Are You Feeling Empty Inside?

Article Summary: 

Many people feel empty inside, even if it’s hard to admit for some. This article contains the signs and causes of feeling empty—and what to do about it.

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The feeling may be virtually undetectable, but if we’d pause to notice we may discover an inner emptiness sometimes. A silent question about whether all we’re doing is really worth it.

We may be feeling hollow or numb, or living without passion or joy. Are we racing quickly but getting nowhere in a hurry?

“Part of the problem… is that everyone is in such a hurry…. 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

Such a feeling may be hard to admit. We may pride ourselves on being a go-getter, a producer. Maybe we’re a committed spouse or parent. Or a hard-charging professional or executive. But the feeling is what it is, regardless of whether we acknowledge or resist it.

We all feel empty sometimes. That’s common. The problem comes when it’s a persistent feeling that gnaws at us and that inhibits healthy relationships and our productive functioning in the world.

In our age of plenty, with grand technological advancements and material comforts for so many, many have warned about a crisis of meaning. The pandemic called the question about our relationship to work and our priorities.

 

The Signs of Feeling Empty

What are the signs of feeling empty inside? Here are eight of the most common signs:

  1. lacking motivation or enthusiasm for our life and work
  2. feeling disconnected from ourselves or our feelings
  3. feeling distant from others, with a tendency to withdraw from others or an inability to form close relationships
  4. feeling unfulfilled and purposeless
  5. lacking energy
  6. losing interest in activities that we once found enjoyable
  7. feeling like we’re a spectator to our life and not a full and active participant in it
  8. having a sense of dissatisfaction with our lives

Such feelings may get scrambled in cognitive dissonance because we don’t like to think of ourselves as the kind of person who has them. We may feel ashamed of such feelings, as if they’re beneath us, even though they’re natural and common.

We may also be trying to cover up feelings of emptiness with other things—things like entertainment, social media, gaming, overwork, shopping, gambling, food, sugar, alcohol, etc. (See my article, “Are We Numbing Our Lives Away?“) These, of course, are only temporary salves. They may work for a while, but then the emptiness returns.

At a deeper level, feeling empty can be a defense mechanism keeping us from re-experiencing trauma, or it can be a sign of depression. (If you suspect it may be one of these, check out the mental health and emotional support resources listed at the end of this article.)

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.

 

Different Kinds of Emptiness

We should also distinguish between an inner emptiness stemming from disconnection and a kind of spiritual emptiness praised in Taoism and Zen Buddhism that allows us to free ourselves from unhealthy attachments to things like success, wealth, beauty, and certain desired outcomes. The idea is that even such good things can cause us suffering because they’re fleeting and beyond our control.

“Become totally empty / Quiet the restlessness of the mind /
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness”
-Lao Tzu (Laozi), ancient Chinese philosopher

We may want to empty ourselves of the illusion that painful things are permanent and fixed versus fluid and in flux.

We can also empty ourselves of our attachments to our thoughts. With mindfulness practice, we can merely observe our thoughts and let them come and go instead of conflating ourselves with our thoughts. (So it very much depends on the kind of emptiness we’re talking about, whether it’s an emptiness of distress or enlightenment.)

 

The Causes of Feeling Empty

There are many things that can cause the distressing feeling of emptiness. One of the most common causes is physical and mental exhaustion. This can come from many thing—often a combination of things—including insufficient sleep, poor self-care (e.g., neglecting regular exercise and movement and good nutrition and sleep habits), racing around to family activities, or a stressful job with a demanding boss. Such things can snowball into burnout.

In his wonderful little book, Let Your Life Speak, educator and author Parker Palmer describes a deeper form of burnout:

“Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess—the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”
-Parker Palmer, educator and author

Feeling empty can also be caused by many other things, including:

  1. loneliness
  2. repressing our emotions
  3. losing ourselves in an all-consuming relationship that leaves precious little time for ourselves
  4. spending too much time on social media, streaming sites, or gaming
  5. feeling exhausted from mental rumination about painful thoughts and the associated negative self-talk
  6. suspecting that we may need a different job or career, or that we’re settling for something that’s just okay
  7. lack of clarity about our purpose, values, vision, or goals (see my related articles, “The Problem of Not Being Clear About Our Purpose” and “The Problem of Not Being Clear About Our Values”)
  8. losing touch with ourselves and our inner life
  9. living a divided life, with a lack of coherence between our inner and outer self, or living in ways that violate our core values or that don’t center us in our purpose
  10. lacking self-awareness (e.g., about our purpose, values, strengths, passions, and the traps we’re in)
  11. not having enough clarity about or movement toward our goals and dreams

At a deeper level, feeling emptiness can also come from experiencing trauma, with our mind and body wanting us to emotionally detach from the pain, thereby making us feel empty inside as we struggle to access our feelings.

According to Dr. Margaret Paul, psychologist and author, ultimately there’s only one root cause of feeling inner emptiness: a lack of love. She notes that it’s not a lack of someone else’s love, but rather a lack of love of ourselves, or what she calls “self-abandonment.” This often comes from an ego that draws the wrong conclusion from our experiences in the world, making us believe that we’re not worthy of love when in fact we are.

