The external metrics of success at work are, if not always fulfilling, at least obvious. What are some of the intangible metrics of success for someone looking to apply the core principles of Four Thousand Weeks? How would I know if I was “succeeding” in applying them?
On the most basic level, I think it is more intuitive than the idea of intangible metrics suggest. It is a basic knowing that you’re on the right path or not. A lot of what I’m trying to do in this book is not really give people metrics for measuring whether they’re doing the right thing, but help clear away a fog that gets in the way by our attempts to become efficient and optimized and able to cope with every demand thrown at us.
I do like asking this question from [Jungian psychoanalyst] James Hollis: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” It’s a powerful question to ask about the path we’re on or a decision we’re facing. Because asking if something makes you happy, or will make you happy, is disastrous (Laughs). We’re terrible at predicting that. And there are lots of times where it’s not particularly pleasant or fun to embark on a path or stick with something. Asking if something is meaningful can be quite slippery. But I do think we have a sense of whether we are on a path of growth or not, whether difficulty is gradually making you into a better, more capacious person, or whether it’s killing you slowly from the inside.
It’s not a terribly clear answer, I realize. But I think it can’t be on some level. And I really didn’t want to provide any kind of laundry list. I think people know it about themselves once they clear away the stuff that gets in the way.
The perfectionists who read your book are liable to try and “perfect” their way to acceptance. How can they not do that?
I know that dynamic so well. (Laughs) The problem is it’s kind of an infinite regress; if I offer some sort of direction, then as you say, the temptation is to try and do that perfectly.
For me, the helpful thought to try to bear in mind, or to return to, is when I catch myself acting or behaving primarily with the goal of eradicating uncomfortable feelings, whether that be discomfort or vulnerability. That’s a sign that an interesting new way of looking at things has just been co-opted back into my old perfectionistic way of looking at things—I’m hoping that if I implement it perfectly, then all the anxiety will go away, and I will finally be serene and in control.
It starts by accepting from the very start that there is no perfect implementation of it. That embodying these ideas won’t insulate you from vulnerability or insecurity or discomfort or unpleasant emotions. And that actually the goal, if there is one, is to become a better container for those kinds of emotions, rather than trying to stamp them out.
It’s about becoming better at seeing those motivations, those tendencies, when they come up. Recognizing when you find yourself thinking that, because of this new approach, or new app, or system, you’re finally going to nail it all. You have to keep surrendering to the truth that that won’t happen.
Edward Stephens is a Senior Editor at Brunswick, based in London.