As I grow older I am aware of an ever increasing sense of urgency; a feeling that I have progressively less time left to leave behind a legacy that can be a credit to me. This sense of urgency has nothing to do with the fact that the reality of time running out is one that we all face. It has more to do with the desire to do something to maximize the benefit of the time that I have left. Naturally like all of us, I have no idea how much exactly is left, so all the more reason to act fast.
In this process, I developed a theory based on my own life experience which I call ‘Living Thoughtfully’. I believe that before we act, if we think about what we are about to do; the reasons for it, the possible effects of it and other alternatives that we may have and then ask ourselves, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ then we will be able to vastly improve our effectiveness.
I am Muslim and use the Qur’an and Sunnah as my basis for decision making. That is what I have used here as well. You, the reader, however will I hope, find these reflections both interesting and usable even if you are not Muslim, because integrity, morals, ethics and concern for others are universal values. I take them from the Word of Allah and the teachings of His Messenger because I believe that one day I will be held accountable before Allah for what I did.
In ‘Living Thoughtfully’ the most important matter is to check our intention. That is why one of the most important sayings of Muhammad (SAS), the Messenger of Allah is: ‘The reward of a deed is based on its intention.’ A bribe is after all a ‘gift’. The difference which makes one right and the other wrong is the intention. Imaam Nawawi, one of the most eminent scholars of Hadith, writing about the importance of intention, in his book – Ar Riyadhus Saleheen – said, ‘(Live with) the awareness of the intention in all that we say, in all that we do and in every situation that we find ourselves; whether visible or hidden.’
Imagine living with such a heightened sense of purpose that before a person says anything he asks himself why he is planning to say it, thinks of the effect his words are likely to have and takes responsibility for that. He does the same with every action of his and reflects on his contribution to any situation he is faced with.
If we behaved with such a tremendous sense of responsibility no matter what our position in life, what a wonderful world we would be able to create around us? Our problems of inequity, poverty, environmental degradation and moral bankruptcy can all be traced to one source – a lack of responsibility for our speech and actions. We lack concern. We must change this.
I contrast ‘Living Thoughtfully’ with the opposite, ‘living thoughtlessly’… just remaining alive, like a cow or a goat. Not that I have anything against cows or goats but would like to believe that I am different. I have called it ‘Maximizing ROI (Return on Investment) because our time, energy, money, emotions, thoughts, aspirations, desires and the choices we make are all investments into our lives, albeit sometimes (or for some of us, most of the time)unconscious.
It is important therefore that we stop to assess what the return on our investment is, especially as much of that investment is impossible to retrieve once it is made. Yet it will have consequences whether we like them or not. When we look around us we see that some people seem to accomplish far more than others, though all of us have the same amount of time. The others complain that they have ‘no time’ but if you ask them, ‘Can you tell me what you did yesterday and why was it important?’ they are not able for the most part even to recall what they did, let alone be able to say why it was important. The same thing is true of other resources which we have at our disposal, be it money, or network of people or access to education or anything else. It is my contention therefore that the secret of accomplishment lies not in the amount of time or resources that we have but in what we do with them. How we use them, leverage them, conserve them and spend them. The secret is in ‘Living Thoughtfully’.
Living Thoughtfully is not only about being goal focused but also about being aware and concerned about the effect of our actions. Of being conscious about the fact that while we need to accomplish our goals, we need to find ways of doing that without damaging, harming or oppressing others. Our problems today with global issues, be those related to wars, global warming, rapacious grasping of resources by those who have the power to do so and consequently more expenditure on military and weapons than on health, education and eradication of poverty; all relate to living thoughtlessly.
Living as if the consequences of our actions will not come home to roost on our own rafters. Just as they say, ‘When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, a tsunami is born in Indonesia’, whether we live thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, it has a profound, powerful and visible effect in all aspects of our lives. It is not possible to pollute the water of the lake we swim in without that pollution affecting us. That is the reason I believe that the most important thing for us to do and to teach our children to do, is to Live Thoughtfully.
With this in mind, I have delineated the elements of Living Thoughtfully and have suggested some attitudes that we should work on developing as well as some tools which I believe will be helpful in achieving our ends. I have used these tools personally and taught them for many years and know they work.In our modern commercial society we have reduced everything to its dollar value even where the matter has no monetary value as such but is critical to success in life. For example what is the monetary value of integrity? But we are all aware that the present financial crisis that the whole world is affected by is rooted in a lack of integrity at the highest levels of the economy and government. If the decision makers sitting in their ivory towers had been people of integrity we would not have been in this mess. Yet almost nobody speaks of the core reason for this situation.
Similarly we have reduced education, health care, food production and distribution, the care of the elderly and many such matters to businesses. I say ‘reduced’ because to me education is for life, not to make a living. Health care is about concern for the sick and a desire to alleviate their suffering as effectively and cheaply as possible; not about showing a decent ROI on the hospital’s balance sheet. Food production and distribution is about feeding those who are starving no matter where they may be and not about throwing wheat into the sea because otherwise it would depress global prices on commodity stock exchanges. Many organizations that spend in the name of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) are more concerned about the tax breaks they get for their spend; the fact that they spent nothing for social welfare prior to the tax breaks bearing mute testimony to the fact. What are we saying about ourselves as human beings when the death of people due to starvation has less value for us than the price of wheat and therefore the return on our futures trade? Do we
stop to reflect? Do we care? Yet we call ourselves civilized.
