I just finished reading a feature-length article in Vanity Fair that bills itself as a behind-the-scenes look at the life of the Barack Obama. New York Times writer and best-selling author Michael Lewis reportedly spent six months with “unprecedented access” to the President to research the story.
While the story does talk about the history-altering decisions made each day in the Oval Office, what interested me more were the personal issues discussed.
The article showed that even if you are President of the United States and living your dream, there are important self-management principles you must practice daily to survive and thrive. I thought if the leader of the free world has to do it–despite all the power and perks of the office–how much more important might it be for us to do the same?
A couple caveats: This is not a post about politics, so everyone can lay down their weapons. Secondly, I’m not naive. It’s obvious that all parties involved in this profile had a political agenda. Nevertheless, I still believe there are non-political take-aways worth noting.
Here’s my agenda with this post, my only agenda: Everyone has personal responsibility for managing their life, even if they are President. Are you managing your life well or are you giving outside people and forces too much control over your health, your attitude, your decisions, and how you spend your time?
Here are a few of Obama’s self-management practices worth examining:
- Take care of yourself physically–Obama exercises every morning and plays an aggressive game of basketball a couple of times a week with friends who aren’t invited back if they cut him any slack. It’s crucial, he says, to maintaining the stamina required for his job. Are you physically taking care of yourself, so you can be fully present each day to God, your family, and your employer?
- Minimize the distraction of trivia things–Research shows that the simple act of making any decision–large or small–can degrade a person’s ability to make further decisions. Therefore, Obama pares down mundane daily decisions. For example, he always wears blue or gray suits to minimize the time required to decide daily what to wear. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” Obama says, “You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” What trivial decisions sap your best energy? What can you do about it?
- Acknowledge the personal and professional limitations imposed by the life you’ve chosen. For Obama, one loss was the ability to be spontaneous. “You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it.” What things in your present life came as a surprise to you? What do you need to do to either change those limitations or make peace with the losses?
- Filter personal criticism. Decide which of your detractors make a legitimate point and which ones are just the haters, stirring the pot. At one point in the interview, Obama walked into a room where a talking head on TV was knowingly explaining why Obama had taken some particular action. “Oh, so that’s why I did it,” he said and walked out. “You have to filter stuff, but you can’t filter it so much you’re in Fantasyland.” Have you sorted out whose opinion in your life should hold weight and whose should be ignored? Trying to please everybody is a fool’s errand. Move on.
- Accept that not all decisions will be perfect. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama says, “…or someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision [has] a 30 to 40 percent chance it isn’t going to work. … You can’t be paralyzed by the fact it might not work.” You will not make perfect decisions 100% of the time. You’re not God. Can you learn from your mistakes and let go or do you expect perfectionism of yourself and those around you?
What does God have to do with all this? God is not just interested in your spiritual life. He’s interested in your whole life. He knows that self-management determines if you will finish well. It’s why he gave the Holy Spirit to guide us and his Word to offer specifics about how to live and to respond to the pressures around us.
Reread Proverbs. It’s loaded with advice about the rich, the poor, those with power, those without it, the power of our words, the value of humility, how to deal with conflict. It’s all in there. And it’s a whole lot more objective than Vanity Fair.