I was having a conversation this past week with one of my students. This student happens to be very “successful” by traditional measures: He gets good grades, is involved in numerous extracurricular activities (both academic and non-academic), and will probably pursue a PhD after finishing his undergraduate work.
But the more I talk to this student, the more I get the impression that much of what he’s currently doing is not what he really wants to do with his life. Rather, he’s doing these things because it’s what is expected of him (by parents, professors, society in general, and so on).
As I’ve thought more and more about this conversation (and many similar conversations I’ve had with students over the years), I’ve come to realize that there’s a big difference between two seemingly similar ideas: doing things right and doing the right things.
“Doing Things Right”
To start this discussion off, let’s take a minute and define what “right” means.
If we use one of dictionary.com’s primary definitions as a starting point, to do something “right” means to do it:
In other words, to do something “right” (or “correctly”) typically means doing it so you can measure whether your performance meets some predetermined standard or criterion. Importantly, the performance standard in place is often determined by someone else.
So, let’s apply this definition to my student.
He’s getting good grades, which is usually determined by the amount of accordance between what he writes on his exams and his teacher’s “right” answers.
He’s getting involved in extracurricular activities, which many people say is “right” and necessary if you want to have a strong graduate school application.
And he’s pursuing advanced education, which is “right” by many accounts because it frequently (but not always) gives you opportunities that, for better or worse, you might not be afforded otherwise.
By most traditional accounts, then, the aforementioned student is “doing things right.”
In fact, this is how we frequently determine what is “right” in our society: We look for standards or markers that others have put in place for us, and we see if our performance meets those standards. If it does, we breathe a sigh of relief and feel thankful that we’re “doing things right”—even if it doesn’t feel quite “right.”
This, in my opinion, is also how our educational system frequently works. When we’re students, we’re told what we’re supposed to do to be “successful”—which majors to choose, which classes to take, what we should do after graduation, and so on—and we do our best to reach the performance markers that others have put in place for us. If we work hard enough (and maybe have some luck along the way), we reach those markers, and we’re told that we’re “doing things right.”
The Problem With “Doing Things Right”
Unfortunately, I think this often occurs without much awareness or acknowledgement of whether we’re actually doing things that truly matter to us—of whether the definitions of “success” or the performance standards we’re chasing are ones we even care about.
I know this was true for me when I look back on many of the decisions I made while I was in college (especially during my early years). Moreover, it’s been true, to some extent, even since I’ve been a college professor.
Moreover, I see it in a lot of my current students, and it seems to manifest itself in one of two different ways.
First, there are those students who are completely non-passionate about their academic experiences and who are going through the motions only because it’s what they’re “supposed” to do, not because they have any deep and abiding interest in the educational process.
On the flip side, there are the students who are obsessively passionate about their academics. These students are the opposite of non-passionate. Rather than not caring about their academic experiences, obsessively passionate students often care too much and let their academics overwhelm them. As I’ve written previously, this type of passion emerges when people are pressured to make particular choices (by parents, for example) and, as result of this pressure, come to feel like they are out of control.
Now, these obsessively passionate students are typically hard working and, consequently, have little trouble hitting the performance markers that others have put in place for them. And because these students are hitting these markers, they’re being told that they’re “doing things right.”
Unfortunately, like my student above, the things these students are “doing right” are often not the things they truly wish they were doing with their lives. Rather, they’re feeling pressured to make the choices they do. And as a result, they experience numerous negative psychological outcomes.
“Doing the Right Things”
And this observation (which I’ve seen many times) leads me to the second kind of “right” that I think we should consider when we’re deciding what we want to do with our lives.
According to dictionary.com, “right” also means doing things “uprightly or righteously,” and the example they provide for this definition is:
I would argue that this is a very different definition of “right.” Rather than doing things based on others’ expectations of what we should be doing or others’ markers of what is “correct,” this definition of “right” means doing the things you truly desire or the things you truly want to accomplish in your life.
This, at the heart of it, is what it means to do the right things.
Another problem with focusing on “doing things right” (in addition to the negative types of passion it breeds) is that our actions frequently have little or no direction, often because we’re letting many others tell us what to do. As a result, we feel as if we’re aimlessly jumping from one thing to the next without having any idea of where our lives are actually going.
Or maybe even worse yet, when we focus only on “doing things right,” we often find ourselves headed in a very specific direction—just not the direction we actually want to go.
In contrast, when we “do the right things,” we know where we’re going. Through good and bad, through thick and thin, we have a compass that guides us toward the kinds of lives we ultimately want to live. It’s like programming a location into your GPS and being re-routed: Even with roadblocks, we still know that we’ll eventually get there.
Interestingly, when we “do the right things,” it actually makes it easier for us to eventually “do things right.”
When we’re motivated by a vision of what we want out of our lives, we’re also more motivated to persist when we experience the failures that everyone eventually experiences in life. But rather than quitting and moving on to something else because we didn’t experience “success” right off the bat, we keep trying until we succeed—until we eventually “do things right.”
Focus on “Doing the Right Things”
In the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly easy to “do things right”: We simply ask others what they want us to do, and we try our best to please them, to reach their standards.
But to live a meaningful life—a life that matters to us, a life that will allow us to have a lasting impact on others—we need to take a different approach.
Rather than simply focusing on “doing things right,” we instead need to focus on “doing the right things.”
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