Through the lens of working with corporate executives within finance, I’ve had a chance to observe senior level professionals up close. When I’ve had an opportunity to ask them what they want more of, “satisfaction” (or some variation thereof) seems inevitably to be the answer. This seems odd to me, given the material riches that many of these individuals have managed to amass.
But it’s not just corporate executives. Happiness or contentment seems altogether elusive for many of us – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that evaporates as soon we get there. Rather than focus on “product” – I often encourage my clients to focus on “process” as the key to finding the more real and lasting joy they are seeking. This usually means work, of course – and a very thorough and honest appraisal of what we really want out of life.
Dan Baker, founder of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, is a medical psychologist who believes that often, what we truly desire is to be free from the two basic, survivalist fears that have haunted us since the Stone Age: the fears of not having enough and of not being enough. He has devoted his working life to teaching people how to be happy, and how to avoid many of the happiness traps we set for ourselves. I recently caught up with Dan (DB) to ask him about some of his work habits, and about how he personally is able to “tune out the noise”…
AM: How do you do your best work?
DB: My best work comes when I find something highly meaningful or purposeful. When I am doing something like working with people, writing or presenting I find that I can find that “flow” that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about. I also have to recognize that it is important to set aside adequate time to really address that work. One of the characteristics of type “A” personalities is that we tend to underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete a task. We also schedule ourselves pretty tightly. So, if we’ve underestimated a task and we then we have a back to back appointment and we do that repeatedly throughout the day, we end up being a little bit like Alice In Wonderland, who runs as fast as she can just to stay in place. So, it is important, especially if you know that you are type “A”, that you better add 20-30% additional time to what you first came up with. Make sure your support system and your resources are in the place where you can turn the computer off and you can pick up email later. Do you work well when you listen to certain types of music? Do you like to have a picture out in front of you? Do you need to set your desk in front of the window? Do anything that really encourages positive perspective. Creativity and the emotion of joy are very strongly correlated. Do your best to create that joyful experience. Even for work that I am not particularly fond of, I will definitely plan something at the end of that, that I have a joy for, whether it is calling up a grandchild and talking to them or whether it is having a meal with a friend or my spouse. Even in those lesser things, I can have a real sense of happiness in that process because I know that as soon as that’s completed, I am going to be doing something that I really hold in high regard.
AM: Is there a certain time of day when you are best able to get into the “flow”?
DB: Yes. We all have circadian rhythms, which are natural cycles of wakefulness and sleep. For me, morning is by far my most creative time. If I haven’t gotten the writing I need done by 10am, chances are what I am going to do for the rest of the day, could be good, but it won’t be as good as if I put it on the paper prior to that time. Often times after working out, its better. I think that individuals need to study themselves and understand their predisposition in terms of where they are optimal. A few questions like, “Where have you done your best work? Where have you had the greatest satisfaction? Where have you been most innovative or creative? If you ask yourself those questions, people start to see certain dynamics or patterns evolve that most of the time they can replicate and build upon. It is what Barbara Fredrickson calls, “broaden-and-build” in her work in positive psychology: http://www.unc.edu/peplab/barb_fredrickson_page.html
AM: Have you had to deal with naysayers, and how do you answer them?
DB: Not everybody is going to jump onto your “band-wagon” and say, “great idea!” When I encounter a naysayer, I truly want to understand what is driving them. Is it the face value of what I am saying? Often the negativity I am encountering is the “below the surface” drive of the naysayer. They may find what you stand for to be objectionable or fear evoking. If you can understand the cause and effect, you will be able to engage them more constructively. The second thing is, “Do they have an honest to goodness point?” If I can learn something, then I want to hear it. I will not listen to a naysayer who simply loves being a naysayer. If I am going to give them that credibility and time, I want to hear a solution from them. Otherwise, it is just a negative, complaining, whining session and I really don’t have the time or tolerance much for that.
AM: How do you stay focused?
DB: I start with the end in mind. So if it is writing a manuscript, I envision that manuscript being all edited, tied up nice and tidy and ready to go to the printer to make the book. If it is working with someone in business, I envision the fact that they’re going to have new skills, new perspectives, new coping mechanisms by the time they’re done and envision how that might enhance the quality of their life. We are all distractible if we are tired, stressed or overwhelmed. But, if I can keep my mind on what the positive constructive outcome can be, then I can jump back into it and go after it. Even if it is months away, having a vision of the improvement of the quality of life, post the task keeps me focused. Perceived outcomes often drive the development phase for me.
AM: What is the greatest drain on your energy?
DB: The tendency to over commit. To say, “yes” when I should be more discriminating, and have some “no’s” in there. For people who have high intellectual curiosity or who don’t want to be left out of anything, it is a real possible trap. So I ask myself, “What has gone on to drain you, rather than fill you up? And “What would it take to get to a place where you are generating greater energy?” I’ll usually get my answer in those two questions.
AM: In what ways have you been able to simplify your life to greater effect?
DB: It is important to stay true to yourself. It is vital to have a sense of purpose every day. Make sure that you are taking good care of yourself: physically, spiritually and mentally. Continue to work on relationships. Health and relationships are at the foundation of that equilateral triangle with sense of purpose being on the pinnacle. I invest something in each one of those to live a meaningful life, and, it doesn’t have to be a lot. For example, if I can’t go to the gym for an hour, maybe I park and walk to the office. If I haven’t done something thoughtful for my spouse recently, then I need to plan. I try to contact friends that I’ve lost track of. There are many things you can do.
The ultimate thing is, “What do you want to say about your life, presuming you lose it, on the last 60-120 seconds you are taking a breath on this earth? And let that be your guide. You know, “I got crazy over the recession?” I don’t think that’s going to be on anybody’s tombstone. Simplicity to me is what’s most important. What do you want to be known by? How do you want the people who are important to you to think of you? Whether you are cremated or not, what do you really want on that “tombstone” And make sure that you invest in doing something that contributes to those sentiments on a regular basis.
AM: What is the greatest single piece of advice that you’ve received?
DB: I have three things in mind. A graduate advisor once told me: “The world belongs to risk-takers”. The 2nd piece of advice, “Life is not about being perfect, it is about making a contribution.” And the third, “Remember that heartache brings powerful lessons”.
Dan Baker, PhD, a medical psychologist and one of the original developers of Canyon Ranch health programs, he is the Founding Director of the Ranch’s award-winning Life Enhancement Program. A pioneer in positive psychology his books include What Happy People Know and What Happy Companies Know. Now living in Nebraska, his pursuits include investing time with his spouse, six children and grandchildren. http://danbakerconsulting.com/