One of the things we often do in life is take shortcuts to understand the world, our place in the world, and how everything relates. These heuristics allow us to develop mental models of how we think things should interact, helping us build narratives of meaning, moral frameworks, and pathways toward success. The problem thought, if we let these heuristics run amuck without constraining them through self-awareness, is that we begin to cast people, situations, and reality into buckets defined by things we have experienced in the past or seen on TV. In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright encourages us to go beyond archetypes in our relationships to understand others as full people and not as character types from TV shows or stories.
In his book he writes, “Don’t try to force a person to be someone they’re not. … Let’s start with self-archetyping. We’re given examples of people to emulate from a young age, an this generally means being presented with role models who represent a certain ideal to our parents, educators, older siblings, or someone else with influence over our growth. The result is that we grow up with a notion about the “correct” way to act, and this carries over into how we behave in the context of a relationship.”
In this passage, Wright is encouraging us to understand our selves and not force ourselves to be a character that we believe others want us to be. He is also encouraging us to allow other people to be original versions of themselves, rather than trying to force people into boxes that describe them based on other people that we know. This means that you don’t try to assign roles to yourself and your friends to see who matches who from shows like Friends or the Big Bang Theory, and it means you approach each person as if they are themselves, and not as if they are like a character from a movie or even a person from your past.
What we can do when we avoid archetypes is avoid conflicts that arise from hidden expectations of what we want ourselves or another person to be. We can be honest and open about our roles in our relationship, and build a constructive partnership or friendship based on who we truly are as people. Archetypes and shortcuts help us learn lessons about the world and build models, but they are necessarily constrained versions of reality that limit our lives when we enact them in the real world. Avoiding archetypes means that you can be the person that makes you happy, that lives life in your regular resonance, not in the image of someone else. You can allow your spouse to be the spouse that fits with their lifestyle, and makes you happy, rather than the idealized spouse from story or fiction. Driving beyond these narratives of people and roles allows us to interact with people in the world in a much more authentic manner, thought it requires that we take more time to understand those around us.
Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, looks at the ways we think about and approach the world around us, and offers suggestions and ideas for how we can become more adaptive and better suited for the challenges of life’s journey. A common theme in his book is the power of perception and the importance of being able to step back and expand our perspective. Holiday writes, “It’s our preconceptions that are the problem. They tell us that things should or need to be a certain way, so when they’re not, we naturally assume that we are at a disadvantage or that we’d be wasting our time to pursue an alternate course. When really, it’s all fair game, and every situation is an opportunity for us to act.”
Holiday’s quote has two parts for me. The first part is the idea that we are constantly approaching the world with certain perspectives, and as we do so, we have preconceived ideas about how things should be. Our expectations become powerful guides dictating the experiences we expect, and how we interpret those experiences. If we can begin to better recognize our perspective we can hopefully get to a point where these preconceived ideas are no longer hidden from us, but rather are clear for us to see and leave behind. When we can get rid of ideas for how the world should be, how we should feel, and what is the right way for the world to organize itself around us, we can be more complete and true versions of ourselves. Our emotions cease to drive our behavior and we can remain more level in our emotions as we are not wrought by the failure of the world to reach our expectations.
The second part of Holiday’s quote focuses on an idea of taking action and thinking about ourselves relative to others. It is challenging not to think of the world as a constant contest, and it is hard to avoid comparing ourselves with others who come from different backgrounds, have different interests, and have different skills. Constantly expecting a certain outcome because we have confidence in our ability can only lead us to frustrations when the outcomes we want fail to materialize. What is even worse, we may fail to act at all because our preconceived ideas about what will result from our action do not line up with what we would want. The true problem when we dictate our world based on hidden preconceived ideas is that we are giving up our focus on the present for our imagination of what the future provides. Our preconceptions are driven by the past and keep our attention fixed to an uncertain future. Remaining present in the moment grounds us to our current actions and eliminates our preconceived ideas for what we want and expect, allowing us to be the best version of our selves and to put our best effort into what is currently in front of us.
In his book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we can use stoicism to overcome the challenges and negative situations that we face throughout our lives. When we are challenged we have control over how we react to the situation, partly through the manner in which we decide to interpret our situation. Our perceptions give us the ability to predict the ultimate outcome of events long before they manifest. What we are able to see is not the actual way that things will end up, but rather avenues of possibilities full of choices, decisions, success, and struggle.
