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 in; 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 merely 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 only 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 colonialists 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 35 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?