“To …become what we are capable of becoming is the only end of life.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
How are things going? The next time someone asks, you may want to reply, “Better than yesterday, but worse than tomorrow!” Did you get it? That simply means that every day is better than the previous one. That’s the way we should live. Rather than growing older with each passing day, we should grow better. And we grow better by becoming MORE, by realizing MORE of our potential, by becoming all that we are capable of becoming. But how do we do that?
Begin by FEELING your potential. See how the grass pushes itself through the cracks in the concrete sidewalk, stretching its blades to embrace the sun. See how the migrating monarch butterfly flies 1,800 miles, from Ontario to Mexico, without a map or compass. See how the giant sequoia tree draws water from beneath the soil, raising it 200 feet or more to nourish each of its countless leaves. Imagine the power that resides in every organism that makes such incredible feats possible. That power is the life force and it is throbbing within you. We can also call it your potential. It is eager to express itself. It wants you to stretch out and embrace life; it wants you to soar and travel to the distant destinations known as your dreams; it wants you to tap into the unlimited power of the universe to nurture your every hope. FEEL your potential. Draw it into every fiber of your being. Let it inspire you to take action. Now, begin.
Begin what? Begin to make a plan. Did you ever wonder why so many slack off and fail to reach their potential? Their ship remains in the harbor simply because they haven’t decided on a destination. How can they set sail for an unknown territory? The first thing we need to do, then, is decide on what we wish to accomplish. The second is to list all the steps we need to take to reach our goal. The third is to build an action plan by indicating the dates we will carry out each step. The fourth is to begin following the steps in our plan. The goal you decide on is your compass. The plan you design is your map. The action you take is the wind in your sails. So, you see, you have the potential and the tools to set sail.
Your compass and map point out what you would LIKE to do. Your actions suggest what you WANT to do. There is often a difference between the two. For example, Connie works in the accounting department and dreams about furthering her career by eventually attending night school and becoming a certified accountant. That’s what she would LIKE to do. The trouble is, after a hectic day at the office, all she WANTS to do is go out with the girls, unwind, and have a good time. If we find ourselves in a position like Connie, we have to ask ourselves, “Who’s in control here? Do I want to be led around by whatever feels good or do I want to take charge of my life and map out my future?”
Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that anything worthwhile is difficult to attain. Life is a struggle, but it’s a rewarding struggle. We soon learn that the more we put into life the more we will get out. Success doesn’t come without a fight, but the sweetness of victory makes the effort worthwhile. It is also helpful to remain focused on our goals and ever mindful of our potential. When you pick up an acorn in the park, it is easy to forget you are holding a tree. When you look in the mirror, don’t see an acorn; see a tree. Be ever mindful of your potential and let it energize you.
Is it worth the risk we have to take to follow our dream? Theodore Roosevelt believed so: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Nobody wants to die, but how many of us want to live? George H. Allen explains: “Only winners are truly alive. Winning is living. Every time you win, you’re reborn. When you lose, you die a little.” And when do we win? When we follow our dream. When do we lose? When we drift through life without a compass and map!
After a rough start, Mary Groda-Lewis created her compass and map. As a youngster she couldn’t read because of dyslexia, which was misdiagnosed. The frustration she experienced led to behavioral problems. Instead of receiving sympathy, she received a sentence to a reformatory. But it was there she learned to read by studying as long as sixteen hours a day. At eighteen, she passed her high school equivalency exam and was named Oregon’s outstanding Upward Bound student. Not long after being released she became a single mother. First surviving on welfare, then on any odd job she could find. After many sacrifices, she enrolled in college. Encouraged by her success, she then decided to become a doctor. After receiving fifteen rejections from medical schools, she was finally accepted by Albany Medical College.
She graduated with honors in 1984 at age 35 and set up a practice devoted to helping the poor and needy, providing more than a $100,000 worth of free health care each year. In 1986, her heroic story was made into a TV movie called, “Love, Mary.” Her story also appears in the book series, “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” She closed her practice on April 28, 2000 among the tears and warm embraces of her patients and colleagues. Yes, she couldn’t read, was sent to a reformatory, became a single parent, and lived on welfare, but all along Mary knew she wasn’t an acorn, but a tree. So, armed with her compass and map, she reached her dream and made a difference in the lives of all those she touched. Can’t we do the same?
Recently I read about a homeless man that froze to death in the winter. When the body was taken to the mortuary, $100,000 was discovered in the lining of his trench coat. He can be excused for ignoring his potential and hidden treasure, for he was mentally ill. But what about us who have sound minds? How can we ignore the treasure hidden in the lining of our soul? To ignore our potential is to ignore life.
A Closer Look
We have within ourselves an innate need to grow. We want to become more than we are today. Simply put, we want to become BETTER human beings. When we are confused about how to become better, we may find ourselves wanting to own more possessions or earn more money. True, greater power and wealth makes us MORE (more wealthy and more powerful), but not necessarily BETTER.
