The Building Blocks of a Great Life

by Michael on February 22, 2010 · 0 comments

(Photo by thelastminute)

As I write this, we’re in the middle of the Winter Olympics: some of the world’s greatest athletes, performing feats most of us can only dream of. Can you jump off a cliff and fly the length of one-and-a-half football fields before landing perfectly on skis? Neither can I.

But there was a much more sad event this week: a man flew a small plane into an Internal Revenue Service office, leaving behind a long internet screed blaming the government for the problems in his life.

It got me thinking. What makes the difference? How do we get on the path that leads us to excel, or the path that leads to feelings of helplessness and ultimately oblivion? More practically, how can you or I take what we have (or don’t have) right now and get our lives to a better place?

What’s here is only a start, but if you’re stuck in a place where you’re feeling adrift, you really need to read this.

Define Your Own Life

Simply put, if you don’t define your life for yourself, it will be defined for you. If you believe you can do great things, you at the very least have a chance. But if you don’t believe you can do great things, you never will. We don’t stumble into greatness. It never happens to us. We either make it happen or we don’t.

Likewise, if you believe your life is a battle against forces trying to harm you, that is what your life will be. Would you rather live that life of fear or a life with meaning?

Decide what’s important to you. What do you really value? What makes you truly happy? Write it down. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Start moving your life in the direction you’ve determined.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” – Henry David Thoreau

Know You’re Always Capable of More

This is one thing I’m sure of: no matter who you are, no matter the pluses and minuses in your life, you can do something more. There’s always something to be learned, a door to open, someone to touch, something to achieve.

Tim Ferriss, of Four-Hour Work Week fame, has a saying: “Doing the unrealistic is easier than doing the realistic.” The vast majority of people aim low. They choose to find a goal they can easily visualize themselves achieving with reasonable (but not too much) effort. They figure, “they’re all doing it, hell, I’ll just do it too.” File that under Allowing Others to Define Your Life.

Instead, why not look beyond the beaten path and work toward those dreams? Instead of following the textbook, write your own script. Take those dreams and start turning them into goals, then into steps. Imagine new ways to accomplish those goals.

Don’t let this intimidate you into paralysis, though. You don’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” just find the right wheel to get you where you want to go. Refining the wheel, however, is fair game.

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Understanding Yourself

We live in a busy, busy world. There are so many distractions that we can fill every waking moment with work or play. But how much time do we spend in quiet reflection? After all, before you can achieve your dreams, you have to dream.

I’ve recommended meditation before, and I’ll say it again: it’s a powerful way to help you focus your thoughts and clear the clutter in your mind. Also, I’ve found that solo road trips offer me the time and solitude to work through problems. Another way to get your thoughts down is journaling – just be sure to take the time to really get your deep thoughts down and reflect on them. And write down your strengths and weaknesses. Be honest and complete. Then work on fixing those weaknesses and maximizing your strengths.

The people with the most vivid dreams and the highest drive to achieve them are those who have spent time looking at themselves and determining who they really are.

“You have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.” – John D. MacDonald

Living With Integrity

There’s one factor that will help you not only to achieve your dreams, but cushion you when you stumble: live with integrity. Strive to make your words and actions consistent, so that others trust you, and more importantly, you trust yourself.

Treat everyone you meet as if they could help you: more often than not, they can. From servers to phone support, executive assistants to the guy in the next seat in the bar, be consistent in dealing with people. That includes people close to you – and people you want to be close to.

“Men of integrity, by their very existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor. We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.” John W. Gardner

No One Says It’s Easy

While we’re being honest: listen, anything worth achieving will take some work. The more ground you need to cover, the more steps it will take you to cover that ground, there’s no way around it. And the work may be compounded by a late start: if you’re obese, getting trim and healthy will take longer. If you’re hopeless socially and your wardrobe is exclusively no-name sneakers, khakis and polos from Wal-Mart, just a couple of quick tips won’t make you a ladies’ man.

When you’ve got a long, hard road to walk, the most important factor for success is to find a way to enjoy the journey.

And sometimes you’ll find a dream slips from your grasp entirely. You work hard and save for retirement and a stock-market crash snatches away your savings. A mudslide takes your home with it. Someone (intentionally or unintentionally) sabotages you. But almost anyone successful you can think of has faced adversity or setbacks. You can’t watch an hour of Olympics coverage without hearing multiple stories of these elite athletes beating poverty, or bouncing back from a debilitating injury, or almost leaving the sport they love only to return to greater success.

Life can, and will, throw you a curveball, or even a knockdown pitch, from time to time. The measure of a man is how he handles it.

“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and griefs which we endure help us in our marching onward.” – Henry Ford

The Trouble With Normal

I hear so many people say that all they want is a “simple,” “normal life.” The first problem with that is there’s no such thing as “normal.” Everyone has an idea in their head of what “normal” might be, but I can guarantee you that their notes won’t match. Do “normal” people cook their own meals, or eat at KFC? Do they work at a job they hate and wait for 65 to retire? Do they cocoon at home, or party three nights a week?

Second, and more importantly, the trouble with “normal” is that it can never stay that way. The people who strive so hard to maintain a “normal” life are always the most shaken when something happens to interrupt that normalcy. So instead of working to achieve new dreams, attain new goals, they work just to try and prevent bad things from happening.

Even seeking greatness can be much more fulfilling than simply struggling to be “normal” – it truly is the difference between an Olympian high and the helpless low.

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