The Engaged Life
There is only so much you and I can do to positively contribute to the lives of others. All people are multifaceted; the most advanced computer cannot rival the complexity of a human being. This means that a particular input from us will not necessarily produce a particular outcome. It may not even produce a desirable outcome. We may expect, for example, that having a pleasant conversation with another might make for less conflict and more cooperation between us. This is a reasonable expectation and may in some cases be accurate, especially if such times together are a pattern and not isolated incidences. But there are no guaranteed outcomes. Much of what informs others and their decisions lies beyond our control.
Confronted with this reality we may be inclined to despair and opt out of the relationship. Or we may remain physically present, but emotionally disengaged. We may wonder why we should bother making an effort if we can’t know if any good will result. So we don’t bother. If we do bother, we may resort to the use of techniques that promise a guaranteed outcome. Think “Perfect Abs in One Week” and other tabloid ads. These promise certain outcomes if we follow the prescribed technique. They give us the illusion of control and the hope of a desirable outcome. If I do X, Y will happen.
All relationships are no-guarantee relationships. The most humane response to this truth is to muster the courage to engage; to neither opt out nor heed the seduction of techniques. We must risk—and when we do we will experience both rewards and grief. These are guarantees. The joys and sorrows we experience from such courage are evidence that we are alive. I prefer this to a life of emotional and spiritual atrophy. Commit to living with this courage and you will model The Engaged Life. This may, after all, be the most potent means by which we contribute to others’ lives.
Connection Trumps Productivity
When I began my organization and became my own boss I realized more than ever that the way I spend my time is critical. How I spend my time directly relates to the success of my business objectives. I’ve had to learn to prioritize, focus, and work efficiently like never before. Accidental Creative has been a guiding force in my creativity and productivity for a number of years. David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, has been instrumental in this process. I’ve also gleaned many guiding insights along the way from Merlin Mann.
Though I am not a card carrying lifehacker, I’ve seen tremendous growth in my productivity and creativity. Mann says warding off our tendency to multitask is an important quality if we are to see such growth. To be productive we must do one thing at a time, not many. This assumes, of course, that the one thing we’re doing is what we should be doing in that moment. Allen, Mann, and other productivity types seem to agree on this point. I’ve noticed this works well and is essential to my professional life.
But when it comes to my home and family, multitasking is not an elective–it’s a requisite. In fact, when I carry into this context my professional blinders-on kind of work ethic, I find I’m quickly frustrated and disappointed in how I relate with my family. Last Saturday I decided to paint our mailbox post. The project began as I had planned. I stirred and set out the paint and brush. Put down a drop cloth and began to prep the post by scraping and sanding. Everything was still on track. Then two helpers appeared in the form of my four- and seven-year-old daughters. Their lack of previous post painting experience did not temper their eagerness to help. My productivity quotient immediately dropped, and continued to drop for the remainder of the afternoon. After four hours we completed the project that would have taken me a quarter that time on my own. We took frequent breaks to climb trees, ride bikes on the sidewalk, and dig in the dirt.
Something is starting to dawn on me: I complete house projects while attending to more important activities. I’d like to say I do this without being infected with the task-oriented, get out of my way and let me get this done, virus. I can’t. I don’t do this perfectly. I’m not sure I even do it well. But I see how I would like it to be for my kids: that they would know they, not my projects, are my priority.
The gurus are right: multi-tasking is not productive. But when it comes to family and other life-anchoring relationships, who needs productivity?
An Honest Learning
Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium asserted an understanding of the universe which more closely aligned with reality than did the established dictums of the sixteenth century. Among his paradigm-shattering assertions was, as you know, that the earth revolves around the sun. This explanation of the heavens did not jibe with popular understanding. It ushered an entire civilization into a clash between pre-existing beliefs and a new perspective. The people of Copernicus’ era needed to choose whether to subject their presuppositions to refinement, or preserve the old, cherished beliefs at all cost. Those in authority chose the latter option in a desperate effort to ward off change.
We all have pre-existing beliefs. Many of these assumptions are tacit, hidden in the recesses of our mind. Relationships, conflict, and myriad life experiences can flush these beliefs from hiding. Released into the open, they then provide us with the opportunity to refine them, change them—even kill them if they prove insufficient. Beliefs are like pieces of pottery placed in a kiln. The heat destroys those pieces containing air pockets and cracks. Pieces that are structurally sound survive.
I was in a group conversation not long ago in which we were discussing some weighty issues. I held fast to one perspective on the topic. Many in the group held a different opinion. I dug in and defended my ground. Fortunately, the others were patient with me. They asked good, difficult questions, tried to understand me, and elucidated their viewpoint. A dim light within me grew brighter, and I began to see how they understood the issue. I began to see fissures in my own ideas. I had to choose whether to cling to my existing fractured idea, or seriously consider killing it in favor of an idea that cohered. Our natural tendency is to do the former. In this instance I chose the latter. I wish I could say this is always the case.
Our ideas and beliefs help us make sense of the world. They possess tremendous governing authority, informing our choices. If their veracity is threatened, even for a moment, we can feel as though the ground upon which we stand has become unstable. So we’re prone to protect them, at times with breathtaking ferocity—even if they lack integrity. But this stance fosters a climate resistant to learning and growth. If we are to help others learn, we must first cultivate within ourselves a commitment to honest inquiry and intellectual integrity, and be willing to follow where this commitment leads.