A Letter To My Future Self
I was asked the question “What is something you would have wanted someone to tell you 5 years ago that you now know?” recently and it brought me back to my last semester graduate class, “Work, Wisdom, and Happiness” with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and the author of The Happiness Hypothesis. This class was one of my favorites because it honed in on topics that were not typically covered in a technology/business focused program but, in my humble opinion, are critical for sustainable paths forward with the career paths that follow. Learnings from this class expanded on tools that I had already been incorporating into my daily/weekly routines after desperately searching for ways to cope with being overly stressed, burnt out, and a declining mental health status just a year prior. As part of our final paper for the class, we were asked to write a letter to our future selves. A letter, summarizing key learnings picked up throughout the class, but also a documented list of core long term priorities that in the short term can get pushed aside for perceived high priority events.
With the start of the new year and almost 9 months since I wrote this letter, I decided to revisit it and check-in. That letter can be found below. I’m pleased to be generally aligned with the majority of key points I emphasized just 9 months ago. Though, there are a few things that I’ve been struggling on maintaining, which have been identified simply from re-reading this. Seeing it written out forces me to stay honest with myself. It offers me the chance to reflect, re-align, and decide on how I want to move forward. Will my priorities and viewpoints change over time? Quite likely, yes. But utilizing these snapshots of my perspective of long term core values and priorities, can help tether me to remaining on track to getting there.
I share my letter openly because maybe, just maybe, a similar exercise will be helpful for you. If you’ve ever done a similar exercise, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
A letter to my future self,
First and foremost, remember the important point that “happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. We need the guidance of both ancient wisdom and modern science to get the balance right.” (Haidt, 167). So, as you read this I encourage you to take a breath, close your eyes,and reflect on how you’re feeling at this very moment. As you do, be mindful of the fact that the contributing factors to your current state of consciousness arise from both internal and external states. Despite continuing and honing into your regular yoga and meditation practices, acknowledge that Buddha’s wisdom of “at all times, surrender in truth all attachments”, is only part of the equation. Realize deeply that this inner work contributes to your biological set point but it is imperative to realize the impact of the conditions of your life and voluntary activities have on your personal happiness and wellbeing. This unique method of “drawing on wisdom that is balanced – ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative… can choose directions in [your] life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning” (Haidt, 242).
Wherever you are at this moment; whatever job, organization, living situation, or life event you may be working through, realize how crucial prioritizing self-care and your own wellbeing is to helping you perform at your very best and feel good while doing it. It should be no secret to you by now that your daily continued discipline to prioritize exercise, meditation, and at least 7 hours of sleep a night is crucial for both your physical and mental health. In case you needed a quick reminder for when the winter blues set in and you’re about to snooze your early workout alarm, “exercise immediately improves our intellectual performance, giving us faster information processing and reaction time, more effective planning, better short-term memory performance and more self-control” (Webb, 29). Think you don’t have time for your usual 15 minutes of meditation? Think again. This simple practice helps you spend “more time in high-functioning discovery mode, less time in defensive mode”while “help[ing] you reduce substantially the frequency of fearful, negative, and grasping thoughts, thereby improving your affective style” (Webb, 29 / Haidt, 36-37). Finding time for these self-care practices are non-negotiables. No matter how busy you are at work or with life, the time you invest in these practices generate enormous returns to your internal state and your ability to sustainably manage the life you’ve created for yourself. If you read this and realize that you are currently in a place surrounded by people who oppose this view, please immediately take the next piece of advice seriously because speaking from prior experience, this never ends well. Stop avoiding your truth, accept that your needs are important, and immediately start looking for other places to spend your energy.
Work will always be there. No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or role you’re in. Remember this inevitable truth as your workload increases and your days start feeling more overtaken. Whenever days come that start to creep past your typical work length, take a second and ask yourself whether the incremental hours added on to the day are doing both you and the project your working on a favor. Remember how “productivity and cognitive performance decline once our working day stretches beyond eight hours”? Rethink staying the “ninth, tenth and eleventh hours” which are illusory and unfortunately will “make a progressively less satisfying dent in our workload” (Webb, 69). As your workload ramps up and your days start feeling longer, they may also be eaten up by more and more of others time. Once inklings of this begin to appear, start taking ownership of your calendar. Block small five to ten-minute pockets of time between meetings to allow you the space you need to decompress and restart individually from one before heading into another. Create deliberate “you” time which enables you to think uninterrupted and offers the opportunity and time to get into flow. Creating clear boundaries at work regarding your time spent in the office and your time throughout the day is crucial for your happiness at work and also your ability to succeed in whatever you’re doing. As you self-reported back in March 2019, the best version of you is nearly 2x more productive compared to the mail-it-in, go-through-the-motions version. Take that seriously, not only for your productivity but even more importantly for your overall mental health. Not only have you had previous personal experience on this front (remember the dark days while at GS?), but science proves “that people who are mentally healthy and happy have a higher degree of “vertical coherence” among their goals—that is, higher-level (long term) goals and lower-level (immediate) goals all fit together well so that pursuing one’s short-term goals advances the pursuit of long-term goals.” (Haidt, 145).
