When people reflect upon accomplishing goals, living in a way that’s fruitful, and creating a meaningful life, what often comes up regarding such pursuits is the notion of developing habits that in the long run help individuals achieve such milestones in their journeys. James Sire’s book, Habits of Mind, addresses the kind of habits required to pursue what he recognizes for himself as a calling to the intellectual life as a Christian. He describes what he designates as the intellectual virtues and the intellectual disciplines.
What I want to discuss in this blog article is more of a general and wider frame of reference regarding how people might think about and then pursue their paths toward what they hope to be a well-lived life. What I’ve recognized in working with clients over the years, as well as in myself, is the human tendency to want to expend the least amount of effort as possible to obtain what one hopes to achieve. Though that’s not all a bad thing – such a mindset has led to the development of technologies that allow us to accomplish more in less time – this inherent tendency can also lead to some bad habits. In talking with people about the notion of moving from A to B, what I see is that they want to be at B without having to do the nitty-gritty work it takes to cross that nether land between A and B. They simply want to be there – now. Whether it is educational institutions, businesses of all sizes, or sports training, one critical comment that appears to be a common denominator from those who head up these institutions is that people deplore delayed gratification. The old adage, you reap what you sow, is still an uncomfortable reflection for many of us. Indeed, it can be a scary proposition for more than a few people out there. Sowing well leads to wisdom, but it’s done through consistency and in time. Unfortunately, most definitions one reads about wisdom appear to equate it with learning, knowledge, and erudition. But I believe the Biblical books of the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes get it right when they speak of wisdom being the application of learning and knowledge to the living of life in ways that lead to fulfillment.
So what are some general habits of the mind we can develop that will help us sow for the kind of harvest we hope to bring home?
Honing Your Craft
My mom worked as a nurse for over thirty years. She wanted to be the best nurse she could possibly become. That attitude led her to work in the emergency rooms of hospitals for most of her career. She said working in such a setting made her not only stay on top of her knowledge and skills, but it also showed her she needed to constantly hone her skills. Are you an accountant? Do you write code? Are you a chef? Do you own and run a business? Anyone knows that these types of work call for constantly staying on top of your skills, whether it requires dealing with accounting law, keeping up to snuff with computer programming languages, or knowing the market for a particular business. In fact honing one’s skills is requirement for a good work ethic for any type of work. Musicians, painters, writers, and other types of artists know this all too well. And it is true for any work we pursue, even that job that might be a stepping stone to somewhere else. Learn to do it well and right.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, proffers the 10K rule. Gladwell believes one must pour ten thousand hours into developing a skill to achieve what he calls greatness. Both Gladwell and Cal New Port, who authored So Good They Can’t Ignore You, emphasized that developing skills is not merely putting in the time, but it’s also about how one puts in the time. Practice and practicing well is the key. And good practice requires feedback mechanisms to let you know how well you’re doing at something and whether or not you’re getting better at it. Whether one is going after greatness, or just simply trying to be good at what one pursues, the idea of constantly developing one’s skills and efficiency will serve a person throughout life. Whatever you are doing, whether it’s in the pursuit of a particular career, or whether it’s that first gig you land, learning and continually developing the skills it takes to do what you do is a key to fulfilling work, be it a career or hobby. It’s a simple mindset that if something is to be done, do it well. This habit of mind will put you in good stead throughout your life.
A Stitch In Time
The notion of being slow at something is not necessarily one that’s high on people’s list. Slowness brings about images of someone who can’t manage things. We’re into speed these days, quickness and getting somewhere first. I’m not anti-competition at all, and there is nothing wrong with getting to a mark before others. The notion, however, of slow but steady progress doesn’t describe lethargy; it describes patience, consistency, and sticktoitiveness. This takes us back to the notion of delayed gratification. There is no doubt that we want to get places in a hurry, and that includes reaching our goals. But skills and good work do not develop overnight. Sometime back, I decided I wanted to pick up on my study of Koine Greek, the common ancient Greek in which the Bible was written, as well as other ancient letters and treatises. I got so far and then I quit. Recently I’ve picked it back up again. But the first time I decided to revisit this study was late 2007 or early 2008. That was ten years ago. I don’t even like to think about how well I might be doing in this language if I had stayed consistent with it. Moreover, the first time I began my study in Greek was over thirty-five years ago. I for sure don’t want to think about what I might be doing with the language had I remained consistent at it all these years. If I truly wanted to develop the skill, such passage of time is called a waste. And there’s no reason to shy away from that assessment because I do wish I had been more consistent with my study.
