It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about fixing things on the outside. You routinely hear and read things like: 5 ways to lose weight, 6 ways to save money, 7 ways to fix your relationship, and the list goes on. This approach is akin to putting a band-aid on a serious wound, at best. It makes a major false assumption that the challenge is in the “doing” of things. It’s not.
For instance, there is no shortage of self-help books on “building habits” to improve your life. The conventional advice is to start with a habit in a small way, then build on it gradually day by day until you get the result you seek. This approach is flawed for many reasons, but here’s the main one.
By the way, this is also the reason why most New Year’s resolutions (or anything for that matter) fail, which is, because the emphasis is on taking action. The typical advice for building a habit towards losing weight (but for anything) goes something like this: On day 0 (the night before), get your gym clothes out. On day 1, go the gym, but don’t do anything. On day 2, stay there for a few more minutes. On day 3, walk on a treadmill for 1 minute. And so on and so forth until you build a habit of going to the gym regularly. These books tell you to work on your consistency before increasing the intensity.
That’s all well and good, but the problem isn’t necessarily with the advice on habits, but starting with habits is ineffective (as evident in gyms in February every year). It’s also a short-sighted approach. It’s a What to your Why, at best. And therein lies the rub.
The basic truth
Here’s the thing. When you want to do something, you’ll find a way to do it one way or another. That’s the basic truth. The last thing you’ll need help with is the What (habits). Wanting to change is the hard part, but no one will tell you that. No one can “motivate” you to change despite what you (or others might have you) believe. The key to that lock is inside of you, and you alone. When you figure out the Why, you’ll figure out the “What” on your own. Yes, you can still seek help with the What, but you won’t have to rely on others in order for you to make progress. As the old adage goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s true.
Contrary to popular belief, the challenge isn’t in seeking answers, but figuring out questions worth asking. Finding the answers is the easy part. Asking the right questions is not. Figure out the questions to ask yourself (or find someone who can help you do that), and you’ll find the answers on your own sooner or later. Similarly, solving a problem is the (relatively) easy part. Defining the problem is not. Remember, the obstacle is the way.
Life isn’t about seeking answers, but figuring out questions worth asking. Therein lies the opportunity for our greatest growth.
The real challenge isn’t in learning What to do to lose weight, but figuring out Why you want to do so; ditto with saving money. Likewise, the challenge isn’t in fixing your relationship with others, but in improving your relationship with yourself, but more on this later.
The journey of growth starts inside. The outside is simply a reflection of what happens inside. In other words, when we focus on the inside (being), the outside (“doing”) will take care of itself. Being will always precede “doing”, just as heart precedes mind, or leadership precedes management. The order matters.
Focusing on the What without the Why is akin to:
- Mind without heart
- Management without leadership
- Habits without intention
- Action without thinking
- Doing without being/living
There is a reason why one precedes the other and it’s not coincidental. For instance, we naturally talk about heart and mind, art and science, leadership and management, but never vice-versa (mind and heart, science and art, management and leadership). Not only do these sound and feel right, but they also happen to be true. As they say, where the heart (Why) goes, the mind (What) follows. It isn’t true the other way round.
Apply the journey of growth
Here’s how the journey of growth unfolds in the different areas of our lives:
Let’s say instead of figuring out “how to lose weight”, you wanted to be a healthier person. Now, this is an entirely different goal. It’s not even a “goal”, but a choice you make. Again, there is only one decision to be made, and only you can make that decision. When you decide to be healthy, you’ll automatically buy healthy stuff from the supermarket, for instance. You’ll figure out what exercise you want to do. Then, you don’t have to think about “resisting yourself” to not eat certain foods, or tracking calories, or having “off days”, or relying on “motivation” to go to a gym, all of which are things that come up when the emphasis is on habits. You’ll naturally show up to do because of who you’ve decided to be.
You’ll instinctively know what to do and what not to do. And even if you don’t, you can always get help. But this is a different approach than seeking help (with a coach) directly and bypassing the decision part mentioned earlier. They can help you with the “doing” part, but not with the being, which is the reason why we don’t make progress, because we think of it as a temporary fix (among other things), which it isn’t.
You’ll realize losing weight was never about losing weight. It’s never about the “What”, but always about the Why. All said and done, it doesn’t matter what you “do.” What matters is where you are coming from. The “doing” then takes care of itself.
