“I feel like I am in the crux of a personal transition… like I have been spinning without an axis.”
Traveling on my last day of work as a management consultant, I wrote those words at 30,000 feet. Taking advantage of the fact that my emotions sit a little closer to the surface when I travel, I spent the flight journaling on my upcoming transition to business school and related move to Chicago from Mexico City, where I had been living since graduating from college five years earlier. Little did I know how much that sentiment – spinning without an axis – would come to indelibly define my graduate experience and my life afterward.
Despite my sense that something was somehow missing, I looked forward to school with hope; I had two years to learn, meet an excited and accomplished group of people and indulge in a little globe trotting. Perhaps the sense that something was slightly off-kilter was the result of the grueling hours of a consultant. I’d logged my time burning the midnight oil on the client’s agenda. Now that I would be calling the shots, maybe things would settle into place and I would feel that groundedness that recently had seemed absent.
What I didn’t recognize at the time, at least not consciously, was that I didn’t have a good “why.” I made prudent decisions on a one-off basis, but they lacked the underlying core of clear, meaningful purpose. Looking back, it seems obvious. Although I’d been planning on “saving the world” via International Development while in college, I’d abandoned the idealism of my youth shortly thereafter. With all the earnestness of a young go-getter seeking to prove myself on the job and with the aid of plentiful Mexican beer and a vibrant party scene, I’d ignored my aimlessness in the intervening years. But where had I settled? And where was I heading?
When I arrived at school, I was by no means unhappy. Although I was continually slightly ill, the result of a few killer bouts of food poisoning and the overzealous prescription of antibiotics during my tour in Mexico, I was optimistic and eager to take full advantage of the experience. That was easier said than done without a guiding star. Some classmates came in with a sense of purpose that propelled them toward friends, activities, classes and a career. That was missing for me. There were many decisions to make: what would I study, with whom would I spend my time, where would I spend my summer, what sort of career was I looking to build? The answers to these questions seemed linked to my missing axis. I wasn’t off the rails, but I may have been on the track that leads to a midlife crisis a decade or two down the line.
I sensed a similar sentiment lurking just under the surface in many of my classmates. We were a group of sharp, supremely accomplished, mostly late twenty-somethings, well-poised for a lifetime of success. We had “made it;” we were at a top business school. But while we certainly were partying, we weren’t celebrating. Instead, we were worried about getting the right job out of school. If getting into the right school didn’t make us feel complete, would getting the right job be the ticket?
It took a while for the thought to coalesce, though I danced around questions of purpose and happiness throughout school. However, during my second year, I began to wonder if we weren’t all chasing the wrong goals. Were we chasing success without ever considering whether we’d feel fulfilled if we achieved it? We were pouring enormous amounts of energy into convincing elite companies to hire us as well-paid cogs in the corporate machine. Sure, there was plenty of potential to move up the hierarchy and earn a leadership role down the line, but in pursuing that distant role, were we pursuing a fulfilling and unique contribution or avoiding our fear of not making good on our potential?
There is a sentiment in our society that work is the enemy of happiness. Although compensation is merely a way to share the benefits of division of labor and the synergies of comparative advantage, we’ve somehow concluded that work is something we shouldn’t then like. If they pay us, we must not want to do it otherwise, right? And so we talk endlessly about work-life balance and burnout. We look forward to the weekend, our next vacation and retirement.
While studying abroad in Asia, I first encountered research on the “paradox of work.” Unsurprisingly, people report that they would rather be at leisure than at the office. However, if you track their activity and mood throughout the day, people self-report being much happier and much more engaged on the clock than off. In a particular study of 4,800 workers, people reported high engagement 54% of the time at work. That figure plummeted to just 18% when they were on their own time, with feelings of apathy clouding over half of their leisure activity. The implications of this shocked me from my aimlessness. If people thought they were happier when they weren’t working, but actually enjoyed working more than leisure, then our inner compasses must be mis-calibrated.
I knew that researchers in the young field of positive psychology, the science of happiness, had been able to shed light on ancient philosophical questions in the past couple of decades. From my own experience of lack of direction and that of my fellow students, it seemed clear: we needed to understand what happiness was and how to get it or we might just bumble through life without truly enjoying it. Either we would take successive “successful” steps to a place that, in our hearts, we didn’t long to be, or worse, we might just fail to notice that we could actually enjoy our life just as it was.
I formed a team with five passionate and curious fellow students and we set out on a six month research project to review the literature on happiness in order to understand its underlying drivers. We wanted more than surface-level tips that are so easy to find in the “Top 7 Ways to Be Happy” lists that are exploding on social media feeds. By digging deeper into questions of how happiness happens, rather than lists of activities that happy people engage in, we distilled happiness into its key elements (to be reviewed in future posts) based on experimental results from positive psychologists and curated proven strategies for its pursuit. We compiled our findings into a presentation for our fellow students and faculty.
The demand for and response to our presentation confirmed my suspicion that many of those around me were also yearning for fulfillment on a deeper level, but were unsure of the questions to ask and where to find time to consider them. We had to change our venue and add a second date to accommodate the unexpected demand. The standing-room only audiences that attended our talks clearly found them very meaningful, as revealed by their insightful comments and questions and the meetings and emails I have exchanged with people in the intervening months.
Perhaps more tellingly, the work has profoundly transformed my own life. I am confidently walking a different path, unruffled by many concerns that previously would have annoyed or worried me. I am in a wonderful relationship devoid of the drama that plagued those of my past. I am doing work I find deeply meaningful and I wake daily energized and purposeful. I took control of my aforementioned illness through diet and have slowly been rebuilding my digestive system. I delight in the details, savoring sights, smells, sounds, flavors and feelings as if they were precious gifts rather than quotidian occurrences. I feel ever more grateful, compassionate and forgiving. All of this comes with a clearer sense of my weaker attributes and missteps, both of which serve as important lessons, as well as opportunities for me to partner with others whose strengths complement my weaknesses.
I have added another year of research and experimentation to the work my team and I undertook in school. I’ve tapped traditional psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, spiritual teachings, leadership and management literature and interviews and biographies in order to better understand what we want from life, how we can get it and how we can work together to do it more fruitfully. That material will be the subject matter of these writings.
My approach is to research widely, hunting not for the idiosyncrasies of each writing, but rather the commonalities. There are certain ideas that repeat in the philosophical traditions of many cultures across the ages and that have since been validated by science. These concepts carry with them a power that trumps the shallow ubiquity of fads and trends. So, while I will present ideas in my own way and attempt to liven them up with stories and thought experiments, the approach you will find here is not built on my personal reflections, but rather on an extensive body of research. My goal is to remind you how life works and provide you with a set of questions that will enable you to chart a course of happiness and success in your own life.
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