A patient hand speaks not only to consistency, but also to the idea of delayed gratification. Think about moving from A to B again. B looks great, a wonderful place to be standing, and a place that requires a magnificent set of skills. But there’s no leaping over the ground that lies between A and B. A lot of people want to be at B, but they don’t want to walk the ground between A and B, the nitty-gritty, nasty work called taking your time to develop and build your knowledge, skills, and wisdom. When you think of the notion that individuals want to be viewed and known as really good at what they do, but they don’t want to take the time to make it so, then you can readily see that we’re getting into some immature thinking here. I’ve been there; I’ve done it. Many good things in life come about only in time. It’s a hard lesson to learn many times, but learning it creates a habit of mind that will keep you working steady and consistent toward whatever it is you might want to achieve.
He Who Hesitates . . .
Curiosity may have killed the cat; but hesitation lost the rat.
Starting on your journey toward a fulfilling life requires some amount of planning. Good planning is wise. It can save you that stitch in time. But another phenomenon I recognize in working with people over the years is what I call the freeze zone. People looking to take risks naturally want to know if the risks they take are going to pay off in some way. There are two types of action (or inaction), however, whereby people become stuck in the starting gate with the possibility of never starting their journey.
First, people can plan, but then they plan, and they plan, and again they plan some more. One is reminded of the old adage about getting all your ducks in a row before stepping out onto a venture. Though planning and getting things in order are definitely good and wise things to do, there’s a point where one has to say – it’s time to step out. There’s no way to line up every duck, no way to know every contingency, and no way to perfectly predict how everything is going to pan out. This may sound the exact opposite of the need for patience I discussed above, but it’s not. Patience comes once you’re on your journey. But you have to begin the journey. Yes, planning takes time also. It can especially be time well spent. But in taking on a life journey, no one can own the picture frame that portrays and spells out the beginning from the end. The over planner who spends an inordinate amount of time lining up all his ducks is simply evidencing a fear and aversion to risks.
Second, and closely tied to the first, I’ve witnessed the tendency of individuals to pull on others for a guarantee. Someone tell me (promise me, guarantee me) that everything is going to work out all right. The pull can be very strong, especially if it’s a good friend or a family member. Without said guarantee, some people will simply not step out and take the risk. It’s a fool’s play if you offer people any inkling of guarantee. First of all, you don’t know any more than they do how things will turn out. And secondly, if you’ve comforted someone with any level of a guarantee, guess who is going to get the blame if things fold? Encourage them, yes. But don’t offer a guarantee. The best one can do is plan wisely, do the research, get feedback on how realistic the venture is, act accordingly, and step out there. Plan, but don’t hesitate too long.
There’s a difference between stepping out after wise planning and simply throwing caution to the wind without an idea of a plan. One skill to hone for certain in pursuing a fulfilling life is wise planning. But the starting gun has to fire. And don’t call on others to promise you what they can’t possibly offer. It’s a habit of mind that will allow you to get out of the starting gates with some solid direction, which is much better than no direction at all.
There are many other habits of mind that one can develop in pursuing a life of fulfillment. Reading and reflecting on Sire’s intellectual virtues and intellectual disciplines is a good starting point.
Embracing your own freedom of choice and responsibility is another habit of mind to get into. In so doing, when things get tough, and there are some down times and sink holes, you’ll be less likely to play the blame game.
A tendency we have as human beings is to deceive ourselves. Self-deception can be a deadly trap into which to fall. First, self-deception is somewhat out of our awareness at times. On one level we know we’re not being honest with ourselves, but on another level, we’re suppressing the fact that there are things we need to know and do, but we’re not doing them, and we’re not obtaining the necessary knowledge we need for a smoother ride. Pursuing a fulfilling life is not an easy ride in the first place, so there’s no reason to make it rougher than it is.
Feedback from others is a good way to combat self-deception. But not just any feedback will do. Get it from people whom you trust, people you know who will be honest with you, and people who are skilled in those areas where you want to be skilled.
The challenging but truthful adage is always before us. If you want to bring in the sheaves of a well-planted and ripe harvest, you must embrace the truth that you reap what you sow.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/April 14th, 2018