Knowing what you care about

Merlin Mann‘s writing around this time last year was very influential in my thinking during my sabbatical. Specifically:

Before you sweat the logistics of focus: first, care. Care intensely.

I think understanding what you care about is vastly underestimated. Mostly, we subscribe to the myth that we care about whatever we’re doing. But when you have to drag yourself to the table every day for more, maybe you don’t actually care.

And that’s ok. You can’t force yourself to care about something any more than you can force yourself to grow another ear. Care is something that comes from the combination of what’s inside you and what you encounter.

You can, certainly, put yourself in situations that give you the chance to care about things–for instance, visiting an AIDS hospice center, or meeting with immigrants from another country, or going on a missions trip to a suffering community–and hopefully in some of those situations you will realize that you really do care, about important things. Some people say that great innovation just comes from trying lots of things and finding what works, and I think understanding your passions works the same way. But you can’t force yourself to care about something that you just don’t…care about.

The bit that really stuck with me was Merlin’s earlier application of this philosophy to “priorities” (which I noted at the time):

A priority is observed, not manufactured or assigned. Otherwise, it’s necessarily not a priority…

When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

Priorities are a reflection of what you really care about, because they are the things you actually do. And since you can’t force yourself to care about something, your priorities are a reflection of who you really are.

How do you apply this? First, understand what it is that you really do care about, by observing what you actually do. If you’re not satisfied with that, go out and seek new opportunities to discover something else you care about. And then, once you realize you care deeply, sacrifice other things for that and you can do truly great work and be happier in life.

I’m still discovering more about the things I truly care about, but this philosophy has already led to a greater focus on relationships and health, and a tremendous reduction in stress about the things I thought I cared about but that I really didn’t. Know what you really care about, and don’t pretend you care about things you don’t.