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.

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.


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.



Gratitude Journaling

Here is another excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: Coping Skills for Everyday Resilience–a book I wrote to catalogue the my helpful techniques for responding to depression, anger, anxiety and unwanted urges.

Gratitude Journaling

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Difficulty: Easy

Use In Response To: Depression, Anger, or Urges

Basic Idea: Regularly reflect on those aspects of your life that you are grateful for.

Description: Life can be like a treadmill sometimes—the more you accomplish, the more there is left to accomplish. The more you get, the more you want. For example, let’s say you have a functioning car but you would like a new car. While you are in the state of wanting the new car, you believe the new car will make you happy (“And it has heated seats!”). And when you get it, it does make you happy…for a short time. But as you come to get used to having the car, you can’t imagine how you once got by without it (or how your backside ever went without being toasted like a bagel). So instead of it being a positive thing that brings you happiness, you become accustomed to it and it no longer produces the pleasure it once did. If this pattern continues, your life might come to consist of going from one short-lived pleasure to another, with you never being more than momentarily satisfied.

The antidote to this problem is gratitude—wanting what you’ve already got. This is accomplished by thinking about the good things you have and, more importantly, the people you love but with the understanding that you are very fortunate to have these blessings in your life at all. Reflect on how their presence is so much better than their absence. Other things you might want to think about are the physical comforts of your home and conveniences, cherished possessions, means of transportation, access to clean water, your health, etc.

To use this as a coping skill, you would combat negative thoughts and emotions by forcing yourself to think about what you are most grateful for right in that moment. You can also do this as a regular practice by writing down three things that you are grateful for in a journal each night before you go to sleep.

Try it now: Think about your life and identify the three things or people that you are most grateful for.

Variations On Gratitude Journaling:

  1. What three things that happened today are you most grateful for?
  2. What three people outside your family are you most grateful to have in your life?
  3. What three events that occurred within your lifetime are you most grateful for?
  4. Who are the people that you are most grateful to have met?
  5. What three possessions are you most grateful for?
  6. What three experiences are you most grateful to have had?
  7. What three places are you most grateful to have visited?
  8. What are the three characteristics of yourself that you are most grateful for?
  9. What three books (or movies) are you most grateful to have experienced?
  10. What three challenges are you most grateful to have faced?

For more Coping Skills check out my free eBook here.

You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 11)

Your mind will tell you that  your good work is not good enough. Do good work anyway. Avoid striving for perfection at all costs. Perfectionism is the idea that no standard other than flawlessness is acceptable. But it rarely stops there. Hidden within our demands for the perfect performance is the desire to be perfect ourselves. Indeed only such a perfect person could achieve the level of perfect performance that the perfectionist demands. You need not concern yourself with that. Perfection is an illusion.  It is like a light that seems to be atop the next hill—distant but attainable—but which is, in fact, a star rising in the evening, hopelessly out of reach. Excellence, by contrast, is in the here and now. It occurs within the moment of action. It emerges only from doing with intention.

Perfectionism is a trap. Once you allow your goal to be tainted with it, you will become paralyzed by the expectation that your work could—and should—be flawless. Perfectionism will force you to immediately confront the possibility that it might not be so (in fact it definitely won’t be so!). And if it isn’t? That would be horrible! You would be a failure! And you just can’t take that can you? The result? Doing nothing.

Well let’s climb out of that particular bog. Your goal is to do good work. This will take effort, but it need not be a herculean endeavor. Moderate effort sustained over time will lead to the completion of achievable goals.

Perfectionism will call for the rejection of the achievable goal. But large goals are only attained by the successive completion of small goals. Achievable goals—those that can be executed within minutes,  hours, or the working day—are the only goals that matter. It is in the completion of these stepping stone tasks that we fulfill our potential and flourish.

The Fine Print:

Achieving your potential doesn’t mean living up to some arbitrary standard imposed from without. No one—not even you can know  what your potential truly is in advance. Potential is revealed only in the doing. You don’t have to win that golden medal, sell the most widgets, or claim the corner office. You must set the goal for yourself and it must be measured against yourself. If life is a race, the other runners are irrelevant. Their speed  is an arbitrary measure based on an accidental sample. Fulfilling your potential may mean just running any part of the race at all or completing it with a faster time than your last effort—even if you come in dead last! Your excellence is not borne of besting others. It is not forged in the fires of competition. Competition may inspire you to push yourself, but it must never be a measuring rod of your worth.  Excellence is borne of your intention to do good work, and forged in the fires of your own effort.

