Marcus Aurelius constantly sought to become more self-aware by reflecting on himself, his actions, and his thoughts. He recorded his reflections and the lessons he learned from constantly being present and observing himself and others in his book Meditations, and we can use his wisdom to help improve our lives, nearly 2,000 years later. One of the starting points for Aurelius is how we think about ourselves, and how we think about the thoughts of others. Throughout the book Aurelius reminds us to become humble through self-reflection, and to become empathetic with others who are doing their very best to live their life in a manner that is suitable for them. He encourages us to build our own strong mental fortification while not basing our understanding of the world on the views and beliefs of others. It is in this spirit that he writes, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”
Human beings are social creatures and our tribal evolution has stuck with us, pushing us to find groups to associate with for belonging and meaning. This has allowed us to come together in societies and to achieve more than we ever could on our own, but Aurelius writes about a dangerous side of our social dependence. When we fail to become self-reflective and when we do not live our lives according to our beliefs and rational understanding of ourselves we risk becoming an amalgam of what we perceive others to think of us. Our lives become vehicles to impress others, and the most important decisions we make are intended to satisfy other people instead of ourselves. Living in this manner places our lives in control of others, and leaves us as hollow shells of individuals.
Aurelius would encourage us to think about ourselves in a more profound way to understand what our needs and desires are, and to understand where our motivation for achieving our goals comes from. If we are focused on what other people want us to become, he would argue that we are not living up to our true potential. If we are confident in ourselves and value the faculties of our minds, then we must take time to become self-aware to find a true alignment in our lives. We do not need to discount the opinions of others to a point where they are meaningless to us, but we need to be able to recognize whether our motivation lies in the words of another or whether our motivation is born from our own rational thought and understanding of self.
In his book Act Accordingly Colin Wright dives into the ideas of self awareness and alignment and how we need to have both to ensure that we are moving in the right direction. Wright explains that it is necessary to be aware of what we are working towards and allow our path to change as we grow, learn more about ourselves, and discover new perspectives. In regards to reaching the place we want to go, he explains that our path should not be a straight shot but that it should have bends and turns as we begin to understand ourselves and the world in new ways. The author writes, “It may be that the shortest distance between you and your ideal lifestyle is halfway down one path, a third of the way down another, a tenth of the way down another, and so forth.”
For Wright, all of these changes in paths mean working towards more flexibility and greater alignment with your true motivations and goals. If you are not self aware and lose focus of your interactions and life surrounding your big goals, then the paths that you chose will not be in alignment with what is best for you, and you may not be happy with the paths you start down. Wright advocates that we avoid paths that “fall into habit prisons”. This means we should look to maximize agency and flexibility in our lives, which includes our mental perspectives as well as our available time.
What I really like about Wright’s quote is that it shows how non-linear our trajectories can be when we set out to reach a point in life that we desire. We do not have to know immediately upon exiting college or school what we wish to do, but if we focus and apply ourselves in a direction that is aligned with our true self, then we will have new opportunities to take paths that better align with who we are. I am often stressed that the path I am on won’t deliver the end goals for my life that I would like to see, but after reading Wright’s quote I know that is ok. My path may just be leading me towards a new intersection where I can find another path that will be more direct and aligned with the vision of success that I have for myself. However, as I move down new paths it is important that I understand what I am aiming at. I have spent a lot of time thinking about and redefining success in my mind. The vision that I have of success is now much more in line with who I am than my previous ideas of large houses and fancy sports cars. Understanding my end goal helps me evaluate paths along my constantly evolving journey.
Continuing with the idea of reciprocity Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little Change a Lot, reviews two studies, one by Dennis Regan and another study M.E. Schneider, which deal with finding the best balance between helping others, and receiving positive results from the favors you provide. In regards to favors Wiseman writes the following (emphasis mine):
“Favors have their strongest effect when they occur between people who don’t know each other very well, and when they are small but thoughtful. When people go to a great deal of effort to help someone else, the recipient can often feel an uncomfortable pressure to reciprocate. In a sense by giving too much at the beginning, one person places the other in a difficult position because the law of reciprocity states that the recipient has to give even more in return. Motivation is also important, as recipients can often experience a drop in self-esteem if they think they are bing helped because they are believed not to have the ability to be successful by themselves, or if they attribute the favor to an ulterior motive.”
I am drawn to this quote because it shows that we can not go about greatly influencing the behaviors of others simply by performing favors for them. The science indicates that we can make a lasting impression for someone by performing small acts of kindness, making the other person want to reciprocate positive actions back to us. The research also seems to reveal that people are uncomfortable with large favors, because it puts them in an awkward and unexpected position. Finding a balance where you perform small favors can help you boost your relationships be creating stronger bonds and friendships with people willing to assist you when you need a hand.
Wiseman’s section on reciprocity also shows that people can sense the motives behind favors. A congressional approach to friendship and relationships (a you scratch my back I scratch your back, or in congress you vote for my bill, I’ll vote for your bill) is not a strong way to build friends and influence others. Providing favors because you are expecting others to then do something positive for you is going to leave you without friends as others will see your underlying motive. Ultimately this will leave you with no reciprocated goodness, and no friends.
Another idea that I was drawn to from Wiseman’s thoughts on reciprocity is the idea of empowering others and performing genuine favors. When others sense that you are doing favors for them because you don’t believe they can handle the situation on their own, you damage their self confidence and insult them. I think of a young teenager who does not have the opportunity to make his or her own decisions because their parent is constantly acting for them. The teenager may just want to have the chance to display their own competence, but the actions of their parent are leaving them without an opportunity to apply themselves. By acting in ways that we think are favors for others, but actually limit their participation and self implementation we may doing more harm than good. I believe Wiseman would argue that this contributes to the idea of simple favors having a greater impact than large favors.
