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Being and doing are not at odds

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Every time I write something on the topic of personal productivity, a few people suggest that maybe doing more isn’t appropriate at all.

As a friend of mine suggested on the Facebook page, Western society has an obsession with productivity. We grow up being taught that we want to “do well” but we’re not often taught explicitly what that means. Success is a vague word, and in the absence of a meaningful definition it seems to refer to little more than having an above average income and a lot of phone calls to return.

We know that there’s something very near-sighted about taking busyness and career success for compass-North in our personal quests for happiness, so it’s understandable that the discerning person might be suspicious of anyone that appears unusually preoccupied with their personal productivity.

Last summer, I was more socially active than I’d ever been. Over the winter my focus shifted totally, and as the recreation season returns I find I’m spending most of my spare time at my desk. I’ve been turning down a lot of social invitations, giving vague reasons most of the time, but those who know me best know I am working. Some of them may be wondering, in my conspicuous absence, if I’ve lost touch with the values I espouse — staying present, connecting with other human beings, and enjoying the in-between moments.

A certain amount of personal productivity is absolutely necessary, at least enough to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, and maintain some semblance of stability and autonomy. But I’ve been achieving those minimum productivity standards my whole life, so the question “Why do you need to do more than you’re already doing?” is a fair one.

Well, I don’t need to do more. Other than the physical essentials of life, I don’t strictly need anything. But it makes no sense at all to cease all activity except the minimum necessary to survive. After I earn enough to pay my food and rent, “unnecessary” productivity becomes any activity other than sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom and meditating. We each decide how much time to apply to any given “electives” in our lives: how many movies to watch, how many barbecues to attend, how many blogs to read, how often to make coffee, and of course, how much we work. Right now I want to accomplish more work than I have been, and I think I have good reasons. 

Productivity is not the problem

There is a lot of undue criticism of productivity itself. We see the mounting consequences of thoughtless, irresponsible productivity in the forms of pollution, invasive advertising, mass-produced food, atrocious overseas working conditions, and the death of our own manufacturing sector, to name a few obvious problems.

These are serious issues, but they’re not caused by productivity, they’re caused by thoughtlessness and irresponsibility, a confusion of what it is we really value. For example, a recurring theme on this blog is that money is attractive only because it is traded for what we value, which actually only amounts to certain pleasant feelings. The result is that many people believe it is money that they value, driving the thoughtless kind of productivity that regularly annihilates animal species, erodes personal freedoms and poisons the tap water.

Productivity is often thoughtless, yes. I understand the suspicion that arises whenever we talk about how to be more productive, because we don’t often talk about whether that’s even a good thing. The way our culture reveres growth and profit, it’s easy to assume that whatever we’ve been doing, we ought to get more of it done if we can. As author Richard Carlson quipped in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “People are no longer human beings. We should be called human doings.”

Western society certainly does carry an enormous deficit in the attention it pays to being, as opposed to doing. Meditation and mindfulness, at least when done intentionally, are still fringe activities associated with hippies and new-agers. We don’t think of “being” as a verb.

Doing nothing is taboo in our culture’s productivity-focused ethos, even though conscious periods of non-doing are proven to improve health, reduce stress, and make it easier to be happy. In my experience, the habit of periodic non-doing actually lends itself to becoming more productive, and makes it easier to notice when your productivity is aimed in the wrong direction.

Presence is a basic need

At least for now, time spent simply being, rather than doing, is not part of a normal person’s day. Yet we all have a persistent appetite for mindful states, even if we don’t realize it. The thousands of different activities we indulge in our off-days might have little in common except that they quickly put us into a present-moment state. All of them — lounging at the beach, watching movies cycling, needlepoint, off-roading, taking drugs, backpacking overseas , music-making, writing, having sex, and having a picnic — relieve us temporarily of the mind’s insidious habit of drifting into the future, which only exists as imagination.

The experience of mindfulness, whether cultivated intentionally or derived as a side-effect of what we normally do for fun, is as visceral a need as any. Our Western societies could benefit from being more aware of that need. If we were, we’d make sure that we have those mindful experiences by engaging in activities that produce something useful for ourselves or others — such as writing, exercising, practicing a skill or building something — instead of baking on the couch in front of the television, having been drawn there by intrinsic needs we don’t understand or try to understand.

