The Five Things You Must Accomplish In Life

Previously, I discussed what we could say in general about fulfilling our potential as humans.  Now,  I’ll discuss some of the characteristics of people who are fulfilling their potential—people who are flourishing. In this, I am drawing heavily on Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization and his related hierarchy of needs.

What are the characteristics of flourishing humans?

1. Flourishing requires the maintenance of a healthy body and mind.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that flourishing people are perfectly healthy—remember fulfilling our potential pertains only to those things that are under our control (and our health is certainly not under our complete control).  But we can assume that flourishing people are trying to be as healthy as their circumstances allow them to be.   This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are spending their lives in the gym or running marathons, but they do have a balanced lifestyle that allows them to have sufficient energy to work on their goals and have the best possible quality of life. Moreover, they avoid those habits that reduce the health of their body and mind.

2. Flourishing people are well situated in the physical world.  They make changes to their environment that allow them to function well and reach their goals (such as the other life tasks).  They avoid being subject to the elements, clutter, and scarcity. They acquire the trappings and tools that they need to fulfill their potential. There is near infinite variety in how people do this, but the point is that in order to reach our potential we need to devote some of our time to making changes in our environment so as to promote balanced living and productive behavior.

3. Being social creatures, flourishing humans form relationships with other humans.  They would tend to have close, supportive, mutually beneficial relationships with at least a few select others. They avoid isolation and generally do not live as recluses if it is in their power to avoid this. This does not mean that they are all extroverted socialites, but even the most introverted among us benefit from having close relationships.

4. Flourishing humans avoid, when they can, indolence and being dependent on the work of others. Typically they have some task that they perform to serve their community (such as a job or career). This role might be something that they consider to be their calling, vocation, or purpose, but it need not be anything grand.  All that is required is some honest labor that they trade for what they need to pursue the rest of their goals.

5. Flourishing humans find some way to share the fruits of their experiences with other people. This ability to incorporate highly enjoyable shared experiences into their life might be called thriving. Thriving comes in many forms such as creativity, imparting wisdom to a younger generation, or partaking in highly enjoyable or meaningful experiences with others.

Based on these characteristics we can identify five challenges that I shall refer to as The Five Major Life Tasks. These tasks are the components that bring us to a state of human flourishing and fulfillment.

The Five Major Life Tasks

  • Be whole.
  • Find your place.
  • Connect.
  • Choose your purpose.
  • Thrive.

Before we consider each of these tasks in detail, there is a little more we can say about the nature of the Five Major Life Tasks.

Firstly, they are not steps. You do not need to “complete” one step before moving on to the next.

Second, you never “finish” these tasks. As long as you are alive you will have to contend with these tasks, either because of continued need or because of your own desire for increased fulfillment.

Thirdly, just because they can never be completed, doesn’t mean that you cannot make animprovement. Throughout life, we can make gradual progress in all of these areas.

Fourthly, these tasks are interrelated. As you progress on one, you will be better able to progress on others.  For example, having a job will help you maintain a place to live. Having an adequate place to live will make it far easier to have a job.

Going forward we will discuss each of these in detail and present a series of questions that will help you determine where you stand with regard to the Five Major Life Tasks.

On Fulfilling Your Potential

If we accept that our two-fold task in life is to accept ourselves as we are, and, at the same time, to grow and change, we must ask the “Difficult Question.”

What is it that we should become? or, put another way, what changes should we be making in our lives? This is among the hardest questions in all of human thought. It is a variation of that question that has occupied philosopher’s since the time of Socrates, how are we to live a good life?

One way to approach this question is to consider the goal of a human life to be a fulfillment of individual human potential. That is, we should work to become that which it is possible for us to become, making the most out of our individual human abilities.

And what is it that is possible for us to become? Again there is no easy way to answer this question. The answer will vary for each person, and therefore no one can tell you what it would mean for you to fulfill your potential. But here are some things that we can say about fulfilling your potential:

  1. Fulfilling your potential is not based on reaching an arbitrary standard imposed by culture or society. It does not mean that you become a “doctor or lawyer.” It does not mean having children or getting married. It does not mean owning a house or a herd of cattle or any of the other standard measures of success that your culture imposes. Of course these accomplishments may be involved in your meeting your potential, but they should not be seen as the actual measure of success.
  2. Your potential will be based on your actual abilities and strengths. It is a manifestation of what you can do when you put effort into achieving your goals in a balanced way.
  3. Your potential is not necessarily a measure of academic or professional success. It certainly is not based on how much money you can make.
  4. Fulfilling your potential is based only on things that are under your control. If forces beyond your control stop you from reaching a certain goal, then that goal had nothing to do with fulfilling your potential. As a result, wealth, health, physical appearance, and reputation, all of which rely on factors that are largely beyond our control, are not necessary to achieve your potential (although they will certainly help if you have them).
  5. Fulfilling your potential can only come about by trial and error. No one can measure your ability and tell you exactly what you can do with your life. Even if you did seek out expert opinions, in the end, you would still need to roll up your sleeves and see what you can do.
  6. Fulfilling your human potential will involve your ability to do those things that humans can do. This almost certainly includes the ability to be rational, the ability to form relationships with others, the ability to have compassion, the ability to endure difficulty, and the ability to solve problems.