Diana Wakowski is a poet who authored a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice, a combination of letters from creative people. In Wakowski’s letter the poet writes, “Try to balance the material world and the idealistic one, so that your standards always remain high but you learn to gracefully accept and be second best.” This quote is difficult to understand when you look at it from a surface level, and it seems to run against the ideas and visions of success that are programmed into us from the time we enter elementary school. I think that unpacking this quote, examining our motivation, and defining success are at the heart of Wakowski’s vision.
Throughout school we are constantly competing against our peers and being rewarded by congratulatory stickers and medals. Whether it is academics or athletics the competition aspect of life is built in from a young age. Success in both areas for many people is driven by the material rewards and social benefits that accompany outstanding accomplishments. In sports, the desire for shiny medals or trophies may be the motivation for some to spend hours practicing, while in academics, certificates and self satisfaction from achieving the highest possible grade can be the drive.
What Wakowski is saying in her quote is that the outward benefits of success that many so strongly desire need to be combined with an understanding of the world we live in. Striving to achieve a level of success in order to call oneself the best can be detrimental to not just ourselves but those around us. When we begin to see this, it is important that we consider our motivations. Working hard is not a bad thing, but pushing ourselves to the point where our health is in question and the relationships around us become strained is dangerous. If our motivations are based purely on outside recognition and material gains, then the sacrifices we make to our health and relationships will leave us in a place we never wanted to reach. In addition, striving towards material goals and desires often leaves us working towards goals and lifestyles set by other people or companies. These types of goals are not aligned with our true desires or our inner personalities.
In her quote, I do not believe that Wakowski is suggesting that we leave all material desires and outside motivations behind us, but rather she is asking that we become aware of those desires so that we can align them with our true selves. We cannot do this if we have not spent time trying to understand what our motivation is, and where our desires come from. Having high standards and expectations is a good thing in our lives, but constantly driving to be the very best may take away from parts of our lives that could be more meaningful than the boost to our wallet or social image. Settling for second best in this view is not settling for good enough, but rather striving to be excellent at what you do, but not to a point where you are unable to enjoy the success that accompanies the hard work. If you reframe your goals and desires then your success become more aligned with who you truly are and what you truly enjoy so that you can have better motivation to pursue excellence.
In his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Scott Russell Sanders comments on the things we desire. Sanders writes, “Love simply. By that I mean, think about what you actually need for a good life, not what friends or ads have taught you to want.” This is a very meaningful quote to me because it speaks of the importance of self awareness, and of getting away from the pressures to buy and have things.
As a recent college graduate I love reading quotes like this one or hearing people talk about the importance of realizing what goals and desires you actually have. Television shows portray a certain lifestyle, and advertisements fill your mind with ideas of how you should live and what things you should buy to be happy. If one can spend time to understand that having lots of things will not translate to happiness, then they can begin to live more free. I am not suggesting that anyone should abandon all desires for material items, but rather that having a BMW does not need to be ones goal or benchmark for success (especially at a young age out of college). As I read back through this post, I am currently reading a book called Insight Out by Tina Seelig. In her book Seelig talks about entrepreneurs and motivation. In a similar sense to what was discussed by Sanders, Seelig encourages asking yourself and anyone who wants to create something, “What motivates you?” and “Who are you?” These two questions force someone to understand what forces driving them, and what they expect and need for happiness.
What Sanders quote also hints at is our competition with and comparisons against our friends, co-workers, and those we went to school with. Striving for a lofty job title, a big house, and fancy cars just to be able to impress other people is damaging to yourself, your relationships, and ultimately your future. I think Seelig would agree with my interpretation of Sanders’ writing, and could reach the same conclusion. Having motivations that are external and based on rewards and social praise will drive you towards goals that don’t align with what you actual desire or what will really make you happy.
The drive to achieve greatness should not be based on what you want your external projection to be. Learning to step away from television to avoid projections of what success and happiness look like will allow a person to be more flexible in their decision making and to become more happy with the lifestyle they already live. In addition, Sanders would agree, learning to be confident in the person you are and letting go of comparisons against the people around you will help you develop real relationships with them rather than having a relationship based on impressing someone with material wealth.
During her 50 state road trip, Vesterfelt reflected on the life she was living before the 6 month voyage, the life she had to give up, and the life she hoped for following the trip. As she continued along and had time to think about who she was becoming, and what she wanted from her life, she wrote, “what I really wanted all along, which was to live a life that meant something and lasted longer than me.” In this quote I think that Vesterfelt sums up a fear that I have dealt with since my first day of college. I have never wanted to have a job where I felt stuck or as if my only contributions went towards making the company and myself more money.
I am not sure how to take Vesterfelt’s quote and actualize it into a majestic journey or new opportunities that will open the doors for me to also find a life that is rich in meaning and will make an impact that goes beyond the years that I have on this planet. Vesterfelt overcame these troubles by giving herself permission to be the person she wanted to be, and to tell people who she was (even though in her mind she was not yet the person she wanted to be). This parallel’s the advice in the last episode of the Mindful Creator podcast that I listened to. In episode 6 Brett Henley and his guest talked about allowing yourself to be the person you want to be without waiting for others to give you permission to be that thing. I think that is a great first step to finding meaning in your life, but it needs more direction. The podcast continued to say that once you have given yourself permission to be who you want, you have to show up. To them showing up is the part where you put in the effort, and practice your craft to develop the skills you need to be the person who lives a life of meaning.
I find all of these ideas very inspirational, but the ideas alone do not help overcome the fear of acting or putting in hard work for something that may not provide the rewards you are searching for. I think that with this fear, one must buy in completely to the idea of practice and showing up, but only if one can be honest with themselves and recognize what they truly desire, and the reason/motivation behind their goals and desires.