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.

 

What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to address prolonged feelings of emptiness that inhibit our quality of life. Here are some practices and mindset shifts:

  1. stop ignoring the feeling of emptiness and acknowledge it, giving ourselves grace and not judging ourselves harshly for feeling that way, instead allowing the feelings to flow through us and then letting go
  2. resolve to identify and address the root causes of our pain and anxiety, since avoiding them only brings a temporary reprieve and ends up harming our emotional well-being over time
  3. notice when we feel empty and what we’re doing and with whom, so we can avoid these emptiness triggers
  4. reframe our mindset from a sense of dread that we’re flawed to a helpful signal that there’s something in our life that needs attention
  5. figure out what self-care practices work best for us and double down on those
  6. make a list of fun, engaging, and fulfilling activities and people and build them into our schedule
  7. reinvest in learning and growing (e.g., via courses, books, podcasts, TED talks, etc.)
  8. learn a new skill or develop a current skill further
  9. engage in a creative practice such as songwriting or dance
  10. limit our time on social media, email, streaming, gaming, etc.
  11. reach out to family, friends, and loved ones, or make new friends
  12. get clarity about our purpose and core values, then creatively building them into our life and work
  13. write down our goals, aspirations, and vision of the good life to give us a sense of where we’d like to go in our life
  14. seek people and situations that help us feel loved, supported, and whole (and avoid people and situations that make us feel empty)
  15. recruit an accountability partner to help us do things that fill us up or challenge us
  16. form a small group where we can be open and vulnerable and lean on each other for support
  17. establish a daily spiritual practice, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, reading, meditation, or yoga
  18. stop avoiding responsibility for our current situation
  19. get in the habit of journaling for self-expression and self-awareness or writing a gratitude journal (see also this list from Lifehack of 32 things to be grateful for)
  20. seek professional help from a therapist our counselor, if needed (see the resources listed at the end of this article)

The point is not to do all, or even most, of these things. Rather, the point is to start with one or two that seem most promising or intriguing and build from there, paying attention to what’s most helpful and what isn’t.

Ultimately, feeling empty may signal that we’re becoming more aware and conscious of what’s important in our lives—and the deeper experiences we may be missing. That can be a very good thing if we have the foresight and courage to do something about it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you feeling empty inside?
  2. Is it an occasional feeling or something that’s been persistent and that has started to detract from your life and work?
  3. If the latter, what will you do about it?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

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.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Emptiness

  • “Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken.” -George Eliot, English novelist
  • “Feeling empty is often a sign that you’re disconnected from something—whether that be your soul, a lack of meaning/purpose, or your emotions.” -Aletheia Luna, writer and educator
  • “You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” -Carl Sagan
  • “The hard work of sowing seed in what looks like perfectly empty earth has, as every farmer knows, a time of harvest. All suffering, all pain, all emptiness, all disappointment is seed: sow it in God and he will, finally, bring a crop of joy from it.” -Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
“I have met too many people who suffer from an empty self. They have a bottomless pit where their identity should be—an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others. We embrace attitudes and practices such as these not because we regard ourselves superior but because we have no sense of self at all. Putting others down becomes a path to identity, a path we would not need to walk if we knew who we were…. as community is torn apart by various political and economic forces, more and more people suffer from the empty self syndrome.”
-Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

 

Resources for Mental Health and Crisis Prevention

Consult a mental health professional if you believe it may be depression or if your feelings are debilitating and not merely occasional. Here are some support resources:

Featured image source: Adobe Stock

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 leadership and personal development. 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 Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Values

The Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Values

Article Summary:

Many of us get into trouble when we start living and leading in ways that conflict with our values. That usually starts with not knowing what our core values are.

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Our values are what’s most important to us. What we believe and stand for. Our convictions about what’s most important in life.

“Your core values are the deeply held beliefs that authentically describe your soul.”
-John C. Maxwell

Many of us get into trouble when we start living and leading in ways that conflict with our values. First, we must know what our core values are.

 

The Costs of Lacking Clarity on Our Values

Lacking clarity about our core values can get us into trouble in many areas.

For example, lacking clarity about our core values makes it harder to:

  • be decisive and make decisions, including good decisions about career and work
  • determine our top priorities
  • be assertive about what we stand for
  • maintain clarity and poise during challenges
  • identify misalignments in our lives (such as when we’re overinvesting in our work and underinvesting in our relationships)
  • discover our purpose
  • bring more meaning and significance into our lives
“Perhaps the most significant thing a person can know about himself
is to understand his own system of values.
Almost every thing we do is a reflection
of our own personal value system.”
-Jacques Fresco

Lacking clarity about our values reduces or weakens our:

  • character
  • confidence
  • motivation
  • willpower to persist through challenges
  • stress resilience
  • satisfaction at work
  • performance at work
  • leadership effectiveness

It also makes it easier for:

    • us to lose focus on things that matter most
    • our negative self-talk to hijack our inner dialogue
    • us to make poor choices in choosing a life partner (due to a major values misalignment)

Lacking clarity about our values makes it less likely that we’ll:

    • be fully authentic
    • make needed improvements in our lives (e.g., healthier eating or more exercise)
    • move forward in realizing our potential
    • maintain our happiness and quality of life

Finally, it makes it more likely that we’ll:

  • make big mistakes that lead to major regrets
  • do something unethical and illegal, perhaps damaging our reputation and career

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 Benefits of Knowing Our Values

Naturally, there’s a flipside to all the costs listed above. There are many powerful benefits that come from knowing our values.

