I’m Not Unhappy, I’m Just Leveling Up

angry-312142_1280A few weeks ago, I was working on a blog post, and I asked my wife to take a look at it before I published it. As she read it, she noted how my writing made it sound like I was unhappy with my life.

In fact, it’s not the first time someone has said that to me. I guess there are elements in my blog posts that give the impression that I’m not happy with my life (I’m sure that writing about my frustrations a few weeks ago probably didn’t help at all).

But that’s definitely not the case.

And I want to set the record straight.

For the Record

When I started this blog a few months ago, my primary goal was (and continues to be) to help others find ways to improve their lives.

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly, you know that I’ve been doing research, and teaching a class, on the psychology of passion for the past few years. Since all of this started, my students have been telling me that I need to find a way to get this information out to others. Many have told me that learning about passion has been life-changing and that others would likely benefit from hearing about it, too.

So, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided to start a blog that focused on passion and related topics. Ultimately, I thought that writing blog posts might be the fastest way to reach the widest possible audience (which is my real goal).

But I also thought that using my blog as a personal development tool might also be a good idea (as other blog authors have done; for examples, see here and here and here). I could try things on myself and then write about them.

And I could tell others about my personal experiences in hopes that some of what I write about might resonate with others and prompt them to make changes in their lives, too.

Because, ultimately, here’s what I think:

I think there are a lot of people out there who want to make changes in their lives.

My students. My friends. My colleagues. (I know, because they’ve told me.)

Some want to make small changes; others want to make big changes. But either way, they want to do things a little differently.

In short, they want to level up.

Leveling Up

I initially encountered this phrase on the website NerdFitness (which is where I first read about the Paleo diet that I follow today). The tagline on its home page read, “Level Up Your Life.”

leveling upAs I found out later, “leveling up” is a video game reference. It means that a player has earned enough points to acquire a new set of skills (or get a new weapon or move to a new location, etc.). Ultimately, having these new skills means that the player can now do things that will improve his or her performance in some way.

And that’s ultimately what I’m going for in my life right now: a little leveling up.

But let me make one thing clear: I am not trying to level up because I’m unhappy.

Not all all.

In fact, as I’ve written previously, I have many things to be grateful for.

An amazing family. Great friends. Good colleagues. A career that I’ve worked hard for and that’s going very well. Many wonderful students. Good health (even though I could stand to lose a few pounds). The best dog in the world.

So why, then, I am I trying to level up?

Simply because I know that I’m capable of more.

I know I can be a better husband and dad. I know I can be a better son and brother. I know I can improve my health. I know I can be a better friend. I know I can have a bigger influence on others than I’m having right now. I know I can be a better writer. I know I can be a better teacher. I know I can play guitar in a band. I know I can find better work-life balance (even though I’ve improved 100% over the last few years).

In short, I know I can be the hero in my own movie.

And most likely, that’s what’s coming across in my writing.

Not unhappiness. Not frustration. Not anger. Not despair. Not regret.

Just a real desire to be better than I am right now.

Just a real craving to level up.

Plateauing: The Hot New Trend

In fact, while I was thinking about this blog post, I was reminded of an article I saw some time ago in the satirical online magazine, The Onion.

The title of the article was, “Alarming New Adult Trend ‘Plateauing In Your Career And Relationship’ Sweeps Nation.”

The first couple of paragraphs read as follows:

“A hot new trend sweeping the country’s adult population has turned into a nationwide sensation, sources confirm, but many experts say the burgeoning grown-up fad may be a cause for significant concern.

It’s called ‘plateauing in your career and relationship,’ and it involves adult men and women hitting a wall in their professional and romantic lives and doing absolutely nothing to reinvigorate them.”

And later on in the article:

“Data from the investigation helped shed light on the possible motives for the massively popular but disturbing trend, which include the fact that it’s just easier this way and that moving forward at work and in relationships requires motivation, foresight, and planning, and that’s hard—especially as time goes on and the years start to add up and it’s just hard to find the energy anymore.”

And finally:

“Sources confirmed that plateauing in your career and relationship is merely the latest fad to grip adults in recent years, following on the heels of popular trends such as giving up on your dream of writing a novel, having kids because it’s a box to check, and gradually feeling alienated in your own body after steady weight gain.”

As amusing as the article is, I think it also makes a very strong point: We all have busy lives, and it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day.

We get the kids ready for school. We go to work. We eat dinner with our families. We watch TV or read a book or surf the Web for funny videos. We get the kids ready for bed. We (try to) get plenty of sleep. We ______ [fill in the blank for your life].

And, for the most part, we really enjoy these things.

We’re content. We’re happy.

Contentment Without Plateauing

plateauBut in the midst of our contentment, we fail to notice the plateau (or at least it doesn’t bother us enough to pay much attention to it).

Or if we do notice it, we think that’s all there is—we think we’ve reached our peaks.

But here’s the reality: We can always keep leveling up; we can always keep acquiring new skills or trying new things that can improve our lives in some potentially meaningful way.

Moreover, although it may seem counterintuitive, contentment and happiness are not antithetical to change.

