Being in the service of others

LotsOfPeopleByStròlicFurlàn

We all feel the pull of purpose.

We’re doing something now, but we feel like should be doing something bigger and better. We wish we were destined for more than what’s in front of us. A purpose we can’t articulate.

It’s often an unhelpful instinct, since it pulls our attention to the horizon, away from a focus on what we’re actually doing.

Despite this instinct to search for purpose, for most of us, finding an actual purpose remains tough or impossible. Even if we find the tasks or activities which are meaningful, to what end do we direct them? Why bother?

Since we often feel the tug of bigger and better, then why not use that inertia and assign ourselves a purpose which is truly bigger than ourselves? Why not place ourselves in the service of other people?

It’s perhaps the oldest idea there is, but in a culture as self centred as ours, it’s often something we don’t properly consider. We’re often so focussed on our own goals and ambitions, we don’t often realise how valuable our skills, care and attention might be to other people.

We’re all searching for a purpose, but are in fact surrounded by an infinite source of it. Typical, hey?

This doesn’t mean that you should drop what you’re doing and join a mission in Zambia or give away everything you own to charity. But the next time you’re choosing what to focus on, you might ask yourself “what can I do which will have the most meaningful, positive impact on others?”

It won’t drastically alter the options open to you, but it will radically alter how you feel about choosing certain options. It will tether you and your actions to an ever increasing circle of people in whose lives you’ve made a difference.

In short: putting yourself in the service of others will give you an immediate purpose and create an instant positive impact on both you and those around you.

Avoiding the mistakes of the past

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana

It’s an aphorism we know all too well, quoted and mis-quoted freely. It reminds us to study history, to understand past blunders so we may avoid them in the future.

It tells us to look at what others have done so that we might avoid their folly.

But it always seems to applied on a broad, society level which seems to miss most of its power and value.

Sure, as a society, it’s important that we understand our past, especially the mistakes, but this seems very abstract and theoretical. It doesn’t seem like something which is easy for each of us to collectively contribute to. But what we can contribute to, is an understanding of ourselves.

This reflection is a tool that can, and should, be foremost implemented at the micro level of our own lives.

We spend our short and busy lives facing only in one direction: forwards. With our eyes fixed on the horizon, we stumble into the future, tripping on hazards we could easily avoid if we spent a little more time studying the terrain.

We all want to be better, smarter and more productive tomorrow, but how many times do we reflect on how we went today? How many times do we sit down before bed and pick over the last day, week or month looking for opportunities to improve?

We’re always keen to get tips, hints or tricks from others on how we might improve, how we can find shortcuts to success, but we really only need to stop walking turn around and look at our own past few steps.

Institutions which have high stakes missions and projects formalise these reviews of the past as debriefings or wash-ups, but we rarely take advantage of them as individuals.

It’s neither time consuming, nor taxing to sit down at the end of the day and ask:

  • What went well today?
  • What didn’t go so well today?
  • What can I do to improve tomorrow?

It doesn’t take much to remember the past so that we can choose to take a better path in the future.

When we get twisted

twisty branch
We flimsy humans can be malleable things and we get twisted into different shapes by belief, opinion, action and circumstance.

The only times this is really a problem is:

– if we’re not aware it’s happening
– if we deny it’s happening
– if we don’t know how to untwist

The first is a matter of being mindful of both our external and internal circumstances. What’s going on? How do I feel about it? How is one impacting the other?

The second is a matter of accepting that it’s a normal response to stressful situations and just being ok with that. There’s no sense saying “I’m not the guy who gets all twisted up.” That’s kinda like saying “I’m not the guy who breathes oxygen.”

The third is the key to being able to handle the twisty situations. It’s your measure of resilience in many ways. And while there are tips and tricks to unwinding yourself, the best thing you can do is be mindful of the first two points. Knowing it’s happening and knowing that it’s a normal response to stress ultimately helps us to untwist.

Because it means you can let the twisting run its course instead of fighting it every step of the way. Because you can acknowledge that it’s happening instead of pretending that it’s not a thing.

This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be easier to not get twisted up in the first place, but anyone who has lived an actual life, will know that’s just not always possible.

Over the fence

The fence of Summer Garden by  Andrey Korchagin

It’s easy to work to completion and give things their proper attention, when you don’t have a lot on your plate and you’re doing work that’s super-interesting.

As soon as you change one of those parameters (availability or interest), then you have a situation where you start being more aggressive about how you manage your resources. The mindset can change from “how can I properly address what I’m looking at?” to “how can I get this off my plate?”

One of them involves bringing something of yourself to bear on the situation. You transform what’s there by investing your attention and effort.

What you were focussing on is now fundamentally different. If it’s now time for someone else to get involved, what they need to do, is probably now different from what you did – a reflection of the fact that you moved things along.

If instead, you kick something over the fence, then all you’ve changed is the geography.

You haven’t transformed what’s there, you’ve just put it on someone else’s plate. They now need to do what you should have done, but probably now with less time to deadline.

It’s not possible to do everything, and there is a great power in delegation. But kicking something over the fence isn’t delegation. It’s doing the least amount possible to make it someone else’s problem without directly acknowledging that you haven’t really moved it along.

Kicking something over the fence generates debt. It might be more work down the line or the resentment of the recipient. Sometimes it’s neither, often it’s both.

Either way, it’s important to realise that giving fewer things their proper attention is almost certainly better than kicking more things over the fence.

Afterburners

There’s nothing quite so humbling as being outmatched by someone simply because they fired up their afterburners on a day when you chose to coast.

At that point, you can either respond by flicking the switch and going supersonic, or making your second bad choice of the day.