A big one is that our core values, along with our purpose, can serve as a sort of safe harbor in our lives—a place to return to amidst the storms and chaos.

“A highly developed values system is like a compass.
It serves as a guide to point you in
the right direction when you are lost.”
-Idowu Koyenika

Our values can help us continue living in integrity even when times are tough, providing an important source of comfort and solace.

Our core values can also serve as a catalyst of motivation, keeping us inspired and moving forward in a state of empowerment. They can point us toward an exciting vision that resonates with who we are and what we want at the core.

Finally, according to University of Pennsylvania researchers, encouraging new workers to express their personal values at work was linked to them significantly outperforming peers, being more satisfied at work, and higher retention.

The benefits are truly compelling.

former CEO and chair American Express

(For guidance on how to discover your values, see my related article, “How to Discover Your Core Values.”)

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

Discovering our core values and living by them can improve all dimensions of our life and work.

The key, of course, is not just knowing our core values or writing them down.

The key is living them—building them into the fabric of our lives. Using them to guide our decisions, actions, priorities, and allocation of time and energy—and as a guide to crafting a good life.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you know your core values?
  2. To what extent are you honoring and upholding them lately?
  3. What more could you do to clarify or re-examine your values and integrate them into your life and work?

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Values

  • “When making a decision, big or small, choose in favor of your values. Your values will always point you to the life that holds the most meaning and happiness.” -Rob Kaiser
  • “Focus not on doing less or doing more, but on doing what you value.” -Gretchen Rubin
  • “Life is good when you live from your roots. Your values are a critical source of energy, enthusiasm, and direction. Work is meaningful and fun when it’s an expression of your true core.” -Shoshana Zuboff
  • “Core values serve as a lighthouse when the fog of life seems to leave you wandering in circles.” -J. Loren Norris
  • “Personal leadership is the process of keeping your vision and values before you and aligning your life to be congruent with them.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “A clear purpose will unite you as you move forward, values will guide your behavior, and goals will focus your energy.” -Ken Blanchard
  • “When values, thoughts, feelings, and actions are in alignment, a person becomes focused and character is strengthened.” -John C. Maxwell
  • “The more that we choose our goals based on our values and principles, the more we enter into a positive cycle of energy, success, and satisfaction.” -Neil Farber

 

Sources

  • Creswell, J.D. et al., “Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses,” Psychological Science. 2005 Nov; 16 (11): 846-51.
  • Daniel M. Cable, Francesca Gino, and Bradley R. Staats, “Breaking them in or eliciting their best? Reframing socialization around newcomers’ authentic self-expression,” Administrative Science Quarterly, Volume 58, Number 1, pp. 1–36, February 8, 2013.
  • Hitlin, S. (2003). Values as the core of personal identity: Drawing links between two theories of self. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(2), 118.
  • Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the structure and contents of human values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19–45.
  • Schwartz, S. H., & Bilsky, W. (1987). Toward a universal psychological structure of human values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 550–562.
  • Meg Selig, “9 Surprising Superpowers of Knowing Your Core Values,” Psychology Today, November 27, 2018.

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 leadership and personal development. 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 Problem with Neglecting Our Inner Life

These days with our full schedules and device addictions, it can be easy to neglect our inner life. We can get caught up in activities and busyness while losing touch with ourselves.

That’s a big mistake—and likely to lead to major problems down the road.

There are many different ways we can think about and experience an inner life. It can be a sense of inner guidance, an inner voice, inner wisdom, or having a rich inner world. For some, it can involve feeling a sense of our innermost being—or the feeling that “This is the real me.” It can mean being in touch with our intuition or our spirit or soul.

Different people will have different experiences with it. The question, though, is whether we experience it at all.

For many people these days, the answer is no.

 

Indications We’re Neglecting Our Inner Life

When we’re neglecting our inner life, we may:

  • feel a disconnect between our mind, body, and soul, or an odd sense of distance from our own feelings and body
  • experience frequent fatigue, anxiety, or stress, sometimes without an apparent reason
  • find ourselves avoiding difficult emotional issues through coping behaviors such as overwork and chronic busyness
  • feel obsessed with producing and performing while feeling divided, empty, or unworthy inside
  • have trouble accessing our intuition and inner voice or gut feelings
  • feel out of tune with ourselves
  • sense that we’re betraying our nature or values

Often, we experience several of these downsides simultaneously. It can be disconcerting—and even debilitating. Meanwhile, we’re also missing out on the many benefits of having a rich inner life.

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 Benefits of Having an Inner Life

When we have a robust inner life, it comes with many benefits. It can help us feel:

Calm
Clear
Peaceful
Patient
Still
Accepting
Nonjudgmental
Connected
Forgiving
Compassionate
Fully aware
Generous
Whole
Brave
Joyful
Reverent
Loving

With a rich inner life, we can also experience self-compassion and self-trust, feel more comfortable making tough decisions, and be more open to powerful experiences of flow. Having a full inner life can give us experiences of joy and awe.

