Happiness is the Wrong Pursuit!

 

March 29, 2017 • 9 minute read • by Saeed


“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain

When you wake up in the morning, do you throw the covers off raring to go or do you pull them over your head and hide from the day as long as you can?

Are you engaged in your work and life?

You know What you do and you know How you do it but do you know Why?

In his famous TED talk and book titled Start with Why, Simon Sinek defines the Why really well.

Most leaders and companies focus on What.

But inspired leaders think, act, and communicate with Why.

The Why is your purpose, your cause, your reason to exist.

  • Why does your organization exist?
  • Why do you get out of bed in the morning?
  • Why should anyone care?

Sinek says: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

To make his case, he points to Steve Jobs.

He says, “If Apple were like everyone else,” they would say,  “We make great computers, they’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. Want to buy one?”

But instead Apple says: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

Jobs challenged the status quo. Jobs was a different kind of thinker. He also studied and was influenced by the principles of Zen aesthetics found in the art of the traditional Japanese garden and Japanese minimalism.

In Japanese, the term ikigai translates roughly to “a reason for being.”

Let’s break that down: iki, refers to life, and kai, roughly means “the realization of what one expects and hopes for.”

Ikigai is the singular force behind your life, and as seen in the image below, it combines four areas: 1) what you love, 2) what you’re good at, 3) what you can be paid for, and 4) what the world needs.

Ikigai

Your purpose is found in the space where these four elements meet. It is in this ‘sweet spot’ where you provide the most value to the world and where life gives the most meaning.

Though it can be illusive and hard to discover, everyone (and everything) has a purpose and “a reason for being.” But once you discover it, you can achieve the satisfaction and fulfillment that gives meaning to life. The pursuit of meaning, not happiness, is what makes life worth living.

Defining your ikigai does not have to be complicated but it is also not simply about following your passions. Getting there requires reflection, experimentation, and patience. Take a moment to contemplate it.

  • What do you love?
  • What are you great at doing?
  • What does the world need?
  • What can you make a living doing?

What is your ikigai? Why do you exist?

If you know the Why, you will figure out the What and the How.

Jobs used to say, “I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself if today were the last day of my life would I do what I am about to do today, and whenever the answer has been ‘No’ too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

The average person spends over 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime.

What are you doing today?

Why?

 Ikigai watercolor by the Paper Seahorse – for Creativity and Mindfulness. http://www.paperseahorse.com

The Gift of Failure

December 17, 2014 • 10 minute read • by Saeed


“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”

– William James –

He did not speak a word until he was 4 years old. When he did speak, he muttered incomprehensibly to himself causing his parents great alarm. He was visual. He tended to think in pictures rather than words. He had great difficulty memorizing words, texts and names. Compounding his poor performance in school, he routinely showed his disdain for authority. He was eventually expelled and told he would never amount to much. He flunked his college entrance exam. When he did finally get in, he skipped classes that didn’t interest him and he antagonized his teachers. By today’s standards, he would have been said to have had observable learning disabilities. He would have been labeled dyslexic, autistic or suffering from a personality disorder. Socially, he was inept. He was awkward, aloof, self-isolating and emotionally detached. His hair was long and unkempt and his clothes were old and drabby. He didn’t like public speaking or socializing. He was a philanderer, who had multiple affairs and a child out of wedlock.

By all measures, he would have been considered a failure before it was discovered he was a genius and before he radically changed our understanding of the universe. His name was Albert Einstein. And he is but one example out of many social outcasts and underperformers, who were considered failures but ended up achieving greatness.

In our modern culture, we stigmatize and try to avoid failure (and people we consider to be failures) at all costs. We worship at the altar of success. New York Times columnist David Brooks sees the American fixation on productivity and professional success as an epidemic that is contributing to our cultural demise. This is more or less the same sentiment expressed in the quote above by William James– one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced – more than a century ago.

So what is the opportunity cost for our societal obsession and hunger for success and what is the price we pay for our fear of failure?

Failure builds strength

While Wikipedia and Webster would like you to believe differently, success and failure are not polar opposites. “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor,” said Truman Capote. You often need to endure heart wrenching failure before you achieve success. Entrepreneurs have always understood this. Risk and failure are inherent to the process of innovation and success. The learning organization is not only the one that learns from its successes, but the one that is most willing to speak openly about its failures. But organizational egos get in the way. I noticed this first hand in my own work in philanthropy. Funders go out of their way to demonstrate that a project they have invested in is working. They never produce reports that demonstrate why a project failed – and they never admit their own role in the failure. Instead, they abandon grantees and move on to new projects rather than address the challenges within the existing ones. Of course, we should not throw additional resources at a losing proposition. But without a post mortem of our failures, we bury our heads in the proverbial sand and limit our chances for learning and innovation. We lose the opportunity to strengthen our knowledge base.

