How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Is This It? On the Disappointment of Success

For so long we’ve wished for it. Worked hard for it. Suffered for it. Our dream.

We clawed and climbed for it. Sacrificed for it.

One day, after all the trials and tribulations, we’re finally there. The treasure chest of our dreams is before us. We almost can’t believe it.

We pause, relishing the moment, and then open it.

What we find is astonishing.

It’s empty.

Empty.

EMPTY???

How can that possibly be?

But it is. The treasure chest is empty.

What we’ve encountered is the “arrival fallacy”—the assumption that once we accomplish a major goal, we’ll get lasting happiness or satisfaction. It’s a lie.

 

Examples All Around Us

We see it all around us.

 

We see it in former athletes.

Think of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, with an astonishing 28 medals, 23 of them gold. He was World Swimmer of the Year eight times and broke 29 individual world records. He’s considered the greatest swimmer of all time—and perhaps one of the greatest athletes of all time.

After all that, he found himself in a depression after retiring from swimming and revealed that he had contemplated suicide. Is this it?

Think of Tom Brady. He won seven Super Bowl championships and was the most valuable player of the Super Bowl five times. When somebody asked him during his storied career which Super Bowl ring is his favorite, Brady replied, “The next one.”

Here’s Brady talking to journalist Steve Kroft:

Brady: Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?
Kroft: What’s the answer?
Brady: I wish I knew. I wish I knew….

 

We see it in our accomplishments, like a promotion or raise.

We’ve been working so hard, and we believe those achievements will transform our lives for the better. Yet we’re disappointed when we see that the reality is often far different from our expectations.

“After a lifetime of trying, I finally had a book hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
It made me really happy… for about ten minutes.”
-author

 

We see it in retirees.

After looking forward to finally enjoying life after putting so much time into their work, many recent retirees hit the golf course or the beach and wonder, Is this it? According to researchers, the prevalence of depression among retirees is substantially higher than that of the overall older adult population. (1)

 

We see it in former executives.

Hubert Joly had remarkable success early in his business career. After making partner at McKinsey & Co. by age 30, he led EDS France, turned around Vivendi’s video games divisions, and became CEO of Carlson-Wagonlit Travel. He felt that he had reached the top of a mountain. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. First, it came with all sorts of new problems and hassles. And second, it felt empty.

“The mountaintop felt desolate. The idea of success I had been chasing turned out to be hollow,
and I felt disillusioned and empty.”

-Hubert Joly, former chairman and CEO, Best Buy

 

We see it everywhere.

We see it in parents whose children have left the home. In retired military personnel. We even see it in kings.

Take the example of Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba in southern Spain in the 10th century. Around age 70, he was reflecting on a life of remarkable worldly success: “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies.” He thought about his incredible riches and all his honors, including the power and pleasure that waited on his call, as he described it. What did all of it add up to?

“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot.
They amount to 14.”
-Abd al-Rahman III, the emir and caliph of Córdoba

Is this it? Fourteen days of happiness from 50 years of living in the best of circumstances?

Alas, getting what we want can be unsatisfying or even disappointing. It can feel like less than we imagined, not as Earth-shattering as we hoped. Why?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What’s Going On?

Things are good, but we feel surprisingly empty. We wonder why we’re not happy and fulfilled. Maybe we lack motivation or enthusiasm for things. We feel purposeless. Maybe we lack energy, or we’ve lost interest in activities that we once found engaging.

There are a number of factors at work here:

 

Feeling lasting satisfaction is highly unlikely due to our evolutionary biology.

Given our biological makeup, we have an urge to keep pursuing more (lest we run out of food or shelter) and an inability to maintain any strong emotional state. We have a strong wanting drive that’s deeply baked into our nature.

A big part of what’s going on here is the frustrating but very real phenomenon of hedonic adaptation (also called the hedonic treadmill), in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred. We’re wired biologically to return to homeostasis. Whenever we experience change, our mind and body work hard to re-equilibrate. So, we return to the baseline. It’s the way we’re wired. And still we wonder: Is this it?

 

Our brain is working against us.

When we’re working toward something, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation, and learning, in anticipation of the reward of achieving it. We get dopamine hits as we make progress toward the goal. What happens when we achieve our goal? Those dopamine hits fall away. (Ouch.) The result? We bounce from goal to goal in an endless pursuit of those hits, almost like chasing our tail.

 

When we reach the top, we may stop learning, growing, and challenging ourselves.

That’s a recipe for stasis and complacency. We also need variety to keep things interesting.

 

On our way to the top, we may have neglected important relationships in our lives.

That Faustian bargain may come back to haunt us.

 

After we’ve accomplished a goal, we can lose our sense of identity and purpose.

We have to reorient our focus toward something new, and perhaps redirect how we perceive ourselves. Not easy. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Too Wrapped up in Your Work?”)

 

Sometimes, the reality we experience at the top is a far cry from the dream we had.

Sure, there are likely to be perks of that promotion and raise, but there are also likely to be new hassles. Longer hours. More responsibilities. More cut-throat politics.

 

Contributing Factors

Often, there are contributing factors that compound the problem of disappointment. Here are some examples of common traps we fall into that make things worse.

 

Going for other people’s goals.

If we were exerting all that effort to please our parents or impress our neighbors or boss, it’s no wonder we find ourselves less than fulfilled at the end of it

 

Falling into the “expectations trap.”

When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we become attached to our expectations, we feel disappointment, even though our life may be going well.

 

Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons.

Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often—comparing ourselves to others on things that tend to be fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to unrealistic standards (i.e., the most outwardly successful or beautiful). It’s a recipe for disappointment.

 

Believing the common myths about happiness and success.

For example, the trap of believing that:

  • happiness comes from improving our circumstances
  • we’ll be happy when we’re successful
  • we’ll be happy when we have certain things
  • happiness is a destination
  • success is the point of life
  • we can measure success in dollars, possessions, and other things that bring us status and attention (2)

(See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Happiness.”)

 

Never feeling successful enough.

We can always do more. There’s always more to chase. (Back to the hedonic treadmill.)

 

Drifting away from ourselves in the pursuit of success.

We see the disconnection between who we really are and what we’re doing, and we feel it.

 

Drifting away from our family and friends in the single-minded pursuit of our success.

Meanwhile, it’s precisely those relationships that lead to the most enduring happiness and life satisfaction. We’ve been sabotaging them on our way to the top.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

What to Do About It

Though we’re wired this way, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against this phenomenon and resigned to disappointment. Here are 15 things we can do to address it.

 

1. Learn to value the process and the journey instead of fixating on the end result.

Focusing only on the end result makes little sense. Are we supposed to endure four years of high school or college just so we can enjoy a two-hour ceremony? Suffer through months of training only so we can enjoy the instant it takes to cross the finish line?

 

2. Diversify our sources of happiness.

Make sure we have several irons in the fire when it comes to things that motivate us and bring us enjoyment. That way, when we’ve achieved a goal, we’re less likely to experience that drop-off of happiness and motivation, because we have other things that enrich our lives.

 

3. Make plans for what will follow our major initiatives.

Again, that will help us have something to look forward to. Otherwise, we may be destined to fall off the satisfaction cliff.

 

4. Mine the experience for learnings.

Instead of expecting to be lastingly happy from accomplishing something, review the experience for learning and growth. Think about what we liked about the experience—and what we didn’t. This will help us extract nuggets that we can apply as we redirect our focus toward other activities and new goals.

 

5. Recenter.

Sometimes when we’re in hot pursuit of a goal, we can lose ourselves in all that hustle. We become the single-minded, obsessed goal achiever and let other important parts of our life suffer or fall away. Now’s a good time to recenter and come back to the fullness of living whole.

 

6. Rediscover purpose.

Sometimes, when we’re pursuing a goal, we lose sight of our deeper why, our purpose. Our goal-pursuit is about ego, prestige, status, or vanity instead of about something bigger than ourselves like connection, service, or spirituality.

 

7. Give back.

If we’re caught up in disappointment about the lack of lasting happiness after a big accomplishment, it’s a sign that we’re too focused on ourselves. Change the focus to helping others. For example, ask the following:

What did we learn along the way that we can share with others? How can we teach it or otherwise give back to make the accomplishment even more meaningful and impactful?

German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” and described it as a stage in our psychosocial development characterized by “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” The idea is that, as we get older, we start focusing less on ourselves and more on nurturing and guiding young people as well as fostering the success of future generations. It resonates with what Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam called “gerotranscendence,” which is a shift in our understanding of ourselves and our role in things as we age, from a materialistic view of the world to a more transcendent one, with enhanced feelings of connection with past generations and lower interest in superficial social interaction.

 

8. Learn to savor life now.

This means noticing what’s going on around us and fully feeling positive emotions. In the process, we extend them and help encode them in our memory banks.

