BE INTERESTED AND TRY NEW THINGS: Some Vital Information Part 1
I’m truly hoping this post doesn’t come off as one of those bullshit motivational pieces that you’d find in the self-help aisle of Barnes and Noble. I frickin hate those. And to avoid TL;DR, I intend to convey my thoughts in the most engaging way possible using quotes, video clips, images and anecdotes from my own personal life in hopes of providing a broad sense of what I’ve learned this past year. A year filled with deep introspection and self-renewal.
I am in no way attempting to evangelize any of these principles as being a righteous path leading to eternal salvation or anything like that. It’s important to acknowledge that the majority of what I or anyone else “knows” or preaches is mostly realized from our own contextual life experiences. We are highly tethered by these experiences and can sometimes confuse familiarity with credence. However, there is no one size fits all model. What has worked for me will not necessarily work for you and vice versa. If you can apply some of these concepts into your own life great, if not, I hope the consideration was worth the time spent reading about them.
That said, there are 7 + billion people on the planet and therefore 7+ billion unique life perspectives. And I believe there’s significant value in learning about each and every one of these perspectives. We have all jumped through our own fires to get to where we are today; sometimes scathed, but more importantly, well experienced and therefore wiser. As Sam Harris puts it, “on one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice.” Because our internal voices are constantly being shaped and influenced, you never know when that “A-HA” moment is going to occur. When a concept, theory or ideology makes perfect sense as it’s applied into your life. It could come at anytime, from anywhere, from anybody. And it could happen often if you allow yourself to be open to it.
To me, it’s fascinating to learn about other people’s lives and journeys. Truth is almost always stranger than fiction. It’s impossible to script the reality shows of our lives. There’s much we can learn from each other so it’s probably important to not only share our experiences with the world, but to listen as well.
In any case, feel free to play around with these ideas. I hope they make the same type of impact for you as it did for me.
THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE GENERAL, THE BUSINESSMAN, THE AUTHOR, THE SCIENTIST, THE HUMANITARIAN….
About a year and a half ago, a friend sent me an excerpt from a John W. Gardner speech, which has been profoundly transformative. A sort of pseudo-reference guide for life, entangled with new perspectives for how it can be lived. The fundamental thesis touches upon the dangers of “going to seed”, or succumbing to life’s natural path of complacency and the countervailing measures we can resort to in hopes of deflecting it.
Who is John W. Gardner and why should we care about what he says? Let me provide some context, as I’m sure most of you have never heard of him. His accolades and accreditations are listed below:
- Served in the United States Marine Corps as a captain in World War II
- Acted as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson as well as served as a member of President Reagan’s Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives.
- Became president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1955 and was director of such corporations as Shell Oil, American Airlines, New York Telephone and Time Inc.
- President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
- Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Air Force.
- Founder of two influential national U.S. organizations: Common Cause and Independent Sector.
- Authored books on improving leadership in American society and other subjects.
- Founder of two prestigious fellowship programs, The White House Fellowship and The John Gardner Fellowship at Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley.
- Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
- In 1966 Gardner was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.
Safe to say that we are dealing with a highly motivated, highly productive and accomplished individual. Which, for me, lends credibility to his ideas and his opinions to be considered with merit.
Mr. Gardner seemed to have always been interested in the problems of organizational renewal, but it was in this speech, which he gave in Hawaii in 1993, that he turned his thoughts to personal renewal…….which makes it particularly special.
The speech is a distillation of observations garnered (pun intended) throughout the years and gifted to us through an eloquent yet thoughtful stream of consciousness at a Stanford University commencement. I will be referring to excerpts from it often throughout this post.
I silently thank my friend everyday who nonchalantly brought it to my attention.
