Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Top Ten Secrets
For the first time this year, I hung a poster in my room with a short list of recommendations for my students called “H’s Top Ten Secrets to a Successful Life.” These little maxims helped carry me through tumultuous times, and I hope that they can do the same for you. Each of these aphorisms represents a grand idea in many ways and perhaps deserves its own letter, but that is not my intention at the moment. I’m sure that in time I will explain each of these in greater detail either by dedicating a letter to the subject or relate it to one of the many life lessons learned recently.
10) Do Your Best and Forget the Rest
I’m not going to deny it, I stole this one. As cheesy as it may sound, this actually comes from a workout program that I completed last summer: P90X. Though Mr. Tony Horton means this in the physical sense as it relates to exercising the body, I happen to think it’s a great all-encompassing dictum for life. If you always put forth your absolute best effort—no matter the endeavor—the outcome doesn’t matter. Sure you may lose a game, perhaps even fail a test or bomb an interview, but if you can honestly look yourself in the mirror afterwards and know that you had given it your all there is no reason for disappointment. All I ever ask of my students is for their personal best. I think this is all we can reasonably ask of ourselves in any given moment. But asking yourself for your best and actually putting forth that effort are two different things. So whether it be play, work, study, whatever—you must assiduously apply yourself.
9) Every Day Matters
I love this one. I stole this one too. This is a little carved wooden phrase that my mother keeps on top of her entertainment center in her living room. I think it is so important that we recognize how tenuous life really is. We know that we are finite beings in the sense that one day we all will wrestle with and submit to death, but we never know when that is going to happen. It could happen in 50 plus years for me, or it could be tomorrow. I know this may sound morbid, but it’s not. In all actuality, by facing one’s finitude a person is able to find all kinds of courage. Moreover, it only reinforces number 10 on the list. If you don’t know when your time is up, you’re best served by consistently applying yourself and giving your best efforts all of the time. When it is put into this perspective, it is easy to see how literally EVERY DAY MATTERS. Each day when we wake we have been given a new opportunity to try harder, to climb higher, to be a better person, to give back to the world. Whatever the case may be, living each day in the awareness that you could not be here tomorrow makes you want to give your all. When you believe that every day matters, you’ll also have the added benefit of finding joy in small moments and happiness in events that you might have once thought dull or trivial. Believe me, I laugh a lot more since I figured this out.
8) Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.
This too is common sense. One of the ingredients to accomplishing anything in life is willpower. As I mentioned in “It’s All in Your Head,” there initially has to be that deep urge to initiate change in your life. But to sustain that change you need willpower. And, just like anything else, the more your exercise your will, the stronger it becomes. Now, this isn’t to say that the use of the will should go unfettered; I’m not advocating imposing your will on others or anything of the sort—rather I’m suggesting that you impose your will on yourself. Simply having the desire to effect change will not make it manifest, you have to will yourself to create that change. As you can see, each of these maxims is predicated on the other. If you always do/give your best, your willpower will undoubtedly grow stronger. Add to that the persistence that comes with knowing that every day matters, and you can see how this is the becoming a recipe for success with each of these ideas being one component to a delicious life.
7) Don’t Meet Your Goals—Exceed Them.
Put simply, don’t be satisfied. We often set bars for ourselves, whether high or low. More often than not, unfortunately, we meet them and become complacent. I think this happens when we set our goals artificially low knowing that we can achieve them; or, worse yet, when we rationalize our outcome to fall in line with our goal. On the other hand, don’t demand the impossible from yourself. Be honest, set realistic goals that will push you to demand the best from yourself every day, and if at all possible, surpass them. Sometimes it may be something simple like the amount of push-ups you want to accomplish during a workout, or something more complex such as backing a charitable cause and raising donations. If you go into either of these tasks with success at the forefront of your mind, you’ll at least meet your goals. And if you exceed them? It just means your new goal will have to be a little bit more. In time, you’ll come to find that what you can reasonably demand from yourself is much more than you initially thought.
6) Make Your Dreams Your Reality
There are two key points to this statement: 1) you must pursue your passion in life. For me, my passion is learning. I can’t stop. It’s literally an addiction. I read a lot, watch documentaries, ask questions, all for the sake of learning something new. Now, this isn’t to say that this should be everyone’s passion—for you it may be playing a musical instrument, playing a certain sport, or transhumance (seriously, I think being a shepherd would be cool). I’ll explain this in greater detail in another letter, because following your passion is a necessary ingredient if you’re going to be happy in this life. 2) as I said in the preceding letter, you are what you think. The reality that you make for yourself is very much a product of your mind/consciousness/imagination/perception. By making your dreams manifest mentally, they become your reality through projection. I’m sure you can see the connection to the other secrets too: the need to apply yourself diligently, to do this every day, and to use your will to conquer personal goals, which culminates in your dreams becoming your reality. This again is a concept that will have to be explained in greater detail in another letter, but I think you get the gist of it.