Personally, I think we can be content while still growing. I think we can be happy with where we are while still striving to push past that plateau toward a better future.

And that’s where I am. And that’s what my blog is all about.

So now you know.

 

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Chasing BHAGs: How to Crush Your Biggest Goals

BHAGs-page-001

In my last post, I spent some time introducing the idea of BHAGs, or Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

To reiterate, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their classic business book, Built to Last, introduced the “BHAG” and defined it as “an audacious 10-to-30-year goal” that helps a business “progress towards an envisioned future.”

Examples of BHAGs applied to business include (taken from here):

Becoming a $125 billion company by the year 2000 (Walmart, 1990)

Crushing Adidas (Nike, 1960)

Transforming this company from a chemical manufacturer into one of the preeminent drug-making companies in the world (Merck, 1930)

Although Collins and Porras discussed BHAGs from a business perspective, this idea can apply just as easily to the realm of personal development (which is one focus of my blog).

Your personal timeline may not stretch on for 10 or more years like Collins and Porras and suggested, but the basic elements remain:

BHAGs are longer-term goals that are personally important, challenging, and risky. They are emotionally compelling and provide us with a laser-like focus that allows us to ignore the trivial.

Most importantly, when identified carefully and chased with dogged determination, BHAGs have the ability to produce monumental changes—which is why I think each of us should have these goals in our lives.

In this post, I want to discuss some steps we can take to increase the chances that we will reach our BHAGs, thus producing the kinds of changes we truly want to see in our lives.

1. Clearly Define Your BHAG

One of the biggest mistakes people make when setting goals of any type is defining them too ambiguously.

For instance, imagine you want to get in shape. What exactly does “getting in shape” mean? Does it mean losing 10 pounds? Fifty pounds? Maybe it means getting your bodyfat percentage down to 15%. Maybe it means running a marathon in under 4 hours. Or maybe it’s some combination of these.

Whatever your particular BHAG is, you need to be able to define it clearly. And the way to do this is by defining it so that you can easily measure it.

If you (or someone else) can’t determine exactly what it will look like when you’ve met your goal, then you haven’t defined it clearly enough.

For example, I can’t easily measure “getting in shape,” but I can measure my weight. Similarly, I can’t measure “having a successful business,” but I can measure how many return customers I have each month or what my net income is.

Ultimately, the more precisely you define your BHAG, the easier it will be to measure your progress as you work toward your goal.

2. Give Your BHAG a Deadline

Regardless of what your particular BHAG is—losing weight, starting a business, being in a successful band, or anything else—adding a deadline creates a sense of urgency that motivates you to take action immediately.

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Again, imagine that I want to weigh 200 pounds (which I do). I could give myself a deadline of 10 years to reach that goal. And with very few changes to my current lifestyle, I could probably reach it without much work or without much risk of failure.

But it’s also unlikely that this goal would do much to get me off the couch. If I have 10 years to reach it, what’s the rush?

(Can someone please pass me the Doritos? I promise I’ll start tomorrow.)

On the other hand, when I place a deadline on my goal—for example, weighing 200 pounds by my 10th wedding anniversary (July 22, 2016)—I now have a reason to get moving right away: If I don’t, I won’t reach my goal!

In addition, the deadline for a true BHAG needs to be one that challenges you and increases the chances that you may not reach it. Remember, to increase your motivation, Collins suggested that you should have a 40% chance of failing.

So, if I think I can meet my weight-loss goals in a year, then why not 11 months? What about 9 months?

Create a deadline that’ll push you, one that’ll get you fired up to start moving today. As Napoleon Hill said, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.”

3. Reverse Engineer Your BHAG

At its core, reverse engineering entails taking something apart and identifying its parts. By identifying how something is constructed, we can then figure out how to put it back together and produce the same results over and over.

The same process can be applied to goal setting. By identifying what “goes into” completing a goal, we have a better idea of what we need to do to get there.

There are at least two different ways you can think about reverse engineering your BHAGs.

First, depending on your goal, you may need to figure out exactly what steps you’ll need to take to reach it.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and have no idea how to do that, your first step might be seeking out information on how to lose weight safely and effectively. You might then need to take the next steps of implementing a nutrition program, constructing an exercise regimen, gathering social support to keep you on track, and so on (see here for information on the nutrition and exercise program I’m currently following).

When you do this, you take your challenging, risky, seemingly insurmountable BHAG, and you break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. Then, by tackling each part in sequence, you progress toward your larger goal.

The second way to reverse engineer (which takes into account your BHAG deadline) is to look at your timeline and determine exactly when you should be at a particular point.

So, for example, if your goal is to lose 50 pounds over the next year, you could calculate exactly how many pounds you’ll need to lose each month (or each week) to stay on course. At the 3-month mark, for instance, you’ll know that you should’ve lost about 12 pounds. Depending on your progress, you’ll know whether you can “stay the course” or whether you’ll need to experiment a little (see below).

Finally, it’s important to note that these two types of reverse engineering are not mutually exclusive. Pursuing a weight loss goal might require me to to use both: figuring out what steps I need to take to achieve my BHAG and when I need to take them to stay on track.

