I’m a big believer in a directed life: setting goals, assessing your current state and then following concrete steps in pursuit of your goals. For years I went through this process religiously. There was one problem, however. It didn’t work.
I knew exactly where I should be, what I should be doing, but I could never muster the gumption to actually take the journey I had mapped out. I attributed my failure to lack of willpower, which fueled my continuing interest in self-discipline.
Then I had a minor epiphany—I was chasing the wrong goals. My goals included things like doing more community volunteer work, obtaining some level of certification in Toastmasters or keeping up to date with world affairs. Things that were logical, easily defendable and the duties of a responsible member of society. Things that were, also, of little true interest to me. Things that I had no passion for.
You can certainly argue that the ability to pursue arbitrary goals is a measure of self-discipline. In fact, this is a good self-discipline exercise. However, few of us want to spend our lives doing exercises on the off chance we might get into the game. We want to get somewhere, not just run on a treadmill. We have a much higher chance of successful pursuit of our life goals if our goals are deemed worthy of pursuit in our own eyes.
Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, uses the image of a rider on an elephant’s back as a metaphor of self-discipline. You nudge the elephant on the right and he turns right. You nudge left and he turns left. After doing this for a while, you think you are in control of the elephant. And then the elephant sees something of interest and takes off on his own. No amount of nudging, kicking, shouting on your part can stop the elephant. That’s when you learn it is easier to steer the elephant if you know what he wants. Similarly, it is easier to pursue your life goals if they are things you really care about. If you are passionate about them. So I set out to find my passions.
Unfortunately, I am a fairly dispassionate guy. (“Glynn doesn’t do passion.”) Without realizing it, I reverted to my old ways, making lists of things I should be passionate about and then trying them on for size. None of them fit. They were too tight in the neck, or too loose in the shoulders. That one puckered when I sat down and the other was a hideous shade of green. Apparently, I was just a lump of clay bouncing off walls all day long.
Then I had a second epiphany, slightly larger than the first. There’s an easy way to find what is important in your life. It requires almost no effort at all. Just a touch of insomnia is all you need. When you are awake at 2 a.m., staring at the ceiling, what is on your mind? Whatever it is, you can be sure it is important to you. With this as guidance, I made a list of the things that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Things like the financial security of my family, various nagging health concerns, how to improve my marriage. And, of course, self-discipline. Now I knew where the elephant wanted to go and it was easier to apply myself in those directions.
What are your 2 a.m. priorities? Are you pursuing your true passions? Or are you chasing those false chimeras that you think you should be passionate about? The first step to success is to be true to yourself. Give it a thought tonight. Around 2 a.m. or so.