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.



The Observing Self

You are not your thoughts and you are not your emotions. You are the being that experiences thoughts and emotions. But much of these experiences are passive—they just seem to happen. And anything that just happens—that you are not in control of—is not you. You are the being that makes choices, that sets goals, and that acts. These actions are the work of the true self.

Spend a few moments just letting your thoughts come and go. Just sit quietly and let what happens happen. There is no need to direct. No need to produce any particular kind of mental state. This is not about being empty, or calm, or at peace. It’s just about being open and willing to experience what is there. If it helps, try to adopt a stance of curiosity towards your thoughts. Avoid judging the thoughts as good or bad, interesting or dull. They are just thoughts, and there are plenty more where they came from.

This may seem simple, but it will not always be so. Our thoughts have a way of overwhelming us especially when we are in the throes of anger or anxiety. At such times, we may feel virtually certain of things that later will seem trivial or ridiculous. In every case, we will benefit from creating distance between our observing mind and the thoughts we are having. When we lose that distance, we can seem to become defined by our thoughts and emotions. This will always be a reduction in what we are, and we are no better off for the loss.

This state in which our self and that which we are experiencing seem to merge, is the state we wish to avoid. We can strive not to lose the distance between the observer and the observed. So as you go through your day today, continually reflect on what originates from your true self, and what does not. Explore your experiences. Reflect on what you think and feel. But in doing so do not get lost in this abyss. Thoughts and feelings are not necessarily treasures to be discovered. They may be fool’s gold. It is our actions, decisions, strategies, goals, projects, and chosen values that we should cherish above all the other products of our mind.

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Read more about Mindfulness here. 


Trail Guide: Taking Stock

Every journey has a starting point. For us, our starting point is often home. Home. Such a simple word. “Home”  will be our metaphor—a stand in for acceptance of where we are in our process of change.

Home is where we make our start. Maybe you like where you live. Maybe you are content there. Maybe not. But before you can change, you have to know where you will be setting out from. When you look at a map is not your first instinct to find where you are? Therefore, the first part of any journey is to be where you are. Not just to be there, but to be there with curiosity and acceptance. We cannot accept any journey without such acceptance of where we will make our start. We do not have to love that starting point. We do not have to even like it at all. But we must acknowledge where we are.

Let’s take stock of that place now. Look around you. Just notice. Avoid the temptation to judge. It comes so easily, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to. You can learn to see things differently. Learn to notice the small seemingly insignificant details of ordinary life. Here are some questions that might help you with this process.

What do you hear right now?
What do you see that is blue? Or red?
Or Green?
Where is the source of light coming from?
How is light shaped or created in your space?
How does light cast its shadows?
How does the light change the color of your surroundings?
How does light fall on you?
How does your world smell? What objects are in reach?
Pick one up or lay your hand upon it. How does it feel? Is it rough? Smooth? Heavy? Think about where this object came from. How was it made?
Was it made by human beings?
Was it made by an artist? A craftsman?
Forged through time and nature? How did it come to be here?

Your world is complex it’s full or rich details and lush textures. The world is enough to hold your attention if you wish to lavish your attention on it.

And now let us peel this metaphor back. How much more complex are you than your surroundings? You’ll find layers of thoughts, feelings, sensations, postures, urges, memories, dreams, values, regrets, and fears. These layers flow backward into time. You are the font of experience. Your first challenge is to let your experience unfold and just be aware of it. Accept the thoughts as they come. Notice the feelings. Again apply your curiosity and accept what you find there. Resist the temptation to judge. Resist the tendency to be like a gardener pulling weeds or an editor correcting text. Just take a few more moments and accept whatever comes without condemnation or praise. Just let it be.