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Is That All There Is? The Secrets of "Getting a Life"

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Joe Robinson is working to save America and he's not selling the rapture, a guru, or the dismantling of the federal government. He is an evangelical of "engaged experience" and his sermon has to do with our spare hours. We exist in a stressed out, burned out, multi-tasking world, and many of us have neglected the "lived well" part. To make matters worse, once we are done with work and errands, we fritter away our free time with cable TV, net surfing, smart phones, and other weapons of mass distraction. The result is that many of us feel unhappy and yet we don't know exactly why. We define ourselves by our jobs and our material possessions, but that's not who we are. We feel that life is passing us by, and it is. We desperately need to "get a life," but how?

Robinson's new book Don't Miss Your Life shows us how to take back our dreams, pursue our passions, and live life to the fullest. Accomplishing this is not a function of being famous, driving an expensive SUV, flashing your bling, or eating at the best restaurants, despite the constant barrage of "life lessons" provided by MTV, advertising, and gossip magazines. You are not limited to what you do in the office or at the construction site; rather, the real living begins in your off hours and when you return to family and friends. Robinson encourages his readers to follow up on their most challenging ideas, be that climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or cooking with Julia Child's recipes. Yet one's pursuit doesn't have to be exotic, costly or gourmet. The answer to reviving yourself may be as simple as adding a game of badminton or a salsa lesson to your weekly routine. In Don't Miss Your Life, Robinson offers an astounding number of sensible tips that will surprise you with their practicality and place you squarely in the middle of a life well lived.

Robinson is a work-life balance expert and life coach who in another incarnation was a Los Angeles Times reporter as well as the founder and publisher of Escape magazine, a legendary adventure-travel magazine. While at the latter, he began to ponder the sorry state of American vacations (i.e., next to none compared to other countries). His investigations into overwork and worker burnout led him to study the larger problem of work-life balance, which inspired his book Work to Live (2003). He also started the "Work to Live" campaign to increase the guaranteed vacation leave of American workers.

While contemplating work issues, Robinson realized that millions of Americans lack basic "life skills," which are quite different from those you employ on the job. They have forgotten how to have fun and enjoy life in their non-work hours. They are beaten down by their jobs and unfulfilled by their lives. Part of the problem lies in a fantastic proliferation in recent years of home-entertainment options and digital devices that keep us at a distance from physical reality. We are ever more immersed in alternative realities that can be enthralling and relaxing after a hard day of work, but keep us from spending our time in recreation, hobbies, or community activities that would actually make us happy. Those pursuits are essential if we want to satisfy our core needs -- autonomy, competence and relatedness -- according to Robinson.

Another obstacle to our happiness is that we often pursue our few leisure activities with a "performance mind." We play tennis to win, yoga only to get fit, or travel to put notches on our "great experiences" belt. It's all about accomplishment and competition, when it should mostly be about the intrinsic value of what we pursue, as Robinson convincingly explains in his book. "Art for art's sake," not "art for ego's sake," will make us deeply happy. Play is the thing, to misquote Shakespeare.

I learned the value of intrinsic motivation at an early age when I was a long-distance runner in a California high school. Our coach was efficient in turning out one regional championship team after another in cross country and track & field. But, it wasn't much fun for us runners, other than for the camaraderie we shared. Nearly everyone on the team hated the training, including me during my freshman year. One of my buddies used to start off every workout with a mock woeful "What am I doing here?" Luckily, I discovered a new magazine called Runner's World. Joe Henderson, its chief editor, advocated "Long Slow Distance" as one possible path to running enlightenment. "L.S.D.," as he humorously called it, was aerobic endurance training that allowed you to enjoy running and at the same time bolster your aerobic capacity so that it got steadily easier to run farther and (gradually) faster. I tried it during the summer nights after my freshman year, and suddenly something strange happened: I started enjoying running - for its own sake. It was no longer tortuous and best enjoyed when it was over. Rather, it was fun, even exhilarating, and it became a lifelong habit. I also became a much faster runner when I mixed aerobic workouts with my coach's interval training. More than three decades out of high school, I'm still a runner, running for fun, unlike the majority of my old teammates.

Robinson emphasizes the importance of intrinsic motivation, doing things for their own sake, yet he also argues that our minds crave challenges. You must push the envelope and get outside your comfort zone in order to try different experiences and master new skills. He also teaches you how to deal with your own resistance to trying something that might cause moments of awkwardness, be it stepping on stage, showing your creative work to others, trying a new sport, learning to dance, or becoming a mentor or volunteer. "Life fulfillment, to a large extent, is the direct result of how you push back against reflex fear to take on the challenges that provide you with gratification," writes Robinson. He also provides a large "passion finder" list of possible activities to help kick start your quest.

Don't Miss Your Life is an inspirational book and it's a scary book; it reminds us that life is short and we need to get going to get the most out of it. Drawing on both scientific research and the wisdom of thinkers from Alan Watts to Lao Tzu, Robinson delivers an incredible amount of sensible advice. He delivers the insights of "life intelligence" along with concrete suggestions that are easy to implement. He has a knack for making the elusive subject of happiness quite palpable, and his book just could change your life.