Secret to “the Good Life”

What constitutes a good life?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are eyes to read it, and yet I can’t help asking it. At some level we are fixated with achieving it, but on the other hand often frustrated in both our ability to define it and our effort to achieve it. Happiness seems fleeting and elusive.

Yet happiness and “the good life” are much closer than most of us realize. It is tempting to begin by describing the characteristics that may lead us to be happy. Our political and religious leaders are sure to have ready answers, but in the richest country on earth, we have lots of unhappy people. However at the risk of sounding overconfident, I am pretty sure I have the answer.

My parents just celebrated their 50th anniversary. That is an impressive milestone and did not come without a tremendous amount of hard work. I have seen my parent’s relationship for years, and they don’t have much in common. I know this sounds like a strange way to begin, but hear me out.

My dad loves to work. He always has a project, or 10 projects, going at once. In addition to the business he has, he is always remodeling, re-landscaping, or re-doing just about everything around the house and even at other people’s houses. He is also reserved and quiet unless you ask just the right question. He would be happy being left alone with a good book.

My mom on the other hand, loves to plan events where lots of friends and family come together and have a fun time. She loves to laugh and watch as people enjoy the outgrowth of her plans. She would much rather be in the middle of a bustling group than bored alone at home. Her idea of fun always involves friends, family, and free time.

So what is the glue?

They both love to serve people. My dad has spent most of his life helping teenagers and young adults gain confidence. Most people will think he is a motivational speaker from that perspective but he is an orthodontist. A winning smile is the secret weapon of the social world, and my dad has always been obsessed with helping the young people of the small communities where I grew up. If you knew my dad, you would know “obsessed” is the best word to describe it.

I might have painted the wrong picture of my mom at first. She isn’t lazy or a pampered socialite. When I say she loves to PLAN, I mean she wants to be in the exact center of the plans, working furiously. At holidays she is the last to the table and first to hop up when anyone needs something. She is most joyful when she brings a little happiness to someone and sees that it is the direct result of her planning and hard work.

Serving others, using our best talents and abilities, lights a fire inside making us warm on the coldest of days. It is an ice cold drink on a hot and sweaty day. This is the REAL secret of happiness and “the good life”.

Who else can help us understand “the good life”?

My parents are not the only ones who have learned this little secret about life. For almost two years I did a weekly podcast where I interviewed successful people from around the country. I have heard almost identical messages from school shop teachers, doctors, librarians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, personal branding specialists, marketing copywriters, university researchers, politicians, CEOs, test flight pilots, and even an aerial stuntman.

I don’t want you to get the idea that I am peddling the common thoughts of every Joe Blow on the street, though. I was very selective in who I interviewed for our podcast. I wanted to make sure I only interviewed someone who loved their life and what they did, and oh by the way, I also wanted them to be recognized and respected in their field. They all agreed on this one point even though we were having conversations about all sorts of topics.

When it came to educating ourselves and our children, every person I interviewed saw the value in helping OTHER PEOPLE achieve their goals and plans. In popular media, self-help conferences, and motivational messages, we hear, “you have to follow your passion.” That is a nice idea, but it is only part of the equation. Without a meaningful target involving other humans, all the passion in the world will not make us happy.

Dozens of highly respected leaders over the past decades have packaged this message in many ways. Stephen Covey’s leadership principles described in his famous 7 habits focus almost half of the message on understanding, serving, and working together–all of which require meaningful relationships. Simon Sinek takes a different approach to the same place by focusing on the biochemical signaling in our brains, showing that half of our happiness chemicals directly rely on positive relationships.

I don’t have time to cover similar views by Brendon Burchard, AJ Slivinski, Peter Reynolds, Marshall Goldsmith, Andy Andrews, Stephen Mansfield, Henry Cloud, Kerry Patterson, Ed Catmull, Ray Edwards, Peter Thiel, Keith Ferrazzi, Dan Miller, Jia Jiang, Zig Ziglar, Blake Mycoskie, Tony Hsieh, and literally dozens of other very successful and influential individuals. It is NOT enough to follow your passion. You MUST serve others in a meaningful way to find success and happiness. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Starbucks greeter (shout out to Jia Jiang) or a tech company entrepreneur. You MUST help enough other people get what they want (RIP Zig, your message lives on).

