I’ve been taking a class with Bob Quinn called Transformative Leadership, and I’ve been reflecting on how I live my life. Here are three observations – two truths and a lie, if you will – that I’ve been thinking about.
Lately, I’ve been captivated by a question that Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School talks about, “How will you measure your life?”
You should definitely watch Professor Christensen’s talk, but this is my take on his question.
In the biggest sense, the largest outcome we impact with our lives is the trajectory of human history. The way I think about this is simple – we can either help humanity move closer toward good (which I think of as God’s glory) or we can help it move closer to evil (which I think of as wickedness).
And really, we each have a micro-impact on this very large thing. There are very few people (I’d argue none) on the planet who will ever make an aggregated, measurable impact on the trajectory of human history. That said, I do think that we each influence humanity’s trajectory and that impact, however small, does matter in aggregate.
That is this idea’s brilliance. By looking at our impact on the trajectory of humanity, something none of us can cause a measurable blip on, we don’t have to focus on whether we outperformed somebody else. We are freed from comparing ourselves to others. Rather, we can focus on fully utilizing our own potential. We can put all our efforts into being good people, instead of worrying about being more good than others.
So that’s the first truth – the biggest “measurable” in our life is whether we influence the trajectory of humanity toward good or evil. In practice, I ask myself the following question: today, did I move humanity toward good, toward evil, or was it a wash? I try to log more days in the “good” category than the “evil” and “wash” categories.
In any case, that’s how I’m starting to measure my life.
But, thinking about measuring your life in terms of the trajectory of humanity is unbelievably impractical on a day-to-day basis. After all, how the heck do you know whether you are inching humanity closer to good or to evil? The short answer is, we can’t. There’s no way for us to know whether we are spreading good or evil.
Given this practical quandary, I thought about what a good, practical, indicator that is a good proxy for whether I’m influencing humanity toward good or toward evil. After all, if you list out your values, you can look at them every day and reflect on whether you lived them out.
It seems to me that if I choose a strong set of values to live by, and have integrity to them, I feel pretty confident that I’m positively affecting the trajectory of humanity. So more practically, that’s what I try to ask myself and practice on a day-to-day basis – whether or not I’m living my values.
To be sure, living my own values is not a trivial matter. It’s very hard. In fact, it’s probably the single hardest thing to do on a day-to-day basis. But that brings me to the second truth – living your values is the hardest challenge we have every day, but it’s also one of the things we have the most control over. As John Steinbeck talks about in East of Eden, we have timshel – we have the choice of conquering our sins (see an excerpt below). We have a choice.
This argument is why I’m starting to think character is the most important thing we can teach. If you do that, I believe, everything else starts falling into place.
In this scenario I’ve created – centered on living our values as the practical proxy of positively influencing the trajectory of humanity, it becomes very disillusioning if you feel like you don’t have character or agency. After all, if life comes down to living out your values and you don’t feel like you can, then that’s the ball game. If you can’t live your values, you might as well hide under your bed and give up.
But that brings me to the lie, that we can’t change. We can change. We can live our values. We can be less wicked. It’s hard, but we can.
Hope (or lack of) is a powerful narrative. If you have hope you can change, and therefore become more good than wicked, and therefore positively impact the trajectory of humanity. If you don’t have hope, you don’t think you can change and you regress yourself into destructive behavior. To me hope is the belief that we can change into being better than we are.
I think it’s a lie to believe that we can’t change. Why? Because we do, all the time.
In any case, this is what I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks.
On timshel, excerpted from East of Eden, pulled from: http://timshel.org/timshel.php
“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.