It is a puzzle why some men and women go to seed, while others remain vital to the very end of their days. And why some people stop learning and growing. One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons: Perhaps life just presented them with tougher problems than they could solve. Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their self-esteem. Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim. I’m talking about people who — no matter how busy they seem to be — have stopped learning or trying. Many people are just going through the motions. I don’t deride that. Life is hard. Just to keep on going is sometimes an act of courage. But I do worry about men and women at whatever age functioning below the level of their potential -Gardner
The concept of attrition rings loudly here. Attrition is a very real thing as we get older and something we must be aware of. It’s the anti-hero playing lead role in the movie of our lives that can prove to be our own kryptonite if not managed effectively.
Attrition: the action or process of gradually reducing the strength or effectiveness of someone or something through sustained attack or pressure.
Now let’s assume here that life itself represents the sustained attack or pressure.
To put it another way, attrition is the involuntary degradation of the cognitive mind and physical body as it is a function of productivity and growth.
Comparable to the perpetual waning of battery life on your laptop computer or phone from overuse. Apple, Samsung, Nokia etc are constantly on trial for a concept called “planned obsolescence” with their hardware products (the policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer functional after a certain period of time). You know, that moment your iphone 5s begins to malfunction precisely at month 26, coinciding directly with your Apple Care insurance expiring, forcing you to go out and buy the iphone 6. Yes, Apple has this down to a science.
But this concept doesn’t quite apply when we talk about it in the context of our lives. Meaning we can’t just go out and buy a new one once the current one ends. In other words, we have to make our original batteries last our entire lives.
The good news is that our batteries are inherently rechargeable and can be tenable against degradation. No matter how low, rusty or worn out they become we always have the capacity of plugging into the wall and powering up to make them good as new (sometimes better). There’s also a vast network of “outlets” within our bodies for us to use at our disposal at all times.
If we are conscious of the danger of going to seed, we can resort to countervailing measures. You don’t need to run down like an unwound clock. And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically. I know some people who feel that that just isn’t possible for them, that life has trapped them. But they don’t really know that. Life takes unexpected turns. –Gardner
I’m passionate about fighting attrition because I fell victim to it a few years back. I became hyper-dependent and complacent in my long term relationship which ended up preventing me from operating at my full potential and operating at my best self. I began to normalize and settle into “going through the motions” of life. I justified it all as a phase, but its persistence quickly became my default reality.
I want to acknowledge that this was not necessarily the worst thing in the world. And I don’t particularly think there’s anything wrong with settling or slowing down in life. It can be a wonderfully rewarding time full of tranquility and reflection. I’m certainly not judging people who do settle into domesticated behaviors.
However, I experienced first handed what those dangers of “going to seed” were all about. When I welcomed this type of unabashed comfort into my life, I quickly began to habituate. I let comfort wrap her giant polar bear paws around me like a cozy blanket. She took me in her warm, plush embrace and I conceded without putting up much of a fight.
This may have not been an issue had it not completely cannibalized my life. Like a giant bean bag chair I sank in and never wanted to get up. This proved to have some corrosive effects. All my ambition diminished and nothing seemed to be that exciting anymore. My edge dulled. My motivation as well as my desire to learn began waning. What I lacked in curiosity, I made up for in lethargy. My overall zest for life was subdued. At the end of the day, comfort was the main forcing function of my own attrition.
An excerpt from Siddartha explains his experience with something similar during his transformation into the “Enlightened One”
Sadly, Siddartha went to a pleasure garden that belonged to him, closed the gates, sat under a Mango tree, and felt horror and death in his heart. He sat and felt himself dying, withering, finishing. Gradually he collected his thoughts and mentally went through the whole of his life, from the earliest days which he could remember. When had he really been happy? When had he really experienced joy? Well, he had experienced this several times. He had tasted it in the days of his boyhood, when he had won praise from the Brahmins, when he far outstripped his contemporaries, when he excelled himself at the recitation of the holy verses, in argument with the learned men, when assisting at the sacrifices.
