Every Breath Matters
— Peter Demarest
One of the challenges I sometimes have is choosing the title for the interviews I publish.
The nature of the six core questions I ask leaders, plus the additional questions I ask that often focus on a book they’ve published, seem to elicit a number and variety of powerful ideas.
More often than not, I find that one of the most essential and intriguing ideas comes at the very end.
That was certainly my experience with my recent conversation with Peter Demarest, president at Axiogenics, LLC and lead co-author of Answering The Central Question.
When I asked Peter to share what was the top takeaway he’d like readers to get from reading his book, Answering The Central Question, he said:
“Number one by far is that life – not just life, but success in life; quality of life – fundamentally is a function of the value we create, not only the value we get.”
He then went on to share a very personal and touching story from his own life. In 2004, his wife Margaret passed away from breast cancer. During her final days and hours, she met with many visitors and seemed to be hanging on.
While the visitors all came with sadness and tears in their eyes, Peter observed that they all would leave with joy in their eyes.
What Peter ultimately came to realize was that “she knew with every breath, there was an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life – with every breath.”
In a world experiencing many difficulties breathing in recent months, this is a beautiful and timely message to receive.
I now invite you to read or listen to my interview with Peter. I think you will find it profound and life-changing.
I always look forward to hearing what you find most intriguing? Please email me at email@example.com or use the short survey at the bottom of the page.
To your great work life & success!
Bill Fox, Founder
P. S. I want to invite you to join Peter Demarest and myself at a free webinar in the new year. Together, we’ll explore the old/new leadership norms, workplace transformation, self-leadership, and more. Join the waitlist to get notified!
Meet Peter Demarest
Peter Demarest is the co-founder and president of Axiogenics, LLC and one of the leading pioneers in the field of neuro-axiology (mind-brain science + value science) applied to leadership, talent development, organization development, and personal mastery.
Stephen R. Covey, in endorsing his book, “Answering The Central Question” (Demarest & Schoof, 2010), called applied neuro-axiology a “groundbreaking science.
Peter believes thinking matters because it’s is the catalyst that turns potential into action and performance. If you want to elicit better performance, you need a way to elicit better thinking.
HOW CAN WE CREATE WORKPLACES WHERE EVERY VOICE MATTERS, EVERYONE THRIVES AND FINDS MEANING, AND CHANGE AND INNOVATION HAPPEN NATURALLY?
Peter: To create anything, particularly in the workplace, ultimately means creating, fostering, and developing a mindset that isn’t just about acting as if everyone matters. It’s a workplace where there is equity, fairness, and a real celebration of diversity and inclusion. Not only the celebration of it but leveraging it for the value that it can create.
That’s ultimately a mindset. Not just an “act as if” or set of systemically applied rules and policies that pretend that’s what we’re going to create. But it’s actually in the hearts and minds of people.
In my work, we apply what we call the science of axiology and neuro-axiology. One of the things we know from our work is that fundamentally that’s what people want. That’s what most unleashes human potential. Even our own potential as leaders when we’re able to let go of the fears and the biases that tend to get in the way of those kinds of workplaces.
I think fundamentally how to create such an organization and be sustainable is around creating a culture that has intrinsically fostered that kind of mindset. I might call that the “heart-set” that every person really does matter and then go and grow from there.
You can’t legislate mindset. But that’s often what leaders try to do in the form of things like mission and value statements where they’re trying to legislate a certain mindset. It just doesn’t work very well. It can backfire.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET AN EMPLOYEE’S FULL ATTENTION AND BEST PERFORMANCE?
Peter: I had a conversation yesterday with the CEO of a Fortune 500 IT company. One of the things we were talking about was the company Red Hat. They are the company that essentially owns, develops, and supports the Linux operating system, which runs most of the world’s websites.
Linux is open-source software created by a team of literally thousands of volunteers from around the world. Yet Red Hat was purchased by IBM not long ago for $33 billion. However, the entire existence of Linux is the result of thousands of peoples’ volunteer work. For the most part, these are IT professionals who volunteered their discretionary time to contribute to this thing called Linux. I think that illustrates what can really motivate people – when they can contribute to something bigger than themselves.
That sense of contributing is a payback in and of itself. Is it all for the greater good, or is self-interest involved? It’s both. One feeds the other. It’s the concept of what goes around comes around.
To get the most out of employees, especially as we move forward into a more enlightened workforce for the future, it’s important to think of employees not as machines but as partners in creating something more significant than any individual team members. At the same time, recognize that the individual team member has infinite intrinsic value as a human being and needs to be treated as such.