Failure builds knowledge

We fear failure. We fear jeopardizing our jobs and our careers if something fails on our watch. The reality is that in organizational life, failure, if managed well, can be enormously beneficial. Companies need to learn how to manage failure and mine the wisdom contained within it. Of course, blindly stumbling from one failure to another is fool-hearted. But a culture of continuous innovation requires organizational leaders to build psychologically safe environments so that the lessons of failure can be reaped without shame or blame. Leaders should provide the organizational structures that allow people to fail and to capitalize on the lessons learned and opportunities gained for improvement. Leaders need to create organizational environments where thoughtful experimentation, or what Duke University professor of management Sim Sitkin calls intelligent failures, are considered the norm and are used to advance knowledge and develop organizational resilience.

Failure builds resilience

“Through failure we learn how to cope,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. Experimentation is the true mother of innovation (and success). It also naturally spawns failure. But today’s parents go to great lengths to remove failure from the equation in a misguided effort to sanitize childhood. In our education system, we give primacy to testing over learning. As Elkind puts it, “Parents and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they’re geared to academic achievement.” What we learn in childhood about failure is the lesson of shame and blame. Even without meaning to, we carry the guilt, shame, disappointment, and pain we associate with failure from our childhood into our adulthood and into our professional lives. This hyper-vigilance and over-protectiveness in childhood has the net effect of making us more fragile and less resilient in adulthood. It means that we never develop the fortitude and strength of character to bounce back from difficult experiences – to get up after a fall and go at it again. We never learn, for example, to master stress effectively. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that resilient people choose the way they think. Resilience is born out of repeated experience, that may in many instances, be perceived as negative. Resilient organizations need resilient people.

Failure builds experience

It never ceases to amaze me how closed minded some people can be. I recently spoke to an entrepreneur who was trying to get back into the workforce after she had been away for nearly 5 years. She had rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and had dug knee deep in her own startup venture. Like many first time entrepreneurs, she had experienced initial success but had ultimately been crushed by the competition. Trying to get back into the workforce, she described to me her experience of reluctant hiring managers who were denying her re-entry as if she had neglected to get her hand stamped when she had walked out of that club. Personally, I would favor hiring an entrepreneur who had risked but failed than a “lifer” who has never stepped outside of their comfort zone. Her experience, fortitude and persistence would be a major asset to any organization. Indeed, many venture capitalists won’t invest in a new enterprise if the founder has never undergone failure. Such experience not only builds character but it also feeds our emotional intelligence.

Failure builds intuition

A 2004 Nobel Prize winning discovery of how we recognize the smell of an orange suggests that intuition is a form of highly developed pattern recognition. In other words, it is an algorithm used by the nervous system to extract information and experience from the vast database of the mind. That database requires data entry. If you have never faced a negative outcome you have a critical gap in the body of experience that intuition is based on. Unfortunately, the demand for creating an organizational culture that can effectively capitalize on failure is in short supply in most companies. Fear, embarrassment, intolerance, lack of commitment to learning and a culture where experimentation and learning from failure is not supported, exacerbates the problem. Organizational hierarchies stifle the conversation about failure and with it, our potential for flexing our intuitive muscles. The main alternative to the intuition-based approach is rational thinking. Yet, we have all faced business situations where the rational decision making process becomes impractical. Throughout my own personal and professional life, intuition has been an invaluable tool when decision making and rapid response have been required. Howard Raiffa, professor of managerial economics and a pioneer in the field of decision analysis says that formal techniques and procedures used in today’s business environment actually inhibit our intuitive capacity from operating effectively. To use only logic and quantitative analysis in business, is to deny our own emotional intelligence – one of the most important traits of leadership.

Rather than surfacing the lessons that come from our failures, we drive our potential for innovation underground. It cannot be disputed that within our personal and professional failures is a gold mine of wisdom waiting to be tapped. But to access that wisdom, we have to work towards a collective consciousness that is free of blame and free of the stigma associated with failure. We must also learn to fail with intelligence and know when to declare defeat. Obviously, not all failures are useful, and even some that we could learn from we should avoid. We must recognize that the failures that harm us the most are only the ones we repeat. We must be-friend failure and stop fetishizing success. We must fail often but we must fail forward in order to build resilience in the face of failure. As one of my favorite Japanese proverbs says: we must fall seven times but stand up eight.