Personal productivity doesn’t need to be at odds with mindfulness. Being doesn’t need to be separate from doing. In fact, if the work you’re engaged in is highly resonant with your values, a mindful state arises naturally, because there’s nothing to escape from, nowhere you’d rather be.

The feeling of being productive is different when what you’re producing isn’t truly important to you. For most of us, our jobs are a perfect example. When you’re just trying to pay the bills, work achievement feels more like a fleeting relief, a hit of something temporary, rather than a clearing of the mind.

At my job, I’m always pleased to get a batch of work done. It is gratifying, but it only the sense of feeling like I’ve pushed away something I don’t want for a little while. When I’m making progress on my own personal projects, it feels like I’m moving through the world.

My personal quest for productivity has been more of a struggle to make sure that the most important things do happen, rather than making sure that I make as much happen as possible. There is a difference. Over the last few months, particularly the last few weeks, I’ve been more focused on my personal projects than ever, because they’re beginning to generate their own momentum in a way job-related work never has for me.

The goal of all this is to be able pay my living expenses doing what I love, which is writing. The moment I reach that benchmark, I can cut loose my fifty-hour-a-week commitment to an employer, along with all of its related burdens such as buying work clothes, waking up and going to bed at inflexible times and having to ask permission to get on a plane.

I am partway there. This is worthwhile productivity, if anything is worthwhile. It is certainly more worthwhile than reporting to a full-time corporate job for forty years, just to pay for what I do on my evenings and weekends.

Smelling roses

Last weekend was Canada’s May long weekend. It rained every day. I spent most of my three days off working on my own projects. It was one of my most productive weekends ever. I wrote every day. I culled all my files. I cleaned my stove. For the first time I can remember, I have no resistance to getting down to work. For a seasoned procrastinator, this has been a transcendent experience.

The most surprising part of this burst of productivity is that it came with a more mindful, relaxed state. I felt like time was slower and life was more spacious. I got a lot more work done, but I also did a lot more leisure reading, went for more walks and did a lot more mindful sitting — much more rose-smelling, and more of an inclination to take a moment to do it.

This state is lingering. Every action is more conscious, I’m more patient at my job, I enjoy waiting in line and walking across parking lots more than I ever have. As it turns out, productivity — at least when I’m working on the right things — makes it easy to stay in the moment, to be where I am.

When it’s applied to what’s most important to you, an increase in productivity is not tantamount to sacrificing the quality of the present to improve the quality of the future. It’s not an a deferral of today’s happiness for tomorrow’s.

We don’t need to “strike a balance” between being and doing, between work and repose. These are not separate categories of living, as they’re often made out to be. Doing the work that serves your real values improves the present reality of your life. It makes life better right now, and later, and probably forever, as all worthy goals should.


Photo by Cornelia Kopp

Maia May 27, 2013 at 4:15 am

Great post David. I’ve also recently been thinking about doing things just hanging out with friends for example versus working on own projects. I’ve realized I need a balance. Too much hanging out with friends is great, but I find I miss the fact that I haven’t got anything done. And too little time spent socializing means I can’t focus on working either.
I think the biggest problem for me is that I don’t really know what my personal project is yet. Apart from blogging I haven’t yet determined what my ultimate aspiration is that I should be working on. The fact that you’ve found that project means you are halfway there already, which is great.
Wishing you the best of luck with it. Also would be good to know what you’re working on, if you don’t mind sharing?

David May 27, 2013 at 8:25 pm

> I think the biggest problem for me is that I don’t really know what my personal project is yet.

This was the catalyst for me. I used to have only vague ideas of what I ought to be doing with my spare time, and it was so hard to get myself to follow through with any of my ideas. It feels really different this time.

As for what I’m working on, you’ll start seeing the output in a few months.

D von Wilt May 27, 2013 at 5:28 am

Yes, it is indeed important to determine whether one is being productive or just generating garbage to the world.

I also feel a certain inner smoothness when i attain to my own personal objectives and then it seems that the more i do, the more i can get done. And very peaceful all along.

On a side astrological note – this could have to do with the earth element and more specifically Virgo – in which the importance to work, to serve a purpose and to make a synthesis of the being experience that in the end is ‘us’ is absolutely paramount.

