Monday, February 9, 2009

We are all writing the story of our own life

Yesterday, my sister forwarded a good article she'd read in Fast Company magazine.

If you've not read Fast Company before, it's described as the magazine that "sets the agenda, charting the evolution of business through a unique focus on the most creative individuals sparking change in the marketplace. Fast Company empowers innovators to challenge convention and create the future of business."

Written by Po Bronson (pictured below), author of the book "What Should I Do with My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question," the article contends that "instead of focusing on what's next, let's get back to what's first."

Bronson believes "there are far too many smart, educated, talented people operating at quarter speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing far too little to the productive engine of modern civilization."

There are far too many people who look like they have their act together but have yet to make an impact. You know who you are. It comes down to a simple gut check: You either love what you do or you don't. Period.

According to the author, "those who are lit by that passion are the object of envy among their peers and the subject of intense curiosity. They are the source of good ideas. They make the extra effort. They demonstrate the commitment. They are the ones who, day by day, will rescue this drifting ship. And they will be rewarded. With money, sure, and responsibility, undoubtedly."

Bronson writes that "most of us are blessed with the ultimate privilege: We get to be true to our individual nature. Our economy is so vast that we don't have to grind it out forever at jobs we hate. For the most part, we get to choose. That choice isn't about a career search so much as an identity quest."

Asking The Question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do. There is nothing more brave than filtering out the chatter that tells you to be someone you're not. There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice. Asking The Question is nothing short of an act of courage: It requires a level of commitment and clarity that is almost foreign to our working lives.

In researching his book, Bronson spoke to nearly 1000 people who "have dared to be honest with themselves." He spent "considerable time"with less than 10 percent of those people "in order to learn how they did it."

These are ordinary people. People of all ages, classes, and professions... These people don't have any resources or character traits that give them an edge in pursuing their dream. Only two are so smart that they would succeed at anything they chose (though having more choices makes answering The Question that much harder). They're just people who faced up to it, armed with only their weaknesses, equipped with only their fears.

Many of the people Bronson spent time with worked in what he considered to be "boring" office jobs. And yet, they "were absolutely committed to their work."

That commitment sustained them through slow stretches and setbacks. They never watched the clock, never dreaded Mondays, never worried about the years passing by. They didn't wonder where they belonged in life. They were phenomenally productive and confident in their value. In places unusual and unexpected, they had found their calling, and those callings were as idiosyncratic as each individual.

What he found is that "your calling isn't something you inherently 'know,' some kind of destiny. Far from it. Almost all of the people I interviewed found their calling after great difficulty. They had made mistakes before getting it right."

He writes of a catfish farmer who started out as an investment banker and a truck driver who had been an entertainment lawyer. Then there was the Harvard MBA who ended up as a police officer. In every case, they'd "discovered latent talents that weren't in their skill sets at age 25."

Most of us don't get epiphanies. We only get a whisper -- a faint urge. That's it. That's the call. It's up to you to do the work of discovery, to connect it to an answer.

The truth is, most of us have know deep inside of us where we "belong," but, unfortunately, we "make poor choices and waste productive years on the wrong work."

Bronson outlines four reasons why we get caught up in the wrong line of work -- many of us failing to recover before we retire:

  1. Money
  2. Smarts
  3. Place
  4. Attitude

MONEY: "Shouldn't I make money first -- to fund my dream?" Bronson says most of us believe we should pay our dues, then tend to our dreams. As he puts it: "Put your calling in a lockbox, go out and make a ton of money, and then come back to the lockbox to pick up your calling where you left it."

It turns out that having the financial independence to walk away rarely triggers people to do just that. The reality is, making money is such hard work that it changes you. It takes twice as long as anyone plans for. It requires more sacrifices than anyone expects. You become so emotionally invested in that world -- and psychologically adapted to it -- that you don't really want to ditch it.

According to Bronson, "the ruling assumption is that money is the shortest route to freedom. Absurdly, that strategy is cast as the 'practical approach.'

In truth, the opposite is true. The shortest route to the good life involves building the confidence that you can live happily within your means (whatever the means provided by the choices that are truly acceptable to you turn out to be)."

This is an extremely threatening conclusion. It suggests that the vast majority of us aren't just putting our dreams on ice -- we're killing them.

SMARTS: "Being smarter doesn't make answering The Question easier." Bronson writes that asking the question, "What am I good at?" is not the right way to go about it.

"People who attempt to deduce an answer usually end up mistaking intensity for passion. To the heart, they are vastly different. Intensity comes across as a pale busyness , while passion is meaningful and fulfilling. A simple test: Is your choice something that will stimulate you for a year or something that you can be passionate about for 10 years?"

He argues that "work should be like life: sometimes fun, sometimes moving, often frustrating, and defined by meaningful events." [Sounds a lot like coaching.]

PLACE: "Every industry has a culture. And every culture is driven by a value system. Once you're rooted in a particular system -- whether it's medicine, New York City, Microsoft, or a startup -- it's often agonizingly difficult to unravel yourself from its values, practices, and rewards. You'll be a lot happier if you aren't fighting the value system around you. Find one that enforces a set of beliefs that you can really get behind. There's a powerful transformative effect when you surround yourself with like-minded people. Peer pressure is a great thing when it helps you accomplish your goals instead of distracting you from them."

ATTITUDE: Bronson believes that this is the biggest obstacle. "Environment matters, but in the end, when it comes to tackling the question, 'What should I do with my life?' it really is all in your head."

The first psychological stumbling block that keeps people from finding themselves is that they feel guilty for simply taking the quest seriously. They think that it's a self-indulgent privilege of the educated upper class. Working-class people manage to be happy without trying to "find themselves," or so the myth goes.

I've posted on this blog about the downside of having too many options. Bronson contends that "probably the most debilitating obstacle to taking on The Question is the fear that making a choice is a one-way ride, that starting down a path means closing a door forever. 'Keeping your doors open' is a trap. It's an excuse to stay uninvolved."

Bronson (pictured here) concludes with this:

We are all writing the story of our own life. It's not a story of conquest. It's a story of discovery. Through trial and error, we learn what gifts we have to offer the world and are pushed to greater recognition about what we really need. The Big Bold Leap turns out to be only the first step.