Living Congruently

February 21st, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Do you tend to compartmentalize all the different areas of your life? Career goes there, relationship goes here, spirituality fits there, and health … well, that’s neither here nor there.

Or maybe your compartmentalizing is temporal instead of spatial in your thinking. During the workday you do what you must, this evening you’ll do what you love and have some fun, and on Sunday you’ll think about what it means.

Or perhaps you experience a feeling of compartmentalizing thought vs. action: “I’m spending X% of my time thinking and Y% of my time acting.”

When you view your life as a series of different compartments, each with different rules, then life gets pretty complicated. Trying to achieve balance is very difficult because you constantly feel the need to task switch. My relationship needs attention. Oh no, I’ve been neglecting my health. I need to work harder. I’ve got to stop thinking so much and take more action.

The different “bins” of your life are all fighting for your time. And the longer you neglect one of those bins, the louder it gets and the harder it will fight for attention. Put off your health for too long, and you’ll crash with an illness. Put off your relationship for too long, and a breakup may be the result. Put off your work, and your career and income will suffer.

This is a paradigm that many people share. Keep all your balls in the air. Keep all those plates spinning. Don’t let your spiritual beliefs interfere with your work.

But I think it’s a broken paradigm. Let’s consider a different way of thinking….

What if your life had only one bin, one ball to juggle, one plate to spin. Just one. No need to deal with 10 different areas of your life and keep them all balanced. Just one.

How is this possible? It’s possible if all of those different areas of your life are congruent, if they all follow the same rules. Then thought and action are one, both pointing in the same direction. They’re on the same path. Your work is congruent with your most deeply held spiritual beliefs — you don’t have to take your spirituality offline when you go to work. Improving your health improves your relationship. Increasing your income increases your service.

This means moving from a paradigm of the different parts of your life being in conflict to a new paradigm where they all cooperate. Instead of seeing each part of your life as independent, you begin to see them as interdependent. And isn’t this a more accurate model anyway? Can you truly isolate each part of your life as something separate? Can you abuse your health and think it won’t affect your career or your relationships? Do you think your feelings about your relationship won’t affect your financial situation? Can you ignore your spiritual beliefs when making business decisions and expect no negative consequences?

It seems obvious that all the different parts of your life are deeply interconnected. But a common way to treat problems is to try to isolate them. If there’s a problem with your health, you need to diet and exercise. If there’s a problem in your career, it’s time to work harder. But this isolation protocol doesn’t work well because there’s too much overlap between all the different parts of your life, no matter how much you try to isolate the problem areas and go to work on them.

It’s often the case that the obvious cause of the problem isn’t the true source. If you feel lonely because you haven’t been able to find the right relationship, and you keep trying harder and harder to find a relationship, you may get nowhere. The problem may be that you work at a career you aren’t passionate about, and you project this lack of passion to everyone you meet. And still a deeper issue may be that your spiritual beliefs tell you that service to others is very important, but you don’t feel you’re doing that. Then you change careers to do what you love, and it aligns with your spiritual beliefs because now you feel you’re contributing and serving. Then out of nowhere, you meet your future spouse, who is attracted to your passion about your work and the contribution you’re making. And the encouragement you experience from this relationship in turn helps you advance your career, increase your income, and free up more time to spend with your new spouse. Your stress goes down, and your health improves too. Your inner spiritual conflict was the real source of your inability to find the right relationship. Everything is deeply interconnected.

Although it seems that each part of your life follows different rules, they all follow the same rules. You may have different values for each part of your life, but the rules that govern those areas don’t change.

An example of an unchanging rule is kindness. The concept of kindness should resonate with your spiritual beliefs. You can be kind to your body, and your health will improve. You can be kind to your co-workers, and your relationships with them will improve. You can be kind to your spouse, and your marriage will grow stronger. You can be kind to a stranger, and your self-esteem will increase. It doesn’t matter to which area of your life you apply the principle of kindness. Its application is universal.

Another universal rule is being proactive, assuming personal responsibility for results and taking positive action. It doesn’t matter where you apply this rule: health, relationships, emotions, spiritual beliefs, career, business, money, etc. Being responsible works no matter where you apply it.

Cheating is another universal principle. No matter where you apply it, the long-term results are negative. Cheat your health, and pay the price of sickness. Cheat in your relationship, and the cost is a loss of intimacy. Cheat in your education, and your income suffers.

But more powerful than these intra-area effects, there’s the rippling effect due to the interrelatedness of all areas. So if you apply a universal principle in one area, either positively or negatively, it ripples into all other areas. If you cheat your health, then in the long run this will hurt your career, your relationships, your finances, your emotional state, and your sense of spiritual connectedness. You can’t cheat in one area of your life without suffering the consequences in ALL areas.

Similarly, be kind to your body, and your increased positive energy will positively affect your relationships, your work, your finances, your emotions, etc. Be proactive about building a career you enjoy, and your passion will spread to every other area.