David May 27, 2013 at 8:26 pm

I don’t know anything about my astrological situation right now, but it does feel like some significant bodies are aligning somewhere.

Barb May 27, 2013 at 6:07 am

I loved this paragraph, “The feeling of being productive is different when what you’re producing isn’t truly important to you. For most of us, our jobs are a perfect example. When you’re just trying to pay the bills, work achievement feels more like a fleeting relief, a hit of something temporary, rather than a clearing of the mind.”

This really resonated with me and I am going to copy it over to a folder that I keep of inspirational thoughts. I recently left full time employment from a job that on paper was impressive and sounded like it should be fulfilling. The reality of it was that much of my day was spent in soul-sucking management tasks and meetings. I’ve stepped back to a part time job providing care as a hospice RN (something that I used to do) and can’t believe the difference in how I feel about going to work. What I am “producing” now is very important to me and that makes all the difference.

Thank you sharing your thoughts with us. I read a number of blogs and yours is one of my favorites. I like that you don’t post every day but instead post when you have something meaningful to say.

David May 27, 2013 at 8:31 pm

So glad you found something less soul-sucking. There is a lot of career-related soul-sucking going on out there, I hope it becomes a more talked-about issue.

Tony May 27, 2013 at 7:38 am

Does being present not make one more productive? When we can focus our attention on one thing vs. switching constantly, the object of our attention is achieved faster, no?

I think that our minds wander when we are somehow dissatisfied with the present: we unconsciously dislike something about either our attributes or situation. That unconsciousness is dangerous. It is amazing what one can realize when one looks at the present objectively. Sometimes, we find ourselves holding on to really silly things that cause a lot of suffering. A few years back, I realized that I was obsessed with attaining higher and higher frequent flyer status. This seems like a really harmless thing, but because of that, I was doing things that were generating stress both at work and at home for myself and others. Once I became conscious of that and let it go, it made the lives of everyone around me less stressful. Unconsciousness is the problem!

David May 27, 2013 at 8:34 pm

On the very specific topic of pursuing fulfillment through frequent flyer status, the film Up in the Air does a good job of illustrating its emptiness.

Trish Scott May 27, 2013 at 8:42 am

Yup. It has always perplexed me when someone asks me what I do for fun. Like there is a difference!

David May 27, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I’m trying to stop asking people “what do you do?” as if the answer to that question should be what that person does to pay their bills.

Adriano May 29, 2013 at 3:46 am

This implicit meaning of “what do you do?” shows a really sad side of our societies underlying culture.
I realized this is not a good question to do after being answered with “basically nothing” by people who were “doing” much more than me.

Ian May 29, 2013 at 8:48 am

I only came across your blog a month or so ago (via Ran Preiur), but it’s had such an impact on me. A lot of the stuff you’ve written about is stuff that I’ve been experiencing/thinking about/ noticing/ grappling with, etc. for quite a while now (years).

So glad I found it.


I’m trying to stop asking people “what do you do?” as if the answer to that question should be what that person does to pay their bills.

In most cases, it seems that an instant judgement of character is made, based on the answer to that question, would you agree?

I’ve done quite a few things in my life so far, in regards to paid work: floor sweeper; apprentice mechanic; truck driver; sales rep; office worker; mechanic; delivery driver; various laboring jobs; I’ve been on benefits; I’ve not worked at all for a couple of years.

I’ve had pretty consistent responses to each job.

Anyway, about 10 years ago I had a realisation that it seemed quite ridiculous to me, the way people ask “what do you do?” with the implicit intention of finding out what you do for a job. I remember having a conversation with an aquaintance (who is now a very close friend) about how people ask this question, and telling him that I thought it was ridiculous and that I didn’t want to be defined by the work I happen to be doing at the time, let alone by a career choice (still haven’t had one of those!)

I remember it as a time of me questioning a lot of things regarding social/cultural norms, etc.

So I started to answer the question by telling people what I did for fun/recreation/enjoyment: riding my bike; playing guitar; hiking; going on country drives; having sex.

Some people would laugh. Some looked at me – and spoke to me – like I was an idiot and didn’t get the question. Some people seemed confused and would explain what they meant.

