It’s easy to assume you know what matters most to you. “I’m doing this job because it is about x, and x is what matters most to me, so I must be happy.”
The problem is that social desirability can effectively blind you to what is really, truly most important to you. (Think Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality: “I want tougher penalties for parole violators… and world peace”. If one is allowed to analyse fictional characters, one suspects that neither of those is actually what mattered most to her character; both are ‘socially desirable’ - the first amongst FBI agents, the second amongst Beauty Pageant competitors.)
Getting a more accurate picture of what matters to you is critical if you want to avoid finding yourself stranded on the rocks, and with no energy to get afloat again. You need to know where your energy comes from, or you will inadvertently run the tank dry, someday.
Here’s an exercise. Don’t read ahead, do this in sequence.
First: you probably know Stephen Covey’s story about the big rocks - the Professor who comes before his class with a jar, which he proceeds to fill with large rocks. “Is the jar full?” he asks. When the class replies in the affirmative, he pours large gravel into the jar and shakes it down in the gaps between the big rocks. “Is it full now?” Most say yes, but some are starting to doubt it. He repeats this with sand and finally water. At the end he asks what the meaning of the illustration is. “You are never so busy that you can’t fit more in?” posits one student. “No,” says the Professor. “Unless you put the big rocks in first, you won’t fit them in at all.”
So what are your big rocks?
Make a list. What are the things that matter so much to you that they really need to be part of your life plan and goals.
Second: think about your absolute best day in the past 12 months, the day when you felt most alive and engaged. Analyse that day in these terms: what were you doing, where and with whom?
Third: how much overlap is there between your list of big rocks and your analysis of your best day?
If the answer is “quite a lot”, then congratulations, you understand yourself pretty well. (Don’t stop trying to understand yourself better, though: this is a journey, not a tick box.)
If on the other hand, like most people, your answer is “not much” or even “none”, then it is likely that your list of big rocks is more about what you think ought to matter to you, than what actually does. (Social desirability, remember?) The truth is that the more you reflect on those days when you feel most alive, the more you will understand what really matters to you.
I can assure you that when I run this exercise with a group - even a group doing the same work - their “best days” are all very different. That’s because we all draw our energy from very different places. So here is the last part of the exercise:
Fourth: review your highest (and lowest) Interest scores in your Birkman report. How much alignment do you see between those scores and your analysis of your best day? The likelihood is that your best day had a lot to do with the opportunity to engage with one or more of those high scores, while being free of the demands of your low scores. (Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if that isn’t so - we’d like to know!)
Finally: haven’t we taken an unnecessarily long route here? Why didn’t we just go straight to those high Interest scores and say “this is what matters to you, now get on with it”?
Hopefully that question answers itself, but here’s why. The genius of Dr Birkman was that he worked out how to get you to tell yourself the things you most needed to hear from yourself. The data is most definitely objective, and if you have the same scores as someone else (which is surprisingly rare), we are likely to see pretty similar behaviours and perceptions. But this data is always about you.
Getting you to reflect on “what I think matters to me”, “what my best day was all about” and then “what my high and low interest scores suggest” is helping you to gain a much deeper and nuanced understanding of you. “I love doing x, but I need this kind of context, or to be with many people, or none, or a few.” Your Birkman contains all that information, but the whole point is that if it stays in the report, it can’t help you. Every time you pull out your report you will say “spookily accurate” - and then forget it again.
Life isn’t meant to be like Groundhog Day; the more you internalise who you are - and, yes: where your energy comes from - the more you can leverage that knowledge for a life that truly matters.