So that is what we can say in general about fulfilling potential. Next, we will turn to a different approach to understand human potential for change and growth—examining the characteristic of humans who have fulfilled their potential.

Self-Acceptance: As You Are and As You May Be

Your mindful awareness of yourself will reveal many things: thoughts, feelings, images, urges, memories, plans, values, beliefs, nightmares and daydreams. They are all waiting for you just behind your eyes. In working to accept our mental world we are really practicing acceptance of the self. This is a skill that can only be honed over long spans of time.

Our challenge is to be who we are, letting go of any childish fantasy of becoming someone else, as if we could just swap masks with another at a masquerade. No, we are only given one role to play upon this stage. We can live inauthentically, or we can fully commit to the life we have been dealt.

Try, now, to accept yourself exactly as you are. As a thought experiment, consider what it would mean if there was no more hope of improvement. No way to lose 10 pounds. No new skills. No promotion. No fashion make-over. No new high score. Just you. As if you were, essentially, the person that you were going to be for all your remaining days. Could you embrace being that person? Is this life you have currently good-enough?

Difficult? This thought experiment brings us to a paradox: Self-acceptance must be unconditional, and yet, it is nearly impossible to conceive of the self as not changing. As long as we are ourselves, we will have some capacity to change and grow. In other words, awareness of the self also includes awareness of the power of the self to change. Acceptance of the self requires us to reckon with how we will use this power.

This paradox, as we will soon see, is the twisting force that creates the bend in the spiral path.


In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue. 

The final idea in my series of the 12 ideas that can change your life.

Your mind will tell you that your worth comes from without—that your value as a person is reflected in how others judge you. As such, you should always do what will increase your estimation in the eyes of others. This gets it all wrong—in multiple ways. Your worth would not come from your achievements, your status, or the admiration given to you by others. These things are beyond your control, and therefore cannot be indications of your worth.  But why do we even need to know what we are worth? Are we for sale? Do we ever get to cash in on our worth? No. ‘Self-worth’ is the wrong concept. What really matters is our virtue—how we are fulfilling our unique potential to live according to our values.

Virtue is the only thing really good in life. It is the only thing that cannot be corrupted to serve evil ends. The central idea here—the genius idea at the core of Stoic philosophy is that the purpose of our lives is to do good AND that good can only come from what is up to us. Those may sound like simple ideas, but together they are powerful. Yes, it is true that much of what happens to us is beyond our control—losses, sickness, tragedy, bad luck, faulty genes, people slandering us, betrayal, nasty relatives, natural disasters, war, and death can all happen to us—and most of these will happen to us. But these things are absolutely powerless over our virtue because they are not the product of our free choice.  This means that if you accept that the purpose of your life is to live with virtue, nothing can stop you from doing so. Living for virtue yields a kind of invincibility. 

Virtue requires living according to your values. So what are those?

No one can truly tell you what your values must be.  Others can only tell you what values hold meaning for them. The Ancient Greeks recognized four primary values:

  • Courage—the ability to endure the fear and difficulty that would stop us from achieving our goals.
  • Temperance (or self-control)—the ability to resist excesses.
  • Justice—the ability to treat the people we interact with fairly and compassionately.
  • Wisdom—the ability to make effective decisions in response to practical problems.

Now, it is up to you to define what your values are, but you could certainly do a lot worse than these four. Notice that these values provide direction in how you would try to live your life, but they are not goals unto themselves. For example, you never get to say you have achieved Self-control and can cross that off your to-do list. Alas, there is always another batch of warm cookies on the horizon. Also notice that no matter what your life circumstances—even if you are in a prison cell, exiled to a foreign land, lingering on your deathbed, or (gasp!) have to wait three minutes in line at the deli counter, it is still possible to live according to your values.

In a Nutshell: Virtue means making the most of your human potential—living according to the values you have chosen rationally. Virtue requires choice. Fate, fortune, luck, the actions of others and everything else you can’t control are irrelevant. If you choose to make virtue your purpose, nothing can ever get in your way.

How to Use This Idea:

Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to live the most excellent life you can live. There are three parts to doing this: Values Clarification, Responding to Problems, and Reviewing Your Progress.

Values Clarification. Spend some time evaluating what your values are—what you would consider the essential characteristics of a life well lived to be? One tried and true (if a tad morbid) method of doing this is to imagine your own funeral (or at least a party given in your honor years from now) and ask yourself how you would like to be described and remembered.

