What Do I Do Now?
Posted May 1st, 12:29
9 min read
Do you every feel as if you have no control over your circumstances, like you don’t know what you’re doing any more, like you don’t even know what to do right here and right now? – There is a way out.
Mike Corcoran shared his thoughts with Town Square Space’s Start Up Club, 22nd April 2020.
In 1940 a young man, living with his mother in Nazi occupied France, was given an opportunity of escaping to England to join with the free French forces. The man’s mother was elderly, living alone with him, her other son having already been lost to the war, and heavily reliant on him to get through each day. He knew that if he left, the loss would break her heart, leave her alone and vulnerable, and quite possibly bring her life to a premature end. Equally, he knew the free French forces were fighting a global evil, that the future of mankind was at stake and that he could play a part, no matter how small, in fighting that evil – for the good of his mother and all those like her.
This is the dilemma that faced a student of Jean-Paul Sartre, the key figure in 20th Century existentialism, and for Sartre, to resolve it, we first have to understand what it is ‘to be.’ There are, said Sartre, two types of being: The unconscious, concrete world of Beings-in-themselves and the conscious, subjective world of Beings-for-themselves.1
Consider a knife. A knife has a design, by definition – it has a handle, a blade, and it’s effective in cutting things – this is the essence of a knife. A craftsman takes this essence, and uses it to bring his finished piece into existence. That is, its essence precedes its existence. The craftsman can change the material, the colour – but if he changes the essence, swaps the blade for a feather perhaps, then the knife no longer exists.
People on the other hand, are not like knives. There is no pre-defined essence of conscious life, no one component which, if removed, would no longer render it ‘a life’ – save for removing the consciousness, that is, the existence, itself. So long as we exist, we live – and can feel, think, believe and strive for different things – these are the things which define us. Therefore, our existence precedes our essence. This distinction is fundamental. Beings-in-themselves have a pre-defined purpose and are brought into existence to serve it. Beings-for-themselves are brought into being, and then define that purpose for themselves.
This is what Sartre meant when he famously said “Man is condemned to be free”.2 We have no say over our existence, but once we’re here we cannot opt out of our freedom – many things in the world may happen which are outside of our control, but how we interpret them is up to us, and the choices we make relating to them, are our own. Not only that, but our choices have consequences, for us, for those around us, and for all of mankind. That’s why Sartre says that when man chooses for himself “he chooses for all men”.3 You will change the world – the only question is how?
So how did Sartre advise his young student – not with the definitive answer he may have hoped for, for as we can see, there can be no definitive answer to this dilemma. Which choice to take depends entirely on the beliefs, values and judgements of the individual, and they can come from nowhere but within – so Sartre responded “you are free, therefore choose, that is … invent.”
The existentialist philosophy reminds us that even in times when we feel at our most helpless, we never lose that ability to make the proactive choices which ultimately shape and define us. If, as you read this, that feeling of helplessness has taken over, then we have a way out … invent.
What follows are four simple steps, which provide one way of putting these principles into practice.
- Invent Your Vision
Take time to indulge yourself in the big, philosophical questions. Why do we exist? What is progress? What does it mean to live a good life? Play with moral dilemma’s like that of Sartre’s student – what would you have done in his situation? Take time to reflect on your values, what really matters to you in life? These are the questions that we most often push to one side because we are too busy dealing with the here and now, but they are the key to the here and now!
This exercise doesn’t have to be disruptive to your daily life – just allow these questions to occupy your thoughts as and when they can: on a long walk, when you’re in the bath, as you cook the tea – before you know it, your world view will start to appear.
Write down all the things you care about. Try and write a single sentence which describes the kind of world you want to see – your vision statement.
- Invent Your Mission
In ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Steven Covey introduced the concept of the Circle of Concern and the Circle of Influence.4
Much like a vision statement, the Circle of Concern encompasses all of the things we care about, in work and in life. These may range from the profound to the mundane, and every person’s Circle of Concern will be different. Covey observed that many things in a person’s Circle of Concern will lie outside of their direct control. If our energy is focused exclusively on these things, we become a slave to circumstance, simply reacting to the things going on around us, and becoming exhausted with the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Rather, Covey said, we should focus our energy on our Circle of Influence. These are the things within our Circle of Concern with we have a degree of direct influence over. The global spread of Covid-19 in likely in everyone’s Circle of Concern right now. Within our Circle of Influence, are the things each of us can do personally to slow the spread down. When we focus our energy on our influence as opposed to our concern, we become proactive rather thanreactive. We dedicate time to bringing about positive change, and as a result, our Circle of Influence grows: the more we do, the more we can do.
Reflect on your vision. How does it align with your interests, skills, and passions? Where can you exert your influence to help make that vision a reality? Try and write a single sentence which describes what you’re going to do about it – your mission statement.
- Invent Your Service
There are likely to be many discrete ways in which you can exert your influence, and carry out your mission. You will be able to offer different things, to different people, in different times, depending on their circumstances. For businesses, these become their range of products and services, in every day life, we might think of these are our daily activities.
Reflect on your mission. How does it align with the products and services you offer, and the activities you undertake? Is anything missing? Is anything there which shouldn’t be? Try and write down a list of the products, services and activities you can offer which are most strongly aligned with your mission right now – rank them in order of the difference they will make.
Even with a clear idea in mind of the products, services and activities you want to deliver, knowing exactly what to do next can be tough, especially in a time of great stress and uncertainty. Conquer this by breaking each challenge down, setting yourself clear, simple and achievable targets each day.
A technique I find immensely useful is this:
- STEP 1: Set yourself a realistic deadline (‘by such a such a date, product ‘x’ will be ready to launch’).
- STEP 2: Work out what you need to achieve by half way between now and that deadline, if you are to meet it (‘I will need to have completed tasks x, y and z’).
- STEP 3: Work out what you need to achieve half way between now and half way, if you are to meet the targets you set in Step 2.
- STEP 4: Keep going, until you are left with something practical to do today.
Reflect on the product, service or activity you’ve ranked as likely to make the greatest difference? Set a deadline for delivering it. Work backwards, until you are left with a practical action to carry out today.
Reading this, you may feel that whilst it’s all well and good to do all of this in theory, when faced with a decision that needs to be made right here, right now, can we really stop to reflect on the meaning on life?! But that is to miss the point. By investing our attention in these questions when we can, we are led to a vision which is true to our self-defined purpose and values. This leads us to a mission we can believe in and a range of products, services and activities we can trust. By not shying away from our inescapable freedom, we will increasingly find our decision making intuitive, without fear and endless deliberation, but safe in the knowledge that the choices we make will we always move us one step nearer to creating the world we want to see. As Yogi Berra famously said, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up some place else”.
And changing the world takes time. We must, at times like this more than ever, be kind, patient and forgiving of ourselves on the days when our mind just doesn’t want to play ball. The Zen Buddhist Monk and Peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn, offers a simple meditation, we can say to ourselves each night before we sleep:
‘Did I live in the direction of my ideals today?’ If you see that you took two or three steps in the direction, that is good enough. If you did not, say to yourself, ‘I’ll do better tomorrow’’ “5
Mike Corcoran helps organisations to make things simpler, more effective, and more impactful.
He works with businesses of all shapes and sizes across the UK and around the world: developing strategies, managing projects, undertaking research, and training and developing teams. A passionate advocate of public engagement with science, he has reached over 100,000 individuals through conferences, festivals, lectures and workshops.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1966. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Washington Square Press.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2007. Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2007. Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Covey, Stephen R. 2004. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Free Press.
- Hanh, Thich Nhat. 2007. Teachings on Love. Full Circle Publishing.
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