4. Set Short-Term SMART Goals

Although BHAGs are emotionally compelling and motivate us to act, they are nevertheless “far away,” occurring at some point in the future. And, unfortunately, as much psychological research has shown, outcomes that occur in the future fall prey to a phenomenon known as delay discounting.

The basic idea behind delay discounting is that a reward loses psychological value the longer you have to wait for it.

For instance, if I ask you to choose between getting $100 right now and $200 in 5 years, you, like most people, will probably take the $100. Although $200 is more money than $100, adding a delay of 5 years to the $200 option reduces its psychological value to the point where it’s actually worth less than the $100 option (and we choose based on psychological value).

The same is true when we set BHAGs for ourselves. Because these goals take time to complete, they sometimes lose their ability to motivate us, especially when they are still far away. I may want to lose weight very badly, but when confronted with a choice between reaching my goal weight (which may take months) and eating a piece of chocolate cake (which I can have right now), I’m likely to choose the cake. Because the cake is immediately available, it has more “value” to me right now.

The way to alleviate this conundrum is to set short-term goals that bridge the gap between where you are now and your BHAG. And specifically, these short-term goals should be SMART goals:

SMART goals-page-001

Specific: Just like your BHAG, your short-term goals need to be specific. Know exactly what your short-term goal will look like when you reach it.

Measurable: Also like your BHAG, you need to be able to measure your short-term goals. Importantly, frequent measuring allows you to get consistent feedback on your progress, which, as Latham and Locke have found, is important for goal-setting success.

Action-Oriented: Whereas your BHAG often focuses on a result (“I want to lose 50 pounds.”), your short-term goals should focus on the behaviors, or actions, that will ultimately get you to your BHAG. For example, if I’m trying to lose a certain amount of weight over the next year (my BHAG), my short-term goals for the next month might include the actions of “lifting weights for 30 minutes 3 times per week,” “walking for 30 minutes twice per week,” and “eating a Paleo diet 6 days per week.”

Realistic: Your short-term goals should be challenging but also realistic. If, for instance, you’ve never gone jogging before, you may want to start exercising with a relatively easy 5-minute run. Try to do a bit more than you’ve done previously, but don’t be unrealistic.

Time-Based: As with BHAGs, your short-term goals should have deadlines attached to them. Reverse engineer your BHAG and attach specific deadlines to each step.

5. Publicly Commit to Your BHAG

megaphone-150254_1280As psychologist Robert Epstein discusses in his great little book, Self-Help Without the Hype, one of the keys to effective self-change is making a public commitment. Tell others about your goals: Post your BHAG on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram (or however else you want to make them public). Let others cheer you on as you pursue your sub-goals. You might even consider creating a behavioral contract with one of your friends.

Effective Goal Setting: Some Additional Recommendations

In addition to the preceding 5 steps, which typically occur as you plan your course of action, there are three other things you should do as you pursue your BHAGs.

1. Visualize: Take a few minutes each day to visualize how you will pursue your goals and what it will look like when you achieve them. A solid body of research has shown that visualization produces numerous positive effects. (For a nice popular press article on visualization, see here.)

2. Reward your progress: As you complete your short-term goals, be sure to reward your progress. These short-term rewards help “bridge the gap” between where you are now and the ultimate reward you’re seeking: your BHAG. As an example, if I complete 6 days of Paleo eating in a week, I let myself have a “free” day where I can eat what I want. Doing this keeps me sane as I work toward my weight-loss goals. Another way to do this is by using Premack’s principle, which I’ve written about previously.

3. Experiment: Sometimes, what you think will help you achieve your goals doesn’t actually work. Or sometimes what works to begin with doesn’t work later on. When this happens, don’t be afraid to experiment, measure the results, and make changes as you go. In addition, if something doesn’t work, don’t consider it a failure. Instead, it simply means you’ve gotten closer to finding what does work. If your BHAG is important enough, you’ll have no problem getting back on track after hitting a bump in the road. (For a nice summary of how to do an effective self-experiment, see here.)

Now, Go Chase Your BHAGs

So, there you have it: a few steps you can take to increase the chances that you’ll reach your Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

Of course, there’s one important thing to keep mind as you think about creating your own BHAGs: Pursuing them isn’t going to be easy. Sometimes, in this day and age of “everything now,” we assume that things should be easy or that we should be able to get them immediately. This will not be the case as you pursue your BHAGs (and why would you want it to be?).

But the payoffs we receive from setting our BHAGs and pursuing them with dogged determination is likely to be more than worth the effort.

As my favorite doctor, Dr. Bob Kelso (from the TV sitcom Scrubs), says in the short video below, “Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy.

For a little inspiration, be sure to check it out:

 

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The Importance of Thinking (Ridiculously) Big

Dreams.jpg

“You can be anything you want to be.”

“You can do anything you want, if you just put your mind to it.”

“Work hard, and you can accomplish anything.”

If you had said these things to me a few years ago—if you had told me how important it is to “think big”—I probably would’ve chuckled at you and walked away, refusing to acknowledge your delusional comments.

