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Who do you answer to?

by | May 25, 2008 | 0 comments

I sat there in my car, facing West on I-70 looking at the tail end of a semi trailer in front of me and the grill of another one in my rear view mirror, moving about an inch per second. Not an auspicious beginning to what would now be an even longer than usual trip to see a client of 12 years who, if he and his team weren’t such a joy to coach, I would have dropped long ago just to avoid this very kind of situation.

This required more than music to distract me, it was either return some calls or tune in to NPR. Too frustrated with my current traffic dilemma to return calls – let’s see what NPR has going on.

I came into the middle of an interview about happiness. As in “are you happy?” and “how happy are you?” But also as in “why are people in their 40’s and 50’s so unhappy?” and “is there a limit to how happy you can be?” Huh?

Yup, turns out that there are studies that indicate that people are more likely to suffer depression in their middle years. And other studies suggest that we all have a “happiness set point” that determines how predisposed we are to being happy and just how much “happy” we are able to sustain.

Since I know that success in coaching means tapping into that “happy” that they were discussing and many of my clients are, like myself, in the age range they were saying is less likely to be able to tap into that “happy”, I “happily” listened to every theory put forth by the author, the show host and all the people who called in to comment on the air. I found it unsettling to realize that the theme of the views being aired was that we lose touch with our “happy” in our middle years because we aren’t able to realize our dreams. Then as the years continue to pass by we slowly come to terms with the loss of our dreams and become content and able to connect with our “happy” again. So they concluded that if we “lower our sights” and “accept our limitations” earlier in life we can avoid that middle age depression. Now that is enough to make ME depressed.

I thought about “happy” for a long time after I passed the construction that had caused my traffic snarl. Zipping along toward Kansas City I asked myself what I thought it meant to be happy. Did sitting nearly motionless on I70 make me unhappy? Not really. Frustrated, yes, but not unhappy. So I started a mental list of the things in my life right now and about each one I asked myself “does that make you happy or unhappy?”

Interesting and mentally entertaining (you might try it sometime) but not the heart of the matter here. The real discovery came when I started questioning why we would be more prone to depression in our middle years. Now I’ve had my share of clients who suffered from depression and not all of them were between 35 and 65. And I’ve had many clients in that age range who weren’t depressed (or at least didn’t let on to me if they were.) So I pondered our life cycles and my experiences with clients of all ages and I have a different theory to propose:

What if we get depressed, not because we lose sight of our dreams but because we lose sight of our lives?

Think about it; when we are young adults we don’t really answer to anyone more important than ourselves. We have parents, professors, bosses, etc… but we have the option to ignore them or exchange them. We are “big girls and boys” and we can make it on our own. We can drop that class. We can get a new job. We can choose! And when we reach retirement age we give up many of the people we answer to. Our parents have often passed on, if we have professors it is because we’re taking classes for the joy of learning and we can always walk away and if we still have bosses we also have the light of retirement shining within reach. Our children are grown, our relationships have become less turbulent. Again, we have choices!

But in those years in between we usually add lifemates, children and bosses that control the success of our careers. We may add employees and clients. We often are now caring for our parents and so answer to them almost as dependably as we did when we were children. We have a place in society and answer to the expectations of our peers. Nearly every moment of our lives is spent answering to someone other than ourselves. Even if our dreams are still intact and still within reach we don’t have an ounce of energy to reach for them.

So maybe keeping “happy” within reach means making sure you are still reaching for your dreams without giving up your life. So here is a challenge worth doing if you want to keep your “happy” in sight. This is an adaptation of an exercise called the Priority Bullseye which was developed by Kathy Kolbe, the theorist and author behind the Kolbe Wisdom. I use it often with my coaching clients.

Answer this question: “If I answered ONLY to myself what would I want to accomplish?” Now write it down. That’s easy, isn’t it? (If it isn’t easy you may have just discovered one major “dissync” that is keeping you out of reach of your “happy”.)

Next, jot down a list of all the people you answer to. Not people who want something from you but the people whom you either choose to or must try to satisfy.

Next, take another sheet of paper and draw a big circle, and a smaller circle inside that and a smaller circle within that and a little circle in the middle. (If it doesn’t look a lot like a target go back and do it again.)

Next, in the bullseye spot (the circle in the middle) write down the most important person you answer to right now. That one relationship that, if you screw this one up will cause everything else to suffer. Then in the space between the bullseye and the next circle write the person who comes next and so on until you’ve filled in the spaces in all the circles.

You’ve already guessed the next question, haven’t you? Where are you on the target? How much of what you would want to accomplish if you answered to yourself is “in sync” with what you can accomplish by answering to the people you’ve listed on your target?

Are your dreams and your priorities perfectly in sync? If not, how will you answer the all important question: “How do I bring accomplishing my dreams closer to the bullseye?”

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