The weight of those who are gone

I thought I’d interrupt normal programming today (i.e. the 200 words project) to write about something that is top of mind and personal. I try very hard to abstract from events and focus on the essence of what I’ve learnt. This will not be easy to do in this case but I’ll try.

When I introduce myself to people I work with, one of the ideas I share to help communicate who I am is – I have been shaped a lot by death. Our family lost my uncle to an accident and my father to himself in a space of 3 years. Now, the typical reaction to this for the opposite person to say – I’m sorry. And, if we’re having a really upfront conversation, I generally explain more. You see, the hard part wasn’t that we lost 2 members of our family. The hard part is that my grandmother has, over the 17 years that have gone by, held those who’ve gone dearer to her than those who’re still here. I’m going to leave the details out here and instead just say that very few conversations with my grandmom in 17 years have gone by without us feeling the weight of our absent family members.

I wish this was a unique problem. Given my general comfort with topics that are generally perceived taboo or morbid, I’ve been fortunate to be trusted with information about so many families who have similar dynamics internally. The data I’ve collected over the years has led me to one important conclusion –  we need death education more than we do sex education.

In an average lifetime, we see at least ten births and ten deaths of people who are close to us. And, yet, very few hardly ever get comfortable with the idea of death. That’s a funny situation to be in as death is one among the few certainties of our life on this planet. So, that results in whole families torn apart, relationships broken, and many many unhappy years following a single event. There’s a wonderful Buddhist parable in which a woman goes weeping to the Buddha and asks him to bring her young son back from the dead. He asks her to bring a mustard seed from a house that has never seen death. So, she goes on a long search and comes back empty handed – every house she went to had seen death…

I wanted to write about this today as today was another day when I felt the weight of those who are gone. Today is actually my grandparents 50th anniversary. I’d have loved to interrupt normal programming to wish them a happy anniversary. But, as has been a trend in the past 17 years, there’s always an excuse to mar happy occasions. I’ve made peace with this fact after an “aha” moment 5 years ago. But, my mother hasn’t, for instance. And, that’s tough.

So, I thought I’ll do what I always do and share a few of my biggest learnings from these experiences.

1. Every person is responsible for their own happiness. This has two powerful implications. First, it is that you ought to worry most about your own happiness and not sacrifice that at the expense of others. That’s because, over time, you cannot help anyone else if you can’t help yourself. So, to be useful in the long run, take care of yourself first. Second, you can attempt to help others for a short while. But, after a certain point, it is their life and their responsibility. Don’t try to play god.

2. Really appreciate the people around you. If your mind is always stuck on the past, you’re never going to be able to enjoy the present or the future. All we have in this life is a collection of memories. Yes, there were great memories in the past with great people. But, there are equally great moments waiting in the future. For that, you have to really appreciate and be thankful for those who are with you now. Be great to the people you are with. Collect memories.

3. Express your love and gratitude. Once you learnt to appreciate the people around you, express you love and gratitude. Be generous with hugs, kisses, compliments, affection and love. We sometimes treat our heart as one that has space only for a few. It couldn’t be less true. My experience is that it only expands with time.

4. The world is your family. I’ve come to realize that there is so much family out there in the world. I count myself as a person rich in relationships as I’ve found an abundance of parents and siblings out in the world who’ve taken incredible care of me. I guess you just have to open your eyes to the possibility.

5. Take death education seriously. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about design firm IDEO’s efforts to “design death” and have those difficult conversations. I think we all have a duty to understand this certainty. If you’ve experienced in some form with a relative or family member, then I hope you’ll take the time to reflect, think, and have conversations about it. Death and the fear of it shapes more lives than you and I can even imagine. And, a lack of an understanding of this concept probably destroys more people’s happiness than diseases like cancer.

For my part, I’ll do my best to add more to conversation here. Death, depression and all such taboo topics are only taboo because we don’t spend enough time thinking about them and really understanding them. And, understanding them is strangely liberating.

One thing that does happen when you do think about these things is you realize how fleeting these moments are. The days feel long, but the years are really short. And, while life may be the longest thing we do, it is still really short in the big scheme of things. It is up to us to do something worthwhile with the time we have and spread as much love and joy as we possibly can instead of being caught in vicious cycles of unhappiness.

As I type these words, there are people who’re dying in various places. Many of these folk likely wish they could live a bit longer and tell the people they loved how much they cared about them – that’s the biggest regret of them all. Some others likely wish they’d lived a life with more meaning.

Happiness is not one of those things that comes assured on our birth certificate. Happiness is hard because it requires us to live a life close to our purpose and have real impact on the people on this planet. But, hard doesn’t make it impossible, of course. To make this life meaningful, to make it count – that’s entirely our responsibility.

And, what a great responsibility it is.

Finding your purpose – The Clayton Christensen Process v2.0

Clayton Christensen’s excellent book – How will you measure your life? – ends with an intriguing chapter on finding your purpose (summary here). Here, Clay recommends the following 3 step process –

1) Find your likeness. Ask yourself – what would you like to be like? How would you define your ideal you? Define your likeness when you are 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, etc i.e. define how you would look, what your family be like, how you would be known, and what you would be doing. (Clay, a very religious man, asked himself – what does god want me to be?)
2) Make commitments. Come back from time to time and revisit your likeness. Does it feel right? Is it you?
3) Define metrics. How do you measure ‘success’ in your definition? In his case, since his purpose was kindness, he always measured it by the number of people he helped. He points out that these metrics are rarely “make more money” or “get a promotion.” Define success and ensure your metrics are aligned.

I was intrigued by this chapter as it definitely felt like the most meaningful part of the book. However, unlike the rest of the book, this part seemed a bit cryptic. Now, I’m not sure if Clay intended it to be so but it resulted in a 1.5 year journey in attempting to really understand and apply this. I’d like to share my learnings from this journey with you.


