Six Ingredients for a Good Life

12/08/2010 11:46 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I ended my most recent post with this line:

"The true measure of greatness is our capacity to navigate between our opposites with agility and grace -- to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never to stop trying to get better."

Over the past week, I've thought about this more deeply. What's dawned on me is just how much a good life requires embracing paradox.

Constantly seek to learn and grow, but accept yourself exactly as you are.

Learning and growing require a willingness to look honestly and unsparingly at our shortcomings. Start with your own greatest strength. When you overuse it, it's almost surely a window into your own greatest weakness.

In my case, the strength is drive and passion. Overused, it turns into aggressiveness. Some months ago, I had an encounter with a client in which I felt treated unfairly and dishonestly. I reacted with righteousness, and it probably cost us the client.

There wasn't much value in beating myself up about what happened, or in holding on to a sense of outrage. The client acted badly, but more important, so did I. By accepting responsibility, but also forgiving myself -- recognizing that overreaching is an undeniable part of me, but not all of me -- I had an opportunity to grow and learn.

Just last week, I was in a meeting with another client, and I felt the urge to press my case just a little harder. Instead, I consciously chose to step back and let the outcome take care of itself. Sure enough, it did. By being aware of my inclination to overuse a strength -- by recognizing my own vulnerability -- I was able to make a different choice.

Add Value to Others and Take Care of Yourself

Gratifying our most immediate needs and desires provides bursts of pleasure, but they're usually short-lived. We derive the most enduring sense of meaning and satisfaction in our lives when we serve something larger than ourselves. Giving to others generates an extraordinary source of energy.

When we worked with cardiac intensive care nurses at the Cleveland Clinic, for example, we were consistently amazed by their commitment. These nurses spent 12 to 14 continuous hours at their patients' bedsides, often without time to eat, sit down or even go to the bathroom.

Even so, nearly all of them found their work on behalf of critically ill patients deeply satisfying. The problem was that, over time, the jobs became overwhelming.

Encouraged by the hospital, the nurses put the needs of their patients before their own, and believed it was selfish to do otherwise. Many nurses suffered from a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue. Turnover was high.

Consistently sacrificing yourself to serve others is ultimately no better than focusing solely on yourself at the expense of others.

Selfishness is about making your own gratification paramount. Self-care is about making sure you're addressing your own most basic needs, so you're freed and fueled to also add value to others.

Focus Intensely and Renew Regularly

We live in a world in which we're forever juggling demands, but rarely focusing on any one thing for long.

Absorbed attention -- the capacity to delay other gratifications to focus on one thing at a time -- is the sine qua non of achieving and sustaining excellence at anything.

Unlike machines, however, human beings aren't meant to operate at the highest intensity for very long. Instead, we're designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy approximately every 90 minutes.

It's not the hours you work that determine the value you generate, but rather the energy you bring to whatever hours you work. The more skillfully you renew, the more energy you'll have.

I wrote The Way We're Working Isn't Working in three uninterrupted 90 minute "sprints" every morning -- each one followed by a relatively short period of real renewal, ranging from deep breathing, to eating something, to taking a run. It was a time for both restoration and reflection. I finished the book in half the number of hours than I had any previous book, when I worked ten to 12 hour days.

The world's best performers -- musicians, chess players, athletes -- typically practice the same way: for no longer than 4 ½ hours a day. They also sleep more than the rest of us, and take more naps.

These great performers figured out that when they push for too long, their attention wanders, their energy flags, and their work suffers. But because they're so focused when they are working, they get more done, in less time.

Choose a set of the paired opposites above. What could you do to better right the balance between them in your own life?

For a sense of how well you're currently managing your energy, take The Energy Audit.