The art of lifestyle design is the art of figuring out what your unique value proposition is to the world. That is, what unique value, as an individual, can you provide to the world in a way that is both personal satisfying and economically viable? To understand your unique value proposition you must first determine what it is that you value as an individual. What are your core values that motivate you most to action? It is important when assessing your core values that the “universal” value trap doesn’t catch you. The “universal” value trap is the fact that there are certain values that are universal, in that everyone values them. If the values that you identify as your core values are “universal” values then you will have a difficult time coming up with a unique value proposition that will provide for your personal satisfaction and economic viability. The primary “universal” values are security (safety) and social acceptance (love). When I discovered this I realized that just about all of the “career” driven decisions that I had previously made in the past, going to law school, pursuing a career with a large law firm, were motivated by my underlying desire to obtain security and social acceptance.
I was seeking my social reference group’s approval and admiration, and becoming a successful attorney would place me in their highest esteem. My social reference group also told me that the path that I was pursuing was the safest (economically speaking), so I had the added reinforcement of this “universal” value being met. When I was in law school the subconscious motivation of having the admiration of my professors and the notoriety of my fellow students made the big firm option most appealing. Also, I was very aware of the earning discrepancy between big firm lawyers and those who pursued alternative career paths.
Making decisions based on “universal” values did not bring me to a place of emotional fulfillment. The reason is that these values were not unique to me. I did not uniquely embrace them. They didn’t make me uniquely passionate. Pretty much everyone values being economically secure and socially accepted. When we are honest with ourselves we can see that much of our habitual behavior is influenced by these universal values. These values didn’t create that “extra” push that is needed to make something great. They didn’t create that drive to pursue mastery of a subject matter. With the great excess of choice and information that is available in our world today you have to put forth a unique proposition of value to stand out from the crowd. You will never be able to do this by relying solely on universal values as your underlying motivation.
After I left the practice of law one of the first things that I did was analyze myself, and determine what values were unique to me. I wanted to gain clarity and certainty on the things that were unique to me. I saw my life as a clean slate, a way to rebuild where I didn’t need to play the game that had brought me unhappiness. I knew that if I could tap into my own unique voice then I would have the best chance of creating a proposition to the world that was worthwhile. The first step in determining my core values was to ask myself the question, “At what times in my life have I been the most happy, content and fulfilled”.
The honest answer to this question was not what you would ordinarily think. It was not the vacations or moments of entertainment or indulgence that I had experienced up until that point in my life. Having made a decent income for a number of years prior to my departure from law I had begun to experience the “nicer things” of the world – good vacations, nice cars, nice clothes. These things did not come to mind when I honestly answered this self-directed question. Here is what I came up with (not in any particular order):
1. I was most fulfilled when I felt absolute freedom to pursue any path I chose. When I was unconstrained by social pressure or feelings of expectation to act in a certain way.
2. I was most fulfilled when I was contributing in a real way to others. Adding real value to their life, helping them grow and finding happiness, without any expectation of reward or compensation.
3. I was most fulfilled when I was communicating with others. Either through writing or public speaking.
4. I was most fulfilled when I felt that my life had an element of adventure or risk in it. The times of uncertainty in my life were actually some of the most fulfilling for me;
5. I was most fulfilled when I was spending time with my family and developing my personal spirituality;
6. I was most fulfilled when I was continually exercising my body and living as healthy as possible;
7. I was most fulfilled when I was learning new things, reading new books and ideas and continually educating myself; and
8. I was most fulfilled when I was pouring my whole heart and soul into my work.
After I comprised this list I could see so clearly why I was terribly unhappy in law. Not only were most of my core values not being met, but in some cases my career was actively fighting them. My career had placed my unique values in direct opposition to the universal values of security and social acceptance. The most revealing example is found when looking at my value of freedom. Lawyers bill by the hour, time equates to money, and there are no means of being rewarded for adding value through efficiency, innovation and creativity; therefore I never truly felt free. If I wanted to increase my financial stability (universal value of security) then I needed to spend more time at the firm on billable matters. If I wanted to gain the respect and commendation of the firm partners (universal value of social acceptance) then I needed to spend more time attending law firm social events and networking engagements. I had to make myself known as a team player, someone who would forgo my own personal plans for the needs of the firm. All of these were assaults on my freedom.
I remember once having a conversation with a senior partner at my firm when it was time for associate review. I had not received the same level of bonus as other associates, so I asked whether my work was the same quality. The partner answered that it was, in fact it was better than many. So I audaciously asked why I wasn’t being compensated for it. He said that the other lawyers had billed more hours. I told him that I intentionally try to work as fast and efficiently as possible so that I can get home to my family. Only after doing this value analysis did I fully realize that my unique values of freedom and family time were being full-court pressed by the universal value of security (which was being met by my job as a lawyer).
The assault on my time was ever present by the prisoner bracelet that commonly identified itself as a blackberry. The unspoken mandate of being available at all times, whenever necessary, was suffocating to me, and a real contributor to a great sense of despair in my life. I recall one time getting home from a long week. It was Friday night and I returned home at about 7 pm. I had no established work responsibilities over the weekend so I took the bold step of literally turning my nemesis off. I spent some much needed time with my children and wife and left it off for the remainder of the night. When I turned it back on Saturday, later in the morning, it immediately lit up with multiple messages from firm partners requiring my urgent action on a hostile takeover. Even before I could read the messages, the red flashing light on the blackberry triggered a Pavlovian rush of anxiety throughout my body. I knew exactly what the messages would say before I even read them.
Not only did my time in big law encroach my freedom and alienate me from my family, it also created a dis-empowering environment for my other unique values. I rarely had the flexibility to maintain a consistent exercise regime. My diet was frequently met with fast food and other high caloric, and convenient, options as a result of working through lunch and dinners at the office. There was very little sense of adventure in wading through stacks of contracts or drafting long information circulars, and it was impossible to pursue writing and public speaking opportunities at the time, other than engagements in areas that the firm wished to have a profile in (which areas didn’t interest me). Most importantly I never felt motivated to pour my whole soul into my work.
If I had performed a unique value analysis as a much younger man, and if I would have had the maturity and foresight to not over-embrace the universal values of security and social acceptance, I would have made much different career decisions. I believe that I would have arrived at the place that I am now, but much earlier. After performing this analysis I knew that I needed to spend the rest of my life in these forums: entrepreneurship and writing and public speaking. I knew this because these areas facilitated most my core values.
Right now my wife and I run a direct sales business that is engaging, exciting and provides a real value to others. I also write and speak. I significantly use the internet to facilitate both ventures. All of these activities are aligned with my core values of freedom, adventure, contribution, communication, and education. Because I am my own boss, and can determine my own hours, I have the ability to pursue physical fitness, family and spiritual goals as well. All of this contributes to a much greater sense of well-being and fulfillment. The path that I have chosen in my life is conventionally much riskier, in the eyes of many people; however, since my core values are being met I am tapping into my unique value proposition. Further, since the path is one that I have independently chosen, I desire to master the subject matter. This desire for mastery makes the intrinsic value of performing my work much more valuable than the external rewards of success. I believe myself to be on a much safer long term path, one that more than anything else, will help to provide long term economic security and personal fulfillment, but most importantly, one that will provide emotional engagement, since I am embracing the struggle. I am pursuing mastery of the subject matter.