Self-worth. As we age, we shed the innocence of childhood naivete and acquire maturity (or what I prefer to call perspective). We learn that what we think of ourselves is more important than what others think of us. Self-worth has little to do with, therefore does not require, the approval of others. Their expectations should never determine who we are, what or how we think nor the paths we choose to walk. This reality must be embraced if we are to grow without shackles. Especially if we are to live fully and freely amidst increasing uncertainty, irrationality and the spectre of terrifying events.
The compulsion to please everyone ultimately leads to self-denial and alienation. When our needs and principles are in conflict with those who matter, we must engage in respectful dialogue to better understand our differences, then assertively seek either a resolution or a reconciliation of views. When they differ with those for whom we have little regard, we must let go of the daunting imperative for accommodation, to let what divides us pass, like water under the bridge that may always keep us apart.
Insight. Consciousness matters. It’s the theater and engine of our minds. Hence, it’s the core of our being. It determines how we feel, reason, reflect and create. It enables insight into why we act the way we do and how we explain our behaviour to ourselves (as well as to others). Yet the phenomenon of subjective experience is incomprehensible to most. We believe our decisions are made rationally in a part of the brain called the “executive command centre.” They are not. They are made subconsciously and emotionally from the bottom up. All the command centre (cerebral cortex) does is help us explain to ourselves the choices we’ve already made.
The subliminal mind remains a great mystery. We know brilliant decisions are invariably the product of our subconscious, or what we call our sixth sense. This intuitive powerhouse processes incoming data at a rate of almost two billion bits per second (as opposed to about 2000 bits/second for the conscious mind). The practical implications of this are profound. The phenomenon of insight, based on learned pattern recognition, invariably beats rational analysis in complex or chaotic situations. Since that is increasingly the state of the world today, we must view our capability for insight as a skill rather than a gift. And develop it accordingly.
Momentum. A gifted CEO, whose friendship I value, once told me that momentum is more important than results. In his words: “Inactivity is a company killer. Sometimes I make decisions just to keep things moving forward. I figure out a better solution or process along the way … of course I never admit this to anyone.” He’s figured out he can always correct a bad decision but that paralysis by analysis is anathema to a forward-looking culture. When we’re doing something, we feel we’re accomplishing something. Meaningful progress – doing something vs. nothing – validates our ego. Admitting the latter often leads to dissatisfaction and disapproval.
This notion requires further thought. There is (occasionally) a third option to consider. When “doing something” doesn’t lead you toward to the desired results, then doing nothing under difficult or complicated circumstances may make more sense. Time might be better invested in asking intelligent, probing questions and gathering more information. There’s a difference between effort and productivity. Effort is about being busy; productivity is about delivering results. The next time you feel the urge to do something simply for the sake of doing something, remember Thoreau’s advice: “It is not enough to be busy; so too are ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” And will it generate the results we seek? More time spent on the diagnosis usually leads to better prescriptions.
Mortality. Whatever unimaginable hardships we face or doubts we may have, we seek the freedom to self-actualize – to realize our full potential and be the authors of our lives. We can’t always control our circumstances nor how we think of them. But the life blood of being human is surely the ability to figure it out, make good decisions and write our own stories. Self-actualization is the incremental ripening of who we want to be, from childhood forward. And that is a consequence of the innumerable choices we must make, both big and small. With each of these, we pave the path towards our destiny in the very act of walking it. Although our goals and our priorities will shift in response to new challenges, and our hopes and desires evolve with maturity, it’s really the final chapters we write that make our story.
There is, however, a choice most of us cannot make. And that is when our days will end and in what way. Steve Jobs once said “the journey is the reward.” We often forget that. Atul Gawande said: “The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life – to avoid becoming diminished or subjugated or disconnected from who you are and who you want to be.” In contemplating mortality, we need to be more mindful of the journey and less concerned about the outcome. We need to ask how we can enrich it by living fully. I’m not talking about implanting a batch of stem cells to make one healthier or stronger or more creative. Medical science can now do that, though the notion of unintended consequences prudently holds us back. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue “figuring it out.” (And, that, by the way, might be the title of my next book.)