The most important thing in life….

“The most important thing in life is to remember the most important thing”

Zen saying

I recently spoke to a client who has been extremely successful professionally. “Bob” owns equity in over a dozen companies and will retire soon while being in his early 40s. He didn’t reach out to me to get advice on his investment portfolio, but because he was lacking something: peace of mind and enjoyment.

Like several of my clients, Bob has developed an operating system geared towards efficiency, productivity and achievement. With admirable discipline he could set a goal, a timeline and reach it. Over and over again. I was impressed hearing his list of achievements and his focused effort towards financial success.

Yet, he hardly ever enjoyed that journey. He just did what he was great at. Focus on a goal and achieve it. Whether that would take 80 hours a week and demanded deep sacrifices was secondary. Bob could reach pretty much reach every professional goal he wanted.

Even though there is obvious value in setting goals, there is a danger in being too fixated on our goals or what leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith calls goal obsession. When we’re goal obsessed, we can loose perspective on what’s really important and we reduce our peripheral vision to see opportunities.

So following the Zen saying above: What is the most important thing? Really? And are our actions and time allocation reflecting that? If you brush away that question right now, that maybe gives you the answer….

Now back to Bob. Together we figured out what actually matters to him. What is the most important thing? I asked him:

What are moments in your day where you feel a sense of meaning and purpose? A simple exercise to explore this is to take a sheet of paper and write down: I feel a sense of meaning and purpose when….

Then start writing whatever arises. It might be when helping someone out in the supermarket or coaching your direct report towards a promotion. Maybe it’s when you send a gift to a sibling or write a blog post.

I once did this exercise with a management team in Hong Kong and it was remarkable how the team members accessed that feeling of meaning and purpose from simple things that often have very little to do with their direct role description. Yet, when they share about it, they light up, get energized and inspire others.

It’s important to unveil these moments because meaning and purpose are almost unlimited energy sources. Once you tap into them and do more of those things, you just feel energized and great. Check it for yourself. How do you feel after such moments?

Now once Bob did this exercise, we realized that the financial gain did not make that list (anymore). It was ‘on the 2nd page of search results’ because he already created financial security for his family and it hadn’t really been a worry for years anymore.

What came on top of his list was to help other entrepreneurs be successful, have fun and creating something in teams and spending time with his wife, son and dogs.

Now his operating system wasn’t wired to allocate time to these three items. It was still wired for goal obsession and the pursuit of financial gains. But by a combination of conscious practices, bold business decisions and shifting priorities to his family, Bob made gradual and steady progress.

And within a few months, he could redirect his success formula and discipline towards the things that really matter to him. It still requires mindfulness to shift his focus, but the more he practices, the easier it became.

What’s your response to the Zen saying? What is your ‘most important thing’? And when do you feel moments of meaning and purpose. Do more of those and find out ways to follow that. Trust me. It’s worth it, because time is ticking….

Mindful regards,

Gaston, Coach, Asian Leadership Institute