We all want to feel like our lives matter. To find this kind of significance, we often think in macro terms about our overarching purpose and values. Such reflection is certainly useful, but what are the smaller building blocks that will get us to those goals? What are things we can do to live more purposefully on a day-to-day basis?
My guest lays out ten such habits in his latest book, Make Today Matter. His name is Chris Lowney. He started his vocational life studying to become a priest before discovering it wasn’t for him and shifting his ambitions to the corporate world, working first as a managing director at JP Morgan and now as consultant and keynote speaker. Today on the show Chris and I discuss tactics gleaned from both his experience as a Jesuit seminarian and as a business leader that can help you live each day with more meaning. Chris explains how to keep your most important values at the forefront of your mind, how to approach each day with bravery and heart, and how looking for little ways to do good deeds, express gratitude, and lead others in a positive way will all add up to a life that matters.
- How Chris found his way from Jesuit seminary to investment banking
- Decision making in banking vs. in real life
- The difference between moral knowledge vs. moral courage
- How to figure out what matters in life in 15 minutes
- How do we actually remember what matters in the midst of our workaday lives?
- Why self-improvement needs to be cumulative rather than a flash in a pan
- What it means to “bring big heart every day”
- How do you get going on days you don’t want to work for it or live life according to your values?
- Making self-improvement a true habit
- “Do no harm”
- When healthy competition turns negative
- Competition vs. rivalry
- Giving away your shoes
- Why gratitude is like cholera
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My podcast with Father James Martin about Jesuit spirituality
- Society of Jesus
- How to Find Your Life’s Purpose
- Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness
- Define Your Core Values
- 7 Habits series
- The Spiritual Disciplines: Gratitude
- AoM’s Spiritual Disciplines series
- Hacking the Habit Loop
- Kaizen: Getting Just 1% Better Each Day
- Competition: The Fuel for Greatness
Connect With Chris
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. We all want to feel like our lives matter. To find this kind of significance, we often think in macro terms about our overarching purpose and values. Such reflection is certainly useful, but what are the smaller building blocks that will get us to those goals? What are the things we can do to live more purposely on a day-to-day basis?
My guest lays out 10 such habits in his latest book, Make Today Matter. His name is Chris Lowney. He started his vocation life studying to become a priest before discovering it wasn’t for him, then shifting his ambitions to the corporate world working first as a Managing Director at JP Morgan and now as a consultant and keynote speaker. Today on the show, Chris and I discuss tactics from both his experience as a Jesuit seminarian and as a business leader that can help you live each day with more meaning.
Chris explains how to keep your most important values at the forefront of your mind, how to approach each day with bravery and heart, and how looking for little ways to do good deeds, expressing gratitude and lead others in a positive way will all add up to a life that matters. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/maketodaymatter.
Chris Lowney, welcome to the show.
Chris Lowney: Thanks so much, pleasure to do it.
Brett McKay: You have an interesting background. A few weeks ago we had Father James Martin on the podcast who was … His background was interesting because he went from the corporate world to becoming a Jesuit priest. You did the opposite from him. You started off going to seminary to become a Jesuit, but then you found your way into investment banking. Tell us about that. How’d that happen?
Chris Lowney: Yeah that’s right. I flunked out of the Jesuits, you might put it that way. The short version of my life is, I grew up in Queens, lower middle class New York streets. Went to a high school of the Jesuits and then right after high school, I joined the Jesuits, went into the seminary. I’m sure some of the listeners would know, Jesuits would be a I don’t know, you might say a brand, a tradition of priests within the Catholic Church.
I was studying be a priest for a few years. That was a great transformative life experience, but as folks also probably know part of being a Catholic priest is to be celibate, not to marry. Over time it became clear to me that that was not my gift or calling in life you might say and if I tried to stick that out I was going to be unhappy and we don’t need unhappy priests, we don’t need unhappy lawyers and so on.