So that’s where we start to get into fairness and the treating of each person equitably. That doesn’t mean you pay them equally for different jobs at different levels of expertise. But on a human scale, they are of infinite value. That means putting the intrinsic value of the human being ahead of all else and giving people a real sense that their wisdom and talent contribute. It also means allowing them to experience and feel that sense of contribution to do something larger than themselves.
It’s ultimately about value creation. Real success in life and genuine engagement is a function of not just about the value we get; it’s first and foremost about the value that we create. People want a sense that they are creating value, but at the same time, they also want to be treated fairly and appropriately for the value that they’re creating.
In the current workforce and for the past several hundred years, that just hasn’t been the case. But, now we’re seeing new workers come into the workforce with a different attitude. They very much want to make a difference and contribute to the world. Yet, they’re often frustrated when their efforts are undervalued, or they are treated in ways that they don’t get to feel like they’re contributing. They also want to be developed. Employees want to expand their ability to contribute and to improve, including their soft skills. We see more and more of that. So if we offer the opportunity to contribute and grow and reciprocate back by actively valuing people as people while celebrating their diversity, the rest will take care of itself.
WHAT DO PEOPLE REALLY LACK AND LONG FOR AT WORK?
Peter: Every human being wants to feel like they matter. They want to feel that their existence on the planet makes some difference. For some people, they want it to be a more significant difference. Raising their child or helping to raise a few people from whatever status they’ve been born into. For other people, it may be very small, but everyone wants to feel like they matter.
I think that’s what people are longing for and lacking for the most part. It’s what organizations lack in terms of creating environments where people don’t feel like they matter. We’ve assessed thousands of people’s thinking, and one of the things that we found is that about 75% of people don’t feel like their work matters very much. That correlates to some of the other findings that we’ve all been hearing, like employee engagement. Some 75% of people are under-engaged or actively disengaged from their work on a broad scale.
And that’s borne out also in their thinking, meaning not only are they disengaged, but they think that the work they do doesn’t matter very much other than for their own paycheck.
It’s not because they don’t want it to matter. The environments that we typically see in the workplace don’t generally foster that sense that their work matters. People feel they can so easily be replaced. Or if the work does not get done, it won’t matter that much to the world.
And the idea of not mattering doesn’t only extend to the work you do, whether they are an HR person or accounts payable or receivables or service provider, etc. It also relates to a sense of belonging well. Meaning, do they matter to their co-workers? Do they matter as human beings? Not only in their own work, but in their relationships. It’s that lack of a sense of a real family, but on a deeper level than just getting the project done.
I’m not saying that people are longing to feel like they have a family at work in the same sense that we feel like we have a family at home, but that people want to go to work and know that they matter to their co-workers — not just their product but their person as well.
WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION LEADERS SHOULD ASK EMPLOYEES?
What matters to you? And, of course, asking the question is the easy part. Listening to the answers and taking those answers in that’s the more challenging part for many leaders.
Bill, you’re doing some fantastic work in figuring out what people are lacking and longing for at work. What is the workplaces’ state today compared to the workplace desired for the future? What is the workplace that can help unlock and unleash human potential? It’s significant work.
But back to this question of what matters to people and listening to the answers. The most crucial part of the work is how we go from where we are to where we could be in a positive sense?
Altogether, this takes us back to your first question about creating workplaces that work. People will give their discretionary effort when they feel like they matter, that the things that matter to them are respected and made real. When people feel like they matter, they tend to give more of what matters.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION EMPLOYEES SHOULD ASK LEADERS?
Peter: Dr. Robert Hartman, who’s considered the father of formal axiology – value science – had four questions for people to ask themselves and their employer. I’m not sure which of these questions is the single most important, but probably the last one.
The first question is, What am I in the world for? This question gets to a sense of personal purpose. Why do I exist? It’s also a question that a person ought to be asking themselves from time to time because the answer may change. It’s a constant effort to discover, rediscover, and refine our sense of purpose that as we go through life.
The second question is, Why do I work for this organization (as opposed to any other organization)? Some people may say because they offered me a job. But let’s go deeper than that. What is it about this organization that has me want to work here and continue to work here? You may discover there’s a lot of good there. You may also find that there are things that you’d like to see changed.
The third question is, How can I contribute to this organization? This question gets to a sense of purpose within your role.
The final question is one of the most important, and that is, How can I help this organization help me fulfill my purpose? Not only my purpose in life but my purpose for being here as an employee? I think that’s one of the most important questions you can ask your boss. How can I help you do better at helping me grow and be better? This question recognizes that the organization has a role in developing its people. It’s about how we each do our part in helping each other be the best we can be.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION WE SHOULD ASK OURSELVES?
