“Who are you?”
Asked the same question ten times in a row, one is nudged to the realization that we all have more than one identity. Some people tend to identify at first with their name, nationality, gender, profession; others define themselves through their relationships (I am a mother, a friend) and some think of themselves first and foremost as human beings, a ‘soul’, a ‘force of energy’ or as ‘seekers of wisdom’. This exercise also brings the awareness that beyond these layers, there exists a mysterious ‘inner core’ or ‘essence’ that defies definition but shines through all our different identities. We are always ourselves, whether this be at work, with our family or on our own. In each environment we express different aspects of ourselves, but deep down we are still the same mysterious ‘centre of awareness’. In short, we are both one and many.
Are we just born with an identity? Is it ‘God-given’ and we have no choice but to accept and bear it as a kind of destiny? Or is identity something that can change and even become a choice? Most people would say that there are certain aspects of our identity (sex, cultural roots, etc) that we cannot change. Others, however, are the outcome of choices we made at some stage. We were not born to be ‘computer programmers’ or ‘mothers’ – but we chose to become them. And, most importantly, we can always choose how much priority we give to each of our different identities, even if we cannot change some of them. What do we prioritize: Our gender? Our nationality? Our status? or Our inner qualities?
For society to function and cultures to evolve, we need to learn how to transcend our differences. To consciously choose an identity that enables us to connect more with others and to empathise with them. Life is a journey from unconsciousness to consciousness. To be unconscious means to be impelled by inner or outer forces or circumstances. Whereas to be conscious means to be aware that we have a choice. Amartya Sen says: “To deny choice where choice exists is not only an epistemic mistake, it can also entail a moral and political failure through abdication of one’s responsibility to face the fundamental, Socratic question: ‘How should I live?’”
Choice is inescapably associated with responsibility. It seems much easier to say, ‘This is how I am, I cannot change it’. But history is full of atrocities that were committed because people felt compelled to act in line with a perceived and fixed identity. Amartya Sen’s message is that we should choose our identity of our own free will.
To quote Kofi Annan – “To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”
To be great, One need not be special. One only has to be willing to work hard at it.
“No great achiever – even those who made it seem easy – ever succeeded without hard work.” ~Jonathan Sacks
Very often one hears that people are born with natural talent. This is just not true. We are born with hardly any innate skills. Excellence therefore, is primarily born not of inherent ability, but of deliberate practice.
We all want to be excellent at what we do. So, how does talent actually work? Actually, you can be good at whatever you want… within reason. The keywords are … Whatever you want …
The questions that now arise are – How do you know? Where are you supposed to focus? What if you don’t even know what you’re passionate about?
So what do you do?
There are umpteen books, essays and writings which extol one to strive for greatness. People struggle and agonize over this conundrum for lifetimes. They chase one career after another, just to realize that they were originally cut-out for a third. Necessarily, one has to pass through all these processes. The answer lies in the lessons that must be learned.
Learnings start in school. The entire environment in school conspires to push one towards seeking out new opportunities. Every day, children arrive at school and return home, wonder-struck at the myriad possibilities there small world provides. They pick up new abilities, new habits, new choices. Sports, Music, Arts, multiple avenues of learning. Yet, the child is not born with any of these abilities. Yes, he is drawn to a certain type, but he knows nothing of it. The only way he can actually get better is therefore by practice. And practice. And more practice.
Although, a school provides the breeding ground for developing these talents and abilities, it is the home where the child actually begins learning. It is a natural progression from parent to child. The first things children want to do, and excel at, are what their parents do. Day in and day out. One would see that musician parents produce musically inclined children. Academicians produce researchers. And so on.
One will also note that the school environment is limited. And generally, the child’s upward progress will flat-line at some point. This is because their abilities are not being challenged enough. They get comfortable with a certain level of talent. As that is what their immediate audience demands. So, why do they need to get any better? This is where the first steps towards greatness actually germinate. They just want to get better !
