I’ve been working on a followup piece about the Major Life Event I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, and I was hoping to share it with you this weekend but I can’t because it’s not done yet. There is, unsurprisingly, a lot to say about the Major Life Event, and it’s taking me a minute to boil it down into a piece of writing fit for sharing. It’s already way too long yet maddeningly incomplete. I promise to publish it only when I’ve found a way to say more with fewer words.
For those who felt concerned about me after reading my last post, I’m happy to say that the heaviest part of it is now behind me and I’m doing fine — even finer than I’d expected. In fact, I’m feeling grateful for this colorful and rich life so full of experiences worth reflecting on and writing about.
Reflecting is something I’ve had a lot of time to do recently. I’ve been taking stock of all the things I give my time, energy and attention to and reconsidering my priorities.
I am one of those people who eats life by the bowlful. My stack of goals is high and constantly growing: I’ve got lifestyle goals, financial goals, business goals, creative goals, altruistic goals, and goals around my relationships.
These past weeks I’ve been asking myself which of them really matter to me. I mean really matter. My medical condition was not quite life threatening, but it could have been, and it really made me think about my own mortality and life purpose. What will I care about having done or not done on my deathbed?
Turns out it’s a pretty fucking short list.
In fact, there’s only one thing on it. Ready?
Literally the only thing I know I must do with my time on earth is this: I want to heal and grow as a human being much as I can. That’s it.
I have been preoccupied with life’s big questions since early childhood: Who or what made the world, and why? What does it mean to be a human being, and what, if anything, will I become after my time in this body is over? For me, success in life means finding answers to those questions that feel true to me.
It also means healing from past trauma so that I can feel more peaceful in my heart and compassionate toward myself — and make better choices. And it means softening up the edges of my personality so I’m more pleasant to be around.
In fact, my life will be a success if I’m working on that stuff, regardless of how far along I get with it by the time the clock runs out. Because this goal doesn’t have a finish line; evolution is ongoing and that’s the point.
And here comes the beauty part. I realized that I’m already doing it. I’ve already come a hell of a long way, through therapy, meditation, reading lots of books, a ton of self reflection, and, of course, writing, which is the most powerful tool for personal growth I have found. These are not New Year’s resolutions I hope to get around to some day, they’re how I most love to spend my time now.
This means that my life is already a success, regardless of what else I choose to do or not do. All my past and future accomplishments can’t add a single shine to it.
This truth dawned on me like a tropical sunrise, and it made every cell in my body unclench. There is no threat of failure. I can’t possibly fall short of my purpose, because my purpose is to grow and learn. How radical and comforting is that?
I think this must be the cure for all manner of ills, including performance anxiety, existential dread, aimlessness, over-attachment to external validation, and the everyday discomfort of being a natural human animal forced to live in the unnatural habitat of a capitalist society.
Of course, I still have a pile of goals. I would like a bigger house with more space for guests and a better kitchen. I would like to make more money, write more courageously, travel freely, step onto bigger stages, spend more time with geniuses and visionaries, keep growing my business, give more generously to the causes I care about, and publish loads of books that improve millions of lives. And all of this, all of it, goes into the “nice to have” column. Not one of these things is my purpose. None is more important than did I evolve my soul?
Now I get to spend the rest of my days dreaming up fun ways to challenge myself and enjoy my time on earth, content in the knowledge that I can’t lose at life.
What will I do, be, make, and have? Whatever I want.
Six questions to evolve by
When you spend as much time as I do consuming self-help advice, your personal development and mental health regimen can get pretty intense. To cut through the clutter, I’ve assembled a short list of my favorite questions to keep myself in a healthy, growth-oriented mood and mindset. If I do nothing else in the morning, asking myself these six questions will set me up to move through my day with greater ease.
- How am I?This question gets me to take stock of what’s going on inside me physically, mentally, and emotionally. It reminds me to tend to my inner state first rather than operating in reactive mode.My inventory might look a bit like this: Feeling dragged out and low-energy today. Big sugar cravings. Noticing some excitement about my upcoming trip, tinged with a bit of anxiety. Feeling proud of the way I handled that meeting.The point isn’t to reach for a “positive” answer but an honest one. If I can just notice what is true for me without judging it, I might actually manage to give myself whatever resources I need that day. Plus it’s just a really simple but powerful act of kindness toward myself, and who doesn’t need more of that?
- What would I prefer?This question conjures up the life I want to move into and the things I want to attract to me, or create for myself. If there’s any aspect of my experience that I’m not thrilled with, instead of feeling disgruntled or defeated I can ask myself what I would prefer, then spend some time imagining my ideal. It’s a fun exercise, and it also primes me to know what I want when I see it.
- What cannot come with me into the future I want for myself?This question is all about breaking patterns, and came to me courtesy of my mentor, Melanie Spring. It’s a version of what do you want to let go of?, but it goes deeper than that. Intending or hoping to let go of a counterproductive habit has an optional, maybe-one-day tone to it. But when I ask myself which of my old patterns absolutely cannot coexist with the preferred life I am envisioning, it brings those incompatible habits and attitudes (such as positioning myself as an outsider, or a belief that suffering is noble) into sharp focus and helps me to start breaking free from them right away.
- How must I show up in this moment?This question attunes me to what’s appropriate and necessary to navigate the moment at hand. I think of this in three ways: presence, poise, and preparation.Am I truly present to this moment, bringing my undistracted attention to it?Am I poised for this moment, holding the quality of energy that is most needed? What does the person across from me need to see and feel in me? And am I bringing this energy in a way that’s authentic to my own needs and perspective?Am I mentally and emotionally prepared for this moment? Have I done the research, reflection, and rehearsal necessary to be effective and useful? (Hey, bonus points for stuffing one alliterative list into another!)
- What is this person or situation here to show me or teach me?People can be challenging to deal with in all kinds of ways. They can be jerks, and when they’re not being jerks they can trigger us for reasons that have nothing to do with them. When I’m feeling anxious, irritated, offended, intimidated, starstruck, or judgmental — any off-center emotion — I know there is always a lesson in it for me.Asking myself what I can learn from the person or situation helps me to defuse reactivity, step out of powerlessness and move into curiosity, and that always leads to a more graceful handling of the situation.As part of my morning mental tune-up, this question helps me approach my life circumstances with more confidence and flexibility. And it’s even better as an intervention in those dicey moments when conflict rises up and I’m on the way to losing my cool.
- What’s the best that could happen?Listen, I’m not one to gloss over real risks and hardships with a bunch of shiny platitudes. I live by the motto hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Coping ahead and risk management are useful life skills. The trouble is that we almost always overdo it with preparing for the worst, and that can easily blot out our view of the potential best.This question balances out the equation. (It might seem like a repeat of question 2, but it’s different. Whereas what do I prefer? invites me to envision an ideal future life, what’s the best that could happen? is an antidote to worrying about whether things are going as well as I want them to.) Imagining the best that could happen helps me to step into the role I must play in things going well!
This piece first appeared in October 2022 on The Underwire, my Substack publication. You can get all my content by email as soon as it’s published by subscribing to The Underwire here!