Mentor Yourself – Stoic Reflections on Life

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

Marcus Aurelius, The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus, 4.43

I tend to treat my writing in much the same way I would have an actual conversation with another person. In many ways the person who writes out my thoughts on these pages and provides me advice on how to endure and live my best life is a better version of myself. He’s an alter ego of what the perfect version of myself would say or do. I’m not that person, but I can strive to become more like him.

This alternative ego is my Mentor in the same way others use role models. He is the person I want to be. He is the man I’m struggling to become. He is someone who is unaffected by pain, heartache, setbacks, and misfortunes. He is a man who understands and accepts that life has a bit of everything in it. It’s how we react to those uncertain and often unpleasant circumstances that determines who we are.

We can endure or we can complain. I’d rather endure. So, what I’m attempting to do today is a Stoic exercise in reframing my perception and acknowledge that the only thing I control is my response to the world. I can acknowledge my setbacks and adjust my perception to allow these experiences to become building blocks rather than obstacles in my way. Let’s see how well I’ve understood the Stoic concept of altering our perception when analyzing two issues that have become personal stressors this month.

Reality Check – Sometimes Life Sucks

So, I’m at one of those times in my life that’s incredibly stressful (at least from from my very limited and self-focused perspective). I realize that my stress is inconsequential in the greater scheme of universal events and that my attempt to reframe my perspective is the seed for this post. My stress and my problems can be placed in another larger perspective, and that alternative frame of mind can make them less overwhelming. It doesn’t change the fact that I still feel pain, my heart rate jumps, a migraine begins to roll behind my eyes and even moving hurts as my previous injuries from a few years ago begin to flare up to the point that I can’t walk, sit, or lie down without feeling varying degrees of pain.

I accept the pain. At some point the pain becomes a dulled sensation and I can ignore it, more or less, but never really for long. It’s always lurking there in the background and one turn or step can send an unpleasant reminder that life isn’t always easy. The same can be said for all of us really. Problems are never really absent. They are just hiding in the fog beyond our vision. They are always there, just beyond our sight. I won’t complain. My life is amazing. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge a good life has pain and uncertainty. That’s okay. Pain can put things in perspective.

Problem 1 – Home Repairs, Selling a House and Building the Dream

As I get ready to sell our current home, I deal with the complexities of working with many people with conflicting agendas. There’s a continual headache of trying to overcome communication gaps and the general mishaps common when a dozen people are working on similar but unrelated activities. Contractors, insurance adjusters, subcontractors, real estate agents, photographers, builders —and of course your career and family—all battle for your very limited time during this short 30-60 day window. It can feel like too much at times. I have to pause and force myself to remember that it’s a blessing to have a home, and an even greater blessing to have the means to sell one and afford another. Likewise, I have a job and family. So, those headaches are well worth the suffering when the alternative is to be unemployed and alone.

That’s the framing we need to constantly challenge ourselves to create when we experience obstacles in our path. It’s not about other’s mistakes or the delays that mess up our plans. We get to choose how to respond to those setbacks and that tells us what type of person we really are. Are we really living up to our aspirations to become the best version of ourselves?

We all face setbacks, and yet time moves on. The work will eventually be done and your expectations may even need to be changed, but if you start to have the right conversations rather than arguments, you can build a future. Can you move on and fix the problem or are you creating a new problem by not letting go?

Problem 2 – The Workplace Will Always Have Issues

We all know promises don’t exist in the workplace so when I was told a new position was a “sure thing” and that “you have nothing to worry about,” I was cautiously optimistic. It felt nice to be told such things, but I kept that Stoic phrase in mind the entire time “Fate Willing.” I knew anything could happen. There are no guarantees. Sure enough, I wasn’t chosen for the position, and though I’ve been told “you have nothing to worry about,” my actual job is likely to be discontinued in the near future. Will I find a new position? Will I have to look elsewhere? I’m not upset, but let’s be honest, I’m definitely a little stressed.

I don’t have the answers for my future. I never did. However, I always knew that “anything is possible,” and “it’s better to be prepared than surprised” in life. So this scenario was always a possibility whether I acknowledged it or not. Nothing really changed in my day to day activities but my perception of the events around me were darkly misleading. I became more aware of the potential fears that were always around me but were previously ignored or overlooked. Will I lose my job? Will I go broke? Will I lose my possessions? What could I sell to pay the mortgage? Crap, what happens if I lose my health insurance? My life insurance! I was caught in a mental eddy of panic rather than action. So, I stopped myself. I simply said that’s enough. Move on.