Holiday writes about preparing ourselves for the journey ahead by understanding that the challenges we face will not be fair, but that we can always keep our nerve and decide if we will overcome or succumb. Building a calm demeanor that can withstand our challenges requires an acceptance of the situation, the acceptance of our lack of control over situations, and acceptance of the effort required to persevere. Through this process we can begin to look at our reality and find our way by maintaining control over our mindset, and knowing that our conscious and rational thought is the only tool we can possibly have sovereign control over. Holiday writes, “This means preparing for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it. Steeling ourselves. Shaking off the bad stuff as it happens and soldiering on — staring straight ahead as though nothing has happened.”
In this section Holiday explains that our mind is the determining factor as to whether something good or something bad has happened to us. It is our mind that ultimately decides whether we have been defeated or if we are still campaigning to reach our end goal. If we react to a negative situation in a way that gives up our mental control then we have failed, but if we respond by accepting another challenge and carrying forward, then truly nothing has affected us.
In some ways Holiday’s quote reminds me of Richard Wiseman and the book he wrote, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. Wiseman explains a common trait found amongst those who successfully follow a roadmap and work toward their goals. Those who look at the future and write down or think about the challenges they will face along the way seem to perform better than those who only think of the end goal and the rewards they will find. Preparing yourself and expecting obstacles gives one foresight into which way to take around and through the challenges that pop up. Expecting obstacles and imaging ways to overcome them before your start your journey will help you shake off the challenges you actually face and will prepare your mind for those moments when nerves become overwhelming.
The last couple of years for me have been a journey to better understand my thoughts, motivations, desires, beliefs, and assumptions. I began working on self-awareness after I realized that I did not fully understand the world and what was happening around me. Podcasts helped open my eyes and helped me see that there were many things that I was ignorant of and viewed from only one perspective. From that realization I began to see the importance of self-awareness. I have continued to make self-awareness a major focus in my life, and Marcus Aurelius echoes and guides my thoughts and feelings of reflection in his collection of writings Meditations.
“Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in regards to self-awareness. By not focusing on ourselves and by not looking inwards, we are allowing ourselves to move through life without guidance and direction. The way we think about the world and our position in the world is something we can change and control, but it is also something that can move and fluctuate on its own if we are not careful. Aurelius is encouraging us to master our thoughts and explore those parts of us which make us who we are.
A powerful metaphor that I came across to better explain the importance of self-awareness and reflection came from a young author named Paul Jun. In his book Connect the Dots, Jun described the following metaphor. Think of self-awareness and focus like a flashlight in a dark room. Your flashlight can illuminate a certain space, and the more narrow the focus of your flashlight the clearer the item you shine it at becomes. But while you are focused in one area, everything else is obscured. When you begin to take a step back and shine that flashlight at a greater area you will see things that were hidden before.
For me, this idea of self-awareness and shining a flashlight of focus on areas that had been dark to my conscious helped me better understand many of the expectations and pressures that I lived with. I thought deeply about what my ideas were regarding success, and where those ideas came from. I thought about what I expected myself to do as part of the identity I had developed for myself, and I thought about why I had those expectations. Through a journey of self-awareness I was better able to understand my own morals, values, and principles which gave me the ability to see what things fit in with who I wanted to be and allowed me to act accordingly.
Ever since I reached the halfway point in my college career, when I began to feel pressure to decide what I wanted to do to earn a living after graduation. Many times along my journey, I have been overwhelmed with the fear of not choosing to do the right thing. I want to put myself in a position where I can live comfortably, enjoy my work, and have time to do thing I am interested in, such as running, hiking, writing, producing the Blue Pulse Podcast
and spending time with friends and family. In order to get to this point, I feel like I have had to practice a lot of self awareness to help me understand what exactly I desire, why I desire what I do, and whether or not those things should be a priority in my life. Adjusting what I considered a comfortable lifestyle and enough money to reach that lifestyle has been difficult, but striving for greater self awareness has helped me realize what expectations for a comfortable lifestyle are unrealistic. In the same way, improving my self awareness has helped me see how much of a roll my own ego plays into my desires to be active and healthy, and my desire to have a good career/title.
For me, self awareness has helped me understand and recognize the barriers to my own happiness, but has not completely solved my internal questions, anxieties, and doubts. However, a quote from Allison Vesterfelt in her book Packing Light, has helped me begin to reach a better place. “Here’s permission to live your life, not dictated by fear of what might happen.” This quote was recently echoed to me in a podcast by Brett Henley. In episode 6 of the Mindful Creator Podcast he sat down with Berni Xiang who spoke about giving ourselves permission to be the person we want to be now.
