“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” – E. B. White
The balance between doing and being is like breathing. Which is more important: inhaling or exhaling? Clearly, they are both important, literally vital. You can choose to take a particularly long breath–sometimes your body needs it–but you can’t choose to inhale forever. Similarly, you can’t continue striving ad infinitum. Neither can you stay at rest forever.
Sometimes, it’s time to do. Sometimes, it’s time to be.
The cues to switch from one to the other are more subtle than the signals to breathe in or out, and they are not automatic, until pushed far past healthy zones. Our bodies will eventually rebel against too much of either doing or being, but this kind of crash and burn is easily avoided by being aware and switching at the optimal time.
When it’s time for doing, push. Produce. Create. Achieve. Change. Ideate. Expand. Build. Design. Read non-fiction. Learn. Organize. Pursue. Lift heavy. Optimize. Work. Practice. Give. Improve the world.
Early, positive signals to switch to being are a sense of completion, the end of a productive day, that tug that your body gives at the end of a deep satisfying inhale. Listen to these cues.
You’ll know you’re doing too much when your efforts become ineffective. The law of diminishing returns kicks in and you find yourself spinning your wheels. Exhaustion sets in. You can’t keep your eyes open or your mind clear. You might be grumpy or feel like a martyr. You might reach for the addiction to give you relief. The goal of course is to avoid this state as often as possible.
Switch to being with the early, positive signals instead
When it’s time for being, let go. Do the things you love to do. Caress. Touch. Make love. Meditate. Go on an easy walk in nature. Cry. Laugh. Play. Dance. Read a novel for fun. Appreciate. Nap. Cuddle. Rest. Rejuvenate. Bask. Allow. Receive. Enjoy the world.
Early, positive signals to switch to doing are inspirations, ideas, the intrinsic motivation to do work that matters. Heed these signals.
When you’re being too much, it starts to feel sloppy. Like when napping too long, instead of waking up rested, you just feel groggy. Too much being ends in lack of motivation to do anything, a vague sense of laziness and lack of concern for the work that matters. You might fall into your addictions or just feel bored. Obviously, this state is to be avoided as often as possible.
Switch to doing with the early, positive signals instead.
Flow is the intersection, the intertwining of the two, doing and being together. We move naturally–without conscious thought–from one to the other just like we breathe.
Someone once pointed out that we are human beings, not human doings. Agreed (semantically, at least). However, the dichotomy of being or doing is unnecessary, and, frankly, ridiculous. As with most aspects of living your best life, it’s all about balance.
Doing. Being. Doing. Being. It’s as easy as breathing–and almost as important.
Admit your greatest longing. Confess your deepest desire. Pursue it honestly and earnestly and wholeheartedly. Fan the flame.
Go all in.
Sometimes, the burning will fuel the change that you need to win, to find the love that your heart craves, to achieve your goal.
Other times, you will break your own heart with failure, with unrequited love, with discovering that your dream was just a paper town of sorts.
But want it. Denying it just wastes time. It’ll be back. It always comes back.
So fan the flame and let it burn violently in your heart until it melts away the excess, leaves you to fly out of the debris like a phoenix, renewed and gorgeously ready for the next burning, the next destruction of self, the next unveiling of your limitless potential.
William Shakespeare famously penned the line, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players….”
If we think of the world as a stage, and ourselves as actors, how does that inform our behavior? The world of drama involves masks, lines, prepared scripts, villains, and heroes. We were born to fulfill a certain role and fill it we shall.
What happens when we switch the metaphor to a playground instead? Choice, fun, vulnerable, open. We drop the masks and stick out our tongues and chase each other up and down the ladders and slides. We learn lessons about ourselves and each other. We take chances. No breaking script or not fitting the part–there are no parts. Choose to swing, or play in the dirt, or play a game of hide and seek.
Of course, this is a false dichotomy. I suppose I should change the title of this post to “The World is Not Just a Stage, William. It’s Also a Playground.”
But the metaphor that you use changes your next step. If you’re an actor on a stage, you’re working towards a denouement.
Conversely, if you’re playing on a playground, your next step is to do whatever makes your heart sing.
Choose your metaphors wisely.
Most of the problems that I see in the world today are as a result of the word or phrase that we place after our most basic I am. I am American. I am gay. I am a mother. I am Puerto Rican. I am vegetarian. I am Buddhist. I am straight. I am Christian.
In our culture, we work so hard to not be placed in the box of conformity, and yet we deliberately place ourselves into the iron cage of identity.
