Audio Blog, 12:56
I read an interesting article recently in the British press that reported on a “life satisfaction and happiness” study from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS). The conclusion was that middle-aged people (40-59) are the least happy and satisfied, while the most happy and satisfied groups were the very young (16-19) or very old (65+).
This is an interesting conclusion, and it is consistent with what I have observed over the years. After all, the enthusiasm, optimism, energy and general good health of most 16-19 year olds create the conditions that are conducive to happiness! It also makes sense that absent of any health related issues or poor financial planning, the average retiree on the golf course or enjoying a fabulous Viking River Cruise would have reason to be happy and satisfied!
However, why are middle-aged folks at the bottom of the happiness and life satisfaction chart? After all, members of this age group are mature, “comfortable in their own skin”, established in their careers, financially stable, and blessed with children. The study’s rationale for their relative misery blames the financial obligations, family responsibilities and work demands consistent with middle age. But…I believe there is something deeper going on.
Too many middle-aged folks are not living lives consistent with their core personality. To quote Shakespeare, “This above all: to thine own self be true”.
Let me explain with a typical story I have heard many times about the progression from youth to middle age.
“Mike” is the accomplished high school student, filled with unbridled optimism about the future. His capacity for high expectations, tremendous energy levels and openness to new opportunities is unmatched. However, he has no idea about who he will become, or what subject he will major in, and more importantly, his long-term career objectives. So, he just focuses on getting into a top university, without a real purpose outside of taking the next step.
He is admitted into a fine institution, and his family celebrates, and commends him on taking the right step. His college years are enjoyable, filled with friendships, new adventures and plenty of excellent career opportunities. Meanwhile, he is still wrestling with the fundamental question: “who I am going to become?” Upon graduation, his well meaning family, friends and counselors encourage him to embark on the path of a prestigious and well-paid job, maybe in consulting. So the impressive young lad takes a job that is very respectable, but it does not stir his natural interests and capitalize on his strengths.
Over the years, he continues to work hard and reach senior levels at work, and even takes on the responsibility of a family. At 40 years of age, with a distinguished track record at work, significant financial stability, and happy and healthy family members, he wakes up one day…looks in the mirror, and is absolutely puzzled why he is unhappy and unsatisfied.
The unhappiness begins to bleed over into his important relationships, and deteriorates his health because he is no longer motivated for fitness activity. Ultimately, he decides that it is too complicated and disruptive to follow his dreams, and simply settles for less and accepts mediocrity. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Unfortunately, variations of this story are far too frequent in the middle-aged demographic. Father Time just sneaks up on people. Perform your own little survey: Ask someone in this demographic what they would do differently if they could get back to their pre-college youth.
Therefore, the issue that I want to address in this post is the following: If you are a “Millennial”, how can you improve your odds of living a self-fulfilling life?
Well, it comes down to these two simple, but difficult to answer questions:
What are my natural strengths?
What are my natural interests?
Some disagree with my recommendation to focus on strengths and interests, and believe that early on in your life, you should pursue opportunities that improve on your weaknesses. I believe this is a terrible strategy. The world is much too competitive to lead with your weaknesses. Remember, as you are working on improving your weak attributes, the peer next to you will be honing her strong attributes. It is just common sense. How do you think that scenario will end? Probably with you looking for a better “job fit”. You must work on improving weaknesses in your spare time, and not as the centerpiece of your life plan.
Let’s say “Jane” has an excellent analytical brain and has been interested in constructing things since she was a child. However, her weakness is a fear of public speaking. Surely, she should avoid professions that prioritize oratorical prowess, and focus on her more natural strengths. Should she work on her weak public speaking skills? Of course. She could improve her overall capacity to succeed by joining a Toastmasters/Speech club in her free time, for example, but it would be unwise for her to pursue a position in fields such as sales or marketing.
How do you really approach answering these two important questions? Well, you must spend a significant amount of your time, early in life, thinking about it.
