The Three Pillars of a Good Life
Since The First Habit is about a commitment to a daily investment in yourself, it makes sense to first consider why. If you don’t buy into the why, experience shows that the how and the what don’t matter much.
Once in a while, it’s important to take a step back. If you are like me, most of the time you are ‘mano a mano’ with the hectic details of daily life. This can make it hard to really see what is going on. Stepping back gives you perspective, and perspective can reorient you if you are getting off course.
Think about how much time and effort people expend on business strategy. CEOs and high level managers are paid millions to get a business execution aligned with a winning strategy. The best and brightest students pay thousands to get MBAs that train them to manage companies. But how often do these same people fail at a personal level with spouse and family relationships? Wouldn’t it be tragic if we realize too late that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? Imagine all that wasted climbing and effort.
Peter Druker, a highly regarded management consultant, educator, and author put it bluntly:
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
Yep, that pretty much sums it up. Time to give some attention to “key performance indicators” and “resource allocation” in your personal life.
Conveniently, we have natural cycles in life that provide an excuse to review and start anew. Once every trip around the sun is a time-honored tradition for reflection (thanks gravity!). And, hey, days are getting longer, so that’s as good a reason as any to say, “good riddance last year, let’s make some changes.” But, of course there is nothing magic about January, so anytime you read this would be a good time. In fact, you won’t want to put this off too long because a pretty good thinker named Socrates said,
The unexamined life is not worth living.
(Come on, Socrates, tell us how you really feel!) Well, since I think we can all agree that it would be a shame to live an unworthy life, let’s take some time now and examine what kind of life you are building on this tiny speck of dust in a vast cosmos.
In my last post, I talked about the desire to live a “good life.” So, here is my take:
What is a good life?
As I started to make my own list of what would make a good life, the list fit into three groupings: Good things to BE, good things to EXPERIENCE, and good things to HAVE.
Good things to BE
These are the virtues: kind, courageous, generous, loyal, resourceful, modest, patient, etc. Ben Franklin made the pursuit of thirteen virtues a part of his daily routine. The New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about the résumé virtues vs. the eulogy virtues (notice how funerals focus the mind on what’s important). The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace—often things that you are good at doing. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest, faithful, and capable of deep love. Both are important, but the eulogy virtues most likely connect with your deepest values. They are less about doing good, and more about becoming good.
Good things to EXPERIENCE
Life is really just a summation of all the things that happen day after day. Are you actively creating them, or are they just passively happening to you? It’s popular to create a “bucket list.” What do you want to have done, seen, and experienced by the time the fat lady sings and the curtain closes? Too often, the bulk of our lives are experiencing the same old routine. What are highlight experiences—the things you will remember forever—and how can you have more of them? As the old adage says, no one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’ This category also includes meaningful work and the impact you want to have on the world. It includes the full range of emotions including pain. I like the way C.S. Lewis put it: “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
Good things to HAVE
This last category of a “good life” may sound petty compared to the other two, and I suppose it is. However, I think I would be deceiving myself if I didn’t include it. To me, a good life should also include some of the good things of life. The list of things you would include here will be varied depending on geographical location, generation, family background, philosophy/religion, all within the economic cycle and cultural context. For various reasons, having a lot of “stuff” appears to be falling out of favor in the US at the moment. It could be out of necessity as for the first time, the next generation (Millennials) have a less than 50 percent chance of being richer than their parents. Like I tell my kids, “Not wanting it is as good has having it.” (Yeah . . . they roll their eyes–such a dad thing to say.) Or in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “My greatest skill has been to want but little.” I’m not saying that you can’t seek some of the nicer things in life, but it pays to remember that the possession of things rarely brings lasting joy. Remember this theme, as it will play into the financial considerations we will get to later.
The Three Pillars of a Good Life
Okay, so now that we’ve looked at the components of a “good life,” how do you maximize your potential to achieve it? Aristotle said it first, and Ben Franklin made a catchy phrase about it.
Health, wealth, and wisdom pretty much set you up for everything else.
Health is your foundation (body and mind). The lack of it does not preclude a good life, but can significantly alter what you are able to do. How you feel affects nearly everything. Most of us have had the experience of being injured or sick and suddenly being acutely aware of how much this changes things. However, many people let their bodies slowly deteriorate with poor eating habits and inactivity. Little do they realize that they are losing touch with what it feels like to feel fit and energized. This pattern usually starts in the 30s and 40s as a sedentary lifestyle takes hold and as body composition shifts from muscle to fat. This reduces the basal metabolic rate, which compounds the problem. The same number of calories coming in now become a larger and larger “overage” as the burn rate declines. The biggest problem is that it is slow. It’s like the story of boiling a frog—it doesn’t jump out if you turn up the heat gradually. The good news is that most people can reverse this trend. It is completely within your reach to put your body back into a peak state, but it is going to take steady effort.
Wealth is freedom. Wealth in this context refers to having enough and to spare. It’s about breaking free from “money problems.” To borrow a phrase from a popular get-out-of-debt guru, it’s about financial peace. It’s true that money does not buy happiness, but the mismanagement of it can sure bring misery. Everyone reading this is going to have a unique set of financial circumstances. Your stage in life, education, geographic location, and advancement opportunities have a significant effect on where you are starting from and where you can get to. However, just like a game of cards, there are many ways to “play your hand.” On this site, I’m not going to coddle you. I want you to take one last look at your sub-optimal circumstances (excuses), and then put them aside and start building. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is TODAY. If debt = bondage, then building wealth = freedom. There is a great misunderstanding that the path to financial freedom is complicated. I’m here to tell you it’s not, but it’s going to take steady effort.
Knowledge is power. Today we have unprecedented access to knowledge. If you are reading this, you are part of a fortunate group who has access to the Internet and a nearly infinite resource for learning. There are innumerable courses online on just about any topic you can imagine. A huge variety of podcasts are available. The wisdom of the ages is at your finger tips. Yet, how often are you fiddling away your time checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and on and on. Add to this the constant barrage of email, texts, and a constant news cycle and you may realize that your brain has been co-opted by these small “hits” of dopamine. You literally get a reward (similar to gambling) over and over as you interact with these media. Then it becomes an addiction. You have a more difficult time sitting still (tell me you don’t have a strong urge to pull out your phone whenever you have to wait for a something to start). You have a harder time focusing and doing deep meaningful work. Since we are still relatively new to these technology/social media brain effects, many are just becoming aware of their negative impact. You can take back ownership of what you are feeding your brain, but it’s going to take steady effort.
Call to Action
It’s crucial that you figure out the why in your own life. You will need it when you encounter set backs. Consider creating a “vision board” to remind you. Some people have had success with personal mission statements. At a minimum, make a list of what a ‘good life’ is to you.
Maybe it’s as simple as “It’s for my kids.”
The daily practice is to take care of these three areas of your life every single day without fail. You don’t have to go crazy, just small progress: aim for a one percent improvement each day.
Share your “why” in the comments below.
- Simon Sinek: Start With Why. Inspiring TED talk and book.
- Clayton Christiansen: How will you measure your life. TEDx talk and book. Very helpful to help you evaluate what’s truly important.
- David Brooks: The Moral Bucket List. TED talk and New York Times article. Good ideas from a good thinker.
- Dave Ramsey. Web site and book. Especially useful if you or someone you know needs some tough love help realizing that getting out of debt and fixing finances is urgent.
- Aristotle’s definition of Happiness. Aristotle is just a stud. That’s all I can say.
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