I graduated second in my class in high school, and at the time I was thrilled because it meant I didn’t have to give the Valedictorian’s speech. I was shy at the time, and had no idea what I would want to say to so many people, nor what advice I could offer. Now, with 14 years of hard-earned wisdom under my belt, I have more than enough to say and know exactly what suggestion I would give.
Do less. Be more.
When it comes to guessing what will make us happy, our culture places all its chips on Doing. Prevailing wisdom goes something like this: Set goals. Go to school. Study hard and make good grades. Participate in lots of extracurricular activities. Decide what you want to do in life and go to college to prepare for it. Study more. Learn lots. Graduate and find a job. Set more goals. Work hard and accomplish them. If you’re unhappy, pick new goals or work even harder. Eventually, if you do enough, you’ll be happy.
As someone who has set (and achieved) a lot of goals in my life, I would like to humbly suggest that meeting our goals and accomplishing lots of things is not a guarantee of happiness. At best we accidentally move closer to the things that make us happy. At worst we spend a lot of time and energy trying to achieve something that was never going to fulfill us in the first place.
The problem comes when we confuse who we are with what we accomplish. We all wrestle with this question whether we realize it or not: who am I and what value do I have as a person? Our culture encourages us to identify as and value ourselves for the things we achieve: as a well-received writer, a successful businessman, a winning lawyer, or an awarded actor. In this story, however, bad things happen when we don’t achieve what we set out to. For example, when I realized my job as the manager of a startup social enterprise was not fulfilling me, I felt fear and anxiety about figuring out what was next, as if I wouldn’t have an identity or value as a human being until I did. Or when I fractured my foot while training for a marathon and felt ungrounded and lost because I couldn’t run, bike, or train capoeira like I used to. Even trying to be a good friend can lead to disappointment and frustration if I am trying to make a person feel better. If my efforts to console my friend don’t work out, then I feel like a failure and my friend loses the ability to be accepted in whatever state she’s in.
If we are what we achieve, we are highly dependent on outcomes to feel okay. We lose a sense of freedom and ease. We exhaust ourselves and when we feel unsatisfied, we respond by trying to do even more. Ever more exhausted, we become trapped on a hamster wheel that promises to deliver us a sense of self-worth and fulfillment, but keeps us trapped instead in the same cycle of ambition, effort, short-lived satisfaction, and long-term fear and frustration.
I propose an alternative explanation for who we are, what gives us value, and what makes us happy. I propose that we are indefinable, that the best we can do is to experience all that we experience and leave it at that. I propose that we have innate value as unique, loving, and creative human beings capable of profound wisdom. We have this value no matter what we do. I also propose that when we talk about happiness, we usually mean something closer to fulfillment, which comes from doing what has meaning and importance for us in any particular moment.
Thus, I am not a coach; I am a person who enjoys coaching and who therefore coaches. I am not valuable for all the breakthroughs I have with clients nor for all the insightful blog posts that I write. I am valuable just because I exist and contribute to the world by being who I am. As someone pointed out to me recently, my very presence brings something to the room. And I am happy because I appreciate my value, and because I have found ways to do what I love to do, be it coaching, writing, or anything else.
Meditation is a great way to practice just being, and to put us in touch with what’s important and meaningful for us in any given moment. When I’m just being, and noticing what that’s like, I can sense that I have value, even though I’m not accomplishing anything. And when I’m in touch with the experience of my heart and body as well as my mind, I have a strong sense of what’s important to me. That sense may guide me to take action, but it’s an action that simply expresses who I am in that particular moment, not an attempt to prove my value or achieve something in the future.
And sometimes I’m not called to any action at all. That’s one thing I’ve learned since high school: the pleasure of being. Without thoughts, without worries, without ambitions or regrets or past or future, we are left with a sweet freedom to just enjoy the experience. We can take pleasure in a certain lightness, an ease, an effortlessness. We can enjoy the opportunity to do exactly what we were designed to do: just be.