Lately, I’ve been doing some critical reevaluation of my priorities across the professional, academic, and personal spheres, and that inventory and reflection process (still in progress) yielded some insights I thought worth sharing with you. The overarching theme, which will need to be developed in a series of posts, originated in some thoughts about How to Get Things Done. First and foremost, though, I’d like to consider the more fundamental challenge of How to Decide What Gets Done.

The deliberately glib title of this post – akin to the cheap slogans seen on inspirational meme-pics or the motivational posters hanging in a public school counselor’s office – encapsulates a rather subtle philosophical tool that I distilled from my own efforts to address what is, at short range, a set of challenges to my daily work effectiveness, but took on a wider scope as I realized it as a problem of agency. The ideal takeaway here, if I can explain myself clearly, will serve as a lock-pick or a sledgehammer (choose your own metaphor) to help you break out of stultifying conventions and act more freely as a human being, as well as prosper as a developing professional. So there’s your hook: I’m offering, to anyone who feels they might need it, a mental toolkit that can help break the deadening shackles of conventional wisdom and unreflective practice.

So, I’ve teased the theme, wrapped in that pithy little nothing of a title, and now I need to clear the table and make some room to unpack it. Let us first, then, dispense with any notions that this is about “positive thinking” in the standard emotional-bootstrapping sense. As an exigent philosopher, I am direly allergic to anything that smacks of sunny-side optimism or what I’ve personally coined “Pollyanna [male bovine excrement].” Granted, endeavoring to improve one’s state of mind and practical position by affecting a pleasant mood does have certain benefits – things I’m trying to learn from those who truly exemplify such advantages – but my basic position on what Barbara Ehrenreich has critiqued as a “cult of optimism” in American culture is a similarly skeptical one. I’m a critically jaded anti-Pollyanna for the rather obvious and practical reason that smiling through pain, and/or denying its severity, is a poor counterfeit for addressing the actual cause of the problem. With that critical observation, plus my late realization that just pointing out problems is not sufficient to fix them either, I’ve pivoted toward a more strategic notion of “positive living.” Essentially, if you do stuff, stuff gets done, which eliminates problems or deficiencies lying around waiting to be euphemized as “growth opportunities” (ugh) or a “crisotunities” (not even a real word) — or worse, precipitate preventable crises. The point here is that the titular motto above isn’t meant to say “Believe it …” in the sense of merely hoping for progress or change to occur, as if by the magic of prayer or wishful thinking, but rather invoking belief or faith as a basis for acting with personal conviction – and thus opening increased potential to assert agency, which is our ultimate goal.

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There’s that word “agency” again. What do I mean by that? The handiest synonym in this instance would be “freedom,” but that’s a heavily freighted code-word for many different notions, especially in the United States, where in our political language it’s acquired a fetishistic totem role, almost devoid of definitive content. I like to be precise with language – that’s kind of my thing – so let’s just crib a less ideologically baggage-laden alternative from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and call our goal-stage “self-actualization.” I’ll assume any readers not familiar with this popular psychological concept can get acquainted from the preceding reference link, and proceed right to my point. The self-actualized individual, i.e. one capable of exercising free agency to an optimum level, assumes ownership of an agenda-setting prerogative to determine the relative value or priority of, say, a given set of tasks, rather than accepting the list as-is and following it per external requirements. Furthermore – and this is the key thing – that prerogative, fully formed, includes license to decide what is worth putting on the list in the first place; not only the power to edit by reordering, adding to, or deleting from the list of priorities, but also the power to effectively question others’ agendas and create and advance one’s own instead. This is “authorial license” in the highest sense of the phrase, as in what we mean when we say, “He wrote his own ticket,” or “She follows her own script.”

So, where does the “belief” from our title, our previously stated theme, come into play? Now that I’ve set up the shot, sinking the point is quite simple: in order to execute any task or embark on any pursuit with the degree of calm assurance that fosters successful completion, I must first believe the required effort is worth investing. This seems almost too obvious to be worth remarking, put so simply, but think about the deeper implications for the many tasks and pursuits you’re facing now, which demand a great deal of higher judgment about costs, benefits, and risks, in addition and prior to the disciplined effort needed to simply “get things done,” and you’ll start to realize my drift. Getting things done requires skill and resources, at any level of hierarchy. Determining what ought to be done involves a certain level of executive privilege, which you can practice developing for yourself by making more intentional determinations about how you spend your time and energy.

At the level of freedom and power that I’m targeting in this process of reflection, the impetus to perform work based on externally determined values that only incidentally align with my “deficiency needs” (the two lowest levels of Maslow’s pyramid diagram) is an inferior means of motivation versus the value and/or goal I’ve created and set for myself. If you’ve understood and internalized my intended lesson, you’ll soon be looking at a task set by the priorities of some external agent (e.g. parents, teachers, bosses, society-at-large) and asking, “What is this really worth to me?”

As with all things philosophical – that’s what we’re doing here, practicing philosophy, in the sense of interrogating human values and motivations – this tool can be a sticky wicket if not used with a certain sophisticated discretion. There are obvious consequences to defaulting on obligations assumed whenever we bargain with others as members of society, so it’s not so simple a proposition as only doing what one feels is immediately important to one’s self. Such an attitude is not only irresponsible (social value: one must honor one’s agreements and perform one’s duties) but also counter-productive for the truly self-aware free agent (individual value: my basic needs must be met in order to pursue higher goals of my own). For what it’s worth, though, I hope you’ll gain a new, more inquisitive perspective on the Why’s of the world, as they pertain to your own daily work as a student or professional. Every success story we’re taught to emulate in this society – from the entrepreneurial empires of figures like Henry Ford or Bill Gates, to the trope of an underdog turning hard luck to luxury with wisdom and work, and even discrete little things like a weekly class homework assignment or a new blog post – every such accomplishment, big or small, is originally conceived with some belief, however remote or contingent, that today’s effort will bear future fruit. I have to have some faith that it’s worth embarking on a journey of a thousand words before I can write a single one – otherwise, what’s the point?

Next time, I want to start picking up some loose threads and ostensible “holes” in my argument above, and also address a few of the more practical issues surrounding the “… then achieve it!” portion of our (supposedly) simple slogan. This should open up some opportunities to use more specific examples to illustrate how our modes of thinking can shape possibilities for action, for better and worse. I hope you found the experience of reading this post as valuable as I found that of writing it. Thanks for tuning in!

David Work is an Illinois Tech Career Development Coach, specializing in résumé editing and advising College of Architecture students. He is actively working on better practice of the advice he preaches. Comments and questions are welcome at wwork@iit.edu; you can even help map out where this series is going by raising any points you’d like to see addressed in the next post. 

Believe It, Then Achieve It!

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