I used to have a fridge magnet that said “life begins outside of your comfort zone”. I still quote this in workshops and bring it to mind when feeling out of my usual depth. But, the quote says “begins”. It doesn’t say thou must spend every second of your waking existence out of your comfort zone lest you be condemned as some lazy, dull, passionless bore who is clearly wasting their existence. Yet a quick glance through my news feed over the New Year period has many a supposedly motivating message compelling it’s reader to step outside of their comfort zone, find their true purpose, pursue the vision for their life relentlessly, and achieve their wildest dreams…..or else! It is this underpinning fear-based sense of “or else” that gets me. Often this is implicit but sometimes stated outright. One infographic condemned us all to a life of being “dull” and “ordinary” and “just like everyone else” if we failed to follow our dreams. Ouch.

Don’t get me wrong, I do need a kick up the behind every now and again and a reminder to take some time to reconnect with what matters is welcomed but a more nuanced perspective is needed to counteract the evangelical and shame-inducing messages out there.

Being true to yourself as moral imperative

Today, we are often urged to be true to ourselves, find our path and live life according to that which beats our heart. Whether we know it or not, such calls to action are grounded in a Late Modernist “life as project” mentality which calls us to live authentically and shape our own lives since we can no longer rely on pre-given societal roles to do so. Human identity has been transformed from a given into a process of becoming. Who wouldn’t want this freedom to live a life aligned to their highest hopes and deepest values? But Charles Taylor, in his book ‘The Ethics of Authenticity’ shows how we have turned these freedoms and aspirations into a moral imperative. He writes:

I am called upon to live my life in this way and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me (Taylor, 1991, p.29)

This feels like the ultimate ‘fear of missing out’ — the fear of missing the very point of life. This voice of fear goes “what if I am on the wrong path? What if I miss my one chance on this earth to self-actualize?” Yikes — pretty high stakes indeed! Added to that, there is a moral judgement contained in the calling. Surrounded by inspirational stories of those who left their day job and are now living out their bliss, there is a risk that many of us are rendered onlookers with a haunting sense of shame and lamentation that we are somehow failing to live out our highest purpose.

Not there yet, never there yet

The moral imperative to live out our true purpose can also play into pre-existing feelings of low-self worth and not being good enough — feelings that appear to be hugely prevalent today, with estimates that 70 percent of all people will suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. We can once again thank our Modernist worldview for an ingrained belief in progress towards some ever greater state of human perfection and emancipation from struggle. If we are not careful, this belief can leave us feeling that our best and true self remains ever on the horizon, slightly out of reach and our search for it can become fuelled by a nagging sense of not quite being where we should be and not being good enough yet. This searching and striving leads to a growth and development fatigue and an excessive focus on our idealised future self rather than on the self that is already here and doing its best. The integral coach Joanne Hunt asks some wise questions in relation to this:

How do I integrate this me — already here — in a healthy way? How can I work with her abilities and limitations with skilful means? Why is the focus only on the future me? What about being fully aware and present to the current me already living my life? Working with our current capacities and capabilities leaves much to be done and it is important to be with the ―what is of my life and not just the ―what is possible: we need to attend to both (p.11).

Hunt suggests that if we first allow for a compassionate, healthy inclusion of our current way of being, then the future self we dream of is much more likely to take root in a grounded and embodied way.

Life is not a race to self-actualize

Or at least I don’t think it is. The point is — none of us really know. We don’t know why we are here, what the ultimate purpose of life is or what really matters. But many would have us believe with certainty that the point of life is to work out what our true calling or passion is and then live out that reality. Others make it seem like we are in some giant computer game called Life that we can “hack” and “level up” and ultimately win by becoming enlightened, self-actualising heroes and then make millions telling others the secrets to getting there. I have a suspicion that on a deeper level, by carefully crafting our lives according to our goals and dreams, we are also attempting to avoid suffering — be it frustration, loss, loneliness, boredom, envy or doubt. But I personally believe that a meaningful life is to be found just as much in suffering as it is in joy. As much in the unplanned and undesired as in the hard won and cultivated. If we are not careful, by doggedly going after our heart’s desire and turning every moment into an opportunity to further your dreams, you miss the joy and tears, the grist and mill of simply being human. The poet and writer Mark Nepo in “Seven Thousand Ways to Listen” has this to say on the matter:

“In truth, being single minded is highly overrated. It often limits what we can learn from the world. For life is tangential and circulatory like the veins on a leaf or in a chamber of the heart….the larger intention is to stay in relationship with everything that comes along, at least long enough to taste what is living”

Some of the most kind, interesting, wise, caring and deeply human people I know are those that haven’t found their dream job and don’t even know what that would be. They can’t and don’t fall back on a job title or grand life project to show their worth to themselves or others. In fact, on paper they would probably be the “ordinary” people that so many apparently motivational articles caution against becoming. But to me, they live more fully and richly than most. Without writing a single word, they are living poets and allow themselves to be shaped by the gifts of an unplanned existence, even when those gifts are unwanted. Learning to experience the dignity and struggle of single motherhood or to bravely live with chronic illness. Or just day after day facing the world when every cell in your body wants to stay home and hide under a duvet. What we see as obstacles to our imagined ‘true lives’ are not violations of life — they are life itself.

Nepo also writes about a champion cyclist, who, in the midst of almost winning a big race was so moved by a heron taking off in his path that he stopped to watch it. People would ask him later what cost him the race. He would reply that he didn’t lose the race, he left it. Nepo uses this story to talk about taking the ‘exquisite risk’ in life. For so many of us, I wonder if creating goals and visions is in fact absolutely our comfort zone. And perhaps, letting go of those for a bit and allowing ourselves to wander and get lost, to live the uncertainty of life rather than planning our next move and being one step ahead in our minds, to be awake to the grace of the heron crossing our path would truly be to take the ‘exquisite risk’ as we leave the race we thought was important.

Stay humble, stay human

Let’s not get too polarised though. Life is like a dance and interplay of letting be and making happen. Of swimming against the tide and going with the flow. And there is great wonder and greatness in having a dream for your life and making this happen. I have been deeply inspired by those who have done this too. Even more by those so who live out their passion with humility. They don’t wear it as a badge of superiority or preach to others to take the same approach to life as they have. Life really is such a rich tapestry of incredible human stories and experiences but we can’t have it all. One person might get to experience the exhilaration of joy of having their dreams they’ve worked so hard for realised. Others might get to learn the wisdom and peace of surrender in the face of a dream unrealised. There is meaning in both. Learning in both. Importance in both. And shame in none. Lest we forget.

Originally published at medium.com