Then he had felt in his heart: “A path lies before you which you are called to follow. The Gods await you.” And again, as a youth, when his continually soaring goal had propelled him in and out of the crowd of similar seekers, when he had striven hard to understand the Brahmins’ teachings, when every freshly acquired knowledge only engendered a new thirst, then again, in the midst of his thirst, in the midst of his efforts, he had thought: Onwards, onwards, this is your path! He had heard this voice when he had left his home and chosen the life of the Samanas, and again when he had left the Samanas and gone to the Perfect One, and also when he had left him for the unknown. How long was it now since he had heard this voice, since he had soared to any heights? How flat and desolate his path has been! How many long years he had spent without any lofty goal, without any thirst, without any exaltation, content with small pleasures and yet never really satisfied!
Then Siddartha knew that the game was finished, that he could play it no longer. A shudder passed through his body: he felt as if something had died.
If we acknowledge attrition exists, we can be prepared to fight it once the early onsets appear. If we aren’t actively fighting attrition, we could get caught in a web of comfort and complacency traps which may have undesired consequences. Watching the days turn into months turn into years; while paralyzed in a lustless trance. Not operating at our full potential or contributing anything meaningful into the world.
My favorite quote from one of my favorite movies:
We all have that choice.
There’s something I know about you that you may or may not know about yourself. You have within you more resources of energy than have ever been tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given. You know about some of the gifts that you have left underdeveloped. Would you believe that you have gifts and possibilities you don’t even know about? –Gardner
Those reservoirs of energy and resources remain inside you your whole life, except they seem to become dormant as we get older. Why is that? Let’s warp back in time to our toddler years shall we?
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG
Growing up, we tend to fight hard against the day and mostly win. But win or lose, we were mostly interested in almost everything that came our way; engulfed with ignorant curiosity while having bounds of energy. Constantly exploring. Everything was new and exciting and we had a beautifully untainted view of the world. Our egos and sense of self were not yet defined and therefore we could care less about being judged.
I enjoy working with children because it reminds me of this. More often than not I detect a zestful exuberance in a child’s disposition. Always inquisitive, always explorative, always interested. There’s still that twinkle in their eye. Anything is possible. Their explorations have not yet been converted to expectations.
To spend any time in the presence of a young child is to witness a mind ceaselessly buffeted by joy and sorrow. -Sam Harris
We used to live uncompromised and unadulterated. We were free to make mistakes and we made them often. If something or someone knocked us down, we’d bounce right back up. Mostly because our judgement on pain and her consequences were not yet fully developed. Ignorance truly is bliss especially when it comes to trauma. We were all once mischievous, resilient, agile, adaptable and contrarian.
BE FOOLISH: THE WANDERLUST LIFE OF AN IMP
The impish children have a fearlessness that we adults have lost. That is because they do not see the possible consequences of their actions — how some people might be offended, how they might physically hurt themselves in the process. Imps are brazen, blissfully uncaring. They infect you with their lighthearted spirit. Such children have not yet had their natural energy and spirit scolded out of them by the need to be polite and civil. Secretly, we envy them; we want to be naughty too!
BECOMING AN “ADULT”
Every human on the planet is born with this type of hyper-curious hubris, but I believe many of us lose our grasp on it as attrition sets in. What happens to this exuberance as we get older?
Perhaps there’s only so much abuse the mind, body, spirit can take as the punches of life continuously hit and begin to wear us down. And life can be the ultimate heavyweight fighter; punching mercilessly and uncalculated. In fact, Mike Tyson has an exceptional quote that speaks directly to this:
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” -Mike Tyson
Mike was talking about his opponents in the ring, but I believe this can also be applied within the context of our lives. Getting punched in the face does not feel good. At some point it might become too much to bear. The harsh, unforeseen realities of life may force us to unconsciously begin building internal walls within ourselves to protect from external threats. Perhaps having this protection gives us piece of mind, makes us feel safe and lowers the probability of getting hurt. In addition, fear may begin to take hold:
What happens when one is afraid? You retreat, you hold back, you dither, you procrastinate. Worse, you become more prejudice, or even take on extreme forms of hate. You miss out on opportunities, you become a prisoner of your irrationality. -Anonymous
You make choices in life based on either Love or Fear. So many of us choose the path of fear disguised as practicality. — Jim Carey
Whatever the reason, I see this transformation more and more as people get older. They retreat inside of themselves and feel they must play the role of an adult with responsibilities. They get caught up in their judgements, lose their open-mindedness and stop having fun. Becoming listless and sometimes even bitter against the world.