Peter: Well, it’s the title of my book, Answering the Central Question. The book is a manifesto on bringing and creating the science of neuro-axiology to the world. Its title is Answering the Central Question because there is a question that fundamentally drives us as human beings.
I’ve mentioned before that real success in life is about the value we create, not the value we get.
The Central Question of life, love, and leadership is this:
What choice can I make and action can I take in this moment to create the greatest net value?
That question, when we ask it earnestly, does some fascinating things inside the brain. Most importantly, a shift occurs where we go from what we call a self-centric mindset to a valuegenic mindset. Notice that there is no “for me” at the end of the question because the greatest net value is not only “for me.” It is also for you. “Net value” means all things considered: the pros and cons for all people concerned, including yourself, and both short and long-term. Now that “net” is a little tiny word, that means a very great deal, and we’d have to be all-knowing to answer the question correctly every time. But we already have an extraordinary ability to answer the question better than our habits and biases let us.
When we can raise it to the conscious or what I call a conscientious level, it shifts us into a value-genic mindset where our mind-brain works at it’s very best. We tend to be at our best as human beings, in any worthwhile role or endeavor, when we’re engaged in creating value – a valuegenic mindset rather than a self-centric, self-protective, and self-promoting mindset.
The greatest limiting factor to both personal and organizational success is that we don’t ask ourselves, “What choice can I make and action can I take, in this moment, to create the greatest net value?” We don’t ask ourselves this question often enough or with enough conscientious intention.
By deliberately and conscientiously asking yourself The Central Question, you will engage those parts of your mind-brain and heart that enables you to be most effective and valuegenic. It also makes for the greatest use of the potential for good you already have in knowledge, talent, and wisdom. So, I think that’s the most important question.
Everything that we do as a company and as coaches and consultants helps people learn how to use their best thinking to answer the question in any environment and under any circumstances in pursuit of a worthwhile purpose, aspiration, or goal.
WHAT QUESTION COULD WE ASK RIGHT NOW IN THIS MOMENT THAT WOULD CREATE THE GREATEST VALUE FOR THIS INTERVIEW?
Peter: What’s the meaning of life? I say that half-jokingly. But you know, the science does bear that out.
The science of neuro-axiology is the integration of brain science and value science. If you Google axiology, you’ll find that it’s been around for 2500 years as a philosophy, but about 60 years as a hard science just as real as the laws of physics.
I half-jokingly said, “What’s the meaning of life?” Well, if you think about it, what does that question itself mean? What is life’s meaning in all of its forms or levels of life as people as human beings? I don’t necessarily mean biological life. But instead, what’s the purpose of humanity, in a sense?
One of the things that science bears out is that value is objectively measurable and predictable in nature. There are laws of nature that determine how and when value is created or destroyed. Think of value as goodness. It’s not just financial, but all forms of goodness. And yet, in the human mind, it is completely and utterly subjective.
If we attempt to violate the laws of physics, what happens to us? For example, if we stand at the top of a 10-story building, and with all of our heart and mind, we believe we can fly, and so we jump, what happens? Well, of course, we fly. Once. As hard as it is sometimes to get our head around the fact, we can’t violate the laws of value science any more than the laws of physical science.
Deep underneath, the laws and principles of value science reveal a fundamental truth: the only thing that sustains life, human life, or a great society, a great organization, or a great workplace, and the only thing that improves life quality is value creation. If we operate in ways that are contrary to the laws of value creation, we destroy value. That sets us on a path that can lead to only one place: complete and utter destruction into non-existence.
Value creation is not about getting our piece of the pie, as if the pie is limited. It’s about all of us doing our part to make the pie bigger. We can either create or destroy value with all of our decisions – big ones and little ones. It’s a profound understanding that if we fail to consistently and work to fulfill that fundamental purpose of life – creating greater value as individuals, organizations, societies, and nations – we set ourselves on a path of utter and complete destruction.
That concept relates to a lot of what’s going on in the world and politics today. When you see one group of people destroying the value or dismissing the value or diminishing another group of people’s value, it is just not sustainable. If you project that whole process out, according to science, we will ultimately destroy ourselves. It’s a very short-term proposition that by knocking down others, your life becomes better. Your life may temporarily become better, but your kids will suffer. And ultimately, you do too because you’re limiting the potential of other people.
