“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why" - Mark Twain
At some point or another, most every one of us wished that we knew something when we were younger that we only figured out too late in life.
As a coach, an entrepreneur, an employer, a husband, a friend, a brother and a son, I come across common patterns from all around that keep arising when listening to other's speak about their lives and more importantly, about the choices they've made and the level of fulfillment they've achieved. It seems as though too many people make decisions in life without aligning them with their values and strengths and as such, put themselves in situations they wish they could change.
I've found that there are five simple yet deeply explorative questions that you can ask yourself to gain awareness, clarity and direction in your life as well as shed some light on your behavioral pitfalls. This exercise should help you define who you are and who you will become. It should give you insight into the reasoning behind all your decisions and the paths you'll choose moving forward.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
Here are some basic guidelines that will help you get the most out of this exercise.
Pick a quiet space for some alone time. Consider focusing on one question per day or per week and repeat the exercises as needed. Take your time when reflecting and answering the questions. Be brutally honest with yourself. Write down your thoughts and answers. I've learned that you will get so much more out of it if you sit down and let your thoughts run through your fingertips so Write. It. Down.
Let's get started!
Step #1. Where Are You Coming From?
What's your story? This question refers to your life, your past experiences, your victories and your failures. Write down your story in point form and include everything you can think of that defined your life right up until today. You can use the following questions to get you started:
Q: Which moments in your life have helped shape and define you?
Q: What were your biggest challenges?
Q: What were your biggest successes?
Q: What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Q: What have you learned about yourself?
Q: What do you value and how are your needs evolving with time?
Q: What can you say about your personality?
Q: What do others say about your personality?
Q: If you were to describe your life as a movie, how would it go?
Q: If life were a book, what would be the title of the book? What would be the titles of each chapter?
Step #2. Where Are You Now?
This question is an inventory check and should give you a snapshot of your current status and a bird's-eye view of your life. It's an introspection on who you have become and where you stand this very moment.
One simple way to get an instant snapshot is to take this Balance Check exercise.
For each of the following categories, mark down a grade from 1 to 10. You may add or remove categories and tailor this list to match your reality. Be careful not to remove anything simply because it is unfulfilled. These items are there for a reason.
Score these basic categories:
Money: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Health: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Career: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Love: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Home: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Family: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Friends: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Leisure: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Spirituality: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Q: Based on your scores, in which areas do you need improvement?
Now that you've scored these categories, hopefully it will have added some clarity on the areas that require growth.
Once you've completed this step, take a moment to reflect on everything you've learned so far. When everything has sunk in and you're ready to move ahead, put aside some time and answer this following question:
Q: If you were to die today, what would your eulogy say?
Step #3. Where Do You Want To Go?
This is where the fun begins and you can let your imagination run wild. This is a goal setting exercise and is not meant to be a question on material possessions though it can be if that is what you value more than anything. The exercise is more geared towards what you want out of life. If money does not buy you happiness, as the saying goes, then it surely can't buy you fulfillment.
Based on the previous Balance Check exercise, reflect on each aspect of your life. Make a list of all the elements you'd like to improve and create the absolute best picture you can dream of. List as many goals as you can. Start with the small stuff and work your way up to the most incredible dreams you would like to fulfill.
If you have a hard time imagining a better life, if you question your abilities to overcome the challenges or if you feel discouraged, try asking yourself the following question:
Q: If you absolutely knew you couldn't fail, what would you do with your life?
Q: In contrast to the previous exercise on what your eulogy would say if you were to die today, now ask yourself what would you want your eulogy to say if you died today? This should help define your goals, your purpose and set the direction you need to be heading in.
The importance of S.M.A.R.T. goal setting
This refers to the idea that your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and Time-Bound. Be sure to set goals that are not so far fetched that you will never achieve them. This is a tricky step because no one should tell you what you can and cannot achieve, let alone set limitations for you. However, there is a link between your passions, skill-set and capabilities and your ability to reach your potential. An extreme example would be a 60 year old man with no relevant background who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Though it is important to set yourself the highest goals imaginable, it is always a good idea to remain in a realistic frame of mind. Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals increases the probability of achieving the desired end result.
Step #4. WHY Do You Want To Get There?
This is the single most important question you'll ever ask yourself throughout your lifetime when making life choices. It's the glue that makes it all stick together and ensures that you are on the right path, YOUR path.
The WHY is your values and your intentions. It's your raison d'être. It's the engine that will keep you going when the going gets though. It's what defines you in your journey. It's what gives you purpose. It's your motivation behind the decision. Think of every great leader in the history of mankind and you can clearly see their WHY in action.
It is absolutely necessary to identify the WHY associated with your choices in order to maximize the potential of making successful, meaningful and fulfilling life choices. Common samples of pitfalls could include choosing a job or career path for money, for instance, can leave you unsatisfied once the charm of the paycheck wears thin. Similarly, selecting a significant other based on superficial observations will have a higher probability of failure as the years roll on. It is not a coincidence that we live in a society where the divorce rate has breached the 50% mark and countless professionals wish they'd be doing something else with their lives.
The Hedonic Treadmill or Hedonic Adaptation is the perfect reasoning behind this concept. It says that as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness (source: Wikipedia). In short, just like the resale value of that new car you drive off the lot, the fulfillment you get from material gains has a sharp decay once you've attained it.
For each life choice use the following questions as guidelines:
Q: Why do you want to achieve this goal?
Q: How does this decision line up with your values?
Q: How will you grow by choosing this direction?
Q: How does this goal affect the big picture?
Once you've energized your goals and ambitions with your WHY, everything else will unfold with ease and you will feel like you're on a golden path paved just for you. All that will remain is some elbow grease for the assembly of your dreams. This is not to say that growth is easy, but it sure helps when you're taking the right road to your destination rather than long detours that may set you off course for years or even a lifetime.
Steps 1 through 4 are really the foundation on which you'll build your life around.
Once you know where you are, what your goals are and most importantly, why you want to achieve them, the next step is to fill in the gaps between where you are and where you want to be.
Step #5. How Will You Get There?
This is the No-Shit-Sherlock part of the exercise where many will roll their eyes and say "OK, now what?" The simple truth is that if you've followed the steps above with absolute honesty, detail and you've set S.M.A.R.T. goals, the rest should be a matter of brainstorming, planning, strategizing, budgeting, networking, executing and of course, growing.
Growth is a process and doesn't happen overnight. It is the journey you will have to commit to and consistently work towards on a daily basis. If the thought of the workload required seems daunting, try breaking it down to small baby steps that you can tackle each day until you've reached your goals.
In this step, you'll explore your resources, your network, your financial means, your skill-sets, opportunities and limitations. It is not uncommon to find yourself stuck in this phase.
If so, use these questions to get your started:
Q: What are your opportunities and limitations?
Q: What do you need to attain your goals?
Q: What resources do you have available to you?
Q: Who can you speak with to help guide or mentor you?
Q: Are you qualified and do you need special training?
Q: In what areas do you need to grow in order to achieve your goals?
Q: What else needs to be explored?
There is no such thing as a silver bullet in the quest for more fulfillment. It remains a highly personal journey and you are responsible for every choice and outcome that shapes and defines your life.
It is my belief that there is a direct connection between finding your passion and living a fulfilling life. I truly hope that these simple steps will inch you towards making the best choices you can possibly make and lead you down a life filled with adventure and void of regret.