How to Figure Out What You Want from Life

In order to get things done, to be productive, to achieve greater meaning and happiness in your life, you need to make sure you’re spending more time on the big rocks and less time on the “sand” of everyday life (such as errands and email). But how can you determine which things are most important?

George Kinder is a Certified Financial Planner who divides his time between Massachusetts and Hawaii. Unlike many CFPs, Kinder isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of money. He moves beyond the numbers in an attempt to address the goals and values of his clients. “Without life planning,” he says, “financial planning is like using a blunt instrument on the organism we call the human being.”

Near the beginning of his work with each client, Kinder challenges her to answer three questions. These questions are designed to lead the client deeper and deeper into her desires until they reveal her goals and values, the things that bring her meaning and purpose. Kinder shared these questions in his book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity.

  1. Imagine you’re financially secure. You have enough money to take care of your needs, both now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything? Let yourself go and describe your dreams. What would you do if money were no object?
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor. She reveals you only have five to ten years left to live. You’ll never feel sick, but you’ll have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life? How will you change it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited wealth.)
  3. Finally, imagine your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Nothing can be done. At this time tomorrow, you’ll be dead. What feelings arise as you confront your mortality? What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Answering the first question is easy (and fun). There are many things we’d do if money were no object. But as the questions progress, there’s a sort of funnel. They become more difficult to answer, and there are fewer possible responses. Life planning is all about answering that final question.

Note: For years, I’ve assumed these questions were original to Kinder. Recently, however, I discovered that in 1973 time-management guru Alan Lakein proposed a similar set of questions in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. As part of his “Lifetime Goals Exercise”, Lakein asks readers: (1) What are your lifetime goals? (2) How would you like to spend the next three years? (3)If you knew now that you’d be struck by lightning six months from today, how would you live until then?

The Big Rocks: How to Prioritize Your Life and Time

You lead a busy life. There never seems to be enough time to do the things you really want to do, the things that make you happy. You’re too preoccupied with work, errands, and other demands placed upon you by the outside world.

In Work Less, Live More, Bob Clyatt argues that you can make time for the important stuff. The secret, he says, is to prioritize, and he offers an analogy. (I’ve learned recently that this idea may have originated with Stephen R. Covey in his book First Things First.) Here’s how it works:

Imagine you have a jar. You want to fill this jar with some rocks and some sand. What’s the best way to do it?

  • One way is to add the sand to the jar first and then add the rocks. If you did this, however, you’d quickly find that it’s impossible to make everything fit. With a layer of sand at the bottom of the jar, there’s no room for the rocks.
  • On the other hand, if you begin by putting the rocks in the jar, when you pour in the sand it will sift downward to fill in the gaps and the cracks between the rocks. Everything fits.

Here’s a video that demonstrates this idea in action:

This same principle applies to your personal life. You can achieve well-being by prioritizing the Big Rocks in your life. This may sound elementary, and you may be tempted to ignore this advice. Don’t. This one idea revolutionized my life. It made me happier and more productive. By focusing solely on the things that were most important to me — by making room for the Big Rocks — I was able to reclaim my life and time.

A few years ago, after first reading about this idea, I sat down and drafted a list of the things that were most important to me. I decided that my Big Rocks were fitness, friends, writing, Spanish, and travel. If these weren’t in my jar, I wasn’t happy. So, I made sure to squeeze these in before anything else. Once these rocks were in place, once these things were on my calendar, then I’d fill the remaining space with the sand — television, email, errands, and so on.

During the past year, I allowed the sand to squeeze out some of my big rocks. For instance, I stopped exercising. I used to say that “fitness is job one”. I grew complacent, though, and fell out of the habit of going to the gym. Fitness was no longer a job at all! Instead, I put more sand in my jar.

Last week, I sat down to re-examine my schedule and my priorities. I realized I wasn’t spending any time on Spanish or exercise. I immediately made changes. I returned to my Crossfit gym (which has been humbling) and I set aside time to study Spanish.

How can discover your Big Rocks? To construct your ideal schedule, you have to become clear on what your priorities are. We’ll explore a couple of ways to do that in the weeks ahead.

John Steinbeck on Good, Evil, and the Power of Choice

I’ve recently returned to the world of reading after many years away. For one of my first books back, I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and I loved it. It’s very much a “J.D. book”.

East of Eden tells the storis of three generations of one family, and of the people in their lives. (Most of the book takes place in California’s Salinas Valley.) Steinbeck paints one of the characters as pure evil and one as pure good, but most are flawed masterpieces. Then he sets the wheels of the plot in motion to demonstrate his worldview, and to argue that the power of choice is the greatest gift that humankind possesses.

Steinbeck doesn’t seem to find pure evil or pure good particularly interesting. Both states are hollow, one dimensional. People like this lack something that’s essentially human. He’s much more fascinated by the typical person, the one who possesses elements of both good and bad. If you’re all good or all bad, you don’t really have a choice about what you do. You’re simply controlled by your character and moral compass (or lack thereof). But when you have a bit of both, who you are and what you do is determined by the things you choose to do.

The core idea in East of Eden is centered around the meaning of a single word from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: timshel. Different translations of the Bible translate the word in different ways:

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

For Steinbeck (and his characters), this ability to choose is a revelation. It’s what makes humans human.

“There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man.”

If you’ve been reading More Than Money this year, you know that I’ve written a lot about choice. And you can probably imagine how I feel about these passages. It’s exciting to read a novel with a plot specifically designed to showcase the consequences of choice. It’s nice to see an author create flawed characters who make bad choices but whom we can nonetheless call “good people”. We can forgive them, just as the characters forgive each other. People make mistakes. It’s how they react to those mistakes that defines who they are to become.

