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.

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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.

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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. 

Morning Reflection: On Disaster

Today is the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and it’s (yet another) day where hundreds of thousands of Americans may be waking up to find their homes and communities devastated by natural disaster.  Such times sober us and focus us on what is most important.

What, if anything, can philosophy do for us under such circumstances–where the stability of our lives is ripped asunder? Certainly, this is no time to ponder circular questions.  But I would argue that this is when a philosophy of life is most useful. Like a hurricane ripping the roof off of a house, these events lay bare the flaws in our personal philosophies of how to live. If living a good life is only about sidestepping misfortune for long enough to acquire more possessions than anyone else you went to school with, then we are always one storm wall away from being complete failures.  Just as we may need to hurricane-proof our structures, we need to hurricane-proof our minds.

How do we do that? The ancient philosophy of Stoicism provides a crucial insight. We can gain a kind of invincibility by not tying our worth to what is beyond our control.  A hurricane or a terrorist attack can take many things away from you (including your life) but these events cannot force you to make choices that are opposed to your understanding of the human good.  If your philosophy of living emphasizes excellence of character above all else than these momentous events provide you with an opportunity to exercise your human potential.

So maybe, if you are fortunate enough to not have to wade through your living room today, take today as an opportunity to think about your own philosophy of life and what you see as the most important elements of human excellence. Try to emphasize those things that are actually under your control because whatever isn’t, will, eventually, float away.

One last thing, if you do find that helping others in need is important to you, Global Giving is generally a well regarded organization by charity watchdog groups.

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.

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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.