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What Does A Strong Life Look Like?

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In my previous posts, I drew attention to data suggesting that women's happiness is declining, both relative to 40 years ago, and relative to men. These data could--and probably will, in someone else's hands--have led to a book on ideas for changes in governmental and corporate policy.

For example, recently Norway introduced a law mandating that all publicly traded companies must have 40% of their board comprised of women and that any company failing to comply by January 1, 2009, would be shut down. All complied.

"Should we do the same in the U.S.?" would, at the very least, make for an interesting debate.

In the same vein, recent research reveals that many of the programs companies use to accommodate modern families' work/life schedules, such as irregular hours, paid leave, telecommuting, and flexible work options, all show a negative correlation to women's daily levels of happiness.

"Why, if you use these programs, don't you feel happier with your life, and, if not these programs, what would make you happier at work?" would fuel an equally rich discussion.

I chose not to write such a book. Find Your Strongest Life focuses on the individual. It investigates not generalized prescriptions for policy change, but rather personal prescriptions for psychological change. It is a self-help book.

To provide the raw material for the book we interviewed women who had bucked the "happiness decline" and who were living lives in which they looked forward to the day ahead, they frequently got so caught up in what they were doing that they lost track of time, and they felt invigorated even at the end of a long, busy day. In this respect they were exceptions to the rule, "outliers," extremes. We should pay attention to them simply because the normal is always a subset of the extreme, while the reverse is never true. We can all learn from the extreme.

In this post, I want to tell you the story of one, "extreme" interviewee. I'd resolved to just tell you the story as I heard it from her--unedited--and let you, without judgment, draw your own conclusions. But I couldn't help myself. Mea culpa, here are the five conclusions I drew from Anna's re-telling of her life:

1. Begin with the moment in mind. To live a life in which you are true to yourself, the truth you seek can be found in your emotional reaction to specific moments in your life. Pay attention to these moments and you will find your way forward.
2. Always sweat the small stuff. When Anna took the Strong Life test, her lead role was Advisor--she draws strength from believing that, in any situation, she is the expert--but the real power came from diving into the details and figuring out which kinds of decisions she truly wanted to be expert in.
3. Attention amplifies everything. Focus on a problem and the problem will get bigger. Focus on "what would 'working' look like?" and change will follow the focus of your attention.
4. Always work hard. Intensity clarifies. It creates not only momentum, but also the pressure you need to feel either friction, or fulfillment.
5. Always keep yourself in the equation. Whether negotiating with your spouse or your company, your own strength and satisfaction must be your starting point. When you know what moments strengthen you, you are in the best position to figure out how to support all those who rely on you. In the short term, this may require self-sacrifice, but, as a long-term strategy, self-sacrifice serves no one you love.


Anna

Anna is a Hollywood agent. When you think of her, don't imagine a slick, Gucci-clad, deal-making shark. Instead picture a tall redhead, quick to smile, a hearty laugh, a woman who doesn't necessarily demand your attention when she walks into a room, but who reveals her strength and self-assurance in each subsequent meeting. She's competent, and she knows it, yet not arrogant. Her manner is so open, candid, and unguardedly optimistic, she leaves you feeling that she would be a great best friend. You know you would trust her with your career, and more. And as you chat with her, listening to her self-deprecating stories of motherhood and movie-land, you can't help it, the clichéd question pops into your head, How does she do it?

Don't imagine that Anna has led a picture-perfect life, a life that you or anyone else should copy. It's been a regular sort of life, with confused beginnings, long stretches of "What I am doing with my life?" and the occasional "Oh no, what have done!" The lesson from Anna's life is not that she never felt confused or lost or weak; instead, the lesson lies in how she made her choices whenever these feelings came upon her.

Contrary to initial impressions of "Of course she would become an agent. What else would she be?" Anna Carson didn't grow up under the shadow of the Hollywood sign, but in the cornfields of Iowa. Her dad was a farmer, and her childhood address was the kind of thing you make up when you're making up stories about farmers: The Carson Farm, Rural Route 1, Iowa City, Iowa.

Anna was the fourth child out of six, the girl in the middle, and her family was close and tight-knit. So when she was ready to go to college, she chose the University of Iowa. It was home.

And she did well. She graduated with a degree in business administration, which she used to get a job as a district supervisor for a high-end grocery chain. That seemed the right thing to do at the time. It gave her a car, a steady income, a place to live close to her family, and a future that was already mapping itself out.