Which brings me to an interesting question.

How do we LEARN to serve enough people in a meaningful way?

WARNING: if you have a college degree or teach at a university or community college, read to the end and remember I have a PhD (not for credibility in this context).

I have a friend who got a PhD in computer science and works at Google. He makes good money and lives a block from the Pacific Ocean. I also have a friend who got part of a degree in computer science and went to work for a little start up called Oracle! He has been sailing around the south Pacific on a yacht since 2011.

I have a friend who has a 4 year degree in art who currently teaches in Mexico because it is cheaper to live there and do his art. I also have a friend in western North Carolina who paints houses for a living by himself and just bought a second house with his hard earned cash. He probably makes 3-4x what any of my art major friends make.

I have several friends who have MBAs from various well-respected colleges around the country who are middle managers. I also interviewed a gentleman on my podcast who never quite finished a degree in anything who became the executive VP of operations for Disney in Florida.

For each of my examples above, I also have counter examples.

Why am I sharing these examples?

I wanted to highlight something often overlooked by students just coming through or finishing high school:

Most meaningful learning happens through external experiences NOT theoretical mind exercises, and every person in the examples above is serving others in a positive way but not to the same level.  I also wanted to emphasize that serving does not always lead to success, but successful, happy people ALWAYS serve at a high level and often for many years before being recognized.

Let’s focus on serving from the learning perspective.  Ask any business owner or hiring manager the following:

Who would you hire–a fresh college graduate with no experience or a candidate with 4 years of experience in the field in question who has no degree?

Every time, with VERY few exceptions, those who need to make the business actually run need experience over theory.

Does that mean the theory is useless?

No, but it does mean we need to change our learning models. More and more higher learning institutions are updating their programs to include real experiences in degree programs, but beware! Some are merely putting lipstick on a pig, while others are completely re-imagining their approach.  Do your research before writing a 4-year check.

On the other side of this topic, there is a quiet revolution going on just under the radar in which individuals are experimenting with which careers need degrees and which do not. They are experimenting with starting small businesses around trade skills such as painting, plumbing, electrical, etc. And they are finding that the common wisdom of “go to college, get a better job” is patently false.

Except in licensed professions such as law, medicine, and professional engineering (anything requiring a PE license), a 4-year degree mostly saddles students with an almost unpayable debt. I still have my debt, and I would trade my PhD physics to erase the debt as long as I could keep my business knowledge.  I suspect I am not alone in my sentiments.  For the record though, I do not regret my PhD, only the student loans I took along the way.

One of the sadly overlooked facts of professions such as law, is that half of graduating law students walk out into a profession that only pays them $40,000 to $65,000. With an average debt load of $150,000 to $400,000 for their 7 YEARS of investment into an education, those law students have a steep climb to pay off those student loans over the next 10 – 20 years ($19,000 – $39,000 of payments per year, just check the current student loan rates 5.05 -7.6% and run them through a 10 or 20 year amortization).

Some law school graduates have a net starting salary of $1,000 a year!

Am I saying don’t go to college?

It depends. If you know without a doubt you belong in a licensed profession, I unhesitatingly recommend going to a good college where you will get as much practical experience as possible along the way. If on the other hand you don’t know what you want to do, don’t take out student loans to get a degree you may never use.

Right now in the US, half of graduating students do not work in their field of study, and about 30% of individuals 35 and older report NEVER having worked in their field of study.  Some students know exactly what they want to do and pursue it, for them college is an excellent option.

Before starting a degree, put your math education from high school to work.  Look up the range of salaries (with a histogram representation if possible).  Look up the current rate for student loans and the tuition (including housing, etc), and then put the final loan numbers into an amortization calculator.  Run ALL the numbers and find out how much you will ACTUALLY be making after college based on current job numbers and your loan repayment schedule. 