They step out. Out of their comfort zones. Into the world. They expose themselves to more challenges. They begin to see others who are equally good or better. And these people tell themselves that they can get better too. And with more practice, they begin to realize that they can now do things in their field which sometime back, they never imagined were possible.
Thinking that talent has a limit and that one is born to only achieve a certain level of skill, people grow comfortable with what seems a reasonable amount of talent. Always tell yourself – ‘I can get much better’.
Then, there is nothing holding you back.
As time passes by, interests wane. Sometimes, other attractions pop-up. Sometimes, responsibilities crop up. Sometimes, people just don’t want to do it anymore. We call this flagging motivation. You know, at every stage of your life, you are the best at a particular activity. As good as you ever thought you could be. The lurking danger is that you may no longer want that ability.
At this stage, ask yourself – ‘If it’s possible for anyone to acquire any skill, why don’t more people do it? Why don’t they get good at things they’ve always wanted to do, like cooking or sports or playing the piano?’
The first answer, of course, is that it’s difficult, much harder than people realize, and requires an incredible amount of discipline. It just takes time and effort, which most people don’t have or aren’t willing to give.
But the second answer, the one that’s not addressed enough, is ‘motivation’.
Eminem reminds us – “If people take anything from my music, it should be motivation to know that anything is possible as long as you keep working at it and don’t back down.”
And so it begins. Where this comes from is a mystery that escapes the current grasp of science. But make no mistake. You cannot become great without motivation.
Thinking over this, one cannot ignore the thought that pops up – ‘If I can do anything, what makes me choose one pursuit over another?’
It has to come down to desire, to passion, to what truly motivates you. Otherwise, you will eventually lose interest and never master a skill.
“A successful individual typically sets his next goal somewhat but not too much above his last achievement. In this way he steadily raises his level of aspiration.” – Kurt Lewin
The last of the learnings is sorting out hobbies and pastimes from something one really wants to do. For many, what they did at school were things they did not want to fully dedicate themselves to. They were just hobbies. One needs to give some serious thought to these activities. Think of these as greater than just misplaced passions.
Parker Palmer writes, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am”.
It’s not just about being good at it. It’s about being good at the right thing. Many of us could spend our lives climbing the ladder of success only to realize it was leaning up against the wrong wall. So be careful what you choose to excel at.
Listen to that tiny voice in your head. Listen to your life. It is your heart calling out your true desires. “Your calling,” Frederick Buechner famously wrote, “is the place where your deepest joy meets the world’s deepest need.” That’s what personal greatness looks like: finding what the world needs and what makes you come alive and combining them. That’s your sweet spot.
What it takes to succeed in the world and how to find that thing you were meant to do –
- Find something you love. Ideally, surround yourself with others who share your passion. Your environment matters.
- Do it until you can become good, eventually even great, at it. And don’t worry if you’re not that good yet. This is what practice is for. But make sure this is something you are motivated to do even when you are bad at it.
- Share your gift in a way that helps other people. If you do this, you actually can get paid to do what you love. Otherwise, it will only ever be a hobby.
Remember to begin by discarding the idea that “people are born with it.” It’s just not true. Talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. You can make yourself into any number of things, and you can even make yourself great.
Because the truth is, just about anyone can get better at just about anything.
“Take those chances and you can achieve greatness, whereas if you go conservative, you’ll never know. I truly believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Even if you fail, learning and moving on is sometimes the best thing.” ~ Danica Patrick
“Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.” ~ Rebecca Solnit
Did you know that an eagle knows when a storm is approaching long before it breaks?
The eagle will fly to some high spot and wait for the winds to come. When the storm hits, it sets its wings so that the wind will pick it up and lift it above the storm. While the storm rages below, the eagle is soaring above it. The eagle does not escape the storm. It simply uses the storm to lift itself higher. It rises on the winds that bring the storm.