But then something happened, a catalytic event. One day, she saw a shoplifter on the store's closed-circuit television. Anna called the police, but because she was one of six and not afraid to stand up for herself, she decided to confront the man alone. She challenged him, and he seemed about to 'fess up and give in, when suddenly he turned and sprinted down the aisle toward the front of the store. Unthinking, Anna dashed after him, caught him, and grabbed his shoulder, at which point he twisted in her grip, punched her full in the mouth, and escaped.

She stumbled back to her office, called the police again, and tried to speak. Blood, spittle, and gargled words were all she could manage, so she hung up and pulled out a mirror from her desk drawer to assess the damage. She wasn't in much pain (mouth injuries are funny that way; you don't feel much pain until the oral surgeon starts giving you Novocain injections), but she could see that all four of her front teeth had been smashed up. And there in her office, as she sat waiting for the police to arrive, feeling out the damage with her tongue, she found herself thinking, What on earth am I doing here in this job, in this store, in Iowa? Is this seriously what I want for my life? To be a grocery-chain supervisor five miles from where I grew up?

Anna loved her family. Her mother, despite losing both of her own parents when she was only nine years old, was optimistic and enthusiastic, an endlessly positive influence on Anna's life. Her dad was the farmer, cautious, aware that the wind and weather will change. In his world, you plant your seeds and you wait for them to grow. It's what he thought Anna should do: settle with the seeds she had sown, build her reputation, and secure her future.

So what did she do? Sorry, Dad, Anna listened to her instincts and followed her boyfriend to Washington, D.C., where he was getting his master's degree at George Washington University. When she arrived, she hunted around for work. She still wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life, but that didn't stop her from getting a job. That's one thing Anna always believed in. You always find something to do to move forward, even if you know it isn't what you are going to be doing for the rest of your life.

So she found the best temp job she could, working for the Paper and Plastics Association, as it happens, and all was fine and dandy--Washington, D.C. was a fun place for a couple of young, upwardly mobile Iowans--when, out of the blue, her boyfriend landed a job as an associate professor in a small university town in Germany.

Should she go? Well, she thought, why not? I haven't yet found my purpose in life, and since I moved to D.C. for him, why wouldn't I go in whole hog and move to Germany with him? So she did, and, as before, when she arrived, she rustled up some work. This was trickier to pull off than it had been in D.C. because, technically, she wasn't allowed to work, but she ferreted around anyway and soon she was teaching English and aerobics, helping a German friend file for a United States visa, and basically gaining a pretty good foothold, when, after a short nine months, her boyfriend announced that Germany wasn't working out for him, that they should move back to the U.S. He was thinking Denver, Colorado--what did she think?

She thought they should give Germany a fair shot. But, still playing the dutiful girlfriend role, she swallowed that opinion and hightailed it to Denver. Where, upon arrival, her boyfriend decided that eight years was enough. The relationship was over.

Now what was she going to do? She was 29, single, and aimless. Talk to your friends and you'll hear stories from people in a similar predicament. They move their life around for a boyfriend or a husband, and then, after the break-up, they find themselves at a loss. This other person had given their life direction and purpose, so they didn't have to ask themselves too many questions about what their strengths were, what did they want to do with their life, what was their destiny? But now, with that person out of their life, those questions crescendo until they can't think about anything else.

Anna sat herself down and forced herself to ask all those destiny, purpose, and "what should I do with my life?" questions.

And then a false start. Having racked her brains for something to latch onto and coming up empty, she took another temping job, this one on the TV show Cops. She was quickly promoted to become an onsite producer, yet almost immediately she knew she'd made a mistake. The job had superficial trappings of glamour--this was television, after all--but, moment to moment, it grated on her. Some people get a jolt of energy from filming reality shows. They love the rawness, newness, and unpredictability of it; in the language of the Strong Life test, they are Pioneers. But Anna didn't. She saw herself as a voyeur of Denver's underbelly, someone who was profiting from her subjects' suffering. When she filmed a person who was arrested for DUI, he or she was really arrested. When she captured a person being carted away to jail, he was really being carted away. Was this where her life was meant to end up? Was this why she had worked for her degree, why she had defied the advice of her parents and followed a man around the world? Her instinctive answer was no, so with no clear alternative in mind, she quit.

It was while she was weighing her future, and fending off anxious inquiries from her mom that Anna took a New Year's trip to visit her sister in Chicago. And there, at 2 a.m. on New Year's Day, she met the man who would become her husband, David. David was in sales for his family's printing business and was about to relocate to Los Angeles. By the time he was due to go, he and Anna were in a serious relationship, both sure they had found a life partner in the other. So, with a here-we-go-again feeling, Anna followed her man to a new city where she knew no one, had no leads, no contacts, and no idea of what to do.

