No two journeys are ever alike, because no two pupils are ever alike.
Daniel Quinn – My Ishmael
But I also recognize this journey as my own. I enjoy sharing my story and my personal evolution over the past 18 months with hopes that others will also take stock of their lives, make their beds, and take small, manageable steps toward living a more complete, fulfilling life. However, it does not mean that my path is the only path, the optimal path, or the path for others.
Many self-help warriors worry about what is optimal. They clamor to see studies that explain how to improve their lives with the utmost efficiency. While I cannot fault people for seeking efficiency in their self-development, I sometimes wonder if an obsession with optimality can become counterproductive.
We run into danger when we experiment on ourselves and over-extrapolate our limited anecdotal data to encompass all of humanity. For example, I’ve come to love meditation over the past several years. I’ve noticed a marked improvement in my ability to concentrate, regulate emotions, and maintain energy throughout the day. However, I would be a fool to tell everyone and their mother that they should meditate.
Sure, I’ve experienced fantastic results from meditation. (Or I assume I’ve experienced fantastic results (post hoc ergo propter hoc)). But this is no guarantee that others will see similar results. It worked for me. Scientific literature suggests that it may work for a particular subset of the population (mainly educated individuals from Western countries). Religious literature suggests it has worked for generations of people around the world. But it is no guarantee to work for all people in all contexts.
Moreover, there are alternative techniques that can achieve similar results. One can simply sit and take five deep breaths. One can stand up and take a walk. Meditation is merely one tool.
Currently, I aim to reduce my consumption of animal products. When I cook at home, I now prefer whole-food plant-based meals. However, this does not mean I will tout veganism to every restaurant, cafeteria, and café I encounter. It does not mean I unequivocally believe that fresh, lean meats cannot be a part of a healthy diet. I made a choice that has benefitted me. But that choice could possibly do others a disservice.
Everyone is at a different point of their journey. My diet and exercise goals and the exercise goals of a 350-pound obese man may be vastly different. I may want to lift heavy weights 2 days per week and train with resistance bands 4 days per week. On the other hand, a 350-pound man would benefit from focusing on light mobility work and regular walking. My diet goals involve reducing my consumption of animal products while a more obese individual would be better served to focus on reducing fast food and processed calories. If a very obese individual tried to eat my diet, they would likely fail in a month. If I adopted the goal of an obese individual, I would likely regress in my weight maintenance goals.
When we consider a self-improvement “journey”, our lane is all that counts. Sometimes we feel tempted to peripherally gaze and compare our progress to our competitors. But fail to realize that we are not running in the same race.
Whether we have free will or not, there is at least some chance that we are the captain of our own ship. At the very least, we can choose to act on our desires (absent extreme emotional arousal). Many Christians believe that God doesn’t control everything, but rather watches over like a benevolent ruler as his subjects make decisions, find success, or muck up their lives.
This limited control comes only from within. No one can force us to change. Sure, some people say they forced someone to change by applying pressure (gentle suggestion, suggestive gifts, threats of firing, threats of breaking up, concerns of imminent ill health). But ultimately, the will to change only comes from inside ourselves. Stubbornness from within can defeat the most intense pressure from without.
There is no one way that everyone can be their “best self” (whatever that means). Sure, most self-help proponents lean on similar principles (healthy diet, exercise, quality relationships, fulfilling work). But one can apply these principles in infinite combinations. People can take up team sports, lift weights, run, walk, cycle, garden, or choose any other physical activity for exercise. People can cultivate meaningful relationships with friends, family, significant others, or children. And what constitutes fulfilling work? Individuals ranging from doctors (healing illness) to janitors (preventing illness through cleanliness) all attest to finding meaning in their occupation.
We are all walking our own paths in life and what constitutes a meaningful life is ultimately subjective, forged in the crucible of experience. So take action. Continue to learn. Try new things. Shake it up. Your next personal revelation is right around the corner.