I am always on a mission for greater self-awareness. Striving for this bears its own merit, in my opinion, because I think we can all be healthier, stronger, more productive, more efficient, more honest, and of course happier, with greater self-awareness. It’s not always pretty to look inside, especially when we’ve made mistakes, or if we have survived trauma. But facing such things honestly can take away some of their teeth, as naming any fear helps to defang it.
So self-awareness is a worthy goal in its own right. But that journey leads me to some most interesting places.
I pondered some things on a long, familiar drive today. I was alone in the car. I never turned on music. I just thought out loud. And I challenged one of my oldest biases: the bias against waste, which for me, hinges on three things more than any others:
- wasted water — clean water running down the drain for no benefit;
- wasted paper — crisp, processed, brand-new paper, thrown away for no benefit; and
- wasted fuel — gasoline, with all of the pain and all of the destruction that goes into producing it, being burned so that someone can sit there, inside a very large truck, burning a great deal of fuel, while someone else stands outside the truck, leaning up against it, leisurely smoking a cigarette.
You may have surmised that I saw this last one today up close. It disgusted me, it infuriated me, and it made me angry and — because of anger — probably a little bit afraid. And as soon as I realized I was having this reaction, I started asking myself WHY.
I’ve learned to throw out a little bit of leftover food, rather than eat it, if I know that eating it will only make me feel sick (or worse), and if I know that putting it away will only mean that I’ll have to throw it away tomorrow or the day after, and then I’ll have a dish to wash, which will cost more water, and more energy, and more space in my head and in my life.
So I’ve learned to throw away food at times (“wasting” food), because it is sometimes the more efficient and the more effective option. Knowing the true cost of food, and especially of meat, how can I justify accepting that with a calmness I do not feel when I see people throw away perfectly good paper? Not into the recycler, but into the trash. Or when I see someone run water down the drain, and walk away from the tap while it’s running. Or sit in a car for one full hour, reading a book and eating, or even sleeping, while they just burn gas and pollute the air around me.
(Note that I’m not referring to someone who is sleeping for a bit between long shifts on a cold winter’s night while trying not to freeze; this frustration comes from seeing people sit in an air-conditioned vehicle when it’s barely hot out, while I’ve sat in my own car at the same time, with windows down and a sunshade in the windshield, enjoying the breeze while I eat my own lunch and read in the indirect light.)
These things infuriate me, but I still wanted to know why. This level of awareness has been long in coming. I’ve lived with these observations for years, but I haven’t always been able to figure out why they affect me so. And today, I set out to do just that.
Careless pollution infuriates me, but it should anyone. That’s a reasonable reaction. We all need to breathe the air!
And if I can accept wasting a little food sometimes, but not wasting water, why is that? I can pour water out on the ground, where plants will absorb it, and that’s fine. To me, that’s returning it to the natural water cycle, and some life still benefits from it. Even pouring it out in a parking lot seems better than just pouring it into the drain (back to the chemical treatment plant with you, clean stuff of life!), or throwing a plastic bottle (that could also be emptied and recycled) into a garbage can, water and all.
Exploring these curious variances, I wondered if my drive for efficiency has been my dominant force for so long, professionally and personally, that I’ve finally taken it too far.
Time to look back, then.
When I was much younger, I focused on mastery. Everything that I tried, I wanted to get very good at immediately. I found this was often possible, but if I couldn’t master it quickly, I tended to lose interest just as quickly. Eventually I learned that I will NOT always master everything I attempt to learn anyway. There are things I do not have the physical prowess for, or the mental acuity for, or the discipline to focus on, or the interest in spending the time to master. And that’s fine, too.
Knowing where my strengths lie, and focusing on getting a return for those, seems like a better investment anyway. I love to learn a smattering of all new things, but if I lose interest for any reason, I don’t always try to drive myself deeper now, unless there is another goal at stake (professional accomplishment, some personal attachment, or solving a mystery, for example). And so I move on.
For much of my professional life, efficiency has been my chief driver. It is one of my Unique Selling Propositions, as recruiters, salespeople, and consultants often say. Efficiency! Learn accuracy first, and follow with efficiency. If you do it right the first time, that’s still more efficient, so really, it’s the same driver for both.
And if efficiency goes too far, you start to worry so much about waste (in time, distance, or complexity) that you can lose sight of the bigger picture. Small moves do add up, and tiny steps can make a real difference in the grand scheme. However, if you keep sight of the bigger picture along the way, you will often find that you chose a better course in the end.
Which leads me to my third driver. My first phase was mastery. My second phase was efficiency. And perhaps my third phase is harmony.
Harmony requires calmness, and honesty, and lots of communication. But mostly, calmness and honesty. As many throughout history have paraphrased, think before you speak, and pause again if you need more time to do that thinking. Snap judgments and harsh words can destroy harmony in seconds, and they can break trust that takes ages to rebuild, if ever you can.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” – (attributed to everyone)
In seeking the source of my inner disharmony — the imbalance between my logical observations and my visceral responses — I remembered something curious. Even games from forty years ago can still teach me lessons today.
I learned about role-playing games when I was five years old. Too young to realize that this art mirrored life in many important ways, I focused on the rules and stretched my childish imagination. Characters could only have one “class” (or profession) for their whole lives. An oversimplified view of the world, for certain, but it welcomed new players with the concept of a deep study and lifelong specialization.
As a teenager, I discovered an evolution in these games. Someone’s character could now switch “classes” later in life, and they could keep using their skills and insights in the first class they had chosen, but only after surpassing their achievements in the new class. Again, real life tells some of the best students that they cannot serve two masters… or at least, not at the same time. Even geniuses seem to stay in one field until they reach an endpoint of study, or until some new curiosity leads them to step into a different lane, whatever changes that may require.
Mastery. Efficiency. Harmony.
Long ago I read a version of how to think on your words before you loose them into a room, or onto the world at large. This is how I remember it today:
- Are you about to speak the truth? Not “your” truth, but objective truth?
- Does this need to be spoken? If not, save your breath for something better. Maybe listen instead.
- Will it help or will it hurt someone? Never hurt anyone on purpose, and try not to hurt anyone by accident, either.
- Is it kind? There is usually a kind way to deliver difficult news or necessary criticism. Be humble, and patient, and always share bad news or corrective actions in private. Help someone learn, but let them save face, and you will find more grateful friends than bitter enemies by far.
- If it needs to be spoken, it is truthful, and it will help someone, speak it kindly! If not (to any of those criteria), remain calm, and often quiet.
For the wise, study never ends as long as we draw breath in this world. You can only reach a new level of awareness by understanding where you are now. Better still if you recognize a problem or three around you as the stepping stones they are perhaps meant to be. There are lessons everywhere, if you pay attention.
Harmony may be an overarching goal that can lead me to the next phase of my life and my growth, and can still help the world an immense amount.
Today I begin this new journey.
Where is yours taking you?