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.

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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. 

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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Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease Is Not Required.

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 10)

Everything worth doing is worth putting effort into. We know this. But despite this awareness, there is often a lingering childishness in us, demanding that our path should be easy, that we should not have to work hard, and that we should never be uncomfortable. But a life lived according to your values will never be completely comfortable. Learning to tolerate the discomfort of effort is an important part of achieving your goals and fulfilling your potential.

The good news is that the more you put effort into your goals, the easier putting in effort becomes. It’s as if when we use effort to do good work, we get a discount on any future effort we put forth. For example, if you imagine a day where you have been very lazy, haven’t gotten off the couch and haven’t done anything difficult at all, how hard would it then be to do a chore like cook a meal, wash some dishes or do a load of laundry? You certainly could do it, but it would be difficult. In comparison to your lazy day, it would seem to be a high-effort task. Now imagine a day where you have been very productive and have already done several difficult things. How much effort would it take to put on that same load of laundry? Hardly any at all. That is the nature of effort. The extent to which effort is unpleasant varies greatly. But one sure way to make effort much more unpleasant and “expensive” is to tell yourself that you can’t tolerate it, or worse, that you shouldn’t have to.

In a Nutshell:

Life will present us with no shortage of situations where we will be uncomfortable, particularly when we are working towards our goals—and especially when those goals involve not giving in to harmful urges. But being uncomfortable does not harm us. We can put in the effort. We can accomplish our goals and live according to our values despite discomfort.

How to Use This Idea:

Be on the lookout for thoughts that tell you that you shouldn’t be uncomfortable, that something is too hard (when you know it’s not), and that you can’t put in the effort to do something important. Whenever you find these thoughts, question them and push back against them. Say to yourself, “Ok. This will make me uncomfortable. This is difficult.” But then ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What is my goal? How important is that goal to me?” Remind yourself that you can tolerate being uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not going to harm you.

The Fine Print:

Please don’t take this as an instruction to work hard just for the sake of working hard. The point is to do what is important to you—to get something worthwhile out of your efforts. Don’t be cruel with yourself. Don’t expect yourself to put in Herculean efforts. If you can, routinely put in a modest amount of effort. Don’t feel like you need to always take the more difficult road just because it is difficult. Shortcuts are not always bad ideas if they really do bring you to the same place. Don’t treat being uncomfortable as a goal unto itself. When you tolerate discomfort you should know what purpose it serves.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid stagnation—especially the stagnation that comes from not working on your goals. If you can only do what comes easily, you will rarely achieve anything. If you rule out any course of action that requires effort or discomfort you will probably rule out the best option you have. And if you give into every urge that surfaces (because resisting it is uncomfortable) your life will very quickly become a downward spiral of misery.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Discipline. Whether we are doing our job, eating right, exercising, acting morally, or accomplishing your goals, discipline will be required. We build discipline only by deciding to do difficult, uncomfortable things even though it would be easier (in the short term) not to do them. We need to remind ourselves that these acts will serve us well, in the long run, acknowledge the discomfort, and do them anyway.

The Source of this Idea:

This post is a synthesis of many ideas. The discussion of self-discipline is inspired by Stoic philosophy. Albert Ellis’s (REBT-related) concept of Frustration Intolerance has certainly contributed to my thinking. And the experimental psychology concept of Learned Industriousness, Associated with Robert Eisenberger (and which my dissertation dealt with) is relevant as well.

Next: You Can Do Good Work Or Seek Perfection. But You Can’t Do Both

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.