You see it in East against West as an example. Christian against Muslim, or Christian against Jew, or secular against spiritual, or Republican against Democrat. Throughout history, people of every religion, political belief, race, and gender have contributed significantly to the betterment and improvement of quality of life. And we don’t know where they are. They could live today in a small village in Africa, Indonesia, China, Iran, or the United States. And because we diminish them in some way, we devalue them in some way. The world loses whatever could have been.
Back in 1972, I was in 10th grade, and for reasons I won’t go into, I was sitting outside the school principal’s office. The school secretary came in and hung a poster on the wall. It was the United Negro College Fund’s new slogan: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
That slogan has stuck with me — the entire concept of it. Biologically, there isn’t any difference between a black brain and a yellow brain and a white brain and a red brain or a blond brain or a Jewish brain or a Christian brain.
There may be learned cultural differences, but there’s no real difference in capability, capacity, and potential. Yet we waste so much of it. What excites me about your work is that we’re starting to see things change. I think we’re in that stage of darkest before the dawn politically. Still, with the specter of a pandemic, global warming, and other global challenges, I’m very encouraged by the younger generation and their willingness to stand up and say we can do better. We can make a greater and more significant difference. We can unleash more of our own potential and other people’s potential, and organizations are starting to realize we can. There is a better way. But, we all have to change our thinking to get there.
WHAT ARE THE TOP TAKE AWAYS YOU’D LIKE PEOPLE TO GET OUT OF READING YOUR BOOK?
Peter: Number one by far is what I’ve said before that life – not just life, but success in life; quality of life – is fundamentally is a function of the value we create, not only the value we get. You will get value. What goes around actually does come around ultimately, and that means we’re all in this together – interdependently.
Another way of looking at that is that your life’s quality depends on the quality of your thinking. The first step in thinking better is to think more valuegenically, meaning thinking about what choice you can make or action you can take, in any given moment, to create the greatest net value. Asking yourself that central question alone can transform your life no matter your role or challenges.
There’s much more in the book and on our website at axiogenics.com, but the work we do is to help people and, by extension, organizations answer The Question better and better. That’s where everything starts. I don’t care whether you’re a Fortune 500 CEO, a start-up entrepreneur, a salesperson, or a housekeeper in a hotel. We all have incredible potential and the opportunity to make a difference every minute of the day, even if just a little. Little things add up to great things.
I can share this story. It’s talked about it in the book. In 2004, my wife passed away from breast cancer. She was an amazing woman. Spiritual, not religious. Full of grace, and towards the end, she was in hospice care at home. You can watch the steady decline a person goes through, and anybody who’s ever watched that sort of thing knows what that’s like. It seemed to me in her last days that she was hanging on unnecessarily. She was going in and out of lucidity. Like having one foot in each world. The spiritual world and the earthly world. One day I bent over her as she could barely talk. I wanted to give her permission to go if that’s what she needed—no reason to hang on. I didn’t know if she was hanging on for the kids or me or what. And she said, “No, I can’t. My laundry basket is still full.” My first thought was. “You’re not doing laundry anymore. You don’t need to worry about that.”
One thing to know about Margaret is that she was becoming a leader in yoga called Prana Vayu or Breath of Life. She had some followers and students who were coming from all over the country during her last days. At one point, we had a dozen people in our living room, waiting to see her before she passed.
They would often come with tears of sadness and fear but then leave with tears of joy in their eyes. At one point, I asked her if she was okay, and she said, “Yes, I’m almost done.” Well, I ultimately came to realize that she knew with every breath, there was an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life – with every breath.
About 12 hours before she died, she pulled me close and said, “My basket is empty.” Those were some of her last words. That’s the lesson. With every breath, we have the opportunity to make a difference that matters – to create value in some way. No matter how small. It may seem inconsequential, but it’s never inconsequential. It always matters.
- The way to create a forward thinking workplace is by creating a culture that has intrinsically fostered the “heart-set” that every person really does matter.
- Recognize that the individual team member has infinite intrinsic value as a human being and needs to be treated as such.
- People want to go to work and know that they matter to their co-workers — not just their product but their person as well.
- The most crucial part of the work is how we go from where we are to where we could be in a positive sense.
- The fastest way to increase both personal and organizational success is to make a habit of asking ourselves, The Central Question of Life, Love, and Leadership: “What choice can I make and action can I take, in this moment, to create the greatest net value?”
- With every breath, we have the opportunity to make a difference that matters – to create value in some way. No matter how small. It may seem inconsequential, but it’s never inconsequential. It always matters.
Care to Let Us Know?
What did you find most intriguing in this interview?
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