(or The Relentless Pursuit of Self-Improvement)
“You are never satisfied. You have to keep pushing and keep moving on to the next thing.
When will this thing be good enough?”
Call it the curse of the creative, but I have many more great ideas than I actually execute on. As I joked with my friend the other day, you know your idea’s good when you try to buy the domain name and it costs in the thousands of dollars.
But, sometimes it takes someone you love and trust saying the difficult words to get you to pause and listen. We all need that person in our lives. Hopefully I can be that kick in the pants you need too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about contentment and what I’m pursuing ever since I’ve heard those words.
What is it that I’m trying to accomplish?
What am I trying to achieve?
Is my relentless pursuit of self-improvement actually hindering the process?
Working For John Maxwell
For the past two years I wrote professionally for John Maxwell’s organizations. If you are in the business/leadership sphere you’ve heard of Maxwell or at least seen one of his books. The same is true for the church world. Maxwell is a former pastor who transitioned to teaching and speaking on leadership twenty-five years ago. With his writing partner Charlie Wetzel, he’s written nearly one hundred books and he’s sought after as a speaker around the world.
Working for John you can’t help but be seduced by the message of self-improvement. He’s a fantastic speaker and his folksy, down to earth delivery and earnestness is the perfect medium. He’s an encourager who sincerely wants to help people bring out their best and he’s good at making you take a long, hard look at your life and your progress on life’s journey.
In my job I helped write the very words that encouraged transformation and improvement in others. My words are circulating in Paraguay in the form of roundtable discussion guides and in coaching curriculum used by businesses in the United States. One of the reasons I took the job in the first place was to help influence people I’d never meet with my words.
The Jocko Willink Effect
I stumbled across Jocko Willink while listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast. Jocko is a former Navy SEAL who has built a following on social media and podcasting. He’s exactly what you’d picture a Special Forces warrior to look like.
Go ahead, Google him and I’ll wait.
See, I told you.
The craggy face, the raspy voice, the no-nonsense attitude. Warrior. I suppose when your business is life and death you just don’t have much time for nonsense.
Jocko has a mantra: Discipline Equals Freedom. You can even get it on a t-shirt or coffee mug if you’d like. But that mantra makes sense to me and gets to the root of my desire for self-improvement.
Ultimately I want to make myself better because I want the freedom that a better me provides. Freedom from financial worry, freedom from self-doubt, freedom from wondering if I’m where I should be in life.
The other strong influence on me is a book by Greg McKeown called Essentialism. In a nutshell McKeown states that very few things in life are essential and we spend the majority of our time chasing after non-essential things.
Page 6 sums up the key that unlocks the book. There’s a drawing of two circles with the word energy in the middle. The one on the left has about twenty-five small lines with arrows pointing outward around the circle. The one on the right has one arrow attached to a long line.
The point is clear — when we allow many things to zap our energy our movement is miniscule. But when we pick one direction, one essential, and pursue that with all our focus we make huge strides towards our goal.
With Jocko’s face and Essentialism’s message in my mind, I did what any writer would do. I wrote a one-page sheet that I could print and stare at every day. At the top it says FOCUS in bold letters. Below that I’ve borrowed Jocko’s mantra: “Discipline Equals Freedom.”
Below that I have three areas that I’m focusing on.
The first is an idea called The Wise Men Project. It’s based on the assumption that every person’s life tells a story and that story is worth hearing. Ask questions, listen to the story and you gain wisdom. Put that wisdom into action and you’ve changed your life for the better. I’m interviewing any man that will talk to me and I’m asking him open-ended questions. This may turn into a book or a podcast or fodder for my blog, but it’s my quest for wisdom.
I’m in the process now of building a website called TheWiseMenProject.com where I’ll write about the lessons that I’ve learned as I’ve talked to wise, older men in my life. You’re welcome to go check out the site, but it’s a work in progress so consider yourself warned. (But don’t worry, I’ve got my email list up and working, so feel free to sign up. ;)
The second is a book called The Pursuit of Wisdom. I’m writing this book now and my goal is to have the draft written by June 8th, the day I turn 40. I’m shooting for a thirty-five to forty thousand word eBook that I can publish on Amazon. I’m slowly but surely making progress.