If the numbers add up, jump into college with both feet.  If not, consult with others in the field you want to pursue to learn your options ahead of time.  If after all your questions and number crunching, you decide to take the leap into college, then do it with confidence and your eyes wide open.

Simply put, have good reasons before you spend the equivalent of a sizable mortgage loan on your college education.

These are harsh numbers that come with harsh realities, especially at a time when any teenager can learn just about any new skill with an online video.  As a society, we are not being honest with ourselves, and we need to study the REAL data before coming up with a new plan.

So, let’s come back to center and ask again…

How do we ACTUALLY LEARN how to serve other people in a meaningful way so we can find this elusive thing called “happiness”?

It boils down to a few simple ideas:

  1. Relentlessly pursue self-awareness. We have to know ourselves in order to contribute at our highest level.
  2. Regularly put yourself in positions to get EXPERIENCE helping others (paid or volunteer, especially if you are in high school), and if you don’t know what problem you were put here to solve, spend time in many different environments as you start practicing and building experience.
  3. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. Take initiative.  Choose to be in control of your own life and decisions, even if they lead through hard terrain.
  4. Use the Innovation Mindset Map developed by Innovation Academy as a blueprint for the implementation of #1 and #2 above. 

If you do these things, happiness is in your near future. It will be hard work–perhaps more hard work than you thought possible–but the rewards are worth it. Just consult with Zig Ziglar:  “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

The point?

The way you choose to learn changes the way you think, and the way you think leads to the way you choose to serve other people.  Choose your learning environment with intention, not by accident or according to societal custom.

Now, I will end this post where it began, with my parents.  My dad has used his traditional degree throughout his whole career, but as I got more familiar with his business these last few years, I realized he has been intentionally educating himself and learning new best practices now for decades. He truly wants every single customer in their business to feel the power of the latest and greatest technologies, procedures, and evidence-based practice.

My mom used her degree for a couple years while my dad was in professional school, but once he finished, my mom essentially became his office manager.  She has had to teach herself accounting, personnel management, HR, logistics, and all other operations-style tasks associated with a business.  She has tried to keep her foot in the door of her official training, but I was probably in 4th grade or so when she stopped actually working in her field of study.  Yet their family business could not serve all the customers they have without the tireless attention to detail my mother has brought to the table.

I use my degrees in physics and math in our Innovation Academy learning, but my brother got a degree in corporate wellness which he has never really used.  Yet I have not directly used my research experience and practices for almost 5 years since I left the university.  Every day, both my brothers are actually using skills they learned in the family business when they were teenagers.  They have obviously gotten better and now bring more experience and expertise, but it started with on-the-job training as teens.

Both in my parent’s generation of our family as well as my generation in our family, the numbers are consistent with national averages of today as far as using our degrees.  However as a family, we have deeply connected with the importance of serving people.  We have learned the secret of long-term happiness–serving well.  So my family is actually a great example of what I have written here.

Without fail, the happiest people on the planet are serving others with excellence, and it feels good… REALLY good.

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Muahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!! Ok, now that I have that out... I can get to work. For as long as I can remember, I have been making things. This habit used to be called "Inventing" but has lately been repurposed by the Maker community with the term "Maker". While there are some subtle differences between Inventing and Making, I have discovered my passion for both by inspiring a new generation of Makers. In this quest to spark creative thinking and problem solving through practical and exciting projects, I draw on my background in biomedical research, high energy fiber laser development, and 15 years of building laboratory devices. As an experimental physicist with a PhD from Case Western Reserve University, I have seen research and development from many angles and am now bringing that experience to middle school and high school students who want to make everything from catapults to cybernetic augmentations. Through the medium of Making and Inventing, students are transformed from passive observers of education to active learners. This powerful shift fosters deep insights, creative expression, collaborative thinking and a host of other skills that are difficult to learn in traditional settings. Along with my wife Debby, an accomplished constructivist educator, I am on a quest to transform education and am looking for like-minded collaborators to bring hands-on learning to future generations.

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