The Gift of Childish Hope

The other day I asked my kindergartner what she wanted to be when she grows up. The answer is the same it’s been for the last year. “I want to have my own bakery and serve cookies and cupcakes and donuts!” she replied with delicious conviction.

It made me recall the dreams I had when I was a kid. I dreamed of being a cartoonist for Disney. I loved to draw and wanted to make it my life’s work.

The thing I remember most was that when others asked and I answered, there was no doubt – much like there is no doubt in my daughter when she exclaims she’ll own a bakery. 

To see someone with a level of self-belief that hasn’t been stamped out by the struggles of life is an innocent and beautiful form of hope.

I know that as she gets older that hope and belief will inevitably taper down and adjust to whatever life throws at her. 

There will be a point where her grandiose thinking of childish pursuits will need to face the realities of her innate talents. Her skills may not overlap with her childhood dreams.

She’ll be faced with the choices we all have to make as we come into adulthood.

But, whatever profession she decides to pursue, I hope she retains that part of childhood hope that we could all use more of. 

A belief that we can. A belief in ourselves. A belief that no matter what the world throws at us, we’re still going to have unreasonable dreams for ourselves. 

It’s this hope that pushes us to make our highest, most generous contribution. 

Yes, you can

Something interesting happened when I first became self-aware that I was a high-achiever. It gave me language to better understand myself. And like any language that expands our understanding, I wore it as an identity.

Years later came the next level of self-awareness – the realization that every label has its downsides. 

I first noticed it when I’d describe myself to others as a high-achiever and then comedically add that I wished I could turn it off and live without the high expectations that come baked into the label of high-achiever.

I made a Faustian bargain. I believed that to be a high-achiever I accepted the need to be ever-driven and push myself for more achievement until I burned out. There was no off button – it was all or nothing. That was just part of the deal. 

And there I was for some time – stuck in a belief of the need for more, always more. 

Then a coach challenged my perspective, allowing me to arrive to a deeper layer of self-awareness. He asked a simple quesiton – “Why not operate under the complete opposite assumption you normally default to?” 

In other words, try being someone else, just for the next two weeks and see what happens.

Anytime I felt the urge to throttle the achievement lever, I paused to understand where the urge was coming from rather than plowing forward like a bulldozer. I’d ask myelf why I felt the need to achieve – was it a desire of my own or one imposed by the external world? Was it aligned to my purpose or was I just doing it to avoid getting clarity around my purpose?

This space was just the thing I needed to break the incessant narrow-focused high-achiever need to get shit done. 

Three interesting things happened when I began to observe and rethink the self-limiting parts of my high-achiever identity. 

First, I realized I spent a lot of time on non-essential activities because I didn’t have a clear purpose. Once I defined my purpose, I refocused on the essential things and got more done while doing less. 

Secondly, I noticed how much fear held me back because of perfectionism and impostor syndrome, both of which are common in high-achievers. With a purpose clearly defined, I still noticed the fear but it no longer held me back. Instead, the fear became an indicator of a growth opportunity. Rather than avoid doing the real work and substituting it with the unimportant, I tackled it head on. 

Most importantly, I found balance. Contrary to what I used to believe, it’s been so much more fulfilling than a life of constantly striving for more. I had gotten used to living life with an eye towards the future, obsessed with figuring out what would come next, that I missed life in the present. 

This is all to say that we have within us the power to reshape our identities. Yes, you can change. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, especially yourself. 

An Examined Life

The unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates

When I was in high school, I thought I was going to be a musician, tour the world and move people by my art. I saw the road of greatness ahead of me and believed that I was destined to walk it. 

But, of course, reality wrapped itself around that dream like the big wet-blanket that it is and smothered that idea. 

The sting of that first bite made me put guardrails on my ambition. I avoided anything that strayed too far outside the lanes of certainty and assurance.

I stayed away from anything too creative that required dealing with the tension of uncertainty. I moved closer towards the spectrum of adulthood that in my youth I avoided – safety, responsibility, conformity.

