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When my son was just two weeks into first grade, he informed me that he was not learning anything in school. Naturally curious as to what he meant, I asked if he was learning how to read, to which he answered yes. Upon further inquiry, I discovered he was also learning math. What then, I asked, could he possibly be expecting to learn? In all seriousness, he replied, “Well, for one thing, they’re not teaching me how to drive?” Many of us, as adults, can relate to this sincere expression of disappointment in the work we do – it’s often not at all what we expected. We work too many hours, play too few, and spend far too little time with family.

Some suggest the solution to this dilemma is to “work smarter, not harder,” to focus on time management and development of organizational skills. While these are great goals, perhaps working “smart” is more about the life we live than the work we do. When it comes to fulfilling and exceeding life’s expectations, five S-M-A-R-T rules apply.

  • Rule One: Have a Singular focus. While it’s certainly an ego-boost to be touted as the all around “go-to” person, it only serves to distract us from the job we’re intended to do. We need to intentionally choose our focus of time and energy – in other words, identify the main course; everything else is a side dish, non-essential to success. When we narrow our focus, we can accomplish a lot, find satisfaction in our tasks, and actually have the time to enjoy the experience. As life coach, Anthony Robbins, says, Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.
  • Rule Two: Do work that is Meaningful. If we scrutinized closely all the things we do, how many of us would discover that our days have been spent, and we have little to nothing to show for it? Unfortunately, it’s human nature to stay with the comfortable and familiar even if all it has to offer us is a passionless existence. In the book, Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Album, Morrie Schwartz says, So many people walk around with a meaningless life… They’re busy doing things they think are importantbecause they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving othersto your community around youand to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.
  • Rule Three: Seek Accountability. Even those of the greatest character and highest integrity can benefit from having someone check in on them from time to time. Sometimes we live our lives like we experience fad diets – you know how it goes; if no one saw me eat that quart of Haagen-Dazs, it didn’t happen. Accountability can motivate us to stay on the right track and live the most honorable life possible. In the words of novelist, Samuel Butler, Every person’s work, whether literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of that person.
  • Rule Four: Be Realistic about what you can accomplish. Don’t overestimate what you’re capable of; committing to do too many things gets us in trouble. Saying “NO” to some things may be the only way to say “YES” to things we really value. Jan Jasper, author of 13 tips for working smarter, not harder, suggests we ask ourselves the question, “What’s the worst that can happen if I stopped doing this?” We may discover that what we’re doing is not so important after all.
  • Rule Five: Live the Truth. Often we color the truth to make it palatable to others and ourselves. We possess an overdeveloped sense of political correctness that allows us, with our words, to paint just the right picture. For example, a person is not bald, but comb free; they’re not losers, but uniquely fortuned individuals on alternative career paths. And, my personal favorite, my husband doesn’t snore; he’s nasally repetitive. Living the truth requires us to:
    • Stand up for what’s right, even when it’s unpopular.
    • Identify what is, even when it’s uncomfortable.
    • Stick to our convictions, even when it’s controversial.

According to famed Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable.

Upon hearing my son’s thoughts on his learning expectations, I explained that such a practice is not only impractical, given his age and height, but also illegal. He pondered my words and then replied, “Well, then, they could at least teach me how to swim.”

In whatever we do, we can find that singular, meaningful focus, hold ourselves accountable, be practical about our abilities, and live the truth no matter the cost. As Albert Einstein once said, out of clutter find simplicity; from discord find harmony; in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.



Albom, Mitch. 1997. Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York: Doubleday.