I mean, take me, for example. I’m 5’9″, chubby (but working on it!), and a good 12 or so years into my 30s. I also have an egregiously short inseam and limited aerobic capacity.

Consequently, I’m probably never going to be a world-class sprinter. Or an Olympic swimmer. Or a professional basketball player. Or a college hockey player (as I wanted to be when I was younger). Or a marathoner.

Or many other things.

So, in response to exceptionally optimistic statements like, “You can be whatever you want to be!” I say, “That’s just stupid!”

Or is it?

Why Thinking (Ridiculously) Big is So Important

Over the past few years, I’ve come to think a little differently about the idea of “thinking big.”

Why have I changed my mind (and why do I think you should, too)?

Largely, because I think that placing limitations on ourselves keeps us from pursuing things we’re truly passionate about or things we think have the potential to really matter, either to ourselves or to others (or both). We say things like:

I really want to lose weight, but losing 100 pounds would be way too hard. So why should I even try? (Tell that to my good friend, Anastasia, who, over the past few years, set goals for herself, lost over 100 lbs., and ran two half marathons.)

I really want to start my own business, but I’ve never done it before. So I might as well just keep working for someone else. (Tell that to my dad, who became an entrepreneur when he was in his late 30s and turned his little, one-man operation into a very successful, multi-employee enterprise.)

I really want to get good grades, but there’s no way I could ever be an A student and get into graduate school. So why even study? (Tell that to several of my former students who started their college careers earning below-average grades, but who changed their work ethic, dramatically increased their knowledge of psychology, and eventually got into excellent graduate programs.)

I really want to play guitar in a band, but I’m not good enough. So why even practice? (I dare you to tell that to me.)

We come up with all sorts of excuses for why we can’t do it. And we convince ourselves that there’s no way we could ever reach these huge goals. So we don’t even try.

I see this a lot in my college students. For instance, many are afraid of challenging themselves and taking a really hard class, because they’re concerned about ruining their perfect GPAs. So they figure out what classes or teachers are “easy” and sign up for those instead.

As another example, I routinely teach a class on the psychology of passion. During the semester, I ask my students to read about the science of passion and to consider how they might be able to pursue their own passions.

Many of them clearly have hobbies they’re passionate about—yoga, personal training, writing, horse riding, music, and others.

But when I ask them to think about how they could possibly turn these hobbies into career opportunities (which many of them admit they would like to do), they stop short.

They respond with quiet skepticism or even outright guffaws: “I could never do that” or “I’d like to, but it would be too hard” or “I don’t think that’s a possibility” or “It’s just not practical” or “I couldn’t make any money doing that.”

They view it as an insurmountable goal, one that’s just too risky to pursue, one that’s just too big too achieve.

And so they brush off the idea before they even give it a try.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals—Otherwise Known As BHAGs

Now, to a large extent, they have a point: Big goals do seem scary, they do seem risky, and, at times, they do seem insurmountable.

In fact, that’s why Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their classic book, Built to Last, referred to these types of goals as Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGs (pronounced “BEE-hags”).

(Well-known business person Jack Welch has referred to these as “stretch” goals. But I’m going to use the term BHAGs instead, simply because it’s more fun to say. Go ahead—you know you want to say it: BEEEEE-haaaaags.)

So, let’s deconstruct BHAGs for a minute.

First, these goals are big, or really important to us (and often to others, too).

These goals are also hairy, or quite difficult to achieve.

And finally, these goals are audacious, or risky.

Geez, no wonder most people are afraid to go after BHAGs. It’s daunting to think about chasing something that’s so important to us, working really hard to achieve it, but then missing the mark.

No one likes the feeling of failing!

But let’s take a look at why Collins and Porras (and many others) have suggested that setting and pursuing BHAGs is vital to achieving success (however each of us defines that term).

Why Are BHAGs Effective?

There are at least three primary reasons.

1. BHAGs energize us.

I could, for instance, set a goal of losing either 10 lbs. or 40 lbs. over the next 3 months. Certainly, the 10-lb. goal would be much easier to accomplish, but the excitement I feel when I think about losing 40 lbs. really motivates me.

Likewise, a student could pick a few graduate programs that might be easy to get into but don’t really excite her that much. Or she could “aim high” and apply to schools that seem nearly out of reach but that would be really awesome to attend.

In each of these cases, the more exciting option is likely the one that’s going to get us moving the most. In addition, if a goal is really exciting (because it’s really important to us), we’re more likely to keep trying if we don’t get it the first—or second or third or even fourth—time around.

But just how “exciting” do BHAGs need to be?

Collins has suggested that BHAGs are ideal when we have a 40% (or so) chance of failing. We’re motivated because we have to work hard not to fail, and we’re motivated because we know that success is still a possibility if we really put our minds to it.

2. BHAGs provide laser-like focus.

Because they are important to us and create a sense of urgency, we tend to focus on what we need to do to accomplish them. Unimportant endeavors—which, if you’re like me, frequently consume much more of our valuable time than they should—ultimately take a back seat. We focus on what matters, and we largely discard the rest. (For a refresher on how to use the “80/20 principle” to identify the most important activities in your life, see here or here.)

