Dying is part of living. Looking at COVID, I sometimes think we forget that. Dying a good death should also be part of how you approach life. Hence “Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day”. And a tip-off from a contact on LinkedIn. Thank you Mohan Magotra.
Life is no brief candle
This is how the book starts; George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
Your days are finite. One day, they will run out. It is all a question of legacy. The question then is“Did the work I did today really matter?” How much of your day do you spend doing work that you’ll be proud of later? The great problems we see in the world today will not be solved by people functioning at half capacity, cranking out work they don’t care about in order to buy more things that will eventually rust or rot. The key to long-term success is a willingness to disrupt your own comfort for the sake of continued growth.
You have a unique contribution to make to the world, and no one else can make your contribution for you. Purpose. With a lack of clear purpose to drive your work, efficiency often supplants effectiveness, and it’s possible to move ever faster without any sense of direction. It is pointless efficiency.
The siren song of mediocrity
The author talks about the siren song of mediocrity. Mediocrity doesn’t just happen suddenly; it develops slowly over time. Why not chose to be brilliant. Every brilliant achievement begins with a hunch. Trust your intuition. Read “Meta-human“.
Each system has resonant frequencies to which it naturally responds. When you hit upon one of those frequencies, whether accidentally or on purpose, the system will respond in kind by resonating along with the source. Similarly, we each have resonant frequencies that we respond to naturally, and when we encounter them in others, Typically, these points of resonance are thematic, not specific in nature. The best method of excavating these points of resonance and unlocking the deeper pattern behind them is to make a physical note each time you experience them. Pay attention to that little voice inside your head that sends you prompts, insights, and hunches. Over time, as you pay attention to your little intuitive nudges and responses to experiences throughout your day-to-day life, you will begin to notice patterns. You need to pay attention to these moments of inspiration and follow—at least mentally—where they lead, even if it seems impractical in the moment. This doesn’t mean being reckless with your attention and following every whim, but being willing to at least suspend your assumptions long enough to vet the merits of an intuitive ping.
Stagnancy and self-preservation
If you’re aware enough to notice it, insights take hold and yield useful energy and enthusiasm as you imagine its potential. You entertain it for a while, considering its implications and thinking through how you might make it happen. But your enthusiasm quickly wanes as other forces begin to take hold of you. These are the forces that contribute to stagnancy and self-preservation. They cause you to second-guess your intuition, become obsessed with the reasons the idea would be too difficult to act upon, and inevitably compromise. As we progress in our career and accumulate more knowledge, there are fewer experiences that instinctively spark our curiosity and challenge us to rise to the occasion. We quickly grow stagnant, relying on our existing skills to perform our work. That is the death by a thousand cuts. When you satisfice, the work that you secretly aspire to do remains inside you. It clogs up the inner workings of your creative process and causes you to stagnate. You may even begin to lose your compass and an overall sense of motivation.
Please note that mediocrity doesn’t mean doing poor work or failing to achieve success in your career. You can appear very successful to others but know deep down that you’re settling. Mediocrity doesn’t always mean underperforming—it’s a sliding scale and a state of mind. Mediocrity comes from the Latin words medius, meaning middle, and ocris, meaning rugged mountain. Literally translated, it means to settle halfway to the summit of a difficult mountain. No one charts a course for mediocrity, yet it’s still a destination of choice.
Stay out of the “Grey Zone”
Think about how muscle is built. You have to strategically stress the muscle by pushing it to its limits and then allowing it to rest, which is when the muscle fibres repair and grow. One personal trainer told me that the most dangerous place for someone wanting to get in good physical shape is what he calls the “grey zone.” This is the place where you’ve developed the capacity to do a reasonable workout, but you’re no longer stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone. When the business stops stretching itself and seeking new challenges—when it gets stuck in the “grey zone”—it stops growing. You can spend many years in the grey zone, with the illusion that you’re contributing, but knowing deep down that you’re not really offering up your best effort.
When you stop growing, you start dying
Acquiring new skills and adapting to complex, uncertain environments isn’t easy. It requires persistent attention and near-constant effort to maintain a trajectory of growth. However, when you stop growing, you start dying.
Seven deadly sins of mediocrity
- Aimlessness. The key to conquering aimlessness is to concretely define the battles that you need to fight each day in order to make meaningful progress, then focus your efforts on those above all else.
- Boredom. The cure for boredom is intentional and applied curiosity.
- Comfort. When comfort becomes the goal of life, we cannibalize future progress for the sake of temporary stability.