The magic of the inner world has no equal. It can be like a musical symphony
of indescribable beauty where you become immersed in every chord and feel every note.
You begin to realize your inner world is with you all the time—
a core of indescribable Sacred Silence, surrounding you, interpenetrating you and others.
We waste our time with small things that are at best a distraction,
while the inner world waits for us to enter, waits to impart
understanding and embody wisdom in action.
-Barry Bowden

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 Cultivate an Inner Life

Since it’s hard to maintain an inner life these days, we’re wise to develop practices that make it conducive for us to cultivate it.

Here are some of the top cultivation practices:

  • Praying
  • Meditating (including observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment and accepting them as they are, or centering our awareness in our heart or elsewhere in our body)
  • Experiencing nature—even just walking and being present to the sights and sounds around us—and savoring it
  • Reading that engages our heart and soul
  • Listening deeply to music and experiencing it in our heart and body
  • Creating things (via writing, music, art, film, dance, etc.)
  • Being in community with others where we feel each other’s presence, engage in deep dialogue with trust and vulnerability, and avoid judging or trying to fix each other. (Parker Palmer makes an important point: “inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along by community.”)
  • Serving others without expecting anything in return—and feeling more whole as we do so
  • Being fully present with someone in their suffering (being there with and for them) without trying to fix or save them
  • Stop trying to force an inner life, and instead let it emerge, by listening to our inner voice more (as the old Quaker saying goes, “Let your life speak”) and having “a conversation with our own soul,” as Parker Palmer advises

It can help a lot to develop routines and rituals around such centering practices (e.g., a morning routine of meditation and reading, or an evening ritual of reflection and prayer).

 

Leaders and Their Inner Life

Cultivating an inner life isn’t just for monks and sages. It’s also for leaders, entrepreneurs, parents, and working professionals. According to James Kouzes and Barry Posner in A Leader’s Legacy, “Leadership development is first and foremost self-development. Becoming a leader begins with an exploration of the inner territory as we search to find our own authentic voice. Leaders must decide on what matters in life, before they can live a life that matters.”

Warren Bennis quote

Listening to the inner voice—trusting the inner voice—is one of the
most important lessons of leadership.”
-Warren Bennis

Also, an inner life isn’t just for adults: it’s also for children and teens. Having an inner life is part of the human experience, if only we learn how to tap into it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What’s the state of your inner life?
  2. What are the practices that work best for you in cultivating an inner life? Can you design more of them into your days?
  3. Which new centering practices will you try?

Wishing you well with it, and please let me know if I can help.

Gregg Vanourek

Gregg Vanourek and his dog

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on the Inner Life

  • “It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. We like to talk about the outer world as if it were infinitely complex and demanding, but it is a cakewalk compared to the labyrinth of our inner lives!” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” -Steve Jobs
  • “Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness…. we need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.” -Shakti Gawain
  • “Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit.” -Dave Wondra
  • “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “There is only one journey. Going inside yourself.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
  • “Whenever you experience stress of any kind, look into yourself and ask, ‘In what way am I compromising my innermost values in this situation?’” -Brian Tracy
  • “I once thought that I could make any decisions, whether professional or personal, by using decision trees, game theory, and optimization. Over time, I’ve changed my mind. For the big decisions in life, you need to reach a deeper region of consciousness. Making decisions then becomes not so much about ‘deciding’ as about letting an inner wisdom emerge. This approach to decision making requires time, patience, and another key ingredient: courage. It takes courage to listen to your inner wisdom. But once you hear that wisdom, making a decision becomes fairly easy.” -Brian Arthur
  • “What is going on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
  • “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, and yet you go door to door asking for crusts. Knock on your inner door. No other.” -Rumi
  • “The inner man wants something that the visible man doesn’t want, and we are at war with ourselves.” -Carl Jung
  • “Our bodies are designed to ‘speak’ to us via our physical sensations, symptoms, intuition, cravings, moods, and emotions.” -Kem Egel, licensed therapist
  • “The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” -Parker Palmer, from Let Your Life Speak
  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” -Stephen R. Covey

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 leadership and personal development. 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). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Discover Your Core Values

Our values are what we consider most important in life—what’s most worthy and valuable to us. Values can also be beliefs, moral principles, or standards of behavior (e.g., commitments for how we will treat each other). In other words, what we believe and stand for.

Our values should guide our choices and behavior, helping us determine how to act in various situations. What to pursue and defend. And what not to.

“Values are basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions. They help us to determine what is important to us. Values describe the personal qualities we choose to embody to guide our actions; the sort of person we want to be; the manner in which we treat ourselves and others, and our interaction with the world around us. They provide the general guidelines for conduct…. Values are the motive behind purposeful action.” -Steven Mintz

 

Where Our Values Come From

Where do our values come from? From many places, it turns out, since we’re complex and multifaceted. Sources of our values can include:

  • parents and upbringing (including things we don’t like and reject from our formative years)
  • teachers and mentors
  • religious leaders, spiritual teachers, or faith traditions
  • intuition and gut instinct
  • our soul

When we’re dealing with values, we’re engaging both our head and our heart. We’re paying attention to our thoughts and ideas about things, but we’re also sensing and feeling—and diving deeper into our experience of being alive.