The lesson I was doing as a Jesuit was teaching economics in one of their high schools. I was living in New York City, I didn’t really have a plan B so I just sent out my resume and was lucky enough to catch on in the training program at JP Morgan, the big investment bank. I ended up staying there for 17 years. I was lucky enough to spend time in Japan, in Singapore and London and when I left there a decade or so ago, I think … You might summarize that decision this way, that I felt like, you know look, this is good work. I’m happy I’m doing this but if I’m 70 years old and the only thing I can say about my life is that I’ve worked at JP Morgan for 40 years, I’m not quite sure how fulfilling a life I’m going to feel that is.
And also, which is something that comes up I know in your work from time to time another factor was you work in one of these big, massive companies and your own control, your own agency, your own feel for what am I producing, what am I creating, what are my accountable for is a little hard to grasp sometimes. I wanted to move on, write and do conferences and do things where I felt like I’m creating the product that I’m sharing with the world.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, how do you think your experience in the Jesuit seminary influenced your career in investment banking? Did you approach things differently compared to your colleagues who didn’t have that same background?
Chris Lowney: I’ll say two things that I think were different as a result maybe of being a Jesuit. One thing would be that in banking life, everything tends to have a trading mentality in this respect that all the decisions have to get made within four seconds just like it happens on a trading floor where you’re going to buy a stock or sell a stock. You could bring somebody the most complicated decision in the world and the macho investment banking thing would be able to say yes or no on the spot.
Really that that way of living has kind of infected culture more broadly now because of social media and so on. Everything is instantaneous. But frankly a lot of decisions in life can’t get made like that and they’re not best made like that. Sometimes it’s good to take time and have what’s going on inside us settle a bit and come to some clarity about what’s best for us and so on. That’s a very Jesuit way of … That’s the way we would’ve been formed as Jesuits and I think I always carried that way of approaching things. In other words, it’s okay to take time to make a decision when you have time to make a decision sometimes even better. That’s one thing I would say.
Another thing that I would say briefly is that I think a lot of times in corporate life we … Everything revolves around learning techniques and so on. In other words, I had to learn how to do present value calculations or how to do this or that. One thing the corporate life never focuses on is what’s ultimately the most important. Who are you? What do you stand for? What are your values and strengths and weaknesses? I think that was another bias that I brought from Jesuit life, namely it’s good and it’s important to think not just about acquiring technical skills but also the skills of learning about who you are as a person and so on.
Brett McKay: Let’s get to this book you just came out with, Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life and World. I’m curious, how did you come up with these habits? Is it just based on your experience going all the way back from your career as a potential Jesuit and then your career in investment banking?
Chris Lowney: Yeah. Maybe I’ll put this way. I do a lot of leadership seminars at either corporations or universities and so on. One of the things I often say to folks is, “You know, you already know it.” We already know what good leadership looks like and what crappy leadership looks like and so on, because we’ve all had experience of people who’ve mentored or taught or coached or managed us. We’ve seen it in action.
The way I assembled the book in some ways was just to think back about moments and people who had very much impressed me in my own life with their ability to live each day well. A lot of the stories, a lot of the habits came almost right away. It didn’t take me much time to think about them. I mean, there are people who’ve been quite impactful for me. So, I just cataloged mentally some folks who’d made a deep impression on me and then tried to extract, what is it that crystallizes the way they go about doing things that I that could help me and could help the rest of us?
One guardrail I gave myself in putting it together was that I was interested in bite sized, how do you do it every day kind of stuff. Because, I feel that part of the challenge of the 21st century here is that daily life is this utter maelstrom and there’s way too much going on. We all have to process too many stimuli every day whether social media or television or whatever the heck it is. It tends to kind of distract us and draw us off course and I tend to feel with a lot of people, the problem in life is not really that they are pointed in the wrong direction. Most of us kind of know where we’d like to go and who we’d like to be.
Rather, the problem is that daily life’s craziness and distractions and nonsense kind of distract us and pull us off course. So, I was interested in habits that really boiled down to, how do I do it today? How can I make my daily life better? Not so much let me think of these visionary, long term aspirational kind of things.