The third is a book with a working title Lessons From A Carpenter that I’m writing about my dad. He died in 2014 and as his life dwindled I began taking notes of lessons he taught me. Usually they involve laughter; sometimes they involve tears. This is a book that is as much for me as it is for anyone else, but I hope it encourages people to look to those they love and listen and learn from them before they’re gone.
That’s it. That’s my focus.
I’m trying to make progress each day on one of those three things. If I do, I consider the day a success.
If I don’t, I’ve missed an opportunity to do the work that matters.
So what about you?
How can you avoid the trap of discontentment and still pursue your passion and live the best life you can?
Here’s the answer:
1. Identify Your Goal
If you don’t know what you’re aiming for you’ll never hit it. I think Yogi Berra said that. There are scores of influencers out there telling you what you should be doing. Write a book, start a business, create a course, become a coach, sell crafts.
The options are endless, many of them work, but they aren’t all for you.
Trust me, I’m learning this with you.
I follow Jon Acuff and Grant Baldwin for speaking. I follow Michael Hyatt platform building and productivity. Jeff Goins is a great encouragement for writers. Tim Ferriss turns your thinking upside down. Jocko Willink makes me feel bad when I don’t get up at 5 A.M.
On my desk right now is Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It’s sitting next to How to Quit Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. On the other side is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.
As a result of my last job I own every John Maxwell book ever written.
On my shelf I have The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt, and Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is there.
I have most of John Eldredge’s books about becoming a man of God. Love Does by Bob Goff encourages me to put love into action. Storycraft by Jack Hart is a great book that’s helped me improve my craft.
I like each these people and I’ve read each of these books and I’d refer them all to you. I value their advice.
But ultimately, my goal and the path I take to get there is up to me. The same is true for you.
Listen to influencers.
Capture their wisdom.
But then turn them off and get to the hard work charting your own path based on your own desired outcome.
That’s the only way you’ll end up where you want to be. It will minimize your frustration when you realize your path is your own and you’re the only one that can get you there.
2. Eliminate Everything Else
Maybe you have to print out a sign like I did and tape it to the wall. There’s no shame in that. Shoot me an email and I’ll send you mine to modify. Do whatever keeps you focused and moving toward your goal.
One of the greatest things about human beings is their capacity to learn and grow. Robert Browning said,
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
I want you to strive to learn and grow and do. Keep pushing and you keep growing. That’s the only way you know that you are getting better and making your mark on the world.
But pace yourself. You can’t do it all at once. If you try you’ll only burn out.
Pick one or two things and focus on them until they are finished. Then put them out into the world. Seth Godin calls this “shipping.” Michael Hyatt says launch, then improve.
Just like an editor cuts unnecessary words, you have to ruthlessly cut nonessentials from your life.
3. Listen To The Strongest Voice: Your Own
It’s easy and a bit comforting to listen to all the experts and tell yourself that you’re just not ready yet. You need a little more time, training or experience before anyone will listen to what you have to say. In your mind, they seem to have everything together, while you’re struggling along.
It’s kind of like waiting until you are ready before you have kids. If we all did that there would be no kids because we are never ready. That’s part of the journey. You learn as you go.
There’s probably a voice in your head that’s filling your mind with self-doubt.
There’s also a quiet, but more powerful voice that’s reassuring you and telling you that you were meant to do whatever it is you were meant to do.
Listen to that second voice. Tell the first voice to shut up.
It may be writing a book, launching a business, getting in shape, or mastering a craft.
If you can settle in on that thing that you are meant to do and pursue it with ruthless discipline you will find contentment. Sure, there will be struggles along the way, but the payoff is its own reward.
Knowing what you were made to do and then doing it; well, it doesn’t get much better than that.
What is it that you’re working on? I’d love to know so I can help encourage you. Share it in the comments below.
And if you liked this be sure to make the heart turn green below!
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This was originally published nowhere because I haven’t finished building TheWiseMenProject.com. However, I do have my email sign up form working and I’d love to add you to my list so I can share what I’m learning with you.