How to enjoy your work

How's work? Boring, you say? Going nowhere?

We all know the feeling.  When work becomes a four letter word.  What can we do when paying the bills becomes a daily grind?

It might be time to think about considering a new career path.If, after reading this article, you are still feeling dissatisfied with your job, consider using the future self journal method to start moving yourself in a new direction.  But often, the difference between satisfying work and drudgery comes down to our attitude.  Just ask Mary Poppins:The 1964 musical fantasy film Mary Poppins tells the story of a mysterious but benevolent sorceress who becomes a nanny for a wealthy family in London in the early 20th century and solves several problems for the family.

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and - snap! - the job's a game.

This isn't going to be a technical article.  I have reviewed various theories of motivation but I've decided not to cite them here.  Let me simply mention that many of them have several characteristics in common: choice, control, purpose, and connection with others.  Let's talk about something that has a direct connection to motivation: benefits.

Look at the benefits

Just for a moment, think about why you've enjoyed some jobs more than others.  We are reward driven creatures.  Think about a job you loved.  Why did you enjoy it?  Was it challenging?  Did it provide opportunities for advancement? Did it let you showcase your skills?  In all likelihood, you felt appreciated by your employer or manager.  This is one of the main reasons people stay in a job.While I won't cover the evidence in this post, if you're interested in why people quit jobs, here's an article that cites studies to tell the answers.

Unfortunately, our brains tend to focus on rewards rather than benefits. By focusing on the benefits and not just the rewards, we can adjust our outlook greatly.

If your work is paying you, it is providing something you need. Focus on the fact that you have a way to take care of yourself (and your family) rather than on what you do not have (more money). Many people lack employment. Be grateful.

You have choices

This may not be immediately obvious.  You feel trapped in a job you don't like, and you don't have much autonomy.  But this doesn't mean you don't have choices.

Mary Poppins' above-quoted words contain hidden wisdom.  Remember that games include goals, rules, obstacles, feedback, and voluntary participation.  Do you see how this can also describe work?  If you lack some of these elements in your current job, why not try adding them yourself?

Goals: Make the work your own. Can you do more than you are required to do? Is it possible to increase your performance beyond what is expected?  If you set incremental, attainable goals, you'll take advantage of your brain's craving for variable rewards.  Don't be concerned with whether or not your employer deserves this level of engagement. Do it for yourself instead.According to Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, "the single most important" thing that made the difference between good and bad days at work is a sense of being able to make progress.

Rules: Try coming up with rules for yourself (but not co-workers) that do not conflict with what your employer wants.  Try to accomplish a task in a certain way.  Even though adding more rules can seem counterintuitive when you feel already hemmed in by the job's requirements, this is an effective way to make the job feel more like a game.

Feedback: If your employer is critical, you may want less, not more, feedback.  But you can learn to view criticism in a positive light. Find ways to get more feedback.  If your job is physical in nature, how can you measure progress?  When you interact with customers, ask them how you can improve.  

Voluntary participation:  This is completely up to you.  You can come to work grudgingly, or you can pretend this job is a rare privilege that few people can do, and you are one of the chosen few.  This is referred to as the Tom Sawyer effect.

Control your mindset

Sometimes our attitude toward work can be caused by factors other than the work itself.  Ego depletion basically means we lose the energy to keep pursuing our intentions.  Our aim, for example, may be to enjoy our work.  Apart from the suggestions above, learning self-regulation and getting enough nutrition and sleep can make a big difference.  A short break that doesn't involve checking social media can also be helpful.

Develop a positive mindset and avoid self-pity.  If at all possible, avoid people who complain about work since they can have an impact on your attitude.

If you can't find ways to make your work more enjoyable, plan a way to reward yourself at the end of the week.  Consider a quiet dinner out with your partner on Friday night.

There was one element of gameplay I did not mention above - obstacles.  Although every job entails some obstacles, perhaps the biggest obstacle to enjoyment is identifying hidden resources in yourself. 

The following words from Timothy Gallwey's excellent book The Inner Game of Tennis describe an athlete, but they could just as easily apply to your quest to find enjoyment in your work:

The more challenging the obstacle he faces, the greater the opportunity ... to discover and extend his true potential. ... He directly experiences his own resources and thereby increases his self-knowledge.

Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved. The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself.

Focus on the purpose

You are improving a useful skill every time you show up for work, even if that skill is finding joy in what others would consider drudgery.

You are accomplishing something.  If no one did your job, what would happen?  Someone in the world would suffer somehow.  Remember that, and realize you're making a difference.

Focus on your self-respect. You are working instead of being lazy.  You are doing your part.  Even if you aren't receiving what you consider adequate compensation for your work, you are still providing value.  Consider what the world would be like if everyone in it focused on what they can give rather than what they can get.  Wouldn't it be a much better place?  It's got to start somewhere, and it's starting with you.  Take pride in your role. Besides, it makes you a more well-rounded person, and that has many benefits in all areas of life.

Take it away, Mary Poppins

During my childhood, I watched Mary Poppins several times, but I never imagined that I would be recommending her advice about work (magic or no magic).  Now that nearly 60 years have passed since the release of the movie, the song is a bit cringeworthy, but the concept of gamification is becoming increasingly popular.  We don't need magic or technology to enhance our enjoyment of life by making it a game.

