You Are What You Pay Attention To
A few months back I wrote that I like to think of our innermost essence as a blank canvas. It's the part of us that lies underneath everything we see, say, think, feel, or do. Meditation teachers call this basic nature awareness. Scientists call it consciousness.
It's important that we connect with our canvas regularly. Without doing so, it's near impossible to separate ourselves from everything that is happening always. We get caught up in the whirlwind of daily life and find ourselves reacting to everything, instead of more thoughtfully responding.
Meditation, reflection, therapy, intimate relationships, contemplation, coaching, and time in nature are just a few ways to get in touch with your canvas. All of these practices help you create some space between what's deep down inside of you and everything else, or what a meditation teacher I know calls the "content" that is constantly thrown at your canvas.
But that doesn't mean the content doesn't matter. Unless you spend hours and hours a day in silence, the majority of life is being in the thick of the content. And while we can use the above practices to create some space between our innermost nature and all that content, it's also true that all that content shapes our innermost nature, or at least our expression of it.
In many ways, we are what we pay attention to. The things that we work on also work on us. There is no such thing as "passive" consumption. Everything we take in has an effect on the taker-inner, on us. Our attention is perhaps the most precious resource there is. We need to use it as skillfully as we can.
Whenever you are actively focusing on something ask yourself: "Is this what I want to become?" If the answer is "no," it's probably best to spend your attention elsewhere. Same goes for deciding whether or not to take on new projects, hang out with new people, etc., etc.
Are there exceptions? Of course. The problem becomes when suddenly everything is an exception. Most readers of this newsletter have plenty of agency, more than you may think. Every time you pick up the remote, choose a book to read, open your internet browser, or make social commitments, you are cultivating a future version of yourself. And you've got some choice in the matter.
What seeds do you want to plant? How are you going to water them?
Motivation = Feeling Necessary
Most leaders get it wrong. Whether you are the CEO of a company or the head coach of a team, we often miss the mark on what drives people to succeed. In a modern workplace, when it comes to motivation we tend to place emphasis on external rewards: money, bonuses, stock options, and the like.
But at a foundational human level, once our basic financial needs are met, it’s not the money that motivates people; it’s the message that comes along with it.
The financial reward sends a message, “we value you.” That same message, however, can be sent in ways that don’t require any external reward. A boss who takes interest in your latest project, or shows up to your big speech, or through a simple action shows that they are invested in whatever mission you are on.
In the late 1970’s, two researchers, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, put forth a theory on motivation that started with a simple premise: At a basic level, people want to get better at whatever it is they do. As they put it, “Humans have an inherent tendency toward growth development.” That natural tendency can be easily derailed by neglecting three basic human needs: to feel competent, authentic, and connected.
If we neglect those basic needs, then our motivation towards growth and development crashes and burns.
So while most leaders focus on incentivizing individuals to perform, they forget that you have to take care of the foundational components first. If individuals on the team don’t feel valued or necessary, if they don’t feel like they can make progress or be connected to the core mission of the program, then not much else matters.
As leaders, then, it’s important to be aware of the message that we send to our athletes, workers, or friends. Is it one of value? Is it one of supporting their basic motivational needs?
Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe, writes that “humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
If people feel competent, like they can be their true selves, and like they are connected and belong, they'll feel necessary; they'll feel good. And the better someone feels, the better they perform.
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