In a Nutshell:

To strive for perfection is to be stagnant. Instead, seek to do good work by putting forth moderate effort over time to complete achievable tasks. Seek to fulfill your unique potential without resorting to comparison with others.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

Stagnation. Nothing will destroy your productivity and fulfillment faster than perfectionism. Perfectionism will turn your successes into perceived defeats and your ability to accomplish into seeming helplessness.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Mastery. Here mastery is a personal value—the preference to work to attain proficiency at a skill. Mastery follows from effort put forth over time. Your failures will not destroy your resolve (as they would if your goal was perfection) but rather you will learn from each one, honing your skill ever more. In time, you will be able to accomplish tasks of such difficulty that you would once have thought them impossible.

The Source of this Idea:

Many have sited the dangers of perfectionism. One thinker who articulated the problems that result from the “should’s” and “must’s” that compose perfectionism is Albert Ellis, whose views on the subject can be seen here.  His thoughts on perfectionism might provide a clue to how he was able to author or co-author over 75 books (no stagnation going on there!).

[Alright!  I am one idea away from completing my list!  This has been a very interesting project for me.  These ideas are usually pressed as negatives. Trying to phrase them as positive ideas has been a very useful exercise. Please let me know what you think! ]


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

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.

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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.


Others Will Not Approve. Carry On Without Approval.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 5)

The approval of our peers is something we have a natural tendency to desire.  And our society seems to continually reinforce the message that the most important thing in the world is to elevate your status and thereby to win the begrudging respect of others. The problem is that since we cannot control how others view us, to see approval as something we MUST have will lead to misery. More than that, it is simply not possible to make everyone happy. Every goal that you complete in your life will carry the risk of making someone, somewhere unhappy with you.

Living to please others, or living to win admiration, is not the path to a satisfying life. It is, rather a way to feel perpetually uneasy with your standing. After all, if you must be admired by others to attain your worth, your worth will always depend on their whims. This is hardly the stable ground to build your identity upon.

You were not put on this earth to win universal admiration. You can live well even if others do not approve of you. In fact, in order to live the best life you can—in order to be true to your values and sincerely pursue your goals, it may be necessary to lose the approval of some people. But rejection doesn’t kill us—particularly if we are being rejected for something we believe in.

One particularly damaging arrangement is to believe that not only do you require admiration but that you require a specific person to admire (need, desire, love) you.  How much collective heartache do humans experience the world over from the belief that one specific person’s love is their unique opportunity for happiness?

In a Nutshell: It’s just not true that it is mandatory to be admired. Some people are not going to like you, and they don’t even need a good reason for it. And while it is natural and often sensible to prefer to be liked and admired, it is never mandatory. Your worth as a person is not based on the views others take of you.


When you find yourself smarting from some real (or imagined) rejection, say to yourself, “I’m disappointed. I would have preferred others to approve of me…but this is not a catastrophe. I can live with this rejection. I do not NEED approval. My worth is not tied to what other people think of me.”


Now this doesn’t mean that you should purposefully behave in a way that others will find despicable. This isn’t an excuse to be a hermit, a miscreant, an internet troll, or a recluse. It is healthy to have friends and loving relationships. It is also healthy to be respectful of others, even when you are not doing what they would wish you to do. But if living according to your values results in others rejecting you, or if there is nothing you could have done to win their admiration, then you should accept that they do not HAVE TO admire you (even though you would have preferred that they did), that you do not NEED admiration, and that you will be OK without it (even if it is disappointing).


Leaving behind the notion that others must approve of you will go a long way to reducing social anxiety and the paralysis that comes with it. Needing approval limits our ability to interact with others (or to be our authentic self in their presence).


Needing approval leads to stagnation—particularly because not everyone values the things you do. Not everyone will approve of you reaching your goals. So achieving self-assuredness will help you gain a sense of meaning in your life because it will allow you to live according to your own values—not the values of others.


In Stoic Philosophy the admiration of others, even the love of your spouse is seen as a “Preferred Indifferent” meaning that it is something we are right to prefer. But it is not innately a good (or necessary) thing because only those things that are up to us, can be good. Because we cannot control what others think of us, it is not required for our virtue. This idea is echoed in the psychotherapy of REBT created by Albert Ellis who cited the irrational belief that we must be loved as a source of much human misery.

Next: People Suck Sometimes. Accept them Anyway.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

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.