“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word. It means “life out of balance.” The Hopi are a Native American people who primarily live in the region around Arizona. The name Hopi is a shortened form of Hopituh Shi-nu-mu (“The Peaceful People” or “Peaceful Little Ones”).
What is balance? What is a balanced life? Does such an ideal really exist?
Life out of Balance
The ideal of balance in life is a dangerous belief. There is no balance in life. There is this moment. In this moment, you are enough. There is the next moment, in that moment, you are enough.
When you are running, run. When you are reading, read. When you are talking with your child, be with your child. When you are writing, write. When you are eating, eat.
The lack of balance is a feeling, not a reality. The feeling comes from not being here. It comes from trying to be here and to be there. I am with my daughter but I am thinking about a meeting with my boss tomorrow. I am neither here nor there – this generates that feeling that is described as Koyaanisqatsi, “life out of balance”.
Loneliness is an emptiness and the desire to fill this space with another person in the hope that the emptiness will be filled and removed. Loneliness is to be unhappy alone; and leads to misery together. Loneliness leads to a possessive relationship that is not love. It may begin with the chemistry in the brain we often call love, but it will be slowly transformed into misery as we adapt to the presence of the chemicals in the brain and it becomes less passionate.
Aloneness is an acceptance of myself.
A relationship is a mirror. It reflects. If I am happy and creative and attractive, the relationship can mirror these qualities. If I have nothing to show, the mirror will reflect nothing.
Learning to be happy Alone
There are 2 emotional orientations:
Internal emotional orientation is about the enjoyment of my own personal progress in understanding, improving, learning from the action. If i love golf because I enjoy my level of mastery and am absorbed in improving my own short game then this would be internal emotional orientation.
External orientation is that I judge the success or failure of each action by its impact on my status, on how it compares with my friends, on how my friends view me. If I love golf because my friends envy my ability at golf, this would be a external emotional orientation.
I am sometimes internally oriented (searching for meaning) and sometimes externally oriented (what do “they” think of me? is this useful? will it help someone?)
I switch between the two. I can find that I spend a week where I am working hard on a document that is meaningful to me and in “flow”… and then something happens and I get distracted and spend 2-3 days paying more and more attention to what other people think, how many “likes” on fb, how many retweets. Then I have a crisis moment, reflect and switch back to mode 1.
I guess they are both there because they serve a purpose. The challenge is that great art can only come from mode 1, but a lot of useful learning comes from mode 2. I can learn faster in mode 2, but at a certain point I need to leave behind mode 2 and fully live in mode 1.
Do you switch between the 2? What makes the switch happen? Why does it happen? What do you do to be conscious of your mode?
In 2001 I spent a weekend in Denmark with 3 friends. We spent Sunday morning in the sunshine visiting the Louisiana modern art museum 40 kms north of Copenhagen. The setting was beautiful, right on the coast with views over the water to Sweden. One of my friends said “this place is beautiful, its a pity most of the art is so crap.”
I understood her point. We had walked through room after room of “art” that my 6 year old daughter could have produced. There were a few pieces that were inspirational, but on the whole, the collection was childish scribbles.
The four of us ended up taking 2 different positions. 2 of my friends were of the opinion that art had to be “difficult to produce”. One should see the piece and marvel at the talent and the hard work of the artist. Works of Turner, Michelangelo, Caravagglio, Van Gogh are art. Childish scribbles are not. Advertising is not.
Myself and the third friend had a different view. “Art makes you reflect”. Anything can be art, but it must make you stop and think.
Coomaraswamy says that “art is the making of things well”. This is independent of category. The factory worker is capable of art, the technology consultant can create art, the woodworker can create art, the painter can create art. It is the intent to make things well that makes them art.
James Joyce divided art into two categories: “Proper art” and “Improper art”. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce says that “proper art” is static: it holds the observer in a moment of awe and wonder. Improper art is kinetic: it induces an urge into the observer, either of desire for the object (a sexy body) or what the object represents (status, power), or of fear of the object (Satan) or what it represents (going to hell, losing my health, losing my money).
Proper and Improper Art
All advertising is improper art – it is specifically designed to induce an urge that will lead to the purchase of a product.
An object that I want to have because it is beautiful, because it is rare, because it is highly valued by society – is improper art.
An object that makes me feel ashamed because I do not have the talent of the original creator – is improper art.
An object that depicts a beautiful family and I want to have a family like that – is improper art.
This week my friend John described how, as a child, he would take a battery-powered torch and point it into the night sky. He would switch it on, then off. He would stop in awe and wonder as he contemplated the idea that the light he sent out would travel out into space, for ever and ever. In this moment of contemplation, he would open up to awe of the universe and wonder at its vastness.
