The One Question You Must Ask (or, The World’s Shortest Bucket List)

The One Question You Must Ask (or, The World’s Shortest Bucket List)

Last week, I spoke to a gathering of women in advertising and marketing; the theme was “The Balancing Act” – you know, the old work-life balance thing. This is adapted from the talk I gave.

My mom is watching my kid tonight and she asked me what I was speaking about, and when I told her the theme was “life balance,” she broke out in uncontrollable laughter.

So that gives you some idea of just how much of an expert I am on this topic.

The horrifying thing about being asked to speak about life balance is that it makes you feel like you need to have your act totally together. Let me be the first to tell you: I don’t have my act totally together. But I do have some thoughts to share about what makes for a balanced life.

The Time I Wrote a Book with an RSI

A few years ago, I was running a successful, growing digital agency and my business partner and I decided to write a book. This meant that on top of running a business full-time – which, for those of you who are entrepreneurs, you know is a bit more than a full-time gig – we were dedicating one day a week to writing, for several months.

I also had a repetitive strain injury that was aggravated by computer use. 

My day job required me to spend all day at a computer, and now I was planning on adding a whole bunch more time at a computer. So I went to my chiropractor and asked her advice on how to do all of this without aggravating my RSI.

I knew that if I did this wrong, I could wind up completely derailing my career. I’m pretty sure no one wants to hire a web designer who is unable to use a computer.

She told me that I’d better get my ass to the gym and get into the best shape of my life. And I thought she was clearly not listening to me, because how could she possibly suggest that I commit a whole bunch of time to working out, when obviously I was going to be insanely busy with this whole book thing?

But she had evidence to back up her advice, so I considered the alternative, and I decided I’d better try this gym thing. And it turned out, I had way more energy, and felt bouncy and fabulous and capable of running a business and writing a book and being fit – all at the same time.

Of course, part of this is because exercise makes you high on endorphins, but mostly I think it really boiled down to the fact that I was doing things that really mattered to me.

Paradoxically, I learned that adding more things to my plate was not stressful, when they were all things I was totally committed to, heart & soul. So that’s been my touchstone ever since.

It’s not about not being busy. It’s about feeling like everything is flowing in the right direction.

What Balance Looks Like. (It’s Not a Yoga Pose You Hold Forever.)

So: First of all, let’s define terms.

Life balance, for me, is about equilibrium – not holding a single, perfect yoga pose forever, but more of a martial arts thing – the ability to flow with changing energies as they move towards and through us.

It’s about having a strong core, and the ability to stay centered and bounce back when you’re thrown off your feet.

You can’t have it all, but you can have everything that matters most to you. The trick is to make your choices. Or, as Yogi Berra so eloquently put it:

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Conscious Choices Beget Presence.

Here’s what I notice about the people who appear to me to lead well-balanced lives: They pay attention. They’re fully present in whatever it is they’re doing.

They can do that, because they’ve made a conscious choice to prioritize the stuff that matters to them.

They aren’t running around like chickens with their heads cut off, allowing themselves to be constantly distracted. That doesn’t mean they never check Facebook – it means that by and large, their energy is allocated in a conscious way.

Balanced ≠ Undemanding

I’ve come to believe that the key to feeling balanced is to live a life that aligns with your values and priorities. And to become conscious of the stuff that brings you most alive, that allows you to feel like:

YES, this is the most important thing I could be doing right now.

When we know we are doing stuff that matters to us, we could be pulling late nights and early mornings, we can be awake with our kid for the umpteenth time to soothe their fever, we can do amazing creative work, we could be doing parkour. And we can feel balanced and energized, even amidst a life that others might see as demanding.

A Note on “Have To”

Of course, we all have “have to’s.”

There’s this wonderful movie from the ‘80s called Parenthood, where Steve Martin plays this awesome dad who juggles work and parenting and coaching little league, and at one point in the movie, he’s arguing with his wife and he has to head off to his son’s baseball practice, and his wife goes, “Do you really have to go?” – and he yells, “MY WHOLE LIFE IS HAVE TO!”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt this way. Let’s just say a lot.

But I’ve worked really hard to eliminate the words “Have To” from my vocabulary. Because the reality is, I’m choosing to. I’m choosing to show up and meet my commitments. I could blow them all off if I wanted to. I could choose differently. So I’ve made it my priority only to commit to things that I can do wholeheartedly.

That doesn’t mean I go to the dentist feeling the cosmic beauty of it all, but it does mean that I relish the fact that I have free will, and the means to go to the dentist, and the ability to take care of my health. You know?

Your Very Own Life Mission

So, if the goal is to make more conscious choices – to focus on our own priorities instead of letting the “have-to’s” win the day, to get that “this is the most important thing I could be doing right now” feeling – how do we get there?

All of us are creative women, communications professionals. We are so good at developing strategies & project plans for our clients.

We are not always great at applying said strategies to our lives.

