I remember getting this message as far back as elementary school…
How to be a success: first, you set yourself a BIG GOAL. Then, you break it down into manageable chunks, put them on a list organized according to priority, and work your way doggedly down the list.
I never stopped to question these ideas, so later in life when I heard it reiterated by giants like Tony Robbins and Tim Ferriss, I took it as yet more confirmation. I’m one of those people who, when she decides to do something, she does it all the way; so when I got out of grad school and started my businesses, I took this celebrity-sanctioned “Success Program” (SP) to the max.
Along the way, as I encountered the inevitable obstacles of entrepreneurship, I went in search of wisdom that could enlighten me and help me overcome. I had already done the first part: set the goal, break it down, make a list, and organize the priorities. What I thought I needed help with was execution. By any reasonable standard, I decidedly did not need help with execution. I was already a machine. But I never felt like it was enough (or good enough), so I bought book after seminar after workshop after mastermind, ad nauseam.
I turned productivity itself into a religious science, a devotional practice. It let me work really hard for a really long time. It let me do a lot of things and produce a lot of results. There were times when the feeling of mastery, even invincibility, was potent and intoxicating and I thought for sure I had it all figured out. And by conventional measures of business success, it would seem that the SP has worked for me.
And yet, if you look at other things like my inner peace, my work-life balance, or my sense of satisfaction/sufficiency, a whole different story emerges. By measures like these, the SP failed miserably. I just pray that I caught on before creating a major health crisis.
The primary flaw that I see in the Success Program is that it is an outside-in, top-down setup. You begin by creating an elaborate system of goals, methods, and standards that exist only as thoughts, as concepts. From there, you must wrangle your body, your mind, and your emotions into cooperating with your concepts day after day after day. And the more effectively you can force yourself to do this, the more successful you will be. The more formidable, super-human, and awe-inspiring you will be. Self-mastery will be yours when your body, your emotions, and your mind fall in line and obey the dictates of your thoughts; and once you have this power, reality will be yours to command. And if you possess that much stamina in the boardroom, well, what must you be like in the bedroom…?
Can you see why it’s so easy to sell products that promise to help you get better at wrangling yourself? Products that will help you master yourself more effectively so that you can bend your life over your desk while you…
At some point, I realized that the “Success Program,” and all the “business wisdom” I had accumulated, was mostly a repackaging of what I call the “Man Program:” the laws and stipulations of masculinity that, in one form or another, get downloaded into the brains of those who are born biologically male. All together, it goes a little something like this:
- Your life should have a purpose and you should know what it is
- You should know what to do to fulfill that purpose
- You should be in control of yourself and your life
- It doesn’t matter how you feel, you should do your work anyway
- Use your logic and your reason to decide what to do next
- It’s important that you have perseverance, discipline, and stamina
- If you’ve bent yourself, your life, and the world to your will, then you are a success
(By the way, the standard issue “Woman Program” would not help things much. That set of rules and regulations is equally oppressive as the “Man Program,” so a simple switcheroo wouldn’t do any of us any good. What I’m pointing out by including the gender angle here is that the culture’s dominant sex [men] has infused it’s gender programming into a sub-culture that it also dominates [entrepreneurship], and I think men, women, and the businesses we run would all be better off with a hefty update to the software).
Ultimately, my own attempt to live up to the ideals of the SP drove me right into a painful breakdown where I just COULDN’T keep going, even though I wanted to. Worst nightmare realized. Right there in the middle of the full flow of my businesses, I just let it all go. It wasn’t really a choice; neither my body nor my mind would let me do anything that they didn’t have the energy or the heart to do. I became fully incapable of pushing past my capacity (please witness the sad irony of that statement).
I figured that it was all over. I waited for everything to come crashing down around me and wondered how long it would be before I was living out of the back of my truck. So I was shocked, perhaps even a little offended, when fully nothing happened.
I existed in a state of stunned suspension for a while, watching in awe as the world continued to spin perfectly fine without much input from me. Clearly I had believed that my doing things was a very big deal and that catastrophe would surely strike if I stopped…
What with all the hiking, reading, and sleeping in, it didn’t take long before my system was more or less recovered from all the stress I had put myself through. It was like waking up from a bad dream. And soon enough, I discovered that my body would spontaneously receive intense bursts of energy and inspiration to do… all the stuff on my list! Of course, right? Why wouldn’t it? I wrote that list from my heart and it is a true reflection of who I am in this life.
