WhatiLearned.com - What I Learned
Staying true to yourself will get you what you want, but it won’t always be easy.
We did it.
We graduated college. We got jobs. We moved out into the great, wide world and at last – at long last – we’re finally free to be ourselves.
That’s what we might have thought, at least.
Between the stress of adulthood, the challenge of our careers, and all the trials and tribulations that existence throws at us, it can be difficult to forge our own way. Instead of charging into the rough waves we might start taking the path of least resistance, one that inevitably leads us further and further from the direction we’re supposed to be heading. It can be tough to stay on track.
Tough, but not impossible.
When we’re feeling lost in life, these are the five critical commitments that can help us reorient on things that truly matter and the people we want to become.
Promise To Set Time Aside For Reflection
A lot of time.
We’re gonna need it.
As much as we might like to think of ourselves as a simple people, the truth of the matter is that every last one of us is a tangled mess of experiences, instincts, hopes, fears, and passions. At any given second there are a thousand competing thoughts and feelings flashing through our minds, shaping and directing our every waking moment. In spite of that (hell, because of that) most of us simply stumble through life without ever knowing why we feel what we feel or do what we do. Sure, we’ll dig through the trash to double-check the baking instructions on a box of chicken strips, but when it comes to figuring out this funny thing called “existence” we simply shrug our shoulders and hope for the best.
It never works.
Make no mistake – one of the single best promises we’ll ever commit to is routinely setting aside for reflection on who we are and what we’re all about. This might come in the form of morning meditation or it might mean that we journal on a daily basis, or dedicate a few days out of the year to contemplation. The “how” isn’t important – what’s critical is that we try.
Deliberately setting aside time for unpacking our thoughts and feelings gives us the all-important opportunity to truly understand ourselves – both the things that propel us forward and the things that hold us back. When we’re able to objectively dissect our worries and fears, we’ll find just where they’re coming from and how we can start to overcome them. Even just having a more complete picture can help us pitch to a job or more effectively build and maintain relationships. It gives us a stronger sense of what our weaknesses are, and how we can keep from sabotaging ourselves.
We can’t progress towards our best self until we know who that is. It’s as simple as that.
Promise To Be Prepared For Opportunity Before It Comes
Life doesn’t always go the way we’d like. It’s not a steady ascent, it’s not a rollercoaster of highs and lows. While those will all hopefully be included, more often than not, we’ll find ourselves simply coasting. It won’t be a crisis, but our situations certainly will be less than everything we’d hope. We might be working jobs that pay the bills while we wait for the dream position to open. We might be swiping our way through a host of dating apps, waiting for the right person to like us back. We might wander through our days, hoping for the chance to chase down some purse-snatcher or rescue a kitten from a burning building or single-handedly defeat a rival dojo (OK – maybe not so much that last one.)
It’s easy to daydream about these things, but what if the perfect opportunity were to actually happen? Would we be ready?
If our ideal job were to open up right now, would we be qualified for it? If the perfect person were to cross paths with us, would we be seen at our most charming and handsome? If that building down the street were to explode into flames, would we be fit enough and fast enough to react?
The reality is that when we’re spinning our wheels, it’s easy to take our eyes off the prize. Sure, we might spend our hours fantasizing about how awesome it would be to be living the dream, but in doing so, we might trick ourselves into think that’s all it is – a dream. If those perfect opportunities do arise, we’re too rusty from inaction to capitalize on them, and we might even try telling ourselves that <insert lifelong passion here> isn’t something we ever wanted to begin with.
That’s not just a defeat – that’s a betrayal.
We can’t always get what we want, but dammit, we have to promise ourselves that we’ll try. Lost in the doldrums, we have to commit to preparing ourselves in whatever way will make us most ready – whether that means training our bodies, sharpening our minds, building up funds, or prepping ourselves to take charge during a crisis. Remember: there is nothing – nothing – in this world quite so agonizing as the four little words “it could have been.”
Promise To Challenge Your Concept Of Masculinity
If we were to picture the manliest of men, what image might pop into our heads?
Perhaps some calloused, grizzled lumberjack-type. Perhaps a towering, muscle-bound figure with a piercing stare and a voice that’d make James Earl Jones sound like a soprano. Maybe he’s killed more men than Rambo. Maybe he’s seduced more women than James Bond. Maybe he’s a detached, emotionless machine who takes what he wants when he wants and never bothers with “sorry” or “please.” Maybe he’s brash and loud. Or maybe he never says anything at all.
If that image, or something like it, is what we imagine when we think of masculinity, then that’s the image we need to promise ourselves we’ll reconsider. So long as we measure ourselves against it, we’ll never be free to become our best and most-authentic self. Which is the absolute manliest thing you can do, regardless of what that looks like.
In spite of our steps away from the cold-blooded action heroes of the 80s, almost all of us have some downright poisonous ideas of what men should be. That’s not to say that the average Primer reader or even the average guy is a raging “alpha-male” dick, only that even the best of us is susceptible. Without ever meaning to, many of us may be pressured to conform to some depressingly limited model for what a man can be.
How do we escape that? Just as with self-reflection, we’re going to need to promise ourselves that we’ll regularly review and challenge our concept of what actually makes the man. We’ll need to expose ourselves to skills, abilities, and viewpoints that might not have even been on our radar. While Primer’s own Justin Brown has a fantastic article on where to start, know that this doesn’t apply to practical skills – this is about challenging the very way we perceive and handle emotions.