Brett McKay: Before we get into the habits, you start the book arguing that people need to first figure out what matters in life. You said just earlier that people have a general idea of the direction they want to go in life but, I think it’s even harder now to figure that out. I mean, you have all these books and courses on how to find your life’s purpose. That’s a challenge we have in the modern age when people aren’t embedded in communities or institutions like.
For your case if you’re a Catholic priest like, “Well, I just do this thing because that’s what Catholic priests do,” or if you are in a family that has a history of trade, “Well, I just do this trade because that’s what my family.” Nowadays you can choose whatever you want to be and whatever purpose you have. What do you think is the approach on figuring out what matters and what direction you’re going in life when you have all these choices to choose from?
Chris Lowney: First of all, I think the way you tee up the question is exactly right. When you talk about the fact that once upon a time, cultures and societies were much more homogenous. There was kind of a, “This is the way we do things in this neighborhood,” or in our ethnic group or in our religious group and so on. Now we live in a much more diverse world and that’s wonderful, it brings a lot of joys and blessings. But, it also makes everything in life way more complicated in terms of coming to judgments about what’s the right thing to do? What’s appropriate? How should I live? These kind of things.
One of the things that always haunts me in that regard is I remember once some years ago reading an interview with a guy who had pioneered, a chief executive who had pioneered a world changing merger. He had recently retired and he made a comment basically like, “I had gotten to the age of 60 and realized I didn’t know anything about the essential questions in life and I felt like I have to go on a journey. I have to find myself.” Good for him for coming to that conclusion and going on that personal journey, but I guess the point I want to make is if you start making it at 60, good but man, way better if you start at 20, 25, 30, 35.
In a way, that was the early part of the book and the question you’re getting at is, how do we start to engage in that challenge of figuring out what sense of purpose and what matters and so on? What I like to say to people and what I say in the book is, I feel like you got it better than you think you do. We kind of know. What I say to folks is, forget any big, fancy, year long, horrible, difficult process. Take out a piece of paper now, sit for 15 minutes. One hour is no good.
Just for a few minutes, answer whatever question resonates with you along these lines like what matters? How will I measure my life? How do I want to be remembered? What are the most important things I should stand for in life? Maybe even write down a few quotes that are meaningful to you as as a human being. A couple of the ones that come to my mind are never do to another person what you yourself hate or to give away as much love as I have received, whatever it is.
Just take some minutes to do that and I feel like for the great majority of us, those big guiding principles actually come pretty quickly and clearly. We’ve kind of had them in the back of our mind and it’s just a matter of bringing them to the forefront of our consciousness. Then the ongoing life trick and we’ll probably talk about this later in our conversation, the ongoing life trick is to keep reminding yourself of it. Even every day, because we’re going to get constantly pulled in different directions and constantly pulled off course.
The last thing I would say about it is, you teed up the question in terms of sense of purpose. A lot of times people think of a purpose in terms of a job like, “My purpose is to be a nurse or a teacher or a parent.” For a lot of us, we’re going to be doing lots of different things now in the course of a lifetime. So when I think about purpose, those kinds of questions, I would prefer to steer people toward, I don’t know what, a set of principles or values that are going to stay with them throughout the range of occupations they might have in a normal lifetime.
I mean, look at my life. I’ve already done a number of different things and I’m going to do more things. My purpose was not to be an investment banker or a writer, my purpose I would say is to be a person who in the course of a life gives away as much love as has been given to him for example.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about that remembering, because I think that’s the hardest part based on my experience. I’ve done those exercises where you sit down and like, “Yes, I know it matters,” but then when you get in the workaday of life, you forget it. I think, was it Plato? Going back to your philosophy major and you’d probably studied these guys as a seminarian to, their ethics. Plato was really big on whole …
We’re just trying to remember things right? The whole point of life is to remember the stuff that we already know and if we forget, that’s what leads to a disordered life. What’s your solution to that? How do you remember those things once you realize what they are?
