How to Keep Your Soul and Find Meaning Using the Paradox of Value
“Everything in life is truly free, if you keep your soul.”
This was the vivid and profound message in my head when I woke up from a dream the other morning. The message itself was engrained in my brain, no messenger. I spent a good portion of that morning pondering the meaning of it. Why did I wake up with this thought? How did it get there? Why does my soul have anything to do with the value (or lack thereof) of things? And so on…
And then I flashed back to a promise I made to myself weeks before I embarked on a two-year odyssey of opening and running a restaurant: DON’T LOSE YOUR SOUL.
Okay, maybe that’s more of a command than a promise, but it was a crucial piece of advice to myself that would guide me through that particularly challenging chapter of my life, and ever since. By not losing my soul, I would keep my focus, rather than give in to distractions that may come with such responsibility. I would stay true to my values, rather than bend to the will of my “superiors” in ethically challenging situations. And most importantly, I could draw the line on how far I would go for money and how much I would sacrifice for a promised future that was never guaranteed to come.
DON’T LOSE YOUR SOUL
What does it mean to lose your soul, and how do you know if or when you have lost it? It’s one of those fishbowl problems where the fish only knows the water in which it swims, with no awareness of outside perspectives—nor the existence of them. It’s a topic I confronted on a daily basis as the leader of a large organization. Some days, I would venture further from the shoreline of soulfulness and sanity than most days, but luckily, I always found my way back. I kept my focus, stayed true to my values, and knew exactly where to draw the line.
The Paradox of Value
There is a really useful heuristic for managing soul-bending or soul-crushing work. If you’ve never heard about the diamond-water paradox, it goes something like this, according to Wikipedia: “although water is on the whole more useful, in terms of survival, than diamonds, diamonds command a higher price in the market.”
It’s known in economic circles as the paradox of value. We put massive value in gold, diamonds, nice cars, or shiny promises of the future—things of relatively low utility, yet high marginal value. Conversely, we massively undervalue the free oxygen we breathe or the cheap water we drink, or the present moment in which we live and have full control over.
Put simply, we value things based on how they will help us survive in the present moment. In non-life-threatening situations, that gold watch or diamond necklace helps our ego survive. Our boss’ word when he promises a “raise” or a “promotion” in the near future helps our ego survive. We value these things more than water…in the safe and comfy environment of the office.
Now, if we are stranded under the hot sun in the middle of the Sahara desert, well, you can bet we’ll be willing to fork over some cash for a nice refreshing bucket of water. It is at this moment when diamonds have very little use. The ego can take a backseat. Now our life is at stake.
This very dichotomy is at the heart of the “instant gratification” world in which we live. It’s at the heart of the endless meta-tug-of-war between “what I want vs. what I need” and “what I think I want vs. what I think I need.” It is realizing that what you want in the present is not always what you need. It’s at the heart of each and every human being’s battle to save the soul.
A Shift in Priorities
When we just step back and look at the big picture, we begin to truly appreciate what is most meaningful in life. Yes, money puts food on the table and pays the bills. Yes, diamonds and nice cars can bring a short-lived sense of excitement and status. Yes, shiny promises of the future can keep you locked in to a job you hate, and motivate you to keep going down an unfulfilling path. But we need to look beyond these shallow “valuables” and look at their second and third order consequences. The over-prioritization of short-term “needs” is short-changing your future self. It is this shallowness and narrowness that makes us humans notoriously bad at predicting what we want.
When you really dig down to the essence of the matter, you begin to understand the difference between wants and needs, between your present self and future self. You begin to realize what your priorities should really be and shift them accordingly.
After some deep recent reflection, some priority shifts in my life include:
- Aiming for money → Aiming for meaning
- Aiming for popularity → Aiming for truth
- Aiming for acceptance → Aiming for self-acceptance
- Aiming for short-term gratification → Aiming for long-term fulfillment
- Aiming to be heard → Aiming to listen
- Aiming to be understood → Aiming to understand
- Aiming for the end point → Deriving enjoyment from the process
- And many more…
Some of these I still struggle with. We never truly arrive at perfection, nor should that be the goal. But a relentless effort to get as close as possible is what we should all aim for. Some of these shifts have led to great changes in my life, including the creation of my blog—to discuss not only my ideas, but to interact with the ideas of others and to perhaps even spark a change for the better in someone else’s life. To date, surface-level goals (money, status) have translated to unfulfilling surface-level results (meaningless work, unhappiness), so why not focus on the profound and the significant? The process is more likely to become the reward in itself. The surface-level goals will come as a welcomed side-effect.
And now we come full circle to the message I woke up with: “Everything in life is truly free, if you keep your soul.”
Keeping your soul will always ensure you are where you need to be. And if you are always where you need to be, you won’t need to chase. Things you want will tend to come to you, free of stress. Acquiring things becomes secondary. Acquiring meaning becomes primary. So long as you stay focused on your real priorities, stay true to your values, and know where to draw a principled line.
Prioritize Writing. Write to Prioritize.
In a way, writing this post has given me some clarity on what keeping my soul really means and why I woke up with it in my mind the other morning. The act of writing is and will always be a key tenet of how I define my approach to life. This blog will be one way of turning diamonds into water.
So I am really excited to post my thoughts on this blog. I wish I would have started it sooner, but better late than never! Something has been pushing me to do this, as I have never really put thought into writing publicly. But if this blog only reaches the eyes of one other person, at least I will be able to:
- Clarify my thoughts- I’ve always believed (but never really acted on) that writing down thoughts acts as a snapshot of your mind. If you allow thoughts to stay in your head, they will morph into something much worse or, best case, much different. At least by keeping a record, you can analyze your thought patterns.
- Sharpen the saw– I might be a “good” writer, but I really believe this can help refine my writing skills, and communication overall.
- Find my writing voice- I don’t quite know what mine is, but I know it is important and will develop over time.
- Develop a healthy addition to my daily routine– Routine is very important in not only productivity, but in maintaining a solid mental state.
- Track my development– Like tracking development of thoughts, it is useful to track my growth as a writer and a thinker.
- Have an additional outlet for self-expression– Self-expression is the way out of depression.
- Learn new skills related to blogging: SEO, website building, social media marketing, etc.
- Learn new skills for blogging topics: I can write about all of my experiences and help teach others what works and what doesn’t work.
- Inspire any who might come across this blog– to push the human experience onward and upward.
- Bonus: Add something to the world that might not already exist- this is where the unparalleled life lives.
Maybe some of these reasons might even convince you to start a blog!
If not a blog, do something today that will make your future self proud. And remember,
“Everything in life is truly free, if you keep your soul.”
Become a Better Leader
The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.
This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.
Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership
Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.