Put your oxygen mask on first

How many times have you ignored the cabin crew on a plane as they explain safety procedures? By the time they get started, I’m usually half way through the in-flight magazine and trying to decide which small sandwich I’d like to order.

Despite being life-saving information I’ve heard it all before. So it’s easy to ignore. From memory, I think you’re only meant to inflate the life jacket after jumping out of the plane. But one thing is easy to remember: put your oxygen mask on first. I think this is some of the best life advice you’ll ever hear.

Life and death situations need simple logic. It’s no good trying to help other people if you can’t breath yourself. To be useful, you first need to fix your oxygen supply. But I think this has a broader application too. We can use it as a guiding principle for many other areas of our life. Because the only way you’ll make the world a better place is if you’re fighting fit.

How can you best serve others?

Personal growth and self-improvement seem more popular than ever before. As more people begin to take an interest, more authors, yoga teachers and coaches begin to appear. There are a thousand ways to find the kind of inner peace you’re after. Some of it is great stuff. A lot of it isn’t. Much of the work I find online is full of shallow advice and misleading ideas. To top it all off, it’s easy to become hooked on this stuff and read more of it than you practice.

This is all to say that personal growth gets a bad wrap. It’s easy to point the finger and laugh at someone who’s trying to level up. But poor advice and clickbait articles aside, self-improvement is critical to our wellbeing. After all, making a better society first requires that we improve ourselves. It’s no wonder that in the past 100 years, as change has accelerated so rapidly, we’ve begun to look for tools to navigate this new territory.

Sam Harris has observed how being selflessly wise and wisely selfish often amount to the same thing. This is what putting your oxygen mask on first is about. Being wisely selfish means knowing when you must attend to your individual needs. It means knowing when failing to do so will put your ability to serve others at risk.

No human can maintain a life of selflessness and martyrdom forever. Something has to feed the loop. We’ll do well not to forget that serving others starts by serving ourselves.

Why balance is important

I’m trying to figure out how to find the balance between being there for my family, focusing at work and doing things for myself. Balance is important. Because if I don’t do things for myself, regular maintenance and upgrades, then I begin to get rusty and less effective in other areas of my life. Despite this, I often find it hard to get the balance right.

I know that I’m no saint. Far from it. And I know that despite my best intentions I’m prone to getting annoyed, distracted and argumentative. Let me tell you – if the toothbrushes aren’t put in the right place after being used, I’m half an inch from melting down. When I get to this point, I realise I’ve lost my balance.

Extremes are sexy. The middle is less exciting. So we often obsess over the extremes at the expense of everything else. When it comes to looking after your own needs, in the one extreme, we might spoil ourselves. Letting-loose (whatever that might mean for us personally) for a weekend allows us to shrug off the pressure of ‘getting it right’. But the other extreme sees us aiming to be hyper-productive and über efficient. Focusing on work helps give us something meaningful to fill our time with.

These extremes have become commodified. The entrepreneurial spirit is an aspiration so hyped that we’re addicted to productivity hacks. And social media has got us all lusting after indulgences most of us will never be able to afford. If you ask me, this hamster wheel is getting tiring real quick.

What, I hear you ask, is the alternative? Drudgery? Complacency? Settling for the average? There is a way forward that includes both of these extremes but aims to balance them. You could describe it as a life of modesty. The Buddhists call it the middle path. I call it simplicity. And yeah, it isn’t sexy.

But what it lacks in va-va-voom it makes up for in sustainability. The more we achieve balance the more likely it is we’ll be able to maintain it long term.

What drains you & what fills you up?

Making sure you’re fit to serve others is a good idea. Helping out others is a great idea. But to do either, you’ve got to know what things trigger burn out and which bring you joy. Try this quick exercise:

  1. Make two lists – number them 1 and 2.
  2. Under list 1 write down 3 things that require lots of mental or emotional energy. The kind of things that leave you feeling tired.
  3. Under list 2 write down 3 things that give you inspiration and verve. The kind of things that leave you feeling energised.

Now imagine your internal balance as a large lake. The things on list 1 are like the rivers that flow away from the lake. They drain the lake dry if it’s not filled up regularly. The things on list 2 are like the mountain streams that trickle down to the lake. They are responsible for keeping the lake full.

A lake, just like you, has all these things going on inside and around it. For the fish to survive, the lake needs to be supplied with fresh water regularly. The supply of minerals from mountain springs keeps the lake vibrant and allows it to support an internal ecosystem. However, if all we do is full the lake up, it floods and begins to drown the land around it. Too much of a good thing can be bad.

But when the there’s a drought, the lake begins to dry up and things die. Not just in the lake, but also around it. Because without the lake being fresh and topped up, we begin to see how interconnected it is with the landscape. The forest nearby struggles for water. The birds that rely on the lake leave and trigger food shortages elsewhere in the chain. When the lake dries up, everyone suffers.

You are the lake and these are things you need to pay attention to. If your job leaves you drained, how long can you keep doing this work for before you bottom out? Can you counter-act that by making sure you commit time towards doing something that fills you up? We need to be aware of these things otherwise it’s easy to let particular activities override and derail others. Urgency is often an excuse, lack of time is often another. Both are just a means of prioritising one thing over another. The real trick is to know what level your lake is at and prioritise based on that.

Whether you prefer the metaphor of the lake or the practical advice of fixing your oxygen mask first, the message is the same. Looking after our internal equilibrium is not only important, it’s essential. Especially when we hope to leave the world a better place than we found it.

A special thank you to Chrissy for inspiring the oxygen mask metaphor and my father for that of the lake.