Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thoughts-Be Who You Want to Become

I have no idea if this story is true or false, parable or memoir – but it has stuck with me ever since I read it years ago.

There was once a great author, who had written books adored by millions. One day, a passionate young man accosted the author, begging for advice.

“Please,” said the young man. “Teach me how to become a great writer like you.”

The great author took the young man aside, saying, “I can teach you to write, but I cannot teach you to become a writer. When you wake up in the morning, and immediately can think of nothing but writing – then you are a writer.”

That young man could have been me. In some ways, he could be any of us. Like him, so many of us are lost in our dreams and ambitions, searching for someone to lead us from here to there, from who we are to who we want to be. And for many of us – myself included – we read this story and are driven into passivity by it.

We hear: “When you wake up in the morning, and immediately can think of nothing but writing – then you are a writer,” and immediately go home, climb into bed, and wake up the next morning hoping that our first thoughts are of words and paper. Instead, our first thoughts are of coffee, or of work, or of our kids, or any of a thousand responsibilities. So we wait … and wait … wishing for that magical day when we will wake up inspired, transformed into the person we’ve always dreamed of being.

But, of course, that day never comes.

What a pity that such a great story leaves us so helpless. And instead of waiting for our dreams to find us, isn’t it better to live the dream right now? For example: instead of dreaming about waking up with a writer’s mindset, why not make a conscious choice each morning to think about writing? It sounds obvious, I know. But the simple things are the hardest to grasp sometimes.

I realized this recently; a simple truth that has changed how I think about myself and what I do every day; a simple truth that has become the first and greatest of my personal commandments:

Be who you want to become.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
As children, we’re constantly asked what we want to be when we grow up. A pilot. A rock star. The president of the world.

And these are all great ambitions, but they’re all part of the far, far future. So even at a young age, we’re trained to think in somedays.

The problem is, when all we talk about is what we’re going to be once we’ve grown up, we tend to forget about the actual growing up part – the part that actually gets us from point A to point B. We have trouble seeing what’s right in front of our noses. Now. The present. Who we are today, and what we can do now, instead of what we maybe could do one of these days.

And what I’m realizing more and more is that what we do now, what you and I do today, what takes up our time on a daily basis, decides what we get to do on a lifetime basis.

A Person, Not A Characteristic
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in goal-setting is being one-dimensional. I’ll say to myself: “I’m going to write a novel.” Or: “I’m going to be more organized.” I’ll even come up with specific action steps to help me stay on track.

But what always gets me isn’t a flaw in my 10-step plan for success. It’s all the other stuff that isn’t in the plan. The lunch breaks. The sudden boredom. The TV playing in the background. The emails. All the little things that fill up my day. These are the things that always pull me off track.

And I think I know why. I’ve been pursuing my goals as if they were objects floating in a vacuum, when I should be treating them as part of a hugely complex thing we call a lifestyle.

I’ve been overlooking the fact that 90% of the stuff that I do every day won’t be strictly related to a particular goal. And that’s okay. Because that’s how life works. That’s how people work – though we may not always see it that way.

We look at an Olympic athlete, for example, and all we see are the races. Maybe we even see a little bit of the training. But what we almost never see are the sleepless nights, the driving to and from practice, the singing in the shower, the little breaks, the personal struggles, and all the small things under the surface. The Olympic athlete is only part of who that person is. A big part, yes. The whole thing? Not a chance.

We chase our dreams as if we were in a movie montage, with all the irrelevant, boring parts cut out. It doesn’t work that way. Between learning to wax on and wax off, the Karate Kid probably had to go home, study for tests, apply for college, and other things that had nothing to do with martial arts.

What I’m saying here is that, instead of aiming to write a novel (or become more organized or get a better job), we should aim to be a person for whom writing a novel is possible. Because we, as people, are not wrapped up in one goal at a time; we are the sum of hundreds, thousands of goals.

To really get somewhere, I think, we need to develop a full, three-dimensional picture of the person we want to become, and then pursue all aspects of that person in our daily lives.

Present responsibility
We look to the future for many things. Inspiration. Hope. Ambition. And sometimes – or often, even – for excuses. The future, if you think about it, is the biggest source of procrastination. Ever.

Part of being who you want to become is killing off those excuses for procrastination. The constant call to action. There’s a great temptation, I think, to put up a mental barrier between now and someday. We’re going to be better people “someday,” and we think that somehow absolves us of responsibility for the mistakes we’re making today. We’ve got to stop doing that.

The solution, for me, is mindfulness. Being keenly, constantly aware not just of what I’m doing, but why I’m doing it.

What I want to express here is my newfound sense of urgency. I’ve come to understand that my future self – the self that’s successful and happy and incredibly productive – that self doesn’t exist. What I have is me, right now. That’s what I have to work with. That’s all any of us have to work with. And it’s the progress we make every single day, it’s who we choose to be every day, that determines whether we’ll reach our goals sooner, later, or not at all.

It’s a lot to live up to every day. But so worth it.

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