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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Becoming who you’re meant to be starts with self acceptance. It’s about embracing what makes you, you, and all the charm and weirdness that comes with it. When we withhold ourselves from other in a way we’re implicitly rejecting ourselves. There’s nothing sadder than a life that’s led not being one’s true self.
So how do we start the journey towards self acceptance? One way could be to take a small step everyday to reveal something honest and vulnerable about ourselves. When we share something personal with others, we’re not only learning to accept ourselves but learning to connect more deeply with others.
Richard Feynman was a prominent physicist known for his work in theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. Perhaps one of the smartest men in his generation, even he knew that we could become over confident in our own abilities and self perception. He’s famously quotes having said:
The First Principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
It’s easy to think that when you achieve competency in something you know enough about that topic. It’s easy to let you ego take over and begin to protect your self image about how smart, how strong, how secure, etc. etc. you might be. While this might be comforting it’s a dangerous place to be.
Why? Because you stop learning. You start creating blindspots because you’re not absorbing new information coming in about yourself or the environment around you. You miss new opportunities that could take you to the next level.
Feynman kept The First Principle top of mind by constantly challenging himself in new endeavours totally unrelated to physics. He would learn how to draw, study biology, hike the Mayan pyramids, or investigate how dogs’ sense of smell worked. He lived a life of curiosity – ignoring what other people thought of him along the way.
We should always keep The First Principle in mind. Acknowledging that whether we’re just starting out or at the top of our field that we can always learn something.
When we connect with other human beings, we have a choice. We can either create vertical or horizontal relationships.
Vertical relationships are marked by hierarchy. One person is perceived as better than the other. You might see these relationships at work, in families, and even friendships.
When we step into the world of vertical relationships, we automatically go into a mode of judging. We think: “Is this person better than us?” or “How might I please this superior?” We begin to cloud our thoughts and actions with a biased filter.
In contrast, when we approach every person we meet through the lens of horizontal relationships, we are treating them like a peer. We start conversations more openly and honestly. We’re not stuck in our own heads thinking about the other person’s agenda. We’re not there to please or impose our authority.
Building horizontal relationships is about recognizing the human-ness in each other. None of us are the same but we’re all equal. If we can treat all of our relationships in life – with our neighbours, friends, bosses, colleagues, strangers – as horizontal relationships, our lives change. We stop comparing ourselves with others and focus on the relationship with them.
The challenge is how we can adopt new habits that can help us lean into relationships that way. One way is to remind ourselves of some of our best relationships – are they vertical or horizontal? The best relationships are ones that are likely horizontal. They’re ones in which we feel a sense of togetherness, collaboration, and trust. It’s very difficult to build a relationships of trust when one person supposedly wields more power than the other.