The honey bees that fetch the nectar From the flowers to the comb

Never tire of ever buzzing to and fro Because they take a little nip From every flower that they sip

And hence They find Their task is not a grind...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8VHc49ZdP4

man standing on a hill looking at the next hill ahead

Seeing past the bumps in the road

How's your outlook?  Are things going well for you right now?  I hope so.

How would you finish this sentence:  "Life is like..."?

There are many creative ways to finish the phrase. 

Life is like a mirror.  Smile, and it smiles back at you. 

I like that one. 

We can waste a lot of time looking at these quotes.  But here's just two more:

  • Life is like a highway.
  • Life is like a roller coaster.

Which would you prefer?  Some of us love riding roller coasters, but probably not all day, every day.  Many would prefer a smooth ride with the top down and music playing.

Life's reality lies somewhere between the two. It is a long drive on hills that dip and climb for most of us. It would be nice to be able to see farther down the road, but we can only see the top of the next hill.

What lies beyond the hill?

We are all, unfortunately, like distracted drivers. In spite of knowing we can't see over the next hill, we still tend to cruise right over it.

The hill is always there, and the other side always dips. At times, it's a gentle slope, but at other times it feels like our stomachs have just fallen out.

Why this matters

We tend to perceive life as a mostly stable progression.  We would like to attend a good school, find a suitable job, find a partner we can enjoy life with, gather some material resources, and enjoy a comfortable life.  Some people achieve all these things.  Even so, this view overlooks the fact that we all experience stressful and painful events.

In this article, we'll examine just a few, hopefully enough to shake you out of this dream without depressing you.  As I live in the United States, I will provide statistics regarding my home country. Here, life expectancy is 79 years, but we can also expect to spend 11 of those years, on average, suffering from diseases.Calculated from Mokdad, A. H., Ballestros, K., Echko, M., Glenn, S., Olsen, H. E., Mullany, E., Lee, A., Khan, A. R., Ahmadi, A., Ferrari, A. J., Kasaeian, A., Werdecker, A., Carter, A., Zipkin, B., Sartorius, B., Serdar, B., Sykes, B. L., Troeger, C., … Murray, C. J. L. (2018). The State of US Health, 1990-2016. JAMA, 319(14), 1444. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.0158   One in five people will experience mental illness in their lifetime.  Approximately one in two will battle cancer.Lung cancer is the deadliest.  Colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer kill approximately the same number of people each year.  But put together, they still don't claim as many lives as lung cancer.  Protect your lungs and get regular screenings, especially if your doctor recommends them.

These are major concerns.  Yet they are only the tip of the iceberg. One source lists 90 life events that test our capacity to cope.  It may be worth checking that list.  There are probably some you are experiencing or have experienced already.  

It is not just negative life events that cause stress.  Stress is caused by any major change.  Some of the positive changes may throw us off more because we might not understand our own reactions.

Not only do we rarely predict these sorts of events, but we also greatly underestimate their frequency. Bruce Feiler, author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, published in 2020, writes that big changes happen to everyone approximately every 12 to 18 months, with each of us experiencing major, life-altering changes three to five times in our lifetimes.

What to do

Besides being like driving on a steep highway, life is like driving in the fog.  In most cases, we don't realize how steep the grade is until we're speeding down.  What is the best course of action?

As a driver, you can do two things:

  1. Slow down.  Be ready for sudden changes.
  2. Be prepared to take quick action when the grade drops.

On the road of life, how can we apply this?  While striving for a better life makes sense, we should not forget that things will not always go smoothly.  Bring some realism to your hopes and dreams.  Rather than fighting change, be prepared to accept it.

Knowing that life will throw lemons at us in the future, let's consider:

  1. Preventive actions we can take now to reduce or avert disasters.
  2. Training that will get us ready for the next life change.

Preventive actions

Let's return to health issues.  Despite the fact that we can't prevent all health problems, there is a lot we can do.  According to the JAMA paper I referenced, 44.9% of the 11 years of disability the average American suffers are due to "risk factors."  Nearly half of these risk factors were behavioral and nearly a quarter were metabolic.The next largest was environmental and occupational risks, at 3.7%  We have a measure of control over these factors.

The biggest risk factors, by far, were tobacco use, high body mass index, dietary risks, alcohol and drug use, high fasting plasma glucose, and high systolic blood pressure.  Changing our eating habits and substituting dependency on chemicals with healthy behaviors can prevent some catastrophic consequences.

Learning how to live a healthy life can take a lot of time.  Also, maintaining good relationships and improving the quality of life are competing priorities. 

The key?  Slow down.  Our eagerness to enjoy everything life has to offer often prevents us from taking the time to stop and think about where we are going.  We forget to stop and smell the roses.  If we do this long enough we are sure to end up with end-of-life regrets. Let's not view life as a race to claim the most rewards, but rather as a trail ride.

Prepare by training

Man was made for conflict, not for rest. In action is his power; not in his goals but in his transitions man is great. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are limits to how much we can prevent.  A majority of the challenges we will face in the future will be caused by events outside our control.  How can we be ready to swing at life's curveballs?

I found it interesting to compare Feiler's book, mentioned above, with a 2009 book by William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.  Feiler's book is written for individuals and Bridges wrote for managers, but there is enough overlap in the methods they espouse that it is worth considering them together.

What major changes look like

All of us will go through at least three life-changing events in our lifetime, so we should be prepared to deal with them.

