This post was originally published on Joel Zaslofsky’s site.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw
For years, my bucket list contained almost only things I thought would make me brilliant and accomplished.
I was going to get a classical education by learning Latin and Greek, reading the words of the ancients, and becoming knowledgeable in wines and European history. I would be able to talk intelligently on everything from football to philosophy.
And I would know how to:
- Do my hair
- Dress wonderfully
- Pack light
- Be prepared for anything
I feared that if I wasn’t exceptional, nobody would be interested in me. And God help me, I love to be the center of attention!
This sense of inadequacy drove me. I didn’t have to be the best, but I had to be my best. But whatever my limits were, I hadn’t found them yet.
My philosophy at its core is pure stoicism.
I need to be blooded, deeply and repeatedly, to be sure of my mettle. I seek to know the truth of myself, above all else. So I’m aware of how many of my achievements are actually my way of coping with the sense that I’m not worth much if I’m not striving.
I bring this up because websites like Value of Simple – devoted as they are to striving towards simplicity, organization, self-control, and financial independence – don’t explicitly spell this out:
You get the essence when you strip out the extraneous. But you don’t get to choose the essence.
Your Greatest Weakness Is Kinda Like Alchemy…
There’s often this expectation that when you get down to the core of things, there’s a perfectly pure center. It’s almost like this striving is some kind of philosopher’s stone that’s going to transfer all our ugly bits to gold.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
That’s why we want to meditate, get fit, organize our lives perfectly, have a lovely house, travel, etc. We think that if we strive after these external signifiers of the person we want to be, we’ll get rid of the parts of us that are fearful, frazzled, mean, or overwhelmed.
They don’t go away.
They’re just there; like odd relatives you learn to put up with.
When people praise my systems or accomplishments, I’m happy. No matter where the impulse came from, I did work for them, and it’s good to recognize the effort and be proud of it.
But when people envy me, I worry that they miss the point. I’m still a flawed, squishy-centered, inadequate-feeling person. Probably the same as you.
I once wrote to my idol, and I said:
Where did you get the confidence? You come off as ballsy and bulletproof. What I want to know is, are you faking it as much as me?
She wrote me back and said, “I couldn’t afford a lack of confidence. There were those in my life who thought I wasn’t capable of buttering bread, so they pretty much handled the doubt thing for me. But depending on how much you’re faking it— you betcha. Probably more.”
You gotta understand, no matter how good it looks on the outside, self-doubt never stops being an issue. It just stops showing. And after a while, if you work at it, it stops mattering. You find other ways to navigate through life than by your inadequacies or greatest weakness.
… But Even Alchemists Didn’t Find the Philosopher’s Stone
I’m known for my systems: I help people build systems for business and life to keep things from falling through the cracks. The reason I’m so good at systems is because I feared success.
Success was my great weakness and always meant that things started to slip through the cracks. I could never enjoy the success I had because I was too terrified of not living up to my promises.
So I would trip myself, always riding with one foot on the brake. My systems evolved out of a need to stop navigating by reaction and a pathological fear of failing at success. (No ordinary fear of failure for me, oh, no.)
In the same way, when you start looking at what you want to change in your life, you’ll find your greatest weakness becomes your greatest strength. Joel began curating resources because he has a terrible memory. He doesn’t hate himself for it. He doesn’t berate himself for not being able to remember things; berating yourself doesn’t solve the problem.
Instead, he went about creating a series of spreadsheets to be an external memory for him. Does he wish he had a better memory? I imagine he does.
But it stopped mattering when he solved the problem.
And now, his friends, family, and community depend on him because his “Excel-lent” memory is better than almost anyone else’s meat brain. And a damn sight better organized.
Clearing away the extraneous – the waste – doesn’t make you solid gold. It makes you whatever you are but you make what you are amazing! Your weaknesses become your superpowers, and your superpowers become your bonus features.
So while personal development is a worthwhile endeavor, remember that it’s not a philosopher’s stone. You can choose to solve your problems without trying to change your essence.