When I first listened to Pachelbel’s canon (here is a wonderful orchestral version conducted by Sir Neville Mariner on spotify) it has the effect on me that the torch had on John. I remember putting my father’s massive headphones on when I was 9 years old and hearing this tune for the first time. I was entranced by its utter perfection. I could imagine no improvement or no change that could possibly make it more powerful. It just held me still (yes, it held a 9 year-old still for 6 minutes) with a sense of gratitude that I had found it.
What is your Proper art?
What stops you in a moment of awe and wonder? What object, what experience, what person gives you this opening up of perception?
How do I become one? How does the whole thing come together? How will I know if it really is my thing? Will it be worth it?
There is only one way to find out. There has really only ever been one way.
The way to mastery in the past, the way to mastery in future… And the way to mastery today:
Take a single step.
Do it now while you are rubbish.
Don’t wait to feel “ready”. Don’t expect that you will ever feel that you have finally reached excellence. The moment you achieve something, it immediately becomes something that you can achieve – and no longer special.
Einstein didn’t feel like “Einstein” while he worked and thought – he felt like you, like me- not quite “there” yet, slightly unsure… But willing to keep moving anyway.
I wonder often why our minds are so rigged up to stop us beginning important work. Is it an evolutionary beneficial tendency? Perhaps it is the “cowards” that survive. The coward gene has been evolving for many, many, many generations.
Mere survival for a lifetime might be what your genes want, but it is not what your spirit wants.
This then is the daily war between the spirit that wants to change the world, and the genes that want you to hide beneath the duvet covers.
My last post was on Meaningful Contribution. I talked about three questions about the work you are doing: does it serve others? do you do it well? and do you love doing it?
The 4 Paths in our Working Life
Taking two of those questions: does it serve others? and do you love doing it? I put together today’s 2×2 graphic.
The man in the middle is like a new employee starting first day at a new company. Which path will he take?
The 4 Paths are:
Quit and Stayed – he will keep showing up for the job, but do the minimum possible effort in order to not lose his job. He is not satisfied. He is not contributing. He is worried about showing up on time, looking busy when the boss is watching, sending emails at 9pm to let everyone see that he is busy – but he is not contributing. He is a cancer to those around him. He will suck their satisfaction. He will work to ensure that others are being regularly interrupted and unproductive so that he can feel comfortable in the company of slackers.
Coasting – he enjoys his job, but has been focussing on the aspects that benefit him. He is not there to serve the team nor the customer. He doesn’t do a bad job, but is not going to spend more than the minimum to hit minimum quality.
Burn Out – he is good at his job, but has not taken his own growth as a person seriously. He is running like a sprinter, not a marathon runner. It is his responsibility to work at a rhythm that allows him to contribute more each day. If he has too much work he needs to improve his work tools, his work methods.
Engaged – he has found a good balance between enjoying the work, doing it well and improving his work. His energy serves as a boost to those who are around him. His contribution is sustainable and growing. He is on the path to being an “A” Player – Self-Motivated and Experienced.
Bosses, Environment and Culture
The man in the central box could go any way.
Lou Holtz once replied to an Accenture partner’s question: “What do you do with unmotivated players?” with a snort of derision. “Un-motivated players!?! This is their dream.”
He returned to the question later and said “I guarantee that day 1, every new employee that walks through the door arrives motivated, with a desire to contribute. If a year later he is no longer motivated, it is something you guys have done that has removed that motivation.”
Our parents, our school teachers, our past bosses, our current friends all contribute to our current state of contribution and satisfaction. We can push our kids, our friends, our employees out of the middle circle into any of the 4 paths.
What do you do to make the top right path the most likely?
You are probably pretty good at your job. You do it at least well enough to keep it. I bet you are actually pretty good at it when you decide to focus on it, when you give it 100%.
But… Do you enjoy what you do?
Being good at something is not a good reason to keep doing it
Just because you do something well, is not good enough reason to keep doing it.
If you love it, and are great at it – fantastic.
If you hate it, and are great at it – stop.
If you are a bit bored by it, and are great at it – you have a decision to make: Can you commit to increase the aspects that you enjoy, dedicate yourself to mastery and say no to the parts that you don’t enjoy?
If you are doing something you hate in order to save money that will then allow you to do something you love – when will the process of changeover begin? How long are you planning to live?
Life’s Activities in Venn Diagram
Here’s a Venn diagram expressing the idea. For each activity I can ask myself 3 questions:
“Do I do this well?”
“Does this serve others?” (in something they value)
“Do I love doing it?”