In a nutshell, I decided I wouldn’t let this perception ruin my week. Am I disappointed I didn’t get the position? Sure. Will my disappointment change their decision? No. So why bother being upset about it? They’ve moved on and hired someone so I need to move on as well. That doesn’t mean all my fears or concerns vanished. I’m still uncertain if I’ll even have a job in 3 months, but I’m not letting that fear impact the quality of my life or the decisions I make. I’ll plan to the best of my ability, but I won’t panic. I’m going to sell my home. I’m going to finish building a new one. Panic at this point will only make things worse. If things get bad I can always sell the new home and starting building the dream again.

Always look for the facts. Stay objective. That’s where we find clarity in uncertain times.

I hope these thoughts help you get through your own rough patches this month. I recognize my stressors are uniquely my own, but I do believe if we approach all our problems with patience and distance ourselves from a self-focused perception we can endure almost anything.

Results Require Effort

If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures.

Musonius Rufus

I find myself speaking more often these days on the concept of accurately understanding the social returns on the investment (ROI) of one’s time and resources. We can only really determine if our lost hours at home and our dollars spent on the newest trends are worth our forfeited time when we understand what we are sacrificing each day to build our future. This framework will apply to both your personal life and your professional endeavors.

You would think this concept would be easy enough to grasp and that we would apply it pretty consistently to our lives. So far, I’ve found that to be largely untrue. Many people jump to the conclusion that I’m asking them to focus on the fiscal costs to either themselves or an organization. They then attempt to alleviate my concerns with a thousand projected metrics of success, savings or earnings. It’s a classic scenario of listening just enough to respond rather than to understand.

First, I kindly smile. Then, I remind them that a projection is still little more than an educated guess. I can pull the last 100 years of weather patterns online in an instant, and I still cannot guarantee if I will see scattered showers in the morning when it’s overcast tonight. While I am always interested in the financial costs incurred today, my real concern is on the intangible costs of any project. That is precisely where we cannot measure success so easily in our personal and professional lives.

The KPI is Dead

I often get blank stares. It seems they don’t teach anything but success by numbers in schools these days—but let’s be honest—the KPI at your workplace is dead. It’s time to do your organization a favor and bury it. More than half of the KPIs I’ve seen in the last decade are actually based on subjective measures—the exact opposite of what a Key Performance Indicator is supposed to represent—but no one seems to notice. It all comes down to the data behind the measurement. What are you really measuring? What’s the story your organization is trying to sell? Data too often is misapplied to tell us a story we want to hear. Thus, the harm from trusting misapplied data continues to bring pain to everyone.

Some Tips for Good Metrics

  • Know what you’re measuring.
  • Understand how a change in A impacts B.
  • Trust, but verify every metric you use.
  • If you can’t pull the data yourself and justify the impact, don’t use it.

The Performance Management Conundrum

The reality is that when organizations, schools and families focus on a culture of performance management, they’re most often just looking for a reason to feel good. They end up spending their time and money on every product and practice that promises to improve their lives, grades or performance. They forget to measure what actually drives their positive trends in their excitement to get better. Could it be that it’s their newfound attention alone that’s driving their positive trends and not their investment? Will this trend be temporary or long term when the excitement dies down?

Instead of focusing on understanding what is driving their performance, what I see most often is creative storytelling. People and organizations tell stories that justify their failures. They create excuses. They change the data, add new filters and create new measurements in order to boost an already arbitrary score. They focus on improving a number rather than changing the behaviors needed to drive their performance to the next level.

It’s like asking for extra credit to increase your GPA or giving up pull-ups in favor of doing twice as many pushups, because you lack the current strength to do the first exercise well. You can see the danger here, right? By changing the criteria or adding additional data points, we don’t actually improve our measure of success—instead we just end up changing what we’re measuring. We create vanity scores which, like vanity sizes, obscure the truth.

Honestly, we’re in love with this broken system, because it gives us the power to always slide the scale and to tell whatever story we want others to hear. What happens when the scale can’t be slid into the direction we want? Well, we get creative. Just wait a few weeks. Soon enough, you’ll see a new KPI presented which is touted as better at capturing the reality of the industry, and if we’re talking about our personal lives, just ask someone about their New Year’s Resolution in October. They’ll give you a hundred reasons why a goal was justly abandoned due to insurmountable obstacles or they’ll deflect and share how magnificently successful they have been in other truly wondrous endeavors. Don’t be fooled. Those are just the lies we tell ourselves to feel better about our failures.

