“Life is a journey.” This trite, overused metaphor — a staple of self-help literature and pseudo-intellectual motivation bloviation — suggests that the essential ingredient to living a happy and fulfilled life is to set goals and then work to achieve them. Tidy and linear.
Great idea, in the abstract, but too simplistic to be useful.
The journey metaphor assumes a few important premises. Most of the folks using it recognize that you need to identify your point of origin as well as your planned destination. You can’t make it to Miami if you don’t know whether you’re presently in Duluth or Las Cruces, for example. The motivational encouragement is therefore predictable: Set goals, and then reflect on where you’re at, so you can create a roadmap for success.
My problem with this approach is that it lacks a mechanism for stopping to smell the roses. Even if you figure out you’re in Duluth and really do want to make it to Miami, the “journey” metaphor and its associated tips and tricks makes precious little room for scenic detours. In fact, according to some self-appointed self-help gurus, the detours are considered failures.
Make no mistake: Reflection and goal-setting remain significant parts of any successful person’s toolkit. But something else is needed — a set of strategies about how to live a fulfilled life that empower people to know when, where, how, why, and if a detour is worth the effort.
For myself, I’ve set five strategies. These were borne from months of reflection and represent concepts that strongly resonate with me — who I am, and who I aspire to be. Each person ought to set his own strategies, to serve as the traffic rules to govern life’s journey.
My strategies include:
- Cultivate serenity. Inner turmoil and social drama: the Scylla and Charybdis of emotional maturity. Oh, how seductive the lure of interpersonal drama. A codependent friend, a co-worker with a bad attitude, family dysfunction — these sirens sing to us, lulling us into a cesspool of negative emotion that is damned difficult to escape. It takes a lot of work to remain serene when the world seems to be going to hell around you, but it can be done. Medieval monks nurtured a discipline of “spiritual indifference,” which allowed them to observe and be engaged with those around them while remaining indifferent to the tumult within. It’s an attitude that requires a person to keep his empathy and remain connected to others, yet understanding the importance of maintaining an emotional firewall.
- Reduce consumption. Whether it’s too many calories or too much alcohol or too-frequent shopping trips, consumption can rob a person of his resources and vitality. In all things, ask the question: Is this necessary? Do I need it? Why do I want it? The goal isn’t necessarily to live like an ascetic, but rather to ensure that consumption of any kind is necessary and appropriate.
- Nurture relationships. Without others, we lack context. Everyone needs a network of people, provided that they are the right people. Surround yourself with people who can do things for you, and who will allow you to do things for them. Avoid the incessantly negative, the narcissistic and the emotionally immature. Connect with people of substance, and keep the relationship alive. Find at least five people you could call at 3 a.m. and know they’d respond without hesitation or reservation, and more importantly — be that person for others.
- Exhibit insatiable curiosity. Never stop asking why. Never stop learning. Never stop welcoming new experiences, new friends, new adventures. The person who turns his back on a child-like curiosity about the world and the people within it, loses an essential piece of his humanity.
- Do few things, but do them well. People who know me best know that I’m a jack of all trades but master of none. An ocean’s worth of breadth, and a puddle’s worth of depth. My grandfather had a saying: “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.” That phrase was both inspiration and rebuke. It’s easy to get caught up in master planning, developing a sequence of events, activities and goals that would yield a modern-day Renaissance Man, if only a person had time to do it between all the planning and reflecting. Breadth has its value; a wide perspective allows a person to see the world from different angles, informed by different ideas. Yet depth is important, too; someone who has never really struggled for mastery is, in some sense, locked into perpetual adolescence. Perhaps the solution is to do a few things, but do them well. Be broad, but find a few very important subjects or hard goals and master them.
These strategies govern my decision-making process. The allow me to evaluate whether a deviation or change of plan is good, bad or indifferent. They help foster virtues, attitudes and behaviors that make me a better person irrespective of my pursuit of individual goals.
What are your strategies?