 

The Benefits of Knowing Our Core Values

It’s helpful to think about our values on different levels of priority, from values at the bottom that are loose and casual (nice to have, if possible) to values at the very top that are core values—non-negotiable, deeply held beliefs and top priorities that serve as a driving force for our lives. Our core values are our most important, central, foundational values.

One of the most powerful personal development practices we can engage in is discovering our core values—and living by them. This can improve all dimensions of our life and work. For example, it can:

  • increase our self-awareness
  • clarify our priorities and purpose
  • help us choose an organization to work for—or a career (or whether to change one)
  • boost our confidence
  • improve decisiveness and decision-making abilities
  • bring more meaning and significance into our lives
  • help us make hard decisions (through a determination of the values fit, or lack of it)
  • guide our behavior like a compass
  • facilitate an action orientation
  • help us avoid mistakes and regrets
  • move us forward in realizing our potential
  • boost our happiness and quality of life
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”
-Roy Disney

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.

 

How to Discover Our Core Values

Each of us is different, and there are many things we can do to uncover our core values. Here’s a sequence of steps we can take that I’ve used myself and with many others:

  • mine our life story for values nuggets by recalling significant experiences that revealed what was most important to us—especially moments that were our happiest or proudest, or when we were most fulfilled or at our best, and our toughest struggles and worst moments
  • think of our desired impacts (on people or a place or a cause we care deeply about), or the legacy we aspire to
  • talk to friends, coaches, or mentors about what’s most important to us
  • think of people we admire and determine what it is that we admire about them
  • choose potential core values from a list of values (see our Personal Values Exercise)*

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.

 

  • categorize the longer list of potential core values into related groupings
  • look for themes in those groupings and then choose a word that best represents the theme of each grouping
  • winnow the list to three to six core values (and no more than ten) to ensure focus
  • add a phrase or sentence to explain what we mean specifically by each value word to give it more clarity and power (this is a critical step that many people skip or overlook)
  • share this draft list of core values with trusted friends or mentors and ask for their input (but recall that these are our values and ours alone, so don’t accept all the input without checking to see if it truly resonates)
  • keep the final core values list handy and view it regularly, also memorizing the final core values words so they’re top of mind

 

Final Thoughts

The key, of course, is not writing our values down. That’s only the beginning. The key is living them. Using them to inform our decisions and actions. Infusing our lives with them.

It’s essential to revisit our values regularly, checking to see if we’re living and leading by them.

Ultimately, we can use our core values as a guide to crafting a good life with good work. We can live our values, honor them, savor them,—and watch as the astonishing power of values alignment infuses and uplifts every aspect of our life and work.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you discovered your core values?
  2. To what extent are you honoring and upholding your core values today?
  3. What more could you do to integrate your core values into your life and work?
  4. What actions will you take today to start this?

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.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Values

  • “The more that we choose our goals based on our values and principles, the more we enter into a positive cycle of energy, success, and satisfaction.” -Neil Farber
  • “The ultimate test of integrity is what we’re willing to risk to uphold our core values.” -Adam Grant
  • “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.” -Dalai Lama
  • “Personal values are those things that are important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life…. Values matter because what you deem important guides your behavior. Many people run into trouble when they start living and leading in ways that conflict with their values.” -Bob and Gregg Vanourek, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

* Don’t worry about what other people think, or what you think your values should be. Focus on what’s actually most important to you.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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!

Are You Trapped by Success?

success trap--man on a hamster wheel

Are you trapped by success? It’s an odd question. How can success be a trap? Is that even possible?

Turns out it can be a big trap. Below are 15 quick ways.

 

1. Addicted to Success

In a culture that worships success, we can become obsessed by it. It can consume most of our waking hours, and most of our waking thoughts. It can become a compulsive drive. We can build our lives around the pursuit of success. But what is success, actually? Have we taken the time to define what it means for us, in our current chapter of life, based on our own values?

 

2. Success Can Lead to Overwork

The pursuit of success can become all-consuming. It can cause us to be busy all the time, with a perpetual deficit of downtime, or addicted to work. We never feel fully rested and renewed. Or we start losing our perspective and our resilience. We get run down and, ironically, start to lose our motivation and productivity.

 

3. The More We Aim for It, The More Elusive It Becomes

Some things in life aren’t exactly logical and linear. It’s not a matter of inputs in leading to inputs out. Some things don’t respond to sheer willpower or muscle. Some things in life are more nuanced.

We can’t force a baby kitten to feel comfortable with us. We can’t force someone to love us, no matter how hard we try. In fact, it may push them away. If we go bounding into the woods seeking wild game, they may never appear unless we sit quietly for a while and let them come to us in their own time. We can’t force happiness, at least the real kind. There’s a difference between a real smile that comes when we see an old friend after a long time apart and a forced smile that everyone can tell is fake.

