Do what matters



It’s more important to fail at something that matters than to succeed at something that doesn’t. —Regina Dugan


Ms. Dugan packs a lot of wisdom into this one sentence. I remember the first time I read it; my wife, Mary, and I discussed it over dinner, and then I meditated on the sentence until it found a place in my mind.

Here are my most recent thoughts.

Define what matters to you.

Place all your activities and actions into one of two broad categories: things that matter and things that don’t. The only category you need to define is the first category—things that matter; by default everything else falls into the second category. Your list of things that matter will be personal and finite; there is no limit to the number of things that don’t matter.

Your things-that-matter list may include things you don’t enjoy doing, but must do. For example, there may be aspects of your job that are unsavory, but if you want to stay gainfully employed, they must be prioritized.

This list may also include mundane activities that serve a higher purpose. For instance, I exercise three times a week, once to exhaustion. I don’t enjoy working out, but it keeps my body in shape so it will enhance, and not hinder, the activity of my mind. (Einstein once said that the only purpose of our body is to carry our brain around.)

But most of the entries on your things-that-matter list will be things that you value—quality-of-life issues.

Prioritize what matters.

An unexamined and undisciplined life will inevitably drift toward the unimportant so we must focus and prioritize our actions. Priorities are defined destinations—everything else is just infinite space. Think of it this way: a ship in the ocean can meaninglessly drift in an unlimited number of directions but will only reach a specific destination when directed.

A life without priorities is like a ship without a rudder.

When pursuing what matters, allow for failure.

View failures as both unavoidable and acceptable. Management consultants Pfeffer and Sutton said, “Setbacks and mistakes should be viewed as an inevitable, even desirable, part of being action oriented. The only true failure is to stop trying new things and to stop learning from the last effort to turn knowledge into action.”

If you’re afraid of failure, you’ll never move beyond your safe zone; you’ll never leave sight of the shoreline for the vast ocean. Instead of thinking, “Failure is not an option,” think, “Failure is an option, and there’s a good probability that it will happen.”

When you fail, look for causes, not excuses. Analyze what happened, identify causes, learn, and adjust.

Although failure is a natural byproduct of living an aggressive life, never be cavalier about failure and don’t romanticize it. Failure is not acceptable if it is the result of slothfulness, poor planning, or poor execution.

When pursuing what matters, incremental progress is profitable even if you don’t reach the ultimate goal. For instance, if your goal is to get a degree in anthropology, every course you take toward the degree is profitable, even if you fall short of finishing.

It’s okay to fail at something that matters.

Don’t be beguiled by meaningless success.

Some things masquerade as success but are not. That is, actions are not equivalent to results; being busy is not commensurate with productivity.

When you succeed at things that don’t really matter, you can develop a false sense of wellbeing and accomplishment. A quarterback can post impressive statistics—passes completed, no interceptions, total passing yardage—but still lose the game.

For the past 40 years I have used the week between Christmas and New Years to plan for the upcoming 12 months. I evaluate where I am in life, make course corrections, and decide what my plans and goal will be for the new year. I define what matters and how I will pursue it. I encourage you to do the same.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

What?– It’s more important to fail at something that matters than to succeed at something that doesn’t.
So what? – Analyze all your efforts and make sure you are focused on priorities.
Now what? – Analyze your failures and successes and make sure both are related to important matters.

Upgrade your conversations

conversations3.001Everything becomes a little different as soon as it is spoken out loud. —Hermann Hesse

Do you ever track conversations?

I do.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t, because I find most conversations are unbalanced, trivial, and forgettable.

Try it yourself. The next time you’re part of a group conversation, mentally keep track of who speaks, for how long, and the topics that are discussed.

In previous posts I have discussed the importance of listening and having a balanced conversation.

In this post let’s consider what we talk about. Consider these five categories, listed from shallow to significant.

1. Pleasantries—weather, sports, etc.

We usually start conversations with inconsequential remarks, and that’s okay; it’s a courteous and subtle way to start. But let’s not stay there long. Polite conversation should be a prelude to more important topics.

2. Physical and emotional issues

How are you feeling, physically? It’s not necessary to discuss details about your recent trip to the doctor’s office and don’t elaborate on your medications; just summarize. Also, share how you’re feeling emotionally, but don’t belabor the issue, particularly if not much has changed since the last time we talked.

3. Projects

What’s going on in your life right now? What projects are you working on? What are your plans for the near future? People who are fully engaged in life are always working on projects; they are excited about getting something accomplished.

4. Current events

What do you think about the latest events in North Korea? Isn’t it fascinating that the New Horizons satellite recently flew by Pluto? Observing current events, and developing an opinion about them, makes for interesting conversation. But don’t just regurgitate facts about events; have an informed opinion about them.

Incidentally, all current events are not equal in significance. Discussing an article from US Magazine, watching Hollywood Now, or keeping up with Kim Kardashian is not the same as discussing political ideologies or advances in science.

5. Significant thoughts

This is the sweet spot; this is where we need to land and linger. Let’s discuss interesting and challenging ideas that address important issues. Let’s consider them conceptually and then apply them personally.