There are three phases to every transition.  These are like dips in the road.  The downhill part is the end of the last stage of life (or stage in a company's development).  The low point is the transition.  Bridges calls it "the neutral zone" and Feiler calls it "the messy middle."  Finally, the start of the climb up the next hill is a new beginning.

Change also follows a pattern of threes.  Three parties constitute this hierarchy.  Feiler calls them the "ABCs of meaning."  The A stands for personal Agency, the B stands for Belonging, that is, a person's relationships, and the C stands for Cause, something that is higher than oneself.  With Bridges' model, the leader is a change agent who manages relationships with the organization's stakeholders, while the cause is a bigger purpose that the company sets for its future.

Stages of transition

Near-death studies pioneer Elizabeth Kübler-Ross developed the now-popular theory of five stages of grief.This theory is not as popular with scientists.  According to Wikipedia, "The model is considered to be outdated, inaccurate, and unhelpful in explaining the grieving process."  I won't pass judgment on her theory here.  I only mention it because it's relevant.  It appears that both Bridges and Feiler based their suggestions partly on this theory.

Based on a synthesis of Bridges and Feiler, I describe nine stages of transition for you:

  1. Identify and accept
  2. Acknowledge
  3. Navigate
  4. Mark
  5. Adjust
  6. Adapt
  7. Communicate
  8. Redefine
  9. Narrate

Let's break each of these down.

Identify and accept

Individuals going through change should begin by recognizing and acknowledging their own emotions. According to Feiler, fear, sadness, and shame are the most common.  Recognize that these feelings are normal.  Get them out in the open.  Examine them.  Feiler suggests that writing about stressful events can yield greater insights.

A leader needs to recognize how others are affected, both practically and emotionally. People will suffer some losses.  Many of the "overreactions" of some are reactions to losing something important.  

Acknowledge

Leaders must acknowledge losses openly and sympathetically. Expect to see signs of grief, including anger, anxiety, bargaining, and denial. Be realistic about productivity during the "neutral zone" period.  Don't expect top performance. 

Navigate

When going through a major transition, avoid unnecessary changes.  Whenever possible, stick with the old ways in other areas.  It's not the time to make sweeping improvements.  Leaders should evaluate policies and procedures to make changes that will support the transition.

Mark

Acting as if the transition isn't happening is a bad idea.  Not only is it important to acknowledge it, but it is also a good idea to mark the event somehow.  Find a way to honor the past.  Celebrate the good things that came from the old ways that are being left behind by holding a small ceremony.

Adjust

Now that the good things from the past have been acknowledged and commemorated, it's time to move on.  Some doors will be closed.  Let the old dreams, routines, and mindsets go.  They served their purpose.

Leaders should look for ways to compensate those who have lost something.  It may be possible to give them something else of value to make up for the loss.  Those in positions of responsibility should be trained to follow these steps.

Adapt

The next climb begins here.  Leaving the past behind allows room for creativity.  This is the time to develop new skills, attitudes, and means of expression. Focusing on creating will take the mind off the losses.  

Keep goals short-term and celebrate every success, no matter how small.  Leaders should demonstrate flexibility by being willing to consider organizational changes that may not have been part of the plan.  

It is important to reward and encourage creativity.  Don't rush the transition.  Embracing experimentation and tolerating setbacks can do a lot of good.  

Communicate

Leaders and individuals must both focus on communication, but in different ways.  People going through major changes should seek support from others. Spend your time now growing and nurturing your social network so you'll have people you can turn to for wisdom and support when you need them.

It is important that leaders are open and honest, and more importantly, that they communicate freely.  Don't assume people know what's going on.  Keep them well informed.  Two-way communication is ideal.  Also, don't be afraid to admit when you don't know something.  Let them know you are doing your best to work toward a solution, just like they are.

Bridges also points out that leaders often have gone through the transition themselves before it is even announced.  They are ready for a new beginning.  They should not forget that the staff is just beginning the transition at this point.

Redefine

It's time to update the story.  What is over?  What isn't?  Make sure this is clear to everyone.

Narrate

Feiler says, "If you want the transition to end, let's end the story by writing an ending that has an upbeat ending."  Bridges also identifies this need. Today's success began with yesterday's ends, and tomorrow's changes will require the endings of today.

Each of our lives is a life story project of its own. Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time. -- Bruce Feiler

According to professor Dan McAdams, creating stories from our transitions can improve our mental health, well-being, and maturity.  This brings us to our third set of threes.  A post-transition life story should include these elements, according to Feiler:

  1. Distance between the major life event and where the person is now.  The story is in the past tense.
  2. Positive language.  The story assumes a positive ending, even if it's still in the future.
  3. A useful lesson. Tell your story in such a way that others (and you!) can learn something from it. Once you have accomplished that, you will have put your transition behind you.

Be great, be beautiful

Sure, we'd love it if life just cruised along smoothly from reward to reward.  But we'd miss out on the chance to be great, according to Emerson, quoted above.

We'd also miss out on a chance to be among the "most beautiful people," according to a now-popular quote from Kübler-Ross in the 1975 book she edited, titled Death: The Final Stage of Growth.  I can't think of a better way to end this article than with her quote:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

Advice from your future self

This won't be the first time I've mentioned time travel in my articles on this blog, and probably not the last.

In The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa), I discussed ways you can convince your not-so-cooperative future self to carry out something you are resolved to do. I also wrote an article about using a future self journal to ensure you reach your goals.

This article will discuss a way you can recruit your future self to encourage you when your present self (either the metaphorical horse or the rider) starts losing the confidence to continue.

