I have the privilege of meeting with Airmen every day. Sometimes it is for joyful events such as promotions or awards, but other times it is for more deliberate counseling or course corrections.
Whatever the circumstance, I find that the conversation eventually evolves to the point where I ask some fundamental, but incredibly important questions. Every meeting is a chance to positively influence someone’s future, but you must first understand where the other person is in their personal and professional journey before you can help them on their path. In my experience, the following questions rise to the forefront and are applicable to anyone at any age.
What do you value?
Since publication in 2009, more than 52 million people have watched Simon Sinek’s TedTalk “Start with Why.” Although Simon is a charismatic speaker, it is his message that resonates. No matter if you are rich or poor, an Airman or General Officer, you have to know what is important if you want to live a fulfilling life. We all have an unknown but finite amount of time on this earth. Although we often act to the contrary, we need to be deliberate with our precious time. You have to understand what is important before you can set or change your course.
Your values should not only drive your strategic goals in life, but also explain fundamental questions about why you choose to serve. Our former Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, put it succinctly when he explained that Airmen serve because they believe in the “value proposition.” He explained that Airmen come to work because they “want to work with the most amazing people, with the greatest technology, to have a mission that matters, and give their life meaning.” If you seek fulfillment in any aspect of your life, you must know what you value.
Do your actions align with your values?
Gaps between your actions and values can have dramatic results. If you are putting time and effort into something that is not important to you, then you need to ask yourself why. The answer can be deep-seated reasons or something as simple, but vexing as self-discipline. I often think of a quote from my high school football coach, a job very similar to command: “Don’t let short-term pleasures have long-term consequences.” Although it is easy to think of this in terms of major life-altering events, remember that the sum of countless small choices throughout the day, weeks, or years will have long-term consequences. These small, daily choices may or may not ultimately align with your values and goals. We must be constantly vigilant to ensure that we are acting deliberately with our time and effort.
How do you integrate the different facets of your life?
We often encounter challenges when we decide to balance our professional and personal lives. In my opinion, this approach is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that we can set up a contract between the two, as if you are two different people — a father/mother/son/daughter at home and someone else at work. The reality is that you bring all of you home and all of you to work. As military members, we are always on duty, ready to answer our nation’s call at a moment’s notice. This doesn’t allow for “a balanced” approach. Instead, we must integrate our professional and personal lives (a concept Amazon CEO Jeff Bazos advocates) to avoid the perpetual trap of achieving “balance.”
For most, integrating your work and personal life is a challenge. Although work should not be what you value most in life, it does offer fulfilling relationships and the financial means to support more strategic priorities. It can seem hypocritical to say that you value your family as a top priority but spend the majority of your time at work every week. However, you must acknowledge that to some degree, you are going to work precisely because you value your family. Your livelihood provides them with the means to experience a full and enriched life while transforming you into a better person through your relationships. This does not mean that you have a transactional relationship with work, it acknowledges that there are a host of indirect ways that your work can support what you value most in life.
It is about the journey.
It is helpful to remember that your current situation is merely a snapshot of where you happen to be on your journey. Recall that when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he made a key adaptation to John Locke’s “trinity” in which he substituted “life, liberty, and property” with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when outlining mankind’s unalienable rights. This was a deliberate decision and one packed with meaning. He recognized that human beings have an insatiable appetite for improvement that physical goods can never fulfill. Your idea of fulfillment and self-actualization are not static goals: they advance with each achievement. It is therefore the constant pursuit of your values where true happiness lies.
We must recognize that we are all on a life-long journey. Our job as leaders and mentors is to help each Airman on their way. I believe that asking these three simple questions can help you and others on your path.