There is nothing so American as our belief in our own personal exceptionalism, to believe in our ability to transform our lives in Horatio Alger-like fashion, from rags to riches. We unconsciously buy into the narrative that we are all just one book away from greatness, one diet away from a relationship, and one business plan away from a Snapchat windfall.
Personal transformation is compelling narrative, and it makes for great entertainment, too. We loved Julia Robert’s transformation in Pretty Woman. We gather together and watch American Idol with it’s promise to vault the teenager next door into mega-stardom. We live vicariously through entrepreneurs on Shark Tank, as they struggle, get insulted, and make us all feel that getting rich is just an episode away. We put our kids to bed with the tale of the Ugly Duckling’s transformation and wake up to the listicles on social media promising us 31 essential tools for changing our lives today.
Transformation narratives resonate because they’re empowering. If the problem is with me, the self help industry tells me I can fix it. And if I can fix it, I can become who I’m meant to be. Easy.
Our belief in personal transformation is so pervasive and empowering, it’s a significant driver of our economy. It fuels American consumerism, one of our finest exports. The self-help industry is a $10 billion industry, and that’s excluding weight-loss programs, therapy, coaching, plastic surgery, new wardrobes, cosmetics, adult education, personal fitness, reality entertainment, lifestyle magazines, or hundreds of other products and services designed to transform our inner and outer selves.
While belief in transformation is pervasive, all-American, and big business, it’s also destructive. Because invariably, life intrudes. That relationship you want to fix requires complicity from someone else. A broken bone thwarts your fitness goals. Your founder decides to self fund the business you’ve built and, starved for cash, it fails. There are many things in life we just can’t control, and we invariably end up disappointed when our resolutions recede into reality.
Sara Eckel writes in her recent post entitled, “4 Beliefs Singles Can Leave Behind This Year”, on how belief in personal transformation is particularly harmful to single people, who now represent more than half the population. “Because they would like a partner and don’t yet have one, they come up with long lists of things that are “wrong” with them: they’re too aloof, too scatter-brained, too inexperienced, etc. They become their own biggest improvement project because they never are “FILL-IN-THE-BLANK Enough. Thin. Successful. Funny. Attractive. Compassionate. Generous.“
This obsession with transformation also means we spend our lives in the future, in a world of what-could-be. Each January 1st, we craft our resolutions accordingly and begin the new year counting our steps with our Fitbit, but sleepwalking through life, ignoring the luxury and stillness of the present moment.
Our goals unmet, we never FEEL quite enough, and we never HAVE quite enough. We approach life with our hands held out wanting more, approaching each situation from a position of scarcity rather than abundance, jealous of what others have and not appreciative of the gifts we’ve been given.
Work, love, life become not enough -- just cycles of disappointment.
So how might we live to feel enough? How do we incorporate the hope of transformation and the promise of a goal that's been met, while avoiding the disappointment that may follow? Forrest Church, a gifted theologian, an inspiring leader to seekers, and a minister at a church I attended years ago, struggled publicly in life with alcoholism and other issues. Since struggling and overcoming are essential components to our transformation narrative, I was inspired by what he concluded at the end of his life, cut short by cancer. The secret to life was this, he said, "Be Who You Are. Do What You Can. Want What You Have."
Here's my take on what he meant.
Be Who You Are means be authentic. (I'm seriously trying not to add: it's also more appealing than pretense.) "Stand on the truth of who you are," my sister would say.
Do What You Can means doing the very best that you can, and no more. Exercise, meditate, and deliver your business plan on time with no attachment to the outcome -- to a future you can't control.
Want What You Have is wanting what you have right now and not what you'll have in the future or what someone else has. It doesn't mean you can't imagine a different future, but don't dwell on it. Count your blessings, and at the end of each day, do what Mattieu Ricard suggests we do: name the 3 things that were great about today.
So this year, try something radical. Skip the resolutions. Be who you are. Do what you can. Want what you have. You are enough.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!