Get to know your future self

If your future self were to get into a time machine thirty years from now and travel back in time to visit you here and now, how would you recognize yourself?  You would see similarities, of course. 

You can probably imagine what you'll look like in 30 years.  Twenty years ago I used to stand in front of the mirror and tug downward on parts of my face to see what I'd look like later in life.  I would try to stop moving my eyebrows up because it wrinkled my forehead and I didn't want those lines to become permanent.  (Too late. It didn't work.)An experiment in 2011 found that people who were exposed to an age-advanced version of themselves in a virtual reality environment showed higher levels of identification with their future selves and were more inclined to save for the future. Hershfield, Hal E; Goldstein, Daniel G; Sharpe, William F; Fox, Jesse; Yeykelis, Leo; Carstensen, Laura L; Bailenson, Jeremy N (2011). "Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self". Journal of Marketing Research. 48 (SPL): S23–S37. doi:10.1509/jmkr.48.spl.s23. ISSN 0022-2437. PMC 3949005. PMID 24634544.

How about your personality?  Would you and your future self laugh at the same jokes?  How much of your personality would be the same?  

A 2016 study took advantage of personality data collected 63 years earlier from a cohort of Scottish 14-year-olds.  Then they compared the personalities of the same people, by then 77 years old.  The report concludes:

Studies have demonstrated that personality is subject to a lifelong series of relatively small changes— particularly in adolescence and early adulthood, but continuing even into older age.... The longer the interval between two assessments of personality, the weaker the relationship between the two tends to be. Our results suggest that, when the interval is increased to as much as 63 years, there is hardly any relationship at all.Of the six personality traits tested (self-confidence, perseverance, originality, desire to excel, stability of moods, conscientiousness), only the latter two remained relatively stable over the 63 years.  Harris, M. A., Brett, C. E., Johnson, W., & Deary, I. J. (2016). Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years. Psychology and Aging, 31(8), 862–874. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000133 

It is very likely that your future self will have many small differences from what you are today.  A significant part of this may be due to changes in your identity over time.

I keep coming back to an incredible article by Benjamin Hardy in the Harvard Business Review.In fact, I learned about the study above from this article. In the article, Hardy cites the work of Dan McAdams (which I've also cited), and then he says:

Your personality — the sum of your consistent attitudes and behaviors — is merely a byproduct of identity. Your identity narrative is the story you tell about yourself: past, present, and future.My opinion is that this is a compelling statement that is in agreement with the conclusions above, as well as what I have seen elsewhere. But I am hesitant to agree with him about the use of such a strong statement. There is definitely more room for exploration before we can arrive at such a simplistic definition.

Does my view of my future self affect the way I live now?

In How to Minimize Regrets I discussed the value of using surrogation to find out whether we will like something or not.  That is, ask someone who has already been there.  The authors cited in that article interviewed people who have already gone where we are all headed: old age.  And their answers clearly indicate what all of us will wish we had done by the time we get there.

We've already done the equivalent of sending an email through an internet time machine when we sent a sales pitch to our future selves.  This time, we're going to have a two-way exchange with one of our future selves - one that lives 30 years in the future.

Here's how it works. Pick one:

  • Write about a challenge you are currently facing.  Then write a reply that seems to come from your older, wiser self.  
  • Write to your future self about one of your goals.  Write a letter back from your future self, explaining how you reached your goal and how it impacted your life afterward.  What surprises followed?

I stumbled across this idea during my research for this post, but I'm amazed that I didn't think of it before.  I guess it's because it seems a little ridiculous: How could I possibly know what my 80-year-old self would have to say to me?  But on second thought, it's not ridiculous at all.

We are going to assume a few things here.  First, we're going to assume that my future selves are all going to keep trying to be the best version of myself.  And we're going to assume that I'll be successful in continuing to apply everything I've learned and written about on these pages.  With these things in mind, here's what my imaginary 80-year-old self is going to encourage me to do:

  • Be true to myself, pursue my dreams, and don't try too hard to fit in.
  • Make time for friends and family
  • Express my feelings.  Face conflict courageously and calmly.  Say "I love you."
  • Forgive people.  
  • Stay in touch with people.
  • Get out of my comfort zone.  Let go.  Be silly sometimes.
  • Focus on what I'm giving, not on what I'm getting.
  • Take care of my health.  He'll probably have something specific to say about it.
  • Be careful about who I'm spending time with.  He'll see more clearly who is good for me.
  • Have a more balanced view of the people I admire.
  • Think carefully about my decisions.
  • Take more small risks.
  • Set my sights a little higher.
  • Don't be in a rush.  Take it one day at a time.  Enjoy life.
  • Don't put off the important things.  He's still pursuing my dreams, but my future self is often tired, sore, and has less energy than I do.

My future self won't push me to:

  • Get rich (but he might urge me to save a bit more).
  • Buy more stuff.
  • Compare myself with others.  He isn't going to care whether my car is as new as the neighbor's.

He isn't going to tell me that I shouldn't try harder because I'm the way I am and I can't change.  He knows that effort will pay off eventually.  He knows that if I don't work at it, I'm not going to be as happy as he is.  I'm going to have more regrets.

He's going to have reasons to be upset with me because some of my decisions now will cost him something.  Some of my mistakes will hurt him.  But he will treat me with empathy and compassion because he knows I'm doing the best I can.

