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What is a Good Life? #25
Good day to you all,
If this is your first time reading this newsletter, please click here for background information on the project and how it is structured (4 separate sections).
The key theme this week is Prioritising yourself. The interviewee speaks about the importance of accountability and prioritising his own happiness, while I reflect on the balance of pleasing others and prioritising yourself.
1. This week’s interview
Each week I share direct excerpts from an individual interview
This week’s interview is with Ted*. Ted is a VP of Software Development for a Fintech company and he speaks about the importance of prioritising his own happiness and dropping expectations of others and outcomes.
* Not the participant’s real name
What is a good life for you?
There's one thing that’s as close to a universal truth as anything, and that's health. In order for me to experience a good life, I have to acknowledge health intentionally each and every day, and work on it. That's the foundation for having a good life, the fact that I am in decent shape, have strength and energy, and I have my wits about me.
What also makes a good life for me, is the fact that I've experienced so much “bad” life. That contrast is an incredibly important ingredient to having a good life. Because if I didn't know what a “bad” life was per se, I wouldn't know what a good life is. So, I'm super thankful for all of the struggles, the trials and the tribulations, the setbacks, and the punches to the face and having to pick myself up off the mat to keep swinging. That mindset allows me to live a good life because it helps to reframe “bad” things that happen to me, as they happen to all of us.
Can you give me an example of how a setback benefited your life?
The biggest one that I can think of is my divorce, which sounds super counterintuitive. I was married for 9 years, and for the last several years, for a myriad of reasons, I was miserable. There is a saying, “happy wife, happy life”. That probably should have been tattooed on my forehead! “If you're happy, I'm happy”, you know, “what can I do to make you happy?” And then my happiness was not even part of my consideration.
And it was almost the reverse of that. The more I tried to make her happy or things serene, the more miserable I was. Ultimately, we got divorced and it was she who forced the issue. It was as painful a period of time as I've had to experience in my life.
We had to sit down with our children, which is nothing I would ever wish upon anybody. One of them was too young at the time, the other was old enough to understand that daddy was moving out of the house, and it had nothing to do with them, that mommy and I still love each other, whatever the spiel was, which was real as we’re still friends, but a horrible conversation to have and place to be.
And after those first few years, it took me a while to realise the gift that I was given from my ex-wife, and that gift was freedom. Freedom and autonomy.
Was there another lesson in that experience, beyond freedom, that led to a good life for you?
I came to understand happiness is an inside out job. It has much less to do with circumstances or other people. I realised I'm not going to derive my own happiness from anybody or anything except me - the stories I tell myself, the thoughts that I choose. That was the key awakening for me, I used to think that being selfless all the time was the honourable thing to do.
But it definitely did not lead to a happy wife or happy life, because we were both unhappy. Now it's, “how do I pursue my own happiness?” “How do I figure this out?” In order to do this, I have to make myself the most important person that I look after. It doesn’t mean I’m not caring and supportive to others, it’s the opposite really - in order for me to be really there for others, I need to take care of myself and my own needs first.
The freedom part, to me, means the freedom to embrace and accept myself, and be unapologetically me. That's been life altering for me, for most of my life I did not allow myself to be me.
With this freedom also comes responsibility, as I'm now accountable for all my actions and I’m accountable for my own happiness - it's not somebody else's responsibility.
What has helped you with maintaining this accountability?
The thing I'm working on the last year or so, which is really hard, is dropping expectations. Because when I rigidly hold expectations of an outcome or a person, I'm essentially setting myself up for disappointment - it’s out of my control.
That might sound negative and it might sound like, “oh, well wait, if you don't have any expectations of somebody, or an outcome, then what, you're just sitting under a shady tree all day, and waiting for the universe to deliver?” No, that's not what I'm saying.
It's hard to articulate, but there’s a saying, “do your best and surrender the rest”. I put forth maximum effort to anything that I'm doing, but if the result doesn't come my way that’s ok. I accept it and believe deep down that there is always a good reason for what transpires, whether I’m conscious of it or not.
The older I get, the more life experiences I have, the more I conclude that “we” control almost nothing, aside from our response to life’s circumstances. And in our response lies our power. That power manifests through mindfully asking questions to myself along the lines of, “how am I going to respond to this setback?” “How am I mentally?” “What’s the story I'm going to tell myself from it?” All that, I can control.
"I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival." - Audre Lorde
2. This week’s insight
Each week I share an overall insight from reviewing 100+ interviews collectively
Prioritising yourself was mentioned by approximately 5% of the participants in this project as an important part of a good life.
The few participants who mentioned this noted how they were better equipped to be there for others once they looked after themselves first. It also brought a sense of empowerment, as they didn’t require others to be responsible for their own well-being or happiness. While some parents suggested that they had lost their own direction and identity having continuously prioritised their children over themselves.
"When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself." - Paulo Coelho
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3. This week’s reflection
Each week I share a personal reflection on the weekly theme
There’s an association between prioritising yourself and selfishness which I don’t fully buy into. While none of us are islands, we may have an unhealthy tendency to expect others to make us happy or conversely to blame them for our discontent.
Continuously prioritising others over ourselves can give a false impression. Are we solely doing it out of the goodness of our hearts, or are we afraid of what others will think of us if we say no? Are we more reticent in reality to establish boundaries than we are selflessly giving?
In 2017, my wife and I got married in NYC. It was just the two of us with a mutual American friend who had the power invested in him. While it was obvious that my in-laws would have enjoyed a big celebration, neither of us had any interest in organising or holding the central roles in a large celebration.
Once we made it clear to everyone that that is how it would be, we were met with little objection or friction. And while I’ve understood some friends’ perspectives in asking me was this selfish, I think it would have been odd for a couple who were completely aligned in what they wanted, to do something other than that on their wedding day.
While being considerate of others is obviously important, and the right answer is rarely absolutely one way or another, I think it’s equally pertinent not to allow your own life to drift well off your desired course, in a bid to keep everyone else on board.
“He who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away” - Raymond Hull
4. This week’s questions for personal reflection
Each week I pose questions to support your own inquiry into what a good life is for you
How frequently do you say “no” to what others ask of you? How do you feel when saying, “no”, to others?
Can you think of areas or relationships in your life that could improve if you prioritised your own needs first?
I’m a coach, based in Berlin (via Dublin, Ireland). I formerly had a 15-year career in Capital Markets, and for better or worse, I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to make a discovery around human thought / behaviour. If you want to contact me directly, here’s my email and LinkedIn.