Today, I spoke to Marcus Buckingham, who was interviewed for the seventh issue of Personal Branding Magazine back in early 2009. I’ve also interviewed his wife, Jane Buckingham on this blog. Marcus is a New York Times bestselling author, international speaker, and consultant. his latest book is called Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. In this interview, Marcus talks about how to figure out what you were born to do, the obstacles that get in the way of our happiness, what successful people do differently, and more.
How do you figure out what you were born to do? Does it help to figure this out sooner rather than later?
There are times that you could look for to figure out what you were born to do. The first thing you got to remember is that you are not following your dreams in the sense that you’re not painting dreams in the sky at 30,000 feet, and going “gosh that perfect life is out there somewhere, if I just knew what is was,” because actually when you ask people “what is your ideal job?” and you give them a whole list of possible answers. By far the two most common answers when you ask that question with the working population are “my ideal job is either what I’m doing now with more responsibility or a specialized subset of what I’m doing now.” So most of us, finding our perfect job isn’t a function of kind of saying to ourselves, “what is the one perfect job out there? What is that dream?” Actually, finding what we’re born to do is more of a journey where you look at how you’re feeling about what you’re doing now and then you gradually build your way toward it incrementally, by paying attention to the signs that are there out in the world and then gradually moving yourself toward it.
I would say that the signs are pretty clear for you. If you feel effective while you’re doing something- that’s a really good sign that you’re playing to an area of strength. If you find yourself instinctively looking forward to doing something so you consistently find yourself volunteering to do it, positive anticipation, you might call that. So the opposite of procrastination- that’s a great sign that you’re in an area of strength.
You get in that state where time speeds up that doesn’t happen with every activity, but that’s a really good clue if you want to find out what you were born to do just look at the activities that when you’re doing them you just get so into them that your sense of time changes and your troubles flow away. And then the last sign is when you’re done with an activity you feel fulfilled, authentic those needs kind of have been fulfilled of yours as though as almost you were pushed to do that thing. There’s that sense of maybe tiredness when you’re done with it, but there’s a sense of rightness and we all know what that feels like.
I mean, and is it good to find that out early in life? Dan, well, yeah. Some of those signs are evident early. I mean, my sister went off to the world ballet boarding school to become a ballet dancer at the age of eleven. She has been a ballet dancer for the last 30 years and she’s had an opportunity to really dive deep into that and it hasn’t narrowed her, it has become the integrating point from which she sees the world. It has opened her world up. I think when you sharpen your edge like that, when you start early like that, your wedge opens up your world. The earlier you start with something, the more proficient, the more expert you get, the more you find your genius. Having said that, you know, Grandma Moses, the artist, was 70 when she had her first exhibition. She worked on a farm for 50 years, didn’t have a chance to really paint and practice her genius. By the time she got to 70 and retired from her farm work, she set her mind to painting, and refined it, and refined it especially good until she died at 92. So, yes, it’s good to find it early. Having said that, if you’re 70, you can certainly still find it.
What gets in the way of our happiness? What are the obstacles?
1) We don’t see our uniqueness for what it is. We take ourselves for granted because we are good at something. Let’s say that we are naturally good at empathizing with people, we just naturally feel the emotions of other people and we respond to them. We think our soft heart is what everyone has, everyone is soft-hearted, everyone’s empathetic, everyone picks up on the emotions of other and because we’re so close to it, we don’t see it as genius, we just see it as us. We don’t even analyze it. So the first obstacle is that we don’t take ourselves seriously and we devalue ourselves, because our strengths are things that easy for us. So we almost reject ourselves.