 

9. Realize that we never really arrive while we’re living.

Living isn’t about reaching some metaphorical finish line. Do we really believe that life is a race? Living isn’t about reaching some chosen level of success. Do we really believe that success is the point of life?

 

10. Reinvest in learning and growing.

Take a course. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Watch TED talks. Learn a new skill or language. Adopt a creative practice such as painting or poetry.

 

11. Establish a spiritual practice, ideally daily.

Engage in prayer, worship, contemplation, meditation, or yoga.

 

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice.

Return regularly to the things we have and to the things we’re thankful for. Being grateful for all we have is much wiser than expecting achievements to keep us continually satisfied.

 

13. Craft our work and leisure activities to facilitate “flow” states.

When in flow, we’re so absorbed in something that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

 

14. Build more of our strengths and passions into our life and work.

Figure out what we’re good at (our strengths) and what we love (our passions) and creatively bake them into the fabric of our days.

 

15. Focus on everyday progress toward an ever-renewing set of meaningful goals and worthy activities.

That’s wiser than placing all of our hopes on ONE BIG ATTAINMENT.

As always, we’re wise to seek professional help from a coach, mentor, or therapist if we feel stuck in a rut or caught in a loop of dissatisfaction.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Conclusion

Some may conclude from contemplating the arrival fallacy that there’s no point in setting and pursuing goals. While understandable, that’s a mistake. We should continue setting and pursuing goals but change our focus from a fixation on goal achievement to enjoying (and mastering) the process along the way. We can change the focus from winning or achieving to who we become in the process of pursuing goals. Indeed, pursuing goals can be energizing, fun, and fulfilling. We can enjoy the process of learning, growing, and discovering how to address challenges along the way. Lasting, sustainable happiness is about good living day in and day out, teed up by intentional choices about what matters, not about achieving certain levels of success.

In the end, maybe we should stop chasing things like happiness, success, wealth, beauty, fame, power, prestige, comfort, and pleasure. These all have their merits, of course. But they’re destined to disappoint in the final analysis.

Why not focus instead on living a good life—on intentionally crafting a life we love and that fits our nature? A life of health, connection, and service. On crafting a life of purpose, learning, growth, integrity, and wisdom. A life of joy and savoring. And a life in which we work to make things better, with and for others.

Back to the treasure chest.

Maybe we were looking for the treasure in the wrong place? The treasure was with us all along, but we were so focused on the prize at the end that we missed what was before us.

Will we keep repeating the mistake?

 

Tools for You

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations

  • “Is there anything in life so disenchanting as attainment?” -Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist and poet
  • “As the days wore on, there was a part of me that felt empty… I had always believed that when you win a championship you’re transported to some new, exalted place. What I realized was that you are the same person you were before, and that if you are not content with who you are, a championship, or any accomplishment, isn’t going to change that.” -Ray Allen, NBA basketball star
  • “So I won an Olympic gold. And as I climbed down from the podium, the only thought I could think was, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ It was awful, absolutely terrifying. It was like death—the worst feeling I’d ever had.” -a client of Dr. Martha Beck, Harvard-trained sociologist, coach, and author, as told in The Way of Integrity
  • “When I was younger, I spent too much time obsessing over what would make me feel better or how I imagined a certain set of circumstances would magically transform my life and career.” -Judith Viorst, writer and author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • “I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones
  • “Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” -Tal Ben-Shahar, teacher and writer
  • “People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find these things are empty, too, and they keep running.” -Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
  • “Everyone has dreams, and they beckon with promises of sweet, lasting satisfaction if you achieve them. But dreams are liars. When they come true, it’s … fine, for a while. And then a new dream appears.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness.” -Sam Shepard, actor and playwright
  • “To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” -Robert Pirsig, philosopher and writer
  • “Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness…. Your duty, your reward—your destiny—are here and now.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat
  • “Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill, English philosopher
  • “We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus, French philosopher and author
  • “…our natural state is dissatisfaction, punctuated by brief moments of satisfaction…. The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.” -Arthur Brooks, “How to Want Less,” The Atlantic
  • “The late-life crisis… really is a thing. Recent research has found that as many as one in three people over 60 will experience it in some form. The late-life crisis is characterized by dissatisfaction; a loss of identity; an expectations gap and the feeling that life has peaked, so it’s all downhill from here.” -Richard Leider and David Shapiro, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis, British scholar, writer, and lay theologian
  • “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” -Luke 12:33-34 NIV

 

References

(1) Pabón-Carrasco M, Ramirez-Baena L, López Sánchez R, Rodríguez-Gallego I, Suleiman-Martos N, Gómez-Urquiza JL. Prevalence of depression in retirees: a meta-analysis. Healthcare. 2020;8(3):321

(2) Material things aren’t likely to boost our happiness in a sustained way, according to the research. What’s more, materialistic people tend to be less happy than others. They tend to have fewer positive emotions and lower life satisfaction levels, on average, not to mention more anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. (Source: Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh, “How Gratitude Beats Materialism,” Greater Good Magazine, January 8, 2015.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Struggle with avoidance? We all avoid things sometimes. It’s natural.

Do you tend to bypass that difficult task? Put things off until later—or never? Steer clear of that difficult somebody? Change that uncomfortable subject? Put off that hard conversation? Sidestep that brewing conflict? Maybe you put off going to the doctor to get that concerning symptom checked out.

It’s like your life is a game of dodgeball. When things get thrown your way, you dodge, duck, dip, and dive.

If you’re like others, perhaps you avoid things not only via your behavior but also in terms of your thoughts and feelings.

Avoidance is natural, a coping mechanism. But it can become maladaptive when it’s overused or used in the wrong circumstances.

Many people avoid too many things and too often. Sometimes it isn’t a conscious choice per se. It’s stimulus-response. Challenge-avoid.

The problem is that things often end up getting worse because of it. And it can become programmed behavior, a habit of sorts, affecting many things in your life, from your performance and leadership to your relationships and self-respect.

Avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things tend to fester, becoming much worse over time. For example, it can lead to even more anxiety and concern because you’ve allowed things to deteriorate further. Avoidance can also be frustrating to others, like spouse or colleague, and make things worse for them too, leading to new conflicts.

In the end, avoiding something leaves the core problem unaddressed. Avoidance can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern, a vicious circle.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Stop Avoiding Things: 17 Practices

Given all these damaging consequences, the question arises: What can you do about it?

Here are 17 ways you can break the bad habit of avoiding things:

1. Start by noticing your avoidance behaviors. If you start looking for them, you can bring them into your consciousness and begin addressing them intentionally. Such mindfulness is an important first step.

2. Seek the root cause of your avoidance behavior. What’s the deeper why behind it? Continue asking why until you’ve hit paydirt and there are no more deeper reasons. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps it just feels easier to avoid things than to deal with them? Maybe you’re afraid of looking bad or failing so you decide to avoid it instead? Perhaps you believe you can avoid the anxiety associated with people or things if you avoid them?

3. Process your emotions. Giving yourself an emotional outlet will help you refrain from maladaptive avoidance. Resist the temptation to bottle your feelings up. Find ways to release them instead. Talk through your feelings or try journaling. Get some exercise to change your physiological state.

4. Divide the problem you’re avoiding into smaller, more manageable chunks. That way, you’ll see that it’s not as intimidating.

5. Start with an easy task or small encounter to get momentum. This can also help you develop confidence.

6. Look for ways to boost your motivation for a better result, one that would leave avoidance in the dust. For example, consider all the ways that avoidance is holding you back from personal or professional excellence (e.g., by harming your relationships or impeding your progress toward goals). Or give yourself small rewards for addressing things.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

7. Reframe a situation to note the positives and refrain from focusing only on the negatives. For example, turn a problem you’re dreading into a puzzle you’re curious about solving.

8. Quiet your negative self-talk. Give yourself some grace and don’t let avoidance become yet another reason to beat yourself up. Practice self-compassion and replace your negative self-talk with a more charitable interpretation (e.g., we’re all a work in progress).

9. Practice your communication skills. This will help prepare you to deal more effectively with tough situations as they arise. With good communication skills, you’ll be able to advocate for yourself more assertively, and you’ll be able to engage in what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations.”

10. Set a deadline for taking action. Commit to addressing it by a certain date and time so it doesn’t keep slipping into a squishy future that somehow never arrives.

11. Build action habits. Through consistent actions, you change your identity to a “doer.” You change your self-concept to someone who addresses things upfront instead of avoiding them. (See my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented.”)