Turn off your phone, find a quiet place (maybe a nice mountain view in the photo above), get your favorite drink and relax…
Now, think back from your earliest memories in childhood. What emerges as your natural strengths? Remember, you don’t have to be “better” than everybody else in this area, but relative to your own strengths, what are your best? Some people can figure this out in one session, and others it may take years of self-study. Stay focused on this question for as long as it takes until you are confident with your conclusion.
The bottom line is that you cannot reach self-fulfillment if you are not spending the majority of your time engaging in endeavors that prioritize your natural strengths. I work as a corporate securities salesman on a trading floor. My job is to build relationships with global investors in order to help them accomplish their investment goals. It requires people skills, and a direct interest in building new relationships. But you know what is funny? So many candidates come into interviews for this job that have other brilliant attributes, but horrible interpersonal skills, and minimal personal knowledge of college classmates or study group partners.
Regarding the process to identify your interests, ask yourself, “Are there areas that I have always been fascinated with, and was willing to spend time learning about even when it was not required for school, work or to satisfy my parents”? Most people have a history of interests…going back to the early days. I bet you already know what they are…
A significant personal challenge, after this moment of self-analysis, is accepting your actual strength as opposed to your “desired” strength. Simply put, your self-analysis may not produce the outcome you expected, but if you are true to yourself, you will accept the answer and set your life course based on the most natural strength(s). Remember, you may have multiple strengths, and they may be complementary.
Now, let’s say you have followed my basic exercise, and after figuring out the two foundations of your bright future, you decide you are going to run out and tell everyone in your life about your discovery. I like this enthusiasm, because it shows your confidence and commitment to “run your own race”, but be realistic. This discovery may not be consistent with the expectations that others have for you, and they may unintentionally “rain on your parade”!
Let’s say the parents of the college student want her to become a lawyer, but she decides that she would rather pursue cyber-security because of her life long fascination with the evolving technology and her core strength in understanding computers/networks. Of course they may actually be disappointed with her decision. She may feel like she has let them down, and decides to submit to her well-meaning parents’ expectations, and follows their plan. Will she be more or less likely to be happy in twenty years?
Now, I certainly don’t want to sound negative, but I do want to be candid. If you don’t figure out these two questions early on, you will likely “stumble” through life pleasing everyone else but yourself, sort of a like a leaf blowing in the wind. You will likely end up less fulfilled and satisfied than you are capable of becoming.
Moreover, if you decide later in life to make a change it is still a good thing, but often frustrating. It may be very difficult to embark on the deep change necessary, due to financial obligations, family responsibilities and the institutional bias towards “training an old dog to do new tricks”. That being said, it is never too late to pursue an occupation or lifestyle that is more aligned with your true self. Joy Behar, who holds a Masters degree in Education, left her teaching career in her 40s to pursue her lifelong interest and comedic talent in the entertainment business.
If at a young age, you decide to allow these discoveries to set the course of your life, you will wake up every morning with zip in your step, pursuing a life’s work that is consistent with who you really are, not who others want you to be. You will be productive, happy and engaged, and your light will shine brightly for those around you to see!
My good friend, Jonathan Fleming of WOW Taekwondo http://wowtaekwondo.com, is the perfect example of self-awareness leading to a happy and productive life. Throughout his life, he has been a very talented martial artist, and a champion in sparring. He also had a passion for using martial arts as a mechanism for developing young people physically, mentally and emotionally for life’s endeavors.
My wife and I met Jonathan when he was nineteen years old and a promising young instructor working at another studio. We were impressed with his positive energy, spirit for life, enthusiasm, and absolute focus on pursuing excellence. When the students were training, he had the unique ability to lift them up emotionally, while exhausting them physically. The students were “happy and sweaty”.
Jonathan attended a bit of college and tried to develop an interest in the traditional job market. However, deep down inside, he knew his path should be to own his own studio. In his mid twenties, we helped Jonathan and Marelet launch a studio with only a few students, but they now have over 250+ students! He is living a happy and productive life; true to himself. The community is better off, because those 250+ students have the capacity to positively impact so many more people as they go through life.
If you develop the courage to pursue ambitious goals that are consistent with your strengths and interests, the future will be bright, and you will achieve a level of satisfaction and happiness commensurate with your youthful expectations.