Stay true to your values

“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” — Albert Einstein

When I set off to Bali for a six-month writing sabbatical in the summer of 2014, I planned to end my trip by spending Christmas Day on the beach drinking piña coladas. It was one for my bucket list — and a beautiful white sand beach on the Indonesian island seemed like a perfect setting to soak up some sun over the holidays while sipping on a sweet, tropical cocktail.

Life is not always kind. Sometimes it is just downright cruel. Never in a million years would I have anticipated being back home in Canada on Christmas Day, grieving over the sudden loss of my father.

It happened so fast. It was difficult to process everything. I wasn’t ready or prepared to say goodbye, but I’m not sure more time would have fixed that. I have comfort in knowing he was surrounded with loving family, and many good friends, right to the end. We even got to open some Christmas gifts with him on December 22, in what would turn out to be his last full day before he passed. This gave him, and us, a small moment of joy.

The expression “salt of the earth” comes to mind when I think of my dad. He was an honest, stand-up kind of guy. A natural provider who was fiercely loyal to his family, and always there to help others without asking anything in return. His love was tacit, but present in everything he did.

With dad, actions spoke louder than words. The key to my father was not in what he said (or didn’t say), but in what he did. I came to learn over the years that he showed his love through actions, and his actions were almost always guided by a strong moral compass. My dad’s gift was his integrity. His life was grounded on a core set of values that he tried to live out every day: hard-work, fairness, family, kindness, and stability, all come to mind. His wasn’t a flashy life, but a deeply rewarding and highly principled one.

Three days after my father died, my family gathered together for Christmas Day. To pay tribute to my dad’s spirit of playfulness and love of the outdoors, we drove to a small secluded beach at a lakeside park not far from my parent’s home in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. On a cold and clear afternoon, with piña coladas in hand, we honoured him with a short Irish blessing and a reading of the poem, He Is Gone, by David Harkins. It was a fitting way to pay tribute and bid farewell to my beloved father.

One of the stanzas in that poem reads, “You can remember him and only that he is gone, or you can cherish his memory and let it live on.” It’s a poignant message about finding your way forward after the loss of a loved one. Taking the poem to heart, I spent several days after Christmas contemplating how to honour my father’s memory and keep it alive in my life. During this time of reflection I kept coming back to one thing — my dad’s gift of integrity.

My father led by example rather than proclamation. Through his actions, he taught me what it means to stay true to your values and to live a life that’s guided by a higher moral code. What better way to pay homage to his memory, I thought, than to model this way of living. I would stake claim to my own values and then take deliberate steps to live them out in my daily life. There was just one problem: I’d never thought about my values before. I wasn’t even sure how to go about identifying them, let alone how to live a life based on them.

This is an excerpt from the first chapter of The High Road, a series of lessons on how to find your purpose and live it out loud. Lesson 1 discusses the first principle for living with purpose: staying true to your values. In this lesson, you will learn how to identify your own values and live a life based on them. All things considered, it’s a tremendously powerful way to live.

Get Started! Click here to access the complete lesson.

Sharpen your saw: How to build up your inner reserves

“Nourishing yourself in a way that helps you blossom in the direction you want to go is attainable, and you are worth the effort.” — Deborah Day

Imagine that one of your life goals is to run a marathon. It’s a major stretch goal, considering you haven’t done even a 5 kilometre race, let alone one that’s 42 kilometres. Undeterred, you register for the event months in advance. The weeks pass, but you don’t bother to do any training. In fact, you don’t even leave the couch. When race day arrives, you put on your untouched running attire, and join the other competitors at the start line. Not long into the race, you’re forced to drop out due to utter exhaustion. Failure. Of course, this outcome is unsurprising. It would be foolish to attempt a marathon without proper training. What would be surprising is if you somehow managed to finish the race without any preparation.

Living a life of purpose is much like running a marathon. Frankly, it’s hard work. It takes dedication and commitment to be successful. And like a marathon, there are things you can do to prepare for the challenge. The key to success is to bolster your inner reserves to help stay the course over the long run.

In 1989, the late Stephen Covey wrote a landmark business and self-help book, called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Hugely popular, the book has sold over 25 million copies in 40 languages worldwide. Weaving together stories and advice from a wide range of successful people, the book presents seven principles, or habits, which provide guidance on being effective in accomplishing your goals.

It’s a book that everyone should read at least once, and while I won’t discuss all seven principles here, I do want to touch upon the seventh habit: sharpening the saw. Covey describes it this way: “Sharpening the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have — you.” This means building up your inner reserves — your vitality — so you will have the strength to reach your full potential. This habit provides the foundation for your success: It gives you the energy you need to put the other six habits into practice in your life.

Let’s look at the seventh habit in more detail. Covey states that, to maintain and increase your effectiveness, you must continually renew yourself in four main areas of health:

  • Body is your physical health. Building your reserves in this area means doing things like exercising, eating healthy, sleeping and resting, and relaxing.
  • Mind is your mental health. Strengthening your reserves in this area means doing things like reading, writing, pursuing education, and learning new skills.
  • Heart is your social and emotional health. Boosting your reserves in this area means doing things like building strong relationships, doing acts of service, volunteering, helping others, as well as laughing, loving and sharing.
  • Soul is your spiritual health. Bolstering your reserves in this area means doing things like meditating, keeping a reflective journal, reading contemplative texts, attending spiritual service, and praying.

Sharpening the saw means making time in your life for doing these types of activities. It doesn’t mean you have to do them all. However, it’s important to strive for balance and do things that reinforce your reserves in all four areas.