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.
If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

-Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer

12. Recognize that addressing something you’ve been avoiding can make you feel powerful. It can give you a sense of agency and accomplishment. Maybe it leads to momentum or greater confidence. Bear in mind that challenges can help you grow. They give you a chance to learn about yourself and others, all while developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you can view things that you previously avoided as opportunities for personal development and capacity-building.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

13. Work on your problem-solving skills. If you get in the habit of creatively exploring ways to solve challenges instead of avoiding them, you’ll build a valuable capacity for it and also your confidence when it comes to facing up to challenging situations in the future. You can do this alone or with a trusted friend or colleague. It may help to write down some ideas to prime your brain and serve as a reminder.

14. Develop your tolerance and flexibility. Build your tolerance of difficult emotions while acknowledging that there are some situations that may be too taxing for you, at least for now. If you have rigid ideas about the ways things need to unfold, it can make you anxious. Work on embracing the unexpected and appreciating the different ways people approach things—and all the different ways things can get addressed.

15. Work on improving your coping skills and strategies. Try deep breathing and self-monitoring. Engage your “observer: (practice watching your thoughts and developing your awareness of feelings, emotions, impulses, and recurring behaviors). Or get in the habit of moving from the metaphorical dance floor and getting on the balcony in difficult situations, as Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz advises. That means stepping back from the action and observing what’s going on from a higher perspective. Check in with your feelings. Get curious about the situation and ask yourself gentle, possibility-opening questions (e.g., “How might I address this? What would my best self do in this situation?”).

16. Resist your urge to avoid when it appears. Commit to being the kind of person who deals with things and not falling into the trap of avoidance.

17. Get support. Ask for help from a friend, mentor, coach, accountability partner, small group, and/or therapist.

Which of these practices will you try?

 Wishing you well with it!

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Addressing Avoidance

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” -Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.” -Brendon Burchard, author
  • “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” -Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Be More Action-Oriented

One of the biggest mistakes many people make is waiting too long before taking action. Not having enough of an action orientation.

What good are dreams, visions, and plans if we don’t act on them? To live well, we must get good at taking action. We have to stop hesitating. We have to stop waiting too long before acting.

 

12 Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

There are many benefits of being action-oriented. For example, it:

  1. helps us learn and develop
  2. builds our confidence 
  3. helps develop our courage 
  4. changes our self-identity to someone with greater power and agency
  5. helps us learn about ourselves
  6. expands our sense of possibility
  7. builds momentum
  8. positions us as a doer and leader—and people respond to that.
  9. yields better results over time and increases our probability of success
  10. invites serendipity
  11. gives us more chances at breakthroughs
  12. helps us avoid the cost of regret for not trying

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Be More Action-Oriented: Five Key Factors

While there are many benefits to being action-oriented, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires five key factors:

 

1. Motivation.

We must tap into our desire for a better future and summon our drive to achieve. Yes, that means getting off the couch and getting to work.

 

2. Courage.

Becoming more action-oriented requires a willingness to act in spite of our fears. It requires a willingness to go for it despite the obstacles and risks.

 

3. A willingness to pounce when opportunities arise.

Becoming more action-oriented means becoming more willing to strike, even when the picture isn’t fully clear. We must tap into our warrior spirit.

 

4. A growth mindset.

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is a belief that we can develop our intelligence, abilities, and talents. If we have a fixed mindset, by contrast, we believe those things are static, and we’ll be preoccupied with the prospect of looking bad or being wrong and thus less likely to take action.

 

5. Clarity about what we want and where we’re going.

We can fuel our action orientation with a compelling vision of success, an inspiring dream of a better future.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Conclusion

When we move from hesitation mode to an action orientation, powerful forces start swirling.

Also, isn’t it more fun to be in the game than on the sidelines, not knowing the ultimate outcome but engaging in the pursuit and struggle?

Truth be told, we never really know the perfect time for things, so we might as well get started sooner rather than later. Where does waiting get us?

What are you waiting for?

Image source: Adobe Stock

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have enough of an action orientation?
  2. Or are you hesitating too much?
  3. What more will you do to start taking bold action?

 

Tools for You

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Postscript: Quotations on Being Action-Oriented

  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German mystic
  • “An ounce of action can crush a ton of fear.” -Tim Fargo, author, angel investor, and entrepreneur
  • “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie , writer and lecturer
  • “Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his ideas, to take a calculated risk—and to act.” -Maxwell Maltz, surgeon and author
  • “Action is the foundational key to all success.” -Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter and sculptor
  • “The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” -Tony Robbins, author
  • “The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.” -Napoleon Hill, author
  • “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey player
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman and biographer
  • “I think the number one advice I can give is: you just have to start it. Just get your feet in the water and do it. I learned a lot from just trying it out.” -Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japanese entrepreneur

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What I Learned about Life from Playing Sports

With all the action in sports lately, from college football championships to the NFL playoff hunt, it’s got me thinking about life lessons I’ve learned from sports.

No doubt we can learn plenty from sports about things like teamwork and group dynamics. But what does it teach us about life?

I’ve been an athlete my whole life, starting at age five on the soccer field and continuing through college athletics and beyond. I ran track in high school and played baseball, tennis, racquetball, and a little basketball while growing up. I loved running 10K races with my Dad and brother when I was growing up and dabbled in triathlon as an adult.

What are the lessons that have stuck with me from all these experiences?

 

There’s great power in having and pursuing a dream.

In sports, great motivation flows from the quest for a championship. And so it is in life.

What’s our quest? Our burning desire? What would be a good life for us? What motivates us down to our bones? Our dreams and aspirations can light us up and fill us up with hope and energy, prodding us to take more action in pursuit of our aims.

“Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practices and the coaches who have pushed you… is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back. Play for her.”
-Mia Hamm, legendary U.S. women’s soccer champion

 

Hard work and dedication set us apart.

Growing up in southern California, I played for the Choppers, a select soccer team with players from around the area. Our coach was into fitness. Big-time. I don’t think he ever wore a shirt at practice. He was always buff and tan. And he worked us like dogs. He focused on fitness, not just skill work. We did pushups and sit-ups alongside our soccer drills. He often had us race each other to see who was the fastest and who had the most stamina and heart.

His lessons stuck with me when I played college ball. I was a good midfielder, but I prided myself on my conditioning. I knew it could give me a big advantage. Nobody would be running as hard as I would be late in the game (or in double overtime) because I had put in massive work before the season began.

There are many things we want in life, for ourselves and our family. The question is what we’re willing to do to obtain them. Hard work day after day can add up to tremendous progress and, importantly, to learning and momentum for more forward progress.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Hard work is amplified greatly by a deliberate and disciplined process and pursuit.

Do we have systems in place to get a little better each day? And to track progress?

Growing up, I always admired wide receiver Jerry Rice. He was fun to watch over his 20 seasons in the National Football League, not only because of his clutch plays but also because of his speed, stamina, athleticism, and great blocking. He retired with an amazing array of records, from most touchdowns and touchdown receptions to most receiving yards and most career points scored for a non-kicker. Not to mention three Super Bowl titles. (Check out his career highlights video.)

In the book, Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin recounts Rice’s approach:

“In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers would trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league….”

The key, though, wasn’t just hard work. Rice, according to Colvin, was also very deliberate and strategic about the way he worked out, including designing his training to work on his specific needs (e.g., running precise patterns, evading defenders, outjumping and outrunning people, etc.) and spending as much time as possible on classroom study, conditioning, and working on specific plays.

“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”
-Jerry Rice, champion wide receiver in the National Football League

 

The confidence that comes from dedication and hard work over a long period of time can be transformative.

One of my favorite photographs of my years on the soccer pitch is a snapshot of my high school co-captain and me posing with Coach Murph after a game. Part of it was that Lahmmy was such a character and Coach was such a great mentor, but mostly it’s that look on our faces. A look of defiant knowing and staunch assurance. We had suffered mightily in practice, with brutal “suicides” (sprints up and down the pitch) a million times. We were in the best shape our lives, and we were ready for any opponent.

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Perseverance has magical properties.

One year, when I played for the Galaxies as a teenager, we traveled from Ohio to Florida for a soccer tournament. Late in the tournament, we were getting crushed by a strong team. They were older and much bigger. Late in the match, we were down something like 9-0, but still we hung in there. Sprinting after every ball. Tackling as hard as we could. We played with the same intensity as if we were down a goal with a minute to go. By the end of the game, even the other team’s parents were rooting for us. The crowd erupted when one of our players made a great play—a small but sublime victory of sorts.

Sir Alex Ferguson, legendary soccer coach and former manager of Manchester United, emphasized not only work ethic, emotional fortitude, and extraordinary concentration, but also “a refusal to admit defeat.” Some would say our perseverance was pointless that day. But we knew better. We were playing for ourselves that day, proving something about the kind of players we were—and the kind of team we were building.

 

When adversity comes, it’s a chance to rise.

