Past, Present, and Future

In the bestselling book, The Courage to be Disliked, a young man and a philosopher have an engaging dialogue about life’s purpose. At one point in the conversation, the philosopher uses a metaphor of an actor on stage to describe how we should view our past, present, and future.

The past is described as what is behind the actor. Since the actor is facing the audience, she isn’t concerned about what’s behind her. The present is described as the spotlight around her; it’s the space around her that she can see clearly. The future is the space beyond the spotlight which is at best a hazy view of the audience or indistinguishable silhouettes.

A stage as a metaphor of our past, present, and future.

The philosopher, in describing the actor on the stage, compares our lives to being an actor on stage. To start, we have no control over the past. It has happened and no amount of reminiscing will change what has happened. The future is also something we don’t have complete control over. We may be able to affect outcomes but the exact shape that the future will take will depend on a variety of things like the choices we make, the people we meet, or the luck we have.

The only thing we truly have control over is the present – the space we can see around the spotlight. This isn’t a new concept, of course. Teachers and philosophers have advocated this approach to living for millennia.

So what do we have control over in the present?

The ancient Stoics would argue that we only have total control over the goals that we set and the values that we live by. These are not affected by external factors. Sure, the outcomes may differ depending on a variety of factors and we may never meet the goals we set for ourselves. But at least we’ll know that we’ve done what we can control in the present.

The Perils of Hedonic Adaptation

You’re probably familiar with the term “hedonic adaptation.” It was introduced by researchers, Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein in 1999, and has been used to describe how people adapt to circumstances (both negative and positive) in their lives after a certain period of time. It’s more commonly used for seemingly positive changes – e.g. new technologies, increase in wealth, etc. – and how we tend to take them for granted after a certain period of time. In a 1978 study, researchers discovered that after an initial period of exhilaration, the happiness levels of lottery winners ended up about where they were before winning. Human beings are very good at hedonic adaptation.

It wasn’t too long ago when our ancestors had to hand wash all their clothes, chop wood to keep warm, or collect water from the well. We take all of this for granted now, of course, and we’re lucky to be living in a time where disease, famine, and war are afterthoughts for most places in the world.

In the consumption-driven society that we live in today hedonic adaptation might just be our biggest enemy. If the value of ourselves and our society is reflected on consumption, there is no amount of consumption that will be enough when hedonic adaptation kicks into gear. If we let hedonic adaptation go without being noticed, we risk ourselves getting stuck on a treadmill of mindless consumption. We will desire more for the sake of desiring more. There’s obvious consequences here around our environment, our cultures, and our individual well-being.

Stoic philosophy has a way to combat this glitch in our psychology: negative visualization. If we imagined losing all that we have currently – our health, our wealth, our relationships, our work – we would be able to create more space of gratitude and appreciate for what we have now. If a father were to imagine losing his daughter, he might spend more quality time with her. If an athlete were to imagine losing her ability to use her legs, she might spend more time appreciating the abilities she has right now.

Sure, it might sound a bit like playing mind games but it works. This also isn’t to say walking around all day thinking about the worst case scenario about everything. It’s about taking a few moments each week to reflect on what you already have so we can keep our hedonic adaptation at bay.

Leadership as a Path to Self Actualization

What if leadership was a path to self actualization?

I recently listened to a podcast episode of On Being with Krista Tippett and, guest, Jerry Colonna. Jerry is a former venture capitalist and a renowned executive coach. In this beautiful 1.5 hour conversation they talk about work, leadership, and self knowledge.

I was particularly inspired by how Jerry described leadership as a path to self actualization. I know, it sounds a bit grandiose, but I think it’s true. When we show up as leaders for ourselves and others our whole perspective shifts. We begin to take ownership of our own actions, we refuse victimhood when something happens out of our control, and we take care of others around us.

Jerry talks about how many of us carry the emotional baggage that we were handed in childhood and how many of us have never learned to deal with it. And that old workplace adage of “leave your emotions at the door” never actually works. We’re human and trying to hide from our traumas – whatever they look like for each of us – is a recipe for disaster.

So why not take this as an opportunity? What if we could use our workplaces as a place for learning and growth? After all, we spend over half of our lives in our workplaces. And to be clear, this isn’t about turning every conversation in the workplace into a therapy session. We’ve still got jobs to do and goals to achieve. But there’s probably some room for all of us to be deliberate in how we show up to become the type of person we want to be.

Cast a Vote for Your Identity

A couple of weeks ago I highlighted a concept from James Clear about setting identity-based habits versus outcome-based habits. James’s book, Atomic Habits, provides excellent background and framework about how to establish habits that work for you.

