Today I say goodbye to my 20s and welcome the 30s with open arms. As a result, I found myself up late last night intensely pondering a list in front of me containing goals I have written for my next 10 years. One of the many items on this list is to start my own blog where I can write down thoughts throughout the year and so here on the morning of my 30th birthday I figured I get a head-start on my list by starting this blog.
It seemed fitting to start my blog by reflecting on some things I have learned in my short 30 years on this earth. Many of these subjects call for much more detail and explanation but my intention here is to quickly highlight some principles and thoughts I have collected that have been helping me navigate the endless complexity of life. Perhaps we will revisit some or maybe even all of these subjects in subsequent posts; but for now here are some principles that stand out.
Everyone talks a big talk, but when the rubber meets the road there really are very few with true courage and resilience. Most sink into the endless abode of paralysis and fear when put to the test. I think of how much the current economic conditions have illustrated this tragic truth. In a matter of months I have watched as men I had always considered pillars of strength, resolve and power quickly crumble under the pressure and whither curled up in a corner crying like children about how unfair life is.
I am not necessarily talking about those who make foolish decisions and are suffering for it - that is another subject entirely; but rather those who played by the rules and still got burned. The cold hard truth is that life really is profoundly unfair. However unjust it may seem to us, good and intelligent men suffer while evil and idiotic people seem to get a free pass sometimes. This is a frustrating thing that thinkers have struggled with for centuries. But why do we allow this unfortunate reality paralyze us from moving forward? Shouldn't we have come to terms with this simplistic observational truth years ago as children? Given the way things clearly are in the world, why are so so surprised when hardship comes our way? So many of us have fallen into an endless state of immobility petrified by the unknown, afraid to take risks, helplessly fearful of an un-guaranteed future; but the reality is the world we live in is brutal and unfair. We cannot change that, but we can decide if we will press forward and overcome or if we will shrink into the shadows of life and try to hide it out.
I dare not pretend to make myself appear somehow impervious to the natural weak reaction of retreat. The honest truth is I have struggled mightily with frustration and emotions around the unfairness of life so severely that I have questioned virtually everything including how and if the human concept of God (or a higher power) fits into all this. I do not mean to be flippant with such serious matter. Fear of failure is an incredibly powerful force that has rendered many otherwise incredible individuals completely impotent. So how is that some escape its deadly claws while others give in and are consumed by it?
Perhaps one of the keys to overcoming fearful paralyses is to understand this: the truth is that at the end of the day, nobody cares how often fall so long as you get up one more time than you fell down. Ultimately what separates those who overcome from those who are overcome is more a matter of character than anything else. Sounds easy enough in concept right? Each of us must answer both in our minds and with our actions questions like: are we really courageous enough to embrace failure one more time? Are we willing to push past the scoffing crowds criticizing and viciously pointing out every flaw? Are we willing to wipe the dust, sweat and blood from our eyes and go at it another round?
I cannot rightly judge the intentions of anyone, but I can say with absolute certainty that those who choose courage over fear really are many too few. I for one have resolved to not give up. I will not fear taking great risks or failing. I will not settle. I will not give up, shut up, or put up with mediocrity in my life. I will look at the future with open eyes knowing that struggle and hardship is certain to be present; but fully persuaded to press on and push through all challenges. In all of this pushing and failing, I will not allow myself to be defeated by this evil called fear.
As I ponder the foundations of my personal failures I cannot escape the recurring and immutable role of apathy. I dare go so far as to say apathy is perhaps is the chief failure of our society as a whole. Due to our fear and apathy we forfeit our effectiveness in being contributing members of society. I often cringe when people spend their entire days at work complaining about the “evil corporation” they work for and how they are never appreciated for how great they are. I struggle with this because in my mind I think, "Look, if you are that valuable of an employee then the strongest statement you can make is to leave." Think about this logically. A system where people do not put up with crappy leadership would unquestionably lead to better workplaces, government, schools and who knows what else. A free society where people realize their power and influences is beautiful because it is self-cleaning and self-managing. Organizations with bad leadership would eventually fail because all the talent, empowered by the freedom of courage and choice, would opt to go work for companies that treated them with respect. Governments who hurt society with the reckless policies would be quickly replaced with those who do a better job. Sadly though, most people really don't care or don't have the courage enough to do anything but complain. And so we are victims of our own apathy, capable of resolving so much if we would just care... but we don't.
These last two years I dedicated myself to better understand human behavior. My days and nights were spent with almost obsessive studies of subjects ranging from the study of habits to the hidden sides of subconscious influence. The fields of neuroscience, behavioral psychology and evolutionary psychology have taught me a great deal about why we do what we do.
What troubled me though was the deeper I dug the more mechanical and animalistic human behavior appeared to me. One theme that continues to impress me over and over is the sometimes subtle but always apparent fact that we are all, at least in some way, a little crazy. This is perhaps part of what it is to be human, but nonetheless, even the most rational and intelligent humans exhibit irrational destructive behaviors. I do not think this is because the mechanics behind our behavior are entirely unknown, on the contrary they are very will observed and documented through history and science; but that does not help because so much of what we do is so often non-conscience instinctive behavior rather than conscience rational behavior.
This realization still renders a great deal of discomfort for me because it seems to give an entirely naturalistic and non-responsible pass to the many less-desirable human behaviors. Upon further reflection however, I believe the opposite is revealed though a more complete understanding of our cognitive abilities. You see, while we are all naturally inclined to irrational animistic behavior, we have each been given the incredible gift of the conscious mind which gives us the capacity to decide for ourselves if we will live according to our impulses or to if we will life intentionally checking each and everything we do. This ability really seems to be the thing that separates from animals. Stephen Covey in his famous book "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" refers to this uniquely human ability as "Meta-Cognition" and contends that through our unique ability to think about our thinking we are able to overcome the natural and default behaviors of our species.
