Five Questions That Will Shape Your Life’s Story: A Guide to a Coherent Life

Vertical Awareness

Life at its many (vertical) levels

Human beings are great at waking up, doing things, going to sleep, and repeating. We drive our kids to school, submit project reports, endure the commute home, cook dinner, shop online a little, and maybe even book a flight to somewhere exotic to escape winter.

This is all well and good; life is a wonderful gift, even when we’re taking it day by day. However, researchers are demonstrating that certain long-term lifestyle decisions can significantly influence our day-to-day happiness. In other words, by temporarily stepping out of the daily grind and making certain decisions, we can improve our day-to-day happiness.

If this is a topic that interests you, one question you should ask yourself immediately is, “Is my life vertically coherent?”

Huh? Vertically coherent? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I hear you; it’s a confusing term that I needed to have explained to me. Let’s put it another way. Imagine you’re traveling somewhere exotic and encounter a friendly local. This local is intelligent, light-hearted, and speaks enough English to communicate well with you. After a bit of banter, he asks you a rather direct question: “I want to learn more about your journey to my humble village. So tell me, how does this trip further your life story?”

I’d probably freeze up in this situation. My life story? Hell, I don’t even know what I have going on next week, let alone a clear idea of my entire life’s story. I’d likely laugh off his question with a shrug and start asking more questions about things to do in his village.

In the scenario above, the local was asking me about my life’s vertical coherence, and I was unable to demonstrate it.

Ok Jon, I understand the example, but I’m still a little fuzzy on the concept of vertical coherence. Tell me more. 

In The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, vertical coherence is discussed in the context of happiness. According to the research Haidt draws from, mentally healthy and happy people have short-term goals that align well with their long-term goals, which—you guessed it—align well with the story they’d like their lives to tell. This is the essence of vertical coherence.

One question you should be asking yourself is, 'Is my life vertically coherent?' Click To Tweet

For example, if Mary’s long term aspiration has always been to be an artist, but she happens to work at Deloitte as an accountant, never finding time for her art, her life is lacking vertical coherence. Same goes for Mark, the journalist who has a deep passion for quality journalism who now finds himself working at a tabloid, unable to write the high-caliber pieces he craves. It’s rather difficult to enjoy your day-to-day in these scenarios. Chronically unhappy days become unhappy weeks, months, and years.

Restoring vertical coherence

Although Haidt clearly describes why vertical coherence is important in The Happiness Hypothesis, I found it a bit lacking in practical approaches to remedying the issue. Thankfully, WaitButWhy.com‘s Tim Urban came to the rescue in a recent blog post.

In his post, he details his approach to life in the form of a framework, touching on wisdom, mindfulness, long term goals, and a hint of spirituality. At the end of his post, he gives his framework a name – Truthism – and then challenges the reader to propose a framework of his or her own (the assumption being his framework isn’t the be-all and end-all).

Although vertical coherence isn’t explicitly mentioned, his technique for building a life framework is superb for tackling the most difficult portion of vertical coherence: the long-term goals and practices that we can use to arrange our daily to-do lists and weekly schedules. Remember, humans are great at waking up and doing things, but not so great at longer-term planning and execution.

Ok, that sounds pretty cool. But what does this “framework” entail? Examples please. 

In a nutshell, Tim’s Truthism framework builds around the goal of acquiring wisdom. He calls out potentially counter-productive emotions (e.g. anger, lust, jealousy) as harmful to wisdom, and encourages activities such as mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and lifelong learning as key practices in his framework.

In the spirit of building on and around Tim’s ideas, I’d like to propose Potentialism. (I’ve seen this word all over the interwebs, but I’m hijacking it because it sounds fitting.) And I’d also like to use Potentialism as an example you can use to start thinking about your own framework.

Ok great. So Tim made a framework and you made a framework. So what?

Now it’s your turn! Of course, it’s possible that you’ve already found a great framework (e.g. Buddhism), but it never hurts to thoughtfully engage with the important questions surrounding a life framework. By wrestling with the questions below, you may learn a thing or two about your priorities in life, which can only help.

Here are the five questions that Tim used to help generate his framework:

  1. What’s the goal that you want to evolve towards (and why is that the goal)?
  2. What does the path look like that gets you there?
  3. What’s in your way, and how do you overcome those obstacles?
  4. What are your practices on a day-to-day level, and what should your progress look like year-to-year?
  5. Most importantly, how do you stay strong and maintain the practice for years and years, not four days?

