26 Jun 2018

By Marc Wilson
Marc is a partner at Global Advisors and based in Johannesburg, South Africa

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    Picket fences. Family of four. Management position.

    Mid-life crisis. Meaning. Purpose.

    Someone once said that, 'At 18, I had all the answers. At 35, I realised I didn't know the question.'

    Serendipity has a lot going for it. Many people might sail through life taking what comes and enjoying the moment. Others might be open to chance and have nothing go right for them.

    Some people might strive to achieve, realise rare successes and be bitterly unhappy. Others might be driven and enjoy incredible success and fulfilment.

    Perhaps the majority of us become beholden to the momentum of our lives.

    We might study, start a career, marry, buy a dream house, have children, send them to a top school. Those steps make up components of many of our dreams. They are steps that may define each subsequent choice. As I discussed this with a friend recently, he remarked that few of these steps had been subject of deliberations in his life – increasingly these steps were the outcome of momentum. Each will shape every step he takes for the rest of his life. He would not have things any other way, but if he knew what he knows now, he might have been more deliberate about choice and consequence. Doing so might have resulted in greater readiness for the path he is on.

    There is a balance. Being deliberate and being open to chance are not exclusive. Being on one end of the scale might suppose infinite knowledge and control and on the other, becoming a victim of fate.

    Being deliberate starts with being conscious. It is not the same as being so tightly wound that there is no time to relax, have fun, or be open to new experiences. It is being conscious of the choices to do those things.

    Being deliberate does not mean taking every opportunity – it can mean the opposite: turning down opportunities on a carefully considered basis.

    Being deliberate does not mean driving hard at every intended goal. Driving hard can drive people and opportunities away. Sometimes stepping back can allow others to step forward.

    Being deliberate also does not mean never giving up. On the contrary, being deliberate requires regular re-evaluation and perhaps giving up on something that does not accomplish your goals, get the best out of you or make you as happy as you might be.

    As a leader, being deliberate does not mean being authoritarian – it typically means getting the best out of others, requiring facilitation, coaching and providing space.

    Clearly, being deliberate requires intricate balance. I believe the following five steps are the elements of leading a deliberate life:

    Step 1: Experience

    Experiences help you discover who you are

    The Johari Window is a framework that helps people better understand their relationship with themselves and others.

    It was created by psychologists Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1916–1995) in 1955.

    The model shows personal knowledge as a function of self-awareness and what is known through others. Being open to – and living – authentic experiences is key to self-discovery.

    We are influenced, shielded, moulded and directed from birth. For some – very few – upbringing, friends and circumstance might encourage being open to anything. For the vast majority of us, it does the opposite. We are programmed about what not to be, what not to do, how to look, how to behave. We are told what is acceptable. Some rebel. Most conform to a closeted societal norm.

    Being deliberate is knowing who you are, what you want and driving progress to get there.

    The basis of knowing who you are and what you want is to experience life deliberately. We cannot know whether we will like a food if we do not taste it. Yet we might look at some foreign dish with disgust and declare our distaste. Life is like a tasting board. Sometimes we need to put on a blindfold and be open to new flavours. It is not optimal to treat every meal as a tasting occasion, but without being deliberate about creating the space, time and mindset to experience new things, we may miss out on the best available to us.

    However, some people live in fear of missing out – driving to new experiences, fearing the commitment of being tied down, looking for the next ever greater high. Being deliberate requires turning down experiences too. Thankfully most experiences in life do not have such dramatic trade-offs – merely the need to challenge ourselves. Shutting off new experiences too early can lead us to lead a less fulfilling life.

    Step 2: Know and be true to yourself

    Knowing yourself requires feedback and challenging your preconceptions

    'To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.' – Carl Jung

    — 1 —

    'People think you're arrogant.'

    I took a sharp intake of breath. I detested arrogance. I aspired to humility. My heroes and mentors were humble. I was young and performing well. I had tripped up a few times, but this felt like cutting feedback – second hand.

    'Who thinks I am arrogant? Surely this is a perception from somebody dealing with their own issues?'

    'Perception is reality, Marc – your reality to deal with. You can choose to find the truth in the feedback or even merely deal with what might just be perception. If you were unaware of this, you would not be able to.'

    My mentor's guidance did little to dull the sting, but it has stayed with me over my life. Blind spots can cripple our progress and lead us to be less than we might be.

    — 2 —

    'That's not me! I don't identify with that and I don't believe I am that!'

    'Sometimes it is worth living for a moment in what we fear. Accepting the truth in it so we can deal with it. If we accept that a wall in our apartment is a horrible shade of purple that we do not like, we can either grow to like the colour, adjust the apartment or go out and buy some paint. Otherwise, all we do is shout about not wanting the wall to be purple.'

    It had been a difficult session, but my mentor helped unlock a powerful insight. Most of what we fight, fear, flee has elements of truth – if not a deep truth. Finding peace, discovering who we are and living our best, happiest lives requires stopping fighting, losing fear and being open to who we could be.