While it may at first may seem entirely unrelated to your work, setting an intention and ending your day with gratitude has a way of transforming every aspect of your life. Because of our automatic system’s limited capacity, we filter anything and everything that comes our way to preserve the things that “seem most worthy of the deliberate system’s attention” (Webb, 35). This physical phenomenon affects what and how we end up seeing and hearing the things we do. While we can’t necessarily turn the system off, we can utilize intentions to help steer and define what we want to filter through. Through aiming for what matters most for your day ahead, acknowledging your current attitude, focusing on where you need to give your attention, and checking any negative assumptions upfront, you can shift how you feel by helping out that automatic system of yours and collaboratively set your filters. Using this tactic as you commute to work or eat breakfast can change how you both act and feel at work. Despite whatever the culture is like where you are or the personalities you’re surrounded with, setting these intentions can potentially shift your perceived sense of purpose, autonomy, flexibility, challenge, and balance that you feel you are getting from where you are today. Given your extreme morning persona, go ahead and find gratitude towards just three good things before heading to bed (Webb, 278). By doing so, not only will you strengthen the neural pathways towards the “glass half full” perspective, but you also will get a burst of energy at the same time.
After focusing inward, take the next few moments to analyze the environment that surrounds you at this moment, specifically as it pertains to your work life. Before moving forward let’s first touch on a few key conditions that escape the adaptation principle and undoubtedly could be affecting you without you even realizing. How’s the noise level of your current work environment? Sounds ridiculous at face, but noise can dramatically “interfere with concentration and increase stress” (Haidt, 92). You’ve been through the days of concentrating amongst a trading floor full of loud conversations and yelling and you know where that got you. How about your commute? Like you learned by experience very early on, commuting greater than 20 minutes does not make you happy and science proves this is consistent across the board. While noise and commute are more universal general conditions effecting people’s happiness, let us narrow our focus on the characteristics that pertain individually to your happiness like collaboration, mentorship, challenge, and purpose.
Do you feel like the culture amongst your colleagues right now is collaborative and inclusive? Do you feel that in-group feeling? If not, try finding shared interests, highlighting common goals, talking about common complaints, and echoing the other persons’ words to help create this feeling (Webb, 123). If you still feel like this is missing, explore whether this is common across organization or just the team you’re on right now.
Do you have a mentor that can help you navigate through the organization and your responsibilities? Having someone in your career who has gone through the process themselves can not only help you navigate corporate politics but help you feel connected and supported along the way. Not only can this person aid in offering advice from their own careers, but they can serve as a person to offer you feedback that is crucial for both your career performance and how you feel about your role. It has been discovered that “people’s job satisfaction improves when they’re given feedback on their personal strengths and guidance on how to play to them more fully in the role they’re in” (Webb, 293). Additionally, research suggests that we feel “especially energized and absorbed by what we’re doing (almost by definition). And because this puts us so firmly in discovery mode, it enables higher performance, too.” (Webb, 295). Remember Brim’s 60-80% of performance-capacity ratio and how your own expectations of this ratio fluctuate throughout the year depending on the season, quarter, or holidays (Brim).Remember, you don’t always have to be operating at 110% to be “successful”.
Does your work feel purposeful? This was the number one challenge you faced back at your first job and was the catalyst for you heading back to business school so that you could make the pivot out of financial services into health/wellness. You thrive on environments that you both feel passionate about and which fuel your purpose. As you think about your role at the organization you’re with right now, ask yourself “What bigger aspiration or value of mine does this task speak to?” and “How does this request support something that matters to me?” (Webb, 52). If you can’t quite find the answers, consider whether the current state is a stepping stone to get you where you’d like to go next that answers these questions. If not, it may be worth reviewing why you are where you are and consider potential changes towards work that enables this incredible feeling of purpose. Revisit your 1, 5, 10, 20-year future plans to help you put the current present moment in context. Remember the underrated importance of your intrinsic motivation. When “where we’re doing things because they feel personally meaningful or satisfying” it not only “tends to lead to higher performance than the kind of extrinsic motivation that comes from seeking to meet other people’s expectations”, but leads to the simultaneous feeling of purpose that is energizing and fulfilling (Webb, 51).
Have you compartmentalized your work and current interests? If what you’re working on professionally has absolutely no connection to what you’re doing outside, take time to develop your own re-inspiration program to merge these two important parts of your life at this moment. As you think about what topics most interest you, you can start to “make a stronger connection between that interest and everyday work” which can bring new life and energy into your daily work (Webb, 300).
Hopefully after reading through the above, you’ve contently checked each and every box that contributes to your overall wellbeing and feel 100% at ease and happy with your current state. While I would love to say this will remain continuously over time, I’ll make the more reasonable assumption that this may not be the case. Even when the most amazing and exciting or the absolute worst perceived things occur in our lives, our state of happiness naturally reverts back to equilibrium. Regardless of wherever you are on the spectrum, I encourage you to flip through “The Happiness Hypothesis” and “How to Have a Good Day”. These simple tools and shifts to our mindset can dramatically alter the state of your current reality. No matter where you are at this moment; whatever goals, deadlines, organizations, or priorities you have at work, remember how much impact developing your “whole” self means to every part of your life. This integration of mind, body and soul is instrumental in your ability to stay balanced. Without this mindful awareness of each aspect, you cannot sustainably show up as the highest version of yourself. The outside perspective from Haidt encompasses it all; “It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.” (Haidt, 238). You have first-hand experienced this phenomenon. Through experience and outside research, you so deeply realize this to be true. May you continue to tap into this wisdom and through it, live your highest performing, joyous, fulfilling, and impactful live that you are capable of. We are here in this life to grow, learn, and thrive. Do not fear the unknown or wait for the “perfect moment”. The time is n o w. What are you waiting for?
Brim, Gilbert. Ambition, How We Manage Success and Failure Throughout Our Lives. 2000. Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. 2010. Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis. 2015. Webb, Caroline. How to Have a Good Day. 2016.
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