Chris Lowney: I’m going to jump out of the order of the book because I think the conversation is really pointing us that direction and talk now about one of the very last things I talk about the book. I say to folks, because this is one of the disciplines I was taught that every day we ought to take a couple little mental breaks. Let’s imagine once at the end of lunch, once before I’m going to bed or on my way home from work. Take five minutes, if you can manage five minutes, take three minutes, two, I don’t care. But just a couple of minutes where no social media, no phone, no music, no nothing, just you and yourself.
I say to folks, just do three things. Remind yourself why you’re grateful as a person. Remind yourself of … We’ve can talking about sense of purpose, or what matters to you or what’s important, what values you want to stand for, why you’re here on earth. Anything like that, just bring that to mind. Then go back through your last few hours, the people you were with, the meetings you were in. Try to take away some little lesson that might help in the next few hours and break a lifetime into that bite sized six, 10-hour nugget.
I think the genius of this really simple practice becomes obvious when we think about the way we’re trying to live now. We’re kind of floating along on this white water river of email, text, meeting, distraction, phone call. When I get to the end of the day … I think this is what you’re pointing out right now Brett. I get to the end of the day and I’ve been 100% present to every distraction that’s crossed my radar. But the only thing I haven’t been present to is what ultimately I think is most important in life.
And so, I feel like we have to create some little habit for doing that every day because no one’s going to do it for us. I mean, I get all kinds of text, emails, whatever every day and I can promise you that none of those texts or emails is, “Hey Chris, have you reminded yourself what’s really important in your life?” That just doesn’t happen and so we have to create that that habit, that routine for ourselves to help keep pulling us back every day to our anchor, our north star, however we think of those things that are most important to us.
Brett McKay: This is an adaptation of the Jesuit Examen correct?
Chris Lowney: Yeah, exactly. The Jesuits call it Examen, which is the Latin word for examining like you examine yourself or your conscience in this case, but I feel like Jesuits love these arcane Latin terminology that doesn’t mean anything to the rest of us anymore. I feel like part of what these … One of the things we need to do with these wonderful human and religious and spiritual traditions, some of them that are thousands of years old is maybe try to find ways to translate some of those insights into language that makes sense to us nowadays who don’t have these kind of backgrounds.
For example, you used the word Examen. That’s right, that’s what Jesuits would call this practice. When I talk to people I usually say a mental pit stop because everybody knows what a pit stop is like. I think that’s a more intuitively accessible way of referring to it for a lot of people. And also by the way takes, it takes it out of the religious. I learned it in a religious context, but what you and I have just been talking about has nothing to do with my religious tradition or anybody’s religious tradition. Somebody who has no religious tradition could absolutely do what we just spoke about.
Brett McKay: Just to recap, it’s remind yourself of what you’re grateful for, remind yourself of your purpose and then look back like the past few hours and see how you’re doing there and what you can do better basically is-
Chris Lowney: Perfect.
Brett McKay: I think this is an important point to make and you talk about this in the book. The benefits of the Examen. You might feel something the first time you do it, but really the effects are cumulative. I think one of the problems that people have with self-improvement, they think there’s going to be this one thing. If they just start doing it and right away they’re going to see a change and their life’s going to be 100% better. You might do this for five minutes and you might not feel anything, but if you do this for weeks, months, years, I’m sure that you’ll notice a change then.
Chris Lowney: Absolutely, amen to that. I totally believe that. Sometimes when I talk about this, an example I use is Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous, the basic idea is if you have trouble with alcohol, that you can’t control yourself, that you would never drink for the rest your life. Who the heck is going to pull that off? If somebody tells that to me tomorrow, I just want to drink right now.
But the genius of Alcoholics Anonymous is the motto is of course, one day at a time, one day at a time. I think the genius of this practices, it’s just more bite sized. One day is not the rest of your life and the effects, the impact, the insights, whatever word you want to use Of course don’t come in a day or a week, maybe even a month. It’s like a cumulative discipline.
