Focus on What Truly Matters
Some of the most important people, activities, and aspects of our lives may seem unimportant to those around us, and may or may not have anything to do with our careers or taking care of our families. Some of these may not even be things that other people like, understand, or agree with. Even if they are, sadly, it’s often easier to just watch TV, check our e-mail, clean our house, plan our day, surf the Internet, and merely react to what’s going on around us than to actively engage in the things we value most.
We also may not actually know what’s most important to us, or we at least have some internal struggle about what should be. With so many conflicting beliefs, ideas, expectations, and agendas within and around us, it’s not always easy to know with certainty what matters most to us. And, even if we do, it can take a good deal of strength to live in alignment with this on a regular basis. Whether it’s our lack of clarity or our fear of letting other people down (or maybe a bit of both), focusing on what truly matters to us can be more tricky than it seems on the surface.
While these and other “reasons” make sense, not focusing on what matters most to us has a real and often negative impact on our lives, our work, and everyone around us. We end up living in a way that is out of synch with who we really are, which causes stress, dissatisfaction, and missed opportunities and experiences.
What if we did focus on what truly mattered all the time—not simply because we experience a wake-up call, crisis, or major life change, but because we choose to in a proactive way? What would your life look like if you let go of some of your biggest distractions, the often meaningless worries and stresses that take your attention, and actually put more focus on the people and things that are most important to you?
We don’t have to wait until painful things happen in our lives to wake us up—we can practice observing what we’re paying attention to and asking ourselves the simple but important question, Does this truly matter?
Nothing Changes Until You Do
We’ve all had this experience in our lives in both big and small ways. Do you ever notice that when you’re having a bad day or a rough time in life, even the people and activities you normally love don’t bring you the same amount of joy? On the flip side, when you’re having a great day or things are going really well in life, even the people or circumstances that might normally annoy you somehow seem much less stressful. In those simple situations, your perspective and your own internal state have a big impact on how you experience life, not the other way around.
What if we put more attention on our own growth, evolution, and transformation—and less attention on trying to change the people and circumstances around us? This doesn’t mean that we’d stop caring about what other people do or say. It also doesn’t mean we wouldn’t give feedback to or make requests of those around us. We also wouldn’t stop working toward specific changes, goals, and dreams related to the most important aspects of our lives.
However, by letting go of our insatiable desire to fix, change, and control everyone and everything around us, we give ourselves the space to focus our attention on the true source of our own happiness, success, and fulfillment—ourselves!
Be Gentle with Yourself
Essential to our ability to grow, evolve, and change is our capacity to notice what we do and to make conscious adjustments. However, the best way for us to do this is to have compassion for ourselves. All too often we either stay in denial about certain things that are detrimental to us, or when we do notice them we end up judging ourselves so harshly that we hurt ourselves even more in the process—thus making authentic change difficult, painful, and elusive.
Karen Drucker, an amazing singer, songwriter, author, and speaker, has a beautiful song called “Gentle with Myself,
This song, which is all about self-compassion, has a few poignant lyrics
It starts with, “I will be gentle with myself, and I will hold myself like a newborn baby child.” Imagine if we held ourselves in that way—with the kind of love we offer to a newborn. Whether pertaining to something we’re trying to accomplish, an important relationship, our physical body, a challenge we’re facing, or anything else—we often tend to be hypercritical of ourselves, which never helps.
Ask for Help
There are a few important things for us to remember about asking other people for help. First, there’s a difference between a request and a demand. A request is when we ask for what we want, without attachment. This means that we give the other person the freedom to say yes or no, and there is no consequence either way (i.e., we won’t hold it against them, get all upset or self-righteous, or take it personally if they say no, even if we are disappointed). Sometimes, once we get over our resistance to asking for help, we actually make demands instead of requests. In other words, they better say yes, or they will be in trouble with us.
Second, it’s important that we actually allow ourselves to receive the support. As much resistance as we have to asking for help, sometimes we have even more resistance to receiving it when it shows up. The easier we are to support, the more support we’ll receive. For some of us, myself included, receiving support from others can make us feel scared, vulnerable, and even awkward. We worry that we’re not actually worthy of support, that we’ll owe the giver something, or that somehow we’re inferior to the people who help us. None of this is true; it’s just another negative ego trap.
Third, we need to remember the paradox of getting feedback and help from others: while it can benefit us greatly, at the deepest level, the answers, support, and guidance we are seeking are actually inside of us, always. The rub is that we often forget, and the support of those outside of us is a great reminder that helps us tap into our inner wisdom. When we embrace this important paradox, it actually gives us more freedom to ask for and receive support while also giving it to ourselves in a healthy and empowering way.
Don’t Get Caught in the Trap of Comparison
It’s important to understand, however, that there is both negative and positive competition. Negative competition, which most of us are more familiar with, is based on two limiting and negative notions: First is the black-and-white idea of “us against them”—when we win, we’re good, and when we lose, we’re bad. Second is the stressful and damaging concept of scarcity—that there’s a finite amount of success to go around, and if someone else succeeds, it takes away from us. Based on these notions, the goal is to beat anyone and everyone around us or, at the very least, avoid losing, and get as much as we can before someone else does. Sadly, this type of negative competition is everywhere in our culture and has been ingrained in how we operate in life, business, and even personal relationships. We have to be mindful of our own tendencies, and of our cultural programming, so as not to fall into this negative trap.
Positive competition, on the other hand, is about challenging ourselves, pushing our limits, and allowing the talent, skill, and support of others to help take us to the next level. When we compete in this conscious way, it’s beautiful, important, and healthy—and has nothing to do with our true value as human beings. In other words, we aren’t better or worse based on how we perform.
