Recently, in one of my discussion groups I conduct on “What’s Life Like, Nowadays,” a Midwestern woman, otherwise silent for the previous 100-plus minutes, uttered what is the primary conundrum in which people living in the Internet age find themselves. She said, “Things are always advancing, getting better, sometimes for the worse.” Given what I’m hearing around the globe, I knew immediately that hers was the summary voice of modern life and its discontent. This has huge implications for our personal lives and our professional lives.
Along with high carbon emissions, there are two forces making for our current too-hot atmosphere: the speed and complexity of life today. There is no off-stage anymore, and everything is plucked while still green and hard. Add to that, nothing is all of one piece any longer. Everything is made of cashmere and sawdust, love AND hate.
In this context of too fast and too complex, it is typical in each moment’s press of “there’s-so-much-to-do” that we go on auto-pilot. In a defensive mode, we stay on the surface of experience, go for the efficient and stereotyped routine and hunker down… until the next moment, living life as a series of staccato “nows.”
When we’re on the job, we tend to live an extensive — but not an intensive — life. It’s emblematic of our time-pressured workdays that we skim over the top of many tasks, flit from one thing to another, never going deep into anything. Moreover, the aesthetic of risk in business is near zero, and so corporations slice and dice things into smaller and smaller units until reality is flash-frozen to eliminate any unpredictability. Under this dome of make-believe, context is lost and time is foreshortened even more. Workers never have the opportunity to discover something new about what they are doing or what they each are as a person. The gap between what we do and what we are grows larger with each tic of the clock.
The rub is that life is short. In a flash, days turn into years, and years into half an expected life span. And too easily, we become separated from our own true nature. Overly-vigilant and responsive to the rapidity of external demands coming at us 24/7, we lose track of who we are internally. Our lives shrink. Yet, given the onslaught of time, we accept less than who we are and what we could be.
The reasons we keep in place are many: age (too young or to old); income (not enough, but reliable); perceived economic outlook (not very good). However, the cost of living a life of just going-through-the-motions is written in red. Forget lost economic productivity; what about emotional disease?
There is another way to live, though, and we already have the requisite skills to take that other path. We all are born with a capacity for curiosity, sensuality and openness. We can employ these to deal creatively with paradox and also to build a narrative — a “self-story” — about ourselves that reflects that innermost thing of what we truly are. We just have to recognize and use these essentials. What’s more, applying these essentials takes no extra time. You just do it in the process of living, moment-to-moment, real-time. You don’t have to set aside time at the end of a busy day to contemplate your experience, you just experience.
It’s in our nature — and its an imperative — to “look under the hood” of things to discover how the world operates and learn something you never anticipated. Curiosity enlivens.
If you could graph your senses while on auto-pilot, what you would see is a flat line. No highs and no lows. Just the “blah” middle. Sensuality, on the other hand, means feeling your own experience of your own experience. When you are living in feeling, you become sensitive to revelatory moments that provide clues to the elemental YOU.
One of the greatest ways to live a richer life is to go into any pursuit unburdened by the need to know the ending at the beginning. When you set about your goals with an air of openness, you have an outcome in mind, but you are wiling to embrace a different and better outcome. I call this phenomenon “directed serendipity.” You allow for the possibility of the extraordinary happening because you eschew preconceived notions of the result. When you employ the essential of openness, the rewards can be dizzying.
Paradox pops up everywhere. The current world we live in is hardly ever comprised of one thing or another, absolutely. Yet far too often, while on auto-pilot, we compartmentalize our experiences and our roles in just such an all-or-nothing way. Something extraordinary happens when you start playing with ambiguities and contradictions, though: you start to see possibilities you never could have imagined. It’s within those possibilities that most of us discover our most rewarding, meaningful, and authentic enterprises. Bruce Springsteen, in his 2012 SXSW speech, had an admonition for his audience: “Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong.”
Each of these four essentials – curiosity, sensuality, openness, and paradox — works in the service of a fifth inner resource, the queen of all inner resources: Self-Story.
Self-Story is the one thing a person needs — more than money, background or IQ — to live a life of fulfillment, excitement and personal innovation. Self-Story is the recurrent pattern of your being. It is the force driving your authentic self — all of it: its beauty and its warts, its brightness and its darkness. Self-Story isn’t your ideal or your hoped-for self. And your Self-Story is definitely not an autobiography or a chronological list of your life events. Self-Story is the underlying design of you as an idea that stands above the press of the moment.
It is common, though, that in business, there is a primary paradox at play. Risk is commonly avoided, but as Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, everyone must now be his or her own start-up — meaning innovation is the name of the game, whether you are leading your own business or an employee. But innovation does not result from what you know. Innovation results from passing what you know through the sieve of what and who you are. This refracts knowledge into newness. So, to innovate, you better know your own self-story. A vital life demands it.
The five essentials will help you steer away from this disenchantment — in your workplace, in your home, in your life.
Samuel Clemens took the pen name “Mark Twain” because to a riverboat captain (a profession he once held), the phrase “mark twain” means riding the current just between safety AND danger. That’s the elixir of life. To be the captain of your own ship, auto-pilot won’t get you there. Auto-pilot just leads to dissatisfaction, no matter what your job is.