Ultimately, if you want to make any lasting change in your life, it comes down to focusing on who you are, not what you do, because the latter is only a manifestation of the former, and who you are (being) is much greater than what you do (“doing”). Real growth happens from the inside out (not outside in). Figure out the Why, and you’ll figure the What one way or another. When you focus on the inputs, the output will take care of itself. Then, there’ll be no “motivation” required by way of habits or what have you. What you’ll find is not only will you make progress quickly, but, you’ll do it naturally (easily, joyfully, and sustainably).
Simply put, if you believe something to be true, then you’ll automatically do what’s necessary in consistent with the belief. Real change happens in the intention, and not in the “doing” of things. When you’ve figured out the intent, the “doing” will take care of itself. This is the (relatively) easier approach, because you’re doing the heavy lifting of wanting to change (Why) upfront. And, by starting with the What, you’re making life more difficult for yourself in every which way.
Along the way, you might realize “there is no goal to achieve” (and there isn’t). You’re simply doing the things you do, because it’s who you are. Doing the work is the reward in and off itself. You can still keep track of your progress, which is quite different from “setting goals.” It shows you how far you’ve come along in your journey thus far. It’s a fundamentally different way to live. And, this is only one example based on one aspect of your life.
It’s worth noting this draft has the word, “journey” in the title for a reason. Every day is an opportunity for us to be (and do) our best. There is nothing to achieve. There is nowhere to arrive. Whatever you achieve will be the result of focusing on who you are, not “what you do.” Life is about living, not “doing.” When you focus on the living, the “doing” takes care of itself.
Just like with making progress with our health by focusing on who we are, we don’t have to “fix” our relationship with others (on the outside). We need to improve our relationship with ourselves (on the inside). When we focus on ourselves, our relationship with the world transforms by itself. Others will begin to wonder about the new you. Then, you’ll stop saying things like, “relationship takes work….” No, it doesn’t (and it shouldn’t). In fact, there won’t be any relationship issues, if you’re always focused on bettering yourself. At the end of the day, all you can do is work with yourself, but more on that in another piece.
Here’s another example. We try and do things outside to feel less lonely inside, but the real issue is we are lonely on the inside. No outer stuff will fix that. One of the ways we try to solve it is by seeking relationships to feel less lonely or by protecting ourselves to feel less alone, but they are a temporary fix at best. The bottom line is no one who is already okay by themselves can be okay in the company of others. True in-dependence comes only from depending on ourselves for our mental well-being.
Despite what others might have you believe, there’s nothing natural about feeling lonely. This isn’t to say we don’t spend time with others by way of having friendships or relationships. Far from it, but when you do that from a place of filling some gap in your life, then you’re walking on thin ice and setting yourself up for disappointment.
Contrary to what is generally believed, we don’t have to fix things on the outside (because we can’t and we’d be kidding ourselves by trying to). We need to start working on the inside. We only need to improve our relationship with that one person (that one person is you by the way), and our relationship with others will automatically transform.
Life is not about “give and take”, as some might have you believe. For instance, the last thing you want to do is try to keep score of what you did for others. And, if you’re doing something for others, just so you can get something in return, then you must question your true motives, because there is nothing natural or human about it. You are here only to give, and the more you give to others, the less you need from them. Again, this is a fundamentally different way to live. The truth is it’s the only way to live. It’s called being human.
We are conditioned by the world to start focusing on outputs from an early age through our education/schooling. Let me explain.
Today, many parents and/or their children are obsessed with getting good grades (output) at the cost of true learning (input). They are happy as long as they get straight As. Most children are conditioned to study something only if it’s going to be “on the test”, or if they’ll get extra credit for it, or if it’s something they can put on their CV/résumé (for job opportunities later on), but is that true learning? Now, we need an “incentive” to learn? Whatever happened to the joy of learning things and letting our curiosity drive it?!
Then, there are those like me who barely made it through high school and college, but it wasn’t because I didn’t like to learn. Quite the opposite — I liked learning a lot, but I was failed by most of my teachers, not through grades, but through poor teaching. And, that’s not entirely their fault either. They are simply following a set curriculum prescribed to them by some organizing body and are under pressure to complete it within a fixed timeframe. Unfortunately, this teaching model doesn’t map to true learning, which takes both time and effort. It’s not in the learner’s best interest to conform to the curriculum and to learn things this way. The teaching model needs to conform to the student, and not vice-versa. Again, how we do something matters more than what we do.
The other thing is, just like you can get from point a to point B without enjoying the journey, you can get the grades without true learning, as many students often do, but what would be the point of that?! The thing is, in trying to get the grades, we have completely lost sight of the learning, which was the point to begin with. In that sense, we are always preparing to live in the future, and so, we never end up living in the present. We need to ask ourselves why are we doing what we are doing.