5) There Are No Mistakes—Only Opportunities to Learn and Grow
This is the “reality check” clause of my top ten. Personal growth is never easy. In fact, a lot of the time it can be a learning process. Trial and error. We’ve all been there. This is why the other maxims precede this one. You need them to buttress your own sense of accomplishment because you will make “mistakes.” I don’t like calling them that because though there is the connotation that mistakes are accidental, whether the intention was there or not, the final outcome is ours alone to accept. This is why I tell my students that I feel mistakes are “opportunities to learn and grow.” Got a C on that last test? What mistake was made? Not enough studying? Not coming to tutoring? No big deal. Now you know what to do differently next time. Study more. Come to tutoring. Whatever the case may be, each “mistake” we make is—taken in the proper perspective—literally an opportunity to learn and grow. Mistakes help us accrue wisdom to be applied to other life scenarios. Intention doesn’t matter before the mistake is made, but once it’s made intention goes a long way if you’re willing to learn the lesson and grow as a person.
4) You Always Have a Choice
Let’s face it, we’re all existentialists. We all make choices about the lives we lead, whether good, bad, or indifferent. I think these final four statements represent who I am and what I stand for at this point in my life and it has taken me a long time to get here. Out of the final four aphorisms, this one needs to be explained at greater length and detail, so I promise to return to the concept of choice and its role in our lives very soon. For the time being, know that who you are as a person is the culmination of the choices you’ve made up to this point in your life. That’s a scary thought, but it is one that grounds us as well. By realizing that we are the sum of our choices—whether major or minor—we can remake ourselves in the image we want. We have such control over our lives and yet far too often externalize and attribute this control to outside factors that in reality have little or no bearing on who we are as individuals. Again, at the expense of making it sound cliché, you are what you think. The choices we make are part of what we think, which contribute to our sense of who we are. Suffice it to say for now, you have a choice in every facet of your life. Placing blame on others and playing the victim is a choice that far too many people make…but I discovered it’s also the easiest one to correct.
3) Do the Right Thing
I hope Spike Lee doesn’t mind me borrowing his film title. It took me a long time to really understand the importance of always doing the right thing in every given situation. I like to think I do, or at least try to. But it’s not easy. Sometimes doing the right thing goes against the grain. This is where you’ll be tested the most, especially over seemingly trivial matters (for instance when coworkers are badmouthing someone behind his/her back—should you stand up for that person or simply remain quiet?). I believe that human nature by default is communal/social, thereby making it necessarily altruistic. I hesitate to say that our nature is “good,” because that is hard to define and we often make choices that are not “good” for ourselves or others. But, I think our nature as social creatures creates a moral imperative for us to look out for one another. And if you start to string all of these maxims together and live them out, doing the right thing in all situations will start to become second nature. I guess in the long run these “top secrets” ideally foster a virtuous attitude within, which is how I’ve managed to turn my life around.
2) There’s Always Room for Improvement
This one speaks for itself. I like to push myself, to see how far I can go. It doesn’t matter if it is working out, playing basketball, reading, writing, thinking, or loving my wife. You can take all of the preceding statements and add them up and think everything is going great and then you get to this one. This is the one statement that I cannot live without. The reason I love it so much is because it keeps me hungry. Though I always strive for my best, I know that in reality the best can never be attained. So in addition to keeping me hungry, this dictum keeps me humble. We can always be better people, each and every single one of us. All it takes is a commitment to doing your best, making sound choices, and everything in between. And then, when you think you’re done or accomplished something of merit, know that if can do those things you can probably do more or better. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be satisfied or proud of your accomplishments, but personal growth should happen every day. You’ve got to keep pushing yourself, or as I tell my students…
1) Keep Chipping Away
Keep chipping away has become my personal motto. I even have it programmed into my cell phone as the greeting message when I turn it on. While this simple statement definitely will get its own treatment, I can offer a short explanation for now. Too many people talk about life as if it were a race. I think that metaphor works, provided you use it in the context of a marathon. Life certainly isn’t a sprint or a jog. The reason I choose to say “Keep chipping away,” however, is due to how I view life. To me, our lives are a work of art. A personal sculpture that is completely our own. Each day we are given matters because it is another chance to further refine our sculpture, our lives, and ultimately, ourselves. The good choices we make to promote personal growth are the minute improvements being made in our magnum opus. As mentioned earlier, we’re bound to make mistakes, but those are opportunities for further refinement. Sometimes sculptors need to buff out minor errors before they pick up the hammer and chisel again. Taking a step back and examining the list as a whole, I’m sure you can see how these “secrets” are all interdependent upon one another and ultimately lead to this conclusion—that we must give our best in every attempt and every moment in order to grow as a person, but that this transformation will not come easily. It will take lots of time and a tremendous amount of effort, so be patient and apply yourself with persistence. Genuine, permanent change rarely happens overnight; it is a long, arduous process.
And it’s totally worth it…
Pax vobiscum,- Ryan