Significance Matters

* 8 minute read *

This week we kick off with our first Be Awesome guest author for 2014, with a post from Eric Tonningsen.

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“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies… Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die… It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.” – Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451

What is it that sets some people apart? It’s the way in which they act. And interact with that which is true to their core… like integrity and simple human decency. What is the root cause of most people’s problems? They’re misaligned – in work, in relationships, in life, with values they hold to be true… and that leads to dissatisfaction.

According to the American Heart Association, the majority of heart attacks occur around nine o’clock on Monday mornings. Author Gregg Levoy noted that this is when many people are going back to work they don’t like, work that doesn’t match their spirits, and work that literally breaks their hearts. Yet they remain driven.

In a recent Age Wave/Harris Interactive survey, a majority of respondents (58%) said that loving family and relationships are at the heart of what is held most dearly today – twice as important as being wealthy (33%) and twenty times more important that wielding power and influence (3%).

Each of us has a sense for or a definition of what makes a successful life; a significant being; a magnificent you. Not surprisingly, all three have common denominations: family, community, values, career, relationships, integrity, charity, authenticity, happiness, and personal enjoyment.

Yet people want more. They want to contribute more. But many are frustrated, disappointed and needy. And unfortunately, they focus on what is lacking in their lives, careers and ‘being.’ Getting what they believe they need or want rarely fulfills their sense of lack and longing. Often, they just continue their wanting to something else. It’s a vicious cycle; an endless chase for many.

While desirable, perhaps traditional measures of success aren’t the best thing to aim for. It’s a tricky target because it has so many meanings. How do you define success? Fame? Fortune? Everyone sees it differently. However, there is one thing possibly better than success – and that is significance.

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A successful person may achieve many things but significance is about relationships, with significance-oriented people focused on serving others. There are quite a few characteristics which are constantly practiced by a significant person. Here are five. Are these traits fully embedded in you?

  • Intently listens
  • Empathy
  • Heightened awareness
  • Positive persuasion
  • Foresight

Just last week I spoke to a professional group about the importance in aligning our lives with what really matters. It wasn’t about acquiring material success. In my delivery, I referenced this from Joseph Campbell:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

I invoked Campbell’s quote to remind listeners (or readers) that there is more to life than the material success that we tirelessly pursue. It speaks to an alternative, meaningful realm ‘out there,’ one in which alignment, contribution, and what really matters – play sizeable roles.

I share this as I am one who was blessed with extraordinary success in my personal and professional lives – but at considerable time, health, and emotional energy costs. I’m still recovering from the physical price I paid across a multi-decade pursuit of power, wealth and influence. For me, it was all about the personal gains.

But let’s shift the focus.

I suspect you’ve had many big moments in your life. Perhaps a significant graduation; the birth of a first child; Paris for your 25th anniversary. But do you remember the small moments, the ones that flash before your eyes? Quite often, it is those tiny moments that are far more significant – like wiping a tear from your grandmother’s eye when she buried your grandfather or actually listening to someone who is distraught about a matter you couldn’t affect.

Have you ever know someone whose personal challenges didn’t prevent them from supporting those around her/him? Were you aware that her/his own suffering is what enabled them to be even more of an emotional bedrock for others? Maybe it has something to do with their having gained perspective on the important ‘stuff’’ – things that really matter.

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Not everything matters, though we mistakenly think it does. I invite you to reflect on the small, significant moments that have made up your life. Not summiting Mount Fuji but breaking bread with a homeless person. Try to remember. Think about what you saw, what you heard, what you felt. What was really happening in those moments? Even more importantly, what did they do for someone else?

You’ve likely been invited to answer this question: If you could plan it, how would you spend your last day on Earth? Spending time with this exercise (by writing down your ideas) will help to focus and yield perspective on what really matters most to you. The question is fairly generic, but your answers will be telling. Dr. Kent Keith in The Paradoxical Commandments said, “Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.” Keith also said, “Give the world the best you have and you might get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.”

Notice Dr. Keith says nothing about taking or acquiring.

People search for what is meaningful in their lives, especially when they are broken, confused, frustrated, or simply misaligned with life. If you’re not passively part of a moment, you’re creating moments. And many of them are small, seemingly insignificant. But to others, they may be huge!

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During a 2011 three-day train ride, a chronologically-gifted woman taught me that no matter what I end up doing with my life, I ought to make it significant. Even if your body or your mind is tearing itself apart, consider engaging your senses – your personal gifts to benefit others. Start by being present. Look into people’s eyes and see them. Ask what matters to them. And celebrate moments with them.

In my work I invite people to look at their own lives and the day-to-day activities that fill them. Then I ask: How many of those activities have really mattered in terms of the true meaning for your existence? (And yes, I recognize this depends on one’s definition of “true reason.”)

It’s fair to say that our primary relationship in life is with ourselves. No one else goes through every experience in life with us. We are our one permanent companion, yet we are often our worst critic. To remind ourselves of our successes, our significance, and our magnificence, we can conduct a simple exercise. Let’s call it “Things I like about myself.”

Setting personal modesty aside, write down at least five things you like about yourself. If coming up with five is a challenge, this exercise is definitely going to benefit you. Include more than just physical attributes on your list since your body is only part of who you are. If you’re really stuck, think about what you like about your favorite people, because their traits could well be qualities you possess too.

Stick with this process for a full week, thinking of (and writing down) five new things you like about yourself every day. At the end of the week, read the list aloud to yourself while standing in front of a mirror. Instead of looking for flaws to fix, allow the mirror to reflect what is significant in and about you. Yes, the thought of standing in front of a mirror and reading might seem silly. Yet it might just bring a smile to your face and change the way you see yourself. And how you interact with the world.

Because we are frequently looking at the world, instead of looking at ourselves, we don’t often see what’s successful, significant, and magnificent about ourselves.

Take a look! Find a way to appreciate who you see and what you choose to do with who you really are.


Eric Tonningsen is the Founder and Principal of JourneyWorks Coaching and has a very popular blog called ‘Awakening to Awareness‘. Eric collaborates with gifted people to ignite their passions, use their personal gifts and create compelling new beginnings for themselves. Eric relishes working with those nearing retirement or recently retired, helping people to shift from traditional definitions of success to lives of greater significance.

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