You know how the first and most critical step in a creative project is to define its purpose? Some people call this a project mission. It exists to remind us, down the road, when we’re in the thick of arguing over font choices, why we’re bothering, and who we’re serving, and what we want to achieve.

You deserve to know what your project mission is. For your life.

It will help a lot when you’re in the thick of arguing over font choices. Well, maybe not font choices, but stuff like career direction, crossroads in relationships, and all the daily choices we make that add up to a life.

The One Question You Must Ask

Here’s how I figured out what my project mission was.

A couple of years ago, everybody seemed to be making bucket lists. And I couldn’t for the life of me come up with much. Mine had two things on it: Visit the Rothko Chapel, and see Bruce Springsteen live – and now I’ve done the second one. So I have the world’s shortest bucket list.

The thing with bucket lists is, they’re all about doing stuff. Whereas I prefer to twist the underlying question a bit.

So instead of making a bucket list, I asked myself a question that has shifted the way I look at everything. It may seem a little dark, at first. But it’s a great shortcut to getting clear on what matters most to you. The question is this:

When you’re on your deathbed, what do you need to have experienced in order to feel you’ve lived a good and fulfilling life?

 

Here are a few highlights from my answer to that question:

  • My family – biological and chosen – knows I love them in the deepest roots of their beings and can feel that love even after I am gone.
  • I will have raised children who surprise and delight me with their curiosity, creativity, and courage, and whom I raised with respect for their individuality and freedom.
  • Through my work, I will have helped individuals and organizations ask better questions, access and use their internal strengths to greater advantage, and become more efficient and effective at doing good in the world.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

 

How would you answer? Seriously, this is a big question, and it deserves your time and attention. It is maybe THE big question we must answer if we want to live a fulfilling life.

(If thoughts are springing to mind, you have my permission to tune me out & joy them down in a notebook or on your phone. Or if you’d rather mull it over in private, feel free to snap a photo of that question & come back to it later.)

Another way you can look at it is this: What do you want to be remembered for? Or this:

  • Who do you want to be?
  • What do you want to do?
  • What do you want to have?

Don’t Let Someone Else’s Goals Get in Your Way.

You’re all brilliant, creative women. You know how to turn ideas from a scribble on a napkin into a multi-faceted marketing campaign.

And I don’t need to tell you that the best-laid plans don’t mean a thing if you don’t have a clear, focused vision of where you want to go. You spend your days telling your clients that. That’s what they hire you for.

But we don’t often take the time to look inward and ask ourselves where we want to be going.

We inherit some second-hand goals from other people: Get rich. Get a better body. Look good to other people. But those goals don’t light us up. They don’t give us that well-balanced look, that look of, “Yes, this is the most important thing I could be doing right now.” The only goals that do that are the ones that whisper to us when we dare to ask our hearts what we want our legacy to be.

Because I guarantee you, while you may want to leave a financial legacy behind, or live a long, healthy life, your deathbed wish is unlikely to be that you’d worn trendier shoes or had a firmer ass. Those are not strategic goals. They’re distractions from thinking about the deathbed question at all.

Less “Have To”; More Focus.

When I got clarity on what I wanted to be remembered for, it changed everything. I mean, for starters, I could see clear as day that my loved ones are as important to me as my work. So I make them a priority. (That means saying no to work, sometimes.)

And I could see that my deepest passion in my work was not reflected in the work I was doing. So I designed a strategy to make a major career transition.

And now, whenever an opportunity presents itself, I hold it up to my life goals and I ask myself, Where does this fit in?

It makes things a hell of a lot clearer.

I mean, I still go to the dentist – you know. And I still want a firmer ass from time to time. But by and large, I’m living much more on purpose than ever before.

And I have a whole lot less “have to” and more joyful focus.

When you’re on your deathbed, what do you need to have experienced in order to feel you’ve lived a good and fulfilling life?

What do you want to be remembered for?

Clarity begets focus. Focus your attention, and you’ll find your balance. Not some idealized version of balance where you’re going to yoga X times a week and working 4 hour work weeks while raking in six or seven figures.

Your balance.

So go home. Ask yourself the question.

See what comes. And start to consider how your life might look different if you prioritized this way.

 

If you want to share your answers, I’d love to read them. Feel free to post them below, or share them with me via Twitter or email: lb at laurenbacon dot com.

Postscript: A friend posted this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt on Facebook today, from her book, You Learn By Living: 

To be mature you have to realize what you value most. It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family. Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.

1 Comment

  1. So inspirational! As a woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer at 46, I am feeling the need more than ever to redefine my life and make it “count”. I have been in a semi-fulfilling relationship for more than 20 years and stay at a job that I don’t really like because it pays well and I “should” be grateful in this economy, blah, blah, blah…My problem seems to be answering the question you posed. Not about the family stuff; I totally get that. What I struggle with is my mission in life. I draw a blank when I ask myself what I want to be when I grow up. I envy you for finding work that makes you feel “lit up”!

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