flow, exactly? Flow involves three elements:

  • Complete absorption in an activity
  • Lack of anxiety about losing control
  • Altered sense of time

The last one is a telltale sign. Recall those times when you’re so engrossed in the activity that you’re astonished when you discover how much time has passed in the meantime. It feels timeless.

The Body and Brain in Flow

Flow isn’t just a poetic description of a magical state but also a bona fide physiological phenomenon. When in flow, according to researchers, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and our facial muscles relax. Neurological studies show that the brain expends less energy during flow compared to when it’s wrestling with a problem.

Flow is associated with a decrease in “psychic entropy”: an anxious state of mind, common for many of us, in which our brain is stuck in a frustrating loop of concern and disarray, with fragmented attention. With that dialed down or switched off, we’re able to engage fully and enjoy the experience.

Flow and Performance

How does flow affect performance? According to Csikszentmihalyi, “a host of studies have found a strong positive relationship between flow and performance.” He notes that flow is positively associated with artistic and scientific creativity, learning, effective teaching, peak performance in sports, and even skill development. The latter is important, because it means that the more we can get into flow, the better we can get at our chosen activity.

According to the research, flow experiences are fairly rare, but almost any kind of activity—work, studies, hobbies—can produce them. So how do we achieve flow?

Conditions for Flow

According to the research, there are three necessary conditions for flow:

  • Clear set of goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback (so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals)
  • Balance between perceived challenges and skills, warranting our full attention (otherwise we’d get bored with too little challenge and anxious with too much challenge)

Here’s where things get really interesting. Flow is not some mystical state bestowed upon us by flow gremlins. It’s a mental state that we can invite by designing our work and context to meet these conditions.

Most of us live and work in a context today that makes achieving flow about as likely as winning the lottery. To invite flow, we need to get disciplined and systematic about doing what computer scientist Cal Newport calls “deep work”: working for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction.

How to do this? In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he recommends that we decide where we’ll work (a pleasant, quiet place) and for how long and how (with rituals, rules, and standard processes). We also need breaks built into our day to allow us to recharge—and to let our subconscious mind wander.

Perhaps most importantly, we must minimize distractions.

Distractions block flow and open the floodgates to psychic entropy. Too many of us have surrendered to a life of shallow work and distractions.

What could we do with a life of deep work infused with flow?

Questions for Reflection:

  • When have you been in a state of flow?
  • What was the context, and what were you doing?
  • What ideas do you have for designing your work—and that of your team, if you have one—to invite flow?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

What Is Your Quest?

What is your quest?

Where are you going? And why? What quest are you on in your life and work?

In days long gone, there were many quests. For Power. Glory. Riches. Discoveries. Love. Beauty. Truth. Peace and quiet.

These days, our quests have changed, but we still have them. Quests for success. Recognition. Wealth. Happiness.

For many of us, our quest is a bit of an ego trip. It’s all about me, and what I want, or deserve, so that I can look good, feel good, and get validation from others. The quest is fueled by an ethic of accumulation and achievement.

And so it was with Warren, a tall young man with dreadlocks working in a government agency, with a good salary and proud parents. One day, he found himself at a festival listening to a band playing Radiohead, and three questions popped into his head:

Are you there? (Yes.)
Are you you? (No.)
Are you ready? (Yes.)

So began Warren’s new chapter, leaving the old, familiar, and boring for something new, uncertain, and exciting.

And so it was with Kimberly, a small-town girl with sandy blonde hair and big ambitions who moved to the big city and found herself working as a paralegal. She was successful, for sure, but also tired, lonely, and uninspired. When she returned to her apartment from a two-day yoga retreat, she realized that her life was no longer hers and that her work was killing her soul. So she started something new in her life (yoga sessions in her apartment), and over several years, through much trial and error, it took her into a whole new chapter in life, one that fit much better with her values and aspirations.

We all have the freedom to change course. But that just begs the question: Change to what? Meanwhile, we rationalize our current path:

I’m paying my dues.
I’m doing it for my family.
This isn’t a good time.
I don’t know what to do next.
I don’t know how to begin.

And so we drift along. (And along.)

Isn’t this just the price we must pay for success? Perhaps, but what does success mean to you? Success at what? And as what? Who are you? What matters most to you? Are you living a good life, one that your future self will thank you for?

Success can be like a prison made of pride. Like the graying inmate “Red” in Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, we can get strangely comfortable there. We rely on its rock walls to keep our ego safely ensconced in a place where it scores its validation fix.

Has our quest become a trap? Have we outgrown the successes we’ve chased or achieved? What then?

That’s where a call comes in. It’s when we need to stop and listen to our inner voice, our intuition. That’s when we need the sweeping perspective of time—of where we come from and where we want to go, and with whom.

Calling the Questions

What is your quest? Does it still serve you? And does it fill you up, or drain you?

Are you there? Are you you? Are you ready?

Is it time to surrender the willful quest of pride and listen for something deeper?

Do you hear a call?
Are you answering it?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living. Or view his TEDx talk on “Life Entrepreneurship.”