Our lives are the choices we make — and those choices aren’t always obvious.
Luckily, there are signs all around us showing us what we need to do, where we need to go, and guiding us in the right direction.
But in order to figure our lives out, we have to pay attention.
We have to pay attention to the inputs that surround us and decipher the messages they have for us.
Here are a few things worth more of our attention.
Pay attention to the questions people ask you.
Everybody’s got a question for us — friends, family, co-workers, customers, and even strangers.
These questions are valuable. They’re data points.
Because questions reveal what people seek, what they need help with, what they desire, and the problems they need solved.
The questions people ask us also demonstrate what we have — knowledge, experience, empathy, assets — that others value.
When we pay attention to the questions we’re asked, we discover opportunities to create things others want.
We learn what skills and perspective we have that others value.
We get a clue into where opportunities for us may be found.
Pay attention to words.
Word choice matters.
There are infinite ways to express ourselves and the words we use to do so — in conversation, writing, work, and even to ourselves —are revealing.
They reveal our bias, insecurity, attitude, and desire.
For example, use of the word “should” can demonstrate an entire negative mindset that fuels our stress or keeps us from happiness. That’s why I’ve stopped using it.
The words others use about us are just as powerful.
How do our friends, family, and colleagues describe us or and our work? We can find deeper meaning in the words they choose if we take a moment to consider them.
For example, subscribers who love my For The Interested newsletter often describe it as “inspiring” or thank me for the “inspiration.”
They may also learn from it, enjoy it, and find it interesting (I hope!), but the word that keeps coming up is “inspiring.”
That means something. There’s a reason they’re using that word as opposed to countless other possibilities and there’s a reason so many people who don’t know each other keep using the same exact word.
It’s a signal that tells me something about my creation and, more importantly, WHY it resonates with people.
It helps me understand its value — not my intended value, but the actual value the audience receives from it.
That’s important information to know. But I only know it because I pay attention to the words people use.
Pay attention to your time.
Time is our most valuable resource and too often our most overlooked.
The more we pay attention to how we spend it and waste it, who we give it to and what we do with it, the more it benefits us.
When we’re protective of our time and refuse to let others steal it, we get more out of it.
And when things in our life aren’t working out the way we hoped, it’s likely the root of our problems can be discovered in how we spend our time.
It deserves our attention.
Pay attention to your instincts.
Our instincts are right. Maybe not always, but way more often than not.
But too often we allow other factors — fear, guilt, worry, other people’s opinions — to influence our decisions and we doubt our instincts.
That’s a mistake. Stop listening to people.
Research has found that 90% of the time our instincts are correct, yet the percentage of times we follow them is significantly lower I’m sure.
We’d do better to heed our instincts.
Even if they lead us in the wrong direction, we can learn from it and analyze why our instincts that led us astray in that instance — if we pay attention to them.
Pay attention to your influences.
We need people to inspire us.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s role models, mentors, or individuals we’ll never meet but admire from afar. What matters is we have them, and we pay attention to them.
But it’s not enough to just be inspired by our influences— we must study their work, its evolution, how they got where they are, and where they’re going.
There’s no shortage of people in the world who claim to be influenced by Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey. But the number of people who have studied the lives, work, strengths, and weaknesses of Jobs and Winfrey is significantly smaller.
When we identify people or work that influences us, we have the opportunity to do more than be inspired by it — we can learn from it.
But we can only do so if we pay closer attention to it.
Pay attention to your dreams.
We’re going to spend roughly a third of our lives asleep. That’s an opportunity.
No matter how close we pay attention to things in our lives, there will still be issues we don’t consciously deal with or recognize.
That’s where dreams come in.
Dreams are powerful tools to process deep issues we may overlook in our waking hours. We can learn a lot from them if we pay attention.
Regardless the specific content of our dreams, we can consider their emotional underpinnings, tone, and the issues they surface.
Dreams aren’t random. There’s a reason we have them and a reason for things that happen in them.
It’s up to us to consider them and if we do, they can be a powerful sign that illuminates things we may otherwise miss when we’re awake.
Pay attention to your body.
Much like our dreams, our bodies are also a tool that sends us signals about the choices we make.
If we catch a cold, it’s likely because stress has weakened our immune system.
If we have back pain and headaches, it’s likely rooted or amplified by other situations we face and decisions we’ve made.
We’re good at tricking ourselves into thinking choices we make and ways we operate are fine when they’re not. Our body keeps us honest.
Our brain often uses our body to send us a signal that we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere along the way. We’d be wise to listen to it.
Pay attention to your fears.
We’re all afraid. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Fear is only a problem when we run from it. Viewed differently, it can represent a valuable signal.
As the brilliant Seth Godin explains, we can treat fear as a compass and and allow it to guide us toward where we need to go.
As he explains:
“The fearless person is well aware of the fear she faces. The fear, though, becomes a compass, not a barrier. It becomes a way to know what to do next, not an evil demon to be extinguished.
When we deny our fear, we make it stronger.
When we reassure the voice in our head by rationally reminding it of everything that will go right, we actually reinforce it.
Pushing back on fear doesn’t make us brave and it doesn’t make us fearless. Acknowledging fear and moving on is a very different approach, one that permits it to exist without strengthening it.
Life without fear doesn’t last very long — you’ll be run over by a bus (or a boss) before you know it. The fearless person, on the other hand, sees the world as it is (fear included) and then makes smart (and brave) decisions.”
Pay attention to your history.
If you’re the kind of person who’s read this far, you’re probably the kind of person who likes to focus on the future, on improving your life, and on what’s next.
That’s great (I’m the same way), but it can also be dangerous.
The more we focus on the future, the easier it is to overlook the value of our past.
Reflection on our experiences is valuable in that it helps us learn, analyze, and improve both our present and future.
Sometimes, the way forward is only found when we look back.