I muted the part that expands and amplifies possibilities. I silenced that which moves us when we experience something that stirs us to our core – a breathtaking view from a mountain, a song that brings us to tears, a work of art that moves us.

I began to see the world as a place of fear and avoided failure at all costs. I kept my ambitions safe and with a high certainty of success. 

I think part of growing, the part that makes it so enriching, is examining the things that we’ve continually avoided dealing with. Maturity (a product of growth) is replacing fear with curiosity and identifying that fear is not the only perspective. 

The world is not just black or white. It is both and it is neither. Every yin has a yang. 

It’s recognizing that fear of failure has another side. Muting ourselves by living in the shadow of what we are capable of doesn’t have to be the only path forward.

We are worthy of making a remarkable contribution. 

Our contribution does not need to be grandiose in scale, but it must be remarkable and to the best of our abilities.

If we’re going to make the most of our short existence, we must examine the things that hold us back.

And then perhaps we will have lived a live worth living.

Hope as a Choice

As of late there’s something extra in the air, something that is hard to shake. It’s unsettling – an underlying existential anxiety or dread. It’s hard to escape from. It feels as if it’s become part of the background noise – absorbed into the ambience. 

It begins to seep into your bones and your body carries the weight of it all.

A funk without hope. 

But, tread carefully.

This ground, while heavy, is fertile for shaping your view of the world. And ultimately, the trajectory of your life. 

This is a pivotal fork in the road, not to be taken lightly.

A moment to decide what deep belief you want to hold about how to view the world.  

Because deep beliefs unwaver during times of uncertainy like these. 

Down one path, the world, situation, or outcome is hopeless and filled with dread. A belief that no matter what we do, it won’t make a difference. And if nothing matters, why care about anything or open ourselves up to the world.

Down the other path, is hope. And hope is a decision (this distinction is important).

A decision that you’d prefer to live with intent. A path with a deep belief that we must not waver from because it is our contribution to the world. 

This is a choice to believe that better is still possible, even in the face of the bleakest of situations. A commitment that no matter how dire it may seem, you choose to believe that better is possible.

And so you fight.

You make the choice to fight. 

Because without hope, better is not possible.

Why not me?

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…

Epictetus, Discourses 2.5.4 – 5

Things happen.

Events are neutral by definition.

Most are outside of our control.

But we as humans love to sort them into neatly labeled categories like good or bad. 

Rather than fighting the urge to categorize, we might as well learn to control the choices we make about what those events means. 

When something bad happens, we can despair and bemoan the world woe is me or agonize over why me?

This is one option. 

And I won’t judge you if you take this route (I’ve chosen this path plenty times before). Playing the victim absolves us of any responsibility about what to do next. 

Over time, this thinking leads to learned helplessness. And you could eventually convince yourself you don’t have any other choice but to play the victim.

Or we can ask ourselves why not me?

Perhaps your current challenge requires grit, courage, determination, patience, resilience, empathy or persistance to overcome. 

Every experience has a lesson to learn from it. Figure out what that is and own it. Choose to lean into the challenge and be open to learn what it has to teach you.

Take pride in being the type of person that isn’t afraid to face a challenge and turn it into an opportunity for growth. 

There will always be external events that positively or negatively impact us. 

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a choice. 

We get to choose how we define these events.

That’s something that no one can take away from us.

The Process of Being

One of the reasons why so many high achievers are unhappy: their expectations rise faster than their accomplishments. Success is most satisfying when you have high aspirations but modest expectations. You can set ambitious goals without taking for granted that you’ll attain them

Adam Grant

I used to think that being a high-achiever was something worth chasing.

I viewed it as a badge of honor.

I now believe it’s more a way of living in fear. 

Fear that I’ll never be enough – the tension between a deep-seated desire to make an impact in the world and a fear that I’m not doing enough. 

So I try to do everything.

I try to be the best at everything I touch. I set goals based on these high aspirations and a belief that I’m certain I can achieve them. 

But, you can’t call yourself a high-achiever if you ain’t achieving.

And that’s the tension that comes from defining yourself as a high-achiever. The focus is always on the outcomes. 