A simple example of this is with physical exercise. When we work out with another person, or with a group of people, we usually get more out of it. Why is this? Because we’re challenged and held accountable, which forces us to show up, go beyond our perceived limits, and not quit (even if we want to). The competitive aspect of this remains positive and healthy as long as we simply allow ourselves to be pushed without looking for a particular outcome. It can turn negative if we allow our egos to take over and place value on who lifts more weight, who runs faster, or who “wins.”
Remember How Strong You Are
In just about every situation and circumstance in life, we really do have more than is required to not only deal with what’s happening, but to thrive in the face of it. As the saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. While I don’t believe that we have to necessarily suffer and struggle in order to grow and evolve in life, one of the best things we can do when dealing with a major challenge is to look for the gifts and to find the gold in the situation as much as possible.
Each of us has overcome a lot in our lives—both big and small. If you spend enough time walking around the planet, chances are you’ll experience some significant adversity. Dealing with and overcoming it not only teaches us a lot about ourselves, others, and life, but also gives us the opportunity to be reminded of our own power and strength. It’s not that we won’t feel scared, overwhelmed, angry, sad, embarrassed, confused, worried, or more—these feelings and many others are often a part of going through adverse times. However, remembering that “this, too, shall pass” will help us persevere in the midst of challenges, while reminding us that we can actually expand ourselves in the process.
Make Peace with Your Body and Appearance
What if we could befriend our bodies and not treat them like enemies we’re trying to beat, conquer, or at least keep at bay? What if we could remember how accepting and celebratory we were about our bodies as young children? The key to all of this is not about losing more weight, finding the right workout program, getting the best products, or buying better clothes. It’s really about us making peace with our bodies, and, on a deeper level, making peace with ourselves.
It’s essential for us to forgive ourselves and to also forgive our bodies. In many cases, we have done, said, and thought really negative and damaging things to and about our bodies over the years. With a sense of healthy remorse and a deep sense of empathy, we can begin to forgive ourselves for how we’ve treated ourselves in the past. At the same time, we can practice forgiving our bodies for not being “perfect,” which no body ever is or will be.
Remember that It’s Not the Circumstances, It’s You
Author and teacher Byron Katie says, “The definition of insanity is thinking that you need something you don’t have. The mere fact that you exist right now without that which you think you need is proof that you don’t need it.”
What if we lived our lives with a deeper and more conscious awareness of the fact that we get to create our experience of life at any moment? Imagine what our lives, our careers, and our relationships would look like if we stopped blaming our experience on other people or on external circumstances. We would free up a great deal of positive energy and take back so much of our personal power.
This is about taking 100 percent responsibility for our experience of life. It doesn’t mean that we can control everything, but it does mean that we make a commitment to live life by design, not default. It’s also likely that we’ll forget, slip up, and fall back into victimhood from time to time (or often)—we’ve been trained to live in “victim consciousness,” even though it doesn’t give us what we ultimately want.
When we’re conscious, willing, and courageous enough to live as the designers of our lives—we can literally transform our experience of life at any moment. Then, of course, we won’t mind the heat, long lines, and expense of Disneyland (or anywhere else we are), and instead we’ll enjoy the real magic of the experience. It really has less to do with where we are and what’s going on, and more to do with us and what’s happening internally anyway.
Give Yourself Permission to Cry
When we cry, we often open up, let down our guard, and connect with others in a more real and vulnerable way. Many times in my own life and with some of the clients I’ve worked with, I’ve seen tears dramatically shift a person’s perspective, change the dynamic of an argument, and bring people together. Tears have a way of breaking down emotional walls and mental barriers we put up within ourselves and aganist others. Crying tends to be a human equalizer, because no matter the circumstance, situation, or stress we may face, our tears often have a way of shifting and altering things in a beautiful manner.
There’s nothing wrong with our tears, even if we get a little embarrassed, uncomfortable, or pained when they show up. As we give ourselves permission to cry, we not only release toxins from our bodies, stress from our systems, and negative thoughts from our minds—we tap into one of the most basic and unifying experiences of being human. Crying is powerful and important. It’s not only okay; it’s essential.
The way gratitude works is that the more we focus on feeling grateful, the more we have to feel grateful for. And while many of us have experienced this personally, recent scientific studies have concluded that gratitude can have significantly positive effects on our health, our moods, our productivity, and our relationships.
Like many other things in life that we know are good for us (exercise, eating healthy, sleeping enough, drinking lots of water, telling the truth, and so on), it’s not the knowledge that will benefit us; it’s the practice. The amazing thing about gratitude is that there’s no “right” way to practice being grateful. Whether you choose to keep a journal, thank the people around you, use positive affirmations, ask other people what they’re grateful for (one of my favorites), focus on gratitude in your quiet time of prayer or meditation, or simply remind yourself to slow down and breathe—taking time to focus on what we’re grateful for is one of the easiest and most effective ways to empower ourselves, calm ourselves down, and remember what matters most in life.
Live like You’re Going to Die (Because You Are)
Steve Jobs gave a powerful and famous commencement speech at Stanford’s graduation in 2005 entitled “How to Live Before You Die.” In that speech, which now has even more poignancy given that he has passed away, Steve said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Contemplating death in a conscious way doesn’t have to freak us out. Knowing that our human experience is limited and that at some mysterious point in the future our physical body will die is both sobering and liberating.
Living like we’re going to die is actually about remembering to fully engage in life right now, to be grateful for the precious gift that it is, and to take back our power from anywhere and everywhere we give it away. We’re much stronger, more beautiful, more powerful, and more capable than we often give ourselves credit for. As we continue to catch ourselves—with empathy—when we stray off course, discount ourselves, and focus on things that don’t really matter, we can bring ourselves back to the truth of who we are. We can remind ourselves that we’re magnificent, valuable, and lovable just the way we are.