2) There an awful lot of people in the world who don’t care really care about what our strengths are. So the second obstacle is that we listen to other people too much. We don’t listen to the sound of our own voice, we listen to the sound of other people’s saying “well you should do this, you should try this, or you should try it that way.” You know, school’s not really interested into helping you what’s going to make you happy in life. School’s good at teaching you things you need to learn in order to pass a test. Work’s not very good at discovering what will make you happy. Work just wants to get things done and if what makes you happy is getting things done then that’s a happy coincidence, but that’s not what work’s all about. So you got an awful lot of people out there in the world that are not particularly interested in who you are. Now if you were an engineer, you would say that the signal to noise ratio is terrible in life. So I think that’s another obstacle that gets in the way- other people’s noise. Some of which might be really well intended noise, but it’s still noise.
3) Although our natural talents and gifts are ingrained in us, probably inherited in us at birth, the ability to channel effectively it is not. You got to learn how to do that. Strengths are value neutral. The things that really engage you and fulfill you are value neutral. They can come out for good or they can come out for ill. If you’re one of those people who naturally shows goodwill in others and understand that if you do something good for somebody at point a, at point b they might turn around and do something good for you back. If you are innately understanding of that, showing goodwill, that could come out as a wonderful gift to be able to influence people to do things and want to do things to help you, and it’s a great gift. If you’re not careful, it could also come out of manipulation and you could turn into a nasty, manipulative person. One of the other obstacles is that we don’t actually think consciously how do we own and channel our gifts so that we can use them to our advantage. Those are three, there may be many more, but those are three obstacles that certainly hold many of us back.
Your latest published book is “find your strongest life” what are three things that successful woman and men do differently in their careers than everyone else, that make them standout and achieve success?
1) They will search for moments where they feel effective instead of living in the moment. In fact, there are many other moments that they are definitely trying to get out of as fast as they possibly can. Instead, they are searching for those particular activities or moments where there are signs of that. You are deliberately looking for things where you lose yourself in the activity and time speeds up. You’re deliberately looking for activities that when you’re done with them you feel that sort of sense of authenticity. You’re constantly looking and paying attention to those signs. That’s the first thing. You’re not you know doing all these things that push you beyond your comfort zone. Well, no, no, no, you’re not doing that. Successful people don’t do that. They push themselves within their strength zone which means they’re constantly experimenting, but they’re experimenting in order to look and discover more about what’s inside them, they’re not experimenting in order to try and put in what isn’t inside them. So there’s a constant search for these strong moments.
2) They accept what they find. When you’re with successful people there’s an acceptance, “this is me.” At a lot of the Gallup, I was an executive coach for a while and I worked with executives who were struggling, and you’d listen to people who were having a really tough time with it and didn’t feel like they were getting any political support they needed or any financial resources they needed or they didn’t feel their manager understood them. I should’ve wanted to do it. I should’ve wanted to help those executives get better and I didn’t. I listened, and I realized that they just dragged me down. I just took too much of their pain and their difficulty on. I couldn’t stop myself from taking it all on.
I would just walk away from pretty much all of these coaching conversations just feeling depressed. It was really only when I accepted that, and went, “you know what? That that’s not me- I am not a therapist. I am not good there.” I go from A+ to B- really fast. If I’m asking questions from someone who’s really good at their job and listening closely to what they’re doing, I’m an A+, but if I start to counsel someone who’s not good at their job, I could do it, but boy it drains the living daylights out of me. So one of the things that when you look at happy successful people, they are accepting, they search for these strong moments, but they’re accepting of what they find. They don’t fight, they don’t fight themselves. They don’t spend their life going, “I wish I was that person. I wish I was this. I wish I felt that way.” They go “who am I? What strengthens me?” and then they run with it.
3) They deliberately imbalance their lives. Once you find those strong moments those strong activities in your life you deliberately imbalance your life toward them. I described it in that book “find you strongest life” I described it as catching and cradling. In a sense, in order to be successful in life, you have to realize that your attention, the attention you pay to particular moments in your life, your working life, your home life, your attention is a creative act. The more attention you pay to something, the bigger it gets, which of course, cuts both ways. If you spend your entire job you looking at the activities that drag you down that annoy you and bore you. Those things get bigger, attention amplifies things. So the more you focus on the problems that you’re facing right now at your job and career, the bigger those problems get, which lead to the understanding that many people successful people have that you never solve the problem on it’s on terms, ever. It’s not like you ignore the problem, but you never solve it on its own terms.
