“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~Mary Oliver
I’ve recently discovered that for fifty-odd years I’ve been asking myself the wrong questions. Uh-oh.
Maybe you are too.
The questions we ask ourselves habitually—even when the process is totally unconscious—guide our lives in a very profound way. For me, the two questions that dominated my thinking had very different, but equally pernicious results. They are: What am I supposed to be doing? And What do I feel like doing?
The first question is all about hitting the numbers. What looks good in the eyes of the world? What would others see as successful, laudable or, at the very least, sensible? What would your mother approve of?
This question was especially influential in my early life, but I’m still susceptible to a good dose of “compare and despair” angst.
We love to see how we stack up against everyone else, and that impulse never seems to go away. Instead of comparing grades, test scores, and college acceptances, it’s salaries, vacations and how our kids are doing.
There’s always some external standard we’re supposed to be hitting.
The “supposed to” agenda is dictated by the ego, or what I like to call the Social Self. It’s all about getting you to line up and conform to the standards society sets for measuring success and general acceptability. It’s not about what would make you feel happy or fulfilled or even reasonably satisfied. Often it makes you downright miserable.
I chose a career and two marriages based on that agenda, all of which are now defunct. The truth is, you’re not “supposed” to do anything. Truly. I know that’s hard to swallow. I have to remind myself of it daily, even hourly. There is no right answer. Life isn’t even a test! Who knew?
Let’s all take a moment to let that one sink in.
Unfortunately, once I finally figured out that I’m not supposed to do anything, I promptly fell into the next trap for a decade or two. As an antidote to the first question, I swung to the opposite extreme and decided that I would only do what I felt like doing.
The problem with What do I feel like doing? is that it keeps us stuck in our comfort zones. Honestly, I usually don’t feel like doing things that make me scared and uncomfortable. Or that require a long slog of work with no guarantee of reward at the end.
It’s hard for me to admit that this question is also wrong, because I’m a big fan of “following your bliss” and doing the things that make you feel good.
The real problem here is in the timeline. What do I feel like doing? focuses on your feelings in that very moment. Would I rather have a glass of wine and surf the web right now, or work on that thorny chapter in my book that doesn’t want to settle into shape? Hmmm.
Which brings me to the one question I’ve found that actually does pay to ask: What do I aspire to? This question still focuses on what you really want (not what society tells you to want), but it directs your attention out a little ways.
What do you want to do in the grand scheme of things, not just in this moment?
To aspire means “to direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving something.” Some synonyms are: desire, hope for, dream of, long for, yearn for, set one’s heart on. That sounds kind of delicious, doesn’t it?
Remember, we’re not talking about what would look good to others, but what would feel good to you, which is a tricky distinction for most of us. The key here is to focus on your body’s reactions.
Thinking about what you aspire to should feel exciting and inspiring. If you feel tense or anxious or stressed out, you’re probably back in ego territory, trying to figure out what you’re “supposed” to do. (Stop that.)
And don’t let the ego get its sticky hands on your aspirations, either. It’s easy to get sucked back into the idea that we need to achieve something specific—and within a certain timeframe, mind you!—in order to be happy.
Refuse to go there. Focus on the joy of engaging in a goal that’s meaningful to you, no matter how long it takes or what others might think of it. Take your time and relish the process; that’s what life is really about.
Asking What do I aspire to? keeps you homed in on your bliss, but defers the gratification just enough to get you off the couch and sitting in front of the computer, or schlepping to the gym, or picking up the phone.
Go for the glow, follow your bliss, by all means… just not in this very moment. Get used to projecting yourself a little bit forward, and then consulting your body to find out what would feel really good to it then.
It’s a great question to ask yourself at the start of every day, as a kind of intention-setting ritual. What do I aspire to in this day? How do I want to show up in the world?
Flash forward to the end of that day and imagine what would make you feel really great to have done. Do the same at the beginning of the month or a new year. Use it to set goals that really matter to you, not just to your mom or your 750 Facebook friends.
So, what do you aspire to (even if you don’t feel like it in this very moment)? Now go take a baby step or two toward it. I’ll be right there, just as soon as I finish watching this kitten video.