One day at practice with the Galaxies, a much older player came to practice with us. As I planted my left leg for a kick, he tackled me hard and broke my femur just above the knee. As I was recovering, with six weeks in a full-leg hard cast followed by another six weeks in a soft cast, I learned that the break was right at one of my growth plates. It meant that I needed surgery on my right leg after my broken left leg healed so my legs wouldn’t be too uneven. Another twelve weeks or so for that leg, followed by physical therapy.

I was devastated. It was a test of whether I’d keep playing. I didn’t want an injury to define me, so I worked hard and came back stronger than ever.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
-Thomas Paine, political activist and revolutionary

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

We must go on the attack when it comes to the important things we want in life.

Marvelous things can happen when we go for it and put ourselves on the line in the face of potential failure. In soccer, I played center midfield in college. As a midfielder, I prided myself on diligently covering the whole field vertically, helping both on offense and defense.

My sophomore year, as I was gaining confidence, I realized that I had to take more shots, and I had to upgrade my mindset. Instead of thinking too much and worrying about whether I’d get a good shot off, or miss, I had to go into attack mode: attack the goal with a cracking shot. Let it rip.

And so it is in life: are we taking enough risks and putting ourselves out there? 

“I learned a long time ago that there is something worse than missing the goal, and that’s not pulling the trigger.”
-Mia Hamm, legendary U.S. women’s footballer

 

Urgency can light fires.

When I watch a soccer game now, one of the things I look for is what happens after a team scores. Of course, there’s the obligatory celebration by the scoring team. But much more important is what the other team does.

I learned this in college from my teammate, Peter. After we gave up a goal, he would haul into the back of our net, fish out the ball, and sprint like a demon possessed to the center spot.

The point was clear: We’re down one, so we need to pick it up. Way up. Forget about the goal. Let’s roll.

Too many teams wallow for precious minutes while their hopes are dwindling. Not Peter. His urgency lit a fire under us, and I never forgot it.

The same thing happens in life. Too often, when we experience a setback, we sit and wallow. We lose our momentum. Or we complain. We look for people or things to blame. Much better to get back to work right away, knowing that the game is still afoot and time is precious.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

We learn a lot about ourselves when we hit the wall.

In high school track meets, I ran the 400-meter dash. Many of my teammates called it the hardest event in track, because of the toll it takes on your body to sprint for that long. (1)

During the race, most of us “hit the wall” somewhere on the final stretch, depending on how we had run the first 300 meters. Hitting the wall is awful—as strange as it is disorienting. Your legs suddenly feel like bricks. You have to struggle mightily to keep moving them forward. You feel your whole body starting to tense up and shut down. Every step gets harder. But still you have to finish, so you keep pushing forward.

Important questions arise when you hit the wall: Do you have the strength to see it through? How well do you finish the race? And how do you respond on Monday at practice? What do you do to get better?

“And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?
From within.”
-Eric Liddell, Scottish runner and Christian missionary, from the film “Chariots of Fire”

 

The inner game is often where things are won or lost.

In sports, it’s easy to assume that the physical game—our skill, strength, endurance, etc.—makes all the difference. But often, the mental game is more important.

In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, author, tennis player, and coaching pioneer Tim Gallwey notes the pitfalls of fighting the mind and letting our ego take over. On the flipside, he highlights the benefits of mastering the art of relaxed and effortless concentration and of focusing the mind properly while not trying too hard.

And so it is in life. Too often, we’re focused on the outer game of competitive jockeying, career climbing, ego stroking, and material accumulation, but it’s our inner world that we need to pay more attention to.

We have to stop becoming our worst opponent. We need to silence our negative self-talk and replace it with something that actually serves us.

“…the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”
-W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis

 

There’s always a bigger picture beyond the game we’re playing.

In sports, it’s easy to get lost in the drama of the game and boil it down only to the final score. But sports is about more than winning and losing. Recall the Olympian pledge:

“Ask not alone for victory. Ask for courage. For if you can endure, you bring honor to yourself.
Even more, you bring honor to us all.”

Sports is not only about the quest for victory but also about challenge, discipline, character, mettle, teamwork, fair play, sportsmanship, grace, and transcendence.

And so it is in life. In the end, it’s about something much larger than victory or success alone. It’s about learning, growth, development, close relationships, commitment, purpose, contribution, and love.

“The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.”
-Martina Navratilova, professional tennis champion

And, as with sports, we must prepare not only for the race or game but the years after too.

 

Conclusion

What are my life lessons from sports? Playing sports has shaped me in so many ways. I loved being on the field with my teammates. Training in the Texas heat and dripping with sweat. Staring down the curve of my lane from the starting line, waiting for the gun. The camaraderie and joy on the bus on the way back from a competition.

I made lifelong friends and learned so much about myself, life, and leadership. I’m thankful not only for the moments in competition but also for their strong and lasting echoes.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What have you learned from sports or other activities or endeavors that have enriched your life?
  2. What more will you do to honor those lessons and carry them forward in your life today?

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Articles and Books

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Sports, Life, and Leadership

  • “Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” -Pat Riley, former NBA basketball coach and player
  • “I always felt that our triumphs were an expression of the consistent application of discipline.” -Alex Ferguson, Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United
  • “Hard days are the best because that’s when champions are made.” -Gabby Douglas, artistic gymnast and Olympic champion
  • “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” -Fred DeVito, fitness expert and entrepreneur
  • “Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.” -W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis
  • “You miss 100 percent of all the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey champion (a.k.a., “the great one”)
  • “Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” -Lou Brock, professional baseball player
  • “Anxiety is fear about what may happen in the future, and it occurs only when the mind is imagining what the future may bring. But when your attention is on the here and now, the actions which need to be done in the present have their best chance of being successfully accomplished, and as a result the future will become the best possible present.” -W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis
  • “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey champion (a.k.a., “the great one”)
  • Audentis fortuna iuvat.” (“Fortune favors the bold.”) -Virgil, ancient Roman poet
  • “I may win and I may lose, but I will never be defeated.” -Emmitt Smith, former NFL running back and all-time leading rusher
“Every time a football player goes out to ply his trade he’s got to play from the ground up—from the soles of his feet right up to his head.  Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That’s O.K. You’ve got be smart to be No. 1 in any business.  But more important, you’ve got to play with your heart—with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.”
-Vince Lombardi, legendary American football coach, Green Bay Packers,
considered by many to be the greatest coach in football history

(1) I always thought the 800 was worse.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Get his monthly newsletter. Gregg was a co-captain of his high school and college soccer teams and high school track team, First-State in high school track, and collegiate Academic All-American soccer player (Division III). If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Relationships in Our Lives

Article Summary: 

On the costs of social isolation and loneliness, the benefits of close relationships on our health, wellbeing, and happiness, and how to develop and maintain close relationships.

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Loneliness and disconnection are big problems these days for many. This year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the “public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection.” He noted, “Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” According to a Guardian article, about 20 percent of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives.”

“Loneliness hangs over our culture today like a thick smog.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

Workaholism and the dramatic increase of screen time in our lives both aggravate the problem. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours, according to a recent Forbes report.

If we want to address the issues, first we need to understand them clearly, so let’s begin by defining the relevant phenomena.

 

Defining the Problem(s)

There are several factors at work, from loneliness and social isolation to solitude.

In his book, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness, Dr. Murthy defines loneliness as “the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need.” He explains:

“It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong—even if you’re surrounded by other people. What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community.”

Loneliness is a normal human emotion. We all experience it, but it can become problematic when we feel it too often. Researchers have identified several types of loneliness, including:

  1. intimate loneliness: when we feel we don’t have trust and a mutual bond with an intimate partner or close confidante.
  2. relational loneliness: when we feel we don’t have quality friendships and social support.
  3. collective loneliness: when we feel we don’t have a network or community of people who share our interests and values.
“These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community.”
-Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his book, Together

Loneliness isn’t the same as social isolation. Researchers define social isolation as a lack of relationships with others and little to no social contact or support. Obviously, such social isolation often leads to feelings of loneliness.

Another related phenomenon is solitude. Some people conflate it with loneliness, but that’s a mistake. Researchers define solitude as a state of being alone and note that it can be voluntary or involuntary.

Solitude, it’s worth noting, can be positive. For example, it can help us have more time to reflect (a valuable thing when many of us lack margin in our lives) and lead to greater self-awareness. Also, solitude can help us develop authenticity and become more familiar with and comfortable being ourselves. Dr. Murthy points out that, perhaps surprisingly, solitude can help protect against loneliness.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Costs of Loneliness and Disconnection

Loneliness and social isolation can have adverse consequences in our lives. According to a large meta-analytic review of the research literature over more than 30 years by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues, “Actual and perceived social isolation” (i.e., living alone, having infrequent social contact, or having few ties with a social network) “are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.” (1)

According to researchers, loneliness and disconnection are associated with:

  1. a rise in cortisol (a stress hormone)
  2. increased blood pressure
  3. elevated blood sugar levels
  4. inflammation
  5. worse immune functioning
  6. poorer health behaviors (such as physical inactivity, worse sleep, and smoking)
  7. faster aging
  8. higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia
  9. greater likelihood of premature mortality (1)

According to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, poor or insufficient connection come with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia among older adults. Also, lacking social connection can increase risk of premature death by more than 60 percent. (2) It can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers.