Sometimes I would recount stories of seemingly mudane activities, such as, “I wake up at around 7 and have a shower, then I have some breakfast. Sometimes I go for a ride before work…” etc. I thought that a silly question (as I saw it) deserved a silly (although true) response.

Nowadays the novelty/need has worn off and I don’t respond like that – I’ll usually respond with, “As in what do I do to earn money?” or something similar. Rarely will I just respond by telling them what I do for money, unless it’s asked explicitly.

Why do I make a point out of it? I don’t know. Maybe just to point out that it is such a non-specific question, and that I think it would be nice if some thought was put into the question. Maybe I have issues with people not being specific when asking a question. Don’t know.

A regular reader of this blog May 30, 2013 at 8:33 am

I absolutely agree (and empathise) with that.

Like in ages past one’s pedigree would be defining aspect of who one is (and people did not feel constrained to ask about it), similarly today a fellow seems defined by what he “does” (yes, “does” as in does to earn money), and what I find very funny (as in odd, NOT as in humorous, not any more) is how people do not consider it odd to probe you with this rather intimate question.

I happen to get talking to you at a party or wherever, and I’m sure I wouldn’t dream of asking you casually how much you earn, and how much your savings are, or whether your father left you dollops of money, or whether you own the house you stay in cleanly (as opposed to rent it or have a mortgage on it), and so on — nor will I ask (implicitly) whether you are from an old monied family or have had to work your way up the world; but people seem to go ahead and ask the “what do you do for a living” question without a moment’s thought realising how impolitely probing (not to mention shallow) it might appear.

I’ve reacted to this sort of situation by asking back what the other chap does, followed by deliberately probing questions about how much they earn, whether they have any debt, just to sort of get back at them, but only once in a very long while.

Why otherwise fairly polite people insist on committing this gross violation of basic privacy and good manners — and what to do to remedy this situation — is beyond me. I can do no more than grin ruefully and empathise with what you say here.

David May 30, 2013 at 9:29 pm

It is a ridiculous question, or at least it’s ridiculous that what we do to pay the bills is full answer. I read in a Leil Lowndes book not to ask people what they do, but how they spend their time. It’s more likely that they will talk about the parts of their lives they’re most interested in.

Trish Scott May 29, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I broke myself of needing to answer to “what do you do” by saying, “I’m a bum.” I said it in all honesty since all the things I have done, music, writing, talking with animals, that sort of thing, is basically looked upon by society as very bum like. I said it to the school nurse when my children were in grade school and it was written up by them as “housewife.” People pretty much make up their own minds.

John May 27, 2013 at 9:40 am

Well done David! Western society has been so programmed to believe that if you don’t work a 9-to-5 for the greater part of your life you are somehow a failure. I’m glad you’re raising these points.

David May 27, 2013 at 8:38 pm

The longer I live the less I want to be normal.

Caine May 27, 2013 at 9:44 am

“Productivity is not the problem”? Seems as though productivity is a huge problem. In almost everything I can think of, we have or make too much. It’s no wonder, with our work, and the hundreds of man hours provided by gasoline and electricity. I ask many people I run into, what business would you start? What would you make or do today that is not already made or done in excess? Your blog here is one of thousands doing something similar to others, vying for our attention. I guess it could all be evidenced in the proliferation of all the cheap and free we see. From dollar menus, to free tax preparation, to this free blog.

Sometimes it’s NOT cheap. The incredible grade inflation with schooling. Ever increasing degrees with no apparent gain, costing students a fortune.

Perhaps you meant personal production, not the aggregate. But isn’t the aggregate just a sum total of the personal?

We have found evidence of ancient people who did nothing, it seems, other than making stone tools, as if that was an end in itself.

When I was young I was promised leisure provided by our endless ingenuity and increased production. Alan Greenspan told us increased production was the key to success. I just see more folks working harder than ever.

David May 27, 2013 at 8:45 pm

I thought this was pretty clear in the post — productivity itself is not a problem, it’s a lack of discernment about what we are producing and what we are hoping to gain from it. Productivity does not need to mean “manufacturing,” or the production of anything physical at all.

>What would you make or do today that is not already made or done in excess?