Good luck.

©2014 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

You Can Change The World. If You Think You Can’t, Then You Won’t.

December 10, 2014 • 6 minute read • by Saeed


“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

– Mark Twain –

Thought to self: if you think you can’t, then you won’t.

It was July 1989 and this was the thought that came into my head as I was cycling up National Highway 1D, also known as the Srinagar-Leh Highway, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in Northern India. This 262 mile (422 km) stretch of road connects Srinigar, the capital city of Kashmir (locally regarded as the Switzerland of India), to Leh, the capital city of Ladakh (“land of high passes”), where the people are predominantly Tibetan and where, except in prayer, they do not have the concept of the wheel in their lives (evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the second half of the 4th millennium BC).

The Srinagar-Leh Highway is one of only two roads that connect the highly remote and forbidding region of Ladakh with the rest of India. The highest pass on the road is at 13,478 ft (4,108 m) elevation, which is approximately half the height of Earth’s tallest mountain, at 29,029 ft (8,848 m) elevation. The road generally remains open for traffic from early June to mid-November but heavy snowfall blocks traffic, cutting the region off from the rest of the world for some six months each year.

I was young and inexperienced. My cycling shoes were a pair of flip flops purchased in a New Delhi night market (BTW: best pair of footwear I have ever owned – seriously). My panniers were filled, not with rations for survival, but with philosophy and anthropology books, a Sony Walkman and music cassette tapes (Steve Jobs: where were you then?).

My fuel was an unreasonably large-sized bag of dried apricots (they have been cultivated in Central Asia since antiquity and the dried ones were an important commodity on the Silk Road). I had purchased them in the town of Kargil, an important transit hub, which sits at about the half-way point (and when you’re there please try the restaurant on the third floor of the building in the main street near the mosque, which offers pleasant and inexpensive Tibetan dishes – and tell Lobsang I said hello!).

The day I set off from Kargil, was the day I planned to cycle to the highest pass on the road.

That day was all climb. And as I did, I naturally began to wonder what in the world had possessed me to torture myself in this cruel way. The more negatively I thought, the more I felt my brain, not my body, giving up. There were certainly plenty of physiological considerations. The air was thin, but I had acclimated. Physical conditioning was required, but I had been on the road for more than six months. My body sponged up water, but I was hydrated and my gut was full of; well dried apricots (one serving cup delivers 81 grams of total carbohydrate).

It was not my body but my brain that was telling me that I can’t do it.

You may have heard the old adage that sport is 10% physical and 90% mental. Psychologists began studying sports in the nineteen thirties and forties. Research conducted in the 60’s and 70’s concluded that mental practice facilitated motor performance in about fifty percent of the studies. More recent control group studies of performance athletes have validated the earlier findings and gone further concluding that the brain gives up and subsequently sends signals to the body to also cease, even though the body is not showing physical signs of complete exhaustion. Not only do the new studies emphasize the idea of mind over matter, but they also demonstrate that the brain can be trained to allow the body to physically handle more. It is the brain that holds us back from pushing past a certain point and allows or limits our endurance performance rather than the body. But we often confuse mental fatigue with physical fatigue.

So, brain is boss and by that logic we must manage up.

The brain comes conveniently equipped with a control mechanism to make sure that the marathon runner reaches the finishing line not in a completely shattered state. There is always a little reserve. You may be the next Usain Bolt or you may be a nonprofit program manager or a social entrepreneur in the process of pursuing a new innovative solution to solve a vexing social problem. Whatever your goal, be it conquering a hill or a mountain or changing the world, you will have to be persistent in the face of challenges, adversities and failures in order to ultimately succeed.

When your brain throws un-motivating messages at you, it may just be that same control mechanism that exerts its influence over athletes, holding you back from pushing past a certain point. As with athletes, the secret to success comes with structure, discipline and focus.

Most of the time, success does not happen overnight or on the first try. There will be times when you will want to give up and when you will feel you have nothing left. You will ponder the challenges and you will wonder what possessed you to do this in the first place. You will run out of money, fans and friends. There will be times when you will simply think you can’t. The same way you train your body for endurance, you must also train (or trick) your mind for perseverance. It is your mind that will push you that final step, or hold you back from realizing your dream. If you succumb to the trickery of your mind and think you can’t, then you won’t.

I made it that day and I can tell you unequivocally, it wasn’t the apricots.

©2014 – All images and content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.