Here’s a quick exercise you can do to assess your current reserve levels. Divide a sheet of paper into four quadrants: body, mind, heart, and soul. In each quadrant, write down all the things you regularly do to promote good health. Only list activities you are actively doing at this point in your life — not things you did years ago.

This is a useful exercise because it helps you to identify where your reserves are low. You might notice that you have more things written down in some quadrants than in others. You might want to consider devoting more time to the areas you have been neglecting. This can help you to live a more balanced and healthier life — and give you more energy to pursue your dreams and contribute to the world around you.

Living by design: 2016 edition

2016 was the second year in a row that I used a fairly rigorous goal-setting system to increase my productivity and enjoyment in all areas of life. Some call this “living by design” or “life hacking.” To me, it’s about taking a more proactive approach to living, to treating life as a fun experiment, and to pursuing your dreams armed with a plan. You can read more about my system here.

Now that the year is over, I thought I would share my results and reflect upon the pros and cons of my approach.

So how did it go?

Overall, it was a good year. I was able to achieve (or come close to achieving) many of my goals for the year, as you can see in the graph below (yes, I’m a big dork). Three big accomplishments this year were: creating and teaching a new leadership course on how to think and act like a change-maker; raising over $10,000 for the Project Change Foundation; and traveling to five new countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia). Also, I was able to achieve most of my professional and financial goals even though I was out of the country for almost five months. This is reassuring as I continue to adopt a more location independent lifestyle. On the flip side, I struggled with some of my health goals and it was challenging to keep up with my spiritual practice while on the road.

Notes: i) For privacy reasons, I have elected not to disclose my revenue targets. ii) I did in fact set romantic goals, but I’m way too bashful to reveal them publicly. Ask me about it offline.

The Pros

Developing a set of meaningful goals, and sticking with them over the course of a year, takes commitment and serious effort. So what’s the payoff from all your hard work? From my experience, here are some of the main benefits:

A sense of direction – There’s almost an unlimited number of things you can do over the course of a year. This is exhilarating, but also intimidating. It’s easy to feel adrift and uncertain on what path to take. Goals act like a ship’s rudder: they provide direction as you navigate the ocean of possibilities in life.

Greater purpose – Having direction is important, but you also need to be heading in the right direction. To do this, my advice is to align your goals with your core values and long-term aspirations. This takes a bit of work, but it ensures your goals will contribute to a greater purpose.

Balanced lifestyle – Creating goals in different areas of your life helps to promote a more balanced lifestyle. This is especially beneficial for people who tend to focus too much on one area of life at the expense of others.

Better decision-making – Everyday, you make many decisions on how to allocate your time, energy and money. For example, let’s say you have an hour of free time today. How should you spend it? These kinds of decisions might seem trivial in the moment but, since you make so many of them, their cumulative effect over months and years can have a huge impact on your life. Using goals to help guide these decisions can return long-term benefits to your health and happiness.

A kick in the pants – Creating a list of goals, and tracking them over time, is a good way to keep you motivated and accountable as you work on things that are important to you. As an added incentive, the act of checking a completed goal off your list provides a boost to propel you towards your next big undertaking.

The Cons (and how to deal with them)

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, however. Here are some disadvantages with my approach and tips for overcoming them:

Too much structure – Sure, developing a wide range of goals can promote a balanced lifestyle, but it also forces a lot of structure on your life. Like a lot of things, structure is healthy in moderation but can be detrimental in the extreme. There’s a point of diminishing returns as you add more and more goals to your list (with 32 goals in 2016, I might be guilty of this). Tip: Don’t spread yourself too thin. Focus on one or two goals in each area of your life that will produce the biggest return on your effort. Put your energy there.

A distorted view of reality – Most of us believe that our goals will better our lives in some way. However, the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that comes to mind when you first dream up a goal can be quite different from the actual experience. A goal that seems amazing at first glance (e.g. “I’m going to write a book this year!”) might turn out to be utter torture in reality. Tip: Do a small pilot project before taking on a bigger goal. For example, create a preliminary goal to write one draft chapter of the book. Doing a pilot experiment is a good way to test the waters and can give you the confidence to go after your big, audacious goal later on.

Opportunity cost – Focusing a lot of time and energy on your goals can mean that you miss out on other awesome experiences in life. Tip: Reduce the number of goals in your list so that you’ll have time to pursue unexpected opportunities. Also, create a few goals that encourage spontaneity and experimentation (e.g. “Try something new at least once a month.”)

Too results focused – It’s tempting to create a list of goals that focus solely on the results you want to achieve in life (e.g. “earn a six-figure income” or “lose 10 pound”). These goals are useful for describing a desired outcome, but they don’t provide guidance on how to get there. This can leave you feeling frustrated if you don’t make much progress on your goals during the year. Tip: Use actionable goals that are within your locus of control. “Submit two proposals every month” and “walk at least 30 minutes a day” are examples of actionable goals – you have complete control over them and they can help to achieve your desired results. 

Face to face with failure – Tracking your goals is a fun way to celebrate your achievements throughout the year. However, it shines a bright light on your failures too. Staring at a list of incomplete goals can be downright depressing. Let’s face it, no one likes to be reminded of their failures. Tip: Think of your goal-setting practice as an experiment rather than an indication of your self-worth. Just like a good scientist, try to learn from your failed trials. Ask yourself: What changes can you make based on your experience? What would be the probable outcomes from making these changes? Remember: Not all experiments will be successful, but all of them can teach you something.