Or the way we don’t handle emotions.
Truth is, somewhere along the line people started mistaking being stoic for being borderline sociopathic. Emotions – the critical component that makes humans so effective and dynamic – have managed to get cast as the enemy of logic and reason, instead of as a complementary tool. The response many guys have is to attempt to suppress emotions entirely. Of course, we can hide our feelings, but we can’t help but feel them, and rather than grant us any sense of self-mastery, we wind up becoming the guy shrieking in the middle of a little league game or having a stroke in an Arby’s drive-through.
Repressing emotions doesn’t give us control, it gives you the illusion of control. It’s a kind of self-inflicted illiteracy – a pointless handicap we give ourselves that keeps us from being healthy and self-actualized. In the words of master carpenter, writer, actor, and actual badass Nick Offerman (who became a household name for his masterful satire of underdeveloped masculinity):
“Crying at something that moves you to joy or sadness is just as manly as chopping down a tree or punching out a bad guy… If you live your life openly with your emotions, that’s a more manly stance than burying them.”
Promise To Walk Away When It’s Time
This, perhaps more than any of the other recommendation here, is going to be tough to follow through on. As counterintuitive as it might at first sound, giving up can be one of the most difficult things.
It’s easy – far too easy – to get so caught up in the struggles of everyday life that we lose track of what we were fighting for to being with. Maybe we put up with a miserable job by telling ourselves that it’s to fund our long-term goals. The boss is a sadist and the clients are abusive, but we’re doing it to support us and the people and things we care about. That’s fine if it works, but more likely than not, we’ll find ourselves coming home so utterly burned out that we barely have energy to meet our basic needs, let alone pursue our actual interests .
Or maybe we’re in a relationship which even at its best didn’t thrill us, or one that’s run its natural course. Or perhaps one that used to be good, but has lost its healthiness, helpfulness, and fulfillment as life changes (be it us, them, or our needs and values).
The hard part about walking away from relationships is two-fold. First, it can feel like an upending experience. Sure, the relationship isn’t great but the fear of change may seem worse than just trying to ignore the things that make it a bad relationship. But that’s a pretty sad and terrible reason to stay in a relationship, and one that is definitely unsustainable over time.
Second, in our culture we’re told a lot of stories of struggling marriages that are on the brink of divorce, but get salvaged at the last possible second through hard work. And that does happens, and there are people who should do that with life-changing results. But there are also times when ending a relationship is the right thing – and that’s just as life-changing. The hard part is knowing which situation you’re in. But try to trust yourself. Do the work.
There’s nothing wrong with sweating and struggling for the things we’re passionate about. Suffering just for the sake of suffering? Or worse, suffering because it feels easier than trying to change? That’s another matter altogether. For the sake of our own sanity, we need to promise ourselves that we won’t be too proud to quit something that’s lost all meaning. And not just for ourselves, but for others as well. Don’t waste someone’s time in a relationship because you don’t have the nerve to break it off. Don’t squat in a position that you despise but someone else might thrive in. There’s no defeat in walking away from something unwinnable to you.
Promise To Try Again When You Screw Up
More than anything else, our success with these resolutions is going to hinge on mastery of this final promise: to get over ourselves when we fail.
And we will fail.
Of the millions of resolutions started every New Year’s, a staggering 80% are broken by February. A mere 8% of people manage to actually keep their commitments, and many of those resolutions boil down to simple diet and exercise plans. Promising to cut down carbs is one thing – how much tougher is it going to be to stick with character-defining ideals for the rest of our lives?
For all our best efforts and noble intentions, we will eventually fall short of the standards we set for ourselves. And you know what? That’s ok. Failure is a fact of life – our job is to make sure that it doesn’t destroy our ability to try again.
That might sound melodramatic, but the simple truth is that many people see the world in all-or-nothing terms. Someone might resolve to jog every day, but when they do eventually skip, they’ll figure “So much for that perfect streak – better luck next year.” But what’s keeping that person from running tomorrow, Or the next day, Or the day after that?
The problem here is with that single, insidious word: “perfect.” Vain creatures that we are, we care more about being flawless than about making real strides towards our goals. The end result is that we don’t push ourselves beyond the bounds of our comfort zones for fear of confirming what we always suspected – that we’re only human. Even in the rare instances where we do, we give up when we’re not immediate experts. We try comforting ourselves by saying “Well I’m just not athletic/artistic/ /charismatic/business-minded, etc.” or some other lie that we imagine will free us from responsibility. We’d rather wall ourselves off from an entire aspect of existence than dare admit that we’ve got room to improve.
Much like the problem of not walking away, this issue has its roots in a warped sense of pride – one that bases self-esteem not in the presence of accomplishment but in the absence of failure.
Of course, all this offers is a false sense of security. The world’s a tough place. Whether we like it or not we’re eventually going to encounter embarrassment or failure – it might as well be in the service of something that actually helps us grow.
Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s commit to treating our failures as missteps rather than setbacks on the great walk of life. The only real failure in falling is not getting back up.
Even a stumble counts as progress if it’s towards the right direction.
Do you have a promise you’ve made to yourself? Keep the discussion going in the comments below.