Interesting twist, though, is that my body (and especially my heart) usually don’t give a rat’s ass about the “priorities.” They have a far more mysterious way of deciding what to do next, and next, and next. It’s non-linear and unpredictable and requires me to gather all my attention and focus into only this one thing, this one present moment, and let go of all thoughts and worries about what comes next.
And Holy God, wouldn’t you know it? Right there in that present moment, I found incredible peace. The kind of peace I thought could only come from the smug satisfaction of sweet success, reserved for those who reach the top of the mountain. I found a paradoxical truth that while I’m working on creating all kinds of cool new things, the world and my life are already whole and complete. I saw that every moment inherently satisfies itself.
This experiment that I didn’t mean to run yielded a realization I wasn’t trying to find: that it’s perfectly fine to put peace first, to put presence first, and if life doesn’t go the way I think it should go, then SO BE IT. Productivity does not lead to peace. Peace leads to productivity.
“So be it” is my mantra these days.
So here’s the approach I’m using (or perhaps, the approach that’s using me would be a more accurate way to put it). It is founded on an entirely different paradigm, but it takes only one surprisingly simple tweak in the Success Plan to follow.
You can still set yourself a BIG GOAL. By all means, do have a vision for yourself and your life. And you can still break that goal down into some manageable chunks, put them on a list, and have a conversation with yourself about reasonable ways to proceed.
BUT HERE’S WHAT’S DIFFERENT: when you wake up in the morning, when the rubber of your vision meets the road of your actual life, do not ask yourself, “How can I more effectively wrangle myself into cooperating with the plan I have set for myself today?”
Instead, ask yourself, “What kind of energy have I been given today? What kind of emotions are visiting me today? What kind of care is my body asking for? What kind of care is my inner child asking for? And given that my life is so much more than just my work, what else might need some of my attention today?”
Having taken stock of the resources you’ve been given as well as the needs that you and your life have that day, ONLY THEN can you take a look at your list and ask, “How much can I do today? And what do I feel most drawn to doing first?”
… here’s where the objections start to come, yes?
“What if my body won’t let me do all the things I need to do? What if it’s not enough?”
Notice that these kinds of objections arise from thoughts like:
- I can’t trust my body
- I can’t trust life
- I need to be in control
If you look back over your life, can you honestly tell me that you’ve been in control so far? Have you personally orchestrated every turn of events? Have you managed to prevent unexpected, unpredictable forces from altering the course of things?
Even if you do think you have this kind of control, consider this: if you’re consistently pushing past your capacity and treating your body/heart/mind like some kind of overworked racehorse, YOU ARE GOING TO BURN THE F*** OUT. And you’re going to chew up any inner peace or satisfaction you might experience along the way. It doesn’t do good things for your relationships, either.
So here’s the software update I suggest:
- “Life Purpose” is just a thought, a modern fiction, a conceptual invention. If we do have a purpose, it is to be fully present with the moment of life that is occurring right now (this is because an unfolding that is larger and more elegant than you could ever possibly plan is trying to come through you, but you only get to receive one chunk at a time )
- When the only thing you need to do is whatever’s happening right now, you don’t need a plan. The invitation of the present moment has a way of being so… obvious, that there really isn’t anything you need to strain to “figure out”
- “Control” is another fictitious invention. You are not in control, and the attempt to gain and keep control will make you sad and sick. Full stop
- Whatever you have the energy to do today, whatever you have the heart to do, that is enough.
- It is safe and good to listen to your inner systems and put your trust in them
- It is important that you slow down, listen, and show up fully for whatever is happening right now
- You are a success when you find peace and satisfaction in your life as it is right now, and when you find playfulness and joy in the open-ended adventure of creation
If the standard issue Success Program says that you have to get your insides to live up to the outside ideal, Present Moment Productivity says that your insides are what set the ideal.
Seriously, taking good care of yourself and your life, and letting your inner capacity be the thing that leads the way, this is what brings balance and peace and the experience of actually living the life that you have right now. And if it isn’t enough to get you to some place you think you want to be, then so be it. I promise, you won’t miss it.