That is why I believe in and operate from the Islamic principle of accountability before Allah from whom nothing is hidden and to whom we will have to answer for all that we did or chose not to do. That is Islam. I am sharing this with you because this is my foundation when I speak about ‘Living Thoughtfully’; to live constantly with the awareness of accountability in my mind and so always strive to please Allah.
The 6 – Critical Elements
There are 6 critical elements to ‘Living Thoughtfully’:
What do I learn?
In direct control
6. The Legacy
What do I want to be remembered for?
Let’s look at them individually.
As they say, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’; but that step must be on the right path and going in the right direction. What is the right path? The path that leads to the goal which you want to achieve. So before all else, comes the goal. We call it by many names, vision is one. But goal is what it is. Where are you headed? Where do you want to reach? The greater our clarity about this, the higher will be our energy and motivation to work towards it.
In order to get this clarity a good way is to imagine and draw what the achieved state will be like.
How different will it be from the current state? How beneficial will that difference be? Interestingly the bigger the difference, the more the benefit, the higher its power to pull us in that direction. I call this ‘Positive Stress’. It is like the head of water in a hydro-electric dam. The higher the head, the more its power to generate electricity. That is why it is in the very nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort.
Another benefit of clearly visualizing the achieved state, the goal, is that it gives us perspective. Perspective is the ability to hold two pictures in our mind simultaneously; where we are and where we want to go. The differential fuels growth.
Imagine being lost in a featureless desert or in a dense forest. If you want to find a way out, you will seek a high place, climb to the top of it and try to look for a way to get out. When you are standing on top of that hill and have now seen the lights of a village far in the distance, you will be able to chart a course to reach there. That is perspective.
At that time, you are able to see the two pictures; where you are now and where you want to go. This is essential in life because without perspective we will not be able to appreciate the magnitude of the goal and what needs to be done to achieve it.
This brings us to a challenge; ‘How can I make others dream my dream?’ The big reason is that almost anything worth dedicating our life to will require at least some others to also dedicate their lives to the achievement of that goal. That means two things: our goal must help them achieve their own personal goals and we need to be able to show them how this will happen. Inspiring others is therefore about allowing others into our mind and letting them see the pictures we are seeing and into our hearts and letting them feel what we are feeling. It’s all about connecting at various levels and that needs building trust.
It is when people love you and trust you that they are willing to be inspired by you and to dedicate their lives to enable you to make your dream come true.
As they say, ‘People don’t work for organizations. They work for other people.’ Read about the life of any great leader and you will find that his followers loved him more than anyone else. It is this love that binds. It is this love that enables the person to wake up in the morning eager to meet you and to stay up late in the night to complete an unfinished task.
What people will do for love, they will not do for any other reason. Not duty, not money, not even for their own careers. Emotion is the basis of all action.
All mediocre results are the consequence of a lack of passion. What we ourselves don’t believe in, we can’t inspire others to do. We can only give what we have and so our own passion must never diminish.
Passion is not simply irrational feeling. Passion is the result of an absolute conviction that the achievement of our goal will change our world and to believe that is worth doing and the willingness to dedicate the time, energy and resources to make it happen. This creates a higher sense of purpose of being among those entrusted with directing the path of destiny. Passion results in a sense of pride in our work because our work defines us. People who are passionate about their tasks need no supervision, no monitoring.
They set their own targets and routinely overachieve. They drive their own supervisors and team members to be the best they can. They inspire everyone. That is why passion is in my opinion, critical to success.
All long term goals must be broken down into shorter term results.
It is essential to answer these questions because in the pursuit of long term goals it is easy to lose steam along the way and diminish your efforts or even to lose direction. Immediate gains not only motivate but they make the all too important point of proving to people that your way works – that the goal is actually achievable.
Achievement of short term goals is helped by having those goals clearly articulated and announced with a reward on the achievement of each. This encourages the spirit and gives people a sense of achievement and gives them hope in eventual success no matter how tough the going currently may be. Celebrating small successes encourages the heart especially in the cold dark stretches of the night when self doubt raises its head and you wonder if you can really win.
Finally in many cases, short term success pre-qualifies and in some cases is essential if the long term goal is to be achieved. A good example is Gandhiji’s Salt Satyagrah; the march to the beach in Dandi to make salt to defy the law under British India. It was a small step but it was in the right direction and shook the foundations of the Colonial Government. The Salt Satyagrah in itself did not rid India of British colonialism but it was an immediate goal which gave people a sense of achievement and success and proved to them that Gandhiji’s highly unconventional way of protest, through non-violent means could actually succeed. It was such steps that Gandhiji took very successfully that gradually built support for his ideas of Ahimsa and people started to believe that the behemoth of British Colonial Government which had governed India for more than a century could actually be unseated and expelled without a bloody and violent revolution. Small successes are very important and can often spell the difference between success and failure of the long term goal.
Once we have clearly articulated the goal, the next step is to determine our criteria of success and how we are going to measure it. I believe that measurement is essential because it is the only way we have of knowing clearly what we achieved. Without measurement it is possible to have a false feeling of success, especially if we worked hard and long at something. The fact however is that unless we can measure it, it does not exist.
