The light in front

The light in front - image for article by Greg Alder

What’s the one thing you’d most like to achieve in life?

I don’t know how you have answered this question, but I’ll tell you something. It’s a question most of us never ask ourselves. Of those who do, most get it wrong.

When asked, we aim too low. We nominate things like financial security. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be secure. It’s one of our basic needs. And that’s the problem with it.

If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you can see that security is down near the bottom of the pyramid, on a layer just above the essentials of food, shelter and air.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Once we have attained each level of the pyramid, we are free to focus on attaining the next level. That’s the theory. In practice, it looks a little different.

Once we have achieved security, something dangerous then creeps in the back door. Complacency.

We become comfortable, satisfied with ourselves, even smug. We set cruise control and sit back to enjoy the ride.

The great educational reformer Sir Ken Robinson summed it up in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything:

“For most of us the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail – it’s just the opposite – we aim too low and succeed.”

Nobody in recent history aimed higher than Steve Jobs. His guiding principle, his vision, was as grand as it was simple: To put a dent in the universe.

It isn’t just the grandness, the audacity of his vision that separated it from the more common and modest ambition of financial security. It’s the fact that it isn’t a destination. You don’t reach a point where you’re tempted to sit back and say, “well, that’s the universe done, dusted and dented.”

If we don’t ask ourselves what we’d most like to achieve, and we don’t answer, what’s the likely outcome? We’ll wander through life aimlessly. It doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. We can. But we’ll feel strangely unfulfilled.

Your guiding stars

Polaris is in the constellation Ursa Minor. It is the star nearest the north pole visible to the naked eye. Because it essentially remains in a fixed position throughout the night, it has been used by navigators for centuries.

Defining the thing we want to achieve is the first step in helping us navigate life, in giving our lives purpose and focus.

Every time we’re uncertain about a new venture, we only need ask one question to know if we should do it. Will it bring us closer to fulfilling our vision?

So, how to find your guiding light?

One technique that I like is to start Maslow’s pyramid at the top, not the bottom. It’s hard, because the basic physiological needs keep dragging us down. However, if we don’t attempt to set our sights high, we’re unlikely to reach that place Steve Jobs reached.

Try this technique and see if it works for you – or your organisation. I have created six stars that equate to Maslow’s pillars of self-actualisation.

Your moral star

What are the codes you live by? What are the moral lines you will not cross? These can be your personal values, as well as the values you believe are true for your organisation.

Write them down. A half dozen or so of the most important ones for you. Mine are honour, respect, helpfulness, inquisitiveness, do no harm.

We have all done things we’ve regretted at some stage. We’ve hurt people as a result. And we’ve been hurt.

Committing your values to paper or computer screen gives them more weight, and makes it less likely you’ll ignore those gut feelings.

In my case, it means that I only want to work with people I respect – and in turn, with those I feel respect me.

Your creative star

Deciding on a creative field and then putting steps in place to make it happen will pay off in so many ways. Science shows that when our creativity is encouraged and valued, we are happier and more productive.

We all have dormant creative ambitions – either things that we once did or things we’ve always wanted to do. Commit to taking up a new creative project and stick with it.

Choose what you want to learn, find teachers, classes or friends who are experienced, make time to learn and make more time to practise.

Your whole life will benefit.

Your objective star

Being objective is one of life’s more difficult accomplishments. It’s hard to respond to an event without our response coloured by past experiences, or the values passed on to us by our parents and peers.

Today, our social media feeds are biased toward the issues to which we have affinity or emotional engagement. We’re quick to unfriend people who express opinions in sharp contrast with our own.

So, this star is about making a commitment to see the alternative view, to withholding judgement, to seeking the facts behind the propaganda.

What are the issues that get you angry? Write them down. Now write down the reasons people might hold the opposite view to you? Try to understand their motives. Often it’s fear or ignorance. People have found ways to diffuse a heated standoff by finding solutions that addresses the underlying fears.

Your generous star

Generosity isn’t just about money. Being generous with your time is every bit as important, for example.

So, your generous star is about writing down the ways that you could be more generous. It might be volunteering. It might be calling friends just to say hello and see how they’re going.

And when a friend calls and asks how you are, even if you’re in desperate need to tell them of current troubles in your life, never forget to ask how they are – and take the time to really listen.

In business, it’s about giving – without an expectation of something in return. The rewards come eventually.

Your loving star

In the eternal battle between good and evil, between love and hate, it can feel like the baddies always win.

Your loving star is about changing the balance, one expression of love at a time. Here’s a suggestion. At the end of every day, write down the things for which you feel grateful – the good things that happened during the day. At the end of each month, see what are the recurring positives in your life. Then commit to spending more time exposed to these positive influences.

Also, write down the people in your life for whom your feel love – romantic or platonic. Then let them know you love them. One of the most common regrets when someone dies is that those left behind never told them how much they loved them.

I sometimes just send a friend a note on Facebook, for example, that simply says “Love you”. It’s amazing how often those friends have responded with “I really needed to hear that right now”.

It’s tempting to fight anger with anger. As Ghandi showed, love works just as well.

Your curious star

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

As Walt Disney said, making a commitment to stay curious leads us to discoveries. These discoveries can lead our lives in unimagined new directions – new careers, new hobbies, new journeys.

A curious traveller goes to under-explored countries, eats local foods, delves into local culture.

A curious brain never stops learning. Make a list of things you’d like to learn. Then go online. There are sensational courses available, many free, on just about any topic.

Want to learn more about 20th century literature. Yale University has a free lecture series on that. I sat through these whilst on a bike in the gym.

Interested in philosophy? A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is an ongoing podcast series you can hear at any time.

Your pole star

There’s a seventh star that connects to the overall state of self-actualisation in Maslow’s pyramid.

This is your life’s grand vision. It’s the star towards which you’re moving in life – to put a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs wanted.

In writing your own, think big. Think of something to which you can always keep travelling without ever reaching.

And always keep that star in front of you.

Credit: Photo by Hunter Bryant

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