How To Design A Fulfilling Life
Editor’s note: This is a guest post on how to design a fulfilling life by Dr. Rick Kirschner (aka Dr. K). Dr. K is an international best-selling author, including Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst and Insider’s Guide To The Art Of Persuasion. If you missed Dr. K’s previous post on the Top 10 Lessons Learned in Interpersonal Skills, be sure to check it out.
Whenever I hear people debating whether life is an intelligent design or an evolutionary process, I can’t help but think that evolution is an intelligent design! When I think of design, I don’t think of veneer or appearance. Instead, I think of it as the soul of a thing, a sort of creator’s signal of intention. That’s because you can know something of the intent of a designer by observing how something is made, what it does and is capable of doing, whether it’s chairs or sewing machines or space stations. I think that’s true about people, too, by observing how we design their lives, what we do and what we are capable of doing. Clearly, there is great intelligence in our design.
Make Your Life a Mission
For almost three decades, I’ve been scanning for the best design patterns for my own life and the lives of people I coach, train and counsel. And I would agree with Arnold Henry Glasow when he said, “Make your life a mission-not an intermission.” I see now beyond the surface structure to the deep, and detect there are 5 essential missions that each of us must fulfill for our journey on Spaceship Earth to be satisfying and complete:
Add all these together in one person and you have a highly functional human being capable of achieving great things, because each mission helps fulfill the other missions. But if you leave one or two or three of these missions out of the design of your own life, the result is different, darker, and potentially dangerous. You can learn a lot about yourself by noticing which missions you’ve emphasized in your life, and what’s been left out. Sometimes, just having that bit of insight can help you to make better choices and change your life for good, and for the better.
In my work, I help people to explore and develop their capacity and effectiveness with these missions. In this article, I’d just like to share them with you. I’m interested in hearing your comments.
#1: Self Protection is the priority mission.
Being safe in this world isn’t easy. Life is filled with dangers seen and unseen, you have no control over the behavior of others, and bad things do happen. If you die, or are damaged, it is harder to fulfill the other missions, so protecting yourself is of paramount importance.
Is there design evidence that we are supposed to protect ourselves? Yes, and plenty of it. You have a protective outer layer, your skin, and a protective inner layer too, your mucus membrane. You have an immune system designed to ward off foreign organisms and bodies, and a nervous system designed to move you quickly away from pain and danger faster than you can think. And you have the ability to think about how to minimize risk and exercise prudence. Change and chance play a huge role in our existence, and there is no guarantee that any of us will be safe and secure. But when we do what we can do, we can stack the deck in our favor.
Yet some people don’t understand the basic mission, and fail to adequately protect themselves. Instead of learning their lessons, they keep making the same mistakes over and over, hurting themselves each time. Some people even beat themselves up as punishment for their errors and transgressions, rather than learning what they can and using it to good advantage.
When a person doesn’t feel safe and secure in life, the issue is either extreme environmental hardship, or negative conditioning that leads to self-defeating behavior. Fail to learn the lessons of history and you are doomed to repeat them. And if the problem is negative conditioning, it takes new conditioning and some real effort to bring about change. This kind of change work is remedial in nature. It means going back and extracting the good from the bad, and, pardon me saying so, turning the crap in your life into compost for a better life.
#2: Self Maintenance is the secondary mission.
This mission is about preventing problems and solving them when they occur, so that you last long enough to fulfill the other missions. Just as you must maintain any piece of equipment that you hope to use for a long time, so you must take care of your health. Neglect this mission, and the penalties are severe.
There’s an old saying that health is our only real wealth. Maybe that’s because health challenges are incredibly time and resource consuming. When you’re healthy, you have the energy to do the things you want to do. When you’re not healthy, everything seems difficult, even the smallest things. While there are variables in life over which you have no control (genetic makeup and tendencies,what the people around you are doing, etc.) there are also variables over which you have total control. You choose what you take in, you choose how you work it out, and you choose your attitude towards everything.
I was taught that there are actually two kinds, horizontal and vertical. Horizontal disease is what you have when you are forced to stop normal activity. (A bad flu, a life threatening condition like a stroke or heart attack, or the knee injury my wife sustained this week.) Vertical disease is being one of the walking wounded. It includes everything from vague complaints to chronic degenerative disease. Vertical disease can actually be worse than horizontal, because you can adapt to it and go on while your quality of life is slowly destroyed. And most disease is vertical before it becomes horizontal.
Health is not the absence of disease. Even people dealing with physical or mental challenges can improve their health. Maintenance means keeping pain to a minimum and pleasure to a maximum, and your choices around food, activity and attitude either promote health or encourage disease. Maintenance gives you the resilience to bounce back when life hands you reverses, which happens often enough. Taking care of yourself helps you protect yourself, and gives you the energy for the other missions at the same time.
#3: Create Something is your third mission.
Consider that each of us is unique, one of a kind, and can’t be duplicated. We consist of unique formulations of influence, background, interests, metabolism and drives. Going on 7 billion people, and no two faces exactly alike, no two ways of expressing ourselves alike. Your life is yours to do with as you will within the constraints of your circumstances. What you do and don’t do adds up into your unique creation. And you are creative by design. You constantly make stuff up, whether its the language and fantasies of your childhood to the things you decide to learn and do and make as an adult.
