Living Someone Else’s Dream

I teach at a community college and know that there are thousands and thousands of students with no idea of how they want to use their lives. Many are being trained for vocations in which they have little interest or enthusiasm. Somewhere along they way, these students have borrowed someone else’s dream. Some are starting on career paths with the belief that the point of their work will be to make money which will allow them the freedom to magically discover their interests and pursue a better life. That doesn’t happen. The pursuit of money fuels the cycle of disappointment.

Samsara is the Buddhist concept of being entrapped in the cycle of perpetual despair. We are trapped. Our children get trapped. Their children get trapped. We build lives that justify the experience of our suffering. We habituate ourselves to routines and expectations that do not serve us. Our children learn to do the same. They teach their children to do the same.

This doesn’t need to happen. Disappointment is a wheel. It doesn’t have to turn.

My wish for my students is to find a measure of the purpose Alan Watts describes in this video:

My hope is that more of my students can wake up to the realization that they are living someone else’s dream. They can stop the wheel and ask themselves, “What would I do if money were no object?” And then, they can commit themselves to learning about their true passions. Our world needs people who are awake and committed to becoming their best selves.

Future orientation

I have had some recent life experiences that have allowed me to reflect a bit more deeply that usual on who I am and how I view the world. I am strongly future-oriented. This serves me very well in my role as a library administrator. I am often able to imagine what services and resources are likely to be needed tomorrow so I can start building them today. This is nice gift to have. It keeps me enthusiastic and creative. It keeps me moving forward.

The problem with future-orientation is that I often feel like I can see the future more clearly than the present. More to the point, if I am not careful, I can easily spend more time and energy looking at the future than I do the present. This can lead me to see the big picture quite clearly but miss the thousand essential details that make up today. So I need people around me who can help me be mindful of what needs my attention today. And I need people around me who can be patient with my tendency to leap forward before I walk back. And I need people around me who appreciate the beauty of ideas and know that not every thing I say aloud has to become instantly true. Not every project has to get born. We can negotiate. We can prioritize together. But we have to move forward. Sometimes we move quickly. Sometimes we move slowly. We have to be always moving forward.

I am grateful for the people in my life who recognize this aspect of my nature. I am grateful when they appreciate this way of seeing. I am grateful when they can help me to be mindful and pay attention to things as they are today. I am grateful when I am able to make this way of seeing useful. I am grateful for the people who connect my ideas to reality and use them to move things forward.

I Learn Outloud

I talk a lot. I talk about things I understand, but sometimes I talk even more about things I don’t understand. Its how I learn.

People who don’t really know me can be forgiven for thinking me arrogant, a pretentious “know it all”. Sorry, folks. I can’t seem to shut up.

Talking aloud is how I make sense of things. Talking is how I sort out my thoughts and test out new theories. I like to explain things to people so I can see how well I understand them. Sometimes I explain things about which I have no clue just to find where my gaps are.

I used to think of this particular trait as a a kind of character flaw. I’m learning not to dwell so much on the idea of character flaws. Seth Godin’s post, “Stick to What You (Don’t) Know” helps a lot.

Required reading if you are like me and find yourself saying things before you realize you are thinking them.

To quote Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

One Thing You Need to Know: Marcus Buckingham

I’m a big fan of Marcus Buckingham. If you don’t know about Marcus Buckingham, you should probably start by watching this:

So much about the way we measure ourselves is based on our personal weaknesses rather than our personal strengths. In school, a student who is really great at writing but not so great at math is usually given more math and less writing. This is done to help remediate the deficiency. Helping students get better at math is a good thing, but the remediation often comes at the expense of time spent practicing areas in which the student is naturally gifted. The student is frustrated because all of the school time is spent doing things he isn’t good at and by the time the remediation drills are done, he is so tired he doesn’t have energy to dig in on the other stuff. The problem here is that the amount of time and energy working on weakness control probably yields small gains. Not very efficient. A person who is naturally bad at drawing is never going to be an artist. Mediocrity is the best outcome that can be expected. The problem is that this mediocrity in an area of weakness detracts from time spent becoming excellent in the only area a person can become excellent — in an area of personal strength.

Job evaluations are most often designed and delivered to help call attention to areas where the employee can pick up the slack. I can think of many job evaluations where I walked in expecting to talk about the things I wasn’t doing and the areas in which I needed to contribute more. The problem here is that I am naturally limited in some areas, like organization. If I am told to focus more time becoming highly organized, then I am also, in effect, being told to spend less of my time developing and sharing new ideas (a personal strength).

Time and energy are limited. Poor performances need to be addressed, but time and energy are most usefully invested in developing on existing strengths.

That’s the core concept of One Thing You Need to Know. Marcus tries to provide one central organizing insight for successful managing, leading and personal success.

Great managers discover what is unique about each member of their team and capitalize on it.

Great leaders articulate a clear, common understanding of what the team’s better future will look like. Being clear about the future is way more important than being correct.

Successful individuals discover what they don’t like doing and figure out how to stop doing it.

This probably sounds rather trite, but the discussion of each of these elements is quite profound in its simplicity.

My biggest takeway: as we grow older, we become more of what we already are. A strong, satisfying career is built on a person’s ability to focus almost exclusively on developing excellence in areas where natural strengths already exist. Successful careers are also built on a perpetual, allergic avoidance of doing things that do not express one’s strengths. Don’t throw your time and energy into developing your weaknesses toward mediocrity. Partner with people who can do things you can’t. Be passionate. Be relentless. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t love what you are doing, you should probably be doing something different.

This is the kind of controlling insight I want my work team to have. This is the kind of experience I want every student I work with to develop. This is the kind of confidence I want my daughter to carry with her into the world.

Every one of us is limitlessly strong so long as we don’t dwell unnecessarily in our areas of weakness.