As if the physical health effects weren’t bad enough, loneliness and isolation often contribute to mental health challenges as well. For example, the risk of developing depression among adults who report feeling lonely often is more than double the risk among people who report feeing lonely rarely or never. When it comes to children, loneliness and social isolation elevate the risk of anxiety and depression both immediately and far into the future.

“Today it’s widely understood that one of the most important factors
in preventing and addressing toxic stress in children is healthy social connection.”
-Vivek H. Murthy, Together

Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. Many people have a tendency to go it alone through hard times and transitions, perhaps from their personality or upbringing. Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for more hardship.

“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact…. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most…. disconnection spirals into more disconnection…. many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgment, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world. They snowball into an ever colder place.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

 

The Benefits of Relationships

Forming and maintaining relationships, by contrast, comes with many benefits, according to researchers. British-Swiss journalist and author Johann Hari notes that just as bees evolved to be part of a hive, so we humans evolved to be part of a tribe. It stands to reason that there’s an evolutionary basis behind our urge to connect with others and form social bonds. Doing so helps us survive and reproduce, and it helps us access support in times of danger, distress, or trauma.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”
-Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener,
Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth

Social bonds are not just about surviving but also about belonging and thriving. Enter what psychologists call the “belongingness hypothesis”: that we have a “pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships.” (3) In a major review of the research literature on interpersonal attachments, researchers Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary found that our need to belong has two main features:

  • first, we need frequent interactions with others that are positive or pleasant (or at least mostly free from conflict)
  • second, we want interpersonal bonds that are stable and continuing and marked by genuine concern (and, ideally, mutual concern)

According to researchers, social relationships benefit our immune system as well as our cardiovascular and endocrine (hormone regulation) functions. (4)

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Relationships and Happiness

Researchers have long tied the quality of our relationships to our wellbeing, happiness, and sense of fulfillment. The connection also shows up in surveys. According to a large 2023 Pew Research Center study, 61 percent of U.S. adults say that having close friends is extremely or very important in order for people to live a fulfilling life. (5)

The research on the link between social connections and happiness is extensive and powerful. (See the Appendix.)

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness

According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California Riverside, “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional.” In other words, when we improve our relationships, we’re likely to experience positive emotions. Then, our enhanced feelings of those positive emotions are likely to help us attract more relationships (and ones that are of high quality). That, in turn, will help make us even happier. She calls it “a continuous positive feedback loop” and “an upward spiral.”

 

The Dark Side of Relationships

Though the benefits are clear, we should also note that not all relationships are positive or beneficial. Far from it.

Many people are in relationships that are poor, manipulative, abusive, or even toxic. And good people sometimes have profound flaws that not only get themselves into trouble but also hurt others. Of course, all relationships go through ups and downs, and it’s not realistic to assume that they’ll induce happiness all the time. In fact, many people get themselves into trouble by expecting too much from their relationships, as opposed to doing the inner work of intentional improvement. Researchers have noted that relationships can be extremely stressful. (6)

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Maintain Close Connections and Relationships

Since relationships are so important to physical and mental health and happiness, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture them. Here are things we can do to develop and maintain our relationships:

  1. Make time for important people in our lives and avoid the traps of perpetual busyness and workaholism that pull us away from them. Stop neglecting people and start cherishing them, starting with attention and quality time.
  2. Be honest, trustworthy, and reliable.
  3. Show interest in them.
  4. Open up and share our inner life, including our hopes, challenges, and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  5. Demonstrate loyalty and commitment to family and friends.
  6. Support family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  7. Show them we care with our actions as well as our words.
  8. Show them appreciation often.
  9. Express affection (e.g., holding hands, hugging, cuddling, massage). We humans are wired to need physical contact, and researchers have found a link between touch deprivation and many negative health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and immune system disorders.
  10. Celebrate good news with them.
  11. Be polite and considerate.
  12. Listen more and better.
  13. Be positive—and don’t fall into the traps of complaining/muttering, catastrophizing, or having a victim mentality.
  14. Strive to understand their context, interests, and perspectives.
  15. Seek common ground and mutual interests.
  16. Treat them as they wish to be treated.
  17. Show understanding and empathy.
  18. Stop blaming others so much and take responsibility for our part in things.
  19. Respect their preferences and boundaries.
  20. Manage conflict well, including forthrightly and deftly raising concerns or disagreements instead of letting them fester.
  21. Avoid disrespect and contempt.
  22. Don’t hold grudges.
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
-A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 

Conclusion

Our relationships with others are among the most precious gifts we can have in life. Too many people lose sight of that as they get lost in work, materialism, concerns or the day, or petty grievances.

One of the reasons that connections and relationships are so important in our lives—and such powerful contributors to our happiness—is that they get us out of our egoic shell. They get us to focus on others. It’s through our relationships that we can become better people by developing our empathy and compassion and giving part of ourselves to others.

Connect deeply and often. Do it gladly and urgently. You won’t regret it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you neglecting any important relationships in your life?
  2. Are you doing enough to develop new relationships?
  3. Are you doing enough to maintain your existing relationships that are important to you?
  4. What else will you do, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books and Podcasts

  • Vivek Murthy, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness (Harper, 2020)
  • Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (Bloomsbury USA, 2018)
  • The Life-Changing Power of Connecting with Others,” episode 410, December 12, 2023 on the Feel Better Live More podcast with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee

 

Appendix: Research on Connections and Relationships

The research on the centrality of close relationships to our health, wellbeing, happiness, and fulfillment is extensive. Here are some important studies:

 

Harvard Study of Adult Development

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for their entire adult lives. The study began in 1938 and is continuing to this day (after having multiple study directors) with its “Second Generation Study.” The study has evaluated mental and physical health and wellbeing, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality via interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, Professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) 70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

 

Study of the Happiest People

In a study of 222 undergraduates, screened for high happiness using multiple confirming assessment filters, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. They found that the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest people was the strength of their social relationships. (7)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life.
And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

 

World Values Survey

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are: social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income per capita, and healthy life expectancy. (Note how many of these factors are social.)

 

The Blue Zones

Dan Buettner, explorer, author, and American National Geographic Fellow, has written extensively about the “blue zones”: regions in the world where people live, or have recently lived, much longer than average, including many centenarians. The blue zones identified are: Okinawa Prefecture, Japan; Nuoro Province, Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, U.S.

According to Buettner, there are common patterns of behavior across the blue zones, several of which concern relationships:

  • Belong”: belonging to and participating in a faith-based or spiritual community and attending services regularly.
  • Loved Ones First”: putting their families first, committing to a life partner, investing in their children with time and love, establishing and maintaining family and social rituals, and keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home
  • “Right Tribe”: surrounding themselves with a tribe of people that they interact act with often and over their lifetimes (e.g., Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life).
“The most successful centenarians we met in the Blue Zones put their families first. They tend to marry, have children, and build their lives around that core. Their lives were imbued with familial duty, ritual, and a certain emphasis on togetherness.”
-Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Relationships and Connections

  • “Union gives strength.” -Aesop, “The Bundle of Sticks,” 550 B.C.
  • “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” -Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 (English Standard Version)
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, statesman, and U.S. president
  • “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” -Erich Fromm, German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and sociologist
  • “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. You need one because you are human.” -Jane Howard, Families
  • “We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved…. While loneliness engenders despair and ever more isolation, togetherness raises optimism and creativity. When people feel they belong to one another, their lives are stronger, richer, and more joyful.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “There are two pillars of happiness… One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” -George Vaillant, psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, former director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman, USC professor
  • “What often matters is not the quantity or frequency of social contact but the quality of our connections and how we feel about them.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.” -Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver, Wellesley College
  • “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.” -U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” -Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (writing about an epiphany he had while in a concentration camp and thinking about his beloved wife, Tilly)

 

References

(1) Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.

(2) Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community,” Washington, D.C., 2023.

(3) Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

(4) Umberson, D. & Montez, J.K. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66.

(5) Kim Parker and Rachel Minken, “Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family,” Pew Research Center, September 14, 2023.

(6) Walen, Heather R.; Lachman, Margie E. Social Support and Strain from Partner, Family, and Friends: Costs and Benefits for Men and Women in Adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2000; 17:5–30.

(7) Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

20 Benefits of Gratitude

It’s easy to take things for granted. We may appreciate things for a while but, sure enough, we eventually start discounting them. The unhappy result is that we can go through long stretches of our lives without noticing the good things.