Success will likely elude us if we’re too focused on it. Rather, it’s something that ensues when we get our life in order, when we’re clear about who we are and act accordingly—letting go of the trappings of false influences. Of course, success usually requires focus and hard work. But it’s best when we get lost in our work because we love the process itself and how it makes us feel while we’re doing it, not because we’re set on some arbitrarily created result with factors well beyond our control.

 

4. Locked into the Wrong Thing

What if the one thing that we excelled at isn’t right for us? What if we’re destined for something more, or something different? When did we make that decision about our career path, and on what basis and with what practical experience about what it actually entailed? Too often, it’s when we’re too young to make sound decisions, and we panic and play the short game or become overwhelmed by all the options. (See my article, “Time to Check the Path You’re On?“)

 

5. Stuck in One Phase of Life

Perhaps we’re changing, with new interests emerging, but how could we possibly abandon the things that took us to the top? So we stick it out. We don’t grow and evolve into new challenges and opportunities better suited to our current circumstances. We flounder. (See my article, “What Keeps Us from Moving On?“)

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.

 

6. Never Feeling Successful Enough

There’s this illusion that once we become successful, then we’ll feel happy. But it’s often not the case. There are many “successful” people who are unsatisfied or even miserable. Many reach one goal, enjoy it for a while (literally a few days), only to then start focusing on the next goal, and the next one, ad infinitum. The happiness never arrives, because there are always new goals out there and higher levels of success, achievement, recognition, or wealth. Researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals. We rapidly adapt to the new circumstances and simply increase our aspirations. We get tripped up by social comparison among a new class of people, perpetually raising the expectations.

 

7. Resistance to Being Imperfect

Success comes with lots of perks, from wealth and power to comfort and prestige. But it can also make us feel like we need to be perfect. Otherwise, how can we be worthy of success? We fear making mistakes or being wrong in front of others, lest they start to question our worthiness. So we harbor a secret terror of being discovered as a fraud or of letting our imperfect humanity come through. We wear a mask of projected perfection and total confidence, secretly hoping that people can’t see through it. It’s exhausting. Nobody’s perfect. We can’t always be on, and right, and put-together. In this charade, we miss out on what Brene Brown calls “the gifts of imperfection,” including authenticity, self-compassion, connection, intimacy, and more.

 

8. The Burden of Success

Yes, success has its privileges. But it can also feel like we’re walking around with a hundred pounds of bricks on our backs. We carry the pressures, the expectations, the demands, the effort, the work. Life can start to feel like a burden we must bear.

 

9. The Illusion of Circumstances

As we chase success, it can feed into a trick our minds play on us, the illusion that the quality of our circumstances determines the quality of our lives. It’s such a pervasive belief that we can go through our whole lives without ever pausing to question it. The logic goes like this: When we’re successful and things are going well, we feel good and we’re happy. When we’re unsuccessful or in pain, uncomfortable, or facing a challenge (ourselves, or for our loved ones), we feel bad and unhappy.

The truth is that we can feel good even when our circumstances are bad. We can return to our values and sense of purpose. Or we can revisit our personal history and what makes us who we are. We can remain grateful for all that we have and have had. And we can stand still in awe of the gifts of life even when things are tough. We can be unflappable in the storms that are a natural part of life. We don’t have to let our thoughts spiral down with our circumstances.

 

10. The Myth that Success Is the Point of Life

The belief that success is the point of life is another mental trick that we can go through life without questioning. The point is to climb the ladder of success, right? To win the game, right? To be the best, or to achieve success, right? Not so fast.

Aren’t there more important things than achieving success and winning? What about love and our precious relationships? And what about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? And what about our faith, or spiritual practice, or connection with something deeper and more significant than points on a scoreboard or zeros in our bank account? Yes, we can do great things on a quest for success, but is that really the point of it all?

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.

 

11. Success Can Take Us Away from Ourselves

As we get caught up in the image, in the prestige, in the chase, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value. We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our integrity on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. Or we can become success robots, following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

 

12. Success Can Take Us Away from Others

As we drift away from ourselves, we can also drift away from others. From our spouse or partner, because we’re so busy and have such important things we need to do. Or from our own children in their precious formative years or their struggling adult years, because we’re so caught up in our own stuff. From our extended family, from the friends we cherish, from our neighbors and community. We’re busy like bees, so we let our relationships suffer or die.

 

13. The Comparison Game

When we’re in chasing-success mode, it becomes a numbers game: How do we stack up against others in terms of salary, promotions, title, awards, fame? We start judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics, falling into what Father Robert Spitzer called the “comparative ethic,” instead of the “contributive ethic.”

 

14. The False Metrics of Success

When we take a mercenary view of success, we start measuring it in cold and calculating ways: cash, net worth, position, power, number of followers or direct reports. These may send our ego to the moon, but do they keep us warm at night and light us up? Will they hold up and stand the test of time as we look back on our lives?

 

15. Narrow Views of Success

Somewhere along the way we can start to view success in overly narrow terms, thinking about it in terms of professional, financial, and relative social terms—wealth, prestige, celebrity. The problem with this thinking is that, as Clayton Christensen has noted, it causes us to over-invest in our career while under-investing in our health, family, friends, community, spirituality (or mindfulness), and fun.