I can write to him about the problems and stresses and anxieties I'm going through.  He'll tell me, "I remember when I was you going through that."  He'll probably also tell me he's glad I have to deal with that problem because it will prepare me for something bigger down the road.

Why this exercise is worth doing

If you've read some of my articles, you know I don't write things just because they sound good.  When I don't find evidence to back up what I say, I won't write about it.  This exercise is no exception.  Does science say anything about this?

While the letter from your future self will be a product of your imagination, the benefits will be real.  In her book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal cites a study that shows imagining your future self can boost your present self's willpower.Harju, B. L., & Reed, J. M. (2003). Potential Clinical Implications of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes Within Possible Exercise Selves Schemata: A Pilot Study, Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 10(3), 201–208. https://doi.org/10.1023/a:1025414913130

People who score high on personality traits of General Activity (a facet of Extraversion), Emotional Stability (low Neuroticism), and Conscientiousness live longer.  Since we've seen that personality traits are malleable, we can be sure your future self will thank you for cultivating these qualities.It's true that Conscientiousness is a more stable trait, according to the above study.  But you've already got that trait down or you wouldn't be reading this footnote.  Terracciano, A., Löckenhoff, C. E., Zonderman, A. B., Ferrucci, L., & Costa, P. T. (2008). Personality Predictors of Longevity: Activity, Emotional Stability, and Conscientiousness. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(6), 621–627. https://doi.org/10.1097/psy.0b013e31817b9371 

Researchers found that a group writing to themselves 20 years into the future was more likely to exercise than a group writing to themselves 3 months in the future.Rutchick, A. M., Slepian, M. L., Reyes, M. O., Pleskus, L. N., & Hershfield, H. E. (2018). Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 72–80. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000153  

The results of another study suggest that wiser decisions can be achieved by reminding oneself that the future self will feel and need many of the same things as the present self or by simply stating that the new perspective might be helpful.Pronin, E., Olivola, C. Y., & Kennedy, K. A. (2008). Doing Unto Future Selves As You Would Do Unto Others: Psychological Distance and Decision Making. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(2), 224–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167207310023 

A literature review finds that when people see their future self as similar to their present self, with realism and vividness, as well as when they see it positively, they are more inclined to make sacrifices now that may benefit them later on.Hershfield, H. E. (2011). Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235(1), 30–43. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06201.x 

Share your current relationship conflicts with your future self and listen for a reply.  This is called temporal self-distancing.  It will have beneficial effects on your current relationships.Huynh, A. C., Yang, D. Y.-J., & Grossmann, I. (2016). The Value of Prospective Reasoning for Close Relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(8), 893–902. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550616660591  

Be curious

I've imagined a lot about my 80-year-old self, but I'll only know that self when I get there.  But those discoveries are going to be fun.  After all, my future self has a lot in common with me, but he's not me.  He'll share some memories with me, but not all of them.  I will share parts of my current identity with him, but not all.  Most of my values he'll share with me, but not all.  He'll still have some of my physical characteristics, and we'll still have some beliefs in common.  Curiosity means I'm not afraid to discover what I will eventually become.

Bonus section

As I research these posts, I often come across interesting tidbits that don't fit anywhere else but I'd like to share them anyway.  Each of these touched me for different reasons, and I think they'll touch you, too.

Susan O’Malley, an artist and curator from the San Francisco Bay Area, published a book in 2016 called Advice from My 80 Year-Old Self.  She had asked more than a hundred ordinary people of every age and every walk of life, what advice would their 80-year-old self give them? After that, she transformed their responses into colorful text-based images.  She had this to say about her interviewees:

For the most part, it takes time for people to find their 80-year-old voice. She’s always there though, her wisdom just waiting to be summoned and heard. She is likely a kinder, more courageous, and sometimes even more practical version of you. 

Sadly, Susan, who was so keen to gather timeless wisdom from young and old, was herself to die at the young age of 39.  Her book stands as a memento to a life, short but well-lived.

Tim Ferris briefly mentioned this concept on his blog last year.  You can read A Letter from My Older Self to My Current Self by reader Nishant Garg for a sample of how this works.

Speaking of Tim Ferris and surrogation: Do you want to be famous?  Ask someone who's been there, and then ask yourself the question again. (Warning: It's intense.)

Finally, I (re)discovered a cool service that lets you communicate with your future self electronically: FutureMe.org.  Nobody knows whether you'll be able to send a message to yourself 30 years in the future, but it might be worth a try!

I've written several blog posts about journaling, and I've been practicing what I've been preaching.  I'm really excited about this journaling concept.  I am eager to see the results for myself.

How to minimize regrets

Memento mori.

It means: Remember that you will die.

Sometimes people follow it up with the phrase memento vivere: Remember to live.  Why is that important now more than ever?

I learned a new phrase today: hustle culture.  It's a synonym for workaholism, but without the pejorative flavor.  Hustle culture involves doubling down on what you do well and profitably and giving everything you've got to your work, sometimes to the point of ignoring everything else.  It's a good way to make a lot of money.  It is also a recipe for regret.

Advice from people who have been there

How will you feel when you are 80 years old and look back on your life?  Is there any way to know?

We can use surrogation to find the answer.  In other words, we can use a proven method to find out what we will think about a situation we've never experienced:  Ask someone who's already been there.

First, let's meet some people who have done just that.  