There are two aspects to measurement: ongoing measurement of progress and periodic assessment against the standard to determine whether our progress is adequate or not. Measurement is the reality check in all situations. What we can measure, we can control. What we can control, we can guarantee. That is why measurement is the soul of any product or service quality enhancement effort.
So what must we measure? Measurement parameters must take into account both ‘quantum’ and ‘time’ – how much must be achieved by when? It is a good idea to set parameters collaboratively because people’s participation helps us to understand their susceptibilities, difficulties, fears and aspirations. It is essential to understand all these things because ultimately their efforts will be affected by all of them. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Don’t address their brains, address their hearts.’ Inspiration belongs to the heart.
Inviting people to participate in setting measurement parameters is also a very powerful step to build trust. It is the best way to demonstrate respect for them as team members and to show that they are seen as equal partners and stake holders in the results. People respond to this by owning responsibility and interestingly set parameters which are often more ambitious than you would have set for them yourself. With the big difference that since these measurement parameters were set by themselves, they are more willing to abide by them and don’t see them as being ‘thrust down their throats from above’.
A word on ‘stretch goals’. It is a very good idea to set both a normal and a stretch parameter for each step and to have different rewards for them.
This encourages people to aspire to excel and to set records and stretch their own beliefs about what they had hitherto thought themselves capable of. Doing this collaboratively once again helps to create ownership for the stretch goal which otherwise can become a ‘stretch’ itself. All these are also wonderful exercises in building communication between team members and the team leader and help to iron out any areas of potential conflict.
Once the parameters are agreed on we need to institutionalize implementation.
The most critical matter is to apply the standard without fear or favor. Nothing sabotages morale like varying standards – different strokes for different folks – is not the preferred method. After taking the trouble to set parameters collaboratively it is essential to apply them impartially. The best way to ensure impartiality is to do the assessment also collaboratively. This creates an atmosphere of high transparency and reinforces trust.Naturally it is possible that there may be some mitigating circumstances in a particular case which prevented someone from achieving his target. Once again collaborative assessment of the situation and deciding on that basis removes all possibility of bias. The rule is that mitigating circumstances are always exceptions and not the rule.
Finally there may be a situation where the goal itself needs to be revised upwards or downwards. It is a good idea to periodically examine the goal in the light of changing global situations and see if it needs to be changed. In this process sometimes new understanding emerges about the means of achieving the goal and so this process must be documented.
We have embarked on our journey; we face situations; what do we learn? How will this learning help us in going forward? How will it make the rest of the journey easier, safer, cheaper and more productive? All this and more can be achieved by taking time out to reflect. ‘Still time’, is what I call it. Time to simply sit still, in active contemplation of events with the intention to learn from them. To the external world you may appear to be doing nothing. But you are actually engaged in one of the most important activities of mankind; learning. One of the ‘diseases’ of our modern times is what I call ‘busyness’. The big value that we place on activity by itself. We rush around telling ourselves and everyone else that we are ‘very busy’, we ‘have no time’ and so on. Then we collapse on the sofa before the TV in the evening feeling very satisfied that we had a very busy day. But if someone were to present us with a pad and pen and say to us, ‘Please write down what you achieved today by being so busy,’ most of us would not be able to write anything at all.
We have created a culture where it is almost a crime to be inactive, to simply be, to breathe, watch the world go by, to contemplate. The result is that we seem to have lost the skill to do this beneficially and end up with a feeling of having wasted our time and rush back into the apparent ‘safety’ of frenetic activity to which we have become accustomed. This is very detrimental to learning, improving our methods, enhancing our productivity and enjoying our lives.
Reflection is not a waste of time. Structured reflection is the best use of time that we could possibly make because it gives us the possibility of changing our methods to make them more useful. Reflection helps us to create concepts and theories which we can apply and eventually pass on to others. Unless we reflect we can’t learn. And unless we take time out to be ‘still’ we can’t reflect.
There are two stages to reflection: What happened and what did I learn?
I call this ‘Dreaming Deliberately’. Deliberately playing the scenes in my mind; recalling as vividly and graphically as I can, all that happened. Not putting a rosy color on it. Keeping it as emotion free as possible. Just being the spectator and watching it happen again. Doing this not simply to relive, lament, bemoan or torture myself but rather, as an interested spectator, critically watch what happened in order to learn.
This reflective observation is the first step in learning from life using our own experience as the teacher. The higher our integrity when doing this, the more valuable the learning. There is great temptation to make ourselves look good but it must be resisted. I don’t mean to imply that we are always the ones who are wrong. I only mean that we must be honest about what actually happened and not try to avoid the pain. The two biggest blocks to learning are the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We must beware of both lest they render our life useless and we make the same mistakes again and again. That is the real loss; to do wrong a second time.
While Dreaming Deliberately we need to keep the circumstances surrounding the incident in mind. Once again being absolutely honest with ourselves because if we don’t, then the only kind of deception that would be happening would be self deception and that prevents all learning. So we watch it happen, see our own role in it, reflect on the circumstances leading to the incident, ask ourselves, ‘What else could I have done? What were my alternatives? What actions happened because I was not thinking? What did I actually choose to do? If I had chosen another course of action what new scenarios would have come into play?
