Back when I was in college, my schoolwork came pretty easily to me, and like most young men, I thought I had life all figured out. I studied, but not too hard. I succeeded, but without always giving it my best effort. And I got used to that.
There was a guy in my engineering class, Chuck, who had a rather different approach to life. Chuck was a quadriplegic. Day by day, I watched him struggle just to get in and out of the classroom, to handle the most basic tasks involved with learning, like handing in homework and taking exams. In my youthful, able-bodied arrogance, I remember thinking, more than once, that had I been faced with those same challenges, I wasn’t sure I’d want to live.
But as my life went on, as I encountered losses and difficulties of my own, and as I observed people with far greater challenges than I thought I could endure making successes of themselves and their lives, I eventually had an important realization: The severely limited person back in that college classroom wasn’t Chuck. It was me.
While Chuck was overcoming incredible odds and obstacles by regularly showing up in that engineering class, I was more or less “phoning it in.” My attitude that life would come easy, and my habit of giving just enough to achieve a narrow, externally characterized definition of success, had completely blunted my willingness to regularly reach for my own personal best.
And it had also blinded me to the fact that success means very different things for different people.
What really matters, I now understand, is that we always be willing to do and give our best, whatever that happens to be, whatever our circumstances at the time. And this matters not so much because of what one might achieve or attain as a result, but because the process of doing one’s best is, in itself, transformative and deeply satisfying.
We are wired, as human beings, to enjoy the feeling of challenging ourselves. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, leading researcher and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, shares his finding that what makes people truly satisfied and fulfilled is not so much the achievement of any particular outcome or station in life, but rather the experience of being fully engaged in pursuits that require every bit of their attention and skill.
This “flow” experience, as Csikszentmihalyi calls it, is the antithesis of turning in an acceptable but easily attainable performance. On the contrary, he explains, flow requires that we be “completely involved in an activity for its own sake,” and that we apply every bit of our ability to the task at hand. When we do this, he notes, something almost magical happens: “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one….Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Even the most mundane job, the most dreaded workout, the simplest task, can become surprisingly engaging and rewarding when we challenge ourselves to give it the very best of our skills, creativity, attention – and, perhaps more important, our conscious intention. Obvious as it sounds, we sometimes forget that doing our best requires deciding to do our best – even when it means overcoming our own inertia or apathy for something we find less than thrilling. The fact is, resistance and apathy tend to dissolve from the very moment we decide to apply our best selves completely.
As we wind up 2005 and prepare for the year ahead, I encourage you to take a look at the places in your life (successful or not) where you may have been “phoning it in” or holding something back. Ask yourself, what might happen if you gave those same areas your true personal best? What you’ll find, I think, is that in place of boredom and dissatisfaction, you’ll experience a rising level of enthusiasm and self-respect. In place of frustration and apathy, you’ll find passion and creativity awakening. And as result, you’ll find both your current definition of success and your future horizons expanding.
Think, too, about the things you really want to be best at. Whatever inspires you most – being a good partner or parent, helping needy kids, giving your professional gifts – make those pursuits even more meaningful (and more fun) by doing them in the highest-quality, most generous and most helpful way you know how. Let that energy propel you forward, and I guarantee you, you’ll wind up in some wonderful places that your more limited self never dreamed of going. Happy travels.