Now maybe you got support for this while growing up. Maybe someone asked you, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?” Maybe you’re just getting around to this question now. But the desire to make something of one’s life can be so intense that a person will take serious risks, with their money, health, and life itself, in order to accomplish what they set out to do.
Henny Youngman once responded to a young heckler: “If you have your life to live over again, DON’T DO IT!” Obviously, nobody wants to live their life as nothing but a warning to others. So the most pressing question for this mission is: What do you want to do with your life? You can make something that satisfies you if you have the courage to think for yourself and to be true to yourself, if you know what you stand for and what you are moving towards. And whether you ask the question or not, sooner or later, it seems to me that everyone is confronted with moments of truth in which they must define who they are and what they are about.
Sometimes, putting the emphasis on this mission of making something of yourself accomplishes all the other design objectives. But neglect the other missions, and you may put yourself at great risk and wind up in poor health from the stress of striving.
#4: Connection is the fourth mission.
Evidence for the pattern is found in the fact that nothing in the entire universe exists in isolation. We know that the desire to love and be loved is a potent and powerful driver. Our sexual apparatus and communication ability makes it obvious that we’re designed to connect. The way we are drawn to each other, even the way we fill seats in movie theaters demonstrates that people want to connect with other people.
We also know that isolation is deadly to the human spirit, because generally speaking, when people are alone in life, they lose the will to live. Even monks in monasteries gather together frequently.
We connect when we find common ground, be it in the form of shared values, common purpose, similar habits, interests or backgrounds. Connections don’t just happen between individuals. They happen between individuals and groups, through leadership and teamwork. Connection is what makes all the relationships we maintain in the many areas of our lives satisfying and meaningful, whether business or personal, intimate or casual, long or short term. Connection makes marriages, forms friendships, bonds brothers, seals deals, wins elections, even sells sneakers. Connections get you promoted, get you a date, even get you out of the dog house.
Most us learn just enough to connect with others because it helps to survive. But each of us has opportunities to meet the right people, start the right conversation, have the right relationship for a great life. You don’t have to wait for connections to happen. You can make them happen!
Learning how to connect with others is a matter of developing positive communication skills, since everything in relationships, from intimacy to teamwork, requires skill in communication to succeed. Learning how to connect others with your ideas is a matter of developing positive persuasion skills. Learning to connect to groups with your ideas is about positive presentation skills. And learning to get groups of people to connect is about leadership and teambuilding skills.
#5: Service is the fifth mission.
Evidence for this mission is found in the fact that whenever there is a crisis, people are spontaneously moved to do it, like the outpouring of humanity following September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, and the famine in Bangladesh. As soon as word gets out, time and again we see strangers helping strangers. And when it happens, we almost magically stop feeling like strangers and start acting like we’re human beings. It appears that the world can’t really work for any of us until it works for all of us, and the desire to help and serve is built deeply into us.
Of course it shouldn’t have to take a crisis to bring people together. And it doesn’t. It’s a matter of setting the right conditions in place. It turns out that people really want to help each other out, and they just need a reason and a way to do it. If you build a group, your family, a team, a business, any organization around a good reason, then remove the barriers to what they need and build the bridges to get them where they need to go; if you see people as good people and treat people like they can be more than they’ve been before, they will surprise you with their caring, their ingenuity, their sheer determination to be of service to one another.
Love is a relationship based in, built on, nurtured by and developed through service. Love of nature. Love of country. Love of God. Brotherly love. Unconditional love. All you need is love, because at the beginning and end of life, love is all there is. Without service, relationships grow complicated, people turn sour, and communication becomes progressively more painful, difficult and non productive. Yet serve with love – love of anything – and you find fulfillment, reward, opportunity, truth. A life of service gives your life dignity and meaning, because it is an honor to serve.
Blind Spots and Areas of Dumb
You have blind spots, or ‘ areas of dumb’ as my former mentor put it. You may not be able to see your own patterns as clearly as someone who lacks your biases and beliefs can. Intelligent people can be so immersed in their personal and professional lives that they they know a great deal about what’s immediately in front of them, and very little of what’s going on beyond their most immediate interests. Without an informed perspective, you may be oblivious to the big picture changes affecting your environment, unable to seize opportunities or to recognize bona fide threats! To make wise choices, you need a multi-dimensional field of vision, an informed perspective to help you see some of the rules behind all that is changing. You need leverage today to make tomorrow different than yesterday. You need other people to help you course correct, and to clarify your sense of place and time.
That’s why part of the design is that we do best in life when we help each other out and when we let ourselves be helped out.
Like I said, I’m fascinated by design. When I meet people, and work with people, I’m curious to know how they’ve designed their lives so far, and how they intend to design what remains. And if they aren’t intentionally designing their lives, I know that the default design is habits of thought, habits of behavior, habits that leave tomorrow to itself.
I believe that, individually and collectively, we are designed to make a basic choice with our lives. Which will it be: A life by design, or a life by default?
Some of Dr. K’s information products
Photo by BGLewandowski.