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.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you trapped by success—or caught up too much in the chase?
  2. Which of the traps above resonated most with you?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

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 leadership and personal development. 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!

Do You Have Margin in Your Life?

Many of us are always “on” these days, running from task to task. Never-ending demands. Frenetic pace. We fill every available moment with activity or scrolling through our digital feeds. The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

Young hustlers making it happen. Working parents managing the household. Climbing the corporate ladder or growing our small business or nonprofit. Perpetual busyness.

It feels heavy always going at this pace. We get exhausted.

It’s not common to talk and think in terms of margin in our lives. But it’s needed now more than ever. A margin is the border between things, like the margin on a page. Filling every page up to the max just gets overwhelming.

 

The Consequences of Not Having Margin in Life

The consequences of not having margin are severe: lower quality of life, less happiness and fulfillment, and lower performance at work over time.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.”
-General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps General

It can damage to our health and relationships—and our soul. Not having enough margin in life can lead to burnout and a sense of emptiness. It takes time away from the things we enjoy, such as hobbies or time with friends. And it prevents us from exercising enough. Notably, it also induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

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.

 

The Benefits of Margin in Life

Having margin gives us room to breathe, to reflect and renew. To “sharpen the saw,” as author Stephen R. Covey wrote. With margin we can rise up and view things with perspective. We can reactivate our creativity and wisdom.

When we have breathing room, we can start to see where we’re going wrong—where we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with dysfunctional behaviors. We begin to see the possibilities for change.

Without margin, we keep our heads down and keep ploughing forward, stuck in the same traps and not even admitting it to ourselves. Sometimes we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

What to do with the margin we carve out in our lives? With it, we can:

  • reflect on what’s important
  • assess how things are going
  • see if there’s a gap between the life we have and the life we want
  • consider new ideas for closing that gap
  • experience mindful living in the present, without fretting about the past or worrying about the future

 

Why Is Having Margin in Life So Hard?

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy feat in today’s world of dizzying distractions and cunning algorithms designed to hijack our attention with chemical manipulations in our brains. At bottom, they’re not giving us a better life but an escape from it.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
-Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster

The evidence is alarming. Average daily digital content consumption (including time spent on social media, news sites, and streaming) is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

This can lead to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder in the mind, often including a chaotic mental review of things that impairs our effectiveness. He writes that it “involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish.”

It’s especially difficult if we’re trying to please everyone and not learning to set boundaries and say no—a big challenge for some people. In turn, this leads to us becoming overcommitted and falling into a death spiral of too much anxiety without the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with it and too much work volume without enough deep work to handle it.

“Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference.
Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

Tim Ferriss, author and podcaster

For some, a compulsion to achieve, win, or achieve recognition or status prevents us from carving out enough margin in our lives. This can lead to workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we can’t switch it off or stop thinking about it. Another factor is being overly optimistic about what can get done by when—wearing “rose-colored glasses,” as they say.

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 More Margin in Your Life

So, how to get more margin in our life? It helps to acknowledge the problem first, perhaps flowing from an assessment of how we’re spending our time and determining the areas in which it’s not time well spent. (Yes, there are apps for that.)

Perhaps most importantly, we must get clear on what’s important to us, starting with our values (what we value most in life—and the behaviors that manifest those things), purpose (our reason for being, or what infuses our life with meaning and significance), and aspirations for our life and work. Modern movements like essentialism and minimalism can help us avoid the trappings of overconsumption and overscheduling while distilling things to the essential few that enrich our lives.

It’s essential to establish clear and challenging criteria for what to say “yes” to and to get better at saying “no” to many things that come across the transom in our lives. As author Greg McKeown advises, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Next, we need to build renewal into our days, giving us a sense of serenity instead of that precarious state of anxiety from the cumulative effects of overwork, stress, poor sleep, and not taking caring of ourselves or connecting enough with others. There are limits to our energy. We need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.”
-John W. Gardner

Even better if we can find “sanctuary” in our lives—places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there’s an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. It’s the serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

It helps to schedule margin into our lives: put it on our calendar and protect it. We must regain control of all the things that eat into margin, such as email or Slack, meetings, smartphones, interruptions, and messy workspaces. Also, we need to get better at anticipating and preventing distractions, thereby creating the conditions for focus, flow, and deep work.

We should also look for smaller things we can do—quick and easy hacks that help us preserve margin. In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recommends the “ten-minute rule”: waiting ten minutes before giving in to an urge to check our phone as a pacification device.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have enough margin in your life?
  2. How is lack of margin harming your wellbeing, relationships, or work?
  3. What steps will you take, starting today, to reclaim your life and the margin it requires?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Build More Margin in Life

  • “I love a broad margin to my life.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • Margin is “time to make room for change.” -Jeff Sapadafora, author and coach
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence…. Silence is the general consecreation of the universe.” -Herman Melville
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

 

Books that Will Help Change Your Life with More Margin

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 leadership and personal development. 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 Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of the covid-19 pandemic was what it reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished. We see the problem of going it alone.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

 

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout,  overwork, and work addiction. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

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.

 

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and 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.”

“All you need is love.”
-The Beatles

 

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships.

