It’s true. You don’t grow in life as much as you get to experience it!
I want to begin this post with an extended quote from the book Starring at the Sun by psychiatrist and Stanford professor Irvin Yalom. In describing a session with a client Yalom says…
Pat’s illusion that we are ever growing, progressing, moving upward is not uncommon. It has been greatly reinforced by Western civilization’s idea of progress since the Enlightenment, and by the American imperative for upward mobility. Of course, progress is merely a construct; there are other ways to conceptualize [personal] history… The sudden realization that upward progress is but a myth can be jolting. (All emphases are mine.)
I’ve struggled with the concept of “growth” for some time now. And I’m not sure why. Yalom’s quote above helps. I really like his suggestion that “Growth” is merely a social construct that we Americans have adopted as a means to achieve the so-called American Dream, whatever that is.
Now if we are using growth as another word for maturation I have no problem. I believe that one of the primary goals in life is to learn to have greater wisdom—understanding and acceptance and sound judgment. That’s maturity. If that’s what is meant by growth then I’m all in.
But I fear we use the concept (or construct) of growth quite differently. I shiver when I hear a person tell me or someone else how much they have seen our growth. Most frequently, all that means is that we have become more like THEY want us to be. Yuk—like my life is all about making you happy.
Sorry. The rebel is me doesn’t care what you think. I’ve got a life to EXPERIENCE and it’s probably not the one you have in mind for me.
My Problem with “Growth”
Obviously, I’ve got a problem. Maybe it’s just a hang-up. It might even be just semantics. I don’t know. But almost every time I hear someone talking about growth I feel just a bit of, well… let’s call it tiny bit of anger.
Two things are required for growth: (1) an ultimate goal (often something material), and (2) a current state of not being there. Perhaps my problem is that using the word “growth” implies that at some point you are “less than.” And it’s so often inferred that the state of “less than” is immature, unacceptable, and embarrassing. I DON’T BUY IT!
We preach, “Wherever you are, be fully there,” but I guess we really don’t mean it if wherever you are is not the place others want you to be. Otherwise we would change the phrase to “Wherever you are, move!” Oooh, I kinda like that motto. It’s perfect for the change-oriented, creative person.
If you’ve read many of my posts then you know I am a huge fan of Tim Ferriss. I listen to all of his podcast interviews—not missed one. He often concludes by asking the person he is interviewing what advice they would give to their 20 or 30-year old self. The most common response is they would tell their younger self to “chill,” to be more patient and not so driven about the future.
But me? What would I tell myself? I would say, “Don’t Change Anything You Are Doing.” Even if it’s stupid, illegal or injurious. Why? Because “I am who I have been becoming.” Every single experience in my past has contributed to the me I am today. I like where I’m at today—I didn’t 5 years ago—but today is good. All of these experiences have contributed to me becoming more mature and wiser (and evolved).
Within the last decade I have come to understand that currently I know a lot less about life for sure. I know now that life doesn’t change but I do. My best changes come from a very intentional mindset of experiencing and learning from every moment and eventually end up a wiser, better man.
Unfortunately the word “growth” isn’t normally used that way. It is usually used to describe a person’s change when moving from less to more in the eyes of the commenter. Or, it means advancement in career or prestige. Neither excites me. In fact, they trouble me.
I wrote a post titled “Your Life is a Treasure Chest.” I believe it. There is so much to experience every stinkin’ day. Sometimes in your regular activities and sometimes in ones designed to be experiences, like go-cart racing, rock-climbing, museums and obviously… foreign travel.
Even work. When you are at your best you are engrossed in experiencing your work. You become so engaged in what you are doing that you lose track of time. (For example, I have an alarm on when I am deeply into whatever I am writing because I will be totally oblivious to “time.”) Even if you don’t like your job you can discover “moments” when the task you are doing can actually be kinda fun. (You just need to find a job that offers a whole lot more “moments.”)
It is through this process of experiencing life that we enhance our abilities and knowledge and wisdom. We evolve. We mature. We get better. And, hopefully, we also get softer—more accepting and forgiving and receivers/givers of grace.
“Experience” and Let the Results Come Naturally
I guess I have to admit, to some degree, that this thing of mine against growth is a personal hang up. But I still think it’s important enough for you to reflect on. What’s better for you: 1) To be fully engaged in what you are presently doing, or 2) to be laboriously working on something that will give you predetermined “results?”
I guess you could make a good argument for both. But you have to admit that #1 is a joy and learning opportunity, and #2…, well, #2 is a drag!
I’m coming to the conclusion that given a choice between the Stoics or Epicureans (given the little I know about either), I would choose the Epicureans—who are NOT perverted and lascivious and pure pleasure-seekers as we have been led to believe. They are disciplined lovers of life who make a conscious choice to engage that which lifts them up, is pleasurable and makes them the kind of person they want to be. Stoics (which I very much admire) seem to be more concerned with virtue (which I very much value), but to the exclusion of many pleasurable experiences.
How do I conclude these few words of rambling nonsense (which is extremely important to me personally)? Let me give a shot at a handful of thoughts:
- “Engaging in varied experiences” may be the most important activity you can do in life (apart from care of your family and some relationship with God—but sometimes those can even be sacrificed, for a period of time).
- Telling someone how much you’ve “seen them grow” can be insulting.
- Maturation trumps social growth every time.
I thought I would have more ideas. I guess not. I know this (for now). When I am about to die I’ll have 3 questions I will want to ask myself: 1) Was I a good man? 2) Did I really experience life? 3) Did I discover joy and serenity? I know I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I just have to satisfy my own expectations.
Did I “grow” to get there? Of course. But only because I was more concerned with experience and love and joy and serenity. Not because I was stridently focused on step-by-step growth. It was because I was in the hands of an indisputable evolution of experiences that helped me arrive at my final destination point.
The More the Experiences the Greater the Wisdom
Photo courtesy of jeffbergen @ istockphoto.com