I went to the gym one day to do my regular 30 minute run. As I stepped on the treadmill, someone had also started running next to me. I went on with my regular running routine, and towards the end of my 30 minutes, I noticed the person next to me running faster than I was and showed no signs of exhaustion. I couldn’t help but slow down a bit, so I could look at his display to see how far he had run, at what speed, and how many calories he had burnt. Not that it mattered, but I was curious as to how I was doing in comparison. As I tried to peek rather subtly, I swayed a bit to the left and almost tripped. I embarrassed myself in front of other treadmill-runners. So, I quickly recovered, and put on a straight face to show that I was not phased by my stupidity.
There was a lesson to learn in this. I realized that one of my problems to not achieving what I want is lack of focus. I tend to spend a significant amount of time ‘peeking’ into other people’s successful lives that I lose focus myself. A simple example is spending ample time on Facebook looking up what my friends have been up to. Profile browsing is usually followed by: ‘oh wow, so and so just got a great job’, or ‘so-and-so just passed this exam with flying colours.’ Sometimes, this ‘peeking’ goes beyond distraction and turns into dismay. When you are going through a hard time studying, you decide to log on Facebook for some distraction. What you will realize is that you will tend to check friends who are happy and who just posted pictures of them doing crazy fun things. At this moment, you will feel dismayed that your life is not easy, and that your friends have it all. Facebook creates this illusion that others are doing better than you, and this becomes especially pronounced when you are going through a hard time.
Close Facebook and open a word file. Write down what your short term and long term goals are. Your short term goal could be to pass an exam; your long term goal could be to get into engineering at so-and-so university. The next thing to do is to start a TO-DO list for your short and long term goals. This will become your reference, do not sway from it. Every time you accomplish something in the TO-DO list cross it out and feel proud that you are one step closer to your goal. This is a practical solution to keep you focused on the goal.
“The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire not things we fear.” Brian Tracy
“With a positive, optimistic and cooperative attitude a person with an IQ of 100 will earn more money, win more respect, and achieve more success than a negative, pessimistic, uncooperative individual with an IQ of 120″ The Magic of Thinking Big
The quote above struck a chord with me. I realized that attitude is essential in achieving self-actualization. However, attitude alone is not enough; it has to be accompanied by action.
Parts I and II of this series introduced the importance of self-reflection and provided a guide for self-discovery based on what we do, believe and love. In order to attain self actualization you have to maximize the overlap between what you do, love and believe (demonstrated by the smiley face in the schematic). You have to DO something you LOVE and BELIEVE IN. The more you strive to overlap all these three things, the closer you get to self actualization. But how do you strive towards the goal and what do you need to do to get there? You will need the right attitude and the right actions.
The two P’s related to Attitude
Positive thinking and Patience. You know who you are, you know what you want, and in order to get there you will need the right attitude. I fully believe in the saying “You are what you think you are.” If you underestimate yourself, you will never reach self-fulfilment; and if you overestimate yourself, you will never be satisfied with what you have accomplished. Positive thinking generates hope, something many of us are lacking nowadays. It also generates gratitude, our safe haven during times of despair. As I read once: “To be grateful is to be continually joyful”.
Patience is probably the hardest personality trait to acquire in our fast-paced 21st century. We have gotten so used to instant gratification that we have forgotten what it means to wait. However, sometimes we are forced to take the waiting journey. Many of us dread it, but those who have patience enjoy the journey and learn from it. They see it as an opportunity rather than a struggle. Imagine you were forced to walk to your target city after your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. You could call it bad luck and feel upset about it, or you could pick up what you need and start a journey, one that might be hard, but will be way more rewarding and character-building than if you just sat in your car and drove to your destination.
I have to confess that one of my biggest struggles in life is to be more patient.
The 2 P’s related to Action
Perseverance and being Proactive. Perseverance is the daughter of patience; without patience you cannot have perseverance. Additionally, creativity is the daughter of perseverance. Einstein once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perseverance with no creativity will make you go around in circles. However, people who create different paths to achieve their goal exercise their creative muscles and become stronger after reaching the goal as opposed to getting it with less effort and time. Perseverance also creates value. It is not a secret that the harder you have to work for something, the more you will value it. The easier you can get it, the less value it will have for you.