Purpose process v1.0. I tried following Clay’s exact process and made a first draft of a list of commitments and metrics. After 6 months of testing, I realized there was something amiss. The hardest part about questions that have an existential component (e.g. what is your purpose?) is that you know when something is amiss but you don’t know exactly what is amiss. Cue: Time for more thinking.

I gave myself a break to think about it and got back to “designer” mode. It was time for Purpose process v2.0 that combined Clay’s approach and my learnings from attempting to apply his approach.


Purpose process v2.0 – my 7 step process for giving finding and measuring your purpose a shot. 

Step 1: Visit your own funeral. First, we borrow Stephen Covey’s idea to begin with the end in mind. Close your eyes and imagine you are at your own funeral. Who do you see around you? What are they saying about you? What else do you hear?

Step 2: Draw out your likeness. Pick a few arbitrary points – e.g. 30 years, 50 years, 70 years, 90 years and describe your likeness. Who would you want to be at these ages? Describe your future self – how you look, what your personal life looks like, what you do, etc. Don’t restrict this process. For example, I had a funny moment when I realized I kept describing myself as “fit with muscly arms.” Fit alone clearly didn’t do it for me. The thought of muscly arms somehow always brings out a smile. These details matter.

Step 3: Pick a simple framework to think about your life. This is an important step as we go down the path of aggregating the data we’ve collected so far. Pick a framework that captures life as you know it. I have 2 examples –
a) You could break life down in terms of various states – physical, mental, emotional, spirtual
b) I chose to think of it as 4 layers (or 4 concentric circles) – Myself, the people I love, the work I do and the impact I have on the world. This is ordered in terms of priority in my case.

It doesn’t matter which frame you pick. Picking one is important thought.

Step 4: Describe what success would look like for each segment of the frame. Start describing what success looks like for each segment of the frame. Use all the data you built up as you described your likeness. Here is how mine got filled out..

A happy self..  
– Top physical shape – muscly arms :) and regular sports
– Top mental shape – high learn rate
– Top spiritual shape – Meditating

A loving framily..
– Quality time spent with wife and kids
– In meaningful contact with those afar – either engaged in projects together or in touch regularly

A value adding career..
– Doing work that does good and works toward longer term goals
– Consciously maintaining a board of directors
– Built wealth by adding value and living well within our means

And time spent making a positive difference..
– Spending time giving back to those less privileged
– Actively sharing my life lessons and learnings

Step 5: Make specific metrics. The next step involves creating metrics that you can track every week/month to see how you are doing. Here is what my “happy self” and “positive difference” section looked like.

Happy self

 

 

Positive difference

As you can see, I have a mix of weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly commitments. I didn’t do that in v1.0 and found this distinction to be useful.

Step 6: Track and revise. Set up a recurring invite on your calendar as a part of your week review process. I would suggest checking it every week as it keeps the continuity.

Step 7: Make a “why” statement. This purpose exercise is a beautiful way to put together an overarching “strategy” for your life. It fundamentally defines how you approach your life. It helps keeping the big “why” in mind. I have to credit writing applications to business schools for help with crafting my “why” statement. In my case, it is “To build active relationships with close family and friends, to learn, and to make a positive difference in the world.” Having a why statement helps a lot. There’s no easy way to get to it (i’m sorry!). My first shot was a why statement that didn’t work for too long. This has been a result of continuous improvement and involved seeking advice from folks who knew me well.

A few final notes if you decide to give this process a shot –
– There is no easy way to get through this process. You’ll have to set aside 3-4 thinking hours on a couple of days and wrestle with yourself as you go through this. But, it is one of those processes that changes the way you think about life. If done once, it helps draw attention to what matters and what doesn’t. I hope you’ll consider it. The clarity you gain at the end of the process makes the juice well worth the squeeze.
– It never ceases to amaze me that Clay Christensen did this as a 21 year old. I love his thought process and am thankful to him for sharing this in his book.
– Finally, please do not hesitate to let me know if I can be of help in any way. As you can tell, I’ve stumbled a lot over the past 18 months in my attempts to make this work. v2.0 is definitely working much better than v1.0 but I expect more changes and more follow on posts over the coming weeks, months and years. Until then, I am always reachable on rohan@rohanrajiv.com would love to help

I know this post was long. Sorry! I hope it was worth it.

What is the goal

If you are working hard (and I hope you are), we assume a large part of that is devoted to productive work.

Productive work is work that enables us to make progress towards a goal. Hence, many hours of watching YouTube video is considered unproductive when you have a report to be finished. A short video break might aid productivity but it still wouldn’t be productivity.

So, if productivity doesn’t exist without a goal, defining a goal becomes all important. What is the goal you normally work towards when you don’t have fires to fight? Is there even a goal?

It is hard to set goals in every aspect of our lives. We struggle with just exercise goals and expecting more than that is wishful thinking. However, we could easily make a case for the importance of productive work in the case of our personal relationships, a.k.a. quality time, and productive work in case of our hobbies. So, how do we go about doing that?

My suggestion would be to consider defining your personal “why.” My personal why, for example, is ‘to build active relationships with family and friends, learn, and have a positive impact on the world.’ Once I have this defined, it becomes very clear as to which activities move me towards this goal and which don’t. This “why” has been a work-in-progress for 2 years now (so get started now!) and I consider this a near-finished article. It makes for an excellent measuring stick.

Take time to define your why and your goals. Productivity doesn’t exist without goals. And, now that you are here and taking up some space, why not be productive? :-)

Hat tip to Messrs Eliyahu Goldratt for the insight