If achieving goals were easy, everyone would do it quickly and without difficulty. Even if your vision is clear and you can articulate a detailed roadmap, there are always obstacles in the path.
What stops you from achieving success is often yourself. With a little unwanted help from those around you. This lack of support from those closest to you – family, friends – plays a critical role in halting a challenge before it has even begun. ‘There’s no way you can do that’ is the classic response from these people, when presented with a potential challenge. Overcoming this barrier should be the first step on your path.
An important key to delivering success is to dissect the challenge into a number of smaller steps. Each small step can be viewed as a short-term goal. Combining a number of short-term goals leads to the delivery of a medium-term goal, and combining medium-term goals leads to the completion of your journey, the delivery of your challenge and success! Goal-setting, by itself, is relatively simple. A goal should be challenging but achievable – it is important that you establish your goals at the beginning and make sure they are outside your comfort zone; don’t set your sights low. Having committed to the challenge, you must construct a plan to optimize each of the areas required to deliver success. Beware of the common risk that comes from friends who do not share your enthusiasm and continually offer you de-motivating lollipops. Do not leave anything to chance; success is not a chance event. Monitor your progress regularly. Celebrate each small successful step.
Generally, we challenge ourselves in physically measurable terms – losing weight, running a marathon, developing a beach body – but the brain is central to the delivery of success whatever the challenge. It is our loss of belief, commitment and motivation that leads to failure. This psychological trio conspires together to lead you astray. Believing you ‘can achieve your goal‘ provides the foundations to overcoming your challenge. With belief comes the commitment to invest – the time, effort and resources to make sure you continue to deliver your short-term goals. And success in achieving these goals increases your motivation.
A bizarre tool to stick yourself on the chosen path would be to make a contract. With yourself. To deliver success. This simple commitment can become a pillar to lean on when you are struggling with belief or commitment or motivation. Your contract re-iterates the importance of your goal. It is a measurable deliverable and It indirectly induces the motivation needed to invest the appropriate amount of work until you have completed the tasks at hand.
Use your own priceless resource. Your brain. Thinking about your problems is the only way to really beat them. There’s no better place to apply expansive thinking than on issues holding you back. Quit banging your head against the same brick wall over and over. Take time to think things through and find creative solutions that bring fun and progress to the grind of obstacle removal. Discipline yourself emotionally, commit time and effort to your benefit regardless of external factors. Make the obstacle the No. 1 priority and focus on it every day until it’s gone. It’s the joy and journey of clearing those obstacles that makes life rich, and helps people feel truly accomplished when they finally reach the pinnacles of success.
Understand that obstacles come in different colours. There could be obstacles outside your control such as the economy, natural disasters, physical limitations, etc. Then, obstacles could be one-time issues but you have direct control over them, such as resources, cash flow, time availability, needed skills or talent. And finally, there are habitual obstacles. These obstacles reflect how people get in their own way. They can only be removed with behavioral change.
If you don’t see the obstacle or believe it’s a hindrance, you’ll never reach your goals, blaming everything and everyone but the real cause. So, pause and reflect from time to time. Evaluate, monitor your progress. Search for probable impediments that could disrupt your progress. Be patient. Learn to bide your time. To ride the storm, the most effective time would be to rise above when the storm actually hits. Hence, timing is crucial. The tougher the obstacle, the more time it might take to overcome. Observe the small progressions. They should encourage you to put in more effort. With time comes momentum. And momentum is the best way to knock off the obstacles.
When the storms of life come upon us, like the eagle, we can rise above them. What is your greatest challenge now? Write it down. Then let it lift you higher.
“We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come,” ~ Alan Watts
We live in a very tired world. The majority of workers suffer from burnout and extreme fatigue. And things nay not be different in other countries either. Slowing down can be frightening because ‘doing nothing’ leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed, emotionally. Overworking hides these feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness, not just from others but also from ourselves.