Life is like a series of parallel worlds. Depending on what we choose to do, a new vista opens before us and we walk that path. Sometimes it is not possible to change anything until we come to the next crossroad or fork. At other times we can actually trace our steps back to the last fork and go down the path we did not choose the last time and new scenery unfolds for us. What we call ‘destiny’ is this scenery. We can’t change it. It comes with the path. The forks or crossroads are the choices, the paths that we can choose to walk. If we want different scenery we need to walk a different path; the path which has that kind of scenery. Want to walk in the fields, go to the countryside. Want to window shop, walk down Main Street. It is really that simple.
We get to choose our destiny, albeit without knowing exactly what the details will be. However we have enough indicators to tell us if it will be good or bad, even if we don’t know the details. Our values are the guides which help us to make the right choices and that is the reason they are so important.
Confusion about choices is often the first indicator that we are about to compromise our values. If we are true to our values, there is no confusion. We know why we are choosing a particular path. We know what is likely to happen and we make that choice deliberately. But when we are about to succumb to temptation and compromise our values, our conscience starts to beep and we feel fear.
This fear is different from the fear we call excitement which we feel when we are about to embark on a high risk – high return venture but one that does not entail compromising values. Excitement is fear that anticipates a happy ending. It energizes, enhances awareness and enables us to live the moment fully. I used to hunt big game in my youth and even today, more than 30 years later I can vividly recall the excitement of walking down a game trail, my gun ready at port, watching every leaf, twig and shadow identifying it for what it really was and not what it might appear to be until too late. The shadow could well be the dappled coat of the tigress as she lay crouched in the grass, waiting for her prey to get within striking distance when one short charge, preceded by a roar that turns knees to water, would signal the end of the career of any hunter. This fear would enhance my level of awareness of my surroundings to such an extent that even today I can actually smell the scent of the hot soil baking in the heat of a May sun. Excitement is a healthy fear that adds value to life.
The fear that arises as a result of our conscience beeping is debilitating, energy sapping and slows us down. Wisdom lies in listening to this inner voice and changing the choice and choosing a different path. Deliberate Dreaming if done well enables us to live those moments again so that through the pain and embarrassment of it all, we are able to see where we went wrong and learn.
Once we have done enough of reflection in terms of what happened and have gathered enough material to work with we must move to the next stage and that is to ask ourselves, ‘What did I learn?’ Conceptualization is the extract of experience which determines its value. What we don’t conceptualize remains raw experience. Not particularly useful because it is unable to guide us to reach any useful conclusion. At best it may be an interesting story. At worst not even that. The biggest loss is that what we don’t conceptualize we can’t teach anyone, so our experience remains useless to ourselves and others.
A very important part of conceptualization is to actively try to see what we could have controlled and what was really out of our control. Later we shall see how this is an important element to remember while making choices but for now, reflecting on our past, it is important to look for the signs of control. Ask, ‘Who was in control? Why? What gave them that power? What made me powerless at that time? What could I have done to change that situation and regain some of my power which I had given away?
The Learning Journal
A very valuable tool to use for reflection and conceptualization is the Learning Journal. I have used this tool for several decades and have taught it to several thousand students over 25 years of teaching. The Learning Journal is a tool to encourage Living Thoughtfully. Its format is very simple as you can see below:
What happened? Why’s it important? What did I learn?
Every evening you fill out this format. You first record all significant incidents of the day. Then you reflect on and record why you believe they were significant. Then you conceptualize your reflections and record the lessons you learnt. Some days you may come out blank in any one of the columns. You may not remember what happened that day. It is a lesson to prove that you completely wasted 8 -10 hours of your waking time which will never return. It is often a very powerful wake-up call for most people to stare blankly at their Learning Journal trying to remember what they did.
The second and third columns often need more time and so it is alright to record the significant events and then do the reflection and conceptualizing over the next few days and fill them in when you are done. The recording is essential because no matter what we like to believe about our memories, they are transient and even the most important lessons are lost if they are not recorded. So recording is essential. I also find that writing helps me to think in a structured way which frankly is the only way to think efficiently and effectively. Random thoughts simply float around in the mind but get nowhere and no lessons emerge. But if you can structure your thoughts you will find that you can accomplish much in a very short time. As you gain experience and develop your conceptualizing skills you can do it faster and more sharply each time. Takes practice, needless to say, and the Learning Journal is the tool.
Once we have completed our learning, we come to the next stage and that is to ask, ‘So what can I do now to change my destiny?’ We need to make a choice.
This is the most difficult of all stages; to actively choose to change our lifestyle. For one, this may mean choosing to give up doing things that we enjoyed doing but which we realize were harmful. But just because we realize their harmfulness it does not mean that giving them up would be easy. All sorts of addictions will fall into this category. Another difficult choice, even more than the first, is to re-choose our friends.
It is amazing how friends can either facilitate or inhibit change. Depending on the kind of circle we move around in, the new lifestyle changes we planned on become easy or difficult. Our friends will support us or criticize us. That is why it is necessary to choose our friends and give up those who are destructive. The best way to do this is to invite your friends to your new way. If they agree it is good for them.
If not, they will leave you on their own as you have ‘changed’. There are two elements in making a choice: Things which are in our direct control and things which we don’t control but can either influence or prepare for when they happen.
I believe that it is essential to classify choices on the basis of what we control because then courses of action become clearly visible. There are two aspects of the choices that we directly control which we need to take into account: The ‘cost’ of the choice and its ‘benefit’.
