The next section of my manifesto is about four disciplines, the exercise of which, for me, are critical for living well.
Get and stay unstuck
In the early 1990s I wrote a life plan that included some ambitious contribution to significant change. I was working within an organisation and was part of a vocational network that I had no reason to doubt would shape the rest of my career. I had significant leadership roles and found kindred spirits whenever I travelled around the world. I felt like I was part of something big and important.
Then I gradually became unsettled. I developed hunches that my contribution would not lead to the kinds of changes I had imagined. Having spent the first fifteen years of my working life on a trajectory within the not-for-profit sector, I wondered what it would look like to work for myself. I had no commercial experience, and I’m mostly glad I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I really had no idea what I was doing really, I quit the world I knew and ventured into the unknown. And the world opened up for me like a spring flower on time lapse. I got unstuck from the career trajectory that I had expected would define my contribution over a lifetime. I met people, engaged ideas and discovered rich values and communities that I would have never believed existed. I had no regrets about my vocation until then, but the new worlds that I encountered help me appreciate how ‘big’ life can be.
I had tasted what it was like to make a change. A real change. I knew I would never allow myself to be stuck again.
Rituals and habits are fabulous. They give life stability and are an extremely efficient way to make decisions. Imagine if I had to decide what to do afresh every morning in my getting-ready-for-work routine. Debilitating.
One of the ways to determine the healthiness of a particular routine is to assess the ease with which I can choose not to do it. If I find myself without a real choice, then I am addicted. And addiction is always a bad thing. It is healthy to be able to choose to do something, even if I make that choice relentlessly for the rest of my life.
This can be confusing when overlaid with my personality or psychological preferences. These hard-wired attributes incline me to act in certain ways. For example, I might be inclined to wash the dishes every night after dinner. Tick. But if I simply cannot go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink, I have a problem. Trivial at one level maybe, but it reflects being hostage to a habit, rather than a habit being in service to me.
A life well lived is one in which I make choices about the circumstances that define my life and / or my response to them. Choices determine how I spend my time every day, but the accumulation of choices (or non-choices) over time determine how I spend my life.
It is a foolish naivety to believe I can ‘have the life I want’. Such platitudes come from positions of power with rare acknowledgment of the systems, privilege and luck that supported the ‘rise.’ But even with that caveat, sometimes I believe I am stuck when I am not.
I can change careers, I can move cities, I can become healthier. But I must embrace the consequences of the choices to do so. Inertia is insidiously strong. If I am in a pattern of living and relating that has been developed over time, what started as a productive groove can become a debilitating rut. I can feel like I’m stuck on the treadmill.
By looking at my life through the pleasure, betterness and meaning lens, I can determine which levers I need to pull to live more fully. If the ‘ruts are deep’, some disruption may be necessary to make a change. So be it.
I need to beware the inclination to change things that are simply uncomfortable or hard; to avoid responsibility or seek easy-street. That is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about a life where pleasure, betterness and meaning are in harmony over time, a life where I am fully alive. Discretion and wisdom will help me determine what circumstances I am stuck with over the long haul, and which ones I can navigate away from.
Getting unstuck is also not about moving on or leaving. Getting unstuck is about moving to. Making effective life-changing decisions is about executing a long term (or at least a medium term) vision. It is about taking steps to put the elements of life in place that allow me to harmonise pleasure, betterness and meaning for the long haul.
Mountain-top epiphanies aside, there is rarely a compelling time to make the big calls. However, learning to make decisions from a projected five year time frame is a helpful attitude. “If I could look back on my life now from the vantage point of five years down the track, what would I wish I had had the courage to do, but didn’t?” “What am I spending my energy on now, that feels important in the moment, but in five years time will seem like a waste of effort from the perspective of what matters over time?”
The commitment to get unstuck, and the discipline to stay unstuck, is a potent antidote to long term regret.
Questions that help me get and stay unstuck
1. What do I dream of in life? What is holding me back that I could change if I chose to?
2. What are the consequences of biting the bullet and making the change? What will I do to manage those consequences or implications?