Aug 272017

Wherever we are in our lives is, to some extent great or small, the result of the influence of others. The further we travel on life’s path the less those influences may seem to matter, but they are always present even though we are not consciously aware of them.

The most apparent influences in our lives are parents, peers and educators, but others may have played a significant role during our development as a human being, or in school, or in our career. As we grow and develop these influences shape our opinions, our decisions and our outlook on life. As we mature, we form our own opinions, make our own decisions and frame our own outlook on life. Yet, we never completely separate ourselves from these early influences.

Many of our choices, even later in life, arise from our youthful inspirations. Our career may be the direct result of the influence of a parent or an educator. Our choice of life partner may arise from attractions or aversions carried over from past relationships. Our parenting style may be molded by repeating things we liked as children and avoiding those things we didn’t like. These influences may become less pronounced, and we may become less conscious of them – if we ever were – but they are always there to some degree. Often, we succeed because of them; many times, we succeed in spite of them.

Human history is a continually evolving process of people influencing the lives and future of others. Because of the choices and efforts of those who came before us we have progressed from the cave to the duplex, from chiseling marks on clay tablets to using laptop computers, from tapping our fingers and toes to symphony orchestras.

Regardless of how we perceive our world today, it is the result of a ongoing process beginning with our earliest ancestors and progressing through each successive generation. Their choices and actions are influencing our lives today, just as our choices and our actions will shape the lives of those who come after us.

Our lives are also being influenced in the present. Our partners, our parents and our children influence us every day, every moment. So do our friends, our neighbors and our coworkers. It is in these close personal relationships that we notice the influence of others the most. And, it is within our close personal relationships that our lives evolve from dependence to interdependence.

Interdependence, however, extends far beyond our personal relationships. The food that we eat, the clothes that we wear and the shelters that we sleep in depend on those far outside the small circle of personal relationships. For all but a few of us, the food that we eat does not just magically appear on our dinner plates. Others have cultivated it, harvested it, packed it, shipped it and perhaps prepared it. Many hands were involved in delivering the food to our plates. And many hands were involved in creating the plates and the utensils that we use to eat. This interdependence expands into every area of our lives. We rely on others to transport ourselves to work, pay the electric bill and remove our trash.

Even those who live seemingly independent lives by growing their own food, making their own clothes and building their own shelters are interdependent. They may be mostly independent of other human beings to a large degree, but they must still rely on nature to provide what they need for their subsistence living.

Recognizing the contributions of others in providing what we need to sustain our lives is an important step toward realizing just how far our web of interdependence extends. It develops our appreciation for the migrant farmers who pick our food, the workers who filter our waste products, and those who risk their personal safety to protect us.

In modern society, our web of interdependence reaches far beyond our neighborhood or our village. We live in an age of global interconnectedness where we rely not just on the person across the street to observe the building code and parking regulations, but also the person across the world to preserve the rainforests and harness destructive weapons.

In a global village, we rely on others who appear to be very different than us. These differences are necessary to some extent because they produce unique skills and characteristics that are necessary for the global village to survive. Such differences, however, are superficial because we are all innately human with the same basic needs and desires. For the global village to thrive we need to respect the differences and acknowledge the similarities. By doing so we come to appreciate the contribution that everyone makes in our lives.

That appreciation should extend to ourselves as well, for we are also making a contribution to benefit the lives of others, and we should do so in a responsible manner. The more we understand our interconnectedness, our shared humanity, the more effective our contribution will be. And the more we appreciate the contributions of our ancestors the sooner we will realize that we are ancestors too. We are followers in the continuum of history, but we are also leaders, entrusted with the future.

Dec 302016

Half of us will be making New Year’s resolutions. Most of us will not keep them. The calendar just doesn’t provide enough motivation for achievement.  New Year’s resolutions tend to be emotional wishes, not realistic goals that result from careful deliberation. Worthwhile achievements require commitment, and commitment comes with SMARTER goal setting.

Setting goals can be a formidable and intimidating task, especially if we haven’t engaged in the process for a while. Our thoughts are often haphazard when we begin figuring out what it is that we would like to accomplish, what progress we would like to make in our lives, and how to go about doing it. We can make the process easier by intentionally focusing our efforts in a productive way.