As long as we keep busy, we can outrun that internal voice that says things like – ‘I am never good enough.’ Workaholism, therefore is just a form of escapism. The good old advice from zen masters is to “be more, do less.” For sure, you’ve heard that before. But we turned it on it’s head – ‘do-less; be-more’ has been made a personal development fantasy of our busy time – an honorable aspiration that everybody knows about but few actually practice. When meeting someone for the first time we usually ask, “What do you do?” We ask because, in our time and culture, identity is defined in large part by occupation or job title. It is how we typically define ourselves and how we understand our place in the world. We also classify and value people based on what they do. So, when we tell people that they should be less busy – that they should slow down, we get a ‘ yes, but ….’ reply.
Yes, but stamina and will power should be worshiped. Success through stick-to-itiveness is something our society adores. We have been told by the great men who walked before us: Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!” and John Rockefeller expanded on that by mouthing, “There isn’t any other quality so essential to success as … perseverance … it overcomes almost everything, even nature.” We have conditioned ourselves to admiring perseverance to the point that – denying the needs of one’s body, mind and soul in pursuit of some external goal is seen as super-humanly virtuous.Yes, but we believe our self-worth depends on how much we do. Nobody ever says it out loud. Yet, most people feel better when they’re overly busy. We believe that the more work we can stuff into a day, the more deserving we are. We judge others by how much they accomplish, because this is the way we judge ourselves ! So much ingrained in our psyche it has become, that most of the time we don’t even realize it is there.Yes, but being busy gives us a sense of control. We like progress. We like growth. We fear stagnation and dormancy. It doesn’t matter if we are just circling uselessly around the same spot, just being busy gives us a sense of advancement. Even shooting arrows blindly into the dark, makes us feel safer than simply sitting warming our backsides. You see this clearly when disasters strike, be it a terrorist attack or a natural calamity. The first thing people ask is: “Why isn’t the government doing anything?” Because to most of us, a government that does, no matter how stupid or counter-productive its actions are, is way better than a government that does not.
One simple action that can free you from the blind busyness is this: Ask yourself what you need.
Ask yourself, at this very moment, what your body, mind and soul need. Then shut up and listen. Your body has an intelligence sharper than any IQ test can portray. Your soul has a wisdom so profound that no words can do it justice. But these superpowers of yours have a soft voice. And for many of us, that voice is further muffled and drowned amidst the loud clattering of our social conditioning, of our learned ideas about good and bad, right and wrong, “should” and “should not”.
When you listen with respect, you will hear the truth about what you need. Not some trumped up imaginary ideals approved by your ego. But, something to live in harmony, health, and joy. Certainly, you’ve censored this soft voice for a long time. So, it might get tough and the voice of truth may not speak to you for a while. But eventually it will, if you sincerely listen within. It may not present itself as a voice, but as a feeling, a knowing, a desire, or a whim coming out of nowhere.
It may tell you that you need to go lie down for twenty minutes, right now. It may tell you that you need to go to that little park near your office at lunch time and watch the birds. At times it may not be something you’d expect – that you need to drop the research assignment and go pick up a novel.
Of course there is the hard part. You need to trust the message you’re given and follow its lead as much as you can. Your inner knowing will only grow stronger if it’s taken seriously. Besides, what good does it do to have all the wisdom in the world, but not follow up with action? But it won’t be easy, at least in the beginning. The shackles of your existing belief structure will try to protest. Your self judgment will try to trap you in fear and guilt. They will give you a thousand reasons why you absolutely cannot afford to go take care of yourself, at least not in the now.
- Give yourself permission to slow down.
- Say NO to things that are not high on your priority list.
- Don’t forget to take time to breathe!
- Get enough rest!
Life makes heavy demands. Just remember to take time for yourself. The journey is long and tiring. Slow down and make yourself a priority in this life journey. Remember, you will get there in due time.
Slow down, enough. Ask yourself what you need. And take action to give yourself exactly that.