Henry David Thoreau said,
“To affect the quality of the day is the highest of the arts.”
Really? Aren’t you exaggerating just a bit, Henry?
Surely, the way I affect or enhance the quality of my days is not a higher art than playing a violin, painting a masterpiece, or writing a work of literature, is it?
On the other hand…
What if I did think of each day as a fresh, new canvas upon which I could create moments, using all of the palette of life at my disposal—my courage, creativity, compassion, sense of humor, and imagination.
What if, day by day, I cultivated the art of living a day—through success and failure, through ups and downs, through tears and laughter.
What if I practiced combining thoughts and words, attitudes and actions to make out of the nitty gritty of each day a kind of celebration and affirmation of this thing we call life.
And, what if I finally arrived at my last day, knowing that through all the messes and magnificence, I had somehow, one day at a time, made of my life a work of art.
Would that not qualify as at least among the highest of the arts?
Can you think of a higher art to practice?
What is the secret of happiness?
The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky had a surprising response to that question:
“Man is unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy. That’s the only reason. The man who discovers that will become happy that very moment.”
Really? I’m not happy simply because I don’t know I’m happy? Is this some kind of naive, spiritual fast food? Some kind of spacey, psyche-yourself-up psycho-babble?
Coming from someone else, it might be. But listen to Dostoevsky’s story.
As a young man, he became involved in a political conflict; he was put in prison by political enemies and sentenced to death. Execution day came and he was led out in front of a firing squad, blindfolded. The soldiers raised their rifles…and at the very last moment, a rider on horseback approached with news from the Duke, staying the execution. Dostoevsky had been spared.
Dostoevsky credited that experience with opening his mind and inspiring him to write the works of fiction he devoted his life to.
One footnote: even as he wrote the above words about happiness, Dostoevsky was suffering from lifelong, debilitating bouts of epilepsy. So perhaps his thought is at least worth reflecting on.
Imagine that your life was taken away from you today—and then given back. Wouldn’t you then be happy to be here? Happy being who you are, where you are right now?
Wouldn’t this ordinary day, with whatever problems and frustrations and disappointments it may have, take on a heightened glow?
Wouldn’t you be happy in the wonder of just being alive? Being human? And being you?
Maybe Dostoevsky is on to something. Maybe happiness is not the end goal.
Maybe happiness is the place to begin.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“No one knows what you can do, and you won’t know until you try.”
I like that. It’s a reminder that there’s always more to my story and more to your story and more to the story of everyone we meet—more than we know.
There’s always more to learn, more to do, more to grow, more to dare, more to contribute as a unique human being in this world.
It’s also a reminder that I only need to do what I can. If I just fulfill my life, who I am, what my potential is, that’s enough.
But how can we do it? How can we stay alive and growing and giving and challenging ourselves all the way to the last day?
Emerson also wrote:
“Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.”
But who will make me do that? Somewhere I read…
You and you alone can make you do what you can. You’ll have to be the coach, the player, and the fan.
Be your own coach. Be your own fan. Be the player. Be the hero of your story—no matter what happens, no matter how many failures or setbacks or disappointments.
Once you start playing these roles, the world better watch out.
It’s game on!
Ever come down with a case of the What ifs?
You know how it goes. What if [FILL IN THE BLANK] happens? What if [FILL IN THE BLANK] never happens? What if…what if…what if?
Just a whiff of the What ifs can give your soul the sniffles…or worse. Fortunately, there is a cure: Replace What if with What now.
Here is how a person takes the What now medicine:
Yes, she dreams and makes plans. But then she gets up each morning and spends the whole day as if Here and Now is all that matters.
Whether she is washing the dishes, writing a report, listening to a friend, getting up to feed the baby, dealing with a problem, or even talking to someone she doesn’t particularly like, she tells herself: I choose to be right here, right now. I don’t want to be anywhere else doing anything else except what I’m doing now.
She simply seeks to bring her whole self—her genuine self—to each moment—including her sense of humor, courage, enthusiasm, patience, kindness and empathy.
As Michael Korda wrote:
“Act impeccably! Perform every act as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered.”
Or as the Bible puts it:
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
In their wonderful book, Difficult Conversations, the authors (Stone, Patton and Heen) point out that difficult conversations (anything you find it hard to talk about) are difficult because they are important. Something needs to be addressed.
They also say that, generally, people are not good at difficult conversations—whether at work or in a relationship.
But here’s the silver lining to that cloud: anyone who develops skills in dealing with difficult conversations has a real advantage—in career as well as in personal life.
So how do we become more skillful at dealing with difficult conversations?
True, deep listening can help, of course. But this is also a place where we can put joy to work.
Joy—with its favorite tools, humor and playfulness—eases tensions and helps us speak honestly but gently and respectfully.
Robert Townsend, former CEO of Avis Rent-A-Car tells about an associate who had a unique way of expressing his disagreement.
When Townsend was pressing a new idea that the associate didn’t think would work, the associate sent Townsend a memo that read:
“Dear Jefe do Oro [an Inca form of address that means Chief of Gold]: If you say so, it will be my hourly concern to make it so. But before I sally forth in service of this, your latest cause, I must tell you with deep affection and respect that you’re full of it again.”
Gerry Sikorsky, the inventor of the helicopter said:
“Be absolutely determined to enjoy what you do.”
But given the stresses, tragedies, failures and disappointments of life…is that realistic? How can we do that?
There is a thing little children know (and they don’t even know they know it): They know that the point is joy.
Put a small child down anywhere for one minute and they’ll find some fun (their word for joy).
Joy, to small children, is like water to a fish. It is their default mode.
Could we make joy our default mode…again?
I used to think joy was the icing on the cake of life. Now I believe it is the cake.
I believe joy is the point of work, the point of relationships, the point of life—despite all the problems.
In fact, the more problems we have, the more we need joy. Not as an end, but as the energy with which we live and fight our battles and take on challenges.
Joy is not about faking it. It doesn’t mean we pretend problems aren’t there or plaster a fake smile on our face. It’s deeper than that.
With its favorite tools—stories, laughter, humor and playfulness—joy makes life feel meaningful. It helps to rescue us from unlived life. It is a stress-reliever. It limits damage in relationships. It helps us connect on a human level.
Joy is not about someday when we get somewhere “better”. It is about this day.
Here’s a way to follow Sikorsky’s advice: take a vow to find and create joy in your life…to bring joy and playfulness to your work…to your relationships…to your communities…even to your alone time.
The world needs it. You need it.
And the people who live and work around you will probably be glad you did.