3. BHAGs are often easier to accomplish.

When I was younger, someone told me that the prettiest girl always gets the fewest invites to the prom. This is because everyone is afraid to approach her. Given, though, that she’s getting fewer invites than others, you’re actually more likely to get a “yes” from her than from someone else.

Author and self-experimenter Tim Ferriss discussed a similar notion in his New York Times best-selling book, The 4-Hour Work Week:

“It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre . . . The collective insecurity of the world [actually] makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone else is aiming for base hits. There is just less competition for bigger goals.”

So, at least conceptually, it seems like setting and pursuing BHAGs might be a really good idea. But what does the research say?

BHAGs: Good for Motivation, Good for Satisfaction

In fact, a large body of psychological research supports the idea that BHAGs tend to be better than smaller goals for a variety of reasons.

For example, over the past 40 years, psychologists Gary Latham and Ed Locke have studied goal setting and found that challenging goals tend to increase motivation and performance relative to more easily attained goals. (For a great summary of this research, see here.)

Moreover, setting ambitious goals tends to increase satisfaction. In a series of studies, Cho and Johar found that people who set higher goals and achieved them were ultimately more satisfied with the outcome than people who set lower goals and achieved them.

Because BHAGs are, by definition, really valuable to us, we are more likely to feel satisfied as we pursue and ultimately achieve them.

And if you think about it, that makes sense: We’re probably not going to be real satisfied if we aim low and hit the mark. We’ll probably be left wondering how much more we could’ve accomplished if we had set our sights a little higher.

So, What BHAGs Are You Going to Chase?

There you have it—a few reasons why thinking (ridiculously) big and pursuing BHAGs is actually a very good way to move closer to the lives we want.

Yes, pursuing BHAGs is scary and may produce disappointment along the way. In fact, there’s even the possibility that we may not achieve the huge goals we set for ourselves.

But it’s also important to remember this: The journey we experience as we pursue our own BHAGs is bound to be incredibly rewarding in its own right. As legendary business person Jack Welch has noted:

“We have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually do the impossible; and even when we don’t quite make it, we inevitably wind up doing much better than we would have done.”

By thinking (ridiculously) big and pursuing goals that, at the outset, seem scary, risky, and nearly insurmountable, we in fact motivate ourselves to achieve outcomes that we might otherwise never achieve.

So, I guess the only question left to answer is: What BHAGs are you going to chase?

To get the ball rolling, I want to set (and openly state) my personal BHAGs:

1. Get down to 200 lbs. by the time my wife and I celebrate our 10th anniversary next year (on July 22, 2016).

2. Be in a band that plays its first show by the end of 2015.

3. Dramatically increase readership to my blog (at least 1,000 views per day) and use it to leverage other professional or business opportunities (writing, speaking engagements, etc.).

If you’re so inclined—and I challenge you to do so—think of some BHAGs you’d like to pursue and leave them in the Comments section below. Let’s get the BHAG ball rolling and see what we can achieve together.

In my next blog post, I plan to write more specifically about the steps you can take to make sure your goal-setting process produces positive outcomes.

In the mean time, let me leave you with this quote:

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Looking Backward, Looking Forward: Are You Happy With Your Choices?

Now that I’m officially “middle-aged” (according to life expectancy estimates), I’ve become a little more introspective and contemplative about my life.

I’ve been thinking more and more about what I’ve accomplished so far and what I want to accomplish in the time I have left (which, according to average estimates, is about 35 years).

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about this from two different perspectives.

Looking Backward at My 10-Year-Old Self

First, I’ve been thinking back to the time when I was about 10 years old—that time in our lives when we start thinking about what we want to “be” when we grow up. Maybe this is because I have two little boys, who are growing up much too quickly and who are already starting to talk about what they want to be when they get older.

When I watch them, I see a sense of excitement and possibility in what they think they can be. My oldest son loves horses, and there’s no doubt in his mind: He is going to be a jockey. He doesn’t want to be a jockey or hope to be a jockey. No, he is going to be a jockey. If we ask him what else he wants to do, he rolls his eyes and says, “I already told you—I’m going to be a jockey. I love riding horses!” And that’s that. He’s completely excited about it, and in his mind, there’s no other possibility.

When I was around his age, I had a similar sense of excitement and possibility. I wanted to play college hockey for the University of North Dakota, and I had a very clear vision of what it would be like.

When I got a little older (about 15 years old), my interests changed, and I decided I was going to be a musician. I played in bands for several years and loved every minute of it. My bandmates and I would talk about how we wanted to pursue careers in the music business. And that’s what we were going to do. End of story.

Somewhere along the line, though, that sense of excitement and possibility got derailed—just like, I believe, happens to a lot of people as they “grow up.” Instead of doing music, I decided to major in electrical engineering, largely because it seemed like something I was supposed to do (because I was “smart” and because doing something in music was, according to many, impossible). If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know how that turned out.

