Think for a moment about the first words you say when you talk about your life. Are you more apt to say “I live my life…” or “I lead my life…”?
It’s far more likely that you and the people who influence you use the former. There are 90 times more Google hits today for “I live my life” than “I lead my life.” Moreover, “live life” has been inexorably increasing in popularity over the last century, as my Ngram comparison of usage in English-language books shows.
I would suggest today’s reflective practitioners buck the rhetorical trend. Try using the phrase “lead life” as a way of talking about who you are and want to be. Below I list three reasons why “lead life” signifies a more advanced, even noble, way of being in the world of business and beyond.
Those who lead life become exemplars to others. In 1926, author Sherwood Anderson wrote a note to his 17-year-old son John, who was thinking about where he might focus his education and career.
If I had my life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing quite brings the satisfaction that doing things brings.
Anderson’s reflection suggests the important function that decision-making and intentional learning play in leading a life. Yes, he acknowledges, the choice to write for a living was a good one and he would make it again. Yet, there were oversights and eventually insights that followed from that choice. He wishes he had first learned to experience things directly, as a craftsman using his hands, before moving on to the more abstract world of crafting stories. Most importantly, though, in writing about how he led his life and what he might do differently, Anderson intentionally models how others might lead theirs.
Leading life is a prerequisite of personal and professional growth. When we lead our lives, we set a vision and intentionally resolve to advance from a lower state to a higher state. We are not resigning to live life as it is.
We see this idea at play in Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 essay “Economy”: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
At first glance it’s a pessimistic statement. But Thoreau uses the description to exhort readers to a renewed self-awareness, a starting point for forging life deliberately rather than accepting life passively.
Leading your life implies cultivating self-awareness, and thus prepares you to discern where your strengths and passions lie, and which sorts of work to avoid if you want to end your quiet desperation. More than a century after Thoreau, a prominent leadership researcher echoed this insight with empirical evidence, noting that “…an employee who combines self-awareness with internal motivation will recognize her limits–but won’t settle for objectives that seem too easy to fulfill.”
Those that lead lives use technology as a new lens for self-examination. You can live life using technology to shop, entertain, to become a virtual friend or follower. You’ll create a lot of personal data along the way. Paradoxically, these traces of you living life — on the web, at cash registers, using your smartphone — are of more interest to others than to you. Marketers segment you, target you and analyze you.
But what about also using technology to examine yourself, as a way to intentionally generate personal data for private reflection? This is a fundamentally new question that those leading a life are beginning to ask.
In my most recent HBR article, for instance, I describe how a number of professionals use auto-analytics technologies to examine some quantifiable aspects of their lives as they lead them. They turn the tables on the anonymous others tracking them and instead use new tools to generate personal data for their eyes only. One interviewee used smartphone technology to track her moods in a variety of contexts to help her analyze which career would make her happy. Another interviewee, a software engineer, used technology to track his everyday work habits as a way of boosting job productivity and satisfaction. In both cases, they used technology to help paint a picture of who they were, and whether they were truly leading their lives in the direction they intended. Of course, technology isn’t the only route to self-awareness, though it can give a boost to introspection.
Words matter. They frame how we think. Saying “I live my life…” begins a different sequence of thought and action than “I lead my life…” To my ear, anyway, “live life” is a redundant construct. The verb clings to its noun like the ouroboros, the mythic serpent that circles around to eat its own tail. It also connotes basic biological functioning as an end in itself. A snail or a cow can live life, but shouldn’t a human do something more?