Also the other thing I would say is, it’s a little bit like riding a bike.The first couple of cranks of the pedal are harder, but then you stay on the bike and if we’re on level ground it starts to become a little bit easier and there’s more cumulative power in it. I think that’s an important observation you make that … To me there are no miracle cures in life. We try to acquire good habits, good disciplines, and over time they have an effect.
Brett McKay: Let’s get more into these habits. We kind of jumped the gun and got to the mental pit stop habit. But the first one that was really interesting, it’s called point out the way. What do you mean by that habit?
Chris Lowney: Point out the way to me is my short shorthand way of saying, be a leader. A lot of times if I do a seminar or a conference or something, I ask people to think of the names of leaders. And intuitively, people think like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Pope Francis. They think of uber famous people and nobody thinks of their own name. We would consider it immodest to think that way. But one of the dictionary definitions of leadership is to point out a way or a direction and to influence others toward it and look, everybody’s doing that all the time.
For example, if I’m in a corporate environment or sitting with fellow students or wherever I am, by virtue of how hard I work, whether I’m really trying to use my gifts, whether I support other people or would stab them in the back, whether I would cheat if I get away with it. In other words, all of these behaviors and values are pointing out a way and having some influence either on one or two people who see us in action or sometimes if we have a big platform, on a lot of people.
So, that first habit of pointing out the way is really inviting people to think about the fact that, hey pal, my friend, you have a leadership opportunity and responsibility now. Not if you become president of the United States or chairman of your company, but just now. Your actions are pointing out a way and having some influence, so please keep that in your mind. Think about what way you would be proud to point out by your behaviors and actions.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a great point. Once you think of yourself that I’m having an influence on people, that idea can immediately change how you behave because you realize, “Wow! It’s actually going to influence people so I better bring my A game to them,” whatever that might be.
Chris Lowney: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Another habit is bring big heart every day. First of all, what do you mean by that? Then I’ve got some follow up questions I want to ask about this, because this was the one that I thought was … I had a lot of questions about.
Chris Lowney: Let me tell a story that I didn’t tell in the book. Once I, not so long ago actually, I was at a … There’s Manhattan School of Music. It’s not so far from where I work. It’s this wonderful place where these folks in their late teenage years or college age years at very high level of musicianship are learning to be great musicians. You could wander into the street and hear them do their little recitals and so on.
One day there was a master class taking place for piano students and this guy … These students would come in and their technical skills were fabulous. But sometimes their playing, at least in the mind of this master who was coaching them was a little robotic. An observation he made was, “Do you know what the word virtuoso means?” We think of virtuoso as meaning excellent of course, “He’s a real virtuoso.” But part of this master teacher’s point was that part of the root of the word virtuoso is just being brave.
His point was you just need to go for it in your playing. You have the technical skills, but what you’re not bringing enough is your heart, your spirit, you’re going for it. You’re taking a little risk. In a way that’s the core of the idea I was trying to get at in that chapter, namely that people who are really affective every day are somehow really trying to live every day. And not just drifting through it, not just going through the motions but whatever they’re doing, they’re trying to bring their best selves to, their best gifts to.
I know that is not … I don’t mean to over-romanticize what that looks like or feels like. I’ve written a few books and people sometimes ask about what is good preparation for being able to write a book? And without joking I say to them, “You know something, having worked in a big company, having worked for the man for a lot of years is good preparation because one of the things it taught me is every day you got to show up.” Some days you’re bored, some days it’s just not coming, some days you don’t want to be there, some days you feel a little bit sick or off. But, you have to learn the discipline of being willing to sit down and try to put in your effort to whatever you’re doing. That’s the core of the idea I tried to get out there.
Brett McKay: But how do you do it on those days where you wake up and you’re just like, “I’m not feeling it.” And it could be not just about work but your family. You’re just like, “I don’t want to … I just want to sit and do nothing.” How do you overcome that tendency to just be passive and not live boldly, live bravely? Like you said, we’re not to change the world, but just live life. How do you overcome that?
