As I travel, meeting with various families, businesses and organizational leaders, I am exposed to a wide range of people, situations and subcultures (usually within the U.S., but also with English-speaking families overseas [I acknowledge much of my life experience is limited by a North American bias]).
These experiences, in combination with the changes occurring within our economy, government and culture, lead me to make some observations about core principles for life that keep coming up. I’d like to share some of my observations and how they often are counter to what is presented in our current mainstream culture:
Truth eventually becomes evident. I believe there are foundational truths in life, and while a person, business or government can experience short-term success living in contrast to these foundational truths, eventually the truth will “catch up” to you. We have seen this repeatedly recently. We’ve observed it economically with the Internet bubble (fueled by the belief that you can reap financial rewards based solely on image and projected earnings as opposed to providing true value to customers and realized earnings to investors), and the financial system collapse and real estate bubble (founded on the belief that: a) you can package trash investments together, wrap them in a pretty wrapper and they cease to be trash; and b) loaning money to people who will not be able to pay it back so that you can experience short-term profits is a good thing).
I observe it in business where if businesses keep spending money to fund a business that the marketplace is telling you your product or service isn’t desired, you lose a lot of money. [This harkens to Jim Collins’ principle in Good to Great — successful leaders must deal with the hard facts of reality.]
I see it in families and individuals. Almost always, if a person’s (or family’s) life is “too good to be true”, it is. Over the long haul, if a person is physically fit, professionally successful, wildly financially successful, has lots of leisure time, their family looks perfect, and they seem to have no troubles, I think one of the following are true: a) you don’t really know them and their life circumstances accurately; b) they are in a short term life period where everything is going well; or c) they are good at putting forth a good front and the truth will come out — their life really is “too good to be true”. Unfortunately, I have known a number of people and families who fit into this last category.
Relationships matter. This is one of the most important principles that seems to reoccur “ especially as reported from those who have neglected relationships earlier in their lives or from those who have gone through really difficult times and have survived them primarily from the support of relationships. Friendships and family relationships are critical to a satisfying, meaningful and happy life. A life devoid of meaningful relationships — no matter how much “stuff” and money you have, or regardless how successful you are in your career — ultimately is a lonely existence.
I had a delightful experience this weekend, where I had the opportunity to drop in unexpectedly on an extended family member (an aunt and uncle of my wife). In talking about relationships, Uncle John said: “This is great. This is what relationships are about — relationships are never an interruption.” Wow. What a great perspective.
Life is largely made up of small, daily life decisions that add up over time. When I meet people who have been successful in their careers, raising their families, who are spiritually mature individuals or who have made a lot of money — almost every time they can tell a story about the “long haul”. Although it may look like they were successful “overnight” to others, in examining their lives more closely, you can virtually always see a pattern of daily discipline over several years to achieve the positive results in their lives. This includes losing weight, being physically fit, influencing others, saving money — the list goes on and on.
Living life successfully always includes dealing with difficulties, hurt, and negative circumstances. Life is difficult. We have physical ailments, illnesses or accidents. External circumstances –the weather, economic conditions, business deals, things breaking down — don’t go as we would like. Others hurt or disappoint us. We get stuck in an airport and miss our flight on the way to an important business meeting, or on the way to a long looked forward to special vacation.
It is becoming my belief that people who live life well, and who enjoy their life, don’t necessarily have more good things happen to them or fewer bad things. Rather, they live life in ways to be prepared for bad things happening, make contingency plans, and make the best of difficult circumstances. The people who earn my respect are those who deal with chronically bad circumstances largely with a positive attitude.
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I am sure these are just a few of many core principles that are threads through the fabric of life. But they are the ones that have occurred to me recently. And I think these principles are especially important because of the implications they have for their obverse corollaries (the opposite mirror beliefs that people believe or that the media and some cultural leaders present as true):
Image is what matters. Our culture is obsessed with “image”, not with reality or substance. Unfortunately (from my point of view), image is highly rewarded (for a short time at least) in the world of entertainment, sports and politics. It is almost laughable to me that people then become jaundiced or cynical when the “truth” comes out about someone they have elevated to a god-like position. A person’s, business’s or organization’s image — doing what “looks good” regardless of the underlying principles — have become the goal.
Financial success and career achievement matter. In many ways, we are a strange culture. We are one of the most wealthy nations to exist in history and yet we consistently want more. Neither greed, the desire for fame, nor pursuing career success is uniquely American. But we sure seem to advertise them better than most as the goals for life. Sadly, many people waste their lives pursuing “fool’s gold” and miss the more important riches of life found in contentment, spiritual life, and meaningful relationships.
You can “hit the jackpot” big one time and overcome a lifetime of poor daily decisions. I am concerned with the number of people I hear report their desire to “make it big” by some form of luck (for example, winning the lottery) or through one big action or decision that will allow them to “strike gold” — this can come in the form of a magic medication or procedure that will help them lose weight, or one big business deal that will “set them for life”. Far more people go bankrupt chasing the big deal than those who “hit the jackpot”. It still appears to be true that a lot can be accomplished little by little over a long time.
A good life is one where success comes easily, there are no challenges, and circumstances are always positive. This belief is one of the most damaging, I believe, because it leads people to become discouraged and give up when they encounter obstacles and barriers in pursuing their goals. Goals (physical, relational, financial, career, spiritual) are reached by overcoming challenges not as a result of not encountering any barriers.
I hope you are encouraged by these principles. Yes, they do call us to give up some of our idealistic beliefs. But I believe they more closely reflect the reality we experience in life. And brutally dealing with reality is part of the pathway to life success.