I can take Vesterfelt’s quote and combine it with Xiang’s idea to create a new mindset for myself. Instead of allowing my self-doubt and fears for the future to take over and shape the decisions I make, I can give myself the freedom to be the person I am now, and also the person I want to be in the future. By sitting down and telling myself that I do not have to live my daily life worrying about what I may have in the future, I can combine permission with self awareness to see that no one is holding me back from applying my talents and abilities. This means that starting right now, I can be the person I want to be in the future.
I love this quote by Allison Vesterfelt in her book Packing Light because it aligns so well with many of my own thoughts about the future. I have a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities, but it is impossible for me to predict what the future will be like for me. When I do start to look to the future I become anxious because I create this future where I am living a certain life style and a job that I am always happy with. No matter what, envisioning my future makes me nervous because it sets these expectations form my future, and I am not sure that the future I actually arrive at will look the way I imagine. That brings me to the quote from Vesterfelt, “Don’t try to imagine it, just know it will come.”
When I look at people around me and remind myself that I can work hard, am good at reaching out and meeting people, and can build connections, my confidence grows and I begin to feel like I can reach any goal l want. It is in this space where I know that I will reach a level of success that I desire. I am confident enough to believe that I will be able to achieve a lifestyle that I enjoy, and will be able to live a “happy” life.
However, at times simply having this confidence is not enough. As soon as I have those feelings of confidence, my future visions rush in bringing with them unreasonable expectations and fear. My visions of the future lock me in to a specific set of outcomes, and make me feel limited and like a failure if I do not reach those outcomes. What Vesterfelt’s quote has taught me is that I can have confidence and look forwards to the future without having to micromanage each piece to reach certain outcomes. I can simply enjoy the space where I am confident that my future will bring good things if I continue to be myself. Rather than focusing on a future where I am happy because of things that I have or job titles I have reached, I can focus on the skills I am developing now, and the small steps that I can take each day that I know will help build the life I want in the future. After that the next step is just getting out of my own way, and allowing the opportunities to come without trying to force my life in a specific direction.
A big challenge for me has been understanding my own personal goal setting. I want to have a plan for where I am going, and what I want to achieve, but it seems to be incredibly difficult for me to set any plans for my life with things constantly evolving and shifting around me. I recently learned to let go of the many expectations I have carried with me that were based in materialistic expectations and unreasonable beliefs about my abilities. To some extent I always assumed other people would see how “awesome” I am and just give me opportunities (it is so hard to accept that you are the star of your own life, but just an extra in everyone else life).
When I came across the following quote in Allison Vesterfelt’s book Packing Light, I felt at ease, “I don’t think it’s bad that I came out her with expectations. Having a plan isn’t bad. I just have to be willing to adjust it.” As I reached the end of my college journey, and graduation inched closer, more and more people began to ask me what plans I had for after graduation, and of course I was asked every college student’s worst nightmare, “what do you want to do with that when you are done?” I so badly wanted to have a brilliant answer to that question and to have a plan that would make people say, “oh well thats great. That field/industry is really expanding/needs smart people/will make you loads of money.” The problem was that all through college any time I had a plan and was working towards something I wanted or believed I should have wanted, I was incredibly depressed and felt more unsure about my future. I tried to be a business major and thought I would study some tough business thing to make sure I could graduate and have a job and make money. However, the classes felt so hollow and I began to have an existential crisis. After that I gave education a shot because I wanted to be able to coach cross country and track and field, and I thought, ‘hey, spending some time with kids where I can joke all day would be alright,” but teaching in today’s high pressured education environment was the opposite of what I loved about coaching, and felt like a huge mistake.
I think I truly found the most confidence as a senior in college once I decided to forget about trying to have a plan for after graduation. I switched my major to Spanish because I knew it was in demand in the Western United States where I live, and because I loved learning about other cultures, having another way to connect to people, and getting new perspectives about the world. I have plans and ideas of what I want to do, but I have recently learned that for me, the best plan is to learn to be fully focused and aware in any situation I am in. This allows me to be hard working, and to do things purposefully, so that I can be ready when new opportunities present themselves to me.
Vesterfelt’s quote means so much to me because it helps me see that it is ok to have plans and goals, especially if I allow them to be dynamic and flexible depending on the people I meet and the opportunities I have. This requires me to be self aware in new ways. I have to be able to identify the strengths that I have relative to the areas o where I still am learning and growing. In addition, I have to be able to see the luck and the opportunities that I have been given, which helps me be comfortable with the person I am now. The quote from Packing Light ultimately allows me to take my skills, and let go of the pressure to find success now. I know that I have a plan, but I am comfortable with allowing my plan to be constantly evolving.