Now, 25 years later, I see the same thing in a lot of my students (and even in some colleagues and friends). They have interests and passions and dreams—often the same ones they had when they were 10 or 15 years old—that promote a very real sense of excitement and possibility.

But they choose not to pursue them, for a variety of reasons. For example:

Sometimes the dreams people have when they’re 10 or 15 years old turn out to be unrealistic when they get older. There’s a good chance, for instance, that my son might be too tall to be a jockey (given the genes that my wife and I have gifted him).

Sometimes other excellent opportunities arise, and people decide to set their dreams off to the side for awhile (which, in my opinion, is perfectly fine, as long as they don’t forget about them).

Sometimes life simply gets in the way. Unexpected obligations arise and throw people off their planned paths (which is why we all need to be flexible when we’re planning for our futures).

But as much as any of these, one reason why many people decide not to pursue their passions and dreams is because of their own (and others’) limiting beliefs about what they’re capable of accomplishing. Consider my early goal of becoming a musician. After hearing others tell me over and over again that I’d never make any money or have a “successful” career playing music, I started to believe it myself, and I eventually gave up on it (although I’m starting to chase that dream again!).

When we have doubts, we ultimately end up saying, “I can’t do that because ______.” And we find lots of ways to fill in the blank; or in other words, lots of reasons for not making the choices we really want to make.

I’ve certainly done this in different areas of my life—and I’m pretty confident I’m not the only one.

Now that I’ve entered middle age, though, I’ve started to think a lot more about the choices I’ve already made and the ones I’m likely to make in the upcoming years.

And, over and over, a question keeps popping up in my mind:

Looking backward, would my 10- or 15-year-old self be happy with the choices I’ve made?

Would that 15-year-old kid, who had so much excitement and who viewed the world with so much possibility, be happy with the path I’ve gone down?

In many cases, the answer would be a resounding “Yes!”

Choosing to change my major to psychology. Deciding to go to graduate school. Deciding to become a college professor. Asking my wife to marry me. Deciding to have kids. All of these choices were filled with excitement and possibility, even if I didn’t know how they were necessarily going to turn out.

On the other hand, I think there were some instances where my 15-year-old self wouldn’t be happy with the choices I’ve made.

If I were to travel back in time and tell my 15-year-old self that I gave up on a career in music before I even tried it, I’m pretty sure he would be disappointed. I think he’d say, “But I’m so excited! I know it’s possible. I want to give it a shot.”

Ultimately, I think this poses a very interesting question any of us can ask ourselves as we consider where we’ve been in our lives and where we want to go:

Would my 10- or 15-year-old self—with all of his [or her] dreams and desires, with all of the possibilities he saw for himself—be happy with the choices I made?

I think for many, the answer would be “No.” In my opinion, we far too often makes choices based on simplicity or on others’ expectations for us rather than on our own sense of excitement and possibility.

But if we strongly consider the answer to this question (and the reasons for it), it might be the spark we need to change things up a bit (or maybe even a lot). And that might be enough to appease our 15-year-old self.

Now, I’m not saying we should do exactly what we wanted to do when we were 10 years old. Most likely, a college hockey career is a no-go for me. But we can still ask ourselves: Are we making choices with the same sense of excitement and possibility we had when we were younger?

Ultimately, even if it’s been a long time since we were 10 or 15 years old, I still think we can find that sense of excitement and possibility that we used to have. It might take a little while to find it, but if we look hard enough, my guess is that it’s still there.

Of course, when we get to be a particular age, it may be a bit harder to pursue our dreams (because we have families and mortgages and so on). But I don’t think it’s nearly as impossible as we like to say it is.

12,254 Days and Counting

What really made me think about this idea is a book I read awhile ago called, 20,000 Days and Counting, by Robert D. Smith.

In his book, Smith notes an epiphany he had several years ago, when he realized he’d already been alive for 20,000 days (about 54 years). He noted:

“Yet even with all those days . . . I had this overwhelming feeling that I still had so much more to do. I am aware of the fragility of life, yet somehow I continue to be shocked at how rapidly the days fly by. To this point, my life has slipped past so quickly I can hardly comprehend it.”

That last part about life “slipping by” really hit me.

It becomes so easy to let the days slip by without really noticing, without really doing anything of substance, without really living the lives that we—and our 15-year-old selves—want to live.

For me, it’s amazing to consider how quickly time has flown by. For example:

It doesn’t seem that long ago that my high school hockey team won the state championship. And yet, that was over 24 years ago.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I graduated from the University of Minnesota. And yet, that was 20 years ago.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I started working on my PhD at Auburn University. And yet, that was 17 years ago.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I started my first job as a college professor. And yet, that was 13 years ago.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I got married. And yet, that was 9 years ago.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that my wife and I were expecting our first son. And yet, that was nearly 7 years ago.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that my wife and I were expecting our second son. And yet, that was just over 4 years.

And here’s the reality of it: The older you get, the faster the time seems to fly by.

In fact, for me, it’s already been 15,651 days.

Which means that if I live the lifespan of an average male (76.4 years), I only have 12,254 days left.

