Published in The Attention Architect, a newsletter on LinkedIn, June 17, 20 22
Have you ever made a life-changing decision that went against the wishes of your family, friends, and culture? One that entailed significant risks and loss of future opportunities?
Many years ago, I made the radical decision to move from the fertile ground of my southern hometown to start an entirely new life and career on the west coast with no friends, family, or support system.
"What was I thinking?" I'd often ask myself.
But that's just it; it wasn't me thinking at all. I felt like I had no say in the matter.
Someone else inside me made this radical decision to move to the west coast but left me holding the bag and with the task of explaining the rationale to those disappointed faces around me.
Ironically enough, though, I don't regret the decision at all. As reckless as it might've seemed, in hindsight, it was the right move at the right time. I often thank that hidden person inside me for having the big cojones to make such a brave decision on my behalf.
But who the heck was this person inside me?
OUR TWO MINDS
I've spent the last 30 years of my career interviewing people and learning everything I can about their hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations, and what I have found is that most people are of two minds:
One mind, let's call it the "public self," is the conscious, rational outer layer person who is a direct product of their environment and heavily influenced by the expectations of others around them.
The other mind, let's call it "the interior soul," is more subconscious, harder to identify by name, and has intentions that have nothing to do with their environment or need for group approval. Instead, this self-governing soul serves a higher purpose: our need to grow and our right to individuate into the person we're supposed to become.
The public self and the internal soul are constantly arguing over who has control of the reins of our decision-making processes.
These two voices in our heads have conflicting agendas of where to aim our lives, and their ongoing debates create an uneasy tension and separation in us that, when not attended to, can lead to strange dreams, odd behaviors, and restless anxieties.
The mistake we often make is not recognizing what the soul asks us to pursue in life. We fear revealing and indulging the soul's dreams because we're afraid of how those aspirations directly oppose what others want and expect of us, so we choose to live a provisional life instead of pursuing our true calling.
The soul summons and calls on us daily to move our lives in a different direction, but most of the time, the public self makes all the decisions for us. However, the soul never tires, retreats, or gives up on their dreams. It rides shotgun with us every day, and every once in a while, it even gets a hold of the steering wheel of our psyche and takes us off our predetermined path and into foreign territory where we find ourselves fascinated and wanting to explore this other side of ourselves deeper against the wishes and approval of others.
THE FOUR QUARTERS OF LIFE
The options for which direction to point our lives in are numerous, but I typically find there are four broad quarters that most people aim for in their lives. These include security and stability on the left, and adventure and discovery on the right.
The left quarters share similarities in seeking safety, whereas the right quarters constantly search for more profound levels of self-discovery and enlightenment.
You can look back at the big decisions you made in your life and determine whether your motivation was about security/stability or adventure/discovery. In some cases, these decisions might've been how you wanted to live; in others, they might've been something you did out of a sense of duty and obligation to others. If it is more out of obligation, then I'd say you're probably not living your best life but a provisional life.
As noble and selfless as this sacrificial life might seem on the surface, the further you go down that safe but unnatural path, the more your soul will voice its objection.
If not heard, the soul will look for strange and potentially unhealthy ways to express its disappointment in your decisions. It may even resort to outbursts of anger and unexplainable rage that surprise and confuse others around you, perhaps even yourself. These eruptions happen because your soul feels a sense of injustice in your life and won't remain silent about it.
When the soul doesn't like our decisions or where we're going with our life, it will let us and others know through biting remarks, cynicism, and odd behaviors. You can see these misbehaviors often in the frustrated spouse, the overlooked employee, or the envious friend who sacrificed their dreams to serve the expectations of others.
WE'RE ALWAYS ON THE MOVE.
Most people don't remain still or static in their life but are typically trying to fill their tank with one of the quarters before moving on to the next. Like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, when a person finally fills their security/stability tank, they start looking over the fence at their neighbors on Instagram, wondering how they can get some of that adventure, discovery, and enlightenment in their life.
But not everyone starts with the aim of security and stability in their life. We've all known people who pursued adventure and freedom such as surfing, partying, and traveling for the first half of life, only to "settle down" into a hardcore work groove later in their lives with an intense corporate life that seems so unlike them.
We've also known people who spent their whole lives building their careers who, without warning, took off their suit and tie and put on leathers and bandanas to venture out on the open road with their new Harley for weeks at a time. While the folks around them pleaded with them to return to their "old self," they fail to realize this person's interior soul has had enough of living a provisional life and is now taking control of their ship of life.
ARE THESE FOUR QUARTERS GENERATIONAL?
When I first read the quote "Youth is wasted on the young" by the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw, I was a young buck and dismissed it as the cynical ramblings of an old man's bitter envy and fading glory. But as I matured and anchored deeper into my career rut, I began to see the wisdom of how poignantly this statement describes our seemingly misplaced priorities in life.
We have so much energy, freedom, and autonomy when we're young. We can take off in any direction we want to see the world, try on different lifestyles, and experience all life has to offer, albeit with a backpack and bologna sandwiches. But many young people postpone their sense of adventure and seek a life of security and stability. They immediately jump into the deep end of work and get into significant debt with expensive car payments, a 30-year mortgage, and credit card handcuffs. They tie themselves up so tightly with debt they become indentured servants to others.
Young people often saddle themselves up with heavy adult burdens and responsibilities, only to question and second guess them later in life. We often call these regrets a "mid-life crisis" and regularly confuse this rebalancing of life's priorities as "depression." Assuming something is wrong with us, we numb ourselves to this pain with "anti-depressants" instead of considering the possibility that this emotional pain has made a special visit to let us know it feels imprisoned by continuing to live a provisional life and making demands upon us to break free from our enslavement of serving of other people's plans for our lives.
Before we know it, we've gone from young to older, and that's when we start dreaming of living in another country, going on an archeological dig, or taking up a new career. Some people make the courageous decision to pursue these things despite the protests of those around them, while others only dream about them as fantasy but never take action until it's too late.
This backward approach to life is explainable to some degree. However, wouldn't it be great if we could not waste our youth on the young years of living someone else's expectations of us but instead indulge in the life our soul has in mind for us to live.
What the heck does any of this have to do with business?
I realize that I am merging personal advice with business and branding advice, but that is how it should be.
I’m around business and branding experts daily, and they often talk as if work and personal life are separate. But since so much of our lives involves working, we must consider how work impacts our soul and our pursuit of happiness.
The truth is, we’re all seeking security, stability, adventure, and enlightenment at different points along our journey, and we all need some answers and help in getting to the right place in life. Businesses and brands can play a pivotal role in moving us from one quarter to the next, but to do this, leaders need to answer two simple but critical questions:
1) Is your brand promise/proposition about: Security/Stability or Adventure/Discovery?
2) Are your customers seeking Security/Stability or Adventure/Discovery?
The best brands help their core audience achieve a "state change," and they arm their target customers with the right tools, recipes, and roadmap to help get them to their next desired station in life.
We should also ask which quarter we currently exist within and if it's the place we want to be or if we need help summoning the courage to move into the next station of our life.