What’s the Most Important Thing in Life?

If you only have a month to live, how would you spend that one month?

One Saturday, this question suddenly popped into my mind while I was on my way to a christening of a one-year-old boy. Later on I googled this question and found a lot of people tried to answer the question online. The bottom line is that almost all of them said that would spend the last one month with people close to them, especially with their family. None of them said that they will spend more time in their work. One said he would like to travel but with the company of his family and close friends.

On that Saturday, I was attending the christening of my grandson, after which we would go for a family lunch, and thence I had to proceed to moderate a strategic planning meeting of a foundation, and then have visitors at the house. I was also trying to write articles on that day. I had so many appointments and things-to-do, but I realized as I was walking towards the church that when the chips are down, one thing stands out as more important than all the rest: the family and loved ones.

There was an angle to this insight that was striking. I had “known” before about how important people are. I had spoken about it often in my talks. But I never saw it from this angle. Our final choice in devoting the rest of our earthly life to a small group of people speaks volumes about our philosophy of life and the meaning of our lives.

When Steve Jobs decided to seclude himself with his family when he was told he had a very short time to live, the reaction of people I know was one of approval, sympathy and agreement. They would do the same thing if they were in the same situation.

The good news is that giving importance to positive relationships has been empirically found to be the most important ingredient towards the attainment to some of the most important goals in human life: happiness, health and long life.

In 1938, Harvard University launched a ground-breaking research that is still ongoing till today, 80 years later. Called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, they studied 724 people, some of whom were sophomores from Harvard and others from the poorer areas of Boston. The research tracked their health, marriage, career, relationships, income and other personal factors with interviews every other year. Three books have been written on this study by its first Director, Dr. George Vaillant. He made the following conclusion: “Warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction’ . . . Happiness is love. Full stop.”

The current director of the study, Dr. Robert Waldinger, after reviewing the tens of thousands of pages of data, expanded the conclusion: “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.”

Dr. David Myers, an internationally famous author of textbooks on psychology and the author of the book The Pursuit of Happiness, wrote down what he considered as the “Ten Commandments Of Happiness.” The first one was that materials success does not necessarily make people happy. The second was that close relationships with people around you contributes a lot to happiness.

Next time that we find yourself so busy that you hardly have time for anything else, pause for twenty seconds and ask yourself what are the most important things in life. Then from deep in your heart, act accordingly.

Competence: A Crucial Quality of a Young Adult

 

ACF06C9C-25E5-4EA1-8BEF-774245F663F5

People get stressed when they are faced with a problem that is quite beyond their competency to solve, but which they are expected to solve. They know that they have to solve it, but they are unsure on how to go about it. As unsolved problems mount, the greater is the stress and unhappiness of the person.

Stress levels rise proportionately to the magnitude of the gap between expected competence and actual competence. A graduate of a good university is expected to perform well in a job that they applied for, while an employee who did not even finish college will not be expected to meet such standards. Farmers can live a happy life even if they did not go to school. No one expects them to know more than farming. But if even in farming, they don’t seem to do the job well, then they will feel the pressure of their wives and the criticism of their neighbors. Stress and distress begin.

There are two kinds of competency: technical competency and personal competency. It is the second one that is more important.

Technical competency means that an electrical engineer knows the job of an electrical engineer and possesses the requisite knowledge of the profession. An accountant knows how to complete financial statements and do all the ledgers, accrual basis, bank reconciliation and other things an accountant should know. When one is an accountant and has inadequate knowledge and skills about accounting, the person will feel stressed because he or she knows that the expectation is valid, but he or she is unable to deliver that which he implicitly promised to deliver.

Young people therefore must realize at a young age what it means to be professionally competent and to have the initiative to attain this regardless of the educational standard of the school they find themselves in. With Youtube, Khan Academy, Wikipedia, and a host of free resources in the internet, anyone can learn practically anything on a sufficiently high level.

But it is the second competency that is truly important — personal competency. This covers a host of qualities that are truly valuable in a person: self-confidence, self-esteem, initiative, curiosity, willingness to learn, stick-to-it-iveness, resourcefulness, perseverance, result-orientedness, emotional intelligence, leadership, unselfishness, trustworthiness, volunteerism and similar qualities. If it is overlaid with cheerfulness, optimism, and compassion, then you have someone who is destined for success in any field that they get into. A person who has these qualities can learn almost any skill or technical competency.