Back to the destiny, purpose, and "what should I do with my life?" questions. Sitting around the apartment they'd rented, she dredged through her life trying to find something, anything that might give her a clue about how to bring focus to her willingness to work hard. All she could come up with was that she was an inveterate clipper. A confessed "information junkie," she would clip articles from any publication she happened to be reading (this was pre-Internet) and stack them in file folders for . . . well, who knows what they were for? She just liked having information at her fingertips.

She pulled out the file folders from one of the moving boxes (the clippings had traveled with her from Iowa via D.C., Germany, and Denver) and sifted through them. And as she was doing that, as she pulled each one out, reread it, and carefully put it aside, she had a vivid memory of looking at a huge magazine stand at the University of Iowa, reaching past John Deere's Tractor Quarterly and Cosmopolitan, and picking the Hollywood Reporter from the racks. And not just one time. Often. Once a week at least. Thinking back now, she remembered that she wouldn't read the first two or three pages, the ones with the stories about the biggest stars of the day and their exploits. Instead, she would turn to the back of the magazine and read about the details of the deals. How did this movie get financed? Which studio bought this book to adapt into a movie? Who was going to direct it? How much would they get paid?

It seemed crazy that she'd forgotten this, but with all the flitting around the world and the scrabbling for work and the traipsing after her boyfriend, she had. Now, as she sat quietly reading the clippings--here was one about the setting up of the Disney Channel, here was one about the making of Beverly Hills Cop--it came back to her with great vividness. Huh, she thought. Interesting. I really like learning about the details of movie business deals.

She didn't know what job she should try to get, but at least she had something authentic to build on. And while she had no connections and no film experience, at least she was in the right town to start discovering what she wanted to build.

She asked around in some employment agencies and was told, "If you want to learn the ropes, become an assistant to a talent agent. You'll probably hate it--they'll make you scurry around like a mad four-year-old--but there's no better or faster way to gain experience in the entertainment industry."

So Anna thought, All right, I'll treat it as an MBA in the entertainment industry. I'll work as seriously as I can for three years and then take stock. She had heard of a company that promoted from within its ranks, so she applied there for an assistant's job and was hired to work for a book agent.

"From almost the day I arrived, I knew I was at the right place," Anna says. "There was a book that my boss was trying to buy for a producer, and as her assistant I got to see the whole thing unfold. I was at the center of it all as we negotiated with the author of the book, hooked in a screenwriter, and closed the deal with the production company. I can still remember holding the author's $1 million check in my hand. But it wasn't the money that excited me; it was being at the center of things. Being the hub. I just loved that I knew more than everyone else about what was going on."

Fueled by this love, her new role consumed her. While other assistants were out at parties, schmoozing and networking, Anna stayed late at work, gathering information, planning, devising ways for the agency to do better, writing ideas and notes for her boss at midnight. Looking back, she realizes she was probably something of a nuisance, but she couldn't stop. The ideas came so furiously she just had to capture them and share them with whoever would listen. Finally, she thought, my real life has started.

And then a setback. One of the ideas she presented to her boss was that the company needed a coordinator for her department, someone who would gather all the relevant information about each of the agency's clients and then use it to position the right client with the right project no matter where the client or the project resided within the agency. This position didn't exist at the agency, and, in Anna's opinion, this meant many opportunities to find good work for their clients were missed. She told a couple of people about her idea and was waiting for the right moment to tell her boss, when an announcement was made that another assistant, a friend she'd shared her idea with, had been given the role. Apparently this "friend" had made an appointment with the powers-that-be, presented the idea as his, and soon thereafter been offered the position.

Anna was floored. She'd trusted this person, confided in him, and then he'd stolen her idea, and the position. How could she have been so naive? She was 30 years old. She should have known better. She kicked herself. Stomped around the apartment. Shouted her frustrations at David. Fantasized about creative methods of retribution.

And then she righted herself. She could have raised a stink about it and demanded a fair hearing, but, talking it through with David, she decided to take a different tack. She knew three things for sure: (1) the agency needed this coordinator role not just within her department but within other departments as well; (2) she was still the best person for this kind of "information junkie" role; and (3) if she just kept talking up the role and making others see how useful it could be, in the end, other opportunities would present themselves.

On all three counts, she was right. Six months after her "perfect" job was stolen from her, the agency created the same role for another department, the talent department (think movie stars) and offered her the job.