That’s 12,254 days to pursue all of the goals and dreams I have for myself.

(Note: If you’re interested in seeing how many days you’ve been alive, check out Robert Smith’s website. If you want to calculate the number of days you have left, subtract the number you’ve been alive from 27,905, if you’re male, or from 29,658, if you’re female. Remember that this number is based on the average life expectancy for men and women, which is 76.4 and 81.2 years, respectively.)

To some, 12,254 days may seem like a lot. But, for me, considering how quickly the first 15,000+ days flew by, it’s a big motivator. It’s simply a reminder that I don’t have forever, that my days are not limitless. It’s also a reminder that the invincibility I felt as a college student was merely an illusion.

We have a limited amount of time on earth, and if we want to pursue the dreams we have for ourselves, we shouldn’t wait another day, assuming there will be plenty of time later on.

As Loesje stated, “The longer we wait for the future, the shorter it will be.”

Looking Forward at My 70-Year-Old Self

Which takes me to the second perspective from which I’ve been thinking about my life.

Hopefully, I’m going to live for 76 years or more. Which begs the question: Am I doing things right now so that, looking forward, I know I’ll be happy with my choices? Or will I wish I had done some things differently?

Will I be able to contemplate my life and say, “At the very least, I gave it a shot?” Or will I, as the old saying goes, regret the chances I didn’t take?

Bronnie Ware, who worked as a palliative care nurse for many years and who interviewed people while they were on their deathbeds, found that people’s single biggest regret was not living a life true to themselves.

Personally, I don’t want to look back and think what might’ve been. Instead, I want to use the 12,254 days I have left to pursue my dreams with the same sense of excitement and possibility I had when I was a 10- or 15-year-old boy. And I want to move forward so that my 70-year-old self can eventually look back and say, “Now that was a good life.”

 

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I Value My Major . . . I’m Just Not Sure Why

Passion.

Most of us have a general idea of what it means to be passionate about something. We assume that it involves a high degree of love or enjoyment.

I, for instance, love playing guitar. My wife loves CrossFit. My oldest son loves horses. My youngest son loves saying “No!” whenever we ask him to do something.

So, if you assumed that loving something defines passion, you are (partially) correct. But, as Vallerand and colleagues have pointed out, simply loving something is not enough.

Technically speaking, there are two other elements to passion.

If we’re passionate about something, we spend time on it. I usually spend 1 to 2 hours a day playing guitar. Similarly, you might spend a lot of time hanging out with your family or working or listening to Taylor Swift sing about her boyfriend problems.

Of course, “spending time” on something is relative: I may be able to practice guitar for 2 hours a day, but I probably can’t travel to foreign countries that frequently (unless you’re my colleague, Matt Lee, who probably traveled to more countries last month than I’ve been to in my entire life).

Ultimately, though, people who are passionate about things make time for them.

The last element of passion is value (or importance). Being passionate about something means that we value it, or think it’s important. I value guitar playing because I love music, because it allows me to be creative, and because it often helps me unwind after a busy day.

By definition, then, I am passionate about playing guitar: I spend time on it, I love it, and I value it.

You can use the same criteria—time, love, and value—to determine whether you are passionate about different things in your life: your family, your work, your hobbies, and so on.

Harmonious and Obsessive Passion

As I’ve written previously, there are actually two different types of passion: harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

Harmonious passion is a “good” kind of passion where we feel as if we’re in control over an activity. We’re able to do the thing we’re passionate about, but we can easily set it aside when other obligations call. This kind of passion produces many psychological benefits; it also tends to enhance our performance.

In contrast, obsessive passion is a “bad” kind of passion. With this passion, we feel as if the activity controls us, which means we have a hard time pulling ourselves away from it when we need to. The feeling of being controlled creates numerous psychological problems and frequently interferes with our ability to perform at our very best.

Once again, you can get a very loose idea of whether you might be more harmoniously or obsessive passionate about something by asking yourself if you feel in control of it or whether you sometimes feel as if it controls you.

For the past couple of years, my research team has been studying passion in college students. Specifically, we’ve been studying whether students are passionate about their majors and what happens, psychologically and performance-wise, when they are (or are not).

As you might guess, we determine whether students are passionate about their majors by asking them to rate how much they spend time on, enjoy, and value them.

When we first began this line of research, I initially assumed that only a small percentage of students would be truly passionate about their chosen majors. I expected this because, in my experience, a large number of them don’t seem to enjoy their classes, studying, and so on. I also expected this because, according to recent reports, a large percentage of people feel disengaged at work—work that is often related to the majors they pursued in college.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, we’ve found that most of the students in our studies (about 60%) are passionate about their majors. In other words, these students spend a lot of time on, enjoy, and value their majors.

(It does, however, make me wonder why the other 40% of students are spending so much money to do something they don’t enjoy. But that’s for another time.)

Ever since we started this research, though, there’s one thing I’ve been curious about—one thing that we (or anyone else, as far as I know) have yet to examine.

Why Do You Value Your Major (or Job)?

I want to know why students value their majors.

When we do our studies, we ask students to tell us whether they value their majors, but we don’t ask them why.

