When we choose to Live Life On Purpose, we become true adults. We acknowledge that we already have the answers we need to live a life of our choosing, and abandon the notion that the source of our discontent is “out there”. We embrace the certainty that each of us is the best expert on our own lives. We become masters of ourselves, truly effective in dealing with the world.
Not every thought we have is true or useful. In fact, a lot of them are pure drivel, offered up by our chirping amygdala, “You’re not good enough. You don’t have enough”…as Dan Baker describes in What Happy People Know. Due to ancestral wiring (lucky us!) our default tendency is to accept whatever our fear-driven, limbic brains presents. If I’m thinking it. It must be true. Not so. The connections to our rational, often more long-term, brain need careful nurturing. The more frequently we pause, calm ourselves, examine the facts and choose a different, more useful perspective, the more strongly we forge the connections to what is possible. We take one step closer to the life we are choosing, rather than running from the life we are fearing.
Choosing the most useful and constructive perspective is an extremely powerful weapon in this quest to live a meaningful life. Since much of what our brains manufacture is just made up, we might as well choose the viewpoint that helps keep us unstuck and moving towards a worthwhile, values-driven goal.
Perspective is just that, however: a way of looking at things. It has to have some factual basis, and we are best served by having a very concrete idea of what we can control and what we can’t. What Steven Covey called our Circle of Concern versus our Circle of Influence. Smack dab centre in our Circle of Influence is enhancing our capabilities through acquiring knowledge, applying it, and practicing skills; through exercising self-control in working towards our longer term priorities and appropriately balancing our shorter-term impulses. We also need to manage negative emotions and pick ourselves up after setbacks. Doing all this well allows us to demonstrate exceptional grace under pressure. We remain our authentic selves, regardless of what life throws at us. I always think of Nelson Mandela as the epitome of grace under pressure.
The foundational perspective of effective adults is what Carol Dweck calls a Growth Mindset. People with a Growth Mindset are aware that effort is the path to mastery. They embrace challenge, seeing it as an opportunity to stretch themselves and rise to the occasion. They welcome constructive criticism, confident that they can improve their performance with increased knowledge and effort. They are inspired by the success of others and move to higher levels of achievement. Conversely, people with a Fixed Mindset view setbacks as confirmation that they’re not as smart as they thought they were, tend to avoid challenges, give up quickly, ignore negative feedback and feel threatened by the success of others. They tend to plateau early, and are often very discontent with life. You may know a few of these people; you may even have some in your family!
Effectively calibrating our effort requires nuance. We have only so much mental energy or willpower available to us, though that amount can be increased over time, in the same way exercise builds capacity for physical strength. There are several flavours of willpower: resisting temptation (not eating that brownie), overcoming procrastination and avoidance (calling that cranky client or apologizing to our spouse) and holding longer term priorities in mind when temptation and avoidance are dangling in front of us (remembering that we’re saving for retirement when we are too tired to cook and dinner out, again, seems like a good plan). The key is using willpower not to battle a mounting pile of temptations, but to develop habits that become embedded in positive routines to achieve longer-term objectives, including a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Willpower is also needed to unleash the appropriate level of concentration at any given moment. We may never have considered this, but we need different types of focus in different situations, and we need to switch fluidly as the situation changes. Sometimes we need intense, targeted focus (reading a detailed report or listening intensely). At other times we have to open our awareness to tune into the thoughts and emotions of others, which at its broadest includes a soft, open focus to the overall environment or “feel” of our space. Lastly, we need to be able to manage distractions and harness focused attention for sustained periods to produce deep and meaningful work. Knowing which level of focus to employ and then to switch as needed is hard work. Some of us are better at one type of focus than another, but we all need all of them, at least some of the time.
The granddaddy of willpower is a combination of perseverance and plain old grit, what Angela Duckworth defines as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. People who have developed resilience are able to pick themselves up and weigh back in when things don’t go their way. They continue to exercise willpower in all its forms in the face of monumental challenge.
Some days, though, it just seems we are a combination of animal and vegetable. The animal is cowering in the corner, afraid of the big bad wolf. And the vegetable is firmly ensconced on the couch imitating a potato. We are stuck. We know in our heart of hearts that we’re over-reacting, not seeing things clearly, choosing to enjoy our bad mood, but unable or unwilling to muster enough energy to switch gears. What to do?
- Do something tangible, however small. Get moving, at least off the couch. Pick a small, concrete activity and begin. This will often prime the pump enough to get us some momentum. Unload the dishwasher, take out the trash, or clean out your inbox, It’s called “behavioural activation”, and it’s surprisingly effective.
- Go for a 30-minute walk to clear your head. Exercise is one of the best ways of clearing “the jangles”. It burns off the adrenaline coursing through your veins and allows calmer heads to prevail. It’s like resetting the circuit breaker after it’s been tripped.
- Connect to your long term values: what’s most important to you and who you are at your core. Look at your overflowing “to do” list and pick just one item that will move you closer to that. That will get you into better alignment on what’s really important to you. Shut off your incoming emails and put your phone on silent until you’ve accomplished that one task. Really focus.
- Pick up the phone and talk with someone. Choose someone who really listens, who has your best interests at heart, not someone with their own agenda.
Self-mastery. Making the most of what you’ve got to lead a life of purpose and fulfillment.