One of the most compelling concepts he shares in the book is the idea that each habit you have – good or bad – is like casting a vote for your identity. If you’re someone who exercises regularly and eats well, you’re casting a vote as a person who is health conscious and takes care of themselves. If you’re someone who spends everyday reading a book for 15 minutes, you’re casting a vote as a person who is interested in learning.

I’ve always felt that my journey for self awareness & self acceptance (which I’m still working on) has always involved two sides: the aspirational and the skeptical. The aspirational would be the one that encourages me to try new things and be a better version of myself; whereas the skeptical would be the voice at the back of my mind that says “let’s see how long this is going to last” with a bit of a smirk. Becoming a different version of ourselves – an ideal version – means we need to be constantly casting the votes for the identity that we want to become. With enough votes, we can slowly start to make the skeptical side of us to actually believe we can do it and that we are who we want to be.

If we want to be braver, calmer, kinder, healthier, etc. etc. we need to consistently be casting votes through our actions – whether they’re habits or decisions we make – to prove to our our skeptical (i.e. subsconscious mind) that we are who we’re saying we are.

Self Awareness and Self Acceptance

If you’re earnestly pursing a life with ikigai, self awareness and self acceptance will no doubt be part of the terrain you’ll explore. First we need to get to know ourselves better. We need to understand how our childhood and past experiences have influenced what we believe. Second we need to accept that regardless of what may have happened in the past we only have control over who we are now. Past traumas don’t have to influence how we see or feel about ourselves. Without trying to sound too cheesy, we need to have the courage to love ourselves in order to live with ikigai.

Contributing to the world

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on launching my podcast – The Ikigai Project. I’ve recorded six interviews so far and I’m noticing a common theme amongst the conversations I’m having. Searching for your ikigai (i.e. your life’s purpose) is strongly correlated with making an impact in the world.

I’m not necessarily talking about the big impact, Nobel prize winning ideas. The contribution my guests are making are often simple interactions with another human being. It could be a thoughtful, caring conversation with a struggling friend or helping to uncover the potential of a colleague by providing honest feedback.

When we feel like we’re making a difference in the world around us, we lean closer to our ikigai. If you’re thinking of living your life with more ikigai, it could be worth exploring the unique ways you can contribute to the world around you.

Living life through principles

Last week, I wrote a bit about James Clear’s idea about setting identity-based habits versus outcome-based habits in your life. If we can set habits that are better aligned with our identity, it’s more likely that it will be sustainable. Every desirable habit that you do casts a vote about the person you want to become. You begin to actually believe you can become that type of person.

I think there’s a supporting element to identity-based habits — your principles.

If habits are your day-to-day behaviours that are on autopilot, then what do we do when you have to stop and think about a decision we need to make? It could be a simple decision like “what do I eat for lunch?” or a complex one like “do I take this job or not?” Either way, it’s going to require some amount of decision-making to figure out what you want to do.

This is where principles come in. Life is complex but if we have guiding principles that are aligned with our identity, we might be able to make better, more consistent decisions. Much like an aligned habit will cast a vote of confidence, decisions that are aligned with your principles can further instill that confidence.

Principles don’t get developed overnight, of course. It can take years to craft out a set of principles that will help guide your decision-making. But it’s better to start thinking about them now.

Who do you want to be?

When we decide to make a change in our life, we typically think about setting tangible goals. They could look like…

I want to lose 10 lbs.

I want to find a partner who is like x, y, z.

I want to increase my earnings by 10%.

Goals can be useful but if we start the journey of change with goals, we may be losing out on the bigger picture.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the importance of building “identity-based” habits over “outcome-based” habits. Building “identity-based” habits is about thinking first about what kind of person do you want to be. Instead of thinking about losing 10 lbs, you can aspire to become a health-conscious person.

For example, over the summer I had the privilege of running a Spartan Race. In the months leading up to my race, my mantra became “is this something a Spartan would do?” for all my decisions. It impacted what I ate, how early I went to bed, and how often I trained. It was a very powerful motivator when I had an identity that I wanted to embody.

For the change you’re looking to make in your life, see if you can start by building an “identity-based” habit. Think about the people you admire in your life – what are they like? Becoming the best version of yourself starts by redefining who you want to be.

h/t Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year via James Clear

Lean into vulnerability

It’s easy to focus on the good stuff. The positive things that are happening in our lives. We feel good about the progress we’re making and the strong self image we’re building of ourselves.

But when we’re trying to connect with other people in a meaningful way it’s not the highlight reel that people want to talk about. Nor is it what helps us connect with others in a meaningful way.

Sharing our failures and our mistakes is what deepens relationships. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t about complaining about things – it’s about sharing what’s genuinely challenging us in our lives.

This isn’t easy. It requires self awareness and reflection about what’s bothering us in our lives. It also requires courage to come face-to-face with what we’re not happy about and what we’re doing about it.

Being vulnerable with others opens the door to our hearts to ourselves and others.