    Together with being open to experiences, we need to develop the openness to who we might be. Most of us might live in fear of disapproval or fear of the unknown. We all have fears of what we might be. Some of these are real and justified – we may not want to be arrogant, abusive, etc. However, not knowing who we are is merely denial. We are then unable to live our best lives.

    Most people do not really know themselves. Our shadow selves and blind spots steer us without our knowledge or hijack us without our realising their role. In their most brutal form, they drive a mid-life crisis, insecurity and unhappiness. They can also protect us and they make us the unique people we are.

    Without experience, we are unable to discover our unknown selves (see the Johari inset or Jung's shadow self) and without the feedback from interacting with others, we are unable to understand our blind spots.

    Knowing ourselves helps us understand what the true reasons are for our happiness and unhappiness, for our functional and dysfunctional behaviour. It is in the patterns of our happiness and unhappiness and the triggers for our functional and dysfunctional behaviour that our true self hides.

    Knowing ourselves also empowers us to ensure we are not living for someone else, on someone else's terms. Life is about compromise in moments, not as a whole.

    When we are making decisions based on our experiences and knowledge of ourselves, we need to be fully aware of the consequences. Where we lack experience and complete knowledge, we need to manage the risk of those consequences not matching our later experience and knowledge.


    Step 3: Set goals and timeframes

    Set goals and timeframes in line with your experiences, self-awareness and knowledge of what truly makes you happy

    'We’re affected by other people’s behaviour in ways we don’t even realize…… We can often land up being in a way in our lives where we turn around and we say, ‘How did I get here?’ I was just going on with the flow. I was just doing what everyone else told me to do.” – Harvard psychologist Susan David

    An insidious form of this “social contagion,” as psychologists call it — and the one that really interests David — is that we can end up living someone else’s dreams, instead of our own.1

    In some people who become high achievers, they sublimate what would have been an aching yearning into accomplishing things. If you’re like them, even if that doesn’t fill you up from the inside out, the conditional grin of approval for what you do instead of the love and celebration for who you are can certainly distract you from the yearning.

    However, as great a way as that is to cope, down deep something at your core feels false. And after many years of accomplishments, those grins of conditional love and approval wear thin and you can feel empty.2

    Develop your personal vision, mission and values. Pay attention to the values. Set realistic short-, medium- and long-term goals. Make sure the goals include the foundation tasks and skills. Ensure that the focus is on the inputs rather than the outcomes.

    Most importantly, interrogate your goals with the 5-Whys – asking yourself why for each of the vision, mission, values and goals you choose. For each, why will this fulfil you? Why? Why? Why? Why? Understand your core motivations, fears, reasons for being happy and unhappy, and how the plan addresses them.

    1 Lebowitz, S – 'The question a Harvard psychologist says you need to ask yourself if you’re feeling unfulfilled.' – 30 Jan 2017

    2 Goulston, M – 'Why Do Many High Achievers Feel Unfulfilled? The Syndrome of Disavowed Yearning.' – 8 July 2010

    Life goals might be varied. They have precedence and priority. They vary by person. They should be driven by the knowledge of who we are. Fundamentally we must understand why a goal is important to us and why achieving it will fulfil us.

    When we are young, we might confuse outcomes with goals. Becoming a CEO, marrying, having children, being wealthy, having a beautiful home – outcomes are the results of successfully achieving the real goals – doing valuable work, meeting someone we love and who loves us, being appropriately appreciated and rewarded.

    We confuse precedence – we might want to run a marathon within a certain time before achieving training goals, we may desire marriage before achieving the goal of meeting the right person, we might desire promotion before proving our competence and value.

    We often set goals without gaining experience and knowing ourselves. When we do this, is it any wonder that when we achieve our goals we might feeling the gnawing sadness of being unfulfilled?

    Step 4: Re-evaluate

    Momentum is powerful. We embark on a path and merely because of our past effort and experience, shut down opportunities to be on a better path and live a better and happier life.

    We fear re-evaluation because it requires the wisdom of Solomon – sometimes we must give up on what we have to gain new experiences, be truer to the increasing knowledge of ourselves – and to be happier. We also require the wisdom to not unnecessarily discard what we have for a perhaps.

    But most choices are not this dire. Re-evaluation can mean adjusting a path on the way to a goal. And where adjustments are large, acknowledging that we are not fulfilled by something gives us a 100% of the rest of our lives to step towards what makes us happy. However late in our lives that is, it's still 100%.

    Step 5: Enjoy the journey

    Being goal-driven is admirable and deliberate. But being deliberate is also about being conscious of the journey. We can deliberately stop the car to enjoy the view, take time to relax, to be with friends, to celebrate a work success with colleagues, to mourn, to empathise – to be human.

    We can acknowledge when we don't know and be excited by discovery.

    Psychologists are increasingly finding that the pursuit of happiness holds false promise. Rather, it is the acknowledgement and mindfulness of all of our life – including sadness, anger, unhappiness and the reasons for those – that leads to fulfilment and happiness.

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