“How are you doing?” Ask someone that question and you are likely to hear, “Not bad,” “Okay,” or “I can’t complain.” Those are the answers of someone who is living small. They don’t say, “Fantastic,” or “Couldn’t be better.” Those are answers offered by someone who is living large. How are you doing? If your answers place you into the living small category, you’re like most of us. What keeps you stuck in mediocrity, in a day-by day view of life? Why are you continuing to spend your limited life force living small? The answer can be traced to how you think and to the story of you that you tell yourself.
Living small involves in taking what comes your way, often being passive, and being acted upon by the world instead of vice-versa. It means living defensively, holding on to what you have, no matter how meager, rather than placing a bet on yourself and daring to reach for more. By living large, I am not referring to living a lavish lifestyle, or basking in the glow of celebrity. Those things might be nice, but on closer inspection you’ll find that it may not be all that it is cracked up to be. Rather, when you are living large, you are living a life that stretches you to be your best self, to be fulfilled. It comes from dedicating yourself to what you feel is a worthy purpose which gives meaning to your life and benchmarks for success.
Making your life large
It is a common human trait to acclimatize oneself to the status quo. The commonplace becomes accepted. We become accustomed to a certain range of outcomes and unless they are truly unpleasant (sometimes, even if they are), we endure rather than go through the trouble and effort to change. We settle into a comfortable, familiar place and stay put, rooted in the soil of what we expect. While some people continuously strive for excellence, the vast majority of us settle for “good enough.” If we meet the criteria, if we satisfy the boss, if we don’t screw up, there is a strong tendency to call it a day. What’s the story that you tell yourself that keeps your vision small and your aspirations in check?
There is the apocryphal story of Henry Kissinger asking a newly appointed aid for a strategic report on some troublesome area of the world. The aid hands in his report and Kissinger later returns the paper to the aid, asking if this is the best that he can do. Feeling the pressure of Kissinger’s potential disapproval he says, “No, I can do better.” This scenario is repeated twice more. The last time the aid says, “Sir, that’s the best that I can do.” To which Kissinger supposedly replies, “Fine, then I’ll read this one.” I don’t know if it actually happened, but it demonstrates the idea that, if pushed, we often can do better.
My question to you is, “Can you not push yourself?” If so, then what keeps you from doing so in the first place? We admire leaders who call us to rise to an occasion and be our best selves. Great teachers, military leaders, and coaches are often held up as examples of people who lead us to do extraordinary things, to rise above business as usual. William C. Rhoden recently wrote about Mike Tomlin, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his drive for excellence in the New York Times – Feb 5th 2011, in an article entitled Steelers’ Coach Takes a Quiet Route to Brilliance. He wrote, “Tomlin, 37, does not come off as a romantic and does not engage in nostalgia. He is confident and unapologetic. Asked how reaching two Super Bowls in just four years contrasted with his expectations when he took the Steelers job, Tomlin said, “It’s probably about two Super Bowls too short of my vision.” Tomlin has had to put that philosophy to use with the Steelers throughout the season, imploring backup players to step in and perform, and young players to grow up and contribute. “If you have a helmet on, you’re a guy who is capable of making deciding plays,” Tomlin said. “We don’t grade on a curve. If I give any of these guys a helmet on Sunday, I expect them to potentially put themselves in position to be the reason why they win. I think there is not a man in our locker room who doesn’t embrace that. We’re not interested in style points.” What do you think is the story that Mike Tomlin tells himself? In what significant ways does it differ from your story to you?
The truth is that while such a leader can call us out of ourselves, we can do the same thing for ourselves. Below we consider what it takes for us to seek the path to be our best selves, to live large. These points may not explain every instance, but they can be sufficient for you to be all that you have hoped to be. It all lies in the ways that you talk to yourself that your story will play out.
From small to large
We all start out as helpless, dependent creatures and then develop only through a lengthy process of growing up, physically and mentally. Our “stories of ourselves” develop and evolve over the course of that development. Some of us are told that we are losers, weak, dumb, and not good for much of anything. Some of us take that feedback at face value and never believe that we can change that script. Some of us try to write a story with a different outcome but experience trauma, pain or setbacks that we allow to define us, and those people look to just stay safe. Some of us are encouraged, supported and provided with tools or options that propel our stories along. But, life scars all of us with disappointments and problems. We can accept those lessons as proof of our basic inadequacy or we can take away the lessons and try again in new or different ways. We can make excuses or refuse to settle. Each choice and each consequence provides the opportunity for a new chapter and opens the door for a new outcome. Perhaps not our original script, but a new one better suited to us and our circumstances. The critical issue is whether we see yourself as the author of your story or chose to let it be written by others. We can stay small in our own minds or continue to struggle to grow large.