Chris Lowney: I have a couple of ideas about that but let me say this first as a preliminary before I say those ideas. First thing is, if I thought I was the exemplar of how to live every habit I write about the book, I would’ve written a book about myself, not about these other people. The first thing I want to say is, I wrote the book for myself to. It’s not like I have all of this stuff figured out. I’m also trying to learn the very habits I’m championing to other people.
But having said that, here’s a couple of things that cross my mind. The title of the book uses the word habits and I use that for a reason, because I think habits and discipline are important. It’s not sexy but I think it’s important. Sometimes I think we have this, and you almost alluded to it little bit earlier in when your questions, this kind of romantic idea that I’m going to have some inspirational moment or inside or moment of truth and then from then on, all the motivation will come and I’ll always be running for the prize and so on.
In my experience the world just does not work that way. I feel for a lot of us, part of getting to that result, part of getting to a really invested pursuit of whatever is important is that we teach ourselves good habits. And one habit is, I’m going to try to show up every day and do what it is I’m here to do. Whether it’s take care my kid or be good to my wife or be somebody who really tries to help customers or be somebody who’s honest, I’m going to try to work hard to do that every day and get myself into the habit. That’s the first thing I would say.
But the second thing I would say is, you’re right, some days it is just absolutely not there. I have always found the motto of the medical profession to be strangely relevant to every other life. Some people might know that … It’s not actually in the Hippocratic Oath but it’s sometimes said that the first motto of a doctor is first do no harm. Sometimes that’s the best you could settle for today. In other words, I know this is not going to be a winning day but let me at least see if I could do no harm today. Do no harm to the people I … I don’t mean physical harm, but you understand my point.
Not say the thing that’s going to be hurtful to my spouse or not treat my kid in such a way that’s going to be punishing or harsh or not make life a pain in the ass for my colleagues. That’s the best I’m going to be able to accomplish today, is doing no harm. And if that’s the best, that’s okay to.
Brett McKay: I think it’s also important … You’re going to have seasons in your life where it’s super productive and there’s other seasons where there might be a low and that requires patience. You just keep plugging away and eventually you’ll get that mojo that comes back for whatever reason.
Chris Lowney: Yeah, and actually if you don’t mind, let me tell you something about that to. One of the quote that’s always been very helpful to me in my own life is from Kierkegaard the Danish philosopher. He had this line, life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward. In other words what he was getting at is … And absolutely I felt this way. There were times like I’m a Jesuit and now I’m discovering this is not where my calling is in life. Where is this going? Am I going anywhere? Am I making progress?
Going forward, we got to live like that. In other words, it’s not always clear where the next year will bring me or that things are going well or that I’m making progress. So, we have to live like that but I would say in my own experience and especially now that I have a few years under my belt, when I look backwards, when I look back over my life I get a more reassuring feeling of, “You know something, actually it has made sense.” Even those periods where I wasn’t sure I was getting traction, I can now see I was learning something and it was helpful to me in the long run.
That idea has always been helpful, to me at least in helping to keep me moving forward in these times where as you say, it doesn’t feel like I’m getting anywhere or I’m learning anything or I’m accomplishing what I want to accomplish.
Brett McKay: You devote another chapter to competition and how it can sometimes sap the satisfaction in life. There was sort of a paradox because competition can actually be really engaging. It’s motivating, it feels good to win. When can that feeling, that positive feeling turn into something that’s negative?
Chris Lowney: To illustrate what you’re getting at, when something is positive could feel negative is … As we’ve discussed, I’ve worked in investment banking for many years and for a while I was a managing director so I would have to give people their bonus checks at the end of the year. And let me tell you something, to do that in an investment bank is an experience everybody should go through in life. It is not a pretty experience because you’d be giving checks to people for these huge amounts of money sometimes and you’d feel like, “Oh man, we have such undeserved good luck. We should be thrilled. We should be so grateful.”
