What Matters Most and Why?

This article was originally published in MBA Diversity Magazine.

As a business school alum who graduated a couple of years ago, I have seen both myself and many of my classmates go through many changes since we donned our graduation robes. While I can only speak for myself, I am sure many of my colleagues probably feel the same way as they go through their lives and careers. The following are some lessons learned through experience that I would like to share.

If you do not know yourself, you will have a hard time finding out what matters most to you. Knowing yourself is not an intellectual exercise nor is it an introspective backpacking vacation in Europe. It is about getting out there, trying new things and discovering who you are through real experience. You only know who you are by what you have experienced. The better you know yourself, choices that you once thought were life-altering such as which firm you should work at or even what career you should pursue become less important or even trivial. If you know yourself, what you may think are goals turn out to be means to another end. This is one of the primary reasons why so many MBA graduates a few years out are not as rah-rah career as the spring chickens coming straight out of school. Somewhere along the way, life happens to many of them and for most MBA grads, like the rest of the general population, other things in their lives take priority and the job is just that – a job that is a means to an end and not a point of conversation in a cocktail party.

Separate your ego and self-esteem from your job or career. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned, and one that I think many of my business school classmates have learned as well. Once you can separate self-esteem and career, whatever satisfaction you derive from a job is genuine and not there to feed your ego. For many folks, prestige or money are often cheap substitutes for lack of self-esteem. Knowing what is truly important to you and having the fortitude to follow through on what you believe in means that none of the prestige or money over and above a certain level of dignity and sustenance will be as important as it is for a person sleepwalking through life. Such a threshold is far lower than you think. So many of the things we buy are substitutes for happiness anyhow. When you know what it is that keeps you happy, a lot of the things you used to buy tend to disappear from your consciousness.

Finding out what you enjoy doing is not about divine inspiration. It is as simple as trying new things – whether it is taking a class or workshop on something you are intrigued but know nothing about to helping out people in the community by sharing your skills or expertise. If you enjoy it, you will do it more. If you do not enjoy it, you will move on to something else. If you continue to put yourself out there, you will find things you enjoy and, more importantly, become much more engaged and alive in your daily life. You will also become more interested in the world around you than you are about yourself. You will however never find out what you enjoy through inspiration, introspection or logic. Thinking your way through what are matters of the heart will trap you into self-absorption and inertia while life passes you by. Finding out what you enjoy is a process of discovery, not a process of deduction.

If you do not know what to do or are bored, you are not doing enough. Worse yet, you are sleepwalking through your life. Most of life’s major decisions require a leap of faith that no amount of intellectual introspection or rationalization can substitute for. One of the most important traits is trust – believing in yourself and believing in others. That is not just the foundation of leadership but it is what fuels compassion and conviction which gets you through the inevitable tough times. Most of life’s great milestones large or small happen because someone took a leap of faith and decided to follow through on a choice they made – to stand up to social injustice, to marry and become a parent, to follow one’s lifelong dream, or even to decide which restaurant to eat in. There are no right or wrong choices, and even stronger or weaker choices are always up for endless debate. At the end of it all, it is just a choice. Making a choice comes from the heart and having the guts to follow through on the plan your brain had put together.

Learning to be responsible for your own happiness is the single most important attitude you can have. This is easy to do when you are having fun and enjoying life. It is much harder to do when times are tough like they have been in the last few years for many people. While you can ascribe any misfortune to circumstances beyond your control, you have no one to blame but yourself for being bitter about it. However, if you take ownership of your own state of mind, you are better able to overcome and endure the hard times and misfortune that come your way.

Everything goes in cycles. Whether it is job markets, housing prices, fortunes, careers, relationships, sports teams, your ego, or your temperament – everyone experiences multiple cycles in their lifetimes, even those who you think are always riding the gravy train (because few people like to disclose the fact that their chips are down). Get used to it, as these cycles are an unavoidable fact of life. Good times do not last forever, but neither will hard times. What matters is not giving up on yourself in the hard times, but keeping your head above water when times are great.

We all make mistakes. Learn to forgive yourself when you do screw up – even if it is a major one. If you cannot forgive yourself, you will be stuck in stasis and will find it difficult to move on with the important things in your life – most notably being fully engaged in what you are doing at this very moment. It is okay to fail and learn from those failures. If you do not fail at new things, you will not succeed at anything new either.

If you do the small things right, the big things will follow. Being ‘great’ at anything is about working on the small details. Being a great manager or leader starts with simple things like acknowledging a subordinate with a ‘hello’ and taking the extra ten seconds to express gratitude for someone’s efforts. Caring about your community or social cause starts with helping that elderly lady cross the street. Seeking a better work-life balance begins with a simple five minute walk each day alone. Small things lead to other small things and, like compound interest, they can result in dramatic changes over time if you do those small things well and do them consistently. This is not about brains or talent, but about effort and heart. If you cannot do the small things required to ‘meet your goals’ whatever they are, no amount of talent or aptitude will help you get through the crises that will inevitably come your way.

Just do it. The old Nike slogan is probably one of the only advertising slogans that can be a valuable mantra to live your life by. So many type A personalities, especially highly educated ones, spend inordinate amounts of time rationalizing and reaffirming why they should hold off for now, or weighing pros and cons about this or that. It is called spinning your wheels. If murderers can rationalize why they kill, we can surely rationalize just about anything we put our hearts to. Just Do It. Dammit!