A cost-benefit analysis of any choice is essential because many a time we fail to choose wisely because we have a vague fear in our mind about the consequences of doing so. When however we analyze the cost of taking an action and the benefit (both long and short term) of doing so, we realize that the benefit far outweighs the cost. I have even had the experience of realizing that the so-called cost was something in my mind and not real at all, when I carried out a formal analysis and went looking for hard data to support my ‘feelings’.
It is good to remember and remind ourselves that the benefit of a choice may not always be material (standing up for the minority opinion or for justice and truth or to support the oppressed) and the cost may appear to be too high. But one must weigh this against the real cost of the death of your soul and against the real benefit of perhaps even losing your life but remaining alive for posterity as a beacon of guidance for all others who tread that path. So also is the cost of choosing to follow the orders of Allah in return for the promised reward in the Hereafter when we will be rewarded far more than we imagined. The Messenger (SAS) said to the effect that there will be people who will enter Jannah purely on the basis of their character, manners and the way they treated others.
I remind myself of this because the conditioning in today’s environment of measuring everything only by its material worth has undermined all values and reduced us to becoming bean counters who can’t see beyond monetary benefit. We have all been impoverished as a result and are suffering collectively from the disease of commercialism and which demotes us from being citizens to being mere consumers. It is at the altar of this god that we are all sacrificed. We must change this urgently.
After we have determined what choices are in our control it is a good idea also to look at choices that we may not control directly but which we can influence through our network, speech or writing.
As you can see from the questions above we can influence choices that are made and that have the potential to affect us both through our own network as well as through the network of those we know. Choices can also be influenced in the public space through writing, activism, public speaking and various other means all dependent on the degree to which we are creative in using all the elements at our disposal. In his book Invictus, John Carlin documents the many choices that Mr. Mandela influenced to win over a hostile population to his policy of reconciliation. A feat that is unmatched in modern political history.
Finally there will be situations which are likely to be totally out of our control, like the current economic slump that we are going through globally, which we as individuals couldn’t have influenced. But even in this case it is possible to prepare for it so that its effects can be controlled and ameliorated in our own lives. While this may do nothing to reverse the negative change, it can at least cushion us from the worst of the impact. I call this whole approach, choosing to be a ‘Master’ and not a ‘Victim’. I believe that this is a choice that is ours to make. Circumstances will not change as a result but their effect will.
Master or Victim?
In the life of every man and woman comes a time and a window opens when they have a unique opportunity to make an impact and influence others. To succeed we need to anticipate, prepare and act with courage when it opens. Living life is about making choices- the choice to be a ‘victim’ of circumstances or the choice to do something about circumstances and be their ‘master’. We are free to make this choice – to be a ‘victim’ or to be a ‘master’ – but the choices; each has a different payoff in terms of its consequences. Both stances are subject to the same givens of society, environment, organization etc. But have very different implications in terms of your development and happiness. It is one of the fallacies that people assume: that when we say we have freedom of choice, the choice is free of consequences. This is a myth and like all myths, it is a fantasy and a lie. We have freedom to choose but every choice has a price tag – every choice that we make is the same in this context. Each has a price tag. Foolish people make choices without first ascertaining the price tag and are then surprised, shocked, disappointed and so on, when the time comes to pay for the choice. Then they blame others for the result which they could have avoided.
To return to our discussion, ‘victims’ are people who complain about adversity, think of excuses, blame others, lose hope and perish. ‘Victims’ can be individuals, groups, communities or nations. The ‘victim stance’ is the same – complain and blame.
‘Masters’ on the other hand are people who when faced with difficulty and adversity, first look at themselves to see how and why they came to be in that situation, own their responsibility and then they look for solutions to resolve that situation. They have the courage to try new ways and win even if they fail. “Masters’ recognize that whatever happens to us is at least in part, if not wholly, a result of the choices that we made, consciously or unconsciously.
The result of what we chose to do or chose not to do. Consequently if we recognize that we created the situation, then it follows logically that we can also create its solution. The characteristic of ‘Masters’ is that even when they may temporarily be in a ‘Victim’ situation, they quickly ask themselves the key question: ‘Okay so what can I do about this situation?’ This question is the key to taking a ‘Masterful’ stance in life.
This is in itself a tremendously empowering mindset which frees a person from the shackles of self limiting barriers to his or her development. A ‘master’ never says, “I can’t”; s/he says, “I don’t know if I can!” – And in that is a world of difference. The key question to ask therefore is – In terms of the challenges that I face today, what do I need to do if I want to be a ‘Master’ and not a ‘Victim’? What is the investment that I need to make in order to succeed? This investment may be in terms of changing our attitudes, beliefs, behavior or lifestyle. It is often difficult to do and even more to sustain, but it is tremendously beneficial in all ways.
Once we have identified our choices and decided on a course of action the next step is to assess the risks involved. These would be of two kinds: Immediate and long term.
In my view the most important thing in risk assessment is to insist on real data about the projected risks. Without that we may be running away from ghosts and fearing things that don’t exist. This kind of fear is debilitating and worthless.
For example one of the reasons why many people don’t take the step to become independent entrepreneurs is because of their risk perception. Asking questions to get some real hard data about the factors involved helps them to realize the true magnitude of the risk and many then take the plunge because they feel capable of handling the risk. Risks may be of different kinds depending on the decisions that you are planning to take; financial, PR, safety, potential lost opportunity, political and so on. Each must be analyzed and assessed in terms of its projected impact.
