This page is excerpted from Chapter 1 of G. Richard Shell, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success.* It will help you evaluate your results on the Six Lives Exercise. You will need to remember which lives you ranked near the top and which you ranked near the bottom for this evaluation material to be helpful.
When I give the Six Lives Exercise in classes and seminars, an interesting pattern emerges. Every life receives some votes as “most successful” and “least successful.” And I am also frequently surprised by how often one life in particular attracts votes for number one or number two in terms of success: the Stone Mason.
Why do votes for the Stone Mason surprise me? Because my audiences are often Wall Street executives, doctors, pharmaceutical researchers, business students, and top government officials. These people lead lives considerably more complicated than the Stone Mason’s. The gap between the Stone Mason’s life and the lives they are actually living is striking.
I often challenge them with a question: if the Stone Mason represents success to you, what steps might you take right now to move your life closer to that ideal? For example, perhaps you need to focus more time on your family or loved ones. Or perhaps you should re-craft your workday to emphasize activities you control so you can take more genuine pride in your results. The same question applies no matter which life you picked as number one. Take a minute and make a list of what you could start doing today to bring your life more closely into harmony with the one you picked as your top choice.
That list of action items alone may be worth the price of this book.
Whichever lives you ranked highly, these choices reveal something important about your motives, aspirations, and fears when it comes to making real-life decisions. Let’s take a closer look at the factors that probably weighed in your decisions.
The Two Sides of Success
If you are like most people, you probably measure success in two different ways. The first is the private, “inner” perspectives of fulfillment, satisfaction, and happiness. Each person profiled in the Six Lives Exercise has some claim to inner fulfillment. But most also have something missing. The Wealthy Investor has no family. The Tennis Pro’s work takes her away from her children. One of the Teacher’s children won’t speak to her. The Banker’s disabled child dominates her life, and she seems unable to commit to a long-term relationship. The Nonprofit Executive’s children are in rebellion about leaving their friends for an isolated life in rural Africa.
Against these compromised claims to inner harmony, the Stone Mason appears to “have it all.” He has a stable, loving relationship with his wife of fifty-two years. His three accomplished children and seven grandchildren live nearby (a fact suggested by his help building all of their homes). And he takes a sincere, craftsmanlike satisfaction in his work—a job he controls and which enables him to see the fruits of his labors every day. His work appears to be meaningful to him. As he puts it, “It’s a good day laying brick or stone. It is hard work, but you get interested in fitting each piece in just its right spot and the day is over before you know it.” There is almost a Zen-like, spiritual dimension to the Stone Mason’s life.
Thus, people who pick the Stone Mason’s life as number one or number two are usually voting for a life with more of this “inner” dimension of success. There is quite a lot to be said for this point of view. Most of us would be hard put to define anyone as “successful” whose life lacks joy or satisfaction. And extensive research on happiness confirms the importance of these inner positive feelings to your ability to function effectively. But there is a second, more public “outer” perspective on success that (like it or not) motivates many of our day‑to‑day actions and decisions much more than the quest for inner happiness. These are desires for achievement, social recognition, and respect.
Seen from this perspective, the Stone Mason’s life is missing something that all the other lives seem to have: a notable accomplishment that has been recognized by his society or his peers. All the other people profiled have achieved something that a broader social group has taken note of, ranging from quasi-celebrity status (the Wealthy Investor and Tennis Pro) to international media attention on behalf of a worthy cause (the Banker), good works on behalf of the poor in Africa (Nonprofit Executive), and professional awards from knowledgeable peers (the Nonprofit Executive and Teacher). The Stone Mason has not even been profiled in Masonry magazine, much less The New York Times. Moreover, he admits that money has sometimes been a problem. People who rank the Stone Mason near the bottom of their Six Lives list may admire the Stone Mason’s devotion to the satisfactions of a craft and a family, but they see overall success in life as including more emphasis on that outer-achievement perspective. After all, it feels good to achieve something notable and be recognized for it. In other words, whatever our professed desire to “feel fulfilled,” most of us are also moderately excited when we receive praise. As we will see when we talk about motivation, the brain releases some very pleasant chemicals into our system when we are rewarded by our social circle. Even within Buddhist monasteries, as I learned firsthand, some less-than-enlightened monks seek the winner’s circle. They want to beat out their colleagues to become a Zen master.
So I will ask you to reflect back on your choices one more time and see if you identified the values and goals that actually motivate you when you make real-time decisions about what to do. To help, I have provided an explanatory chart below describing some career motivations that may be underlying each life. See if you recognize your own motivations in the rankings you gave. It is also worth noting what parts of your life—your hobbies, career, passions, interests, volunteer work, or family—informed the “inner voice” that spoke to you as you ranked each life. If one of these lives spoke much more clearly to you than the others, that may be telling you something about the direction you want your life to take and what, for you, constitutes the true measure of success.
TEACHER: Organizational Excellence and Teamwork. A life devoted to leading and helping teams achieve at high levels. Success resides in a career built on group accomplishment and recognition. This person also develops the talents and abilities of others and takes satisfaction from their achievements. Family is also important.
BANKER: A Life of Personal Loyalty and Commitment. A life characterized by a strong sense of duty, loyalty, and personal commitment to specific people and organizations. These may be close friends, family members, or work partners. Success springs from maintaining and nurturing these loyalties.
WEALTHY INVESTOR: Power, Independence, Glamour, and Variety. A life that takes on high-stakes, publicly visible challenges. Success comes from winning through the creation of a successful enterprise, the use of individual skills, strategic acumen, and competitive energy. Pleasure, variety, and sensation are high priorities.
STONE MASON: Craftsmanship and Family. Recognition, fame, or fortune means little. Intrinsic motivation is sufficient to give you satisfaction. Success is measured by creating your work, completing defined tasks to the best of your ability, and strong devotion to your family.
TENNIS PRO: Individual Excellence. A life of disciplined practice and hard work within a defined career that measures success through recognized, individual achievement. Family is a priority, but excelling at your chosen work is first.
NONPROFIT EXECUTIVE: Answering a Spiritual/Values-Based Calling. A life characterized by work that embodies core beliefs and values. Success comes from using one’s best abilities to serve a higher cause — and bringing your family to share those beliefs.
Before you leave the Six Lives Exercise, I have one final challenge for you. Think about the six profiles again and imagine you had one (and only one) child. Then imagine that you must pick one (and only one) of these lives for that only child to live out.
Now—choose which life you would bestow on your only child.
Does that put a slightly different spin on your decision? When I offer this choice to executives, as many as one third of them change their vote for number one when they think about their selection this way. Putting the question in this frame may help you assess how you are actually living your own life as opposed to what set of ideals you currently associate with success. You would want only what is best for your children— and your picture of “what is best” tends to be a clearheaded balance between survival needs, life ideals, and what you actually think an interesting, productive life is all about. Thus, whatever you would choose for an only child may be what you are already unconsciously working toward yourself.
Are you happy with that choice? Is there something you should do to begin improving on that life? Because there is good news: you are not limited to any of these stories. You have the power to take whatever your life is today and start writing a new story about what it will be tomorrow
* Excerpted and edited from Chapter 1 of Springboard, All Rights Reserved