Unless we satisfy our thirst to become BETTER, we are bound to experience frustration, dissatisfaction, and regret. Conversely, when we consistently work on improving ourselves, we feel fulfilled, so a self-improvement regimen is in our best interest. What follows are a few ideas on the art of self-improvement.
Embarking on self-improvement is a noble task, for when we improve ourselves and encourage others, we make the world a better place. Our role, then, is an important one. After all, self-improvement is nothing less than world-improvement! Never underestimate your power to make things BETTER or worse in the lives of the countless number of people you will meet in your life span.
Many of us could be doing far more good than we are at the moment. What is holding us back? For the answer, let’s consider the five basic needs we have, as outlined by U.S. psychologist and philosopher Abraham H. Maslow. In his theory of self-actualization, Maslow taught that we have five basic needs, each of which must be satisfied before we can move up to the next level.
The first need is PHYSIOLOGICAL (food and water). A person who is starving doesn’t have the leisure to think about becoming a better person. All he or she can think about is survival.
The second need is for SAFETY (freedom from danger). It is hard to think about becoming a better person when bombs are continually exploding in your village.
After our needs for food and safety have been met, we can move up to our need for BELONGING (love, cooperation, and acceptance).
It is only after our first three needs have been met that we are ready to work on satisfying our need for ESTEEM (achievement, power, and prestige).
Finally, at the pinnacle is the need Maslow calls SELF-ACTUALIZATION. Maslow describes some of the characteristics of self-actualized individuals as acceptance of oneself and others, developing strong ties to others, and transcendence (being committed to a cause greater than oneself).
Beware: emotions make good servants but bad masters. Love and compassion can propel us forward, but envy, resentment, and anger can bog us down. So, be aware of your feelings and think before you act. When an emotion bubbles up to the surface, ask yourself, “Is this emotion helping me to become BETTER?” If it is, use it as motivation for growth. But if it isn’t, ask yourself, “How can I change this negative feeling into positive energy?” When we look for solutions, we will find them.
If we wish to improve, we have to distinguish between ASSERTIONS AND ASSESSMENTS. Assertions are statements of fact. For example, Tom is five feet eleven inches tall, Mary weighs one hundred thirty-five pounds, or Mario is an immigrant from Italy. However, the statements, “Tom is stupid,” “Mary is lazy,” or “Mario is narrow-minded,” are assessments. They are conclusions I have reached. More accurately, they are opinions. Also, more than likely, they are opinions based are false assumptions, misunderstandings, and prejudices.
If I say, “Tom is stupid,” I am effectively saying, “There is nothing I can learn from Tom.” That is a serious error since EVERYONE can teach us something. So, when I base decisions on negative assessments, I am closing the door to opportunity and personal growth. Consider this, when I say that Mario is narrow-minded, the only thing I prove is that I AM NARROW-MINDED! Instead of looking for faults in others, I should look for traits I admire. Then, I should emulate them. By becoming like those I admire, I will come to admire myself.
I often hear people commenting on the perceived weaknesses of others. Examples of such comments are “Betty is always trying to change others.” and “Why is Richard always criticizing others?” If I were to say that, wouldn’t I be guilty of the very things that I complain about? That is, my comments would reveal that I want to change Betty and I am criticizing Richard. Such comments are wasted energy. What do we accomplish by uttering them?” The answer is nothing.
Yet, if we used that energy by directing the comments at ourselves, we could begin to make genuine progress. Discontent can be a valuable tool, but when we direct our dissatisfaction at others, it is misdirected. When, however, we direct it at ourselves, miracles can happen. After all, it is only at the moment we are dissatisfied with what we are that we can begin to become what we are not.
If we wish to improve but cannot think of a place to begin, all we have to do is list the things we do not like about others. For what we do not like in others tells us what we do not like in ourselves. We see what we feel. If I feel good, I see goodness. If I feel lousy, I see a miserable world. So, the world is a mirror. If all I see is good – guess what? – I’m good. But if all I see are mean, nasty people… Well, I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
If I still can’t find ways to improve, I might want to question my motives and desires. I may convince myself that I don’t need improving because I’m already doing many good deeds. But if I am doing so, what are my motives? Is it because of compassion? Or am I driven by self-aggrandizement? If I wish to get married, is it because of a wish to help create a better world? Or is it because I wish to have a servant who will cater to my every whim?
An indirect route and a great way to improve ourselves is by helping others. What better way to learn than by teaching others? What better may to grow in power than by empowering others? What better way of increasing our income than by helping others increase theirs? Finally, what greater use can we make of our incredible gift of awareness than by using it to improve ourselves?
But Balance Is Called for…
If we are motivated to change for the wrong reasons, we will end up being unhappy. So, let’s take a look at some mistakes we may make in our quest for endless improvement. Let’s also consider how to balance the desire to change with the need to accept ourselves.
