I’ve been a fan of self-improvement for a long time, though I’ve always struggled with where self-improvement ends and actual living begins. For a neurotic like myself, it’s too easy to divide life into a series of goals whose parts, when added, are a poor substitute for the pulsing spirit inside. Too often I’ve sacrificed the very life I was hoping to improve upon for ephemeral benchmarks that only leave a bitter taste of something having been missed when looked back upon. It’s a cycle I’ve found myself caught up in a number of times, often only realizing what I’ve done when I resurfaced six, nine, twelve months later, overwhelmed with the idea that I’ve not quite lived as fully as I could have.
And yet, there are two options when childhood ends: to build yourself—to leverage your talent and willpower for the sake of your dreams—or to rot. The first option is the long game, and requires never-ending sacrifice. For as soon as you stop moving forward, you begin to slide. Life is a game of decay and your only chance against it is to never stop moving, to constantly be fighting back. This is why you can’t just get in shape or learn a language once. You must continue to practice, to work, in order to not only move further along your path, but even just to stay right where you are. And this fight demands the exchange of the present moment for a future payoff that has no guarantee of ever coming. No wonder the second option—to blindly live for the moment, oftentimes ignoring that which we know very well we should be doing, or accepting what we know we shouldn’t be doing—is so appealing.
It’s important to note here that I’m talking in generalities because I don’t believe in one definition of a life well-lived or a person successfully improved. How I believe life should be lived and courted is by no means what I expect from you, dear reader (though, for the love of God (or whoever), be compassionate to one another!). I merely speak in a way to induce that feeling of guilt we all experience that lets us know something is amiss and we are not being our best selves. This guilt, I think, can never be fully assuaged since the struggle of life, and the joys and pains we might draw from it, do not end until we draw our last breath. We can always be better, and whenever we reach where we originally thought we needed to be, we quickly learn that there are always bigger mountains to ascend. But the details of your mountains are not important to me, just as mine aren’t to you. Let it suffice to say that we are all chasing, as Paulo Coelho would say, our ‘Personal Legends’.
As mentioned above, it’s important during this chase not to lose yourself to your vision of the end goal. For the goal, one finds in the end, and as cliché as it is to write, is the journey itself, since it is all we have, lacking as we do a true final destination. By focusing merely on how to move forward, and not how we shall be when we get to where we’re going, we will find the greatest happiness of our short existences.
Even so, this does not mean one should not have destinations in mind when moving. Without personal visions of grandeur to guide you, you will lack direction and thus will get nowhere, or rather you will get somewhere you never wanted to go (cue the image of the man on his deathbed regretting the time he spent in the office). Couple this with the fact that upon reaching whatever star you decide to chase there will be another star on the new horizon to lead you forward and we can see how every decision affects the ultimate arc of our lives. Everything we do becomes but building blocks for bigger and (hopefully) better palaces of the future.
This is why it is so important to get started right this instant building the life you always imagined. For, while you can work harder some days and less so others, you and I will always be bounded by time. A minute now wasted is not one that can be retrieved in the future, even if you work extra hard in those future minutes. It is like walking along an endless forest path. The ground you don’t cover now must be covered later, and so with every decision that does not move you forward, you are sacrificing the extra miles further along that you might have reached.
So then, back to my original predicament: how can one always be striving and yet not lose themselves to the future? Well, most importantly, you must rewire your mindset. Work, the work that is necessary for your personal fulfillment, must instead be thought of as play. And play is nothing more than creation, of which there is no more regenerative nor fulfilling act. There should be a constant joy in every action you take as you paint the canvas of your life, whether it be the joy of knowing that you are investing in yourself (reading for knowledge or growth, exercise, and so on) or just the joy you get in the very act of doing what you want to become (writing to become a writer, drawing to become an artist, engineering to become an…engineer). By turning every act into an act of joyous creation, an expression of who you are, you are forced to remain present since the purpose of each activity is no longer what can be gotten out of it (though this is a wonderful benefit) but the joy of doing the activity itself.
The second step, secondary to the first but the point of this rambling discourse, is to recognize that building and improving and becoming who you’d like to be is not just about doing but about not doing as well. It’s not just every action that makes us who we are. Every inaction shapes us too. So we must be mindful of cutting out the shit that misguides us. Oftentimes, doing what we know we shouldn’t be doing keeps us future-focused because it leaves us no time to address the steps we know we should be taking to get us where we’d like to be.
This is an idea I’ve been toying with for a while. When I first started on my probably-neurotic, possibly-unhealthy obsession with building my best self, I had a mantra that I would say every morning before wiping the sleep out of my wee wittle eyes: One Step At A Time. It was meant to remind me that, regardless of the events of the day, my duty was to move towards my ultimate self at least a little. I figured that if I kept moving eventually I’d get to where I’d hoped to get. It was inevitable. And in a sense, it was true. Before long, I could see the progress I was making, however slow it was, and knew that I was finally on the right path.
After a while, though, the slowness and inefficiency of it all began to grind on me. Though I never went to sleep without taking a small step forward (writing for fifteen minutes, exercising, etc.), I was oftentimes struck by the idea that if I had just lived my life as I truly knew I could, cutting out all the fat of my day and making the best decision for every decision, my progress now would be laughably pitiful to what I could achieve. I was finally catching a whiff of what my full potential might be.
So I expanded the thought. Now every moment was thought of as an opportunity to take a step forward or back. I was in a constant flux. From the moment I woke up in the morning, I was climbing my mountain. If I was hungry, I would pause before reaching for what I knew I shouldn’t have and ask myself if I were taking a step forward or a step back with that small decision, even if I could undo its negative effects by eating better or less later. If I was tired but needed to work, I would ask if I was moving forward or back when I decided to lie around rather than be active. And on and on until it was a constant question dogging me throughout the day. Luckily, I was wise enough to recognize that this little mantra of mine could easily send me spiraling into a closed loop of neuroticism, and so sometimes the answer to my question would very well be the opposite of what it might be at some other time. Sometimes, it was just as necessary to take a day off or to eat three-quarters of a cheesecake (mmm…). Soon, this all came to be known The Grind, to borrow from Bukowski: the constant churning of day-to-day living that could either be utilized to achieve my wildest dreams or squandered for the fleeting pleasures of easy choices. And damned if I was going to pass up the opportunity to become someone worthy of myself. Finally, I was making real progress and feeling happier and healthier, mentally, physically and spiritually, than I had in a long time.
Which leads me to the present (or the near past as you are reading this) and why I’m writing about this in the first place. For the last few months, I’ve been living what I might characterize as the most exciting time in my life. Aside from some big life changes, some good, some bad, some as-of-yet unclear, I am also the busiest I’ve ever been with several jobs and competing projects vying for my time, of which seems to be in short supply. But I’ve got a nagging feeling that this (the feeling of a dearth of time) is not true. Though my productivity has increased tenfold since the start of 2017, I am hounded by the idea that I am but at the cusp of my true potential. And so I’d like to figure out just what that potential is.
As such, I’ll be taking each of my goals and unifying them into one grand action plan, a project which I’ll reveal later this week and will chronicle over its course on this website. I want to know just how long and how hard I can push myself, and to what degree I can transform my life by cutting out the chaff and keeping the wheat of day-to-day living. What I hope to accomplish I do not think will be sustainable in the long run (as Tony Robbins would say, we must see the difference between Achievement and Fulfillment), though I’m hopeful it might teach me a thing or two about what I’m actually capable of, as well as the difference between true relaxation (which does not necessarily denote inaction) and mindless activity.
These be exciting times, folks. Exciting times, indeed. Stay tuned.