Things Truly Fulfilled People Understand (and Some Implications for Library Practice)

Something that interests me an enormous amount, professionally speaking, is applying insights from psychology – particularly, psychological findings relating to the meaning of life – to our library practice, both in terms of helping our students learn, and our own attempts as to make our work meaningful as library professionals. So, for example, much of my scholarly work has been devoted to applying research from existential psychology, and current empirical research in the psychology of motivation and learning, to helping our students learn information literacy skills. If authenticity, or being one’s true self in one’s daily life, is a central (or perhaps the central) thing that motivates us to want to do things – and we learn to the extent that we are motivated to learn – then it stands to reason (as many studies have shown) that we should try to increase our students’ ability to bring their true selves to their their schoolwork, because this will make their work more meaningful, which will in turn increase their learning.

I’ve also written on the blog about, for example, the major regrets of the dying and how reflecting on them in our practice might help us make our work as librarians more meaningful. In a similar spirit, I recently came across a short little article I really liked about “12 Things Truly Fulfilled People Understand” that I thought had some interesting implications for our work as librarians.

One of the “12 things” that really resonated with me was:

Success is falling in love with the process, not the outcome.

This one may be a bit obvious, but it’s much harder to apply in practice. David Foster Wallace makes a similar point about how the most banal truths are often the most overlooked ones in his novel Infinite Jest, and I think it’s a good one.  Yeah, take things “One Day at a Time” might seem obvious, but how many people do you actually see doing it? Me, I see a lot of people stressed out over things that may or may not work out in the future.

So, at any rate, it’s important to note that the most obvious truths often be the most difficult to live out, experientially. Here’s an example of falling in love with process that applies to librarianship: My library school friend Alex Carroll and I gave a talk about evidence-based practice at the most recent LOEX conference. We both talk a lot about how much we try to live by the value of “process over  product” (a central principle, incidentally, of the legendary coach of our beloved UNC Tar Heels Dean Smith), but it was interesting to see how LOEX put this to the test. We worked really hard on our talk for a long time, and really enjoyed working together on it, trying to focus on the process rather than the result (even though, of course, producing a good result meant a lot to us). Now, when the time came to talk, there were a lot of people at our presentation. Time to put the whole thing in to action right? Well, it’s hard. You want it to go well. Your “reputation” is on the line, in the sense that people might come away with a certain impression of whether your work is “good” or not. Thus, in those moments, it can be difficult to focus on the process, because you so want the result to come out in a certain way.

I was really proud of both of us. We went up there, did our thing,  hopefully someone learned something, and we had a lot of fun together. That, to us, was the point. Things became very interesting, though, when both of our partners asked us how it went. Speaking at least for myself, I didn’t really know how to answer. On the one hand, I had a great time with Alex, enjoyed presenting, and felt really good about it. On the other hand, the “results” of the talk were, I think, mixed. The reviews were ultimately got were fascinating. One person would say “Amazing talk – loved your energy and humor. So informative.” Literally the next comment would be “You guys were kind of obnoxious – be more serious. Also, not very informative” (or whatever).  So since I really try to value process I answered “It was great. We had a really good time doing it,” even though I knew some people didn’t like it.

So why did I feel good about this talk even though it had mixed reviews?

Well, two reasons:

  1. Literally the point of doing anything on earth is to be happy. That’s it. And what psychology tells us is that focusing on process rather than results is the way to be happy. So, since the goal is to be happy, not have people think your results are amazing, I felt like we won.
  2. Someones opinion of what you did literally has zero bearing on whether or not it’s actually correct: the truth of a proposition is not contingent on people’s response to it. This is important to keep in mind, especially when you are saying something that can force people to change their practices, as an evidence-based approach to teaching and learning often does. It requires people to follow the evidence, not their own preferred ways of doing things. It can make people uncomfortable. So, of course, it would be almost strange if everyone liked it, because the view, by its very definition, requires a growth, learning-oriented mindset, that not very many people have.

So, you see, I think this is a really complicated principle with respect to library practice. Our natural response to the world is to focus on the results. We want to be liked. We want to have our talk well received. And so forth. The example of this talk is just one example of how hard it is to focus on process: it’s really hard, and takes a lot of practice, to be happy with the process and not care too much about the outcome. I work really hard at this. But I know that the more I do this, the happier I am in my life and my work.

I think the next principle explains why this might be the case:

The happier you are with a decision, the less you need other people to be.

I have found this to be really true, and it’s another aspect of a process oriented view of the world. Going back to the talk, I think what allowed me to be so process oriented about it is that I was really happy with our work. We had put an enormous amount of thought into it. It meant something to us. I felt like the evidence was on our side. As such, it didn’t matter so much to me how it was received. The presentation seemed like a success just because we did it.

I notice this all the time in my interactions with colleagues as well.  I recently put forward a new idea at a faculty meeting that I really believed in. I knew it might be negatively received, since I knew it might be considered progressive and not in line with institutionally entrenched way of doing things, but what was cool was that since I believed in it a lot, I truly kind of didn’t care how it was received. Now, of course, I want it to be accepted, because I want to get cool shit done, and I want our students to benefit. But what didn’t happen was that I didn’t feel an enormous need for others’ approval of the proposal itself. The desire for approval was purely pragmatic: I want this to move forward. But I didn’t feel the need to be personally approved: I believed in what I was doing and was therefore much happier, precisely because not having our self-esteem be contingent on the approval of others is perhaps the central ingredient in human happiness and well-being.

Again, this is something I work on a lot, but I really liked this principle, because it seems so true to me, and so applicable not only to my daily life, but my daily work life as a librarian as well.

Anyway, those are a couple thoughts on some of the principles I really liked in that article. I might write a part two in the next few days or so, expanding a bit on these two ideas, and talking about a couple others.

So look forward to that, willya?

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Filed under Education, On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

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