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

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

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
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“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

 

Isolation and Going It Alone

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“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

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

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.

 

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”
-Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

 

Tools for You

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.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Quotes on Relationships and Not Going It Alone

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” -Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” -Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” -Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

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!

Guard Your Heart

All the turmoil of the pandemic reminded us of how important it is to guard our heart.

Here we mean our metaphysical heart, our sacred center. Author and educator Parker Palmer said it beautifully:

“I’m using the word ‘heart’ as they did in ancient times, when it didn’t merely mean the emotions, as it tends to mean today. It meant that center in the human self where everything comes together—where will and intellect and values and feeling and intuition and vision all converge. It meant the source of one’s integrity.”

So many of us these days have suffered anxieties, losses, hardship, or tragedies. All added on a baseline of busyness and burnout. With frazzled days and heavy loads. With negative self-talk judging harshly. With fear and uncertainty.

This year, our hearts have taken a beating.

The effects on our health, relationships, and work can be devastating.

So we must guard our hearts, preserving every ounce of hope, wonder, awe, gratitude, and love we can muster.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” -Proverbs 4:23 (King Solomon)

 

Why does heart matter so much?

We need it in our lives. We need it to stay grounded and faithful that we can survive, that we can learn the lessons life is offering.

We need it in our relationships, often frayed or neglected during hard times.

We need it at work, with opportunities to connect with colleagues also facing ghosts or demons.

We need it in our leadership, especially during hard times. In his adaptive leadership framework, Ron Heifetz of Harvard University encourages us to maintain a “sacred heart” and avoid numbing our soul with cynicism or defeatism.

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 guard your heart?

For starters, develop resilience through disciplined self-care. There are many possibilities, so choose the ones that resonate with you:

Some of the most powerful heart defenses come bottled in larger themes: Live purposefully. Preserve your vitality. Stay connected to people. Serve others. Take time for renewal.

If your heart is asleep, dormant from years of neglect, reawaken it.

If your heart is closed, crack it open.

If your heart is cold, bring it warmth.

If your path forward is hazy, ask your heart to light the way. We see things with our heart that we can’t see otherwise.

Guard your heart.

Tools for You

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 leadership and personal development. 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!

Are You Playing the Long Game?

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

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

 

We see it in business.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen noted, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

 

We see it in startups.

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

 

We see it in our climate.

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

 

We see it in our health.

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

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.

 

We see it in our relationships.

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

 

We see it in parenting.

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

 

We see it in our careers.

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

 

We see it in life.

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

Conforming to what others expect.
Drifting through life without direction.
Staying in a job we don’t like.
Getting nowhere (or nowhere good) in a professional hamster wheel.
Deferring our dreams because it’s “not the right time.”
Settling forgood enough.”
Continuing to climb even though we’re on the wrong ladder.

 

The idea of playing the long game isn’t new.

Thousands of years ago, Aristotle advised, “Plan with your whole life in mind.”

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

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.

 

Questions for Reflection

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

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

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!

The Importance of Trust in Leadership

There are many ways to think about leadership. For some, as we have seen, it’s about control or power. And for others, it is about achievement or recognition. For others, it’s about people and service, along with higher purpose and positive impact.
 
Since leadership by definition involves a relationship between leaders and followers—and, more precisely, an influence relationship—it begs the question of trust. One may be able to command, control, or deceive at some point or for some time, but for an enduring relationship of constructive influence, trust must be present.
 
Trust is a firm belief in the reliability or truth of someone. This takes us into the deep and rich territory of character, credibility, ethics, honesty, integrity, morality, and values—all of which are essential underpinnings and necessary prerequisites of good leadership. These virtues are good in and of themselves and should be aspired to by all (and, yes, even in competitive contexts such as business and sports).

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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

 

The Business Case for Trust

There is also a “business case” for trust. Without trust in an organization or society, things take longer and cost more, due to the need for checks and reviews and the inevitable holding back that comes in such situations. In his book, The Speed of Trustauthor Stephen M. R. Covey wrote, “Trust always affects outcomes—speed and cost. When trust goes up, speed will also go up, and costs will go down. When trust goes down, speed will also go down, and costs go up.” He and his father, Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), brilliantly described leadership as “getting results today in a way that, by inspiring trust, increases our ability to get results tomorrow.”
 
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the classic book, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the characteristics of admired leaders. More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful:

“Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted….
Trust is the most significant predictor of individuals’ satisfaction within their organizations.”
-James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

This is not rocket science. Imagine working for a leader or colleague whose behavior has demonstrated that he or she is not worthy of your trust, since he or she has deceived or used you. Imagine living with a family member or having a friend who abuses your trust.
 
Unacceptable. Such a situation requires change, and urgently so.
 
Of course, we all make mistakes and, when we do, thankfully we can redeem and make amends when others are kind and gracious enough to give us a second chance. But patterns of deceit warrant decisive action. Otherwise, we enable abuse and corrosive forces in our organizations and society.
 
Trust is essential in leadership—and in all forms of human relationships and organizations. Chronically failing the trust test is disqualifying for leaders.

 

Tools for You

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.

 

More Articles from Our Series on Ethical Leadership

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 leadership and personal development. 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!