“We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”- Robert R. McCammon
HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK
We build our own prisons and serve as our own jail keepers, but I’ve concluded that our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us — and self-images — that hold us captive for a long time. -Gardner
How can we break out of prison, resuscitate our magic and regain vitality in our adult years? As hard as life can be, we should never lose touch with our inherent impish nature and try to incorporate playful abandon throughout our entire lives.
“Life is too important to be taken seriously” — Oscar Wilde
This may sound a but counterintuitive, but I’ve experienced more success in my career not by obsessing about money, but by finding things that make me come alive, releasing my grip on life, meeting new people, engaging in more informal conversations, asking more questions and having more fun. All blanketed with a strong work ethic. I take what I’m doing seriously, but never take myself too seriously. As the Buddah teaches, I try not to make a distinction between work and play. I simply pursue my vision of excellence in whatever I’m doing and let others decide whether it’s work or play. To me it’s both.
Also Alan Watts talks about if money was no object…
What would you do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your time? I mean, what do you really desire? If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid! Better to have a short life filled with what you love, rather than a long one spent in a miserable way. — Watts
Managing my own psychology and adjusting judgements on what to expect from life while identifying the things that truly matter has allowed me to not sweat the small stuff. Simply being in a good mood and not taking yourself so seriously can go a long way. People will want to be around you and work with you. You’ll exude an aura of good energy and that is a great thing for the world. Come alive!
REMAIN FOOLISH: THE SEDUCTIVE LIFE OF AN ADULT IMP
Adult Imps are seductive because of how different they are from the rest of us. Breaths of fresh air in the cautious world, they go full throttle, as if their impishness were uncontrollable, and thus natural. If you play the part, do not worry about offending people now and then — you are too lovable and inevitably they will forgive you. Just don’t apologize or look contrite, for that would break the spell. Whatever you say or do, keep a glint in your eye to show that you do not take anything seriously.
Jungian Psychology promotes ways we can flourish in the second half of our lives offering a positive, life-enhancing approach to aging in which psychological and spiritual development is possible across the life span.
People in the second half of life can work toward the possibility of continuing creativity and fulfillment, and a deepening of spirituality. The key is to turn inward. And this is the journey I am currently on. It is a journey of self-exploration and inner discovery that Jung calls “individuation,” which is the central concept of analytical psychology. We can discover and build on our inner life, opening ourselves up to new ideas and experiences, continuing to grow and learn as we age, leading to a new sense of meaning and purpose in our life. This process of looking inward can open us to new ways of thinking about ourselves, our identities and the past and lead to the formation of new values and goals that can bring vitality and energy to our lives as we age. We can be open to conscious grieving and let go of goals that we did not achieve earlier in life. We can refocus our energy on those things that we can still achieve during the second half of life.
Henry David Thoreau tells the tale of Brooks Clark to remind us to never stop playing like a child:
I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead.
No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.
Throughout all the failures, judgements, disappointments, trials/tribulations and pain which life brings forth; deep down we still possess an innocence, a sense of vitality, an energy force bigger than we can ever fathom which unfortunately becomes dormant inside of us as we age. Being around kids reminds us that everyone is born with this power and we still possess it. And it’s quite an important thing to be reminded of. Let’s find ways to awaken our sleeping youthful souls and potentials. We all are, and forever will be, young at heart.
“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” ~Friedrich Nietzsch
End of Part 1. Part 2 coming soon!