The next thing to do is to assess the cost of doing nothing, i.e. cost of living in the present state. This is often a very critical question because it has the potential to motivate people to take the big steps that they really need to take to change their destiny.
But the fact is that they will not take them unless they see the need clearly. Burning the boats figuratively is a powerful motivator because it introduces desperation into the equation and desperation overcomes all sorts of reluctance. Once there is complete agreement on the need for change we look at risk itself by doing a ‘Worst Case Scenario Analysis’.
We ask, ‘What is the worst that can happen if all systems fail?’ This is a reality check exercise which is also a big motivator. Once you have been through the barrier of fear and realize that the so-called ‘worst’ is not so bad after all and that you have contingency plans and that there is much that you can do, firstly to ensure that the worst does not happen at all and secondly to mitigate its effects if it does happen; it energizes you to take the plunge.
With long term risk it is essentially the same process in principle:
The difference is that sometimes we tend to put long term risks on the back burner for too long and are suddenly surprised when they come true. Another common fault is that we don’t think about the long term risk in the excitement of getting started and take short term risks that impact the long term.
However since the effect is not immediately visible we imagine it isn’t there. But you can be sure that some time later the chickens will come home to roost to our embarrassment or cost.
Analyzing long term risks is therefore equally important. We follow the same process as I mentioned earlier. We analyze the different kinds of risk involved and cost them and work out the ‘Worst Case Scenario’ and make contingency plans. In the case of long term risk, there may well be things that you can do today which will help to either reduce or completely eliminate the risk. These are well worth considering and spending the time and resources to initiate as they can save a lot of time and tears later.
Cost of finance is a typical case in point where the nature of your sourcing can decide success or failure in the long term. Another is the commitment to quality where insisting on excellence in everything right from the first day may seem to be tedious but in the long run it is usually the lynch pin factor that attracts the best talent you need to succeed.
Short term gains are important and we must try to get as many as we can, but never at the cost of the long term. It can spell disaster.
6. The Legacy
In the end, the worth of a life is measured by its contribution. We are remembered by what we contributed. Not by what we consumed. Contribution is measured by the difference we made to other people’s lives. Was that positive? Then we will be remembered with honor. If not, our passing will be an occasion of breathing a sigh of relief at being rid of a nuisance. It is our choice which of these we want our legacy to be. That’s why we must live thoughtfully.
Because our life is worthy of that attention. Do you agree? Time is a resource that is not renewable. That is why it is essential we learn to leverage it to get maximum benefit.
In a world that is obsessively focused on consumption, it is difficult to define yourself in terms of contribution but I believe most passionately that in the end it is contribution and contribution alone that matters. What difference did it make to the world and those who live in it that I was among them? What would have been lost if I had never been born? And that is a question that must be answered not by me but by those whose lives I touched. Was that touch something that they are happy and satisfied about? Or is it something that they would rather forget?
I remember something that one of my mentors told me several decades ago but which remained with me and on which I have tried to model my life.
He once asked me, ‘What do you need to do if you want a plant to grow well?’
I replied, ‘We need to manure it.’
He said, ‘That means that even manure has a positive effect. So what do you say about the person who lives and dies and there is no effect?’
And that is what I ask myself, ‘What difference did I make?’ To this thought I try to hold myself accountable and for this I would like to be remembered.
Over the decades this has proved its value when someone calls me or meets me and tells me how something that I did many years ago, helped them. There’s nothing more satisfying in life than this.
Attitudes for Living Thoughtfully
Finally something on the attitudes that I believe are necessary if one is to live thoughtfully and leave a legacy of honor. There are 5 that are essential.
1. Seeking accountability
Notice that I am using the word, ‘seeking’ and not merely accepting. To seek accountability is a critical leadership skill that is visible in those who want to leave a mark of their passing. It is only when we seek accountability that we indicate that we are willing to take responsibility not only for our own work but for its effect on others. To seek accountability is to stand up and say, ‘I did it and I am responsible for the good and the bad of it.’ To seek accountability is not to export blame, nor to find fault, nor to make excuses and not to run away from the consequences.
People who hide from accountability are clearly stating that they are not ready to lead. That is why in the end it is only those who seek accountability that count. Living Thoughtfully is to live a life that counts.
All systems are only as good as their implementation. The best ideas in the world have no effect as long as they remain in the realm of ideas. It is only when they emerge into the world of action that the glory of thought manifests itself and becomes visible in concrete results. The secret behind this is discipline. The ability to make a plan and stick to it. Discipline also has to do with two other things: Structuring time and the ability to say, ‘No!’ We all have the same amount of time but the better we can schedule it the more productive we become. Scheduling has to do with prioritizing.
I have written a note on my tools for managing time in the appendix and so will not go into the details here but will suffice to say that the more efficiently we can prioritize our activities, the more productive will our day be.
Saying ‘No’ is a matter of developing assertiveness. Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for your rights without violating the rights of others. Without
assertiveness you become the proverbial doormat and your life becomes the property of others to dispose of as they please. We often labor under mistaken ideas about hurting others; believing that it is necessary to succumb to every demand because we should not hurt others. Becoming assertive is to accept that you are entitled to your own time and to making the best use of it as you think fit. That to tell someone that they have to wait to see you or talk to you because you are engaged in something that is important to you personally is not a sign of selfishness but of self respect. To demand that people be punctual is a sign that you respect the other person by being there on time. To expect that the other person reciprocates by being on time himself is your right.