If there has been a singular hard lesson-learned from this upside-down year, it’s that we have zero control over outcomes. 

The silver-lining of this year is that chaos can also be a great catalyst for change, whether by choice or by circumstance. It’s an opportunity to stress-test your beliefs.

I’ve intentionally spent the better part of the year digging into the ideas I’ve formed around achievement, specifically on the focus around outcomes. 

I recently had a conversation with my fitness coach about the perspective shift it requires to live a healthy life and I thought it translated well beyond the boundaries of health and fitness.

We were discussing the success I’ve had in the year since I started with him. We began talking about what 2021 would look like if I were able to maintain the results I had seen thus far. 

And he said something that was counterintuitive. 

Once you reach a certain level of fitness, it’s tempting to want more and move the goal post further out, but it’s a trap. The shift has to be from one of continuous improvement to maintenance. 

He goes on to write about it on his blog:

This sounds easy but it can be especially hard to maintain due to boredom and the ideas communicated to us by media and our circle of people. It is quite profitable to teach you that once you've achieved one goal you should immediately replace it with another, higher one. Fighting back against this more is better model that is part of consumerism and capitalism is a must for your long term health.  

Once you reach a certain point your perspective needs to shift from an achievement and outcome driven focus to one of showing up for the practice with no incentive other than the practice itself. 

The journey becomes the focus. 

And perhaps the same can be said about high-achievement. 

At some point, the focus needs to be less on the quantity of outcomes or the next level of achievement and more on the quality of the journey – on finding the few key areas of purpose in your life and committing to them and their practice.

It means you can’t do everything.

It’s the shift from high-achiever to purpose-driven achiever. 

It’s a focus on the process of being rather than the process of doing.

The Lens

We all have strengths. 

And I believe strongly in developing those strengths over a desire to strengthen a weakness.

I work for a strengths-based organization. I’ve taken StrengthsFinder and know my top five strengths. 

This knowledge has been invaluable.

It’s provided me with a language that allows me to describe what I previously had difficulty describing. 

One of my top five strengths is Futuristic. I get inspired by thinking about what the future could be, what it might hold. 

This strength has helped me make many goals a reality. I see what I want to achieve or who I become and I am inspired towards action.

This strength is a lens through which I view the world. 

I’m constantly scanning ahead trying to guess what’s in front of me. I chess play out a multitude of scenarios to help me find the optimal path forward. 

Viewing the world through this lens has paid off. I’ve found success in my career and in my own personal development.

It’s helped me change careers three times, complete marathons, shed weight, achieve promotions, etc.

The point is, it’s been one of my superpowers. 

THE PERIL OF STRENGTHS

But I’ve found there is peril hidden in this type of thinking. 

When we latch on to ideas of who we are or are supposed to be, we tend to confirm all the good that comes from it and discount or ignore the downside that may be a result of it. 

The lens which I choose to view the world through comes with a price. 

Always looking towards the future causes anxiety. Anxiety is a fear of future outcomes and their uncertainty. I suffer from anxiety most days but never connect it as a byproduct of my strength.

I assume everyone sees what I see, views the world through the same lens. Every judgment I make is arrived at through my lens rather then trying to see it through a different lens.

Doing so can drive me to madness.

I’m unable to fathom why someone would act a certain way when viewed through my lens.

The reality is far outside what my lens is equipped to see. I convince myself that the action or the person is acting irrationally. 

It’s easier to blame my misunderstanding on someone else’s actions than it is to look at myself as the source of the conflict.

Doing the latter would force me to seek understanding.

When someone doesn’t think three steps ahead, perhaps it’s not because they lack ambition or can’t, but rather because they’ve chosen to view the world through a different lens. 

Perhaps, they prefer to live in the present and not worry about future outcomes.

Rather, they live in the moment and face the future as it appears in the moments thereafter, however they may unfurl.

Empathy is the ability to see what you cannot see. It’s the ability to recognize your own lens, briefly set it aside and try to see the world through the lens of someone else. 

Until we acknowledge the lens, it is hard to see others for who they are.

Instead, we see them as who we want them to be.

To be seen, you must first see.