Few things change so quickly in a single lifetime that the means of measuring their success also change. Honestly, you wouldn’t expect them to change much at all. Sure, the environment, infrastructure and technology can be greatly altered over time, but how we measure their impact on our lives is pretty stable. We still measure the cost that these changes have on us.

Key Questions to Ask When Metrics Change

  • Why would we alter this measurement?
  • What was the goal of the proposed change?
  • Are we adjusting data to merely improve a score?
  • Are we accurately reflecting our performance and challenges?

When we change what we measure, we’re admitting that we made a mistake. We’re saying that whatever we were previously recording wasn’t a key indicator of anything after all. It was a faulty measurement. Are you okay with owning that error? There’s no excuse for ignorance. We must be harsher with ourselves than we are with others to ensure we remain vigilant.

The Bottomline

Measurements can be incredibly useful, but only if you know both what you are measuring and the mechanism by which that metric is impactful. Too often, we focus on what’s easy to measure—output, turnaround or sales. We try and force the data to tell us a story we want to hear. Unfortunately, I can’t fix a broken system with one article. What I can do is share some knowledge on how you can be a champion of success in both the workplace and your personal life. You can’t achieve success if you keep changing the goal. That’s why it’s so important to understand how you intend to measure your progress.

  • Don’t settle for less and quit the race early.
  • It’s okay to struggle.
  • It’s okay to fail on your performance measures as long as you learn how to overcome those obstacles.

If you change the goal or adjust how you’ll measure your success, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You’re telling yourself it’s okay to give up. It’s not easy work, but maintaining principles in the face of hardship can become a source of strength. When we finally succeed through persistence, we will find that the time has quickly passed and that the pain from all our struggles is soon forgotten. In the end, all that remains to us is this new person in the mirror and that stronger culture in the workplace. Both are the the result of our resilience and pain along this journey.

Who am I?

Remember, it is far too easy to get distracted in this life. Before we know it, we can quickly lose our way, and a life once purpose-driven can easily become ensnared in the endless pursuit for more.

  • More money
  • More happiness
  • More stuff

It’s an endless cycle where we turn each moment of joy into an obsession for something more than what we already have in abundance. The truth is that there’s never enough of anything when we’re ensnared in this clever trap. So, we hurry on. We race to acquire every fantasy with the hope that it will satisfy this void in our heart.

It won’t.

This entire time that you’ve been working yourself haggard—the sleepless nights—the missed family and quiet time—it was all in vain. All you accomplished was to squander an irreplaceable gift by creating an unending cycle of stress rather than freeing yourself from it.

Who needs that?

Do you really need all this stuff—all these goals or possessions and the debts that come with it? When will you realize that it’s all an elaborate scheme to keep you from focusing on what matters?

So, you focus on this feeling—a false need—like a craving for something sweet. You feel this unquenchable thirst to fill your life with the fleeting joy of owning something new or accomplishing something great. But the thirst never leaves. You crave still greater achievements and grander prizes.

If you stop and reflect, if you take the time to really look at yourself—to talk to yourself—you may recognize that the truth is simple. You just don’t know who you are anymore.

You’re an empty shell. You’ve never taken the time to understand why you’re here on this world. You’ve never been given the chance to sit still and simply exist as who you are—with no expectations. You’ve spent your every waking moment trying to be something more, because that’s what you were taught to do.

  • Learn this.
  • Do that.
  • Look like this.
  • Wear that.
  • Say this.
  • Don’t say that.

We never learned to really think for ourselves. We’re so focused on being told what to know and what to believe that it’s no wonder we’re lost.

  • Google can’t tell you how you feel.
  • Twitter can’t tell you who you are.
  • Instagram can’t make you like yourself.

We’re so disconnected from ourselves that we seek validation everywhere but inside. We’re left trying to fill a void of consciousness that only self-reflection can ever find.

You have to recognize that filling your life with objects, memories and others’ opinions will not bring meaning to your life. It will, however, steal time and give you nothing in return. Learn to live your life. Make your decisions define who you are by answering these timeless questions.

  • “Who am I?”
  • “Why am I here?”
  • “What is my purpose?”

Let your actions define you. Only they can show you who you truly are in the end.