You got to find a different angle of attack. The angle that most successful people use in general and in life is you pay attention to the strongest moments in your life. You pay attention to those particular moments that seem to invigorate you differently than other people and you focus your attention on those, then what you’re doing is a) you’re letting those moments to fulfill you to fill you up, to invigorate you and b) you’re being creative. You’re looking at the moments, going “how can I use those on my job? How can I learn new skills that might enable me to be more effective and valuable in those moments?” So for example, for someone like you, for an entrepreneur like you, you might go “you know what? I’m invigorated by ambiguity. I love not knowing what I’m going to do next.
I love the fact that the world is a friendly place. I don’t know what’s around the next corner and the only way I’m going to figure it out is to walk around the next corner. Any time I’m put in a situation like that, where I don’t know what’s around the next corner. I’m just at my best. I’m on fire. What the best people do, the successful people will pay close attention to that moment and then go, and you would go “how can I make sure that doesn’t turn into ready fire rain. How can I take my love of ambiguity and turn it into really focus on entrepreneurship? What kind of resources would I need to ensure that if I charged across town, stoplight stoplight that there wasn’t anything really to derail me? I like to travel light, but I don’t want to travel without anything at all because I might get caught short. So how do I take my love of ambiguity and turn it into a really focused way of approaching my career?” I don’t know you that well, Dan, but by looking at someone like you, that’s probably one of your challenges. How do you..
I’m really big on research and you did this huge research project for “find your strongest life.” What was the most fascinating piece of research that you uncovered for your book?
There’s two. There’s a macro and a mico piece. The fact that out of the last 40 years you’ve got all of these different global surveys of well-being revealing the same trend that men are gradually getting ever so slightly happier, and women are gradually getting ever so slightly less happy. That applies to every single one of the 35 developed countries in which that research has been conducted. So great political freedom, greater earning power, and greater influence, the political realm, the community realm, pretty much any realm you could look at, the greater influence in power that the women have achieved over the last 40 years, have not yet brought with it the rise in well-being and happiness, self-reported well-being and happiness, then you might expect it.
If one wasn’t pushing and searching for those freedoms, which of course we should have between the genders. There should be parity in terms of where time is spent and where money is earned, educational level, and all those things. If one wasn’t pushing for the freedoms, in order to be happier and more fulfilled in life, then why are we doing it? So that research shows the gradual downward trend of women’s overall well-being over the last 40 years, which is just weird, because frankly I haven’t seen it written about before, no one had put that out front and center and was like “what’s going on?” I think that that’s important a) we got to look at what do women do who are not part of the trend, which is why I wrote the book, there are women who are not getting gradually more dissatisfied they are becoming more fulfilled.
On the micro level, there was a lady that we interviewed. I’m fascinated at people who are resilient. There was many many of resilient people that we interviewed for this book, but there was one particular lady named Diane who basically, and I won’t tell you the entire story, but she was woken up one night by a call from the police station saying that her husband, who was a pastor, had been arrested for cereal rape, and she had two sons, one of whom was just under 2 years old one of whom was just about 3 weeks old. With that one phone call her whole life fell apart. And yet you see her now, 15 years on, and she’s vibrant, focused, engaged, and happy, and confident.
If you didn’t know it, you would have no idea that in her life that there was this ridiculously massive tragedy. Somehow she had taken that tragedy and figure out how to move forward through that despite having two young kids, and despite the trauma of having a serial rapist as a husband who’s now serving 12 consecutive life sentences. So to see people like that I mean yes it’s all very well studying the most successful women, the Meg Whitmans, the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, and looking at those successful women and going, “what did they do differently?” that’s interesting, but in my mind, it’s just as intriguing to study somebody who’s faced ridiculous setbacks and managed to persevere and live a strong and fulfilled life.
