Dear Human: Ever Striving, Never Present

Dear Human,

I have a business I’ve been running since 2010. I love my team, and feel very connected with what we’re doing, and its impact.

Sometimes I feel like it’s just once endless cycle of goals, and setbacks, and new goals. One step forwards, two steps back, two steps forwards, one to the side, one back, two forwards. I understand that this is the nature of business, and my concern is less for the success of the business, which is going well, but for the pressure I feel, constantly, striving. 

I have teenage kids, and I know I bring those pressures home. Unless we go away somewhere together, I’m not as present with them as I’d like to be. I feel I need to constantly remind myself to stop, bring myself back to the present moment, appreciate where I am, and hold on to this feeling for as long as possible, before my conditioned mind takes me back into the future again, ultimately making me feel unfulfilled with where I am now. 

I realise this state is simply cultural conditioning as I totally lose this sense of striving when I visit places like Bali. Is there a point where this will ease? A level of success when you could relax a bit and appreciate things a bit more? How do we suspend our inner drive, our striving, for long enough to become more aware and grateful for the moment we are in now? 

Ever Striving, Never Present

Dear Striving,

Thank you. This is such a good question. I feel you. This was me. 

I’d like to share with you a story that led to a bit of an epiphany for me a few years ago (and I don’t use the word lightly – it wasn’t just a thought, and it was life-changing, for me at least) – an epiphany that led to an interesting and kind of fatalistic perspective on life. 

With the unexpected bonus of maybe stumbling upon the key to happiness. Or at least relief. 

I started when my then father-in-law Rod turned fifty. We had a big party for him, and during his speech, he presented his kids each with a vase. The vases were filled with stones, the kind of stones you find on the beach.

“Fifty days ago,” he told them, “I woke up and I went for a walk along the beach, and I started thinking back on my life. As I walked, I picked up two stones and started rubbing them, and thinking about both of you. And I thought back on my own life, right back to when I was born.

“I went back home and put the two stones on the counter. And the next day I got up again and went for another walk, picked up another couple of stones, and thought about another time in my life. 

“And then the next morning I did the same, and the one after that – every morning for fifty days I’ve gone for a walk, picked up a couple of stones, and thought about my life, year after year, right up to today, my fiftieth birthday. And it was amazing all the memories that came back to me, things I didn’t even realise I remembered, hadn’t thought about for years – high school, friends, girlfriends, football, jobs I had, houses we lived in, marriage, you kids…

“And these stones — fifty stones, fifty years — well, in these stones I’ve rubbed all those memories, and I wanted to give them to you.”

It was a great speech, and I was profoundly moved by this. What an amazing thing to have done. So for my fortieth birthday a few years later, I did the same thing. Well — I didn’t live near the beach, so I didn’t walk and pick up stones, but I started writing. 

Forty days before my fortieth birthday. Every day a different year, from the year I was born, through childhood, high school, twenties, thirties— anything I could remember. I’d look at photos, I rang my mum and dad, and asked them questions.

Sometimes I wrote down facts, like where we’d lived, songs I remembered, what car I drove, and sometimes I wrote down feelings, sometimes stories. I wrote about people I’d loved, people I hadn’t loved, moments, thoughts, fears, regrets… day by day, I revisited my whole life, and captured it all in a few hundred pages.

And I, too, was amazed at how much came back to me, and I know this will sound a bit Gerry Maguire, but on the day of my fortieth birthday, I can honestly say I felt more complete than I’d ever felt. All the thoughts, fears, loves, desires, shame, failures… they were all me, had all made me the person I was.

That was the good part.

The not so good part, the thing that really concerned me was that many of those memories, particularly from my twenties and thirties, that age when you start trying to make something of yourself, you start striving

With the exception of the really big ones, like the birth of my kids – most of the memories felt like they were like they were part of someone else’s story. Or like I was watching them through a blurred filter. They were detached.

And I struggled with that for quite a while, trying to figure out why, and that’s when it hit me.

Helps to visualise this, I think, so I’ve drawn a little diagram…

50 Stones Image

Life starts here, right, when you’re born. And we move through life, and at some point, it’s going to end over here, when you die. And that’s your path, right? That’s your life.

What tends to happen of course, and with five failed businesses and three failed careers, this certainly was happening for me, is that life zig zags, something happens – you drop out of uni, start a business with your alcoholic father, that fails, you suck at acting, you don’t get the record deal, the love of your life dies of cancer at 23, your theatre company fails, you lose your house, whoops – didn’t think I’d ever end up in Adelaide… video production company fails, facebook for wine fails…

And you end up on a different path to what you imagined, wishing you were on the other path.

That’s the life you want.

And even if you are on a path that you want to be on, which sounds like the case for you, you’re always looking ahead  — setting goals, targets, planning…

You’re still measuring your life in this distance you are away from something.

That was the reason all my memories were so detached – I’d spent most of my adult life focused so much on where I wanted to be, I was never actually where I was. I hadn’t really been present.

And it occurred to me, and this was the depressingly humbling bit – that at the end, when I die, my life will have been whatever it was. Not the path I planned. That other line? It’s nothing. It’s gone. Nobody but me gives a shit about that. Because it didn’t exist.

This will have been my life – WHETHER I LIKE IT OR NOT.

And that’s the bit that I think it really important. Every day. That’s your life. Your actual life.

And as someone who had tried and failed at a lot of things, it really hit me then that the only real failure would be to get to the end, to die having spent so much time focused on that other path, or what lay ahead, that I didn’t really value the life I actually lived.

I honestly think that’s at the root of most peoples’ unhappiness. And who can blame us?

There’s so much pressure to follow your dreams, live every day like it’s your last, squeeze every drop of blood from the stone that is this life we get — it’s no wonder we’re not happy with where we’re at on any given day. There’s too much pressure!

But in the end, does that really matter? I mean it does, actually, but here’s the thing that is hard to cop: it’s your life, no matter what happens. The good, the bad, the successes, the failures… the failures…

In the end, they’re all the experiences that were your life. Like it or not. Planned or not

I think the key to happiness lies not in success but in accepting and embracing the life you have. I think remembering this makes it much easier to be present. 

Failure hurts. I failed my marriage. I failed 5 businesses and 3 careers. Perspective – that’s the salvation. Literally – on your death bed, looking back on your life.

Not so much “it’s okay, this is cool”, but more “well okay, this is happening, this is my life, like it or not, and when I look back, this will have been just another stone on the beach.”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t dream, shouldn’t find purpose, and have goals, and work towards them. I’m saying that those dreams, those goals — they’re not your life. 

When I realised that, I vowed then and there, on that day, that I would never again let an era of my life go by without really acknowledging it. Without being present. Hell — an era? I wouldn’t let a day go by.

I taught myself to stop, and breathe, and look at my surroundings, and listen, and smell — smelling was a powerful sense to get me in the moment. If I was working on a task, I would focus more fully on that task. If I was with my kids, or my wife, I would be totally there with them.

And that was living.

From that moment, from my fortieth birthday, I made peace with my failures, and the regrets, and the losses. 

And a lot of my stress, a lot of my fears – just evaporated. Acknowledging that no matter what my plans were, no matter what I was working towards, what scary pressures or risks lay around the corner, it was this day, today — this moment — this was my life, and I had a choice in each moment how I would feel, and act.

And all this weight just lifted. I could breathe. Ahhhh…

I will fail again. Many times. At business, at being a good person… because I’ll keep trying to do good things.

And that will be my life.

And yours will be yours, Ever Striving, Ever Present. x

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