And in fact, the way it would play out would be, it would be kind of grim. Many people would not want to show if they were happy because they were already positioning themselves for a year from now. Other people, they would kind of be okay, but then an hour later once they start to hear what other people seem to have made, then they become all unhappy. I use it to illustrate this reality of once we fall into that trap of living our whole life in comparison with other people, that is a total sinkhole for a negative energy and unhappiness and everything else.
Whether it’s comparing the size of a bonus or how many likes you get on Facebook or whether my house is bigger than yours or whether I have less wrinkles then you do, any of that crap. Once we live by comparison, it’s deadly because there’s always going to be somebody you could find who has more or who is doing more. There’s a frame, one way of thinking about it is, instead of approaching my life in a competitive way or a comparative way, I might think of my life in a contributive way.
In other words, I’m not here on earth to compare myself to you and to outdo you. I’m here on earth to contribute to something. First to my family of course. To making people feel loved and grow and reach their own potential, then to my community and my colleagues and so on. When we can steer our heads more to this contributive way of thinking, I think it’s a formula that could bring a little more satisfaction than when we’re stuck with a very comparative way of thinking.
You mentioned competition, let me say a word about that. You’re right, and it is kind of paradoxical. To compete does lift our game and make us better. I once heard this … I wish I invented this myself. I don’t know if it’s true, but somebody once made a comparison for me of the words competition and rivalry. I have no idea if this is true but I’ll say it anyway. Their idea, etymologically what they were explaining to me was that competition has more the sense of what we do together and we lift each other’s game. By competing in the race with you, it forces me to be the very best.
Rivalry has more the etymological sense of drinking out of each other’s river or sharing the same river or something. So, it’s more like a fight. The point is not that competition makes me better. The point is rather that I need to beat you and that’s where the troubles start.
Brett McKay: I imagine the way you shift from this comparison to contributive mindset is through that daily practice that you do.
Chris Lowney: Yeah, good for you, absolutely because how often do I forget what I just told you? About every three hours because this is what life is. I see that somebody I know has been very successful, even a friend of mine and I know that the good part of me … All I want is to celebrate their success but there’s a little part of me that gets a little bit resentful also. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think that’s part of what being human is like, that we screw up and we’re not our best selves all the time.
So yeah, to commit to this practice of, “Okay look, I’m going to try to take a couple of minutes every few hours and pull myself back on track so that I can hopefully reel myself in before my craziness of resentments or competitive spirit or greed or status concern or lust or whatever the hell is, the nonsense takes too firm a grip on me.”
Brett McKay: Another habit you have is give away your sneakers. What do you mean by that?
Chris Lowney: That’s a story that really touched me. I’m on the board of a hospital system and we try to curate, gather and collect stories every year of folks who are really showing the spirit of our hospitals at their best. One of those stories I read was written by a nurse in one of our emergency rooms. She said that she remembers this homeless guy coming into their ER, not with a horrible life threatening thing but just with some chronic set of problems. They patched the guy up and they were about to send him back onto the street and the doctor who is taking care of him happens to notice that the homeless guy doesn’t have any shoes.
So, the ER doc takes off his sneakers and gives them to the guy and then sends them back out onto the street. The ER nurse writes the story of that same evening, being by the window of the hospital and seeing the doctor walk through the parking lot to his car in his socks. For me that really has been a touching story that I always keep in mind. The point of the story, the habit, the idea of giving away your sneakers is to try to … Can I get my head today into the space where I recognize that I have some opportunity that I might miss to make some little contribution to making someone’s life better or the world better?
Let me give you a couple of very simple examples. I live in a big apartment building and there’s a guy who hangs out in the lobby sometimes, a resident. I think in part because he’s a little lonely and most of the time I kind of cruise by because I feel like, “Oh man, I have things to take care of,” or I have other things to do and so on. It would cost me so little just to spend those two minutes there.