There is nothing for them to be hurt by this and if they are hurt that is not your problem or responsibility. It is a development area for them.
3. Seeking feedback
There is only one way to improve and that is to know the effect of our current behavior. And there is only one way to know the effect of our behavior and that is to seek feedback. For feedback to be useful it must be data based. It must tell you specifically what you did well or what you did badly. If feedback is merely opinion in another form, be it positive or negative, it is of no use. For example if you just made a speech and someone came up to you and said, ‘That is the best speech that I’ve ever heard in my life.’ That statement is as useless as if someone comes up and says, ‘Excuse me, I am sorry to say, that is the worst speech I ever heard.’ It is true that the first statement will make you happy and you will walk around in a warm golden glow for a couple of hours afterwards and the second statement will make you either sad or mad, but for the purpose of learning, both are equally useless because they don’t give any data. They are merely subjective opinions which leave you equally clueless about the reasons why you were appreciated or deprecated. So you must always ask for the reasons. ‘Thank you very much for saying that. Would you please tell me what exactly you liked/disliked?’ Then make notes, thank the person once again for taking the trouble to talk to you and then later consider the data that you have. It is not necessary to always accept anything that comes your way. But it is always necessary to consider it. Then accept what you believe is valuable remembering of course that not all that is valuable is always pleasant in taste.
4. Willingness to change
If we are serious about our development, which is the purpose of Living Thoughtfully we need to be willing to change when there is a need to do so. Without this openness change will not occur even though we may have all the information needed to change. Willingness to change in my view indicates two critical attitudes of the winner which underlie it and that is humility and the pursuit of excellence. It is only when someone is confident but realizes that there is always room for improvement that he/she will be willing to change. Without that humility feedback falls on deaf ears or worse, causes offence. As for the pursuit of excellence; only when someone wants to constantly improve that he/she will be willing to change and will not become rigid in their ways. The person will seek feedback not merely as a formality but with the active intention of using it constructively. They will monitor their effectiveness and measure it against high standards and seek to excel.
This is not a one time or one-stage-of-life activity but something that the person who is focused on excellence does constantly all through their life to the very end. And that is what distinguishes them and makes them stand out and differentiate from the rest. I have had the good fortune to know some people who even in their later years would learn from their juniors with such childlike enthusiasm that it made me wonder at what a wonderful work environment they must have created around them all through their lives. This shows a genuine commitment to self improvement that supersedes all.
5. Unflinching honesty with yourself
One final attitude in order to live thoughtfully, unflinching honesty with yourself. I left this to the last because it is in a manner of speaking the ‘platform on which everything else runs.’ Without honesty none of the other attitudes will function. I use the term ‘unflinching’ because sometimes honest self assessment is painful. But unless we can look at ourselves squarely in the eye, own up to our actions and then say, ‘Okay so what do I need to do now going forward?’ without flinching, we will not be able to improve.
Running away from facts never helped anyone and won’t help us either. Facts must be faced and dealt with as they exist. Facts can be changed but they can’t be wished away. So being absolutely honest with yourself is the foundation of all attitudes of success and that is why I mention it here, at the end.
Living Thoughtfully is all about leaving behind a legacy of honor. You may well ask, ‘Why should I necessarily leave a legacy?’ I ask, ‘Why not indeed.’ We only live once. Why not live so that we leave behind something worthwhile?
So what is this strange inspiration that some people have which enables them to continue to work towards a goal that is often invisible to everyone else? Needless to say, this article does not contain the answer. It is more an attempt to share the questions in the belief that often the answer lies within ourselves and we have to search for it individually.
Inspiration to me is not something that comes like a bolt out of the blue and takes the unsuspecting soul unawares. Inspiration is often the result of a great deal of dissatisfaction with the current state that leads to honest questioning about the purpose of life and deep reflection and a sustained inner struggle with the real issues that one faces in one’s life. This is sometimes very painful and never easy to do. But when one stays with the questions long enough, the answers start to appear.
These answers again are not in the form of clear cut road maps but more like a hazy sign, on a dark and misty night, seen at the very edge of the limit of your headlights. You can just about make out the direction it is pointing in. All the rest is up to you and your ingenuity. And it does not tell you anything about the difficulties of the path. One common factor that you can rely on is the fact that there will be difficulties. That is something that I believe the potential leader can bet on. The trick is to understand what to do with the difficulty when you are faced with it.
The common tendency is to moan and groan and say, “Why me?” Not so common is to be happy to face the difficulty since you believe it indicates the promise of reward, once you can surmount it. A method that I use is to ask what this difficulty has been sent to teach me. This comes from my belief that nothing happens by accident and that all of life is a prepared plan that is unfolding and that I am the one who has the exciting task of walking the path as it appears before me. So every difficulty comes with a fortune cookie inside that tells you what the lesson is, provided you can get to it. Blaming others for creating the difficulty or carping about it only indicates that you are not ready to become a real leader yet.
When we question the purpose of the difficulty and ask, ‘What can I learn from this?’ we find that our perspective takes on a whole new meaning. We are no longer grounded in the negativity of blaming and feeling sorry for ourselves but are freed to look for creative and new ways of overcoming the difficulty. The enormity of the task itself becomes the biggest motivator, as one is conscious only of the prospect of great reward. The fact that this is not easy, then becomes easy to accept and understand, and one even says, “If it was easy, I wouldn’t want it. It would not make the victory so sweet!’
