Monday, December 23, 2013

The Most Important Thing

My friend RS asked, via Facebook, 

"Help me out here. What is the most important thing?"

A predictable array of answers trickled in: friends, family, faith, health, etc. No one said corner office, or big pile of toys. No one said warm coat, either, but then one's priorities have a way of shifting over time, don't they? 

One way to develop an answer to this quandary is to push the variable of time to the limit: imagine yourself on your deathbed. By default, at that point, health would seem to be pretty darn important, right? Yes, but we all know that there is only one way out of this game called life. Preparing for Life's Final Task involves facing death (a) unafraid and (b) without regret. Therefore, in life's last moments, having lived a good life is more important than having good health for just a few minutes more.

So how will we know we have lived a good life if we are so fortunate as to have a final moment of reflection? What constitutes a good life? What will have been the most important thing to us when we examine our lives with the benefit of hindsight? What would we do more of today, right now, if we wanted to be (a) unafraid and (b) without regret in our final moments?
In my work Value Focused Thinking / Lean Six Sigma work I often use a process of discovery known as The 5th Why. Each time we ask Why, the answer gets us closer to a fundamental truth. Follow this illustration (your answers may vary):

1. Why do you get out of bed in the morning, day after day? To make a living.
2. Why do you make a living? To provide food, clothing, and shelter for myself and my family.
3. Why do you provide for yourself and your family? To survive, of course, and hopefully to become successful.
4. Why do you want to be successful? To contribute, to add value, to live well, to make a difference.
5. Why do you want to be significant? Significance is like self-actualization. It is how I operate in the world after I have fully become my true self. It is me radiating love, truth, and light--shining forth as a beacon for others.

As I said, your answers may vary! But the point I am making is that The 5 Why technique helps us get to the real purpose behind any endeavor. Yes, it can take more than five whys until you get to the fundamental objective. Try it. You'll get the hang of it.

Is self-actualization the most important thing, as Maslow said and as our Five Whys exercise implies? Here I want to double back on myself a bit. Self-actualization, as Maslow defined it, sounds like an end-state. But, how will we know when we have achieved our full potential? Isn't this a moving target? Can't we set the bar ever higher as we achieve more of our potential over time? Can we simultaneously imagine ourselves as more significant in some future state, and yet grateful and accepting of the degree of significance we have achieved in the present? On further reflection, we want to imagine a process of continuous improvement that is constantly oriented on increasing the level of significance we can achieve even as our experiences mold and shape us. Therefore I would say that the development of character is the most important thing.

The development of one's character is the answer to the 5th Why, i.e. it is the Fundamental Objective of life, not friends, family, faith, health, wealth, freedom, or power. The abundance or the absence of any of the above will neither prevent nor guarantee the development of one's character. Friends and wealth are the fruits of a developed character, not goals in and of themselves. Health, freedom, and power can be stripped away as they were for Nelson Mandela, whose character continued to develop while he was in prison for 27 years. Faith is not the most important thing unless one defines God as character perfected and one's faith is a means of obtaining communion with the Divine.

May we all live long lives in good health and comfort, helping each other as we are able. May we all embrace the challenges of living each day to the fullest extent. May we allow ourselves to love, and to be loved in return. May we shine forth as a beacon for others, and may we thus face the future (a) unafraid and (b) without regret.