- Delusion. To add the value, you’re capable of adding, you need to cultivate self-awareness. You must have an accurate sense of your skills, your weaknesses, and your core drivers.
- Ego No matter how successful or skilled you are, you will inevitably fail at many things in your work. To countermand ego, you must adopt a posture of adaptability.
- Fear. Fear thrives on the unknown. Its paralyzing effects are often rooted more in imagination than reality.
- Guardedness. Great work happens most consistently in the context of community. Regardless of what kind of work you do, you probably depend on others, whether co-workers, managers, clients, or mentors, in order to accomplish. But when you isolate yourself from other people, you cut yourself off from some of the most valuable opportunities to grow and collaborate.
The passion fallacy
Passion is no picnic. The problem with “follow your passion” is that it frames the conversation as if you are the centre of the world. “Passion” has its roots in the Latin word pati, which means “to suffer or endure.” Therefore, at the root of passion is suffering. You cannot pursue greatness and comfort at the same time.
So the questions are
- What work am I willing to suffer for today?
- What is your worthwhile cause?
- What will you stand for today?
- What will you refuse to compromise on, no matter what?
The principle is simple
Do not live in the shadows. “Shadow pursuits” are activities that capture our attention and give us a sense of accomplishment, but serve as a substitute for the real work that we know we should be doing. To avoid aimlessness, you have to stand for something. Your body of work should reflect what’s important to you. When you’re gone, your work should stand as the single biggest testament to who you were and what you believed. Work is core to the human experience. Work is a reinforcement of that sense of being—of our sense of belonging—and a way to discover ourselves as we interact with the world around us. It reminds me of “Deep Work”.
Are you adding value?
If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, you know you need to change something. How much time do you spend on the true work that really adds value—on a daily basis? Because that work—that you alone are capable of—is your voice.
Applied curiosity is the engine that drives this process. When you become more selective about where you spend your valuable attention, you cultivate the capacity to notice the subtleties of life and apply new observations to your work. Attention management.
Away from creative inversion
You get to play the role of curator of your own life and creative process. Away from creative inversion, because it feels like you’re working upside down, in a world where demand drives ideas rather than supply. For example, you know that you need an idea for the 4:00 p.m. strategy meeting, but you have absolutely nothing to offer. This struggle plays out daily for designers, writers, and others who have to continuously turn their thoughts into tangible value. Because of the never-ending outflow of new work, it’s a struggle to stay ahead of the insatiable need for ideas, and in truth, many succumb to cranking out work that fits the bill but is nothing to write home about.
Prototype relentlessly. To prototype means to build a model, sketch an idea, or otherwise play with concepts in a way that allows for rapid iteration. Read “Black box thinking“. Prototyping is problem-solving. It’s a culture and a language. You can prototype just about anything—a new product or service, or a special promotion. Prototyping doesn’t just solve straightforward problems. Call it serendipity or even luck, but once you start drawing or making things, you open up new possibilities of discovery. It’s the same method that’s helped scientists unlock some of the greatest secrets of nature.
You need to put yourself on the line, to be audacious, and letting your actions define you, not your words. To make a valuable contribution, you have to get uncomfortable and embrace lifelong growth and skill development. To continue to grow in your capacity to do great work, You need to regularly challenge that biological instinct by jumping over hurdles that force you to grow.
As far as work is concerned, those experts who were happiest about their careers can point to a decision where they were tempted to say no, where staying the course was more comfortable and less risky, but they finally decided to give it a go. Don’t allow short-arc comfort to convince you to compromise your long-arc goals. Rarely are things as terrible or wonderful as they seem in the moment.
Other tips for the book
- Establish your active code of ethics
- Know yourself. Or better, manage yourself.
- Be authentic
- Cultivate a service mind-set
- Be grateful
- Dream a little
Don’t give in to the “Lag”
The lag is the gap between cause and effect. It’s the season between planting a seed and reaping a harvest. Urgency and diligence are the foundation of “hustle,” and hustle is the best antidote to lifelong regret. If you hustle, you never have to wonder “what if?” Often, people give up during the lag, and they subsequently fail to reap the reward for all their hard work.
The last sentences of the book
Ultimately, your life will be measured by what you gave, not what you received. Don’t hold out on the rest of us we need you to contribute. Spend your life building a body of work you will be proud of. Engage today with urgency and diligence. Plant seeds every day that will yield a harvest later. Tomorrow is only an unfulfilled wish, so live and work as if today is all you have. If you do, you will be able to lay your head down each night satisfied with your work, and in the end, you will die empty of regret, but full of satisfaction for a life well-lived.
The good news. It is never too late. You always have the choice to move.