Our motivation for change can be negative or positive. It can be based on dissatisfaction or satisfaction. For example, Jerry is overweight and unhappy about it, so he decides to try to lose weight. But what if he is unsuccessful? Won’t he be unhappy? So, he was unhappy before he tried, unhappy after he failed, and he remains unhappy. Not very positive, is it?
On the other hand, Betty is in relatively good health and happy about life. In fact, she’s enjoying it so much, she wishes to increase her enjoyment. It’s like sipping a cup of tea and thinking, “Wow! This tastes great! I want some more!” She realizes she is a little overweight and believes that if she were to lose a few pounds, she would enjoy life even more than she already does. She is an example of positive motivation in action.
Can you see how negative motivation can pull one down or hold one back? And can you see how positive motivation can pull one forward? It’s like choosing to work with a stick or a carrot, isn’t it? But what if one is, for example, overweight and unhappy? Are they doomed to failure simply because they’re unhappy? No, they’re not, but progress becomes much easier with positive motivation.
So, why not change one’s attitude? Jerry, for instance, could shift his focus from his unhappiness of being overweight to his happiness of his many other accomplishments. After all, everyone has many accomplishments. By focusing on them and savoring the pleasure they have brought, we can motivate ourselves to seek even more pleasure than that which we already have. Use positive energy to pull you forward. You can’t push someone up a ladder; they need to be pulled up.
Another incorrect reason for change is peer or media pressure. Everyone around us is telling us what we SHOULD be like and what we OUGHT to do. Trying to comply with the demands of others only leads to resistance and frustration. It is HARD to do what we SHOULD and EASY to do what we WANT. So, why not harness the power of your WANTS by asking yourself what you WANT from life and then pursue it in small incremental steps?
It is not only our motivation, but our approach that can block our progress. Perfectionists, for example, set unrealistic goals. By setting them too high, they condemn themselves to failure and unhappiness. Our goal should be self-improvement, not self-perfection. Perfection is not attainable, but improvement is easily within our grasp. Another harmful approach is that of obsessive behaviour. Obsessions are debilitating and dysfunctional. It is one thing to want to reduce one’s weight to a healthy level and another to become bulimic or suffer from anorexia nervosa.
If our quest for improvement is making us happy, we’re on the right track and should continue, but if it is making us unhappy, we are doing something wrong and need to stop, analyze our behaviour, and correct it. With serious problems such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, we should seek outside help to correct our distorted thinking.
Although there are other wrong approaches and false beliefs that hamper our progress, let’s move on to considering the need to balance our desire to improve ourselves with our need to accept ourselves. Let’s say you are suffering from anxiety, shyness, or self-doubt. If so, your wish to improve the situation is perfectly normal. And you may decide to take an assertiveness course to change things for the better. That’s all fine. But don’t expect perfection. It is unreasonable to expect all your fears to vanish. The purpose of improvements, such as assertiveness training, is to help you cope, not to make you perfect. You have to balance your desire to improve with an acceptance of the limitations imposed upon you by life.
Let’s look at an example. The great, former night show host Johnny Carson always suffered from self-doubt and insecurity. At a party, he would feel uncomfortable mingling with strangers and talking one-on-one. Yet, he learned to cope with his lack of confidence by ACCEPTING it as part of his personality. He performed nightly before large audiences not because he got over his nagging self-doubts, but because he chose to act in spite of them.
Johnny Carson’s weakness was his strong point. His lack of confidence was a great gift, for it caused him to compensate for his feelings of inferiority by becoming an entertainer. His constant fidgeting, twitching, nervous tics, and skittish laughter exposed his vulnerability, and endeared him to all. After all, with all our weaknesses, we could easily identify with him and wanted him to succeed. Also, the fear he experienced before coming on stage caused adrenalin to surge through his veins and resulted in a natural high and bursts of exhilaration as he daily proved to himself that he could entertain others despite his doubts.
We need to follow the Johnny Carson model by accepting who we are and making the most of it. In a world of perfect people, everyone is the same. Everyone is plastic, molded after perfection. Everyone is lifeless. But in the real world, people have imperfections, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. This is what defines people. It gives them personality. It also gives them the opportunity to display great strength and courage by acting despite their fears.
Helen was constantly criticized by her parents as a child and went through many hardships. Today, she has little confidence in herself and seems to be stuck. Why can’t she make any headway? Is her life ruined because of her mother? No, it isn’t her mother’s criticism that is holding her back, but it is Helen’s own relentless focusing on the past that imprisons her. She can liberate herself today by saying, “Yes, I lack confidence, but so does Johnny Carson. Like him, from today onward, I will wear my weaknesses as a mantle of strength.”
Once we unravel the mysteries of life, we realize that there are no weaknesses, only opportunities to display our strength, character, and personality. There is also no reason to complain, only cause to rejoice. Yes, your wish to improve is natural and to be encouraged. But your so-called weaknesses are also natural and a part of your nature. Once you learn to accept and make the most of them, you will come to love them and yourself. So become better, but become a better YOU.
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