"Everyone in the talent department was shocked," she remembers with a smile. "They were like 'Who's this assistant from the literary department, and why did she get this job?' They didn't realize that I'd been laying the groundwork for the last nine months or more."

Fast-forward a year and a half, and Anna was excelling in the coordinator role. In fact, she was getting so good and feeling so confident in her abilities that she allowed herself to start wondering when she'd be promoted to the plum role of talent agent.

This role is the life-blood of the agency. Everything depends on the agent's ability both to sign quality clients and then to find these clients good work. And Anna was certain that she would excel at it. In fact, in her estimation, she was already doing the work--she had studied the intricacies of every deal that came across her desk; she was known to have a wealth of information at her fingertips and so was regularly sought out by clients and agents alike; and, most importantly, people trusted her.

So she asked her boss when she was going to be promoted. "Soon," she was told.

Then she asked again.

And again. And again. Always politely. And always armed with an example or two about how she was already doing the job.

"Soon," she was told.

And so, finally, she gave the agency an ultimatum. It was done very professionally, but it was an ultimatum nonetheless: "I'm doing the agent job now; I just don't have the title. Give me the title by June, or I will go be an agent somewhere else."

Whether worn down by her persistence or persuaded by her obvious competence, or a combination of the two, when the June deadline hit--and not a week earlier--they made her a full agent.

That was a decade ago, and during those years Anna has risen to become one of the most trusted and influential agents in Hollywood.

One final detail: not long after she became an agent, Anna became a mother, too, giving birth to her son, Ben. She nursed him and after her maternity leave was up, she returned to the agency. Both she and David had full-time jobs, so, as many working couples do, they hired a nanny.

She explains, "I thought I'd be fine with it, and I guess I was for a while. But, then, my senses started picking up on something. I felt weird leaving him. It's not that I didn't want to go back to work--I did, and I enjoyed work even after being a mom. It's just that something didn't seem quite right at home. I wrestled with it for a couple of weeks trying to pin it down. And then one morning, it dawned on me that our nanny was rushing me out of the house. It wasn't anything that I could actually point to; it was just a feeling, a feeling that grew more insistent the more I thought about it: 'My nanny does not want me in my house!'"

She installed a nanny cam. And that night, watching it at home--"The worst night of my life," she calls it--she saw why the nanny wanted her out of there. The nanny slept on the floor for almost the entire day.

"It killed me to see video of Ben clambering over her and toddling to the window calling our names, looking over the little gate into the kitchen and calling for me. It wasn't that she was being mean to him. She was just completely ignoring him. No attention. No love. No cuddling. Absolutely nothing. It was just terrible. The next morning, the full momma bear came out and I fired her the moment she set foot in our house."

Which left her and David with a problem. Anna didn't want to stop working, but neither could she stomach the thought of leaving Ben at home. Even with a different nanny. She and David sat down that night and talked it out. It was a tough night, but in the end they found the right solution for them. As much as Anna loved her job, David was bored with his--his family had sold the printing business and the new owners weren't overly fond of having the oldest son still walking the halls. David, this athletic, rangy 6'3" sportsman, didn't know what it would be like to spend all day looking after his son, but he wanted to give it a try. Anna would work full-time, he would take care of Ben and any other kids who came along (a daughter, Charlotte, after a couple of years), and then Anna would come home and put them to bed every night.

That was seven years ago. It's not an arrangement that would work for every family--although it's not particularly rare: according to the most recent U.S. census, in 20% of families with kids under five, the man is the primary caregiver--but it works for Anna and David. They are fortunate to have each other, and they are stronger, together.

So that's one version of what a strong life looks like. You'll draw your own conclusions, I'm sure. Whatever your conclusions, resist ascribing it all to timing and luck. Luck certainly played a part in the trajectory of Anna's life but nonetheless Anna was an active agent (pardon the pun) in her life. She made her choices, rejected some advice, closed some doors, opened others, took initiative. Mary McCarthy wrote, "We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story."

This was true for Anna, as it is and will always be, for you.

***


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Marcus Buckingham is the bestselling author of five books, with more than 3.7 million copies in print, and the world's leading expert in personal strengths. An internationally renowned consultant and the founder of TMBC, a management consulting company, he has been hailed as a visionary by corporations such as Toyota, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Disney. Buckingham has been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Larry King Live," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," and "The View," and profiled in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Fortune, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review. A Senior Researcher at Gallup Organization for nearly two decades, Buckingham addresses more than 250,000 people in live audiences each year and leads management training initiatives in organizations worldwide. His most recent book is Find Your Strongest Life (Thomas Nelson).

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