The What Matters Most paradox: People Power - Jan 2016

By Sam Allman

Deep down, I want to matter. I want to know that my journey here on earth, to quote Norman Mailer, made a “dent.” I do not want to live and die, leaving no evidence of my sojourn. I want to leave some sort of legacy. So I want to live a life of purpose, a life of contribution. I want to leave this world a little better because I was here.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow identified this need while studying happiness and people who flourished in their living. He placed it as the capstone on his pyramid of needs that motivated people to act. He named this level of motivation “self-transcendence.” Author and speaker Stephen R. Covey called it the need to “leave a legacy.” It is the desire to go beyond our ordinary human level of consciousness and experience oneness with the greater whole, the higher truth, whatever that may be. We reach this level of motivation when we find purpose outside of ourselves, outside of striving for our own selfish needs. 

It’s what drove people like Jane Goodall to study the chimpanzees in Africa and Mother Teresa to serve the needs of the poor in Calcutta, India. People motivated in this state lose themselves in their work and purpose. They experience natural highs without the benefit of drugs. I know that many of you have experienced this high when you have done something for someone else without expecting anything in return, like volunteering in a soup kitchen, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, caring for a loved one or even protesting for something you are passionate about. It’s what drives parents to put their own lives at risk to protect their children. 

Having studied human performance for most of my life, this concept is not new to me. I know that helping and serving others takes me outside of myself, makes me more engaged in the moment, distracts me from my own personal selfish needs and elevates my happiness. I like being in that state. That’s why my wife and I recently joined a group of young people to sing Christmas carols at an assisted living home. We wanted to make a difference for someone. 

But it became a slap in the face for me. It reminded me of the What Matters Most paradox. How can we serve and take care of others if we first don’t take care of ourselves? Last night I came face to face with my coming reality. Many of the residents living in the assisted care facility were not much older than I. In fact, some of the young people I was with joked that they might have to leave me, asking me if I had brought my suitcases with me. I know I cannot hide from Father Time. We all are born into helplessness, eventually move to independence, then to interdependence and, if we live long enough, we return to helplessness. If you are like me, you don’t want to move to that state sooner than you have to. The fact is, if you don’t take care of your amazing body and mind, you can’t be effective at taking care of others.

Each of us has our own priorities and values. Living life will eventually help us discover what matters most, so that we can live a congruent life consistent with our values. However, the paradox is that we can’t do what matters most unless we first take care of ourselves. To paraphrase Stephen R. Covey, taking care of yourself may be the most unselfish thing that you ever do, because it leverages everything else. What does it leverage? Your ability to make a dent, to matter, to find purpose, etc. How can you do anything that matters if you don’t have your health or your mind?

Most of you are reading this at the beginning of 2016. It is the usual time we try to refocus on what matters most by reflecting on the past, resolving to do better and setting goals for the future. Goals are great because they encourage us to postpone instant gratification for some greater reward. Goals motivate us to be disciplined to take the required action that moves us closer to what we desire. The fact is that personal goals move us to be more productive. 

If we understand the What Matters Most paradox, many of our goals will include improving our health and our minds. Without these goals we may never reach our What Matters Most goals. My ultimate life goal is to live to the age of 90 because I want to celebrate a 50th anniversary with my wife. I want to celebrate that with my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I want it to be a special day. Not only do I want to be there, I also want to know that I’m there and what the festivities are for. Think about all the mini-goals that have to be accomplished in order to make that happen. I have to take care of myself physically and mentally, and I have to take care of my relationship.

For the purpose of this column, I am focusing on taking care of ourselves physically and mentally. How can you have power with people if you are not physically and mentally healthy? I believe that there are three basic principles of health: exercise, rest and fuel, to which I will add a fourth.

Be it the mind or the body, the old adage fits: Use it or lose it. The power of physical exercise is well documented. Good health requires it. Immobile geriatric patients regain mobility by lifting weights or resistance training. My 92-year-old parents require physical therapy in order to maintain their mobility. Though my mom struggles to move around with her walker, she still forces herself to do the wash, prepare lunch (apple strudel and Cheetos) and bathe herself. It would be easier for her to give up because it is hard and sometimes hurts, but that exercise is crucial in maintaining her mobility. 