When we look at the larger world around us we can easily see the successes of others without having a very accurate view of their background stories. We have a more limited view of others as full people, their weaknesses as well as their strengths, their regrets, their tradeoffs, and the costs they’ve paid to get to where they have gotten. It is often a very superficial understanding of their lives. On the other hand, we are often hyper-aware of our own weaknesses, our regrets, our tradeoffs, and the prices we’ve paid for the choices that we’ve made. Our personal assessment can be as limited and as skewed as our assessments of others, but often with a more negative slant. You have a choice. You can talk to yourself as a friend, and as an ally. You can address what you don’t like, you can learn what you don’t know, and you can act differently in the future than you have in the past. And in so doing, write a story that moves you on to a different place with a different ending from where you started. After all, you are the author of the “story of you.”
Being dedicated to a worthy purpose
To live a large life, one worthy of emulation, we must view our life circumstances in the context of a worthy purpose greater than ourselves. So often we are too self-absorbed, too self-referent to get outside of ourselves. However, if we can continuously see ourselves in relation to a dedicated purpose, we can maintain our gaze on the path upward. It is the compelling nature of our purpose that is the source of such motivation. We don’t start off as extraordinary, rather, we make the choices that lead us to do extraordinary things, and in so doing we transform our lives. We all function in the world of day-to-day, and the simple fact is that any life can be made to be worthy of emulation. Any life can be lived large. We’ve all heard stories of the humble laborer who leaves an unexpected fortune to charity, or the mother who gives up her ambitions to care for a profoundly disabled child. Look up “The Strongest Dad in the World” on YouTube.
Over my career, I have worked with captains of industry, with millionaires, with incredibly bright and gifted people, some of whom were living large, but a surprisingly large number (to me anyway) of them were not. To this day, one of the most successful men I have ever met was a hillbilly truck driver from Morgantown West Virginia. He loved his life. He loved his lady. He was loved by others. He felt right with his God. He had peace of mind. I don’t know if it gets much better. He was living proof of the old adage that happiness comes not from having all that you want, but in wanting what you have. He wrote a nice story for himself. He was living large.
Don’t wait for the background music to kick in
Oftentimes, successful lives are best understood and appreciated in retrospect. That is, we may never experience a blazingly heroic moment. It is the accumulation of our choices that add up to an extraordinary life. Life isn’t like the movies. It has no preset score. There isn’t the swell of the instruments to alert us to the approach of a momentous event. Therefore, we must make seemingly mundane choices that add up to a pattern of quiet nobility. There probably won’t be someone giving you a demagogic speech. The moments that call you out may be heralded by fear and anxiety. More often they will just be opportunities to do the right thing even if there is no apparent benefit to you. However, the more attuned you are to your purpose; the easier it is to recognize the moments offering you the opportunity to be extraordinary. Your choices of the moment may not be witnessed, or even appreciated, when they are made. It is most commonly the accretion that transforms a life from pedestrian to heroic, from small to large. Anyone can write a story that satisfies themselves and inspires others, but not without continued effort.
We typically feel unworthy of emulation. We are aware of our flaws and foibles in ways that others aren’t cognizant. But we are all flawed and flawless and we don’t have to be without sin to do good things. People who transform their lives beyond the mundane are people who take themselves seriously; who believe that what they do can make a difference. They may not look to transform the world, but they are aware that their choices carry consequences that can transform situations. They find dignity in their work and value in their continued efforts. As a result, they carry on even when frustrated, uncomfortable, tired, or frightened. They view themselves and their efforts as possessed of dignity, however humble they might appear. They are ennobled by their purpose. They are living large.
Worthiness lies in the effort with which we strive
What makes us admirable is not what comes easy to us. It’s how we do what is hard for us to do. Those things provide the dramatic arch that moves the story forward. If we choose to live large rather than small, we step up to opportunities, we face our fears, and we risk falling short of our goals. It is often that diligence that leads to our triumphs. That diligence must be written into our stories if it is to persist in the face of long odds or hardships. Think of the stories you’ve read, of the tales on which you grew up. The hero or heroine must overcome any number and kind of difficulty to reach his or her goal. It is often simply easier to drift with the current, or to be passive. It is easier to live small. But there is a cost associated with that path. It is littered with opportunities lost, of chances squandered, and the burdens of what might have been. That is why your chosen purpose must seem worthy enough in your eyes to sustain your efforts, or endure your trials. It makes sense to the story that living large is worth the effort.
Each of us carries within us the abilities to write the stories of our lives. We choose, every day, whether we will make our lives small or large. It is never too late to amend the script, to craft a new ending. To do so we must own our power as the authors of “the story of us.” We can choose to live large, to seek to become our best selves regardless of our circumstances. It is the essence of your life. “How are you doing?”
© 2011 – 2015, Daniel D. Elash, PhD. All rights reserved.