This is a good question. A few things I want the world to produce more of (and consume more of) are art, prose, well-articulated truths of any kind. I think humans are only beginning to tap their potential in that sector.

Caine May 30, 2013 at 8:20 am

I would agree with the well articulated truths…like I find in your blog. Many I ask that question to also talk of things like art, prose, travel, and the like. Things that seem to be on a level above shopping experiences. However even those are overproduced, hardly original, and eventually turn into jet fumes and faded memories…or, make their way along the usual route of production-purchase-thrift store-purchase-local dump.
We can’t help ourselves. We are the takers, the doers, the accomplishers, with so much “potential”. I’m sure it’s how we made our way to the top of the current evolutionary mountain.

zulucowboy July 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm

I might be the only one, but all I hear is someone sharing the burden of their cynicism. Nothing of real value here, not sure how you think you have added to the conversation or points made. Yawn…..

Zaire May 27, 2013 at 10:28 am

Hi David,
I just want to say thank you. Reading all your posts have made me live more in the present than even and be truly productive in doing the things that make me enjoy life more than ever. I take joy in walking back home slowly from the metro, spying on lazy cats, smiling with bemusement while being stuck in a ‘human’ traffic jam down a crowded underpass, and so much more other events that used to make me irritated, impatient or bored. This sense of being in the present went well with a tiny epiphany I gained a while back about life – that it just is and rather than trying to bend it in ways that do nothing but stress us out or simply shut it out by doing what others expect me or ask me to do, I learnt to live in harmony with the uncertainty in life and consciously choose to live my own life. All this newfound freedom gained from seeing life as it is is still rather new to me but it is all sitting well with me considering I have not had second thoughts about it for close a full month already. Once again, thanks for helping me be a better person and I do agree that too little have been discussed about the human condition while the spam of self help books and spirituality is stopping people from seeking help about living a human life. So keep writing and I wish you all the best in turning writing into work that is bread for both your body and your mind ;)

David May 27, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Thanks so much Zaire. I’m glad you’re seeing some real freedom happening. Sitting with uncertainty is an amazing feeling when you can really let go and do it. Keep at it and best to you.

George Altman @ Mindful Matters May 27, 2013 at 11:33 am

Great post~ You’ve raised many important points in this article. Yes, Western culture programs us for relentless productivity, which is never accomplished and rarely satisfying. Marshall Rosenberg’s excellent work on needs (here’s a list http://www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory) points out that we rarely get to satisfying our real needs, because we often understand what they are and how to satisfy them. Mostly we’ve substituted the culture’s neeeds for are own. Or we simply focus or distort our “survival” needs with other needs. Just as we’re not taught a language for our feelings, we’re rarely taught how to identify and understand what it is we really need.

And to your excellent point that we don’t need to strike a balance between being and doing, yes – when we are connected more with our intrinsic needs (which are often to share with others in a genuine way) being and doing flow together.

David May 27, 2013 at 8:50 pm

The world could definitely stand to produce more Marshall Rosenbergs. He is a gift to our species.

Dragline May 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm

To everything, there is a season, and productivity is no different on that score. It is good to alternate productive periods with contemplative or social ones.

David May 27, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Absolutely. I like seasons of all kinds.

cj May 27, 2013 at 8:53 pm

As always, David, I appreciate your writing and love the way you present concepts. When I am practicing the guitar, composing, writing, walking, lifting weights, etc, there really is no where else I’d rather be. But I certainly am being productive. It is difficult to deny that when I am productive for myself, I am present, but when I am productive for someone else, I often times am not.

Max Coleman May 28, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Hey David,

While I agree with much you’ve written here, I think your praise of productivity sets up a straw man argument. Things like invasive advertising and bad working conditions may be associated with productivity, you say, but they’re not the result of productivity itself.

Fair enough. But you must admit that there *is* a problem with productivity itself, and it comes from the idea of producing. Why do we need to be so obsessed with production? Why do we ask each other if we’ve had a “productive,” rather than fulfilling, day? Even if we’re self-employed writers, passionate about our work, the focus should not be on churning out new projects as swiftly as we can.

The search for productivity is tied to its deadly twin, “efficiency.” Efficiency places speed above all else, turning us into robots rather than human beings. As Marx said of alienated labor, we might as well be the steam-powered arm of some great machine, for we’re certainly not people anymore.

