An Unexamined Life is NOT Worth Living

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” The quote is attributed to Socrates. For a highly learned man not known for frivolity, these are very strong words. He is essentially telling us that unless we bother to ‘examine’ our lives, our way of being, our very existence and its purpose … we are wasting valuable oxygen as citizens of this planet.

It is of course very easy to dismiss the rather enigmatic writings of an ancient Greek philosopher from more than two thousand years ago … but perhaps we would be wise not to.

Let’s begin by saying that whilst I’m not a head mechanic (read: psychologist) I was, in a previous life, paid a good deal of money to fix problems for very large companies. The problems were primarily to do with the way these companies engaged with their customers, the customer experience they provided and, therefore, how they were perceived by their chosen markets.

Over a twenty-five year period, I discovered that the single biggest problem all these multinational companies (or rather their management teams) had in common was simply that “they didn’t know what they didn’t know”.

A no-brainer you might say … but is it?

Let’s bring it down to an individual level …

How well do you understand yourself? How much time have you spent thinking about the way you live? How much effort have you put into knowing who you really are, what your good & bad habits are, what it is that makes you interesting/boring, what/who influences your thinking and behavior, what sets you apart from all your peers (if anything)? How much time have you invested in understanding the most valuable asset you will EVER be in control of … yourself?

In other words, to what degree have you examined your life?

Before you answer that, please indulge me.

Let me set the scene by simply saying that I am taking you back to a management workshop for one of the largest electrical Utilities in the world. Those present are all career managers, mostly senior engineers with decades of experience in their field. These are highly disciplined people, highly intelligent, highly educated and not known for being random. These are ‘e n g i n e e r s’ in the most classical sense of the word. (You open their desk drawer, and all the pencils are lined up. You get my meaning.)

The topic of discussion is ‘personal effectiveness.’ More precisely … ‘procrastination.’

A topic scoffed at by C-level management as well as all those present. “What does that have to do with us?” They asked.

I begin by defining the origins of the word procrastination (‘pro’ meaning forth or forward & ‘crastinus’ meaning ‘of tomorrow’). I explain in plain terms how this terrible habit starts early in life. (You get an assignment in junior high school which, for many reasons, you leave until the last day/afternoon to complete. Yet you somehow manage to pass). It’s that simple. You are hooked. Unless there is meaningful intervention, you believe you can leave anything till the ‘last minute’ and still ‘pass.’ Why start early when you can do it tomorrow? Why do something painful/difficult/unpleasant now, when you can have fun and DO IT later?

By now I am noticing a few nods around the room, so I decide to go around the table asking for personal experiences. This can often be a sticking point as people do not want to be the first to share their personal experiences, so I start by giving them some classic examples:

  • perfectionism: I can’t ‘start’ unless everything is just right
  • avoidance: tomorrow will be a much better day to make a decision on this
  • fear of failure: what if I get it wrong? Best to leave it for now….
  • delusion: I looooove the pressure of the deadline; I love leaving it till the night before.
  • conditional delay: I want to lose weight…join a gym, but we are planning to have kids
  • dr feelgood: I know it’s bad for me … but damn, it feels good.
  • irrational thoughts: why do I have to do right now anyway … it can damn well wait till I’m ready

A quick show of hands shows that all in the room are guilty of at least one of the above at some stage. They begin to see the relevance of the topic and start to open up. I point out to them that, in my experience, long-term procrastinators (without intervention) simply become better, more creative at making excuses for NOT doing things … rather than taking corrective action. They simply ‘don’t know what they don’t know.’

At this stage, the mood in the room turns from this is a fun session, to f@#*… this is ME! The look on their faces changes, and as I start going around the long table asking for personal experiences, the stories become intimate and quite emotional. They start their stories by laughing … but finish by shaking their heads in disbelief.

Then we get to (let’s call him Fred). He is the most senior engineer in the entire Utility. A career professional, an MBA and a person considered by one and all as the ‘ultimate professional.’ When his turn comes he looks at me silently for 15-20 seconds (an eternity in a meeting environment) and smiles, shakes his head and puts his face in his hands. Another long silence … and then he starts his story that, by the end, has sucked the oxygen out of the room.

Fred’s abridged story goes something like this:

“I always wanted an Alpha Spider, to me it is the ultimate urban sports car … Italian design at its best. So at a certain point in my life, I decided that I could afford to fulfill my dream, and I bought one. A gorgeous red convertible Spider. The car I had always wanted …

I drove it home and loved every second … the freedom, the excitement of driving and owning my dream car. At home, I drove into the driveway and my garage … the family was proudly looking on and taking photos. Annoyingly, I noticed that a foot of the car was still sticking out of the garage because there were some old cement bags I had left in the front … so I made a mental note to move them to fit the car in and close the garage door.

Five years later … the Spider had a rust hole on the boot. The cement bags were still there, and the garage door was never closed. The rain had ruined the car of my dreams.”

The room was silent … Fred was in tears and so were several other people around the table. He looked up at me and said, “it never occurred to me until you started this conversation.” His highly developed rational mind kicked in, and he said, “I’m a classic case … a poster child of procrastination.”

I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of this workshop … but suffice to say that all those present will never again say that this topic is not relevant to them or those around/dear to them.

So … my question to you is: how realistically if ever, have you examined your life?

If someone of Fred’s status (and I can assure you that most of us are NOT Freds) can have such an epic fail in his life … what about the rest of us? How often do you avoid or delay taking necessary action? How often do you come up with (ever more) creative excuses NOT to do what needs to be done? Have you noticed your kids leaving things until the last minute? Your husband/wife?

If any of the above sounds familiar to you … what have you done about it?

The life of a habitual, long-term procrastinator is one of endless excuses, unfulfilled potential, high anxiety, broken promises and broken relationships. Does that sound like an attractive existence to you?

Positive Action Plan

Think about your ‘future self …’ the way you will/could be in 12-18 months from now. It is a fact that a bad habit usually takes around 4-6 weeks to set in … but the good news is that a good habit also takes around 4-6 weeks to become a part of your daily life. So sit down with or without your partner, draw a line down a page and write down your four worst habits in one column … and four best habits you would like to adopt on the other side. You can then go on an eight-week program of adoption (good habits) and elimination (bad habits). Use proven techniques for habit adoption and gather support for the elimination of your bad habits (there are many sites & books to give you help & advice). Once you have eliminated a ‘bad one’ and adopted a ‘good one’ you will want to do more and more … positive momentum will take over.

Even if you only manage to get rid of your two to three worst habits and adopt two to three good habits within twelve months … I promise you will not recognize yourself at the end of the year. You will also have an incredibly positive effect on all those around you, which is a bonus reward for your efforts.

Start today !!!

Photo Credit: Mostafa Abdel Samie via Compfight cc

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