In 2009 Bronnie Ware described herself as "a singer/songwriter, a songwriting teacher, and a writer from Australia." However, she would soon be known for something else. A blog post she wrote went viral a year and a half later. In the years since then, she has written a book on the subject, and her experiences have enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands by reminding us what is important in life.

The post was called "Regrets of the Dying." In her years of caring for people in their final weeks, she noticed five common themes.

At about the same time, Karl Pillemer of Cornell University - who has also spent many years helping the elderly - realized that he could learn valuable lessons from them.  He wrote:

It suddenly hit me that for life’s major challenges, I should go to people who have lived through them and tap their wisdom. So I began a quest to gather the practical advice of real people who surmounted difficulties, survived, and eventually thrived.

Tenzin Kiyosaki also has extensive experience caring for people who have less than six months to live.

I have compiled the observations of these three published authors into one master list.  First, let's consider what many of the people they helped regretted.  Then we'll take a look at three things that almost no one regretted.

The regrets

Not being true to themselves

Failing to pursue dreams and aspirations is the biggest regret. Instead, they did as others expected. In order to fit in, people often pretend to be someone they are not.

Working too hard

The biggest side effect of this regret was not making enough time for friends and family.

Suppressing their feelings

Many people chose not to express their feelings in order to avoid conflict.  Failing to say 'I love you' was one of the main sources of regret for people in that position.

Others chose to suffer in silence and became resentful as a result. These situations often strain relationships or even cause rifts. At the very least, it produces long-term pain in the heart of the resentful person.

Losing touch with friends

Relationships can suffer from overwork, which is the most obvious cause. The importance of maintaining good friendships is not obvious until it's too late, unlike paying bills or keeping up with daily responsibilities.

Not realizing happiness was a choice they could make

Too often, we get caught up in comfortable, familiar, but boring routines. We fail to stop and enjoy life, or we are too afraid of what others think to lighten up and act silly.

What they did not regret

Not buying more things

There's a humorous saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Although material things can enhance our lives, a focus on money and things will leave us hollow.

Not being as rich as someone else

We are all prone to feeling pressure to keep up with the Joneses.  However, evaluating our worth based on others' status and achievement is a sure recipe for discontent and regret.

Not earning a certain amount of money

People compete for lucrative jobs and put themselves through drudgery and stress to make money.  Their health and relationships often suffer as a result.  People who take a more balanced approach to life often find that they are more satisfied with their lives.

What about super-wealthy people?

Maybe these things are true of people in general, but surely those who have "made it" feel differently, right?  Everyone admires people like Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie, and Steve Jobs, don't they?

Andrew Carnegie was a steel magnate, philanthropist, and at one time, the richest man in the USA.  Did his wealth and success bring him satisfaction? Journalist T. P. O'Connor recorded a conversation he had with Carnegie, who said:

I am not to be envied. How can my wealth help me? I am sixty years old, and I cannot digest my food. I would give all my millions if I could have youth and health. If I could make Faust’s bargain I would. I would gladly sell anything to have my life over again.Earthly Discords and How to Heal Them (1903) by Malcolm James McLeod

Steve Jobs is revered for his strong personality and business success.  But Jobs clearly had regrets about the amount of time he'd spent with his children.However, the often-quoted speech containing the line, "Non-stop pursuing of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me," is most likely a fabrication.  Although he considered them more important than everything he had accomplished, his actions did not reflect that.

How to fend off regrets

First, it's important to recognize that not everyone will experience regret in the same way.  Self-discrepancy theory, developed by Edward T. Higgins in the 1980s, focuses on the difference between the ideal self and the "ought self."  

Higgins points out the connection between self-esteem and the difference between one's actual self and their ideal self.  Yet in some instances, people's self-esteem may be determined by what others expect of them, often referred to as their "social ideal self."Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319–340. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.94.3.319

Using the self-discrepancy theory as a basis, Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich studied people's regrets in 2018.  It turned out people can have severe regrets, not only for what they didn't do in pursuit of their dreams, but also for what they did.  Those who regret doing or failing to do something they should have done tend to experience stronger emotions, which in turn drives them to take more immediate action.  Or, they may "file away" these transgressions where they are less likely to remember them.Davidai, Shai; Gilovich, Thomas (April 2018). "The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people's most enduring regrets" (PDF). Emotion. 18 (3): 439–452. doi:10.1037/emo0000326.

The prisoners interviewed for the study tended to focus more on their failures to fulfill their duties and responsibilities than their unfulfilled goals and aspirations.  What is the lesson?  It is important to balance following our dreams with living up to our responsibilities.

Keep a future self journal. Be grateful for what you have, but make sure to keep track of what you want in life.  The method I've outlined includes the WOOP method, which can be used to transform dreams into realistic goals.

Davidai and Gilovich point out, "The constant chase after a series of ever-increasing aspirations may lead to more regrets over falling short of the ideal self."  You can avoid this trap by visualizing your ideal self as clearly as possible.

In your journal, have a page for each ideal self. Spend time creating a description that is as specific as possible. Record the date and the mindset that you are in as you add each detail.

Decide not to regret something that is out of your control.  Review your future self journal regularly, evaluate the situation, and take action when you are able.  In the event you can't take action, you will have a record of the events that prevented you from reaching your goals.  The knowledge that you did everything possible will minimize future regrets.  Life doesn't always allow us to do what we want.

