Find Meaning in the Present Moment

Earlier this week, I was listening to this Reboot podcast conversation between Jerry Colonna and Parker Palmer, which discusses how leaders measure their lives. In particular, the podcast summary has this line: “For many leaders, the draw can be to gaze upon external outcomes as a manifestation of our life’s meaning, allowing our worthiness to be derived from our relationship between mean and end.” The whole podcast is worth a listen, as these wise men reflect on how to evaluate one’s life, but I was particularly struck by an exchange towards the end where Colonna says that the question isn’t “Does my life have meaning?” but instead “Are you kind?” Palmer extended that to cultivating gratitude in every interaction.

Their reframing of the meaning of life into kindness and gratitude aligns with how I’ve been starting to think about my own life over the past two years. In particular, I have written about the value of practicing gratitude and being generous in how I want to live my life. I’ve also been trying to express a related concept in recent coaching conversations that hasn’t been quite landing, so I’m going to try to explain it here, inspired by the Colonna/Palmer conversation.

The way I interpret Colonna and Palmer’s words is that we most fully live our life when we focus on what we are giving meaning to at this exact present moment, rather than focusing on what may result in the future, or what has happened in the past. In other words, when I take an action based on trying to achieve a certain result in the future, or to fix a mistake in the past, I am not focused on what is happening right now.

Many people in my communities, including myself, have been trained to sacrifice the present for the future. We are raised to get good grades and do lots of activities not for their own sake, but so we can get into a good college. Once we’re in college, we immediately take that for granted, and focus on getting good grades, not for their own sake, but to get a good internship or job after college. Then those internships and jobs are just stepping stones to get us the experience needed for our “dream job”. The challenge is that when we get to whatever destination we have been aiming for, we sometimes realize that we are not satisfied, so we set out for a new destination. This is the toxic meta-narrative of The Island Where It All Turned Out Well, where we focus on where we are going, rather than appreciating where we are.

So why do we continue looking for the next Island or destination? Because it works! The Island narrative keeps us moving and helps us stay motivated. People like me have relied on this future orientation to become successful, always sacrificing the present to improve our chances at a long-term outcome. So why would we stop using this technique that has worked so well for us?

The answer I have come to is that the Island narrative is valuable and does work to achieve outcomes and results, but at the cost of finding meaning and happiness in what I’m doing right now. The Island narrative focuses on outcomes and results, and outcomes and results are not in my control, which leads to inevitable disappointment. That may be an acceptable tradeoff for many people, where they will take the future orientation and disappointment in exchange for higher probability of achieving their desired outcomes. But I no longer feel compelled by the drive for results.

So what is the alternative? In the conversation, Jerry quotes a line from the poet David Whyte, “We often speak of good work done well for the right reasons.” He says that when he finishes a day, he can often say to himself “Good work, Jerry. Done well. For the right reasons.” and contrasted that to a successful entrepreneur he was coaching who said he never felt that way, because there was always more to do, and the next milestone to reach. As long as there was another result to strive for, the work wasn’t done.

Another way of expressing the alternative mindset is to live into each moment as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. If I am doing the best I can in each moment, then why should I tie my happiness and meaning in life to a future outcome? What matters is that I am doing the work I find meaningful in the moment, and I believe that living into that path is its own outcome that I choose to measure myself by. I just realized that this is another expression of Kant’s theory of morality:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

When we view our actions as merely a way to get a future result, then we are treating ourselves as the means to an end; the alternative is to view our actions as meaningful ends in and of themselves: “Good work done well for the right reasons”.

But if a person only focused on the now, wouldn’t they live in a state of pure hedonism, indulging every whim and instinct without a thought as to future consequences? That is possible, so this stance towards life probably only makes sense for people at a certain level of adult development (e.g. Kegan’s Self-Authoring mind or Kohlberg’s post-conventional level). For me, though, I find I get bored of just sitting around indulging myself pretty quickly – I want to have more meaning in my actions. I want to make a difference for others and myself. I want to, in Colonna’s words, “be kind”.

This all sounds theoretical, so how do I translate this into practical advice on how to choose one’s actions? My Finding Your Way post outlines my general strategy: identify the actions you take that energize you, and that drain you. The actions that energize you often do so because they create meaning for you in some way; the question I was asked in my purpose and meaning post was

“What motivates you at work? What makes you feel so good that you’d be willing to get paid less if you got more of this?”

For me, the motivation was in helping people move forward with their goals, and I can use that as my North Star to find actions that are meaningful to me.

This is also a good opportunity to re-link to this Farnam Street post on habits vs. goals, where he suggests that setting a goal like running a marathon or losing ten pounds is unproductive, because once you achieve the goal, you relax and fall back. If you instead develop the habit of “run 30 minutes a day” or “start every meal with two cups of vegetables”, it requires less willpower to maintain, and leads to better long-term outcomes. This is another example of developing a set of productive actions for ourselves that we imbue with meaning in and of themselves, rather than as means to a goal/end.

What I’m discovering as I try to more often focus on my actions in the moment rather than my desired outcomes is that I’m actually more productive, despite my concerns that the fear of failure is what was fueling my productivity. This result was surprising and counter-intuitive for me. The difference is that I still have goals and outcomes I desire, but rather than stress about whether I achieve those goals, I focus more on what can I do right now that moves me in the desired direction, instead of being distracted by my anxiety about getting the desired result. I choose action.

Part of the reason I’m writing this post is I’ve tried explaining this idea to a few people recently, and didn’t feel like it was getting across. I’m curious what you, the reader, are taking away from this post – did it make any sense? What, if anything, resonated with you? Please leave a comment, or send an email, if it provides meaning for you at this moment 🙂 If not, I will still believe that writing this post was “Good work. Done well. For the right reasons.”