**This is a post about me personally and the things I’m trying to work on in my own life. If you’re wondering why I would bother sharing, it’s because I think there are probably a lot of people like me who could benefit from some of the same realizations I’ve had to come to slowly and painstakingly throughout my thirty years of life. Maybe you’re one of those people.**
Throughout my adult life I’ve been fairly obsessed with mastering a wide variety of external skills and working towards external goals. I think I’ve managed quite a lot and proud of my progress. But recently, my ever-present self development efforts have turned more internal. Perhaps it’s because it’s the beginning of the year. Perhaps it’s because I just turned thirty. Whatever it is, my focus has turned considerably more introspective. That’s part of the reason I started this blog. I find fulfillment in writing about things that are close to my heart.
Anyway, here’s a little summary of the internal things I’m trying to work on to live a more virtuous and meaningful life along with some tips that I’ve found to be helpful thus far.
Telling the Truth
I’ve come to the belief that truth is a worthy virtue in and of itself. In part I suppose this has come about as a result of the increasingly intense conflict between politically correct feel-good Western culture and those who dare utter those uncomfortable truths that shatter its illusions. I’ve been on both sides of that conflict. I’ve been a hero and I’ve been a coward. Sometimes I’ve parroted socially acceptable lies in order to fit in, and at other times I’ve stood alone in what I believed to be true–and been hated for it. Often times my decision to stand up for the truth or cower from the masses has been decided by whether or not I thought anyone else might have my back.
I eventually came to the realization that even one person telling the truth can have massively advantageous downstream effects for society as a whole. The first person who dares to tell a forbidden truth in spite of apparent social, financial, and/or legal consequences gives everyone else the opportunity to do the same without being the only one. The more people jump on board, the more the less courageous “normies” are free to join in without fear of reprisal.
This is clearly the case with truths that everyone knows but no one dares say. But perhaps even more significant is that it frees people to consider positions that they would never have otherwise considered. Most people won’t bother to evaluate the truth of a claim that is highly unpopular. They’ll dismiss it out of hand. They aren’t willing to accept the possibility that the claim might be true. That would be too dangerous. So they either come up with a weak straw man in place of the actual claim, or just refuse to think about it at all. The more courageous early adopters stand up for such a claim, then, the more people will be willing to consider it objectively.
Telling the truth is also beneficial in a more day to day context. Say you go out to eat at a new restaurant, and the owner comes over to ask you how you liked the meal. “Good”, you say. Even though it wasn’t good at all. A month later the restaurant is out of business. Did your polite lie really help anyone? Well, yeah, it helped you. To avoid a few moments of awkwardness. You probably don’t feel so good about that, as well you shouldn’t. Our religious traditions, our stories, and our consciences tell us that telling the truth is a righteous and noble thing to do. I think they’re right. Tell the truth and people (the ones that are worthwhile, that is) will respect you more. And you’ll respect yourself more, the value of which cannot be overstated.
This is the best I’m able to articulate it. But at the end of the day what I’m really doing is taking on faith that truth is a worthwhile virtue and will improve my own life and the lives of those around me. I’ll see soon enough if that’s the case.
In my mind, learning to tell the truth comes in three steps. The first is to stop lying outright. The second is to stop saying things that are technically true but likely to be misleading. And the third is to proactively state the truth when you believe it to be beneficial.
I never really realized it until I started to make a conscious effort not to, but I used to lie a lot. Not maliciously. Usually just to avoid making myself look bad or avoid hurting someone else’s feelings. And I’ve found it a difficult habit to break. But I’ve come up with a few tactics that help.
The first is to realize that you don’t have to tell people something you don’t want to just because they ask. You have a right to keep your information to yourself if you don’t think any good will come of revealing it. Sometimes it really is better to keep it to yourself. This is the meaning of Jesus’ timeless advice to “cast not your pearls before swine”. You don’t have to say something that isn’t likely to be productive, even if it’s true.
Instead of lying, you can decline to answer. Or you can ignore the question. Or you can change the subject. Or you can give an answer that’s not true but is obviously meant as a joke (I don’t consider that a lie, since it’s not intended to mislead). For example, you leave your fun but not-so-serious friends for a little bit to console your girlfriend who is in tears because she thinks she saw you smile at the check out girl in the grocery store. When you come back, your friends ask what that was about. The correct response (obviously) is “we were smoking crack.” Often times that will suffice.
But realize that sometimes it is better to tell an uncomfortable truth than to deflect or refuse to answer–as in the restaurant example earlier. Don’t use this as an excuse to avoid your responsibility to tell the truth when the truth really would be helpful. If your girlfriend does something that really bothers you, then asks “what’s wrong?”, answering “I think I have leprosy” is better than “nothing”, but it would probably be better still to swallow your pride, accept the risk of looking like an oversensitive wimp, and just tell her the truth. Both of you, and your relationship, will probably be the better for it.
Heeding My Feelings
I have a tendency to push myself really hard in pursuit of the various goals and values I’ve set for my own life. A lot harder than I would push someone else who works for me. It works, to some extent, but it also makes me overly stressed. And sometimes it backfires, because I burn out and then don’t get anything done.