We have 4 combinations of intersections between these questions:
“Job” – I do it well and it serves others
Hobby – I do it well and I love doing it
Charity – I love doing it and it serves others
Meaningful Contribution – It serves others, I do it well and I love doing it.
The universe is not designed so that everybody’s passion can make them lots of money. There is a small model train ride in the children’s park next to my house. Every day I can walk through the park and see a group of men (not sexist, I have never seen a woman) in blue overalls maintaining miniature steam trains. Each Sunday kids come to ride on the trains. The men clearly love the trains, love being part of the mission of keeping the steam trains in working order. However, there is not a fortune to be made. But, fortune should not be the ultimate determinant. Many of these men are probably retired and are choosing to work at something that they may well have to pay to be part of.
At the other end of the scale, we have someone like Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett lucked out: what he loves to do, what he does extraordinarily well and what serves others (his investors) combine to create a massive fortune. However, he is the first to admit that if he was born in Pakistan that would not be the case. He needed the right environment to let him flourish. He was incredibly lucky to be born in a world that places a high value on the skill of efficiently allocating capital.
The good news…
It takes 40 years or so…
I am coming up towards my 40th birthday.
In my 20s I had a lot of spare energy to dedicate to being good at things that I didn’t particularly enjoy. I got a good job with a great company and worked many hours. I met great people and travelled the world. I got promoted several times.
In my 30s I had a lot less energy to spare to be good at things that I didn’t enjoy. I stopped working in a big corporate and sought my riches as an entrepreneur. I was going to “be my own boss”. My aim was to get rich. I worked hard to build an empire. I set up 4 businesses. I started to show up in the newspapers and get invited to speak as a “successful entrepreneur”. And then 2008 Lehman collapsed… the banking system seized to a halt… and my business changed overnight. Growth turned to Decay. I did all that I could to fight the reality (the environment had changed). I fought to get back to how business had been before. But eventually it fell apart. And it fell apart in a much more painful way because I had spent so much time trying to pretend that it wasn’t going to fall apart, not accepting that the business model didn’t work in the new economic reality.
What will my 40s hold? I think the biggest thing is that I now stay in that central intersection of the Venn Diagram. I may fall back and forget once in a while, but my aim is to do work that I love, become ever better at this work and serve those that I can.
Jim Rohn always used to say that you can’t “make money” you can only become the type of person that money is attracted to. You can’t find success, you can only let success find you when you become the type of person that success is attracted to.
Good luck in the search for Meaningful Contribution. How’s your journey going?
There is a lot of buzz around Pinterest these days, but the social network that most keeps me entertained while learning is Quora. It connects people around interests. I have got some great answers to questions regarding research, articles I am writing, places to visit…
Manel Baucells was the favourite Professor amongst students when I did my MBA at IESE Business School. He taught Decision Analysis. There are certain types of situation under which humans will take poor (rational) decisions. We study this subject so that we can reduce the likelihood that we will take similar poor decisions under similar situations. Examples of situations that cause poor decisions are sunk costs, loss aversion, prediction of low frequency events.
What most surprised you in learning about happiness?
How much happiness depends on our attitudes, rather than on external circumstances.
What led you to write the book?
As professors, our audience are the students that attend our lectures and the colleagues that read our academic papers. There is a moment in our careers that we want to expand our audience, and publish a book for a broad audience. It is critical to choose a time that is not too early in one’s career, and ideas are not yet mature; or too late. Rakesh and I felt that this is a good time in our careers to write a book of this characteristics.
Who will benefit from reading the book?
Any one interested in being happier, or readers of popular science books. I feel that the audience for non-fiction, research based books is expanding. This increase is due, no doubt, to the growing quality and relevance of the research done in the social sciences.
What are the 3 most damaging things people do that reduce happiness?
The fundamental starting point of the book is that happiness equals reality minus expectations. There are three key things one needs to understand:
The first is that expectations shift. The moment one increases his or her living standards, one get adapted quite soon, and going back down is very painful.
The second is that our happiness is greatly influenced by how we compare with our peers, our comparison group.
The third is that happiness can be engineered by using a “less to more” approach. Always start low, and then increase.
What 3 things have you changed in your own life since writing the book?
Managing expectations better, create less to more (crescendo) patterns, and engage in activities that accumulate.
Dogs are hierarchical social-status animals. They hunt in packs. They fight for power within their pack. Their success or failure is entirely defined by their position within the hierarchy of the pack. The higher up the social order, the longer they live, the more they eat… and the more offspring they procreate.
Wolves are territorial animals. They find their own territory. They each are leader in their own territory. They can all be successes in their lives.
Dog or Wolf. Which are you?
The choice: Wolf = Territory (create your own value system) or Dog = Hierarchy (measure against other’s value systems).
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