up down or sideways  by mark sanbornHenry James, the nineteenth-Century American writer, once said, “It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined.” The problem is, most people have never imaged a life that’s any different from the one they’re living.

Why? They are stuck using a scoring system that doesn’t fit the game they really want to play.

I’ve heard people in professions that traditionally don’t pay much complain about how hard it is to make a living doing the thing they love. And I’ve heard financially wealthy people complain about how they never get to spend time with their kids because they have to work such long hours.

They all have an option: Change their scoring systems. Unlike in sports, you don’t have to play under someone else’s system. So as long as it isn’t illegal, immoral, unethical, or downright narcissistic, there are all sorts of systems available for scoring your version of success.

Most people organize their life and their work around one of four scoring systems: Results, Recognition, Recreation, or Relationships. Those are not the only organizing systems, but they are the most common. There’s overlap—we don’t just live by one alone—but one of the four almost always sets the pace and influences the others, especially when there’s a choice to be made between this priority and that priority. Your actions tell you which priority rules in your life.

If you organize around Results, then you’re all about achievements. It’s about what you accomplish. You want to win the prize. You want to earn a certain income, drive a certain car, and live in a certain neighborhood, because those are your goals, and achieving your goals is what matters most.

Results are important, of course, and not all results are egotistical or self-focused. Your goal might be to give away $1 million before you die. And most of us work in results-based careers—did we meet our sales quota, did we meet the deadline, did we accomplished the task assigned … But if achieving those results are the ultimate source of your satisfaction if life, and not just a contributing factor, then that is your organizing system for scoring your life.

If you organize around Recognition, then it’s not enough to achieve things if those achievements are not noticed and acknowledged by others. You want to be known for making contributions. You are the actress who loves the stage over film because you long to hear the applause of a live audience. Or you want to win “Salesman of the Year” more for the prestige than for the bonus that comes with it. Or you volunteer mainly so people will tell you what a good person you are. You produce outstanding results by thriving on a steady diet of ego biscuits.

The third way to organize your life is around Recreation. Again, work is a means to an end. You make money not for recognition or accomplishment, but because money lets you take vacations, play golf, ride jet skis, sail boats, and hit the clubs until the wee hours of the night; it’s about living large and having fun. That’s your scoring system—how much can you fish, hunt, ski, sail, hike, bike, dance, party, and play between those hours in which you’re forced to earn a paycheck.

The fourth organizing system is around Relationships. John Maxwell has said that success is when the people who know you the best respect you the most. I love that line because it speaks to both the quality of our relationships and our integrity.

All of the scoring systems shape your priorities and your definition of success, and all can shape them in positive ways. But relationships belong at the top of the priority list. When I was recovering from my cancer surgery, it was clear to me that what mattered most were faith, family, and friends, and the heart of all three is relationships—my relationship to God, my relationships with my family, and my relationships with my friends.

No matter how efficient and effective and capable you are, there are things that are going to thwart your results and leave you empty handed. No matter how much you do to earn the recognition and praise of others, there are some people you’ll never please. Not everyone is going to give you the acknowledgment you deserve, much less what you desire. And you can have a house and garage full of toys but no time to use them because you’re too busy making money to buy them. Or you go into debt leveraging your income and your time to buy and use things you really can’t afford, a disease I once heard described as “affluenza.”

But I’ve noticed that people who focus primarily on relationships tend to accomplish more results because people cooperate and support them. They tend to get recognized for the right reasons because they really are concerned about how their actions affected others. Their recreation becomes an extension of their relationships, so they not only make the time to enjoy life but they do so with the people who matter most to them. Their lives aren’t solitary or shallow or self-focused. Even when people fail them—and we always fail each other because we’re human—the higher calling of serving others still provides victories.

(Excerpted from Up, Down or Sideways: How to Succeed When Times are Good, Bad of In Between. For information, go here.)

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