Make a list of all the reasons you can't take action right now. Afterward, compare each reason with the importance of reaching your ideal goal. Keep track of a factor that prevents you from reaching your dream if it truly matters more to you than realizing the dream.  There will always be hard choices to make.  Giving up something you want to prioritize something you want more isn't a reason to regret it.  It's a reason to be proud.

Do you hesitate to take action for fear of what others will think?  It is rare for people to think about us as often as we think they do.  If we don't meet their ideals, they will usually get over it.  They probably shouldn't be on our list of most important relationships if they don't.

Pillemer advised thinking from the perspective of your older self. What would you like to see in your biography?

But imagine you have just learned that you have a terminal illness.  Based on the prognosis, you have one year left in your current state of health.  How would you like to spend that year?  Could you make space for it now even though you may still have many years to go?  Ware wrote, "Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it."

After reviewing a long list of regrets and suggestions including the ones I've noted above, I typed out a list of suggestions of my own.  The list includes other lessons I've learned:

1. Find out who you are. This means understanding your values.
2. Be true to yourself. This takes ego strength.
3. Decide on your relationship with money. Can you get by with less? How much will your dreams require?
4. Interview people who have reached your dreams. Was it worth it?
5. Try to find people who are 1 step ahead of you, 2 steps, etc. Learn from them.
6. Prioritize relationships.
7. Prioritize communication.
8. Always look for ways to provide value.

More sage advice

The nearly 1,500 elderly people Pillemer interviewed had some more advice that's worth mentioning.  While none of them recommended an unbalanced emphasis on work, they had several suggestions regarding work:

  • Prioritize intrinsic rewards over financial rewards.
  • Keep looking until you find a job you enjoy.
  • Try to find a job with as much autonomy as possible.

My article How to Find a Career with a Bright Outlook covers all these.  In addition, the respondents did not recommend leaving a job too soon if you don't enjoy it.  Many experts learned invaluable lessons from bad jobs.

Finally, no one should underestimate the importance of interpersonal skills, aka emotional intelligence.

In fact, the six elements that I've identified as necessary to being a well-rounded person all contribute to minimizing regrets:

  1. A well-rounded person has a strong sense of their values and principles.
  2. A well-rounded person is balanced.
  3. Curiosity keeps us exploring ways we can improve our lives.
  4. Willingness to take risks means that we'll be more likely to grab opportunities instead of wishing we had.
  5. A well-rounded person cultivates strong interpersonal skills.
  6. A well-rounded person prioritizes other people and sincerely cares about them.

https://twitter.com/ondrej_markus/status/1414953794576728075

While I was writing this post I took a few breaks to check Twitter and I found a few tweets that went right along with it, such as Ondrej Markus's delightful illustrations above.  I also recommend the article referred to in this tweet:

https://twitter.com/ParvSondhi/status/1414962860648800259?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Mike offers some excellent suggestions for creating balance in life.  My first encounter with the phrase "hustle culture" was when I read it in his post.  Also, the personal angle makes his article more compelling.  It's a great article.

Memento vivere!

Remember to live: Recognize that conventional wisdom often does not lead to happiness.  Maintain a future self journal to track your dreams as you strive to be well-rounded.  Your future self will thank you!

How to prioritize relationships

The last article discussed why social relationships are important, so if there's any question in your mind about the importance of growing your network of friends and improving your contact with relatives, please read that first.

Every person you have a relationship with is like a bank account.  You can have a positive or negative balance on your account, depending on the current status of your relationship.  This article will discuss ways we can increase our 'account balances'.

I recently discovered what many call the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model. It makes a very nice bridge between the idea of strengthening relationships and some of the work I've recently been doing on core values.I'm really looking forward to sharing the results with you in the future. The model is based on the idea of reciprocity, that is, finding ways to give something to someone else in order to get what you want.Cohen, A. R., & Bradford, D. L. (2005). The influence model: Using reciprocity and exchange to get what you need. Journal of Organizational Excellence, 25(1), 57–80. doi:10.1002/joe.20080

I'm going to look at this from a slightly different angle. Money and barter are both examples of reciprocity at work. When you have money, you don't have to worry about getting something that the other person wants. By obtaining the money prior to spending it, you can time-shift the exchange. The way you do this is to trade something valuable, such as your time, or any other item someone is willing to pay for, and then you can use that money to buy what you want later.

It's really basic, but it's worth examining so we can make a comparison. Reciprocity, as the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model defines it, involves finding something the other person values and then giving that to them in exchange for something they have that you want.

Add the idea of the relationship bank account, in we realize we might be better off giving the other person something they value before we need something from them. The decision will be largely determined by how trustworthy the other person is, of course. So this strategy is best used with trustworthy people. Isn't the best course of action to surround yourself with trustworthy people? By the time you finish reading this article, I'm hoping you'll agree.

Assume all are potential allies

This is the first step of the Cohen-Bradford model. And it's a life skill worth cultivating.  Essentially, it means valuing everyone you know no matter what they think of you, or how you think of them.

Why is this important?  Because we should never assume that another person has nothing to offer us.  Similarly, we should not assume they are so hostile to us that they would never help us.  There is no way to know for sure what will happen until you act and observe it. People are complex.