I know you agree with most of this — I’m only trying to emphasize that, yes, there IS something wrong with productivity itself.

A regular reader of your blog May 29, 2013 at 10:01 am

Nice post (as usual), David.

My ten c., for what they’re worth …

I think it’s a question, really, of what it is you’re doing, what it is you’re trying to be productive at. Management literature has loads of stuff of these two concepts, Efficiency and Effectivity. (Most of it is tripe, cliches of the worst kind, as with most “management” literature, but some it is good, notably Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits’).

They’re two different things. Efficiency (or Productivity) really gains traction when you’re also being effective.

I think the trick is, first, to start doing what you “should” be doing. What I mean is, many don’t have a sense of vocation, and such may well go ahead and do whatever comes their way. And they will do it better if they use productivity tricks. But there are a quite of few of us who do have a sense of vocation. For such as us, to be employed at something that does not add to us, is basically time taken away from our lives, justifiable only in as much as it helps pay the bills — and, generally, done more or less grudgingly (unless one is being very philosophical about it all–like carrying the heavy grocery bags with a blissful smile, to reference one of your earlier posts). So productivity, in that case, can only help so much.

For instance, if I may take the liberty to get a bit personal-ish, you, David, are in an Engineering / Surveying sort of job, right? Now I’m willing to bet (from what we know of your online persona) that you are a person with a very strong sense of vocation, and your present occupation is emphatically not it. Am I right? That being the case, productivity is fine, but beyond a point it won’t help. (Of course, it will help by freeing up more time for you to do things that really matter, but that helps only up to a point.)

For such as us, it makes great sense to consider a larger shift in what we do, when possible, rather than just how efficiently we do it.

It isn’t a question of the profession itself, but of the fit between the work and the person. I suppose there could well be folks who’re passionate about engineering-type work (Ayn Rand’s iconic fictional architect comes to mind), or about accounting, or even about manufacturing, what the heck, even about sales I suppose (although I can’t imagine it myself, I mean, sales? still, could be) … it’s really a question of identifying that special area.

Of course, those fortunate ones who don’t have a vocation as such needn’t bother about all this. They can just go on doing the best they can at whatever it is they happen to be doing. On the other hand, those fortunate few who do have a vocation, and can align their activities to match that vocation, experience fulfilment beyond the other group’s range (and suffer agonies when they can’t).

By the way, I apologise for commenting anonymously, especially since I speak here on something personal (although only as an example) — this precaution is due entirely to very unpleasant troll jobs I’ve had to face recently. (I give back, to said trolls, as good as I get, but that sort of thing leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and leaves one a bit over-cautious, at least for a while.)


Alex May 31, 2013 at 12:39 am

This is exactly a thought process that has been cropping up in my life a lot recently. The tension of being vs. doing has actually caused a little unnecessary stress as it is forcing me to really weigh up when productivity is in my best interest – a difficult task. For me, being in a calm and mindful state really helps me make an assertive decision when action is in my best interest. However there is no black and white, and second guessing yourself is a simple road to overanalysis. How do you feel about this?

Josh May 31, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Very insightful. It’s a new look on a topic that’s constantly in our faces. Was a breath of fresh air to me, thanks David.

Frank June 18, 2013 at 10:44 am

I have always believed that the Western attitude toward balancing work and pleasure is too tilted toward the former. You mentioned turning down social opportunities in the winter because you are focused on work. I have the same problem, but I really need the social interaction more in the winter due to the harsh climate in which I live. Noone goes out and does anything during that time of year and I really start getting bored and anxious. It takes much more of an effort to stay busy socially, but is worth it!

PianoManGidley September 8, 2013 at 6:57 pm

You talk about doing work in line with your own values, work that has meaning, that makes you feel like you wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

…What if you don’t know what that is? What if you don’t understand what work would make you feel that way, or even have a concrete concept of what your values are?

David Cain September 8, 2013 at 9:16 pm

As far as I’m concerned all you can do is try new things as much as possible and meet as many people living unconventional lifestyles as possible. These people are more likely to be living their values. There’s no way to know what your think is until you experience it and find that it moves you like nothing else.

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