I’ve posted my answers to these questions below to provide inspiration so that you can start answering them yourself. Believe me, it’s far from perfect, but I think it’s a good enough start to perhaps help provide inspiration for others. And of course, for even more inspiration, check out Tim’s post on WaitButWhy.com.

Ready? Here we go.

Potentialism and Truthism

Potentialist — One who seeks to maximize the potential of oneself, as well as that of those around oneself.

 

What’s the goal that you want to evolve towards (and why is that the goal)?

The What: Unlocking your potential to make the world a better place, for both yourself and others.

The Why: Acquiring knowledge is fantastic (see Tim Urban’s thoughts on Truthism), but knowledge without action seems incomplete. When you acquire knowledge and apply it to the benefit of yourself and others, you’re acting on the potential you have to make the world a better place. The goal isn’t to reach your “full potential” (who can even properly define that, anyway?), but rather continue to uncover and demonstrate the potential you have available, and make sure taking action isn’t lost in the never-ending challenge of acquiring wisdom in one mere lifetime.

 

What does the path look like that gets you there?

This is different for everyone, so your mileage may vary. In its most broad terms, though, here are the levels you might encounter along the way:

Level 1: On this level, you give your work the bare minimum (or close to it) to earn your paycheck and settle into a lifestyle of consumption (e.g. TV, movies, video games, fast food, the latest gadgets). You spend a majority of your time consuming and very little time (if any) creating and sharing with the world. Little growth is exhibited from this approach, and it’s unlikely that meaningful exploration of your potential will happen at this level.

Level 2: On this level, you understand the value of hard work and learning by doing. You might take classes to learn something new, or perhaps find time to volunteer. You typically keep your life in balance, allowing your career and personal endeavors to develop quite well. On this level, you’re in a strong position to explore your potential by learning, trying new things, overcoming failure, giving back to your community, and working with others to bring something new into the world. It’s possible to spend months, years, or even decades on this level with active investment.

Level 3: On this level, something inspires you to take action. You’ve found a cause, a purpose, a reason to obsess over a problem and it’s solution. Although less common than Level 2, it’s still possible to spend extended periods on this level, fueled by passion, flow, or a higher purpose. When it comes to breakthroughs, this level is typically where the magic happens: impactful discoveries unfold; major forks in the road encountered, analyzed, and chosen; perseverance exhibited, yielding results. It’s at this point that the ideas you develop and share start inspiring others, allowing for more relatedness and purpose in your endeavors.

Level 4: On this level, you’re a thought leader who has found the means to inspire and build up the potential of communities around you, both big and small. You don’t just work for the benefit of your career or for personal causes; you work for the greater good. If you’re familiar with Tim Urban’s Truthism, you spend much of your time in Level 2, and can cultivate Level 3 moments with ease, and have the ability to share this perspective with others quite freely. Whereas Truthism’s Level 4 is reserved for the elite thinkers of the world, Level 4 in Potentialism is achievable by anyone with a compelling vision, the right skill set, and unwavering determination.

 

What’s in your way, and how do you overcome those obstacles?

Poor health (i.e. lack of energy)

No need to go into detail here. If you’re going to reach your potential, your diet, exercise, sleep, and stress should be priorities, otherwise you’re fighting an uphill battle.

As an example, I saved up for out-of-pocket lab work this year that helped me identify adrenal gland imbalances, which was causing me significant fatigue. As a result, I’ve doubled down on improving sleep quality/quantity, removed most caffeine from my diet, and started proper supplementation.

Ineffective thought processes

If your mind isn’t trained to critically analyze the world around you, it’s harder to understand problems and generate viable solutions. As a great place to get started, read The Five Elements of Effective Thinking.

The procrastination monkey

This is a toughie; chronic procrastination is not an easy challenge to overcome. I’d start with one of Tim’s many suggestions, read a book or blog on productivity (e.g. Cal Newport or Getting Things Done) or experiment with a lifestyle change (my favorite: be an early riser).

Counterproductive habits

Unfortunately, the path to breaking bad habits is a slow and steady march towards good habits. Behavioral psych. has a lot to say about this. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits is a great place to start.