Or, I walk in my neighborhood almost every day. I like to go for a walk, talk about this little mental pit stop, that’s how I do it sometimes. I live in New York City so there are candy wrappers and garbage on the side of the road. It would be so easy for me to pick up some of this stuff and just throw it in a garbage can, but most of the time I don’t do that either. So, to get ourselves into the mindset of, “I’m going to take some opportunity today to give away my sneaker.” In other words, to do something that just happens to float into my path that is an opportunity for me to do good.
Does any of that stuff change the world? Absolutely not, absolutely not, but that I think is part of our problems in life, that we’re sitting around waiting for this golden world-changing opportunity and for most of us, life doesn’t work that way. What it is for us is a lifetime of these daily small moments that in the course of decades add up to a life that you can really be proud of and feel happy about.
Brett McKay: One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in my own life is, how can I recognize those opportunities? What I found is once you do it once, your brain starts looking for those. It starts noticing those things more and, I don’t know, once you start doing it like we talked about earlier, once you start doing something it creates momentum that you keep doing it. If someone’s out there listening like, “How can I be more aware of what’s needed?” Just do it once and I think you’ll start noticing things even more after you do that.
Chris Lowney: Yeah, good for you. I totally agree with you just said and I feel like I once read even that there’s some dopamine impact sometimes in giving away or doing good or something like that. I’ve meant to track down that research. In other words, even in a chemical, psychological level, the reward we get for doing that can be its own reinforcing mechanism that helps us to get beyond the first few cranks of the pedal and get us to the point where it’s now rolling more smoothly.
Brett McKay: Last habit I want to talk about. We haven’t hit on all of them, but the one that really stuck out to me was gratitude. You started off the chapter with this sentence: gratitude is like cholera. Explain that one. How is gratitude like this terrible disease that people suffer in tropical areas?
Chris Lowney: Cholera is spread person to person and cholera is very impactful, same with gratitude. If I am a grateful person and I show gratitude to you, that makes you happier and in turn makes you a more grateful person. I have absolutely seen that to be true in my own life. I tell the story of a teacher who after I made this little pitch for gratitude in a seminar, she happened to have an interaction with somebody back at our school. And just in the businesslike way that we tend to interact, just please do this or so on.
Then afterwards she remembered the concept of being grateful so she sent a follow up note to this guy who had done something back in the school and said, “Look, thank you very much. I really appreciate your dedication to the school.” And the guy sends back a note to her saying, “Oh, thank you. You made my day.” Then she comes up to me with her cell phone. She shows me this note and she has tears in her eyes, she so happy. Then I feel happy.
I must say I have found that to be true and I feel like part of the craziness and the disease of modern life is that we’re very problem aware. Do this, solve this, this is going wrong, this is a pain, all this kind of stuff. And instead, I think sometimes we have to rejigger our mechanism to be a little more mindful of being grateful. I also tell the story in the book about my mother who’s passed away now after a wonderful life.
She had a serious car accident at one point and it took weeks and weeks for her even to stand up again much less walk. I remember distinctly one day going down these few flights of stairs on the way to a train station and just being able to savor the miracle that I could walk down a flight of stairs. I don’t mean to be overly romantic but I mean, it’s true. There’s so much that we take for granted.
The positive psychology research teaches us that people who are grateful, they end up being happier. They end up just naturally want to exercise more, they end up being more productive. And so, what can we do to flip the switch into being more grateful persons and getting all the payoffs that come with that?
Brett McKay: That’s why you do the daily practice.
Chris Lowney: Absolutely. Step one, be grateful, be grateful.
Brett McKay: Chris, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Chris Lowney: I’ve written a few things. You can easily find things I’ve written on Amazon or wherever you go for books. There’s a personal website which is chrislowney.com, just of all my work chrislowney.com. I’m always delighted to hear from folks. I’m not so famous that I can’t return emails. I always appreciate hearing people’s insights and ideas and having a chance to respond to them.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Chris Lowney, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Chris Lowney: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Chris Lowney. He’s the author of the book Make Today Matter. It’s available on amazon.com. You can also find more information about his work at chrislowney.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/maketodaymatter where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and if you enjoyed the show, if you got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you take a minute to give a review. It helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.