Better Living

Join Up Your Circles

How to craft a meaningful life in this modern world
BY Mike Donghia TIMEAugust 25, 2022 PRINT

I’ve had a receipt sitting on my desk for more than a month. It’s a receipt that I need to submit for work to get reimbursed for a purchase I made.

It isn’t a huge amount, but I’m a little annoyed that I haven’t gotten to it yet.

Every time I think about submitting it, I always seem to find something slightly more interesting to do (which as you can imagine, isn’t very hard).

I wish I was the kind of person that had an iron will and could knock out these tasks the moment I thought of them—the kind of person who simply thought about something and did it.

But there’s another part of my personality that I have to contend with. It’s the part of me that’s insatiably curious and wants to work on something interesting. It’s the part of me that wants to solve a novel problem instead of doing a task that offers very little chance to surprise or challenge me.

The ancient Greek philosophers recognized this very human problem and came up with a bit of counsel for those struggling. They said that to live a flourishing human life, you must “join up your circles.”

Join Up Your Circles

What did they mean by circles, and how exactly do you join them up?

Many of us recognize that we hold various desires that at times compete or live in tension with one another. These desires represent the different spheres or circles of your life.

A few examples from my own life:

  • I have short-term desires that sometimes compete with my long-term goals.
  • I want to live a life that’s pleasurable and enjoyable in the moment but also coherent and meaningful in the long run.
  • I have self-interested goals and aspirations for my own life but also an altruistic desire to help those I love to flourish.

Recognizing these different categories, weighing your values, acknowledging trade-offs, and creating plans are essential components of living a more intentional life.

In fact, if you wish to live intentionally, thinking about your different circles and how to join them up is the kind of bread and butter soul work that’s essential to bringing coherence and purpose to your daily life.

Let me share a short story from my life that I think is a key to understanding how to join up your circles.

Becoming a Runner

In my freshman year of high school, I tried out for the baseball team and didn’t make the cut.

The fact that I was 100 pounds and lacking in confidence played a part in that, I’m sure.

Not knowing what else to do but still wanting to be part of a team, I took the advice that every skinny, athletic kid gets and joined the cross-country team.

I still don’t know why I went along with it. I had no love of running and considered jogging only to be a means to some greater end. I think mostly I didn’t want to be bored, and the cross country team seemed like my only option.

Fast forward four years later and running had become a central part of my life. I was routinely running more than 60 miles per week and couldn’t imagine my life without competing. Joining the team turned out to be one of the greatest decisions of my life.

This brings up two interesting points. The first is that we don’t always know what will make us happy or what we’ll enjoy. The second and more interesting point is that our preferences can change over time.

Natural Versus Acquired Preferences

All of us have our own natural preferences. Most people like being comfortable, eating calorie-dense foods, and being entertained. You don’t have to work for these preferences, they just are.

But other preferences can be acquired, such as the taste of coffee or wine or maybe classical music.

For me, running was an acquired preference. But once it arrived, it became an obsession that drew me to deeper and deeper levels of enjoyment that would seem almost crazy to a nonrunner.

This transformation from a natural preference to a newly acquired one (from a relative couch potato into a long-distance runner) has powerful implications for anyone trying to join up the circles in their own lives.

It suggests that our immediate preferences can be brought into alignment with various long-term goals that we have. While it might be hard to currently envision a future self that enjoys exercising, eating healthy, or getting up early—each of those things have the potential to become a part of your identity.

4 Expectations to Adopt

The actual work of joining up your circles isn’t easy, even after recognizing the need for a change. I believe the biggest obstacle to most people is the wrong expectations. With the right expectations, you’ll be better equipped to push through the challenging parts in order to reap the reward of a life where your circles have been joined up.

Here are four expectations that I recommend you carry with you:

Change won’t be easy. The first few weeks on the cross country team were hard. My body was sore and uncomfortable, and my only pleasure came from having finished a run and knowing I was done until the next day.

Brace yourself for this season, and commit to getting through to the other side.

Change requires hope. In the beginning, one of the things that kept me going was seeing how much the older guys on the team loved running. I held out hope that something wonderful was waiting for me on the other side of all this effort—that someday I could become one of those crazy people who love running, too.

Remind yourself that, in so many ways, things will get easier, and you’ll have access to pleasures you can only dream of now.

Community makes change possible. Even with my hope of transforming myself into a long-distance runner, there were many days that I didn’t feel like showing up and doing the work. It seemed I loved the idea of “having arrived” more than the journey itself. On those days, I was glad for the pressure that daily scheduled practice and other teammates had on me. I kept showing up for no other reason than a desire to not look like a quitter.

Make commitments in advance that will force you to stay committed and surround yourself with a community that will exert positive peer pressure.

Acquired preferences require maintenance. Don’t get the impression that at any given moment I somehow found running more enjoyable than being lazy, watching TV, and snacking on junk food—activities that deliver their simple pleasures without any effort. Instead, what I learned was that running joined up the circles in my life in a way that brought me a greater piece of the good life than I could ever receive from chasing one quick fix after another.

The temptation toward distraction is strongest just before you begin. Train yourself to push past the momentary resistance until you remember what it is that you really want from life.

Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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