One way to focus on what’s important to us is to separate the individual aspects of our lives into individual compartments. Of course, we cannot live segmented lives. Each aspect of our lives touches upon our whole being. Devoting toomuch or too little attention to any aspect of our lives will negatively affect every other aspect. For the purpose of goal setting, however, compartments are a convenient way to consider individual aspects of our lives that we’d like to change, and determine what steps we need to take to make those changes a reality.

The six areas in this diagram encompass the different aspect of our lives.

Health addresses the most primary of human goals – the need to survive. Beyond survival, poor health jeopardizes our ability to perform in other areas while optimal health enables us to pursue other goals with vigor.

Finances and proper financial management are also necessary for survival in our society. Money can’t buy lasting happiness, but a poor financial situation negatively affects other areas of our lives.

Research shows that relationships are one of the most important factors contributing to our feeling of well-being, and have a positive impact on the quality of our lives and our longevity.

Education is a lifelong process. Even without pursuing a formal education, we can’t avoid learning something new every day. Why not direct that learning toward improving other areas of our lives?

A vocation is different than a job or a career. A job is something we do to earn money. A career is a collection of jobs. A vocation, however, is the reason we get out of bed in the morning, the reason why we don’t retire, the reason why life is worth living. A vocation is the serendipitous intersection of our talents and desires with opportunities. Vocation is a calling.

Spirituality is often overlooked or given much less thought than other areas of our lives. For some, religion can be automatic; for others, it is irrelevant. Spirituality is not the same as religion. Spirituality is the quest for answers to life’s most important questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?  What do we do while we’re here? Our approach to spirituality is our approach to life.

These compartments may or may not work for you. Change any that you like. For instance, there’s no area dedicated to leisure time, which is lacking for many of us. However, as we examine what we’d like to change about our health, or our relationships, or how we explore spirituality, we naturally find that leisure time is an integral part of these improvements and is not a goal in itself but a means to achieve other goals.

Decide which areas are appropriate for you and then try the following process as you progress around the wheel.

  1. Think about this aspect of your life. Really think about it. If you’re considering personal finances, don’t just brush off the subject because bill collectors aren’t knocking on your door. Are you struggling to make ends meet? Are you wondering how you’ll afford college? Are you anxious about having enough saved for retirement? Assess each area in this manner. You’re deciding what to do with the rest of your life so take your time and thing about it awhile. There’s no completion date for this exercise. It’s a lifelong process.
  2. What changes, if any, would you like to make in this area? Start with general observations. “I’d like to lose weight.” “I’d like to put more money away for retirement.” “I’d like to finish school and get my degree.”
  3. For each general observation, write down a specific goal that you’d like to achieve. The most effective goals are SMART goals. To be SMART, goals should be:
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

For each change that you’d like to make, list a SMART goal. If you’ve made the observation that you’d like to “lose some weight,” then a SMART goal would be “I’d like to lose 20 pounds before the summer begins.” A goal of “losing some weight” is neither specific nor measurable. Setting a goal to lose 50 pounds by the summer may not be attainable. Including a target date makes the goal time-bound which provides motivation and enables process toward the goal to be tracked. Remember, you’re listing your goals in this stage, so write them down! It’s too easy to forget or disregard those nebulous promises we make to ourselves when we’re daydreaming. Recording your goals and facing them every day will make you accountable to yourself.

List as many specific goals as you’d like but try not to overwhelm yourself. Too many goals in too many areas are not realistic. Multiple disappointments undermine motivation and result in fewer achievements.

Once you’ve completed a list of goals for each area, prioritize them. If your financial goals include paying off credit card debt, taking an extra vacation and saving more money for retirement, decide which is most important and beneficial for your life and make that your number one goal in that area. Next, decide which of the remaining goals is most important and make that your number two goal. Repeat the process until you’ve prioritized all of your goals for that area.

  1. After you’ve created separate lists of prioritized goals, make a separate list that includes the number one goal from each area. This is your master goal list. You can prioritize the master list but it’s not necessary. Concentrating on the whole list of number one goals will encourage a balanced approach to achieving progress.