We strive to find ourselves, but instead of going inside and tackling the real beasts to find our truest selves, we dabble with the surface qualities and apply labels: the diet, the sexuality, the career, the musical tastes, the race, even the religion. (We all know people who label themselves as being of a particular religion, but whose actual inner lives are a mess. That’s because they’ve taken on that religion as an identity rather than a spiritual venture.)
While our labels help to define us and make us unique, they unfortunately often create the differences that we come to detest in others.
A Semantic Shift
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein
Let’s try changing the language we use to to think about identity. I am not Muslim; I am a human being who is Muslim. I am not Korean; I am a human being who was born in Korea (or who has Korean parents).
Why the semantic difference?
By not limiting ourselves so quickly with a label, we broaden our view of what’s possible. I am a human being, and you are a human being. So we have our most basic identity in common.
Changing the language lightens the need to exclude, to judge, to reject. It acknowledges our core similarities.
Granted, it’s difficult to loosen the labels–they feel so safe and so, so right–but when we do, we finally see that we are all one. I am a human being, and you are a human being. Every single one of us is a part of humanity.
We are beautiful human beings who happen to be on this earth today expressing so many varied ways to be. By all means, enjoy who you are and showcase it! Be boldly and unapologetically yourself.
Let’s enjoy our labels, but let’s also wear them lightly, knowing that we are also much, much more.
When’s the last time you danced in your living room, alone, to your favorite song?
When’s the last time you walked slowly through the warm summer rain relishing the feeling of the raindrops on your skin?
When’s the last time you ate warm creamy pudding just off the stove?
When’s the last time you turned off the cellphones and made love for hours?
When’s the last time you stepped out into a forest with no roads, no civilization?
When’s the last time you sat on the floor with your puppy and just played?
When’s the last time you sang while doing dishes, read a novel, bought yourself flowers just because it was a Tuesday?
When’s the last time your belly was filled with butterflies?
When’s the last time you allowed yourself to just be, no agenda, no productive outcome?
When’s the last time you really lived?
When you look in the mirror, what is the first thought that pops in your head? Have you ever consciously listened to the words that you say to yourself? Start paying close attention, because your inner dialogue, your script, is a strong indicator of your beliefs about yourself.
It doesn’t matter if you actually say the words aloud. If the thought passes through your mind–even ever so briefly–it’s your self talk. You might look in the mirror, sigh, and say, “Wow. You look like you got hit by a train!” Or it’s just the sigh and a silent acknowledgment of your flaws.
If so, it’s time to change that self talk.
I’d like to propose a new greeting. Whenever you see yourself in the mirror, just smile and say, “Hi!”
When you get comfortable with that, when it’s automatic, you can add on to it: “Hi, gorgeous!”
More later on the more subtle silent script that surreptitiously runs your life. For now, let’s start with mirror talk.
Just a smile and a hi will do.
There’s no feeling of possibility quite like the promise of a glossy new self help book, binding uncracked, waiting to perform the miracle of transforming chaos to order, indifference to motivation, and hours wasted online to productive hours at the gym.
And yet that promise goes unfulfilled time and time again. Sure, there’s the initial jolt of motivation, but the fire fizzles before the new habits really kick in.
Another well-meaning book is tossed into the pile. But why is that?
New habit formation is a complex task, but I believe that there are three primary reasons why most self-help books don’t get the job done.
So, the takeaway is this: Do the deep work of figuring out your core values. Then align everything in your life–from the food you eat to the career your pursue to the thoughts you think–with those values. Sure, it’s not as easy as popping an Advil, but the outcome is far more rewarding–and is likely to stick around for years to come.
Having trouble figuring out your values? That’s the topic of my free discovery coaching session. Apply for a spot today by clicking here.
We’ve given up the dream of the McMansion, finally having discovered that it wasn’t enough, but many people are now finding that the tiny house and the quest for less isn’t enough either.
I’ve received many a bouquet of flowers in my life, but the one that stands out as the most romantic was a little bunch of wildflowers presented to me many years ago by my then-partner. He kissed me hello and shrugged, “I was driving over here and I saw these growing on the side of the road. They were so pretty and colorful, made me think of you, so I turned around and almost got in a wreck to pick them.” Tentative smile. [heart melts]
Mind you, this was a man who bought me the expensive bouquets on all of the appropriate days (birthday, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and so forth), but that moment is cemented. Right here. In my memory. A bunch of wildflowers. Forever.