However, we can stack the odds in our favor.  Here are some ways to do so:

  • Try to be positive all the time.  It may be hard, but it's worth the effort.  People like to be around positive people.  Plus, they will start to behave more positively too.
  • Avoid gossiping.  It's also hard, but there's a reason "gossip rags" have a cheap reputation.  Having a reputation for gossip cheapens us too.  It's like adding a monthly surcharge to all our relationship bank accounts.
  • Don't just act positive, but try to think positively about everyone.  Is there someone you can't stand? Even they have positive qualities.  Focus on those. 
    • For example, if someone talks your ear off, think of them this way: You don't have to guess what they are thinking.
    • Then feel free to talk about those positive qualities.  Tell others.  Tell the person themselves, as sincerely as possible. 
  • Be open-minded.  You can agree with at least some of what other people say, even if you disagree with most of it.

Identify the "currencies" in your bank accounts

With the addition of this dimension, Cohen and Bradford's theory adds depth to the metaphor of a relationship bank account. What is important to one person won't necessarily be important to another, so we must take this into account when looking for ways to strengthen a relationship.  Knowledge of human values is incredibly useful here. 

Cohen and Bradford emphasize the following points about what people value:

  • Being involved in something significant
  • Having a chance to excel
  • Doing something to a high ethical standard
  • Obtaining resources
  • Increasing their skills
  • Getting backing for or assistance with a project
  • Speeding up the process of getting something
  • Access to information
  • The acknowledgment of accomplishments and abilities
  • Increased access to people in positions of power
  • A feeling of belonging
  • Opportunities to connect with others
  • To feel accepted and included
  • Having a sense of being heard and listened to
  • Feeling supported on an emotional level
  • Feeling appreciated
  • Ownership and control over important tasks
  • Affirmation of self-worth, values, and identity
  • Elimination of hassles

They categorize the above list as inspiration-related currencies, task-related currencies, position-related currencies, relationship-related currencies, and personal-related currencies. 

The key is to identify:

  • What is important to you.  These things will fall into two categories:
    • What you need from the other person.
    • What you are good at, and can give to the other person.
  • What is important to the other person.  

Once you have identified the items on the list that match the last two bullet points above, you have determined the currency of that relationship.  You can either wait until you need something from the other person and then use the "currencies" you have identified to bargain for something you need from them, or the currencies can now be used to build a big positive balance in the relationship bank account for a time when you may be looking for their help later.

Let's take a few examples.  If you recognize that the other person values opportunities to connect with others, obtaining resources, or increased access to people in positions of power, try to think of someone else you know that can provide what they need, and make the introduction.  This may be one of the easiest, highest-leverage actions we can take.  What does it require of us?  Mostly to be aware of the strengths and needs of each person we know.  Keeping a relationship journal with a section for this kind of information can be a big help.  People in sales use customer relationship management (CRM) software to help with this, but it isn't just salespeople that can benefit from tracking relationships.

Another high-ROI action we can take is simply to sincerely give people attention, approval, acceptance, and appreciation as much as possible.  Notice how many of the values on the list this addresses.  We all need to have these emotional needs met.  You may have many social contacts who are very emotionally well-nourished, but who would mind getting more?

While we're on the subject, our ego is constantly trying to find ways to get attention, approval, acceptance, and appreciation from other people, but it frequently tries to use the wrong methods to do so.  Gratitude is an effective antidote.  Keeping a gratitude journal can not only keep ego at bay but be an excellent way to remember things we can appreciate about others.  Combining the two journal styles can multiply the benefits.

Your life will be enhanced if you express gratitude, and its effects will compound over time.I love this quote I found in a Psychology Today article: "It is the foundation of the type of society in which people can look after one another without coercion, incentives, or governmental interference, which, unlike gratitude, demean rather than exalt us."  I agree 100%.  Extending gratitude when we desire something from another person has limited benefits.  It's much better to make small, frequent deposits.

Sharing information you know or teaching skills can be tremendously valuable to the right people.  Just keep in mind the saying: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

More ways to grow our relationship bank accounts

  • Learn how to be a good listener.  Knowing how to truly listen is a superpower that will be a force multiplier in all your relationship-building efforts.  Besides, it makes you a better person.
  • Open new accounts.  That is, find someone you admire or would like to know better, or someone who could help you, and send an email.  I recommend Reach Out: The Simple Strategy You Need to Expand Your Network and Increase Your Influence by Molly Beck.  Especially if you have a blog or social media presence.
  • Responding to phone calls, emails, and invitations shows that you care.
  • Instead of being jealous of people who succeed, be happy for them.  Then let them know.  Their success may someday help you succeed.
  • Randomly call someone you know whom you haven't seen for a while.  Let them know why you thought of them.
  • Identify the people in your life who are really good at introducing people to others. Ask them to help you meet new people.  Stay in touch.

Of course, as with all things in life, balance is necessary.  This isn't easy, but keep these things in mind:

  • Boundaries are important. 
    • Sometimes you'll have to limit contact with people to get things done. Make sure they understand they are important but so are other things in your life.  Friends worth keeping will understand.
    • You will also need to set limits regarding others' behavior.  Make sure to patiently communicate what you need and expect.  Then be firm.  Having a large network of friends will make it easier to do this because your risk is lower.
    • We become like our friends.  If a friend is becoming someone you don't want to be like, it's best to limit your time with them.
  • Make sure you don't overwhelm them either.  Try to develop a reputation for respecting other people's time and priorities.  Leave while they still want you to stay.  They won't resent you because they'll want to see you again.

For most people, social relationships are more valuable than money.  For that matter, having a rich network of relationships often leads to more money too.  I hope the advice in this article will contribute to your successful efforts to build a happier, more satisfying life.