Resistance exercise (anaerobic) is essential for strength, and aerobic exercise is essential for a healthy heart. If we are to change the world by being purpose-driven, we need the stamina to keep going when life becomes difficult. Exercise does so much more than help us physically. It helps us emotionally by creating endorphins that make us feel better. It reduces stress, increases creativity, reduces cholesterol, helps us sleep, dissipates anger and helps eliminate obesity. I could go on and on. 

We don’t have to be marathon runners or champion body builders. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. It just has to be something we do consistently. It can take many forms: yoga, stretching, walking, running, swimming, climbing, lifting, dancing, biking, etc. A good start would be to just increase the number of steps you take in a day. Park in the space furthest from your destination, climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator, walk instead of standing on the moving sidewalk. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb: the best time to start exercising is 20 years ago; the next best time is now. What are your goals for physical exercise for 2016?

Don’t forget about mental exercise. We also must exercise our minds. Some of my students nearing graduation at Kennesaw State University are tired of school. Some vow that they will never pick up a book again. My message to young college graduates is that your learning is just beginning. Today, it is not hard to acquire an education; what’s hard is keeping one. The world is changing faster than ever before. Many jobs are disappearing, but new ones that require additional skills are becoming available. We must increase our skills, increase our learning and expand our relationships. 

Mental exercising, like reading, doing word puzzles, playing mind games, taking a face-to-face or online class and learning a foreign language can lower your risk for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Reading will increase your vocabulary, which will increase your ability to be more precise in your communication, which will increase your ability to express and develop your innate talents, which will increase your ability to get the results in your life you desire. What skill do you need to learn? What books will you read in 2016? 

General George Patton said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” I used to pride myself on how little sleep I could function on. Then I learned that if I don’t get at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night, brain cells begin to die. I don’t know about you, but I need all the ones I have. Sleeping too much can have the same effect. It’s not healthy to deprive yourself of sleep and then crash on the weekend to catch up.

The principle of rest includes the principle of recreation. Rest and relaxation are required for self-renewal. Too much stress can kill us. We need to occasionally extricate ourselves from our busy lives. Martin Seligman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us to distract ourselves from depression-sowing assumptions with activities that are fun, engaging and stress relieving. Fun regenerates us both physically and mentally. Fun redirects our focus from our stress and depression producing thoughts. The word recreation tells us to re-create our lives. It fuels our imaginations, and as Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” 

What we eat matters. Garbage in, garbage out. If we want the stamina and strength to produce or perform at high levels, we must give our minds and our bodies the right fuels to operate. We know that fast foods don’t cut it. I am not a nutritionist, but I have learned that some foods increase my cholesterol, some make me feel sluggish, some give me energy, some increase my weight and some shut me down. 

We each must listen to our bodies and become aware of what foods do to us when we consume them. My recommendation is to keep a food journal. Notice what works for you and what doesn’t. My wife’s life changed dramatically when she gave up gluten. For many years she suffered, and then she found out the cause of most of her health problems was the fuel she placed into her body. Is there something you should eliminate from your diet in 2016?

Finally, we come to my last principle, which may be the most important of all. To me there is nothing more powerful than awareness. Awareness eliminates cluelessness. People do not change unless they are aware that they need to do so. Sometimes we have no clue what’s going on in our minds and bodies. We need feedback from doctors, medical tests and the like to discover how well our minds and bodies are doing. Champions hire coaches for feedback. Feedback allows us to be aware of what we can’t see or feel. 

The first sign of a bad heart is sometimes sudden death. The biggest killers of men and women are also the easiest to detect. I have had several friends who were too busy to seek feedback. They are no longer here. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Should you schedule a doctor’s visit, a physical, a mammogram, a colonoscopy or something else that will provide you awareness this year? 

I know that each of us has reasons to live and to contribute. We can’t let that contribution be lessened by a poor stewardship of our minds and bodies. Taking care of them is living the What Matters Most paradox. And, if we do live that, who knows what kind “dent” we can make?

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus