Perfectly Yourself: Revised Edition (Paperback)
Are You Making Progress?
Our differences as individuals are fascinating and wonderful, and this book is about exploring and celebrating what makes us unique. But I want to begin by identifying what drives our desire to become perfectly ourselves. In my work with millions of people over the past twenty-five years, I have often stood in awe of how wonderfully unique God created us as individuals, but I have also been intrigued by the astonishing similarities that exist between men and women of all ages and cultures, all countries and creeds. The greatest of these similarities is what I like to call “the hunger”: a common yearning in people’s hearts for something more or for something that has been lost, a yearning that seems to be growing stronger and deeper with every passing day.
Some people associate this hunger with a desire for more money or more sex. Others respond to this hunger by seeking the perfect partner, thinking that this one person will calm the yearning once and for all. Others collect possessions or amass power in an attempt to quell the hunger. But it seems unquenchable, insatiable. There are some who associate the hunger with a need for more fulfillment in the workplace. Others sense that something is wrong but cannot quite put their finger on it, so they take journeys hoping to discover something about themselves.
Sooner or later this hunger tends to lead most people to the area of personal development. Some people turn their attention to health and well-being, others to gaining financial independence, others to improving a relationship, and some to spirituality.
The hunger is really a desire for connection and union with God. It also manifests as a desire to be more perfectly yourself, because every step toward the-best-version-of-yourself is a step toward God. It can express itself in hundreds of ways, but all are born from the single desire to feel more at home with who you are. Regardless of what area of personal development you choose to focus on at this time in your life, there are certain stages and pitfalls that are common to all. They all share a common psychology of change. This book is about understanding the dynamics of change, the change that we desire but that so often eludes us.
Trying to lose weight is a perfect example.
Every January, a slew of new diet books are published. Many people have gained weight over the holidays, and publishers know we will resolve at New Year’s to slim down. One of these books will break out and hit the top of all the best-seller lists. Everyone will be talking about it. The diet will be presented as miraculous. People will flock to the book. Everybody will rave about it as if simply reading the book will cause weight to fall from bodies as effortlessly as beads of sweat.
The thing is, you and I both know that twelve months ago they were talking about another book in the same way. And next year, there will be more new and amazing diet books. Editors in all the Manhattan publishing houses are sitting at their desks right now trying to figure out what will be the next big diet book.
People seem obsessed with losing weight, and yet Americans are becoming more and more obese with every passing year. Is it just me, or is there a massive disconnect here?
This book is about that disconnect. Regardless of what area of your life you would like transformed, I want to show you how we bridge the gap between our desire for change and actually creating real and sustainable change in our lives.
A Moment of Truth
From time to time my best friends will get this look on their faces, and I know exactly what I am about to hear: “Matthew, get honest with yourself!” I love that. They don’t say it that often, so when they do it means something.
I think we all need moments of honesty from time to time. We need them as individuals, as couples, as families, and as nations. In the area of personal development, we are in desperate need of a moment of truth. We need to get honest with ourselves.
The truth is this: Diets don’t fail. We fail at diets. Savings plans don’t fail. We fail at savings plans. Exercise routines don’t fail. We fail at exercise routines. Relationships don’t fail. We fail at relationships.
This may seem harsh, but until we face this difficult truth, we will never seriously ask the really important questions that loom in the back of our minds: Why do I fail every time I go on a diet? Why can’t I stick to my budget and savings plan? Why can’t I be consistent about working out? Why am I constantly in and out of relationships? And so on.
Once we start asking these tough questions, we discover another fundamental truth about the whole process of change. People don’t fail because they want to fail. People don’t go on diets to gain weight. People don’t get married to get divorced. People don’t join a gym and sign a two-year contract to drop out three months later.
Whether we are dealing with the area of health and well-being, relationships, finances, career, or spirituality, people want to advance. We have an enormous desire to grow and change and improve ourselves. So why don’t we? I hear you ask. What’s the problem? Why is it that so many of us seem unable to transform resolutions into habits?
This book is about learning a new way.
The reason most of us fail to achieve real and sustainable change in our lives is because we focus too much on the desired outcome and not enough on the progress we are making. It is important to establish goals, but they can often seem overwhelming and impossible. If we can condition ourselves to focus on the progress we are making, our advances will encourage us to persevere in achieving our goals and dreams. It is when we lose sight of our progress that we become discouraged, and it is discouragement that often lands us back in our old self-defeating habits and self-destructive behaviors.
Just Be Yourself
Before the beginning of time, when you were just a dream, your purpose had already been assigned by our loving God. Purposefully created, and created for a purpose, you are here at this very moment to become the-best-version-of-yourself—not to become some poor imitation of your parents, your friends, your siblings, or your colleagues—but to become perfectly yourself (cf. Psalm 139:13–18).
Life is not about doing and having; it is about becoming.
Could you have a better dream for your children than to want them to become the-best-version-of-themselves? Could you have a better dream for your spouse than to want him or her to become the-best-version-of-him-or-herself? It is the ultimate dream—and when we turn our attention to living this dream, our lives are flooded with energy, enthusiasm, passion, purpose, and a real and sustainable joy. The dream is God-given. It is his dream for you. It is time to start living the dream.
When we are healthy in a holistic sense, or in any one aspect of our lives, we are driven by God’s dream for us to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. Why are there so many products and programs available that help people transform different areas of their lives? Because there is an enormous demand for them. Marketers know that people have this insatiable desire to improve themselves. This desire is what drives us when we are healthiest. Unfortunately, so many of these programs and products divorce themselves from God and in doing so lose their connection with grace, and no great change happens without grace.
When we are unhealthy, we tend to abandon our true selves, often wishing we were more like someone else or that we were someone else altogether. This is often most noticeable during adolescence, when people grapple with identity issues. But many of us develop a permanent contempt for ourselves (or for certain aspects of ourselves) during this period of development. This contempt for self stifles our dreams.
Living the dream God has for you and striving to become all you are capable of being is all you ever truly need to answer for. Our only regrets come from abandoning our true selves. Are you celebrating your true self, or are you still trying to be the person you think other people want you to be—or the person you think other people will like?
Now is your time. There will never be a better time to begin. It is time now to peel back the layers of conditioning and expectations that have encrusted your heart and mind. It is time to become perfectly yourself.
The first step toward becoming perfectly yourself is acknowledging your imperfections. It may seem ironic, or even paradoxical, but life is often like that. Making peace with your imperfections is as much a part of being perfectly yourself as striving to improve the aspects of your character that have become distorted by experience or habit. It is essential for health of mind, body, and spirit that we recognize that what we often consider to be our imperfections are actually part of our perfection.
The challenge is to discern which of your imperfections are part of who you are when you are perfectly yourself and which are a distortion of your true self. A fine and often hazy line separates these two realities.
A woman with a bubbly personality should not abandon it simply because some people don’t like it. It is part of her best and truest self.
You may not be a details person. It’s not necessarily a defect. It may just be part of who you are. Everyone doesn’t have to be a details person. It doesn’t give you permission to be negligent about your commitments, and to some extent you can improve your ability to manage details, but you shouldn’t take a job that requires you to constantly manage details, and it would be wise to surround yourself with people who thrive on taking care of the details.
Similarly, your daughter may not excel in math. Her brain may simply be wired to excel in other areas. It is entirely possible that her best self is a poor mathematician. A certain level of practical knowledge in this area is necessary, but she need not be forced to master the upper reaches of mathematics.
On the other hand, if a man is rude and impatient, it is not because these are an expression of his best self; it is rather that they are an expression of behaviors that have been practiced. Personality tendencies and talents should be accepted, but character defects should always be challenged. God loves you as you are—but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.
Consciously, subconsciously, semiconsciously, we are all preoccupied with this attempt to be more perfectly who we really are at the essence of our being. But think of it in this way: A tree does not try to make all of its branches straight. It is perfect in its imperfection, perfectly imperfect. And yet it does change and grow over time.
The answer, for you and me, is to try to live in that delicate balance between striving to improve in character while celebrating our unique personality and God-given talents. Lean too much to one side, and you will smother your wonderful and unique personality. Tend too much to the other, and you will abandon the character that is the source of dignity and self-respect.
We cannot rush to achieve this delicate balance. Often, as soon as it is found, it is lost, and we find ourselves searching for it again. But as we look back on any day or week, there are moments when we can honestly and humbly say, “For that moment I was the-best-version-of-myself!” We need to learn to recognize those moments, understand their secrets, celebrate them, and duplicate them. These moments will help us to find the balance between acceptance of self and our need for change. We must approach this place of balance between accepting ourselves for who we are and challenging ourselves to be all we are capable of being like one would approach a high-spirited animal—calmly and slowly.
I had a friend and mentor once who used to say two things to me repeatedly: “Be kind to yourself ” and “All great things can only be achieved with a light heart.” This great soul is lost from my life now, but his words endure. Kindness toward ourselves precedes all genuine and lasting growth, and lightheartedness is a sign that we trust that we are exactly where we are right now for a reason.
Better, Not Best
This idea of being gentle with ourselves and the role of progress collided powerfully for me one summer after a friend shared an insight about one of the central premises of my teaching. Rick and I had become friends when he and his wife attended one of my seminars in Italy a few years back. He has a wonderful sense of humor and is filled with a wonderful curiosity and a healthy skepticism, and I find his company invigorating.
That summer he and his son were sitting around with me before one of my seminars. We were goofing around a bit, and his son was doing uncanny impressions of anyone we would name. We were catching up, and he was telling me about his work in China and how much that country has changed in the last ten years. Our conversation then turned to my work, and he said something that touched me deeply and got me thinking. In one sentence, he was able to articulate something that I have always felt from certain people in the audience but have never been quite able to articulate or even put my finger on: “Matthew, I think your idea about becoming the-best-version-of-yourself is fantastic. It clarifies so many things in our everyday lives, from the little decisions to the big life-changing choices, but some people just can’t get their minds around the notion of the-best-version-of-themselves. They need you simply to speak to them about a-better-version-of-themselves.”
I saw it instantly.
For more than a decade, I had been speaking to people about becoming the-best-version-of-themselves, giving them examples of how to improve physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Audiences have always responded very well to the message. They have been inspired by the idea. But now it dawned on me that for some people the idea of becoming the-best-version-of-themselves was just too daunting. I had to break it down into manageable portions.
People are always asking me questions such as “When will I know that I have become the-best-version-of-myself?” and “Do I ever become the-best-version-of-myself, or is it one of those things we strive for but never achieve?”
Well, it isn’t like we wake up one day and say, “The job is done. I am the-best-version-of-myself!” Every day we have to celebrate our best self. In every moment, we choose between the-best-version-of-ourselves and myriad second-rate-versions-of-ourselves.
In some moments, we actively celebrate our best self and know that we are indeed the-best-version-of-ourselves. But in the next moment we can lose our best self once again to laziness, impatience, anger, envy, gossip, greed, thoughtlessness, selfishness. . .
The-best-version-of-ourselves isn’t something we strive for and never achieve. It is something we achieve in some moments and not in others.
Your essential purpose is to become fully the person God created you to be: the-very-best-version-of-yourself. This one principle brings clarity to everything else in our lives. What makes a book, friend, marriage, job, or movie good? It is that it helps us to become the-best-version-of-ourselves! Everything makes sense in relation to our essential purpose. The people, experiences, and things we fill our lives with either help us to become the-best-version-of-ourselves or they don’t. In every moment we simply need to ask ourselves, “Which of the options before me will help me to become the-best-version-of-myself?”
We need to be aware of the goal, no doubt. Let’s face it, it is only progress if you are moving in the right direction. But the journey that leads to our essential purpose needs to be broken up into practical and manageable stages.
Reflecting on Rick’s words that day, I began to break down the journey of becoming the-best-version-of-ourselves. Then I began to examine the psychology of change by asking questions such as “What takes place in our minds as we begin to implement change in our lives?”
I began with a self-examination.
When I was very young, about six years old, as I recall, I was sent off once a week for piano lessons. My mother had decided that all her sons would play the piano. I hated piano lessons and would complain every week. That was my first encounter with the maxim “Practice makes perfect.” My piano teacher would say it over and over again. My parents would reinforce the teacher’s message by telling me the same thing.
I now know that practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes progress. And practice makes progress only if you practice the right things in the right way.
Piano lessons lasted only six months before my mother allowed me to quit. A couple of other times I was enrolled in classes, but they too were short-lived. It was not until I was about seventeen that I started playing the piano. I remember going to a party one night, and a friend of mine sat down at a piano and started playing, and everyone else started singing along. I had never heard anyone play popular music on the piano. I decided that night that I was going to learn to play the piano. Not my teacher’s way, not my parents’ way, but my way.
The next day I sat down at the piano at home and started feeling my way around the keys. At first it was painful and tedious, but over time and with practice, I developed a sense for how music moved and flowed, and a style that allowed me to learn tunes relatively quickly, though certainly not perfectly.
Today I love to play the piano. I don’t play anything perfectly from a technical point of view, but to me that doesn’t matter. With every passing year, I get better on the piano, but the main thing is that I love playing. The piano has become a great therapy, a way to relax and unwind from the pressures of daily living.
In many things, perfect is much more subjective than many people would have you believe and much less objective than we would often allow ourselves to believe. A perfect relationship for you may be very different from a perfect relationship for me. Some people are enamored of whatever type of generic beauty is plastered on the covers of magazines, but I am more attracted to people who are comfortable in their body. Perfection has many expressions.
How many different ways are there to pursue perfection? At this particular time in history, about six billion—one for every person on the face of the earth.
What’s Your Thing?
Some people struggle to keep to their budget. Other people struggle with their weight. Some struggle with a relationship. For other people, shopping and credit card debt is a problem. Some struggle with more destructive addictions. We all have something we struggle with, something that is holding us back. My thing is food.
I like food. It is no secret that I love chocolate, but my love affair with food doesn’t stop there.
Name a city anywhere in the world, and there is a pretty good chance I can tell you what the best chocolate native to that city is and where to eat in that city, from fine dining to hole-in-the-wall haunts with greasy hamburgers. My mother makes the best meat loaf in the Southern Hemisphere, and Sue Robinson cooks the best meal in Cincinnati. Depending on where you are and what you are looking for, I can probably help you.
In New York there are lots of famous restaurants, but my personal favorite is Abboccato on 55th Street. If you are visiting Sydney, I would tell you not to leave without spending a day at Manly Beach and having lunch at the Blue Water Cafe. Mama Zoe’s is a completely candlelit Cajun restaurant in Dublin. It is an unlikely location, but the food is amazing nonetheless. And if it’s chocolate you like, then I can tell you the best American-made chocolates are the milk chocolate coconut clusters and raisin clusters from Betsy Ann Chocolates in Pittsburgh. Other than that, See’s Candies makes a great Scotchmallow that’s worth a taste if you find yourself on the West Coast. In Sydney, Haigh’s at the Strand Arcade is going to be your sort of place. If you are looking for hot chocolate, Angelina’s in Paris or the café in the main square of Assisi, Italy, is where you want to be.
Yes, food is definitely my thing.
I eat when I am happy. I eat when I am sad. I eat to celebrate. I eat to comfort myself. I eat to reward myself. I eat when I am writing. I eat when I get writer’s block. I eat.
All of this eating creates a bit of a problem. I start to gain weight.
So then I go on a diet or an exercise kick. I eat good food and exercise like a maniac for a couple of weeks, and I am feeling great. Then I get on the scales and I have lost only two pounds. In many ways this is great. The problem is that I want to lose twenty pounds. So I get depressed that I have lost “only” two and begin to focus on the eighteen I haven’t lost.
Rather than celebrating the two that I have lost, I allow the other eighteen to depress me. I don’t celebrate my progress; I focus on my lack of perfection.
The next day I get tempted to abandon my diet in some small way or become a little lazy in my self-prescribed exercise regimen, and this small deviation becomes the crack in the dam. Self-pity begins to sink in, and I begin to overindulge myself again. Then I get even more down on myself because I wasn’t able to keep the rules I set for myself.
For a few weeks I ignore the problem, but then I begin to feel lethargic and I miss the vitality I was feeling for the brief period when I was eating well and exercising regularly. I tell myself that if I could maintain that healthy lifestyle, I could do extraordinary things and write amazing books. So I decide to give it another go . . .
I make another whole set of rules for myself. The list goes something like this: I can eat this and this every day; I can eat this and that only once a week. I’ll exercise for forty-five minutes six times a week, and if I miss my exercise, I can’t eat anything unhealthy on that day.
Yes, welcome to the madness of my mind.
For a couple of weeks this goes fine and I feel great. Then something will happen to upset me or I will just have a particularly tough day on the road, and I will turn to food for comfort and the whole plan will go out the window.
The cycle repeats itself a few more times, and before I know it, I have a pattern of defeat.
Patterns of Defeat
Patterns of defeat come to define our lives. We want to change, we have tried to change, but we have failed so many times and start to think that we can’t change. This is a huge blow to our self-esteem, which means that a pattern of defeat usually signifies the beginning of some form of self-loathing.
We stop thinking about the-best-version-of-ourselves now and avoid anything that reminds us of it. We drown our sadness in music or television or anything that can distract us from what is really happening inside us.
We are hesitant to make New Year’s resolutions because we doubt we have the strength of will to honor them. We start to think and read more about other people’s lives as a way of escaping from our own. We drink more, eat more, sleep more, shop more, and seek more of every pleasure that can distract us from what is really going on within us. The discouragement of defeat leads us to the place where we don’t want to be ourselves at all—let alone the-best-version-of-ourselves.
While all of this is going on, we have the sense that something is wrong and is whispering to us from deep within, but we ignore that voice.
Paralyzed by the fear of failing again, we are afraid to hope. We are scared of subscribing to false hope. So we begin to despise anything to do with personal development and perhaps anyone committed to it. They represent a dream that has been lost or abandoned, though we don’t know which. At this moment of disillusionment and disgust, we become filled with profound questions about ourselves, but we avoid them. Inwardly we are overwhelmed with all manner of self-doubt, but externally we may pump up the signs of our confidence to compensate.
We wonder to ourselves: Why am I unable to change? Is it my fault, or is this just who I am?
The answer, of course, is both.
All of this goes on until we become so desperate that we are all but forced to change. The doctor tells you that if you don’t lay off the fried foods, you will die of a heart attack, or that if you don’t stop smoking, you will have to have a lung removed. Perhaps your wife tells you that if you don’t spend more time with your family, she is going to leave you. For many it is an increasing dependence on drugs or alcohol that overwhelms and debilitates them, bringing them to their knees in desperation.
These are the lucky ones in many ways. It is sad how they had to come to it. But many alcoholics will tell you that their lives didn’t begin until they hit rock bottom. They will also tell you horrific stories from before they stopped drinking.
Why are the people who come to radical forks in the road the lucky ones? Because most people never get to that point of desperation and so never change. It’s said that an alcoholic must choose to live a spiritual life or to die an alcoholic death. There is nothing in between for an alcoholic. If a change in diet becomes a life-and-death situation, most people become quickly motivated and resolved. Most people change only when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain required to change.
But most people, perhaps you and I, can more likely muddle along in patterns of defeat and self-loathing without drawing much attention to ourselves. All of this can be going on inside us, and most people would be completely oblivious to it. The people around us can love us and feel loved by us. Little do they know how incapable of love we truly are because we are so filled with the kind of self-loathing that prevents us from loving anybody, including ourselves.
How would your life be different if you really understood your true value? How would you live differently if you saw yourself as God saw you? Jesus offers an astoundingly different view of us than we have of ourselves. He said we are infinitely valuable. “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13). “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14). You are so valuable that God keeps track of every hair on your head (cf. Luke 12:7).
We say, “This is who I am!” but secretly we despise who we have become and desperately want to become the self we know we are capable of being. But we feel trapped. And we are. We are trapped by our illusions of perfection, depressed by the difficulty of the road ahead, overwhelmed by our patterns of defeat.
What I have described here happens to many, many people. It is happening to millions of people as I write these words and will be happening to just as many more people as you read them. Paul the Apostle struggled with exactly the same thing. He wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7:15, 18).
If someone does recognize our plight, it is probably because they have been in a similar situation. This person may try to reach out to us or challenge us, but now we take refuge behind the great excuse: “This is who I am!” As with most lies, if you tell it often enough, you will start to believe it. And as we grow more and more comfortable with the lie and less and less comfortable with ourselves, we begin to add emotional manipulation to situations like this by adding, “Why can’t you just love me for who I am?”
People want to change. We know that there are certain areas of our lives that we would desperately like to transform. Be honest with yourself for a moment. What is the one thing about yourself that would most radically improve your life if you changed it? Have you tried? Of course you have. Are you still trying, or have you given up?
Can people substantially change?
This question represents the abyss we all find ourselves teetering on at least once in our lives, and until we are convinced that substantial change is possible, our lives remain little more than a waking dream. The abyss is imagined; it is no more real than a child’s nightmare. A new awareness of the power of progress can open our eyes so that we discover that what is before us is not an abyss but a path. The answer lies in taking the first step.
A pitcher doesn’t throw a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball on his first attempt. First he learns to hold the ball, then he learns to throw the ball, and then he learns to throw the ball in the right direction. These steps are so fundamental that we overlook them. Only then does a pitcher begin to improve speed and accuracy. He throws a seventy-mile-per-hour ball before he throws an eighty-mile-per-hour ball, and a ninety-mile-per-hour ball before he throws that hundred-mile-per-hour fastball. There may be days when he can’t throw as fast as he could the day before. In these moments, he must either celebrate his overall progress or focus on some aspect other than speed. He is not throwing as fast, but perhaps he is moving the ball better than he ever has or throwing with more accuracy. At every juncture, he celebrates his progress.
When a pitcher gets injured, he begins rehabilitation by going back to basics. He returns to the beginning, even to such fundamentals as learning to hold the ball again. A great rehab coach designs a plan with stages and goals along the way so that the recovering athlete can celebrate his progress.
Celebrating progress is fundamental in the psychology of change. In our culture we tend to celebrate by eating or buying things, but the celebration I speak of here is something that takes place within us. Celebrating progress means giving yourself a psychological pat on the back. There is nothing more powerful than the way you speak to yourself. Celebrating progress is the first secret to breaking those patterns of failure.
Another of the great secrets that we often overlook is that failure is a part of all great achievement and discovery.
We live in a culture obsessed with success, and as a result we unconsciously foster the attitude that it is not okay to fail. We often measure a person’s value by his or her success. Of course, this judgment turns on us when we fail, and we tend to take it personally. If you fail, you aren’t a failure.
I think baseball teaches us more about failure than any other sport does. A great hitter has a batting average of perhaps .350. What does that tell us? It tells us that he succeeds in hitting the ball only 35 percent of the time. What else does it tell us? It tells us that he fails 65 percent of the time.
Francis T. Vincent Jr., while commissioner of baseball, made these observations in a speech at Fairfield University:
Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often—those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be a part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.
We must never allow our spirit to be stifled by failure. Failure is a part of progress, not a final outcome.
Both Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein powerfully illustrated this lesson. Both of these men suffered through failure more than most, and yet they became our greatest inventor and mathematician, respectively. Day after day they grappled with trial and error, mistakes and frustration, disappointment and defeats, and moments of complete disillusionment. But they viewed these setbacks, adversities, defeats, and failures as clues to the discoveries they were seeking. They genuinely believed that their failures signified progress.
The story of Edison’s effort to find a way to keep a light bulb burning is well known. He tried more than ten thousand combinations of materials before he found the one that worked. People asked him later in his life how he could continue after failing that many times. He said he didn’t see the other attempts as failures. He then went on to explain that he had successfully identified ten thousand ways that didn’t work and that each attempt brought him closer to the one that would. He saw his failures as progress.
Einstein, whom many people believe to be the smartest man who ever lived, said, “I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.”
Why do we perpetuate the belief that it is not okay to fail? Failure plays an important role in our development and a critical role in our attempts to become perfectly ourselves. Whatever pattern of defeat you may find yourself in right now, remember these three abiding truths:
- Other people before you have successfully overcome the obstacles you face; seek them out and draw strength from their stories and example.
- All of your past failures leave you better equipped than ever before to succeed in your next attempt.
- It will never be easier to break that pattern of defeat than it is right now.
Allow the words of Benjamin Barber to echo deep within you:
I divide the world into learners and non-learners. There are people who learn, who are open to what happens around them, who listen, who hear the lessons. When they do something stupid, they don’t do it again. And when they do something that works a little bit, they do it even better and harder the next time. The question to ask is not whether you are a success or a failure, but whether you are a learner or a non-learner.
The Power of Progress
Are you making progress? It’s an important question to ask ourselves: “Am I making progress?” I have not had much experience with being perfect, but I have had considerable experience with making progress. The reason I point this out is because when I am making progress, I am a happier person than when I am obsessing about some idyllic vision of perfection that I am falling short of. Progress animates us. It brings us to life. When we sense that we are making progress, we tend to be filled with passion, energy, enthusiasm, purpose, and a real and sustainable joy. Progress fills us with gratitude for the now and hope for the future. Progress creates enduring happiness.
So are you making progress? If you don’t know, or if you have to think about it too much, then you are probably not paying attention. That’s the downfall of most people when it comes to the area of personal development. We simply stop paying attention. The other mistake we often make is to take it for granted that we are making progress, as if adding another year to our lives is proof of progress.
The only way you can answer the question of whether you are making progress honestly and without hesitation is if you have spent considerable time thinking about it before now. But it is a question whose answer evades most people. We can become so preoccupied with what we have and what we do that we lose sight of who we are and who we are becoming.
Are you making progress? Are you a better person today than you were a year ago? Are you happier? More fulfilled? Are you a better spouse? boyfriend? girlfriend? parent? child? employee? employer? teammate? colleague? citizen? friend? Are you healthier? Are you more financially independent than you were a year ago? Is your work becoming more and more satisfying? These are all important questions, but to answer them, we must first ask and answer this question: What is progress?
Shortly after World War II, Western culture became obsessed with progress. Make no mistake—every age has had its own obsession with progress. But what made the obsession with progress of the twentieth century different was that we quickly began to consider progress and change to be the same thing. In every aspect of society and culture, people began demanding change as if change was always a good thing and with the assumption that change always brought progress.
Western society has changed much in the past fifty years. Has the change always been for the better? Some would argue that it depends on what you consider better. But most reasonable people would concede that no, change has not always been for the better. During the past fifty years, for example, violence has escalated massively. It is a change, but most reasonable people would admit that it is not for the better.
Change doesn’t equal progress. Change doesn’t guarantee progress.
Progress is moving toward a goal. If your goal in the 1950s was to make our society more violent, then clearly you have achieved your goal. But most people, if asked in the 1950s “Would you like society to be more violent or less violent fifty years from now?” would have responded in favor of reduced violence. Violence has increased, so in this way we have not made progress. And worse than that, we have regressed as a society in this area.
Progress is change for the better. Progress is change that makes something more perfectly itself. Progress is any change, however small, that makes someone more perfectly himself or herself.
What, then, do we wish to progress toward? For every person, the answer would be different, and we will examine that shortly. But for a moment, let’s ponder what collective preferences we have for progress.
Most reasonable people are of good will and hold very similar preferences when it comes to progress. They want the world to become a better place, and they want to live happier lives.
When we start to think about these preferences, they begin to transform into desires, and the more we think about them, the stronger the desires become, and the stronger the desires become, the more we align our actions with these desires and actually bring about the intended progress.
The problem is that most people spend very little time thinking about how they would like the world to become a better place, and so they make very little contribution when it comes to moving the world in that direction. If you asked them what their preference was, they would tell you that they would prefer the world to become a better place than to become a worse place. But their preference is never really transformed into desire and action.
Most people will tell you that they would prefer to live happier lives, but how much time do they actually spend thinking about how they could create and live a happier life? The preference never becomes desire. The desire never becomes action. But they will spend their whole lives preferring a happier life.
Preference is not enough. Progress requires desire and action. The Gospel rearranges our priorities and challenges us to actively seek what God wants in every area of life.
It is not possible to create a genuinely happier life while not also making the world a better place. So let us progress in the direction of happier lives and a better world to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
No doubt, there will be some disagreement between different people about what constitutes “better” and “happier.” We will explore this further a little later in the context of our discussion about the role character plays in our lives and society.
Every Day Is Your First Something
I recently spent a couple of days with friends in Atlanta who have a three-month-old daughter, their first child. My visit coincided with the Super Bowl, and I remarked that this would be Brooke’s first Super Bowl. Her father, Nick, replied, “Every day is her first something.”
In children, we celebrate progress. We applaud them, hug them, kiss them, congratulate them, and reward them for the tiniest advances. This atmosphere of encouragement plays a huge role in the rapid progress children make in the early months and years of their lives.
Just because we are adults, we shouldn’t stop celebrating progress. Progress is a reward in itself. I am happier when I am making progress. See if the same isn’t true for you. Observe yourself. Study the areas that you are making progress in. Look back at times in your life when you have made progress in an area of your life. How did you feel about yourself, about life, and about your future?
Our capacity for improvement is unfathomable. Whether it is professionally or personally, in the area of health and well-being, personal finances, relationships, diet and exercise, or character and spirituality, we have an extraordinary ability to improve. But to improve, we need to know ourselves very well. We need to be able to look beyond our obvious strengths and weaknesses and see our subtle tendencies. We need to be able to detect when we are lying to ourselves, when we could give more than we are giving, and when we are truly heading down the wrong path.
Over the years as I have studied many different forms and expressions of spirituality. One of the few things I have become absolutely convinced of is that some type of daily examination is one of the fastest ways to growth. Those who have taken spiritual development most seriously for thousands of years have employed this simple exercise not to measure perfection but to gauge progress. It is for this reason and around this principle that I designed The Prayer Process.
This spiritual exercise leads to a deeply intimate conversation with God about our talents and abilities, our hopes and dreams, our fears and failures, our potential, and the love we have for those closest to us.
There are dozens of different forms of this exercise, but in essence it comes down to taking a few moments at the end of each day to ask the question “Am I better today than I was yesterday?”
The answer to this question raises more questions: “What areas of my life do I need to improve?” “What areas of my life do I need to give more attention to?” “What behaviors are preventing me from making progress toward the-best-version-of-myself?”
Who you are today is only a shadow of who you are capable of being. It is our potential that most excites and frustrates us.
Baby steps are the secret. Small victories lead to large victories. The injured athlete has to take baby steps. During rehabilitation, trainers teach recovering superstars to celebrate small victories, just as a parent teaches a child to celebrate even the smallest advance. Let’s start to pay attention to the question “Am I making progress?”
Are you making progress? As I said earlier, if you have to think about it, then you probably are not paying attention.
The First Lesson: Celebrate Your Progress
Take time at the end of each day, even at intervals throughout the day, to reflect on the progress you have made. Consider the different areas of your life. In some, you will have made progress; celebrate that progress. In other areas, you may have stagnated or regressed; don’t beat yourself up about it. Be gentle with yourself. You are a marvelous creation, but you are a work in progress.
Never end a period of examination without identifying some progress that you have made. As we move through the remaining chapters of this book and discover the other eight lessons for enduring happiness, you will discover many areas in which you can measure and celebrate progress.
To be perfectly ourselves is something we should all aspire to, but the path that leads us to the-best-version-of-ourselves is the path of progress. Let this be the inner dialogue that encourages us to progress a little more each day: “I am better today than I was yesterday.”
Applying the First Lesson: Celebrate Your Progress
I will apply the first lesson of discovering God’s dream for my life by taking the following steps:
- I will focus my resolve by making one resolution at a time. When I make a resolution, I will define it in measurable and manageable terms, not lofty and immeasurable ideals. I will write my resolution down, along with a description of how my life will improve if I put this resolution into effect. Each day I will pause several times to review my resolution and the ways it will change me and my life. Once I have firmly established this resolution as a habit in my life, I will make my next resolution.
- I will celebrate progress by giving myself a psychological pat on the back every time I make an effort in the direction of my resolution. I will rejoice in even the smallest victory, but at every major milestone I will celebrate the progress I have made in some special way. I will ritualize it in order to create a powerful memory. At times this celebration will be in solitude, and at other times I will invite others to celebrate with me. Remembering that how I talk to myself affects me more than how others talk to me, I will use my inner dialogue constantly throughout the day to encourage myself in becoming a-better-version-of-myself. I will remember and remind myself that I am an infinitely valuable child of God.
- I will be mindful of first things and actively seek first things. From time to time I will consciously set out to do something for the first time, thus celebrating my infinite capacity to explore new horizons. Sometimes I will seek something adventurous, such as skydiving, and at other times I will seek something simple, such as planting a tree.
- I will begin to view failure as part of success. If I fail in some way, I will pause and consciously take time to identify what I have learned from the experience. In this way I will learn to see even my defeats as part of the process, as progress.
- I will examine myself each morning and each evening in the same way that the great spiritual leaders of every tradition have been doing for thousands of years. During my morning assessment, I will ask: What area do I need to focus on today? What specific action will I take to achieve progress in this area today? How will I measure my progress in this area? What can I do to make a difference in the lives of others today? Pausing in the evening, I will consciously focus to ask myself: Am I better today than I was yesterday? What did I do today that brought me happiness? What did I do today that made me restless or unhappy? Why did I choose these things? In what ways can I improve tomorrow? What did I do today to bring happiness to others? Did I harm anyone today physically, emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually? What good things do I feel the Holy Spirit is inspiring me to do tomorrow?
Perfectly Yourself: Revised Edition (Paperback)
Perfectly Yourself: Revised Edition (Paperback)
About Perfectly Yourself: Revised Edition (Paperback)
Do you ever get the feeling that you are not enough? Not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not loved enough, not rich enough, not good enough . . . We all have these feelings from time to time, usually because we’re comparing ourselves to others. But God doesn’t compare you to anybody else. He wants to help you become the person he created you to be—perfectly yourself!
In this life-changing book, Matthew Kelly addresses the opportunities and obstacles we encounter when we decide to ask life’s BIG questions: who am I? and why am I here? Newly revised with an emphasis on spiritual growth and realizing God’s dream for your life, Perfectly Yourself is a book for anyone who has survived the collapse of a relationship, wondered if he or she would ever find a fulfilling career, or failed at a diet. Kelly teaches us how to find the balance between accepting ourselves and striving to become all God dreams for us to become. This is the guide you need if you long to be at peace with who you are, where you are, and what you are doing, not in some distant tomorrow, but here and now—today.
Alternative Headline Discovering God’s Dream for You
Product Type Media Books
Book Format Paperback
Customer ReviewsWrite a Review
I am running 3 Book Studies on this during Best Lent Ever. Read for the first time in 2016 and am now on my third read. Each time something new is triggered in my mind. "Just do the next best thing" says what this book is all about.
Incredibly clear, concise and believable. Matthew nailed it as he once again stirs the soul and promotes our incredible inheritance as children of the Father, most fully lived in the light and life of the Catholic Church. He has encouraged me to live out my giftedness, embrace my uniqueness and take risks for goodness sake. I recommend this book for anyone!