Responding to Problems. Whenever you encounter a problem, focus only on the part of it that you can do something about. As you consider your options, ask yourself what kind of response would be consistent with your values. If you confront a problem that you cannot do anything about, accept it, or use the classic Stoic response, “This is nothing to me.”

Reviewing Your Progress. At the end of every day (or week, or whatever timeframe works for you), think back over your actions and evaluate how well you did at living according to your values.  If you did well at something, acknowledge it, and encourage yourself to continue in that fashion. If you did something that was not in line with your values, accept that, but also recommit yourself to living according to your values going forward.

The Fine Print:

You might as well accept this now: You are never going to live according to your values, at least not perfectly. We humans are flawed creatures, capable of doing good only by constantly pushing back against our irrational tendencies. But this shouldn’t stop you. Virtue is about the journey—it’s something you move towards, slowly over time.  The ancient Stoics sometimes employed the idea of a Stoic Sage—a being who could have perfect virtue. It wasn’t that they believed that he really existed or should be worshiped.  Instead, the Sage was a useful concept, one that allowed them to ask ‘What would the Sage do’ in any given circumstance? This provided them with a model that they could seek to emulate, even though they would never attain the status of a Sage.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

A mis-lived life. Humans waste a great deal of effort obsessing on and making futile demands about what is not up to them. Making Virtue your purpose will ensure that you do not live your life focused on trivialities. By setting our sights on goals that are not up to us, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Living for attainment, achievement, wealth, or status will, for all but a lucky few, lead to a life lacking in some essential quality.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Self-Actualization. Making the most of your human potential means doing what you can to live according to your values. Over time this will lead to your flourishing.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea is old. It is the core of Stoic Philosophy, a school of thought that originated in ancient Greece and later spread to Ancient Rome. It is most associated with the philosophers Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. My understanding of Stoic philosophy has been shaped primarily by two modern writers, William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.  Some of the treatment I gave to Values also reflects principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, associated with Steven Hayes. The critique of the view of self-worth given at the beginning of this post, and indeed many of the ideas that run throughout all of the 12 ideas comes directly from Albert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).  Ellis saw REBT as an application of ancient and modern philosophies including stoicism.


The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #12: In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue.

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.


Love and Kindness Meditation

This is one of my favorite techniques for self-improvement.  It’s a meditative technique that fosters a very positive emotion and will probably aid in achieving relaxation as well.

Effectiveness: 2017-07-30 03.21.28 pm.png

Difficulty: Medium

Use In Response To: Depression, Anger, Anxiety, or Urges.

Basic Idea: Meditate by repeating a mantra expressing love and kindness towards an increasingly broad group of people.

Description: Loving Kindness Meditation, also called Metta in Buddhism is a technique designed to develop unconditional love for all beings. This type of meditation can be combined with any of the other relaxation techniques. For example, while seated and comfortable, start with Paced Breathing and then begin to follow the following pattern.

You will begin by saying the following phrases to yourself:

May I be well. May I be loved. May I grow wise. May I live happily.

Alternatively, you can use more traditional language such as:

May I be free from enmity, affliction and anxiety, and live happily.

You can modify this to fit any spiritual or belief system you like.

Now let’s expand the recipients of these sentiments gradually, as if you were creating ever-widening concentric circles of loving kindness around yourself. Say each phrase a number of times (try three times at first). If you would like, you can picture the faces of people you know and care about as you do this. You might even imagine that you are sending them waves of love. Try to feel the deep caring you have for them, and then extend this to the people you hardly know or do not like. You can extend this to all the people in your town, your city, your state, your country, the whole world, even all living beings everywhere in the universe. For example:

May my family be well. May my family be loved. May my family grow wise. May my family live happily. (Say three times)

May my friends be well. May my friends be loved. May my friends grow wise. May my friends live happily. (Say three times)

May my neighbors be well. May my neighbors be loved. May my neighbors grow wise. May my neighbors live happily. (Say three times)

May all those I know be well. May all those I know be loved. May all those I know grow wise. May all those I know live happily. (Say three times)

May all who have displeased me be well. May all who have displeased me be loved. May all who have displeased me grow wise. May all who have displeased me live happily. (Say three times)

May all human beings be well. May all human beings be loved. May all human beings grow wise. May all human beings live happily. (Say three times)

With practice, you may feel an upsurge of positive emotion as you complete this meditation.

It turns out that this practice also ties in nicely with the philosophy of Stoicism.  Although Stoicism does not emphasize formal (Eastern-style) meditation or the repetition of  mantras, it does deal with the same expanding concentric circles around the self. The image associated with this post is known as the Circle of Hierocles. The idea is that our goal should be to pull the circles in towards us, so that we treat our family the way we would treat ourselves, and our friends the way we would treat our family and so on.  I think the mediation described above would serve the same goal.

Find more Coping Skills for Resilience in my free eBook, The Invisible Toolbox! If you like what you find there, please leave a review where you downloaded the eBook from–it will help other people find the book.