“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” You probably recognize those three lines from the Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. The last line, that I contain multitudes, is my text for this post. I have a simple proposition to make:
We all contain multitudes. We behave very differently at different times. Sometimes we behave well, sometimes badly. What is astonishing is how different the same person can appear to be at different times and in various contexts. If we realize this fact, we can take decisions to dramatically increase the proportion of time we spend being constructive, friendly, and happy.
We are different people at different times of our lives. We are different at approximately the same time of our lives too. No doubt there are many multitudes of reasons for this. Let’s look at three that are the most important:
The first is the people with whom we spend most time. Who do you spend at least several hours a week with? Make a list.
Draw a square box and divide it into four equal quadrants. Label the top two quadrants “Like” – for the people you like and admire. Label the bottom two quadrants “Not” for people you don’t particularly like (or dislike).
Along the bottom (horizontal) axis label the left two boxes “Useful” and the right two “Not”.
You now have four quadrants which you can label, from top left going clockwise, “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”.
In Box “A” put those whom you like and admire, and who are in some way useful to you, and/or to whom you are useful. ‘Useful’ means that they add some rich dimension to your life that you can specify, or you add a similar dimension to their life. They may serve as a role model for some quality you lack, or they have useful ideas or contacts for you, or you may be able to learn some specific things from them. Or the other way round. Ideally both ways – there is mutual value to each other, over and above that of enjoying their company.
People in Box A may well be close friends but they could include some colleagues or people you don’t yet know well. The common denominator is that, for whatever reason, you enjoy spending time with them and feel on the same wavelength; and add value to each other.
In Box “B” write the names of people with whom you spend a lot of time, and whom you like, but where neither of you derives any additional benefit.
Box “C” folk are those you see a lot but do not like, nor do you or they derive any utility from spending time together.
The remaining people belong in Box “D” – you don’t especially like them, but they are useful to you and/or vice versa.
The thing is – the people with whom you spend most time, have the greatest impact on your happiness and effectiveness:
- It is wonderful and self-affirming to spend time with people you appreciate and who appreciate you, especially if it is clear you are adding great value to them, and the other way round. My definition of success is “spending time with such people, when not spending quality time with yourself”. Equally, success derives from the inspiration you get from such people. Effectiveness and happiness are twin cherries on a single stalk.
- It is corrosive to spend time with people you don’t (particularly) like, especially if you are not learning anything in the process – except not to do what you are doing.
- To retain our self-respect, we need to add value to other people. But if this is an abstract thing, and the people we benefit are far away, the gratification is muted or almost completely absent. We need to see the people whom we are helping.
Action Implications 1 (People)
- Increase the amount of time you spend with “A” people (like, useful) you already see frequently.
- Think if there are other “A” people in your life whom you don’t see much. If logistically possible, increase the time spent with them.
- Make no change with the “B” people (like, not useful).
- If there are any people in your “C” box (don’t particularly like, not useful), why are you still seeing them? Inertia? Neighbours? Friends of friends? Colleagues? Think of tactful ways of spending little or no time with them.
- Think if you can replace some or all of your “D” people (don’t like, useful) with “A” people who can be of equivalent value to you.
The best results in terms of happiness and effectiveness come from having nearly all “A” and “B” people as the main people in your life. This may sound obvious, but it is surprising how few people manage this. Make sure you are one of them, even if it takes a bit of plotting and planning, or even finding a different job. You are a different and better person with people you like and can learn from.
The second reason for the variability in our behaviour is the organizations we work and interact with. If the environment is a happy place where we can learn or teach other people useful things, we will probably thrive. If it is a miserable place, where we are not developing in good ways, it will be very hard to be happy and behave constructively.
Think now of the organizations where you spend most time – this could be a workplace, a college, a voluntary group, or some other institution. Probably there is one main or exclusive organization for you, perhaps two. Draw a similar box, with Like/Enjoy and Not Enjoy on the vertical axis and Useful and Not Useful again on the horizontal axis. “Useful” means that you are learning or teaching valuable personal skills, and/or that you strongly believe that the organization itself has great value to individuals and society. Put your current organization(s) into the correct quadrant(s). For comparison, add previous organizations – including colleges and schools you attended, and places you worked. In a different colour, write other possible organizations where you could potentially work or spend large chunks of time.
It is surprising but not unusual to find that you are operating mainly in a “C” organization – you don’t enjoy it and you aren’t developing personally. I spent four years working in the Boston Consulting Group, a firm I very much admire. But I was failing personally because I did not fit the profile of a good analyst. I redoubled my efforts but they were not good enough. I should have quit three years earlier than I did. I left BCG to join Bain & Company, where I thrived, because it was a different kind of organization that suited my skills better, and developed them greatly.
Action Implications 2 (Organizations)
- In your main organization is an “A” (enjoy/useful), stay there. If and when you stop learning or teaching, or lose faith that the organization is a force for good, find another “A” organization to join.
- If you are already in a “B” (enjoy/not personally useful), do the same – find an “A”.
- If you are in a “C” (don’t enjoy/not useful), quit as soon as possible, finding an “A”, or if not possible, a “B”.
A third important reason for how we behave differently is the city (and country), town, or locality where we live. Draw the box with the vertical axis again Enjoy at the top and Not Enjoy at the bottom, and the horizontal axis Useful on the left and Not Useful on the right. Where does your current locality fit on the matrix? Sometimes you need to think of the particular very local part of town you live – an unpleasant slum district riddled with crime may be very different from a leafy part of the same town. “Useful” can include work opportunities and the quality of school for your kids. Then think of the other places you have lived and classify them. Finally, if you are not living in an “A” area, think if there is one or more that you could afford to move to – put it or them on the chart.
I have lived in five different countries, and been struck by how much I learned and the contacts I made by moving around. Different countries and towns have very different “happiness” ratings and professional opportunities.
Action Implications 3 (Where You Live)
- If you don’t live somewhere you like and which increases your personal skill-base and opportunities, make a plan to move to somewhere that will.
The people we spend most time with, the organizations we move in, and the quality of the place we live account for a large part of our behaviour and happiness. Two or three decisions to go for the conditions which bring out the best in us can make an enormous difference.
Yet there are two other influences that are vital. I will cover those in my next blog.