Personal competency is a quality that is nurtured from early childhood. When children are not put down (“idiot,” “dumb,” “useless”), frequently criticized or humiliated, then they do not develop low self-esteem, a factor that drags personal competency down to a very low level even if they are actually intelligent. On the other hand, when they feel accepted as they are, receive sincere praises when deserving, and feel that they are loved, then they are developing a personality foundation that will be solid and stable, and which can sustain them even during times of trial, adversity and setback. They will grow up not fearing failure or making mistakes. They are willing to take measured risks. They are ready to apologize when it is due. The world to them will not be a hellish or oppressive place, and life will be a positive adventure and a happy experience.

It is unfortunate that many schools do not teach this second kind of competency as systematically as they teach mathematics and grammar. Unfortunate too is the fact that many parents are the primary demolisher of such personal competency.

These then are what parents and schools should look at: the development of technical competency and personal competency, and to remember that the second one is more important than the first.

The Gateway to an Awesome Universe

Physicists speculate about a possible parallel universe beyond what we can see with our senses. But there is no need to break the barrier of time and space to look for such a universe. It is already accessible to anyone right here and now — provided one knows how to read books. Inside the pages of books lie universes that can be so awesome and fantastic. The possibilities of existence are limited only by the human imagination.

The scientist and author Carl Sagan wrote:

“Books . . . permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.” (The Demon-Haunted World, pp. 335-6)

One of the greatest gifts my mother gave to me was the love of reading. I can’t imagine what I would be now if I didn’t appreciate reading books. Biographies, histories, sciences, the mysteries of the mind, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, spirituality, God or gods, Big Bang, black holes — all those things that are beyond the scope of what we can personally experience or what other people can personally tell us about. All those would have been unknown to me if I did not learn how to read. How rich and wonderful life has become just because of books!

In our school, I encourage all teachers and students to read. It is the doorway not just to an interesting and abundant life, but it is also a very important key to success in life. I have interviewed countless applicants in our companies, and I invariably find that the people who have the most potential are those who love reading, particularly when they apply as teachers. They can rise up to higher responsibilities because they understand things more deeply and have wider comprehension of things. They can learn by themselves without depending on another person. They absorb the lessons of life of other people. They have insights about society, politics, history, science, or philosophy and apply in them in their life, work and mission.

Bill Gates, for a long time the richest man in the world, reads one book a week. Warren Buffett, the second or third richest man, spends 80% of his time reading.

Carl Sagan cites a survey of the US Department of Education on the difference between readers and non-readers:

“Only four per cent of those at the highest reading level are in poverty, but 43 per cent of those at the lowest reading level are. . . . In general the better you read, the more you make — an average of about $12,000 a year at the lowest of these reading levels, and about $34,000 a year at the highest.” (Ibid., p. 336)

Parents should introduce to their toddlers the wonderful world of books by telling them stories and showing them pictures in books. Bring children to bookstores and allow them to choose what they like to read.

When my children were still young, we would go out every week and our favorite place to go was National Bookstore. They were free to buy what they wanted within the limits of a certain budget. But if they bought books, then there was no limit to their budget. This nurtured in them an interest in reading.

Some may say that smart and talented people may succeed without reading books. Yes, that’s possible, but quite improbable in the modern world where technology, knowledge and information have burgeoned astronomically. It has been estimated that knowledge in the world doubles every 13 months, whereas it was every 100 years in 1900. Without reading, it is impossible to catch up with essential knowledge.

IQ or intelligence quotient rises up with reading. This is not just because of additional knowledge but also because of the increase in one’s vocabulary. Every time that we learn a new concept found in a word, the brain creates new neural connections that will adapt to the new idea. An example is the term singularity when we speak about black holes. Something in the brain must adjust in order to appreciate this new concept. Another is the word “paradigm.”When we try to understand these words, we understand additional dimensions of existence, not simply things like tables and chairs. I recently finished the new novel of Dan Brown entitled Origin. It is an awesome blend of science and fiction and it widened my intellectual horizons in a direction I hardly considered before.

Read at least 30 minutes to one hour everyday, no matter how busy you are. Always bring a book or ebook with you, read it or them while you are traveling by bus or train, when you are waiting for something, or before you go to sleep. Look up every new word that you encounter. Share with other people new ideas that you have read. Let your reading help you build a productive and meaningful life.