Do We Do What is Important in Life?

At some point in my life, maybe last Tuesday, I realized that what I, and others, want in life is sometimes very different than what we put our time and energy into. I suppose that I have mostly assumed that people do what they want—within the boundaries of external constraints and opportunities. So, if someone spends a lot of time at work, they main value is getting ahead in their career and maybe providing for others, and if someone else spends a lot of time with their children, their main value is how they raise their children.

There are certainly people that I know whose lives are well integrated in that they know what they want and they put their life into it. But I also know of people whose actions and efforts seem, well, unrelated to what they profess as their values. This could be interpreted as their actions reflecting what they really value, but it could also be just a general sense of inefficacy in this aspect of life—that they never learned or otherwise figured out how to focus long-term on what is most important.

Still others seem to have an inverse relationship between what they want in life and what they do. The more they want something, the more they veer away from it. This could represent anxiety and fear. Important things are scary and taking them on requires self-confidence and often some level of external security.

So, since I like to make figures and tables, we can envision the relationship between effort and value as something along the lines of the following:

Now, I have spoken about it as if there are three different types of people, put really I think that each of us probably has elements of all three models in our lives. In my life, there are some areas where I’m pretty good about putting myself into what matters, but there are other areas in which I’m not and still others that I pretty much ignore because they are important. A good example of the latter is a letter that I have been wanting to write to a funding agency asking for money. I’ve been talking about it for about a year, and it will take me an hour max, and it’s potentially much more important than a lot of other things that I do, but I haven’t/ won’t make the time to do it.

In recent years, I’ve tried to pay more attention to the alignment between how I spend my day and what is really important to me, and I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve needed to change and still need to change. I’ve also realized that, as a parent, I need actively to train my children in how to pursue what is important.

How about you?

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  • Joann Tackman

    Todays blog was right on in many ways. I am going to keep it a a great reference. I did try to raise my children in the way you described. Maybe we can talk about your blog next we meet.

  • There is one more variable and that is of selfishness. What I’ve realized about myself and what I observe in others is the relationship between what I need to do versus what I want to do. So I may want to read and write all day about this things I want to read and write. These things may have nothing whatsoever to do with my job, paying bills, getting specific tasks done that are not the most pleasant. Yet the outcome of all those unpleasant tasks is something I highly value. My problem is self-centeredness not fear: I want to do what I want when I want it. The correction isn’t to align value and behavior, but to change my behavior so that what I see as unpleasant can become more pleasant based on the overall outcome rather than the immediate experience. In other words, mood follows action or I need to “fake it til I make it.”

    Like your funding agency I was putting of an appeal to finish a dissertation. Last Friday it took me a morning and my advisor is in full support. Simple task, big reward. I was afraid the result might be rejection, but I was also selfish enough to say that I wanted to do something else. It’s interesting how self-centeredness and fear are so intimately related.

  • We all have conflicting desires. A woman may have strong opinions but may also want to be “nice,” something that unfortunately was bred so deeply in some of us that it feels like speaking our minds makes us monsters. In any case, the desires conflict.

    It is of little use (to me) to assess my desires as “selfish.” They are what they are. I think about what seems right at the time and what consequences I feel I can live with. That is the way I approach others as well: What are they willing to do without feeling resentment and/or guilt. We all cope with enough of those without being heaped on by others.

    We make so many decisions and each one shapes our lives in different ways. I believe there is enough goodness, grace and creativity in the world to work with whatever I decide to do.

    In the end, our greatest, most insistent desires out us.