If you violate a universal principle, it negatively impacts all areas of your life. If you follow a universal principle, it positively impacts all areas of your life. Universal principles don’t compartmentalize.

So the key then is figuring out these universal principles and aligning your thoughts and actions with them. This is how you achieve congruence between all the different parts of your life.

So what are the universal principles? Stephen Covey claims that the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are based on universal principles. I tend to agree, and that’s a good place to start. But I think all of these principles can be reduced to just one: to love. Not the passive squishy emotional feeling of love, but “to love” — the action verb. To love your body translates into proper diet and exercise. To love your mind equates with learning. To love others is service. To love your work is to do it passionately and enthusiastically. To love your feelings means to respect and honor the messages they send you. This verb translates into different specific actions for each area, but the underlying principle is the same. Depending on the situation, “to love” may mean to listen, to serve, to work, to relax, to touch, and so on.

When you start injecting universal principles into every area of your life, alignment will gradually occur. The parts of your life will be transformed such that all these different pieces assemble themselves into one congruent whole. You won’t feel like these different parts of your life are in competition for your time and attention. Instead you’ll feel a sense of internal cooperation. You will have a sense that exercising your body is the best thing for your health and your relationship and your career and your spirituality.

Within each area you’ll either adapt your current circumstances to align with universal principles, or you’ll let go of all the misaligned pieces and start fresh. So your career may shift slightly as you adapt, or you may switch to a whole new career. Your old relationships may transform, or they may end while you seek out new ones. It just depends on how well the external parts of your life are able to align with who you are.

Alignment comes down to working on these four questions until they all produce the same answer:

  • What do you want to do? (desire)
  • What can you do? (ability)
  • What should you do? (purpose)
  • What must you do? (need)

When these four areas are aligned, motivation occurs automatically. Thought and action are automatically balanced because you are living your purpose consciously. You won’t feel like you should be thinking when you’re acting or acting when you’re thinking. The line between thought and action will disappear. Being and doing will become the same thing.

When you experience misalignment between these four areas/questions, the natural tendency is to slow down… sometimes to a crawl. You’ll feel like you have all these ideas pulling you in different directions, but you aren’t fully satisfying any of them. Your mind knows that continuing to work hard is likely to be futile and won’t solve the real problem of incongruence. It knows it’s time for you to stop, ask directions, and choose the path of alignment.

I went through this while running my games business. While I had many projects to grow the business, I knew deep down that I didn’t want to run that business for another decade. I was containerizing everything: my health over here, my relationship there, my work here, and my spirituality there. Each part of my life felt like it had its own set of rules. Eventually I started questioning whether this was the best way to live. Are we supposed to live like a collection of parts or as an integrated whole? I wondered whether it would be possible to live in such a way where there was only one set of rules governing all areas, essentially meaning that I followed my deepest spiritual beliefs in all matters. This line of questioning led me to discover just how it might be possible for all these different parts of my life might become a single, integrated whole. This would mean that my business and my conscience and my interpersonal relationships were all one. There would be no sense of separation.

In order to go through this process, I had to transform certain parts of my life while totally shifting others. I tried to transform my career initially from within, but the disconnect was big enough that it required a more dramatic shift. Other parts of my life were able to adapt more flexibly. The main reason for my shift away from my games business was that it wasn’t a strong enough outlet for service for me. I think that given enough time, the original business could have been shifted, but that wasn’t the best route for me too take. It was faster and simpler to build a new business from scratch with the goal of congruence in mind than to try to refactor the existing business.

I must say that this push for congruence in all areas turned out beautifully. I don’t feel that sense of separation between the different parts of my life anymore. My purpose says I’m here to serve and help people. My ability says I can do it through writing and speaking and running a web site. My needs say I must support myself doing it. And my passion says it’s what I love doing most. I don’t have to separate supporting myself with a job and then having fun on the weekends and thinking about spirituality at other times. Work = play = love.

When you live congruently, it’s as if all the different parts of your life lock into new positions to form a new whole that’s greater than all the individual pieces. Everything grows stronger: health, relationships, motivation, actions, results, etc.

I know that as a practical matter, it seems as though different rules often govern in different areas. Separating your spiritual beliefs from your work is very common. A lot of businesses seem to operate on the assumption that universal principles don’t exist. I don’t buy that at all. There are non-universal principles that apply just within their own domains (the rules of nutrition apply to your health but not to your work, for instance), but universal principles apply to all areas. I think that one’s spiritual beliefs are the single most important factor in choosing a career or a company to work for. If you have a deeply held belief that you hold sacred, you cannot violate it in any area of your life without suffering the consequences in all areas. You must be true to your inner self at all times. That’s the only way to be congruent and to live as a whole person instead of merely as a bag of competing parts.

When you live congruently, a quantum leap will occur in each of these four areas. Desire becomes passion. Purpose becomes mission. Need becomes abundance. Ability becomes talent. And it becomes almost ridiculously easy to achieve fulfillment in every area then because all the parts are working together in the same direction.


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