Interestingly, the route to the state of grace is through great effort. It is a path that is difficult and strewn with the wrecks of those that went before. It is easy to see this in physical examples of martial arts, sports and other physical-skill related things. The reality is, that it is the same path in challenges of the mind and of the spirit. And very often, in the latter events the route is even more difficult, for the goal is in the wining of people’s hearts and the change is in their minds.
I have reflected very often on why it is more difficult in the non-physical endeavors. My understanding is that it is because of the paradox that in the physical effort it is very often impossible or very difficult to give up once you have gone beyond the halfway point, often called the ‘point of no return’. Take trekking as an example. Once you have made the effort to reach halfway, it is easier and shorter to go no, no matter how difficult it looks than to turn around and return. What aids this is the fact that the path is not entirely unknown and you know it has an end and you know where it is.
In the journey of the spirit, the path is unknown, the duration of the effort needed is unknown and it is extremely easy to give up. There is no point of no return. You can give up and get back to your original state in an instant. That carrot is always hanging in front of the nose. And to make matters worse, the pain and suffering of confusion and emotional turmoil, which is often worse than the physical pain, is unseen and uncelebrated by others, who in a physical challenge, often provide the necessary impetus by cheering from the sidelines. And when you give up the spiritual and emotional struggle, there is no fear of shame and ridicule by others, since nobody knew you were in there anyway.
That is the reason why most people shy away from accepting challenges of the mind and spirit, even though they may know in their hearts that those are the true challenges that have the capacity to change their destiny. It requires a strong internal focus, a real desire to make a mark in life, no desire for approval from others, and a willingness to stay with the task irrespective of the time it takes or the apparent lack of ‘progress’.
It is a path that challenges all previously held beliefs and that is full of the fear of the unknown. It is a path that tests one with the challenge of living the life that one previously only talked about. It challenges us to not only put our money where our mouth is but to demonstrate commitment by taking the leap of faith into the new way of life with no guarantees of safety nets.
But the good news is that history is full of examples of those that accepted this challenge and succeeded. It is important to remember that the wrecks on the path of leadership are of those who gave up midway. Those that persevered, are the ones that went through and whose leadership often lives on long after they themselves passed on into history.
What seems to be critical in this struggle and something that gives sustenance when one is moving through an arid waste is the enormity of the goal. No heroic effort was ever made for a minor goal. Enormous goals call for enormous effort and have in them the capacity to keep the motivation alive in the face of all odds.
I believe that this is in the very nature of the goal. If you find your dedication flagging midway, look at your goal and ask yourself, “Is this goal worthy of my effort?” Aim for a larger goal and you will find that the wellsprings of your energy once again start to flow. Once again, this is something that on the face of it does not appear to be reasonable or rational.
Another critical ability is to create measurement parameters for oneself in this apparently immeasurable task. Sometimes this consists of looking back at your spiritual journey and seeing how far you have come. At other times it is realizing how much traditional motivators have ceased to have value in your eyes. At yet other times it is accepting how much you have become detached and distanced from your old friends.
I see a lot of people teaching motivation and leadership encouraging people to set goals of attaining personal wealth (200 acre ranch, 20,000 square foot house, private jet etc.). I have nothing against any of that, except to say that personal gain is a poor motivator in the long run. Sure, it is a powerful motivator to begin with, but mid-career burnout happens because goals of personal gain cease to motivate after a certain level has been reached. At that stage some people still make the positive choice of aiming for a goal that is bigger than personal gain. Others degenerate into the rat race of self-indulgence and leave this world without having left any signs of their passing.
My own view is that we are essentially spiritual creatures. And so the real hunger is that of the spirit. And that can’t be satisfied by material means. Just as looking at pictures of food can’t satisfy physical hunger, a spiritual hunger can’t be satisfied by accumulating wealth. We have to understand the real nature of possessions. What we possess is actually not ours to do with as we please but a trust we hold for others. Let me illustrate by an example:
We go on holiday to Hawaii and believe that we are truly spending what is ours on ourselves. But if you look at it, the cost of the airfare went to the airline. The cost of the hotel went to the hotel. The cost of service went to the people who served us. The cost of food went to the people who gave it to us at many times what it cost them to prepare it. And the real memories of the scenery were free anyway. We were only the means by which what was meant for all the people along the path, got to them. That is the nature of all that we think we possess. Without our realization, we are holding it in trust. Some we give up during our lives. All the rest we give up when we die. So why do we allow ourselves to go mad trying to collect it in the first place?
Current satisfaction is often the cloak behind which hide fear, complacence and unwillingness to make an effort. Changing from a path of self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement and accumulating possessions is often very difficult and a transition that many people never make. But those that make the transition, deal with their own frustration, persevere in the face of obstruction and keep the faith alive, are remembered long after they have gone. Because they are those that leave their mark, not in clay and sand but in the hearts of other human beings.
We have to search our own souls and look at our own lives and ask ourselves, if we have to courage to embark on the journey to becoming what we have the capacity to become. Or whether we choose to remain with the vast multitude, which is happy in mere existence. Not realizing that happiness is often the best indication of failure.
Remember that a hundred years from no (or even less) it will not matter what kind of car you drove, how big your house was or what your net worth was. But the world may be a different place because you made the difficult choice.