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One Central Question

One of the things that separate us from animals is our self-awareness. Part of the process of maturing is discovering who we are and either coming to grips with it, or changing the aspects of ourselves that we’re not happy with. Our lives are never-ending itineraries on a journey whose destination keeps changing.

The question we are constantly trying to answer for ourselves is who do we want to be? When we’re very young, the answers are usually fairly simple and direct; we want to be firefighters, astronauts, princesses. In that time of our life, we define our being by how others perceive us; the tendency is to want to be admired, respected and loved.

As we grow older and more complex, so too our aspirations grow more layered and detailed. We don’t just want to be cowboys; we want to be custodians of the western lifestyle. As much as we define ourselves by what we do, what we do is usually only a part of what we want to become.

It’s not just self-improvement and it isn’t a bucket list, either. We have goals in mind, benchmarks that mark a successful life, whether it be owning a nice home, having a career in politics or raising a family. For each of us, there is something that is important to us, and we measure our success in life by that mark. Standards of success are as individual as we ourselves are. What motivates you to drag your ass out of bed may not be the same for me

The problem with that is that as we gather more life experience, the things we value might change. I can truthfully say that the things that were important to me 30 years ago aren’t as important now. As I approach the half century mark, I measure my achievements in the good that I do and the inspiration I provide. At 40, I measured it by where I was in my career. At 30, I was looking for stability. At 20, I was only looking to get laid.

We are rarely satisfied with where we are. Oh, sometimes we are – but there’s always something we can be doing better. We could have more money, a bigger house, a better car, more sex. There aren’t many people who can honestly say “I’m completely satisfied with what I have and who I am.” In a way, that’s a good thing – most of us achieve growth by striving to improve our situation.

We have to look at our achievements not so much as ends, but as benchmarks, means of measuring our standards for our own success. After all, if one of your goals is to raise a family, your life isn’t over when your kids move out on their own. It becomes a matter of refocusing your life on new goals.

That refocusing keeps us engaged in life, and that is a key to living. When we stop being engaged, when we shut ourselves in our homes, turn on the TV and settle into a comfortable routine, it might be easy but it isn’t living. I truly believe that as we get older, that need to remain engaged becomes critical to our lifespan. I’m not sure if there is a scientific study behind it, but from what I’ve witnessed myself I think that those who no longer want to be part of life are more likely to die.

Of course, change is not an end in itself. When we make changes, it should be for good reason, not just for the sake of change. People are not like furniture; our natures shouldn’t be re-arranged because you’ve had the same one for too long. Changes also don’t have to be fundamental; remaining engaged can be as simple as taking a wine appreciation course, or learning a new skill, or joining a social club. It’s about reaching out and holding on.

It’s easy in this society to become isolated. Our goals are increasingly all about convenience; the more we can do from our laptops, the better we like it. Ordering things online is taking the place of going to the mall. Reading news bites on your Yahoo homepage is what we do instead of reading a newspaper. We throw frozen meals into microwaves instead of cooking. We have come to expect that our needs will be met as instantaneously as possible; we get frustrated when they are not. How many times have we found ourselves screaming at our computers when something doesn’t load as quickly as we want it to? There is certainly nothing convenient or easy about growth.

Growth is not a short-term thing; it’s a long-term evolution that continues from the moment we are born to the second we die. There are those who believe that our lives are evaluated by the amount of growth we achieve, and there’s some merit in that idea. Our ability to improve ourselves is one of the human traits that is responsible for our evolution beyond sitting around a cave, picking fleas off of our pelts.

But it is not just about evolving. It’s what we do with it. Setting goals and life aspirations not only measures our growth, it helps stimulate it. Understanding the nature of what we’ve achieved, using it to inspire others – that is what sets individuals apart as leaders. After all, it’s one thing if we grow individually; inspire growth in others and eventually we grow as a species. Now, that’s what I call a legacy.

Becoming who we want to be is the most important thing we do as humans. It is what defines us for our entire lives. It colors how we are perceived, and influences our actions. Those of us who merely float along on the tide miss out on what it is to be human. The problem that most of us face is that we don’t always know who we are. That makes it difficult for us to map out a route to who we want to become. Solving that riddle takes a lifetime.

Wisdom is sometimes defined as knowing the difference between the things we can change and the things we should accept. Happiness is, generally speaking, accepting who we are and where we are in life. There would seem to be something of an opposition between wisdom and happiness – ignorance, it seems, is bliss after all. However, if we accept growth as an inevitable part of life, we can be happy in our desire to make things better. It is, after all, all about the journey; the destination, not so much.


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