To Know Yourself Is To Know What To Do

Actually Getting Big Things Done is a series of guests posts on how to make things happen from those who know how to… well… actually get big things done. Today’s post comes from Justin Lancy of Veritrope. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Justin better over the past few months, he is one of the better drinking partners I’ve found here in Brooklyn. The man is damn smart and is a great all-around guy, despite his tendency of calling me out on my crap. If you’re interested in the crossroad of technology and self-improvement, keep an eye on what Justin has planned over at Veritrope in the coming months.

Meaningful Work and the Art of Getting Big Things Done

I like that our theme “Actually Getting Big Things Done” is open to some interpretation: Clearly “big things” could be defined in terms of the size of the work in front of us and, since we’re hanging out together here at A Better Mess, I think it’s safe to assume that we’re all interested in improving the way in which we get things done.

Taking command of that process is important and, when dealing with larger projects, should probably be considered an act of self-defense. But for today, I’d like to define “big things” as “meaningful things” — projects, large and small, which resonate with your values and which connect you to a greater sense of purpose.

I’d also like to suggest that making the time to think through your values before starting a project is actually a critical step towards improving the way that you work overall — and it’s one that’s often overlooked while we’re picking our tools and designing our workflows.

Goals First, Tools Second

Michael and I have talked a lot about “purpose” in our recent emails to one another and over a drink or two at a bar here in Brooklyn. So let me slide over so you can join us in our booth and, if you don’t mind, let me open up that ongoing conversation to you with this idea:

If you define “Actually getting big things done” in terms of purpose, your actions must either:

  • Help you to discover the things that you value, or
  • Help you to cultivate the things that you value.

The first bullet point is about defining what your “big things” are; the second uses that definition to help you decide what to do (and also to measure what “done” means). Formulated this way, the tasks and tools you pick are being driven by your goals — not the other way around.

I’ve done workflow audits as a consultant for years, and I’ve observed how all kinds of people do their work. Believe me when I tell you that I’ve never seen a system which could overcome a lack of personal direction. Imperfect tools used with passion and clear intention are far more effective than perfect tools used without purpose. I’ve come to believe that this “Goals First, Tools Second” sequence is usually the most effective way for my clients to organize their work — especially when they have a drive to create projects which feel meaningful to them.

But what if you’re not yet clear about what your “Big Thing” is?

To Know Yourself Is To Know What To Do

The Ancient Greeks espoused the idea of “Know Thyself” and, interestingly enough, some scholars feel that “Read Yourself” is a better translation of that maxim. Many of them thought your life evoked your character and that learning what your “big things” are involves taking actions which, in essence, reveal you to yourself.

Clearly not every choice you could make is going to do that: If you’ve worked four similar jobs that you’ve hated, I’m guessing that a fifth one isn’t going to add much in the way of self-knowledge. Good projects or tools aren’t picked totally at random, but rather out of some sense of what you already know about yourself. You’ve already eliminated any number of possibilities which you knew wouldn’t work, even if that analysis wasn’t done consciously.

And so if you should find yourself in a situation that feels unfamiliar or stressful, I think you should deliberately make time to observe and to document your reactions. A new, real challenge is often a better teacher than an old, familiar comfort and when you’re feeling stretched to the limit, that’s often when you can see who you really are and what you need to do most clearly. Not only are some great insights about yourself floating to the surface at times like these but, as a bonus, the act of observing yourself in these moments can actually help you reduce your stress.

Philosophers like Heraclitus contend that, at any given moment of our lives, to know yourself is to know what to do. The long-term benefit of self-knowledge is that you make better choices in matters, large and small.

Ethos Anthropos Daimon

One of Heraclitus’s epigrams about that has always intrigued me: “Ethos anthropos daimon”. Roughly translated, it means “Your character is your fate.”

Your character is your fate. Let that sink in for a moment.

It makes me think of Victor Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist who, against all odds, survived several Nazi concentration camps and went on to write a book called “Man’s Search For Meaning”. In it, Frankl says that he and the other people who stayed alive were able to make the incredibly difficult day-to-day choices which saved them because they each had a sense of what they valued most deeply in their lives. That answer was different for everyone, of course; What was shared, though, was a process of self-awareness which connected them to something greater than their current suffering.

That’s an incredibly powerful idea, isn’t it? That even in the darkest, most confusing moments of your life, you can find the the right way forward if you’ve built the skill of reflecting upon what really matters to you. I see it as the difference between strategy and tactics: If you embrace Frankl’s perspective, then you accept that it’s much easier to find the right tasks and tools once you’re clear about what they’re being used for.

It’s also a positive feedback loop. Knowing yourself gives you experience at picking projects which cultivates your values which, in turn, helps you pick better tools and techniques. Lather, rinse, repeat.

A Good System Reminds You Of Your Values

And yet I find myself, again and again, forgetting to consider my deeper values and goals before I start picking my tools and make my to-do lists. Maybe you do, too. (Sometimes I feel like the main character in the movie “Memento”, forgetting key discoveries I’ve made about what’s important to me and having to leave myself reminders in the form of guest posts on “A Better Mess”.)

Good systems take into account your forgetting to do the right thing. So if you’re taking the time to set one up, you should use it to remind you of what you value most. Maybe it’s a script which pops open your journaling program at the same time every day so you can document your thoughts about the challenges you’re dealing with. Maybe it’s a recurring appointment to meet up with that friend whose advice you value or a way to keep track of books or interesting articles for when you’re in need of inspiration. And make sure your “systems” don’t just exist inside a computer, either: I have dinner with my wife almost every night and our food/wine/conversation “workflow” has done a lot to bring my goals and purposes into sharper focus!

Ultimately, the worth of any tool or system is measured against how well it can mediate abstract and complicated things into our human needs and experiences. I think if we’re not putting our values and deeper purposes first, it’s likely that we’re building unsustainable ways of working and, if we’re not careful, we’ll end up in a place where we’re serving our tools rather than them serving us.


Okay readers — I’m curious: What are the things that you do to bring your values and deeper drives into focus?

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2 Responses to To Know Yourself Is To Know What To Do

  1. Great article. One correction:

    << Frankl was a psychologist>>

    Dr. Frankl was trained as a psychiatrist, neurologist, & studied/practised psychoanalysis. He parted with Freud (or was kicked out of his circle) and founded Logotherapy.

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