It is true, we are all a little crazy because some of the things that drive us are not rational but pre-programmed through genetics or historical experience to react to our surroundings without thought, wisdom or examination. But we have also been given the gift of free will and minds that if we so choose, we can live consciously and slowly but progressively push back the crazy genes leaving way for rational, balanced and self-controlled lives.
The other day my family and I attended a local church where the pastor apparently had some agenda to silence those who were opposing his approach to church. He went so far as to say "You are not supposed to go home and debate the things I say. If they are the word of God you are just supposed to obey me!" This of course made me so frustrated and angry is took a considerable amount of self-control to stay seated and not throw the evil diluted self-obsessed nitwit out a window. Apart from being hopelessly theologically bankrupt and ignorant, this kind of thinking is incredibly dangerous because there were a large number of people sitting there who seemed to either completely agree with what was said. Perhaps they were so brainwashed they did not even notice the utter evil that was being preached to them or maybe they just did not care.
Sadly this sort of religious brainwashing is not always so overt and can be downright sneaky. I was once involved in a church that opted to "interpret" truth for the masses through another psychological manipulation mechanism. Their approach was to keep the congregation in the dark about important issues though omission; they simply pretended there was no other way to look at things. In my mind this can be far more sinister than those who come right out and claim to have exclusive interpretation of all things true because it appears to be balanced in humility but in practice it does the same thing as the group who professes confidently to be the voice of God. If these leaders do believe in God, I really hope they stop for a second and consider the implications of their approach if indeed they are wrong. Perhaps they are so pathological that they have lost touch with reality and precluded any possibility of their being wrong; but that makes them all-the-more dangerous.
I must confess a lifelong and ever increasing severe, maybe even extreme distrust for religions and religious people. The temptation to equate ones self with the holiness and authority of God through trivial adherence to insignificant rules and systems is too great for many to resist. And while there are a great deal many respectable religious people who can and do resist this urge most of the time, the fundamental belief in secret knowledge that both carries eternal consequences and must be taken on faith because it lacks enough evidence for rational or logical revelation, is self-evidently appalling.
If this statement offends you, then all I ask that you do is exclude your particular religion from the list when you consider religions - for the sake of mental exercise, assume yours is the only exception - then reconsider what I said. Claims made without evidence can be rejected without evidence, it is a weakness of our mental state and psychological fragility that causes us to believe in any other way.
It sounds a little cliché but that makes it nonetheless true that the older I get the less confident I am about most everything. When I began my 20s I remember being very passionate and convicted about a great deal many things that I now look at with new eyes and often just wonder at their complexity.
I think Socrates once said "I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing." It is so true that the more we learn about the world the more we will eventually have to come to grips with the reality of how profoundly ignorant and limited we are. It seems that truly intelligent people are constantly doubting and struggling to make sense of things which leads to honest humility through admission of ignorance; but fools are completely confident and even arrogant in their naive and narrow-minded ignorance.
The reality is we are swim in an infinite sea of complexity and unworkability given our limited faculties, perspective and intellectual capacity. It would seem only rational then that we cover our opinions and perspectives with humility. The more we know, the more we realize how little we know. Humility therefore, is truly grounded in reality. It is the delusional who are unaware of the reality of their own limitations that are able to have such misplaced confidence in themselves.
The future belongs to those who dream then do, not those who just dream. The world is full of people who endlessly comfort themselves through potential success. They say things like “I could do that if I wanted to” or year after year repeat phrases like “I’m seriously thinking about…” and go on, just as they have before, to do nothing. Unless we turn the abstract into something real and concrete, even the most ingenious and beautifully inspired thoughts have absolutely no value whatsoever. Inspiration without implementation has nothing to offer.
Jack Welch is fond of telling businesses to “change before you have to.” This sound advice is every bit as applicable to our personal lives as it is to businesses and organizations. We must make a habit of choosing to change before our circumstances no longer give us a choice. In practical terms it means this: start eating healthy now before your health fails you and you no longer have a choice. Make needed financial changes while you still have options and before creditors garnish your wages and remove your choice. Start planning for retirement as early as possible so you can choose where and how you retire rather than your circumstances or the government dictating that. Change, however uncomfortable it may be, is unavoidable and we sometimes have very little to do with the circumstances that necessitate it. However, we often have the ability to choose to make adjustments before circumstances erode our options. An ancient Jewish proverb states it this way, "the wise see danger and take refuge (get off the path), but the simple keep going and suffer for it." Do not be simple and suffer for it. Take a hard look at where your current path leads, and if that is not the future you want, then choose to change
This post has been long and I have nowhere near covered everything I wanted to, but I'll have to save the rest of my thoughts for future posts. For now I close with this bit of advise to myself and anyone reading this. We need to practice the habit of living mindfully. That means thinking about life, thinking about our actions, analyzing how and how we do everything. This applies to everything. We need to eat mindfully, use time mindfully, love mindfully, learn mindfully, teach mindfully, work mindfully and stop the destructive and dangerous pattern of going through life on instinct and in survival mode.
Life is short - really short - and the older I get the more I am reminded that we cannot waste a moment on the shit and drama we allow to derail us from paths that lead to better places. We must think hard about everything and be aware of what we are doing and what paths we are on in life, then have the courage to make calculated decisions and then act if we ever hope to accomplish anything great. Harry s Truman once said that "In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves: self-discipline with of them came first." Let us discipline our minds and our habits to to live mindfully and intentionally with these few short years we have on this planet.