The benefits of gratitude show up not only in hordes of modern scientific studies but also in centuries of shared wisdom. All the major religions encourage and celebrate gratitude. And many great spiritual teachers have been powerful exemplars of living with a grateful heart attuned to the wonders of creation.

 

20 Benefits of Gratitude in Our Lives

Feeling gratitude has an astonishing number of benefits. Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky from University of California, Riverside and other researchers have found that gratitude can:

1. Magnify good feelings.

2. Improve our sense of wellbeing, happiness, and overall life satisfaction.

“If you want to find happiness, find gratitude.”
-Steve Maraboli, author

3. Lead to better mental and physical health, including lower blood pressure, better sleep, and a stronger immune system.

4. Boost our energy and enhance our vitality.

5. Bolster our capacity for optimism.

6. Reduce negative feelings like anger, bitterness, self-centeredness, envy, and greed—all of which inhibit our happiness—and curb our tendency to compare ourselves to others.

7. Lead to greater generosity, kindness, and helpfulness (“prosocial” behaviors).

8. Help us form closer and better relationships with friends and—and maintain them over time.

9. Expand our social network, giving us access to more friends and greater social support—while making it less likely that we’re lonely and disconnected.

10. Affect our brains in positive and lasting ways, including an orientation toward enjoying it when other people thrive.

11. Shift our attention away from negative emotions (e.g., fault, criticism, regret) and toward positive ones (e.g., benefit, abundance, joy), making it harder for us to ruminate.

12. Help us cope with and build resilience in the face of stress and traumatic events.

“…it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
-Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis

13. Help us become more forgiving.

14. Enhance our sense of self-worth. (We feel more capable and confident when we realize how much others have done for us or how much we’ve accomplished.)

15. Reduce our tendency to complain and feel like a victim since it focuses our attention on what we value and appreciate.

16. Help us maintain a broader and better perspective in which we can place our challenges in the larger context of abundance and privilege.

17. Address the problem of “hedonic adaptation,” in which we tend to grow rapidly accustomed to the things we wanted and got.

18. Help our children and youth. According to research, more grateful adolescents and college students show keener interest in school, do better academically, have better social relationships, and enjoy their educational experience more.

19. Help people facing drug and alcohol addiction.

20. Provide some degree of protection against depression and suicidal ideation.

What will you do to start bringing more gratitude into your life, starting today?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on the Benefits of Gratitude

  • “Gratitude is one of the sweet shortcuts to finding peace of mind and happiness inside.” -Barry Neil Kaufman, author
  • “Opportunities, relationships, even money flowed my way when I learned to be grateful no matter what happened in my life.” -Oprah Winfrey, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” -Brother David Steindl-Rast, Catholic-Benedictine monk and scholar
  • “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” -Melody Beattie, author
  • “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.” -Tal Ben-Shahar, teacher and writer
  • “Living in a state of gratitude is the gateway to grace.” -Arianna Huffington, Greek-American entrepreneur and author
  • “Gratitude opens the door to the power, the wisdom, the creativity of the universe. You open the door through gratitude.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

Article Summary: 

What is a vision of the good life? Why is it hard to create one? What are the benefits of having a vision of the good life? How to craft a vision of the good life?

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Working hard but lacking energy and motivation?
Busy but feeling depleted?
Not sure what you want anymore—or what direction to take?
Feeling overcommitted, juggling too many things?

These are common feelings these days, even among high achievers and committed parents and citizens. The problem is that, if we let them go for too long, things can start unraveling. We begin to see a gap between where we are now and where we’d like to be. And then the gap grows.

These are signs that we’re lacking a clear vision for our lives—or that we’ve lost sight of it. Sometimes, we find ourselves living someone else’s vision.

“Ester asked why people are sad.
‘That’s simple,’ says the old man. ‘They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.’” -Paolo Coelho, The Zahir

 

What Is a Vision of the Good Life?

A vision is a bold and vivid picture of a better future. Many organizations have a vision statement. But vision isn’t only for organizations. It’s for us too.

In the context of our lives, a vision of the good life should clearly describe who we want to become, what we want to do, and where we want to go. A vision of the good life is the dream destination of our lives.

“Vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be.”
-Pastor Andy Stanley, Visioneering

In essence, our vision statement is an authentic rendering of how our purpose and core values can play out in the world. A personal vision statement asks:

Who do we want to be?
What do we want to do and contribute in life?
Who do we want to share it with?

 

Why Vision Is Hard

Crafting a vision of the good life can be difficult for many. There are many obstacles that can get in the way.

For starters, we’re constrained by what researchers call “presentism”: Harvard University professor Daniel Gilbert notes that our “imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present…. Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.”

Many of us have what’s called “status quo bias”: a preference for maintaining our current state of affairs. There’s also the fear factor. It takes courage to confront obstacles and still envision a better future.

Another challenge is the trap of caring too much about what others think. This can direct us toward the vision of others and away from our own vision. Other traps that can get in the way include the complacency of drifting through our lives or settling for just okay.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Some people resist or struggle with the idea of having a vision of the good life because it sounds abstract and distant. But neither “vision” nor “good life” has to be complicated. A vision, as we’ve seen, is simply a picture of our desired future. And authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro define the good life simply and crisply:

“living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work—on purpose.”

Keep in mind that vision is different from purpose and goals. Our purpose is our reason for being, and we should think of it as timeless. Our goals are the objectives we want to accomplish, and they’re best thought of in shorter increments (e.g., today or this month or year). By contrast, our life vision is a vivid description of what we aspire to do with our lives. It’s best thought of over a lifetime (or at least a decade). (Obviously, people can choose to have a three-year vision, a five-year vision, etc. if they wish.)

 

The Benefits of Having a Vision

Having a vision of the good life can be catalytic. It can help us:

  • develop a clear sense of direction
  • get recentered when we feel lost
  • put our precious time and energy into what we really want
  • reclaim a sense of agency and control over our lives
  • know where to focus our attention and energy—and which detours to avoid
  • connect the dots between the different aspects of our lives
  • get back in the driver’s seat of our lives
  • make decisions and select which opportunities to pursue
  • set and enforce personal and professional boundaries
  • craft our goals, since they should flow naturally from our vision
  • get our motivation back, even during difficult times
  • boost our confidence
  • help us overcome doubt and fear
  • reduce our feelings of overwhelm because we’re clearer about what matters
  • get help from others because we have a clearer sense of what we want
  • live more proactively and intentionally
  • improve our performance

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Craft a Vision of the Good Life

There are many ways to approach crafting a vision of the good life. Different approaches will work for different people. Here are some suggested approaches:

Begin by looking back to our childhood dreams. Many of us had dreams when we were younger—dreams, for example, of being an astronaut or an athlete, an author or a ballerina, a teacher or a firefighter. Many times, those dreams don’t so much point to the profession we actually choose as they do contain certain clues about our deeper make-up as a person—clues like wanting to explore, be active, create, make beauty, or help others.

Get in the habit of thinking more about the future we want, including who we want to be and how we’ll go about making it happen.

Think not just about big accomplishments but also about what we’d like everyday life to be like. Think about our normal days in the future. A vision of the good life isn’t only about aspiration and accomplishment. It’s also about peace and joy.

Look inward to capture our authentic essence. Our articulation of where we want to go should be grounded in who we are. Many people don’t look inward before projecting outward.

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”

-Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Clarify not only the mental picture of our desired future but also how we seek to feel in that desired future. That can include the feeling we want to bring to that future as well as the feeling we want to get in it.

Reflect on our view of the good life. What would living a good life mean for us and those we love?

Ensure the vision covers the important areas of our lives. A well-designed vision paints a picture of our desired destination across all the important aspects of our lives: family, work, health, education, service, community, hobbies, travel, and perhaps more.

Think also about an audacious aspiration for our life—something that’s challenging but would be amazing if we could make it happen.

“Fortune favors the audacious.”
-Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus
Dutch Christian humanist, theologian, and philosopher

Now take inputs from the points above and turn them into a vision statement draft. Start with statements or bullet points, and then form them into a paragraph or a page or two about our vision of the good life. It works best when we think ahead and put ourselves in it, writing in the present tense, noting what kind of person we are, where we are, who we’re with, what we’re doing, etc.

Think about how we’d like to be remembered by loved ones and others at the end of our life. What would be a life we’d be proud of?

Get clear on what would provide the most value to the people we’re committed to serving. How are we best positioned to help, given our strengths and passions, and which groups or causes?

Get clear on the things that provide the most meaning in our lives and build those into our vision, including what’s important to us and what would be worth spending our time on. It’s a good sign if we’d do it even without getting paid for it.

Share an early draft with trusted friends and colleagues and seek their input—and help. Revise it based on their input, but only the input we wholeheartedly agreed with. After all, this is our vision of the good life, not theirs.