East of Eden contains lots of other great bits. For one, Steinbeck himself appears as a minor character (he’s just a boy when the events of the story take place). Plus there are dozens of throwaway gems scattered in the pages. Gems like these:

  • “You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” Steinbeck wrote this in reference to how the Salinas Valley felt about its paltry river. But I think this applies to education, experience, and more. At the time I read it, I thought of how the more a person travels, the more they see that their own country isn’t particularly unique or special.
  • “The direction of a big act will warp history, but probably all acts do the same in their degree, down to a stone stepped over in the path or a breath caught at sight of a pretty girl or a fingernail nicked in the garden soil.”
  • The first section in Chapter 13 is a wonderful meditation on “man and glory”. It also compares the pros and cons of collaboration and individualism. It’s good stuff. And the first part of chapter 24 has some great thoughts on aging, dying, and memories.
  • “There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.”
  • “In human affairs of danger and delicacy successful conclusion is sharply limited by hurry. So often men trip be being in a rush.”
  • “A miracle once it is familiar is no longer a miracle.” This is in reference to an electric coffeepot, but could apply to any sort of technology.

There’s lots of other good stuff in East of Eden. Perhaps the most important passage for me was this bit about storytelling:

People are interested only in themselves. If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And I here make a rule — a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting — only the deeply personal and familiar.

This made me think of my own writing at Get Rich Slowly. When I started in 2006, I was writing about getting out of debt, about being lost and searching for a path out of the darkness. Many people could relate to my story. But the more money I had, the less relatable my experience became. People could not see themselves in me, and readers drifted away. I knew this at the time, but could never put it into words. East of Eden eloquently states the idea.

Later in the book, Steinbeck has more to say about the importance of story — specifically about the stories that make up our lives. Here’s a conversation between two of his characters:

“When we were children we lived in a story that we made up. But when I grew up the story wasn’t enough. I had to have something else, because the story wasn’t true anymore.”

“Well –”

“Wait — let me get it all out. Aron didn’t grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn’t stand to have it come out any other way.”

“How about you?”

“I don’t want to know how it comes out. I only want to be there while it’s going on.”

What a lovely passage.

I think Steinbeck highlights an important divide between people. Some have written a story and they want to see it come to pass. Others are active participants, but they’re not committed to a specific ending. And still others experience the story of their lives passively. No one way is “right” — although I’d argue that passive participants allow their stories to be written by other people — but those who attempt to control the direction their life takes often end up frustrated. (They’re trying to move beyond their Circle of Influence to their Circle of Concern.)

Note: Reading this section, I was reminded of the famous opening to Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I believe we should all strive to be the heroes of our own stories, but we shouldn’t be so committed to an ending that we don’t allow the story to twist and turn in new and unexpected ways.

The key, of course, is to remember that each person is living a separate story. We’re ultimately each the protagonist in our tiny tale, but our stories intertwine to weave a greater tapestry. And in the grander scope of things, we must learn to give and take from each other.

Here’s another quote:

When you’re a child you’re the center of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people? They’re only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you’re you own shape and size. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It’s worse, but it’s much better too.

I’m gratified to have read East of Eden, and to have resumed the reading habit. I’ve already started Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (about a months-long cross-country drive similar to the one I plan to do next year), but that’s just light reading. I’d love to find another book that’s filled with a strong story and interesting ideas. I’m thinking maybe Siddartha. Any suggestions for other books I ought to read?

The Search for Meaning

Note: This article was supposed to appear on Monday, but I forgot to hit “publish” when I finished it last week. My apologies!

Shifting from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control isn’t just important for happiness, but also for making meaning in your life, for obtaining personal (and financial freedom). Freedom comes from focusing no on your Circle of Concern, but exclusively on your Circle of Influence. As long as you allow yourself to dwell on the things you can’t control, you are not free.

We’ll discuss freedom at length in the months ahead; for now, let’s take a closer look at how you can create purpose in your life.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps during World War II. The extreme suffering and harsh conditions caused many inmates to lose their will, to choose death.

To be sure, prisoners often had no control over whether or not they died. But Frankl observed, “A man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

When treated like an animal, Frankl said, a person can choose to be an animal — or she can choose to be “brave, dignified, and unselfish”. According to Frankl, the way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…add a deeper meaning to his life.”

In the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl states his thesis thus:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Frankl’s experienced served as a crucible for his theory of personality development, which he called logotherapy. Before him, Alfred Adler had argued that people possessed a Nietzschean “will to power” (more here), and Sigmund Freud had argued that we’re all motivated by a “will to pleasure” (more here). Frankl, on the other hand, believed that humans are born with a “will to meaning”, a fundamental need to find meaning in life.

The three basic tenets of logotherapy are:

  • The search for meaning is the primary motivation in each of our lives. This meaning is unique and specific to each individual. (If you’ve read me for a while, you’ll recognize hints of this in my maxim: “Do what works for you.”)
  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. What matters most isn’t the meaning of life in general, but the meaning of each person’s life in each moment.
  • Humans are self-determining. That is, we don’t just exist, but choose what our existence will be. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do and what we experience — or at least in how we respond to each situation.

Frankl’s argument that you’re always free to choose your attitude is echoed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s statement that “how we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depends on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experience”. It also echoes Johnstone’s Impro: “People with dull lives often think their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone choose more or less the kind of events that happen to them.”

Accepting responsibility for your own fate and attitudes can be uncomfortable and intimidating. There’s a kind of solace when you can attribute your situation to the winds of fate, the will of god, or the workings of the universe.

But recognizing that you’re a free agent can also be liberating. When you take matters into your own hands, you shed your fears, create your own certainty, and discover that you’re freer than you ever imagined possible.