A pastor I know likes to say, “The bad news is you can’t have it all. The good news is, when you know what’s really important, you don’t want it all anyhow.”
The unhappiest people are the ones trying to have it all. They want super-successful careers. They want to earn high incomes. They want manicured lawns. They want to exercise, eat right, and live large. They want respect and praise from others. They want to travel the world. And even though they spend two hundred days a year on the road, they want great relationships with their spouse and their kids. Mostly, they want more—more of what they already have and more things they see but don’t yet have.
Reality check: You can’t have it all. But that’s all right. As those noted philosophers The Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want; And if you try sometime, you find; You get what you need.”
So how do you clarify what matters?
Be clear about what’s important to you. A lot of people are leaning their ladder against the wrong wall. They are working hard to achieve things that they really don’t want. They have adopted someone else’s vision of success, and they’re using someone else’s scoring system. Your trusted friends and advisors can help you figure what’s important to you, but they can’t give you the answer and you can’t use their answers to that question. Frankly, it’s your definition and your responsibility.
Be clear about why it’s important. Is it important because that’s what your wife wants you to do? Because that’s what your faith dictates? Because you’ve invested years into it? Because your mother always wanted it for you? I’m not making value judgments. But you need clarity not just on the “what” but the “why,” because it will either change your course or confirm it. Once again this is a question you need to answer for yourself because only you know what’s in your heart. You have to own the “why.”
Being clear about why things are important to you sometimes expands your options about what might be important to you.
When I was a junior at Ohio State, I came upon a friend who was busy memorizing the body parts of a cat. He was a pre-med major. So I asked him why he wanted to be a doctor. “Because my dad and my grandfather were docs,” he said. I realized at the time that I was majoring in agriculture economics because I didn’t have any other expectations. Nothing else was on my radar. I could have been a doctor or lawyer. I had to evaluate my “why” and take ownership of it.
The lesson I took away from my future doctor friend is this: You can enlarge your expectations by increasing your options. Before we decide what to become, it behooves us to consider all the possibilities.
Be honest about the cost. In economics, we talk about opportunity costs versus hard costs. A purchase, project, service, or venture may only cost you X out of pocket, but it may cost you ten times that in terms of what you could have earned if you had deployed those resources differently. I’m not saying the cost should be your driving factor in every decision; I’m saying you need to understand the costs because you’ll have to live with them.
Your love for a particularly profession or for doing volunteer work or for spending time with your children might mean you’ll never earn a six-figure income. Or, your desire to help your son attend the college of his dreams might mean you’re willing to spend a few years working longer hours to pay for it. You might reject a new business opportunity because the other party wants a kickback or because you know the product, while rich in profit potential, is immoral.
The costs can be financial, relational, or ethical. But if you know the cost on the front end, it’s much easier to live with the bill each month or to decide not to make the purchase at all.
Be clear about the commitment. What’s it going to take to achieve your definition of success, not just in money but also in time and energy?
Francis Chan redefined success and changed the scoring system of his life. Chan founded a church in 1994 in Simi Valley, California, and saw it grow to one of the largest congregations in Ventura County. He wrote a couple of best-selling books and launched a college. But his heart (and his life’s message) was about giving his life away to people in need. So in 2010 he stepped down from his church leadership role to work directly with the urban poor. In other words, he committed his time, energy (and money) to his definition of success.
“You can have it all” is a popular sentiment, but most of us would readily admit it isn’t realistic. Knowing what really matters narrows your focus and keeps you on track to living not only a life of success, but a life of significance.
Mark Sanborn is a bestselling author and acclaimed leadership keynote speaker. For more information about his services, visit www.marksanborn.com.