Consider working with a coach or mentor to help with the vision crafting process. Often, it’s helpful with an outside perspective.

(See the Appendix for other options if these approaches aren’t working for you.)

 

Criteria to Use in Crafting Our Vision

For some, the vision crafting process will be one of the most valuable things they ever do. Given that, we should have a high standard for the output and a good process for developing it intentionally.

As we craft a vision for our lives, we should ensure that it’s:

  1. Clear and vivid in its description
  2. Aligned with our true authentic essence, unique to us, including our purpose and core values
  3. Unbounded by the status quo
  4. Distant enough that we have to work toward it (a lifetime, or at least ten years in the future)
  5. Broad enough to encompass all the major aspects of our lives (including personal, professional, and relationships)
  6. Motivating and inspiring to us, flooding our heart with palpable emotion and fueling us with conviction

Our life vision should fill us with energy and raise our sights for what we can do with our days on Earth.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Some Cautions about the Vision Process

There are many potential pitfalls in the vision crafting process, so some cautions are in order.

Though clear and vivid, our vision shouldn’t be prescriptive. It should be directional but not tactical, not interloping into how we will get there (the realm of strategy and tactics). Also avoid making it vague and generic. Someone who knows us well should recognize us clearly in our vision.

Our vision can change over the years, and that’s okay. But if we’ve done it well, it shouldn’t change too often. That would be jarring and confounding.

Our vision statement doesn’t have to be perfect. View it as a draft—as a work-in-process that can and should change over time.

Watch out for too much focus on ego or material possessions in our vision. We know those are false friends destined to disappoint in the final analysis. Better to focus instead on connection and contribution.

Our vision is worthless without action. What’s the point if it just sits in a drawer? We’re wise to read our vision statement regularly (e.g., every month or quarter) and get to work on making it come alive.

 

Making Our Vision a Reality

It’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll travel a linear path to realize our vision. Stuff happens. Circumstances change. But we’re wise to hold fast to our vision and keep working to bring it to life.

“A vision without a plan is a delusion.”
-Neil Kurtz, CEO of Golden Living

We’re especially wise to clarify what knowledge and skills we need to develop now to be able to live into that desired future—and then block out time to get them.

We should start taking action now on things that will bring us closer to our vision—and do that every day.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
-Epictetus, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher

 

Conclusion

In the end, our lives are short. Many people find themselves late in life with deep regrets. Why not set a marker now for how we’ll live and then pursue it with abandon?

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have a vision of the good life?
  2. To what extent are you clear about what a good life would be for you?
  3. Is it informing the choices you make and actions you take on a regular basis?
  4. Are you moving toward it?
  5. What’s stopping you?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Appendix: Other Options for the Vision Process

The visioning process is challenging for many. What works for one person may not work well for another. With that in mind, here are some other options for the vision crafting process:

Start with a “mind map.” Take a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, then write the word “Vision” in the middle of the page. Then add words, phrases, or images all around the page with things that may be included in your envisioning of a good life. Don’t edit. Just write or draw.

Use a vision board. Gather an array of photos, images, inspirational quotes, or other symbolic representations of your idea of a good life. Place them on a large poster sheet that can be displayed prominently in your home or office as a visual reminder of what you’d like your life to be like.

Consider drawing your vision of the good life. (Some way want to start with this.) The point isn’t artistry but rather creative symbols that represent your deepest aspirations. Have fun with it. Aristotle observed that “the soul never thinks without a picture.”

Consider journaling as a place to start to gather ideas. Sometimes starting more informally with private thoughts can help break the logjam of self-consciousness.

Clarify how you define success in different areas of your life, including both personal and professional. Build the most salient aspects of your desired success into your vision of the good life.

Write a letter from the future. Imagine yourself at the end of your life, having lived a good life. Write a letter from that future version of you to the you of today, describing what life is like, who you’ve become and what you’ve done, and how it feels.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Vision

  • “There is no favorable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where to go.” -Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
  • “I’ve seen the promised land.” -Martin Luther King, Jr., minister, activist, and civil-rights leader
  • “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” -Proverbs 29:18
  • “I learned to organize my life around my dream, rather than try to force my dream into my chaotic life.” -Sonia Choquette, spiritual teacher and author
  • “See things as you would have them be instead of as they are.” -Robert Collier, author
  • “Connecting with one’s dreams releases one’s passion, energy, and excitement about life…. The key is uncovering your ideal self—the person you would like to be, including what you want in your life and work.” -Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence
  • “…people stop dreaming because they got caught up in the hustle and bustle of surviving. And once we stop dreaming, we start to lead lives of quiet desperation, and little by little the passion and energy begin to disappear from our lives.” -Matthew Kelly, The Dream Manager
  • “All mean dream: but not equally. Those that dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” -T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
  • “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, novelist
  • “The happiest people in life operate out of their imaginations and dreams, not their histories.” -Ed Mylett, The Power of One More
  • “Everyone is inspired by those who follow their dream.” -Maria Nemeth, Founder and Director, Academy for Coaching Excellence
  • “Be strong on vision, but flexible on detail.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman, Amazon
  • “Despite the myth of the heroic visionary leader, there is little about developing and pursuing a vision that should be a solo endeavor.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Integrating Our Passions into Our Life and Work

In the world of personal development, passion is one of the things that’s most misunderstood. “Follow your passion” is common advice.

But is it right?

The answer may surprise you.

 

What Is a Passion?

Our passions are the things that consume us with palpable emotion over time. They’re the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Researchers have defined passions as strong inclinations toward activities we value and like or love, and in which we invest our time and energy. (1)

Author and coach Curt Rosengren calls passion “the energy that comes from bringing more of you into what you do. In essence, passion comes from being who you are.” Our passions are connected with our intrinsic motivation (our impulse to do something because of the inherent satisfaction of doing so and not the desire for a reward for it)—and with our innate talents and abilities.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Not Feeling Passion at Work

We can have passions in different domains of our lives. What are the signs of passion at work? The signs include loving our work, wanting to talk often about what we like about our work, or finding ourselves working extra hours even when we don’t have to, mainly for the inherent satisfaction.

To what extent are people passionate about their work?

According to the data analysis team at Zippia, only 20% of U.S. workers are passionate about their job. Around the world, according to the 2013 State of the Global Workplace report by Gallup, only 13% of workers are passionate about their work.

 

 The Benefits of Integrating Our Passions into Our Life and Work

There are powerful benefits to integrating passions into our life and work, according to researchers. For example, doing so can:

  • boost our motivation and engagement
  • increase our productivity and persistence
  • enhance our focus and creativity
  • help us achieve our goals
  • motivate us to keep learning, growing, and developing in that area
  • help us be more resilient in the face of challenges
  • lead to more happiness and fulfillment
  • help us avoid burnout
  • lead to much higher job satisfaction, according to a meta-analysis that reviewed data from nearly a hundred different studies (2)
  • lead to better work performance, according to a meta-analysis of sixty studies conducted over the past six decades
“Passion is the driver of achievement in all fields.”
-Sir Ken Robinson, author and advisor on education in the arts

Passion is also contagious. People pick up on our enthusiasm, and it can inspire them to find and work in their areas of passion as well.

There’s also a flip side to this: there’s much lost when we don’t have passion for what we’re doing. When we’re not living and working with passion, we’re much more likely to lack enthusiasm and “phone it in.” Over time, this can put us on a downward trajectory.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Confusion about Passion

Passion can be tricky because it often gets confused with other things, including hobbies and interests. Passion is related to these things, but there are important differences.

  • A hobby is something we do for pleasure or relaxation and not as our main occupation.
  • An interest is a feeling of wanting to be involved in something or to learn more about it, or something that attracts and holds our attention.
  • A passion, as noted above, is something that consumes us with palpable emotion over time.

A key difference, then, between passions and hobbies and interests is the degree to which we’re emotionally invested in the activity. And this can change over time. A hobby can turn into a passion, and vice versa.

 

How to Know What Our Passions Are

To determine our passions, we can take assessments and/or observe our own experiences and ask ourselves questions like the following:

  1. What things bring me joy?
  2. Which subjects interest me the most, continually drawing me in?
  3. What would I keep doing enthusiastically even if I didn’t get paid for it?
  4. What am I continually curious about?
  5. What things do I get excited about doing or discovering?
  6. What fills me up with energy and makes me come alive?
  7. What activities do I lose myself in, losing track of time?
  8. What problem(s) do I feel compelled to solve?
  9. What am I curious about or fascinated with?
  10. Is there something I long to master?
  11. Is there a person, group, place, or cause that I feel compelled to help (e.g., youth, my hometown, endangered species, the planet)?
  12. What lit me up when I was a child?

We can also ask for feedback from others (e.g., family, friends, colleagues, mentors) about what they observe about our passions and how we can integrate them into our life and work.