He could have just passed right by that patch of flowers by the roadside, but he noticed. So many times in life, in rushing from one milestone to another, we miss countless middle moments–you know, the accidental or spontaneous ones. The ones that are easy to miss. The ones that are aptly disguised as the mundane. The wildflowers.
You know it’s a middle moment when it’s difficult to impart its importance to others. You know, the story you try to tell and you end up giving up because it seems kind of silly to say it. It’s an “I guess you just had to be there” moment.
“I was walking to work and I noticed the first buds on the tree next to my work building, and my heart threatened to explode with sheer joy…. Uhm, I guess you just had to be there.”
It’s easy to see the value of enjoying these small moments, but in the hustle and bustle of daily life, how do you take the time to slow down and notice them?
Stop Despising the Mundane
Cooking dinner. Running errands. Crafting a proposal at work. Maybe even getting a workout here and there. We often rush through the daily tedium in order to get to the highlights: the big promotion or the wedding.
But the mundane is life.
Your morning commute is your life, not a means to a life, so treat it with the respect it deserves. Stop hatin’ on it so much. Life isn’t a culminating event. It’s now. So turn on the radio and groove to the music. The commute is happening anyway.
I know, I know, you’ve heard this before. But it bears repeating. If you want to slow down and start really appreciating the small moments, the best way I know is sitting in the stillness of meditation.
You can start with just 10 minutes a day. Sit and pay attention to your breath. In. Out. In. Out. Thoughts will try to butt in. Notice them and let them slip away. Pay attention to your breath. In. Out. In. Out.
Be Fully Present
Let go of the swirling monkey mind, and place your attention outside of yourself onto the reality that is in front of you, the real one, not the constructed idea of it.
In Italo Calvino’s short story “Love Far From Home,” the narrator struggles with duality. Towards the end of the story, he finally achieves his aim: to be fully in the moment, not divided between the reality and the thought of the reality. In what I consider to be one of the most apt lines in literature, he exclaims,
“There: now Mariamirella isn’t the Mariamirella in my mind, plus a real Mariamirella: she’s Mariamirella! And what we’re doing now isn’t something mental plus something real….”
At least with the people who matter most to you. Be willing to laugh until you snort, dance it up with those two left feet, or present a bunch of wildflowers just because. Put yourself out there by sharing the small moments. Risk being laughed at or misunderstood.
Downsize, But Not Indiscriminately
Stop spending precious energy and attention on people, activities and stuff that don’t add authentic value to your life.
That collection of 124 pairs of shoes is great–if you wear them all and enjoy displaying them. If they’re just another thing to dust on cleaning day, however, you’ve got yourself a strong contender for downsizing.
Same thing with friends, volunteer work, dates, and kitchen utensils. Does it add value? If yes, keep and enjoy! If not, let it go. Pairing down allows you to pay more attention to the truly valuable.
Slow down and pay attention. Start really living the middle moments, all of those wildflower moments you’ve been allowing to fall by the wayside as you zoom towards another milestone. Mundane as they may be, there are so many more of them than the climaxes of life.
Slow down, notice and bask in the mundane.
The other evening, I was chopping red and green bell peppers for fajitas, music playing in the background, and this sudden feeling of overwhelming joy….
Eh, I guess you just had to be there.
When I was pregnant with my second son, Kyle, I mourned for him. I’m so sorry, baby boy, I would murmur, that I will never be able to love you the way I love Alex (his older brother). I felt guilty for taking on another child whom I could not possibly love with a full heart. My heart was already all filled up.
Then, of course, Kyle was born and my heart didn’t just double in size; it grew to hold a love for Kyle that was as enormous as my love for Alex and yet unique. But it also grew to hold the daily bouts of brotherhood, the squabbles, the hugs, the subtle competition for who’s the favorite.
You’d think I would learn, but when I was expecting Alan, you guessed it, I mourned for him. My heart was at capacity, full to bursting. How could I possibly…? And yet my heart did what hearts do: it grew again.
Our identities are the same as our hearts. We think we know who we are, and then the unimaginable happens. It could be crisis: divorce, a death in the family, an accident. But it could also be positive: the meeting of a soulmate, a graduation, the birth of a child, the pull of a new career.
Either way, we think that we can’t possibly grow to handle this emerging version of ourselves. We’re so caught up in who we are that we can’t imagine being any other way. And yet we grow, not just double, but exponentially.
If we don’t resist.