Examine each one of the goals on your master list and determine what steps you need to take to accomplish it. Goals can be really  big and audacious, which makes them daunting and formidable targets that are best tackled one piece at a time. While some goals can be accomplished quickly given the proper resolve, most are achieved through a series of milestones. The steps are mini-goals, so write them down.

Keep this master list of goals and steps where you can refer to on a regular, preferably daily or weekly, basis. Gauge your progress often. As you accomplish each goal on your master list, replace it with the next prioritized goal from that area, and think about what steps are necessary for success. Write them down. By constantly refreshing the master goal list, you’re promoting continuous improvement in each area of your life.

There are many ways to set and achieve goals. The most important thing is to achieve your objectives, so you needn’t get bogged down in one specific process. Do what works best for you. The process outlined here is just one suggestion. If you’d like to give it a try, you can download the goal-setting form at the end of this article. It contains a copy of the diagram above with space for listing goals and steps.

Good luck and best wishes for the new year!

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

         – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



Goal-Setting Worksheet

Jul 102016


We live at a frantic pace with a multitude of commitments and things to do. Our planners are filled with appointments, our to-do lists are crammed with tasks, and every minute of our day is committed to some activity. We are continually expected to do more with less at work. We rush about incessantly to fulfill our responsibilities at home. We strive unceasingly to honor commitments, and maintain our status, in our social circles. We are constantly moving, constantly doing.

Modern technology can connect us with anyone at any time, and they with us. The internet, e-mail, and cell phones ensure that we are available “24/7.” There is hardly a public place that you can visit, including a rest room, without hearing the ring of a cell phone or one side of someone else’s conversation.

We occupy what little time we have for leisure with meaningless diversions. Waves of information and pseudo-information are available on our computers and mobile devices. Entertainment media can engage us at any hour of the day. We can readily escape reality with the help of chemical stimulants.

We are besieged with endless stimuli. All of the technological advances that better our quality of life also provide more options to keep us otherwise occupied and distracted. The options available to help us avoid ourselves are seemingly limitless.

Our world is so full of distractions, diversions, and interruptions that we have become a multitude of unconscious individuals whose lives have become an endless series of involuntary reflexes. We live fragmented lives, multitasking every aspect of our being. Although material success can be achieved in this way, there always seems to be an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, a murky discontent.

Aside from meeting the ever-increasing requirements of modern life, we endeavor to keep ourselves busy because we tend to equate being alone with loneliness, and aloneness with boredom. We distract ourselves from solitude to avoid thinking. We go to great lengths to avoid ourselves.

Society places little value on silence and inactivity and, as a result of complying with this assessment, we develop a fear of being alone with our thoughts. We direct our focus outward. Even unconsciously, we are so uncomfortable with silence and inactivity that our minds fill the gaps with incessant mental chatter. Just as we instinctively fear the unknown of the dark externally, so we also fear the darkness within because of the thoughts that may be waiting to harm us.

We are uncomfortable when left alone because we have forgotten how, or are reluctant, to reflect upon our lives. Lao Tzu warned us of becoming “beggars who look outside for a treasure that is hidden within.” We need to be truly alone and fully present with ourselves to assess our life situation – our accomplishments and aspirations – and our plans for the future. Instead, we routinely squander the opportunities and eventually lose touch with ourselves.

To break free from the habit of mindlessness, to discover the source of any underlying dissatisfaction, we must suspend automaticity and make a commitment to ourselves. We need to clear a slot in our planners, turn off our technology, tune out the media, and purposely ignore distractions. By deliberately taking a break from the hectic pace of modern life, disengaging from autopilot, we can reflect inwardly to determine what we expect from our lives, and how to meet those expectations.

Few of us are accustomed to making time to engage in quiet reflection because we have become quite comfortable avoiding ourselves. But inside our own minds is the only place where we will find the answers that we need. Going inside, sometimes deep inside, is necessary to figure out what’s important to us, to figure out the path that we should be exploring.

It is not always a nice, pleasant place to visit. The journey of self-realization and self-assessment is fraught with stumbling blocks and detours. But genuine progress is only possible by working inside. Focusing outside, we adopt the beliefs and opinions of others, we accomplish the goals that others set for us, and we attain things that others regard as important. Turning within allows us to discover our own truths, to create our own map.