Being proactive is the opposite of being passive. When you are proactive, you are dynamic and moving. It involves you reaching out to people, to organizations, to whoever you can in order to achieve self actualization. Proactivity is the adrenaline of patience. Being patient and not doing much is very dull and won’t lead to anything. Being proactive gives your waiting journey both energy and purpose. It creates opportunities that you never thought of before, ones that maybe even better than your initial goal. It is also inspiring to others who are struggling to see proactive individuals pushing their limits to attain self actualization.
Part I of this series introduced the central question: ‘who am I?’. The idea was to challenge us to think about our identity in terms of what we do, what we believe and what we love. Let us further discuss how these three things can fully define who we are, and what that means in terms of reaching self-actualization.
What I do
The question here is related to the kind of job you would like to do. As a student, you sometimes get bogged down by endless studying, exams and assignments. This distracts you from exploring and thoroughly researching the career path that you are most interested in having.
Some will have a clear idea of what they want to do, but get discouraged with all the work involved in pursuing the career. They will talk to people and feel that they are not up for the challenge, and decide to settle for something else that is not as demanding. They will settle for something that will not push them to the limits, but keeps them in a familiar comfort zone.
Others feel that their career should be chosen based on financial return. Return On Investment (ROI) is the cornerstone for those people. The more money you make with less effort, the better. They view the world from a financial point of view, and measure their decisions accordingly.
There are some who are influenced by their parents. My father for example wanted to study architecture, but because he got good grades in high school, his parents decided he should do something more ‘prestigious’, and made him study pharmacy instead. Keep in mind this was almost 40 years ago in a Middle Eastern country. Well, fate was on his side, because after finishing pharmacy he started working as a medical representative for one of the multinational nutrition companies, and he slowly got more involved in the business/administrative side, something that he loved more than practising pharmacy.
Above are some of the factors that can shape your career choice. Think about the things that are affecting your career choice.
What I believe
This involves your beliefs regarding everything in life. What do you believe in in terms of morality, ethics, philosophy, religion, politics, health, relationships, and career choices. We all have our own belief systems that is an agglomeration of all of the above. What we believe in evolves with time. We first inherit our parent’s beliefs, and slowly start to develop our own as we grow older. We are challenged with real life problems and based on them our beliefs evolve. For example during our teenage years, most of us are stuck in the centre of the universe. We shape our beliefs based on how they affect us regardless of others. My teen years are a good example. When I was a teenager, after a period of being bullied, the following became my moral belief system: “We live in a jungle, and if you are not a predator, then you are a prey”. I lived with this mentality for a while, and what a fool I was. Now in retrospect, I realize how self-centred I was. I did unto others what I didn’t want done to me. My moral beliefs now are on the the other extreme of the spectrum.
What do you believe in at this stage of your life?
What I love
This is the engine that drives our thoughts and actions. Each one of us loves specific things, individuals, ideas, activities and places. When you take the combination of all you love, each one of us will have a unique set. Like our belief system, we inherit some of what we love from our parents, but with time we develop our own loves. We all receive pleasure from what/who we love, but not all we love is constructive. Again, I will use myself as an example: I loved smoking when I was a teenager. It helped me relax when I was stressed, it got my mind off of things that bothered me, it made me one of the ‘cool’ kids, it gave me an air of confidence, and most importantly made me fit in. I loved smoking, but was it good for my health? I am sure we can all agree that it wasn’t. I was buying my psychological and social well being at the cost of my health. What good was that?
Think about what you love in each of those categories, and make a list.
You must be wondering how all these things tie in together in achieving self actualization. In Part III of the series I will introduce the “Four P’s Rule” that will bring everything together.
It is with full intention that the word ‘success’ was dropped from the title of this article, and replaced with the term ‘self-actualization’. That is because you can be successful without reaching self-actualization, but in no way will you reach self-actualization without being successful.
People that seek self-actualization develop a habit that becomes central to their personality, and that is self-reflection. Who Am I ? What do I love? Why do I do the things I do? What is the purpose of my life? Answering these questions is the starting point to achieving self-actualization. The answers are not easy and intuitive as many would think, but rather there remains a deeper understanding of who we are that is unexplored in the midst of our busy lives. It is therefore, critical to take some time to self-reflect everyday to understand who we truly are and understand ourselves fully.
Let us start with the central question; who am I?
