Playing Favorites By Marshall Goldsmith There’s a reason I devote...
Compared to Frank’s determined integration of all the parts of his life, I was (and still am) a hot mess of indiscipline and chaos. I loved my work. Workdays were fun. Days off left me bored. I didn’t need vacations, hobbies, and weekend rounds of golf. I figured that if work made me happy, I’d show up at home as a happy spouse and parent, which couldn’t be a bad thing. The one year I intentionally reduced my time away from home from two hundred days a year to sixty-five days—because our kids were entering their teens, allegedly the most difficult years for parents, and I flattered myself that my increased presence at home would be needed—my thirteen-year-old daughter, Kelly, at year’s end said, “Dad, you’ve overcorrected. You’re spending too much time with us. It’s okay to travel. We’re doing fine.”
Frank and I were two friends who had started our careers with identical résumés and opportunities but different gameplans for finding fulfillment. Whereas Frank wanted a balanced life, I was comfortable with extreme imbalance. Neither of us judges the other for his choices. We were creating and living our own lives. Today, in our early seventies, neither of us is burdened with regret. We’re convinced we’ve earned our lives. In the lifelong sprint to fulfillment (trust me, it’s a sprint—it goes fast), we both have earned gold medals.
How does this happen?
The answer lies in three independent variables—Action, Ambition, and Aspiration. These govern any progress we make toward living the life we seek for ourselves.
Action is what we’re doing now.
Action refers to all the specific things we do during the day—from answering a question to paying a bill to making a phone call to watching television. Whether our Action is active or passive, it reflects a conscious choice. Action is immediate, in the moment, and easy to articulate: It happened now; we just did it.
Sometimes our Action is performed in the service of our Ambition or Aspiration. Frank excelled at this. His immediate Action at mealtime was determined by his weight’s divergence up or down from 160 pounds. He ate less or more, accordingly. He was equally disciplined in other parts of his life. I, on the other hand, was more unregulated in my Action—unless it was somehow related to work. Then I was the equal of Frank in discipline. But Action for most of us is an aimless activity, subject to momentary whim or, worse, our stated objectives.
Ambition is what we want to achieve. It is our pursuit of any defined goal. It is time-bound, ending the moment we achieve the goal. It is measurable. Our Ambition is not singular. We can contain multitudes of Ambitions simultaneously — professional, avocational, physical, spiritual, financial. It may be the greatest common denominator among successful people.
Aspiration is who we want to become. It is our pursuit of an objective greater than any defined, time-bound goal. We aspire to serve others, or to be a better parent, or to embody more consistently a way of living or treating other people. Frank, who sought to lead a balanced life, excelled at this from early adulthood. I was a slow learner, never identifying a grander meaning to my life until my sixth decade.
Unlike Ambition, Aspiration doesn’t have a clearly marked finish line. It is a continuous process with an infinite time horizon. It defies measurement. It is an expression of our higher purpose.
Our aspiring may change over time, but it doesn’t go away, whether we articulate it or not. It stops when we stop breathing.