There are gifts and curses that go along with a Type-A personality, and I know them all intimately.
One of the gifts I most enjoy is having the drive to take on and complete ambitious challenges. And, of course, that is also the curse I struggle most steadily to curb.
Partially from painful experience, and partially from the wisdom that comes with age, I’ve learned that if I don’t constantly work to rein in my tendency to take things on, my appetite for what James Collins calls BHAGS (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) could easily rob me of the life I most want to lead.
Slowly, imperfectly, I am learning that whenever I feel myself on the verge of forging ahead with something that’s going to demand a lot of me — whether it’s an accomplishment, acquisition or personal effort — it’s best to ask myself some questions, like:
- What impact is this pursuit likely to have on my most limited and valued commodity, namely, my time?
- If I undertake this now, what else might suffer the consequences of my divided attention and resources?
- In what ways does this effort support or detract from my top-three life priorities?
If you’re not sure what your top-three life priorities are, think for a moment about what you want to be remembered for, and by whom, at the end of your life.
It may sound a little macabre, but this line of self-inquiry can be enormously clarifying. Because if you’re not focused on nourishing and shaping your chosen legacy now, it means you are probably not living out your highest choices on a daily basis.
The good news: If you’re still breathing, you have an opportunity to change that, starting now.
As personal-effectiveness expert Stephen Covey reminds us, without a clear focus on our guiding values and priorities, each of us runs a real risk of successfully climbing a very long ladder only to find it leaning against the wrong wall.
That’s why your most central priorities are worth considering regularly — not just occasionally, on the verge of huge commitments, but repeatedly, habitually, virtually any time you’re about to devote time and energy to a given pursuit.
As noted, I have learned this (and am still learning it) the hard way. Because I have such a strong inborn urge to go bolting up intriguing ladders whenever they present themselves, I have to consciously discipline myself to more frequently evaluate what really matters to me, and what I most want out of my own lifetime.
I also think a lot about what’s known as “opportunity cost.” Basically, that’s the price we pay — the benefit or value we must sacrifice — when we choose to invest in one opportunity, and by default, to walk away from another.
All of us have a finite amount of time, and a limited amount of energy. No matter how fully and passionately we embrace our lives, we simply can’t do everything. Yes, we may be racking up promotions, possessions and personal bests. We may be achieving goals of fame and fortune, or just having a really good time. But if we’re doing those things at the expense of something that matters more to us, then our long-term prospects for enjoying a life well lived are not good.
Ultimately, I’ve realized, I want my life to: (1) be defined by experiences that are satisfying to me personally; (2) to be beneficial and supportive to those around me; and (3) to make a meaningful, lasting contribution to the greater good, and the world as a whole.
That may sound pretty straight-forward, but you’d be amazed how often I find myself tempted to take on all kinds of appealing projects that don’t substantially support a single one of those aims, much less all three of them.
Even today, it’s not unusual for me to find myself on the verge of saying yes to pursuits that actively contradict one or more of my key priorities. Which is my clear signal to pull back, even when my Type-A tendencies are shoving me forward with all their might.
I encourage you to spend a little time pondering your big three goals in life. Think about who and what really matters. Look back on the life you’ve already lived to see what choices have brought you lasting satisfaction, and where, in retrospect, the opportunity costs of a particular energy investment turned out to be far too high.
Of course, not every choice you make will fully support your top-three priorities every time. But the more choices that do, the happier you’ll be. And the clearer you’ll become about which opportunities deserve your best efforts, and which are worth passing by.