Aversion to discomfort

Whether doing something uncomfortable, or removing comforts (fried chicken or your typical hit-up-six-bars-every-Saturday routine), getting comfortable with discomfort is key (personal growth occurs most rapidly during states of discomfort). This is also one of those things that will take a while, since too many big changes at once typically results in failure. The key is to keep pushing in small increments. Again, BJ Fogg’s work expands on this topic. Online communities like Reddit do comfort zone challenges that can help you get started, if that’s your thing.

Lack of inspiration

This is an easy one: read Wait But Why! ;). In all honesty though, the more you read and exchange ideas with people, the more likely you’ll have inspiration to work with. I read Ben Franklin’s autobiography in college, and couldn’t stop taking notes on cool things he did that could still be relevant in a modern lifestyle (adopting his virtue tracking system was a fun project).

 

What are your practices on a day-to-day level, and what should your progress look like year-to-year?

Keep reading and blending ideas together. (Having trouble? see Lack of Inspiration above for tips).

Keep speaking to others about their goals, dreams, and ambitions.

Consider practicing Tim Urban’s Truthism; as you gain insight, you’ll realize how much there is to learn and grow from.

Looking for a list of specific day-to-day practices? Here you go:

Invest in health first. Things like meditation, exercise, and preparing a healthy meal are my first priorities of the day. I try and do this in the morning before the work day kicks my ass.

Employ meditative practices. I mentioned this above, but meditation deserves its own shout out. A focused, calm mind is conducive to tackling difficult challenges and withstanding failure. Whether you enjoy yoga, walks through nature, meditation, or simply quiet time with a loved one, find one meditative practice you can use to center yourself and quiet your mind.

Lock in some creative time. Staying healthy? Check. Centered and focused from your meditative practice? Check. Great! Now it’s time to flex your brain a bit. Whether you spend your creative time learning a new skill, increasing your knowledge, or brainstorming a potential passion project, let this be your time for you and brain to get at it. I like re-reading influential literature (many religious communities do this, e.g. Jews studying the Old Testament on a yearly schedule), writing blog posts, and experimenting with web app prototypes.

Give back. Admittedly, I have trouble with this one, but it’s crucial. The practices above will certainly yield some positive benefits in your life which you can share with others. Join a mentoring program, volunteer with your favorite non-profit, share your discoveries on a blog, or donate some of the proceeds from your latest successful project to a charitable organization.

Keep track of progress. It’s important to keep a pulse on how you’re doing with your daily practices. It’s especially useful for catching and remedying a downward spiral in times of stress (this frequently happens to me). Thankfully, habits are easier to track than ever thanks to technology. Have a smart phone or know how to use a spreadsheet program (Excel, Google Sheets, etc.)? Then you’re in great shape! I personally use the Headspace app for meditation sessions, a Google spreadsheet for food logging, and JEFit on my iPhone for logging workouts. I even started tracking caffeine consumption using the UP Coffee app for iPhone when I started investing in higher quality sleep. Here’s an example of how great spreadsheets can be for quantifying your daily habits.

 

Most importantly, how do you stay strong and maintain the practice for years and years, not four days?

The good news: Once these practices a normal part of your week, it’s a virtuous cycle. Achievement feels great; living a healthy lifestyle feels great; sharing and giving back to others feels great. This drives you to continue your efforts.

The bad news: The journey to getting there is filled with bad habits and fear of failure, which are quite difficult to overcome.

So what do we do? Embrace the community aspect of your goals. Community is the glue that keeps you in the game even when the going gets rough. Start a blog and share your thoughts and findings with the world. Join a mentorship group to engage with fresh minds. Start a Meetup.com group for your passion and meet likeminded people in the flesh.

 

Wrapping Up

My Potentialism framework has plenty of room for improvement, but I hope it has at least inspired you to think critically about the five questions I attempted to answer. Leave your thoughts in the comments, or simply get working on your answers to these questions!

Special thanks to WaitButWhy.com for the inspiration.


Photo Credit: Simon & His Camera

About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.
  • Charlotte

    Wonderful, inspiring article! I love Wait But Why and I love Living For Improvement. You’re a great writer.

  • Thanks for the kind words, Charlotte!

  • Jess M.

    Such great writing in this piece, Jon! You actually hit the nail on the time every time you imposed the voice in my head saying, “Wait, huh?” – I’m really into this concept as it’s a fantastic motivator to tie what we’re truly passionate about into our day to day in some way.

  • By no means my favourite line — But it’s definitely up there.

    “Most importantly, how do you stay strong and maintain the practice for years and years, not four days?”

    Thanks for writing this article Jon.