There are two dimensions to who we are. The first dimension includes aspects that were pre-determined for us, such as: gender, genes, ethnicity, family and socioeconomic status. Our first experience of the world starts at this dimension. We are shaped and molded, early in life, by our surrounding environment that we did not choose, to have certain beliefs, views and attitudes. To some this becomes a stepping stone to reaching the next dimension of who they are, and to others it becomes a stumbling block. For example if you were born into a middle class, well-educated family in the United States, then chances are you will get access to a good education, health care system and recreational facilities. On the other hand, if you were born into a poor family in a third world country, then chances are you won’t have access to all these things. This is not to say that the latter will never reach self-actualization, but it would require more work and perseverance.
At some point in our lives we transition from our first dimension to the next genuine and unique dimension of who we are, but we sometimes fail because of a common roadblock. When we were children we all tried to please the first authorities in our lives, namely our parents. Then we got to the teenage years and we rebelled against that authority (at least, some of us did) in search of our own identity. This is the critical time to discover who we are, because in the teenage years we become highly influenced by society and its norms. We are surrounded by friends who pull us in many different directions as they also search for their own identities. We diligently pursue what is ‘cool’ and we simply shy away from anything that could label us as the ‘good kid’. Pressure builds as we let go of one authority (parents) and create new authorities (cool factor, friends, society norms) and in that mess we get lost and lose vision of our second dimension.
The second dimension is our unique character that makes us different from those around us; our psychological fingerprint so to speak. Interestingly enough, many of us go about with our everyday lives without fully discovering who we are. Here are three ways people describe their second dimension:
1) I am what I love
2) I am what I believe
3) I am what I do
It is profound how most, if not all, of our unique characteristics fall within these three criteria.
Take 10 minutes to make a list of traits under each criteria to get a more complete picture of who you are. You are already on the path to self-actualization. I will explain the next step in Part II of this series.
A recent article in Time magazine featured a study that measured the performance of 3500 students in math over a period of 5 years (http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/26/motivation-not-iq-matters-most-for-learning-new-math-skills/). The study concluded that students’ IQs only determined the starting point for students to do Math. However, the ability to learn new math skills was determined by motivation and study habits rather than IQ.
The relationship between those things seem elusive, but I will try to explain. This thought was triggered as I was heading towards the escalator to go up one floor, to attend a scientific talk in a conference. Ahead of me was an elderly woman who chose to take the staircase rather than the escalator. The first thought that came to mind was why this woman would take the hard way, especially that she is elderly. On the contrary, I told myself, it is probably healthier to take the stairs, which is actually good for people with all ages. I felt ashamed as I stood there letting the escalator lift me to the second floor. What does all of this have to do with success? Well, I thought to myself, if my career journey involves going up ten floors, and I have to choose how to get up between floors, what is the difference between taking the stairs and taking the escalator? I decided to think of the two extremes, the absolutely active, and absolutely lazy. If I was absolutely active I would take the stairs for all ten floors. The first 2 or so floors might be exhausting, but they will build my stamina. By the time I get to the fifth floor I would probably have enough stamina to start climbing the stairs two at a time, and by the 7th floor, my fitness would be sufficient to run up the stairs two at a time. What have I gained by the taking the hard way and climbing the stairs. Well some of the things I would gain are resilience, patience, perseverance, stamina, fitness and good health. If I take the other extreme and stand on an escalator as it takes me up, then I will gain weight, I will move at a constant rate all the way, I will have no tolerance to pushing myself and taking any action, and would mean that if on one of the floors the escalator was not working, i will just sit there and wait for it to be fixed. All negative outcomes. Now, if you decide to switch from escalator to stairs on one of the floors, then you will gain the positive aspects, but not to the same degree as someone who has been taking the stairs from the beginning. However, if you push yourself harder, by the 10th floor you both could have the same stamina. This could also be explained vice versa if you decide to switch to the escalator at one of the floors.
This is an excellent analogy of success. If you are barely getting by school because you are lazy to study then you are going up the escalator. You are not improving, and chances are you will not be able to deal with hard situations when you are faced with them. If you push yourself to take the hard way, the way that will require you to discipline yourself and train yourself to study. It will be hard at the beginning, but then it will come naturally to you as you proceed further. Pick the hard way, pick the way that will build your character. Picking the hard way does not mean never failing, it means looking at failure as an obstacle to be overcome. Build resilience and patience by going around failure. Have no doubt that no matter how long it takes to overcome failure, it is building your stamina.
I will leave you with a challenge : What about actually climbing up the stairs of the escalator? How would that relate to success?