How do people maintain a more balanced life when we’re all connected all the time?
All of the interconnectedness of the world these days makes it really quite tricky. Where do you put the boundaries? You and I know both know you could be connected at all times if you want. You could be distracted your whole life. You can never be in any moment long enough to really feel it. I think technology these days puts pressure on us to figure out how we actually pay attention at all. We suffer from a life of divided attention and since the way to find fulfillment in life is to pay attention, and the major symptom is our attention is divided, you got a major problem right there. You just got a poor cause of unhappiness. I think really that when you look at what we’re facing, I don’t really we really setup balance as our goal. I think it’s distracting to us. Because firstly, finding that point of balance where everything is perfectly balanced is incredibly difficult.
We’re setting up ourselves for failure because there’s only one tiny point on the spectrum where everything is perfectly balanced. And second, who’s to say that it’s particularly filling anyway? Even if you find that moment where you got the car payment taken care of, and the house payment taken care of, and you’re spending enough time with your kids, spending enough time with your spouse, and spending just enough time on your work to be ambitious but not so much that you lose your family. It’s really kind of a moment where you go, “nobody move, nobody move, nobody change anything, everyone just stay right where you are because that’s where everything’s balanced. So it’s not a fulfilling state, it’s a stagnant, stationary state- that’s what balanced is. Nobody move, nobody touch anything because otherwise the whole balance will crumble. That’s a rotten life goal, much more of a fulfilling way to think about life is you’re not striving for balance, you’re striving for fullness and that you need to make sure that in each aspect of your life that you take on that you’re paying attention to the specific moments long enough for them and focus enough for them to fill you up.
So if you choose to work, then your work better have moments that you’ve searched of that fill you up. If you choose to get married, you better make sure that you are finding and paying attention deliberately to those moments you have with your spouse that are invigorating to you. If you choose to have kids, you better make sure that, it’s not time, find attention, to find those moments you will pay attention to as a parent. You don’t have to always have to pick up your kids from school, you don’t always have to do homework you’re your kids, you don’t always have to be on the floor playing with your kids. Every parent does different things with their kids. You got to know what kind of parent you are. So this isn’t really a question of time, it’s a question of attention. I think in the end if we see life as a search for fullness, and we realize that the only way to you could use life to fill you up is that you pay attention to specific moments that do fill you up, then I think you have more, a higher likelihood of success at finding moments that fill you up. Not every moment, not every time.
There will be stretches of your life perhaps where your marriage, your work, or your kids, you’ve lost your attention on them and so they don’t fill you up the way they should. You haven’t focused on which moments are the right moments to pay attention to. At least it’s an ongoing focus positive way to approach life. As opposed to the search for balance, this is by definition, a stationary approach. If you’re striving for fulfillment and fullness, you may feel internally balanced, you may have an inner sense of balance, which is really an inner sense of fullness, but you’re certainly not balanced in terms as the amount of time and attention you’re spending on each aspect of your life. So I guess from more research within this book, don’t strive for work-life balance. It’s impossible to achieve and not satisfying when you do. Strive for work-life fullness. That’s not necessarily easy, but it’s fulfilling when it happens.
Marcus Buckingham has dedicated his career to helping individuals discover and capitalize on their personal strengths. Hailed as a visionary by corporations such as Toyota, Coca-Cola, Master Foods, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, and Disney, he has helped to usher in the “strengths revolution.” He is the New York Times bestselling author of First, Break All the Rules, and Now, Discover Your Strengths. Buckingham’s latest book, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, was inspired by the overwhelming response to his appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Buckingham founded TMBC in 2007 to create strengths-based management training solutions for organizations worldwide, and he spreads the strengths message in keynote addresses to over 250,000 people around the globe each year. He is a member of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Leadership and Management.