If we stop succumbing to constantly-available diversions, reintroduce ourselves to the stranger inside that we may hardly recognize, become reacquainted with who we are and who we want to be, then we will begin to truly know ourselves, to accept ourselves. We will befriend ourselves. Then real change is possible.

Apr 122016

Much of our unhappiness comes from the expectation that we can control our lives, and the frustration that results when reality teaches us differently. Having little say or recollection of the beginning of our lives, and confronted with the inevitability of its end, we try to at least direct what’s in between.

We attempt to control our environment – our homes, our neighborhoods, our world. But the house deteriorates without regular maintenance. Noisy neighbors move in next door or, perhaps, we are the noisy neighbors and the newcomers complain too much.

We try to control our possessions. But the things we own decay, become lost or obsolete, or they no longer give us the same satisfaction that they did when they were new. And it’s inconvenient to replace old things that have worn out or have been misplaced because it interrupts our quest for new things.

We strive to control events and circumstances – the moments of our days and the milestones of our lives. We expect to advance in our careers, or at least have job security, until the economy changes. We anticipate the perfect vacation, until our hotel reservation is lost. We anticipate an easy commute to work, but traffic builds up as the roads become congested with other people anticipating an easy commute to work.

Most frustrating of all, and not always consciously, we try to control other people. We expect our partners to behave in a certain way, most conveniently by reading our minds. We expect our children to follow a certain path. We don’t always receive the respect or recognition that we feel we deserve.

When things don’t happen as we wish, we become frustrated, perhaps depressed, sometimes angry. The stoic teacher Epictetus taught his students,

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.

In other words, some things we can control and some things we cannot, and happiness comes from knowing the difference.

The first challenge is recognizing just how far our control extends, and realizing that there are many things that concern us that we cannot control. Our area of concern is almost always beyond the scope of our control. Many things in life concern us – global warming, nuclear war, the neighbor’s dog – but that doesn’t mean that we can control them. There are things that we can do to effect change, especially if we coordinate our efforts with others who share the same concern, but absolute control eludes our grasp.

We may be concerned that our children will live happy and fulfilling lives, but we can’t control every event and outcome for them, nor do they want us to. No matter how much we expand the scope of our control, our area of concern will always be greater.

This is the fallacy of power. Power and control are not synonymous. Those who acquire power believe that they can control events and people. And the constant quest for more power arises from misinterpreting unsuccessful attempts to control, and the mistaken belief that more power brings more control. Power does not give us control. Power enables us to influence people and events, but we cannot guarantee actions and outcomes.

The need for power and control arises from attachment. We become attached to things, to sequences of events, to having things our own way. Attachment promotes unhappiness and discontent by denying the reality of change. Change is inevitable. Change is necessary.

Without change we could not progress in life. In fact, the universe would not exist and we would never have been born. Recognizing the inevitability, the reality of change is the beginning of relinquishing attachments and dissolving the illusion of control.

This does not mean adopting an attitude of doom and gloom. Happiness does not come from fatalism. We can accept that “everything happens for a reason” while investigating those reasons so that we can effect positive change in our lives and in the lives of others.

Nor do we have to avoid enjoying things. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi taught, “Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away.”

Happiness comes from accepting “what is.” Acceptance begins when we recognize that there is only one thing that we can truly control – our thoughts. The Buddha instructed his followers,

We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world.

Even our thoughts are difficult to control. Much of the time incessant mental chatter consumes us. And much of this babble is negative. In our minds, we misrepresent the past, magnify fears about the future, make critical assessments of others and demean ourselves.

It is not easy, but we can control our thoughts, although such control may not be absolute. Through persistence we can gradually clear our minds and begin living in the present. We learn to let go of regrets about the past and fears about the future. We cease unnecessary criticisms of others and ourselves. When we live in the present, we appreciate everything for the way it is – right now – with the implicit understanding that life, and every component of it, is fleeting.

By controlling our thoughts, we begin to see things “just as they are” and, as Epictetus promised his students, we begin to attain inner tranquility and outer effectiveness. By doing so, we realize the greatest benefit of change: growth.