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How to Bring Your Life into Line with Your Values

How to Bring Your Life into Line with Your Values

How to Bring Your Life into Line with Your Values

    The world, it seems, is going downhill fast. Everyone has a take on what’s wrong: liberals over-regulating everything, conservatives decimating the principles of governance, immigrants refusing to blend in, racists bashing immigrants, poor parenting, non-family-friendly policies, corporations bound to short-term profits instead of long-term social responsibilities, activists hampering corporate innovation, and of course the Jews, always the Jews. You name it, someone’s upset by it and the negative effect it causes in the world, by the sheer affront to decent people’s values that the world poses.

    The problem is, the problems facing the world today are so huge, so global in their reach, that most of us are simply overwhelmed by them. We feel we should do something, but what? On top of that, we’re so busy just trying to stay afloat in the roiling seas of modern life that even if we did know what to do, we don’t know how we’d find time to actually do it.

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    Bummer, huh? Well, it seems to me that the same principles we apply to our own personal productivity can be applied to the problems of the world. In short, we can “GTD” the world’s problems.

    How? The same way we approach our own problems — set a goal and then figure out what the very next action is that we’d have to take to get there.

    Just like you can’t “install cable” (to use one of David Allen’s examples), you can’t “end racism” or “fix the environment”. What you can do is figure out what one thing you could do to bring you — and the world — closer to that goal.

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    Here are some things you might put on your @world next actions list:

    • Look up Senator’s office phone number/email address
    • Get voter registration form online
    • Research local organizations that need volunteers
    • Buy 6 compact fluorescent light bulbs
    • Put three canvas bags in car trunk for next shopping trip
    • Talk to kids about global warming
    • Call Reverend Hassan about starting a church auxiliary group
    • Knit blanket for homeless shelter
    • Look up regulations for running for local office
    • Join school parents association
    • Research organizations to donate money to
    • Check local library’s website for upcoming meetings

    These are just examples; none of them might apply to whatever your own personal values are. The point is, just as with any other project, if you want results you have to be prepared to act — and you can’t act on big, grandiose, world-changing goals. You can only act on concrete next actions.

    Now, first steps are hardly enough to fix the world’s problems. Still if everyone took just one baby step, that’d be something, at least. But I’m not advocating you find one little thing to do, do it, and spend the rest of your days feeling smug about the great thing you did that one time.

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    The goal here isn’t to take a step, it’s to take the first step. As I mentioned recently, we humans tend to be strongly guided by inertia. Once we set on a path, it’s often easier to just stay on it than to change it. That first step, that very next action, is meant to do two things:

    1. Disrupt the current inertia of your life, and
    2. Set you on a new path that, with time, will be harder to stop than to stay on.

    Which means that, once you buy that energy-saving light bulb or find out about a group worth joining, it’s time to cross that off your list and think of what the next next action is. And then the next one, and the next one again after that.

    You may not change the world. In fact, you probably won’t change the world — although, imagine the influence you just might have on the people around you, the opportunity you’ll have to share your own values not just by talking about them but by demonstrating them on a day-to-day basis.

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    But changing the world isn’t the immediate point here. The point is changing your relationship with the world. Here’s the thing: I look around, and I see people who are profoundly unhappy, and they don’t know why. They look at, say, the rampant consumerism in society, they’re depressed by it, they feel powerless and overwhelmed by it, and maybe they think “Oh, this world is messed up, that’s why I’m unhappy. Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, best to just worry about myself and try to make it as best as I can.”

    But that’s wrong — you can’t make yourself happy by making room in your life for whatever’s making you unhappy! In my interview with Liz Strauss on Lifehack Live in January, she talked about bringing our heads, hearts, and purposes in line as the key to a successful life, and I agree — when you live your life at cross-purposes from your values, you’re bound to be unhappy.

    I’d like to see you, me, and everyone else living their values, whatever those values are. Sure, there are bound to be contradictions, conflicts, disagreements — but we have those already. What we don’t have is a society filled with people whose lives clearly express the values they espouse, not because they’re hypocrites but because they haven’t figure out the need to turn abstract values into concrete actions — just like many of us struggle to turn the various projects in our lives into doable next actions. 

    The idea of a society filled with people who have figured that out makes me incredibly optimistic. Because that’s a society that, with all it’s disagreements, can get things done. And maybe, just maybe, in the long run, that’s exactly what it might take to start fixing the big problems — people who feel truly led by the values they choose to live by.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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