Finally, we’re wise to experiment and explore possibilities—to try things.

 

Passion and Grit

Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania Professor and co-founder of the Character Lab, notes that a passion isn’t about just obsession. It’s also about consistency over time—about how steadily we work on certain things with sustained and enduring devotion.

In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she writes that a passion isn’t just something we care about and enjoy intrinsically, but something we care about “in an abiding, loyal, steady way.” She ties passion to what she calls “grit,” which is a combination of “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.”

 

Passions Can Develop and Deepen over Time

Professor Duckworth notes that passions tend to be developed more than they’re discovered. In other words, there’s an important time dimension that tends to proceed with certain components, including interest, experimentation, discovery, development over time, practice, purpose, and persistence.

It begins, she notes, with interest—with intrinsically enjoying what we do. She notes that interests are typically “triggered by interactions with the outside world” and experimentation, and not discovered through introspection or analysis. Then, she writes, “what follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention—again and again and again.” In other words, the fire will go out if not tended to.

For the passion to blossom, it should be an activity that we practice—with “the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday”—ideally leading to mastery.

For the passion to ripen, she reports, it should be connected to our purpose (our reason for being), with a conviction that our work matters. That means not only connecting to our personal interests but also to how we can serve or contribute to the wellbeing of others.

For us to maintain a passion, we must persevere with it through the inevitable challenges and setbacks.

In a nutshell, Duckworth recommends focusing not on following our passions but on fostering them intentionally and systematically over time.

“…here’s what science has to say: passion for your work is a little bit of discovery,
followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.
-Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Integrate Our Passions into Our Life and Work

It’s one thing to know what our passions are (which isn’t straightforward for everyone), while it’s another thing to integrate them into our life and work.

For one thing, there are practical challenges. We live in the real world, with bills and mortgages to pay and retirements to save for. So, for starters, many people have given up on this game from the get-go. That’s understandable, but it warrants a second look.

Here are 8 steps we can take to integrate our passions into our life and work:

  1. Of course, we must begin by knowing what our passions are. (See above.)
  2. Challenge beliefs that aren’t serving us well. For example, reconsider a belief that that it’s not realistic to have passion in our life or to be passionate about what we do for a living.
  3. Evaluate how much time we’re operating in the area of our passions. Are we in the passion zone frequently, or rarely?
  4. Set goals that align with our passions. For example, if we have a passion for learning, we can set a goal of reading one nonfiction book every month or taking a new course every year.
  5. Decide what actions we’ll take and habits we’ll adopt to operate more in the areas of our passions. For example, we can choose one or two things that we do regularly as part of our morning, mid-day, or evening routine. Calendarize them and evaluate how it’s going regularly.
  6. Determine what we’ll do to reduce the amount of time we’re working on things outside our passions.
  7. Find others who share our passions and engage with them often.
  8. Connect our passions with our purpose, including ways we can serve others.

In this process, it may also be helpful to have a coach or mentor because we may not have clarity about our passions or how we can use them more.

As we go forward, we must remember to be patient. It can take a while to right the ship.

 

Myths and Misconceptions about Passions

There are many myths and misconceptions about passions. For starters, the idea that following our passion(s) will automatically lead us to success is prevalent and even a bit of a cliché.

It’s not wrong, but it’s only partly true.

It’s not enough to follow our passions. In this competitive world, our passions need a business model. We need to do things that others are willing to pay us for. And not all passions are well-suited to being our primary occupation that brings in our required income.

Many people don’t know what their passion is—and they may be intimidated by the thought. For many of us, our passions don’t come to us in a flash that’s crystal clear and that instantly changes our lives. Many of the people Angela Duckworth interviewed told her they spent years exploring several different interests, and the core passion wasn’t recognizable at the beginning.

In his book, Deep Work, Georgetown University computer science professor and author Cal Newport notes the flawed thinking that “there are some rarified jobs” that fuel passion—”perhaps working in a nonprofit or starting a software company—while all others are soulless and bland.” He argues that we don’t need a rarefied job; rather, what we need is a rarefied approach to our work. More on that below.

Some people may not want to have their passion incorporated into their job, as it may risk soiling it or leading to burnout. Also, we don’t necessarily have ONE PASSION. We can have many, and they can change over time.

There’s also a lot of confusion about the interplay between passion and purpose. For starters, many people use these terms interchangeably. Big mistake. A passion, as we’ve seen, is something that consumes us with palpable emotion over time. By contrast, our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. Stanford University professor William Damon defines it as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.”

Ideally, we bring them closer together, tying our passions to our purpose and in the process redirecting our passions toward something more meaningful and significant.

“What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters.
For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime.”

-Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Our passions, like pretty much anything in life, are at risk of dwindling over time. We can exhaust them or burn them out if we’re not careful. Two things can help here. The first is purpose. By connecting passions to purpose, we’ll attach them to a renewable source of energy. The second is novelty. Creatively finding new ways to use our passions—and with new people and different settings—will help keep the fire burning.

 

Mindsets about Passion

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport points out that “When it comes to creating work you love, following your passion is not particularly useful advice.” He explains:

“The conventional wisdom on career success—follow your passion—is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when one’s reality inevitably falls shorts of the dream.”

The idea here is that if we have unrealistic standards about what work will be like, we’re likely to become disappointed and perhaps even cynical. Part of the problem, Newport notes, is that we have this fantasy of a perfectly right dream job waiting for us out there. We only need to find it. This is often naïve. People may have a dream job for a while, but things have a tendency to change, with new managers, organizational transformations, industry shifts, and changes in our own lives. Great work is more of a mindset and pursuit than it is a destination.

Newport distinguishes between two different mindsets about work. The first is the “passion mindset.” The idea here is that if we do what we love, the world will make us succeed. This mindset (which is common) is focused on what the world can offer us. The problem: it’s too simplistic, and it’s misleading.

The second is the “craftsman mindset” (a craftsman is skilled at a certain trade, perhaps working skillfully with his or her hands to make things with exquisite attention to quality and detail). This mindset is focused on what we can offer the world, not on what the world will do for us.

Newport urges us to adopt the craftsman mindset, not the passion mindset—and get good at something. Really good. And really good at something via developing “rare and valuable skills.” With this mindset, we can build up “career capital,” which will give us a strong base for crafting a career of great work that’s also generous with freedom and autonomy, ideally tied to a compelling purpose.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Conclusion

In the end, it’s not so much about following our passions as it is about discovering, developing, and deepening them over time—and creatively integrating them into our life and work.

Ideally, we know not only our passions but also use our strengths (the things we’re good at, based on our innate talents, knowledge, and skills) to serve groups or causes we’re motivated to support in line with our core values. That’s a powerful approach to living honorably and living well.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your passions?
  2. To what extent are you integrating your passions into your life and work (relationships, health, work, education, community, activities)?
  3. What more could you do?
  4. Is there anything preventing you from doing so and, if so, what will you do about it?
  5. What will you do differently, starting today?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Passions

  • “Allow yourself to be silently guided by that which you love the most.” -Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic
  • “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” -Steve Jobs, co-founder, Apple
  • “If there is any difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do, every day. If you want to learn anything from me, this is the best advice I can give you.” -Warren Buffett, legendary investor
  • “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist
  • “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, Amazon
  • “Paul and I, we never thought that we would make much money out of the thing. We just loved writing software.” -Bill Gates, co-founder, Microsoft
  • “I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.” -Stephen King, writer
  • “People who are connected to their passion can be spotted from a mile away.” -Mark Shearer, Executive Vice President, Pitney Bowes

(1) In the academic literature, researchers distinguish between “obsessive passions” and “harmonious passions” in what’s called the “dualistic model of passion.” With obsessive passions, we’re consumed with an activity and have a hard time letting it go. It can lead to conflicts between this activity and other important things in our life—and potentially injury, burnout, or other adverse consequences (e.g., when we keep dancing even when we’re injured). The problem occurs because we tie things like self-esteem or social acceptance to the activity, so we persist at it rigidly and develop uncontrollable urges to continue engaging in it.

With harmonious passions, by contrast, we freely accept the activity as important to us and engage in it willingly but don’t attach contingencies to it and don’t feel compelled to continue it. We’re able to leave space for other important things in our lives. Such passions lead to higher work satisfaction and don’t lead to those kinds of conflicts—or to burnout. Source: Vallerand, Robert & Paquet, Yvan & Philippe, Frederick & Charest, Julie. (2010). On the Role of Passion for Work in Burnout: A Process Model. Journal of personality. 78. 289-312.

(2) Mark Allen Morris, “A Meta-Analytic Investigation of Vocational Interest-Based Job Fit, and Its Relationship to Job Satisfaction, Performance, and Turnover,” PhD dissertation, University of Houston, 2003.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!