It’s a picture-perfect evening at the beach.
The sun is setting. The seagulls are squawking. The waves are gently brushing against the shore.
The beach is almost deserted, except for a young couple out for a walk with their five-year-old son. As they stroll along, the son picks up some seashells.
Most of these seashells are chipped or broken. They’re still beautiful, but they’re more like seashell fragments.
All of a sudden, the son spots something bright orange in the distance, 20 feet into the sea. He sprints toward it. When he gets to the water’s edge, he exclaims, “Mom! Dad! It’s a starfish! It’s a starfish!”
“Go get it, son!” comes the reply.
So the son runs into the shallow water and gets within 10 feet of the starfish. Then he stops. He seems confused. He turns around and runs back to his parents.
Now Mom and Dad are puzzled. “What’s wrong, son? Go get the starfish!”
Once more, the son dashes at full speed toward the starfish. This time, he gets even closer. He could just reach out and pick up the starfish.
“Pick it up, son! Pick it up!” Mom and Dad shout.
But the son is so confused that he’s close to tears. He looks at his parents, then he looks at the starfish.
Finally, he looks down as his hands. “But Mom and Dad, my hands are full of seashells…”
Say “no” to good, say “yes” to great
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the things you have to do—in school, at work or at home—this post is for you.
I heard this seashell-and-starfish story three years ago, and it’s completely changed the way I make important decisions. Here’s how the story relates to taking charge of your stress and busyness.
The seashells represent good things, while the starfish represents great things. You become overly stressed and busy when your hands are full of seashells.
No one wants to feel like the five-year-old boy did at the end of the story!
In Good to Great, business philosopher Jim Collins talks about how, for companies, the enemy of “great” isn’t “bad.” Instead, the enemy of “great” is “good.”
It’s usually clear if a decision is a bad one, so naturally you won’t be tempted to choose it. But companies often make good decisions—ones that are profitable in the short term but harmful in the long term—at the expense of great decisions.
Good decisions promise immediate returns, but aren’t in line with the company’s mission, purpose and core values. Ironically, it’s precisely these “good” decisions that prevent companies from becoming exceptional.
None of us want to settle for mediocrity. We want to attain excellence.
I don’t mean that in terms of achievements or material wealth, but rather in terms of our contribution to society and personal fulfillment.
My definition of a good life is one that’s characterized by busyness and tiredness. A good life is full of activity. It’s a life where you’re always picking up seashells.
Live a good life for too long and you’ll feel burned out. Maybe you feel that way today?
If there’s way too much stress and busyness in your life, there’s a high chance that it’s because your hands are filled with seashells.
In contrast, a great life is characterized by fruitfulness and fulfillment. A great life is about doing only the right things. It’s about having razor-sharp focus in doing only the things that matter.
You might rack up fewer accomplishments if you lead a great life compared to if you lead a good life. But these accomplishments will be the ones that truly count. They are the ones that make a difference in the long run.
A great life is one in which you only pick up starfish.
The path of intentional abandonment
No matter what stage you’re at in life, there are always plenty of great opportunities to pursue. There are clubs to join, talks to go for, projects to take on, people to meet.
The question isn’t whether these opportunities are great. The question is whether these opportunities are great for you. One person’s starfish can be another person’s seashell.
In order to lead a great life, you need to choose the path of intentional abandonment of everything good, in pursuit of only the best.
I invite you to answer the following questions to help you do that:
- What values are most important to you?
- Is this decision in line with those values?
- Do have a clear idea of the kind of person you want to become? What character traits would the ideal-you possess?
- What are some things you need to do in order to become that person?
- Is this decision aligned with the person you want to become?
- Is this project/club/etc. something you merely think is cool, or is it something you really care about?
- If you take on this project/join this club/etc., will it have an impact one year down the road? How about five years?
- Will taking on this project/joining this club/etc. force you to compromise on the other areas of your life that are more important to you?
- Is your decision motivated by a desire for achievement and prestige, or are you motivated by a deep sense of purpose?
- Are there things or activities you need to stop doing? Create a stop-doing list today and take action. A stop-doing list is often more helpful than a to-do list!
It’s a good thing that decisions aren’t always so difficult. Most of the time, the right choice becomes clear once you ask yourself, “Is this a seashell or a starfish?”
I’ll say it again in closing: Choose the path of intentional abandonment of everything good, in pursuit of only the best.
Choose excellence without exhaustion. Choose greatness. Choose the starfish.