For instance, we may learn the value of pi to be 22/7 or 3.14, because the teacher “said so” and they may not want you to question them, because. But, we may not know its true meaning, why it’s required, what is its application in the real world, etc. Similarly, we may know how to solve algebra or trigonometry, and we can even do well on the test with enough practice, but we don’t know how to apply it to our lives to make it better. Suffice it to say, we don’t understand things deeply.
It’s not enough to get grades without truly understanding things in a deep way. If getting the grades comes at the price of not learning things in a fundamental way, then is that true learning? Success that comes at a price is not true success. What’s the point of embarking on a journey, if you only care about reaching your destination?! How we do things matters more than what we do. It’s the only thing that matters.
And here’s the thing that most of us miss. When the focus is on learning (input) (through good teaching, of course), the grades (output) will naturally take care of itself. Then, we don’t have to work on “getting grades”, because we understand things in a deep way, and getting the grades is simply a natural extension of that.
I like sharing the example of one of the idiots in the movie, 3 Idiots. This particular idiot, Phunsukh Wangdu, (character inspired by real-life engineer, innovator, and education reformist, Sonam Wangchuk) goes to an engineering school to learn. Unlike the other students in the movie, he’s not there only to get a degree per se, so he can get a job and make a living. This might sound heretical in most circles, but he goes to school, because he really wants to learn, as he’s endlessly fascinated by how things work.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, if you haven’t seen it, but let’s just say he ends up learning way more than the others in every sense of the word. But all of his progress (output) stemmed from his desire to learn (input). He didn’t start out wanting to do all the things he ended up doing. It was simply a natural result of his learning process, which he took upon himself even in a formal learning environment that wasn’t conducive to true learning. While I recommend this movie particularly to parents, the message is universal — focus on inputs and let the output take care of itself. Go watch it, if you haven’t already. Or maybe you have, and in which case, go see it again.
Let’s talk about how the journey of growth applies to the workplace.
For instance, you can have all the strategy you want in your organization, but as someone said, culture [Why] eats strategy [How] for breakfast [every time]. Of course, it does. Culture (Why) precedes strategy (How), which precedes the operations (What). We don’t start out working on operations and then figure out the strategy or culture. We start with the culture, then work on the strategy, followed by operations. The order matters.
Just like with parenting (leadership), we can’t say X to our employees and then do Y ourselves. Just like our children, others will only learn from what we do, and not what we say. It’s imperative that we get the culture right at the outset, which is, of course, governed by values and beliefs, which is a whole another thread to delve into.
Let’s focus on cultivating the soil, not the plant. When the culture is right, people flourish. We want to improve the environment rather than “fixing people” inside it (which we can’t, but we keep trying anyway). True leadership requires getting out of others’ way, so they can do the work we hired them to do. It’s not about “empowering others”, but learning to stop disempowering them. And, trusting them to do the work, whilst them knowing that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.
In business, we are obsessed with getting results (What), but we tend to ignore or disregard how we get those results to begin with. For instance, we may sacrifice the people just so we can make the numbers for the next quarter. Remember, success that comes at a price isn’t true success. Again, it’s not about What we do, but Why and How we do things. Maybe the approach to take here is to hire slow and not go on a hiring frenzy when things are scaling up quickly. Things will inevitably go up and down, but we can choose to remain equanimous.
Here’s another way to look at how organizations could function, because it’s in their best interest to do so.We can choose to shift our attention from our shareholders (output) to our employees (input). We need to take care of our employees first and foremost, period. This requires hiring the right people to begin with, which is a function of the organizational culture. When they are taken care of (in the right ways, of course) through good leadership, they will manage the customers by themselves. Their actions will then inform the organization’s bottom line, which will satisfy the shareholders as well.
Employees first, customers second, shareholders third, always. The order matters. When we focus on the inputs, the output will take care of itself. Not only is it good business, but more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the only way to move forward, sustainably.
I’ve only shared a handful of examples with you here, as I don’t want to turn this piece into a treatise, but imagine the possibilities if you started with being (rather than “doing”) for every aspect of your life!
What we intend informs what we do. The growth happens in the intent, and not in the doing. Real growth, that is. Who we are informs what we do. Growth happens in who we are (as in our being), and the result we see in the what we do (“doing”). How you see is what you do. Change the way you see things, and you’ll figure out what to do to make it happen. That is the essence of true growth.
Despite what others would have us believe, we don’t need help with finding answers. We need to figure out questions worth asking.