For instance, these questions might prompt interesting conversation:

  • What’s the most interesting book you’ve read lately, and what did you learn from it?
  • What do you think about this statement made by Thomas Jefferson: “Pursue truth no matter where it may lead you”?
  • Do you agree with this statement by Federico Fellini: “I want to live so that my life cannot be ruined by a single phone call.”?
  • What does it mean to be diligent?
  • Why was the 1913 premier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring so controversial? What are some current controversial issues that may someday be benign?

Most conversations never get to this deep level unless someone intentionally directs them there. It takes courage and a bit of presumption to orchestrate a conversation, but without direction most conversations drift into pablum and stay there. I double-dog dare you: next time you’re part of a lengthy conversation (15-30 minutes), introduce a significant topic and see what happens.

Interestingly, meaningful conversations are not restricted to, or guaranteed by, long-term relationships. I’ve had deeper conversations with strangers on an airplane than with some people I’ve known for decades.

I long for friends and colleagues that value deep conversations.

What? – Often, our conversations center on trivial topics. We should spend more time talking about significant issues.
So what? – Be more aware of your conversations, and when possible, steer the conversation toward meaningful topics.
Now what? – Upgrade your conversations to include the discussion of ideas.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

The key to good communication

ListeningBeing heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable. –David Augsburger

It’s the greatest thought on communication I’ve ever heard. It will heal and deepen relationships. Master this mantra and you’ll do well in life; ignore it and you’ll frustrate yourself and others. Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Listen first.

The “low-grade fever” of impoverished relationships is poor listening. All good communication involves dialogue—I will listen to you and I want you to listen to me. But who listens first? Choose to be the one who listens first.

People will be more inclined to listen to you once they realize you want to listen to them.

Listen with the intent to understand.

There is a difference between simply hearing (an auditory function) and really listening, which involves our intellect and emotions. Listening involves more than just being quiet. When conversing with another person, do you truly want to know what he or she is thinking and feeling? Listening begins as an attitude that is based on a genuine desire to understand what others are saying. It is a value to embrace, not an inconvenience to be tolerated.

Here are some suggestions on how to listen well:

  • Some people struggle with communicating so sometimes, in our attempt to understand what someone is trying to say, we must “read between the lines,” interpret body language, and patiently try to decipher what the person is trying to say. While this seems to be an unreasonable demand (why can’t we just establish the basic rule of, “Say what you mean and mean what you say”?) it is often necessary if we truly want to seek first to understand.
  • Concentrate on the speaker; do not be distracted.
  • Do not interrupt, talk over, or finish the speaker’s sentences.
  • Be patient. When the speaker pauses it does not necessarily mean he is finished speaking.
  • While the other person is talking, resist formulating your response. At this point your job is to listen.
  • When the other person has finished talking you may need to clarify what you think he said, to ensure you have understood him.

Share your thoughts in a rational way.

I will choose to listen to you first, but the conversation is not over until I have a chance to share my thoughts. My eagerness to listen to you does not diminish my desire and right, to vocalize my thoughts. I will work hard at crafting my words carefully and will communicate clearly because I want you to understand exactly what I am saying. First, I will respond to what you have just said, but then I may introduce a new topic.

The most basic of all human needs is the need to be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.

Click here to read about hinderances to listening.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

4 bucket-list goals I completed in 2015

bucket list2I’m a huge fan of setting goals. If you aim at nothing you will always hit it.

In 2015 I wrote four posts regarding setting and accomplishing goals:

I maintain a robust “bucket list” of goals that I want to accomplish before I expire. These items are, of course, in addition to normal everyday activities. This year I checked off the following:

1. Join Mensa International

Mensa is the largest and oldest high IQ society in the world, open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardized, supervised IQ or other approved intelligence test. There are around 57,000 people in the U.S. who have passed the test.
When I was in high school I took an IQ test and missed getting into Mensa by .5% and that has always bothered me…like an unfinished sentence.
So on May 16, 2015 I took the test and scored in the 99th percentile. Yeah.

2. Visit a country I’ve never been to before.

My goal is to visit 60 counties before I die. Mary and I have been to 43 and we try to add one new country every year.
On August 10-14, 2015 Mary and I went to the United Arab Emirates and enjoyed the mid-eastern culture, went to the top of the world’s tallest building, etc. We have plans to add two new countries in 2016.

3. Stand 30 minutes by myself somewhere on earth where it’s at least 130° fahrenheit.

While I was in the UAE I hired a car and driver to take me out into the desert toward Oman. Fortunately, the area was experiencing a severe heat wave. I recorded 132° on my digital thermometer.
I also want to stand for 30 minutes by myself somewhere on earth where it’s at least negative 30° fahrenheit. Perhaps this year…

4. Publish six monographs on the six soft skills I teach in the Lead Well workshop.

In September of this year I published Lifelong Learning: Why it’s more important and doable than you think
In 2016 I will publish #2 of the six: Signature Soulprint.