How a Conversation with my 7-Year Old Transformed my Approach to Life, and Might Change Yours Too

A note from 2021: I found this article in my archives. It's probably about 20 years old, but it reflects where my life was at that point in time, and I think it will resonate with many of you busy women - especially those who are struggling to balance work and family. I got through it and so will you!

It Began with Car Talk

One morning when my son was in first grade I was driving him to school on my way to work. He told me he was learning about "main ideas" and "details" in school and asked me what they were.

I explained that the main idea summarizes the basic thought that the story is trying to express, and details add information to support the main idea. I gave him a few examples and then started talking about the main ideas of life, because I often found myself waxing philosophical with the child 🙂

After I dropped him off, I continued to think about the main ideas in my life – to love my family and friends, make enough money to be comfortable, live a healthy life, and a few others. I was pretty pleased with my lovely list of main ideas.

Then I thought about my details and the list was long. It included soccer games, trips to the mall, running to the garden center, racing to clean up in the evening and scolding my son for wanting my time or leaving his things around the house, laundry, laundry, and more laundry, watching TV, inattentively playing a game with my son or having a hurried phone call while planning my next task, and on and on.

While details should support the main idea, I noticed that the details of my daily life actually obscured my main ideas. I realized that I rarely had enough time to be aware of my main ideas, much less to support them. I was too busy with the details!

My Wake Up Call

That was a wake-up call for me because I prided myself on being a big picture kind of person, someone who wouldn't lose the forest for the trees, and yet suddenly, there it was - my life was all trees.

That wake-up call changed me … for several minutes!

I was keenly aware of the main ideas of my life and my intention to develop a better constellation of supporting details.

When I neared my office about ten minutes later I couldn’t find a convenient parking spot, became annoyed, accelerated through a yellow light, cursed the city for not providing better parking facilities, and began planning consequences for my son for dawdling earlier that morning. Trees!

A Seed was Planted

But the experience wasn't a bust. A seed was planted and since that day I have become more and more convinced of the importance of structuring my life in terms of main ideas, and peppering my daily existence with details that support and enhance them.

I've learned to regularly remind myself of the principles and values that I'd like my life to reflect, and I use this awareness to choose activities based on whether they'll support or detract from them.

Finding meaning in my life in terms of main ideas and details has impacted me profoundly. I'm less apt to be conflicted about action and more willing to go with the flow, because I know I'm following the current of a river of my own design.

Knowing that my life reflects my values keeps me going even when there are no visible results of my actions or when I encounter obstacles because I know I am living in integrity. Also, since one of my main ideas is to accept imperfection, I'm better at coping when I find myself off track, because I sure don't do this perfectly!

And perhaps most importantly for the quality of my life, I gave up the quest to have perfectly folded laundry in order to fit in time for reading.

Enough about me. Now, I'm asking you to take some time to consider your main ideas, the guiding concepts you would like your life to reflect.

My Challenge to You

In order to get in touch with your personal main ideas, use whatever style of self-discovery works best for you (because this is a personal quest), for example, writing in a journal, meditation, or talking with trusted friends.

Questions that may help guide you include:

  • What's most important to me?
  • When I've been happiest, what was going on and what was my life about?
  • What do I admire about the people I admire?
  • How would I most like other people to describe me?
  • How would I wish to be eulogized?

It may be useful to consider your main ideas in each of these broad areas of life: health, career, leisure, family & friends, intimacy, living space, money, and spirituality.

You may find yourself with a long list, so look closely at what you came up with and select your favorites. There's no right answer as to how many to have - the answer will be defined by the quality your life takes on when your life reflects your main ideas.

Write Them Down to Seal Your Commitment

Write your ideas in language that appeals to you, but don’t write them in stone. Remember that you're a work in progress, so your main ideas may evolve over time.

Put reminders of them in places where you'll see them regularly – maybe one on the fridge, one in your wallet, inside the medicine cabinet, or on your screensaver - the options are endless. (Present-day update: This article was written before smartphones).

Ideas Into Action

Now here's where it gets really practical.

Think about the reality of your day-to-day life – the details. What do you do all day and all week? Where do you go? What do you eat and drink? How do you behave? What drives you? What do you accomplish? Who do you please? Ask yourself if the details of your life support your main ideas? If they do, great! Keep at it and don’t lose focus.

If not, consider the changes you can make. Which details will you eliminate because they detract from the life you're choosing to create for yourself? What details will you add to support your main ideas? A commitment to your main ideas is a great first step in determining where and what kinds of changes are desirable.

You may have to prioritize or focus on different areas at different times. For example, exercising, professional development, and reading with my son are all among my main ideas these days, and there is rarely time for all in any given day, but I can fit them all in over the course of a week when I am not overwhelmed with irrelevant details.

2021 update: My son is now 27 years old, we still love to have great conversations about philosophy, and I still hate folding laundry!

I would love to hear about how you are working to bring your life into integrity by making the details of your life reflect your main ideas. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Starting Next Week

Starting next week, I have a month of mindfulness planned for you. Over the course of 4 weekly posts, I'll make mindfulness accessible, explain the benefits of mindfulness, and teach you how to easily integrate a mindfulness practice into your life. Stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “How a Conversation with my 7-Year Old Transformed my Approach to Life, and Might Change Yours Too”

  1. Thank you so much for reminding me about “main ideas” and “details,” a simply brilliant way to look at the path we take daily to get us to our ultimate destination. A long time ago a musician friend suggested that the best way I could learn to play the piano on my then busy schedule would be to practice just ten minutes a day – but every day. Well, I meant well but didn’t, instead I invested an hour or two every so often. And that meant lost progress so I spent precious time backtracking. This morning I realized that had I followed the advice I received more than a decade ago, by now I would have been proficient in the way I want to be – no concert goals, just playing some songs seamlessly. It’s in the details, like Michelle says. (And that Yamaha is staring me in the face – ten minutes, that’s all it takes.) Thanks!!

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