Five Things I Have Learnt Since Becoming An Elephant
For the past two years I’ve been living an experiment called The Elephants. Here are some of the lessons it has taught me about leading a more meaningful life.
It all started with an article I read on Medium.
At the time I was living in New York City. Life was hectic. Work was all-consuming. Everyone I knew was in the same boat. And unlike many of them, I was happy: I was in a job that I loved and I’d found a girl who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But there was a looming feeling of discontentment.
I sent the article to a couple of friends. It turned out that they had already read it and like me it had made a big impression on them. You should read it for yourself but to give you the gist it’s a sort of blueprint for what the author Nick Crocker describes as “a system for better living”. He and his friends had started it five years before.
A couple of days later my friends and I met for breakfast and talked about it some more. By the time we paid the bill we’d committed to giving it a go. We booked an AirBnB, printed a copy of the article, packed a few essentials (including a bottle of whisky) and headed up to the Hudson Valley for the weekend.
These are two friends I’ve known for years. We’ve lived in a handful of the same cities at the same time, we’ve done countless projects together both personally and professionally, and we hung out frequently. But it wasn’t until we started digging into Elephants that weekend that we realised how little we knew about the most important things in our respective lives.
For the next two days we cooked, hiked and drank single malt. We shared our greatest hopes and fears. We helped each other unpack the things that we wanted most out of life. And then we set goals accordingly.
I remember driving back down to the city feeling invigorated by a newfound sense of purpose. And I’ve felt that way ever since. Looking back, I have a clearer understanding now of what was missing: my life lacked intentionality. The decisions I was making didn’t add up to anything bigger. I wasn’t clear on where I wanted to go, or how I was going to get there. And although I didn’t figure it all out that weekend (not even close), I left with (i) a strong desire to live a more deliberate life and (ii) a system for helping me to continually navigate what that means to me.
Since that weekend, we have met every 12 weeks to check back in. We’ve sent an honest and open update to each other every single week without fail. We’ve kept each other accountable for our goals. And we’ve stood by each other through some of the toughest and happiest moments of the past 2 years.
I know other people who have formed groups of Elephants, but it’s not for everyone. To do it properly requires an enormous amount of dedication. Fortunately some of the most valuable things it has taught me about leading a more meaningful life can be practiced without having to commit to the full process.
1) Figure out your long game
If you can clearly articulate what you want to do with your life — your personal purpose — you’ll have a much easier time making all kinds of life decisions. And the decisions you make will stack up to help you unlock your desired future. Athletes who realise at an early age that winning an Olympic gold medal is their greatest ambition build their world around that dream.
But it’s not that easy for many of us. How the hell are you supposed to know what you’re likely to want from life thirty or forty years from now? The truth is you can’t. Things are likely to change, but that shouldn’t matter. Your personal purpose doesn’t have to be static, it can evolve as you do. If, based on a current evaluation of your ambitions, motivations and values (in the context of the wider world), you can create a first draft and edit it as you go.
Try it. Dedicate some time to deeply considering what your purpose is. Write it down. I’ve found that it’s best articulated as a sentence, but long-form or bullet points work too. Make it as clear and concise as possible. Keep it in mind and revisit it after 3 months to see if it still stands true.
2) Set ambitious short term goals
Figuring out your long game is about unpacking your personal purpose, not setting long term goals. Planning that far out especially in the face of so much uncertainty is an exercise in futility. In an interview with Success Magazine, Tim Ferriss said that he doesn’t have five or ten year goals. Instead, he works on “experiments” or projects for a 6 — 12 week period of time.
We’ve found that to be highly effective for us [Elephants] too. I set objectives for the year as a guide post, but my focus is on goals that last for 13 weeks. It’s long enough to make a significant dent but short enough to create a feedback loop that enables me to pivot as needed. Frankly it’s changed the way I live my life. My goals are at the front and center of my mind every day.
Give it a go: set yourself some short term goals. I’ve found that I can only focus on 3–5 at any given time. And again, write them down, ideally somewhere that you’ll see them everyday (I use Trello).
3) Be ruthlessly intentional
One of the most challenging but rewarding parts of being more intentional is saying ‘no’ to the people and opportunities that don’t fit — or are in direct conflict — with the life you want to lead. With a clearer understanding of what matters to you most, you can begin to prioritise the things that will help you accomplish your goals.
It’s easier to try this if you’ve set yourself some short term goals, but it’s not 100% necessary. Commit to operating with deliberate intent for a month. Every time you’re faced with a decision (everything from whether or not to go for that end of the day beer with colleagues, to whether or not to apply for that job), pause for a moment. Consider the decision, and choose actively, not passively. It requires a lot of discipline, but it works like a muscle: the more your stretch it the stronger it gets.
4) Treat every week as a fresh start
Every Sunday evening I write a half page summary of the week with a particular focus on my goals: what went well, what didn’t, highs, lows etc. It’s incredibly powerful psychologically. It creates an anchor point in the week for me to capture and celebrate wins, and conversely, reflect on the moments that didn’t go so well (usually with the added benefit of two days of rest). It provides some closure to the week, and it frames the next one as a blank canvas, an opportunity to start again. Interestingly, the punctuation of the weeks also gives me a greater sense of control: if this week was a wash out it’s ok because the next one will be awesome.
Each of us [Elephants] writes and shares a weekly summary with each other. While there is a lot of value in sharing the document (more on that in #5) I believe that simply writing it is a worthwhile exercise in and of itself.
5) Keep your friends close
The Elephants play three roles: advocate, mentor and whip.
An advocate is someone who celebrates your wins with you. It’s a dialogue from which you draw confidence and self belief. A mentor is someone who provides unadulterated counsel and guidance. And a whip is someone that asks difficult questions and keeps you accountable. These are the three hats that we wear when we read and respond to each other’s weekly summary.
Before we started Elephants, we couldn’t play these roles because we weren’t close enough to the intricacies of each other’s real lives often enough. We didn’t let each other in. The fact that we practice this on a weekly basis has changed everything; we’ve created a support network for each other that sort of existed before but wasn’t fully functional or effective.
Again, you don’t need to follow the process to get the same outcome. The point here is about building deep, authentic and mutually supportive friendships. It’s about sustaining an open and honest dialogue about where where you are and where you’re going. And finally it’s about reciprocal encouragement and accountability.
In the words of Shakespeare “a friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow”.