I find that it’s really hard to succeed at something if my heart isn’t in it. So I’m trying my best to redirect my effort toward those things that I find fulfilling. Of course, I can’t do this all the time; I still have to pay my bills, honor my prior commitments, and that sort of thing. But the larger the share of my time I can spend doing things that are meaningful, the better I feel, and the better I perform.
In order to figure out what those meaningful activities are, I pay attention to my own feelings. This may sound obvious to some people, but I’ve managed over the years to build up quite an impressive ability to ignore my own feelings in pursuit of a goal. That’s discipline. And it’s a great thing to have, but, like most things, only in moderation.
So I try to strike the balance between work and pleasure that makes me feel the most happy and fulfilled. If I try to take on too many responsibilities during a period of time, I’ll start feeling stressed out and angry, or even depressed. I take this as an indication that I need to take a break and do something easy and fun. On the other hand, if I play video games for three hours straight, I’ll start feeling lethargic and bored. This means I need to start doing something more productive.
I also tend to bite off more than I can chew. I start some new project and have lofty aspirations for it, and try to get results right away. This causes me stress and anxiety, and makes me start to dread the work. I need to divide the work in such a way that each piece is an acceptable level of difficulty. Too easy and it’s boring. Too hard and it’s discouraging. The sweet spot is in the middle.
There are often different was of dividing up the work such that each part is challenging enough to be engaging, but not so much as to be discouraging. I can also divide it up such that I leave the most difficult parts for when I’m feeling the sharpest, the most vaguely defined for when I’m feeling most creative, etc. If I’m not feeling 100% I can work on a less challenging piece. Or if the work is mind-numbingly easy, I’ll listen to a podcast or video while I’m doing it.
In this case I am taking on faith that my feelings represent a higher understanding present in my subconscious of what constitutes a helpful activity. If my heart is not in it, I take that as an indication that it’s not what I should be doing at the moment (unless it’s something I know without a doubt I have to get done, as in by a deadline). Of course, this also requires that I realize when what I want to do is due to an unhealthy addiction. Like meth, or facebook.
Understanding My Motivations
I left this one for last, because I think it’s the most important. I think we’d have a much better world if people had a little more self-awareness. And as with everything, I need to start with myself.
The basic process is this. When I have an impulse to do something or say something, or when I have a strong emotional reaction to something, I ask myself why. I try to be as honest as possible. I try to take on the role of an impartial spectator. It’s actually easier than it sounds. We’re all made up of a bunch of competing personalities (and not just crazy people; what do you think is happening when you’re “debating” something in your mind?). You can make a conscious effort to switch to a personality that has less emotional attachment to whatever question you’re pondering.
Whatever answer I get I use to inform my decision. For example, if I come up with a new business idea (which happens a lot, actually), I have to determine whether it’s worth my time and energy to pursue it. I ask myself why I am interested in it. If the answer is “just to make money”, then I will generally not do it, because I know that making money in and of itself is not all that motivating to me, and I’ll have a hard time sticking with it. If, on the other hand, the answer is that it advances some value that is really important to me, I’m much more likely to pursue it.
This applies equally to small, day-to-day activities. For example, if I get sucked into an argument on Facebook, I’ll step back and ask why I’m doing it. Sometimes the answer is “to assert my intellectual dominance.” Actually that’s probably the case most of the time in this scenario. If that’s the case, I judge the motive as unworthy and so I stop the activity. If, on the other hand, my honest motive is something more noble, such as to inform or persuade onlookers (I’m almost never trying to convince the person I’m actually arguing with; that’s almost always a futile endeavor) of something that will improve their lives and perhaps society as a whole, then I might continue.
Some emotional motivators are clearly more noble than others. And sometimes they’re easy to confuse. A beggar asks me for money, and I give it to him. Did I do it out of a pure desire to help my fellow man? Or was I just trying to get him to go away? Or was I acting on some misplaced sense of guilt at having more money than him? These questions help me to understand myself and make better decisions going forward.
Pretty much everything we do, we do for the sake of emotion, after all. We do things because we “feel like it”. We do things because they make us happy or fulfilled, or they boost our ego, or they satisfy our desire for revenge, or they allow us to avoid a situation we fear (such as getting evicted for not paying rent). Some of these motivations are base, some are purely practical, some are noble, and some are evil. I try to be honest about which motivation falls in which category.
Many of these can and should be let go of, as they don’t add anything to our lives or the lives of those around us. Resentment, hatred, envy, and irrational fears are obviously some of these. Others are less clear. Greed and anger, for example, are useful at times but can also be destructive. Chief among these for me is ego. I do a lot for the sake of feeding my ego. But ultimately I don’t think that’s very productive, so I’m trying to let it go. I’m trying to avoid doing things whose only real motivation is ego.
But again, I’m mostly taking on faith that some part of me already knows on a visceral level what constitutes worthy and unworthy motivations. The hard part is not judging the motivations, but being willing to recognize and honestly admit them in the first place.