No man needs to settle for being less than.
Recently, I made a few discoveries about myself. The first discovery is that, much to my dismay, I have no choice but to acknowledge that I am now in the demographic unofficially known as middle-aged.
Middle-aged. Those words seem funny to me now. I used to just call it old. At any rate, it seems that the realization that I am at or (more likely) past the midpoint of my journey in life has fueled some deep introspection, leading to other discoveries, and I have a confession:
I am a recovering schlub.
Sometimes the truth is a painful necessity.
I don’t mean that I have been a lazy, sloppy, unambitious bum; quite the opposite. I have always worked hard, both professionally and on projects at home. When necessary, I worked more than one job at a time to support my family, still finding time to volunteer regularly in my community.
My transgressions have neither been of vice or sloth; rather, my primary offense is that I always make do with what I’m given, living in a reactive mode, rarely planning to achieve beyond that which is close to my reach. No defined life goals, no plans, no clear picture of success.
If you are thinking about progressing through your 20s and 30s in such a manner, take this as an opportunity to learn from my mistakes.
Have a plan—and a goal
Recently I came home from work after a day full of strategic planning sessions, and I realized that I spend a lot of time planning my work, establishing short-term and long-term objectives and plans to achieve them, complete with scheduled reviews to assess my performance to the plan. Then I go home, and pretty much do none of that. The financial, spiritual, familial, and romantic aspects of my life received little, if any, of the same thought process. While I had some generalized goals (to retire with enough money to live on, for example), they were far from specific, and included no formal plans to get there. Forget measures of success. My roles as a father and husband are vastly more important to me than my job, but I didn’t apply a tenth of the effort to goal-setting and planning in those areas of my life.
Do the thing that scares you
I spent a lot of the first 40 years of my life scared. Scared of rejection. Scared of failure. Scared I wasn’t good enough. What I have found about fear is that it only has a hold on you until you act. I was scared I couldn’t go back to college and get my bachelor’s degree. I was too old. Too stupid. Too insignificant. I let that fear rule me for years, until one day I finally mustered up the courage to overcome it. In doing so, I realized that the fear of going back to college was the primary indicator that going back to college was what I needed to do most. Attacking that fear head on cleared the way for my education, giving me the chance to grow exponentially. Growth takes us beyond our comfort zone, which creates fear. Thus, fear shows us that which we must do.
This is a daily struggle. As one fear is mastered, another crops up. Look at these fears like trail markers and let them point the way to a better you. A fear overcome becomes a glorious strength.
One other fear that needs addressed is the fear of success. As we begin to master our fears, success starts to feel achievable. If you haven’t experienced success before, then success itself may be out of your comfort zone, and can bring about additional fears, typically manifesting itself in the form of negative self talk. What if I can’t measure up? What if I write that article, it gets published, and someone thinks that I’m still a lazy bum, not practicing what I preach? What will happen with my friends and family if I really do become successful? These fears are all worth mastering to achieve your goals.
Be a student of life
Learning and growth don’t stop when you graduate high school, or when you graduate (or drop out of) college. Lifelong learning is a prerequisite for most professional jobs, but you should also be a student of good parenting, religious or spiritual practice, yourself, and the people who hold meaningful places in your life. Learn how to be the best version of yourself, and you will find that life happens to you a little less, and you happen to life a little more. Would you rather be the water the stone hits, or the stone that causes a thousand ripples on the tranquil surface of the water?
The first part of this one was tough for me, because to be the real you, you have to know who you are. I am not talking about the you that your parents, friends, spouse, or boss want you to be, but the real you. The one that maybe no one knows—maybe not even you. Spend time with some good books, and some time with yourself. Work on your self talk and your knowledge of how your friends and family influence your thoughts and actions. As you learn your true self, you must share the real you with those around you. This requires courage, because sharing the real you means you will be vulnerable. You may get hurt. It will be difficult and scary, but it is unquestionably worth it. Fake people can’t have authentic relationships. Honor your true self and share it with those around you.
We have all most likely heard the phrases “Good things happen to those who wait”, or “Patience is a virtue.” While patience is a great quality to have, never use it as an excuse to wuss out. For much of my life, I subscribed to the philosophy that something good would happen to me if I just tried to be a good person and waited. Surely, eventually I would reap some kind of reward. I learned something, though. Good things rarely come to people who sit around waiting for them to happen. If you want something in life, regardless of what it is, bust your rear. Decide what you want, plan how to get it, and work hard. Fail. Revise your plan. Work harder. Repeat. Patience comes in while you are planning, working, and failing, not while you are waiting. This applies to success in love and friendships as much as it does to your professional life.