And to be honest, based on my conversations with students, I’m not sure too many of them have taken the time to truly think about it either. (I know I didn’t when I was in college.) They seem to be generally aware that going to college is important or that their majors are valuable for one reason or another. But often, they can’t articulate more specific reasons for having those beliefs.

Sure, many tell me they value their majors because “It’ll help me get a job” and “I’ll be able to make a lot of money.” I think they assume that having money will automatically make them happy or will automatically produce the “good life.”

Now, of course, having money is important for basic things like buying food and paying rent. And, for some, having money is simply a means for being able to do other things that enhance their lives.

But a growing body of research suggests that, quite often, money and happiness are unrelated, especially once you make enough money to cover your basic needs (for examples, see here and here).

As music legend (and personal favorite of mine) Bob Marley put it:

“Money is numbers and numbers never end. If it takes money to be happy, your search for happiness will never end.”

Unfortunately, for many students, money is a (if not the) primary reason they’ve chosen a particular major—it’s why they value it. So, when I ask them to think of other reasons why they value their majors, they struggle.

But I think it’s important for students—and all of us, for that matter—to identify other reasons why their majors (or jobs) are valuable. For example:

Does your major (or job) allow you to use your strengths?

Does your major (or job) allow you to be creative?

Might your major (or job) allow you to solve an important problem of some type?

Does your major (or job) allow you to help people?

Does your major (or job) give some type of meaning or purpose to your life?

Doing meaningful work seems to be especially important for a variety of reasons. Zika and Chamberlain, for instance, found that having meaning in life was related to increased psychological well-being, and King and colleagues found that people who had meaning in their lives also felt happier.

So, if you are passionate about your major (or job)—if you spend time on it, if you enjoy it, and if you feel value it—the next question to ask yourself is:

Why, exactly, do I value my major (or job)?

Can you come up with reasons other than the obvious ones?: “It’ll help me get a job” or “I’ll be able to make a lot of money.”

The more reasons you can come up with for valuing your major (or job), then, by definition, the more passion you’ll experience.

And as researchers have shown, people who are passionate about their work tend to be better off psychologically than those who are not passionate about it. They also tend to report having more meaning-filled lives.

In short, taking the time to identify why you value your major (or job) is likely to have numerous benefits.

Reasons Why You Value Your Major (or Job): Are They Yours or Someone Else’s?

The other question you need to ask about “value” is whether your reasons for valuing your major (or job) are yours or someone else’s.

Vallerand and colleagues have suggested that we come to value certain things in our lives for two different reasons.

First, we might value them because we have freely chosen to do so—because we have taken the time to think about our passion and to identify the value we see in it. In this case, there has been no pressure for us to “accept” the value. Instead, we have found it for ourselves.

For instance, I have never felt pressured to pick up my guitar and practice. My reasons for valuing it are those that I have freely identified over the many years I’ve played the instrument.

Conversely, we might come to value something because others have “pressured” us into thinking it’s valuable. For instance, parents who believe that working hard is important might (either implicitly or explicitly) pressure their kids into valuing it, too. Or teachers who “guilt” their students into studying (“If you don’t study, you’re probably going to fail this exam!”) might create a sort of psychological “pressure” that causes the students to see the value in studying.

To give a relevant example, I once had a student who was clearly (obsessively) passionate about studying and getting good grades. When I started talking with him about his intense need to get A’s, it became obvious that this “value” came from his parents: They told him over and over that without good grades, he wouldn’t be successful in life. In essence, then, his belief in the value of studying was largely because his parents had pressured him into valuing it.

Importantly, the way we come to value something has a big effect on whether we become harmoniously passionate or obsessively passionate about it (as Mageau and colleagues have shown). As you might guess, when we freely find the value in something, we are more likely to become harmoniously passionate about it.

But when we come to value something because of external pressures to do so—because our parents or professors or friends want us to, or because “society” expects us to value it (like the belief that psychology students have to go to graduate school to be successful)—you are more likely to become obsessively passionate about it, which, as I noted previously, produces numerous negative outcomes.

So, once you have identified whether you are passionate about something (along with your reasons for valuing it), you need to determine whether you adopted those values freely or whether there might have been some psychological “pressure” from others to value them. If you feel like your reasons for valuing an activity are not your own, you should step back and try to identify other reasons it’s valuable—your own reasons.

Passion and Value: They Matter

Ultimately, passion (especially harmonious passion) matters. When we love our majors or our jobs, for example, we experience numerous psychological and performance benefits.

And if passion matters, then, by definition, so does value. For without value, passion dwindles.

It’s thus important to identify not only that we value certain things in our lives, but also why we value them.

Moreover, it’s also important to determine our reasons for valuing the activities we’re passionate about: Have we freely identified the value in our passions, or do we value them because others have “pressured” us to do so?

Determining the answers to these questions will likely have a big effect on how we feel toward our majors (or our work). And because these activities will occupy a large portion of our adult lives, taking the time to assess their value in our lives seems to me like an important endeavor.

A truly valuable endeavor.

 

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