One of the greatest gifts of growing up in a Western culture is the emphasis placed on what Jung called individuation. While our identity is partially defined by our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnic group, age, wealth, class, and other determinants, we are ultimately unique individuals.
As we progress through life and explore the deep questions of who we are, how we got here, why we’re here and what’s going to happen when we pass on, our culture calls on us to find our own conclusions—to become an individual. For me, this is what the lifelong journey of personal mastery is all about.
Of course, one could take the purely materialist view that we are simply a collection of atoms and molecules that have assembled themselves over a vast amount of time into what we now see as functioning human beings, animals, plants, rocks, rivers and oceans. Consciousness in this scenario is simply an outcome of evolution. But what a dull world it would be if we reduced the world to mathematical, chemical and biological symbols—without any sense of an animating spirit.
Most of us hold in awe the unfathomable mystery of life and the cosmos in which it is played out. Whilst ever we may be tiny in our effect on the grand scheme of things, it is important that we bring our whole being to bear on what life calls on us to do. The older you get, the more you understand how true it is that life itself is as fleeting as a breath and we never know when we’ll draw our last. So, why not gain mastery over yourself? Why not aim to get a handle on the one person whose responses to what life dishes out is entirely under your control? Even if it doesn’t work out as planned (and it won’t!) you always have the solace of knowing that you can say to yourself ‘at least this was mine and I gave it all I had’.
In Peter Senge’s seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, he created a framework on ‘personal mastery’ that I’ve been using for years for myself and sharing with family, colleagues and clients. At a base level, it has a number of practices, starting with the development of personal vision. Senge makes the point that the exercise of developing a vision of where you would like to point yourself in the three-to-five-year horizon needs to be grounded in a clear understanding and acceptance of where you are now. It’s important to maintain a creative tension between current reality and future self. Too loose and you’re not making the most of your gifts; too tense and you snap your connection to reality. But, as Bill Gates once put it, ‘Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.’
The principle of developing a vision is to render in as rich a way as possible what life would be like if you were able to achieve your ideal future state. As Senge puts it:
Imagine achieving the results in your life that you deeply desire. What would they look like? What would they feel like? What words would you use to describe them?
Self-image: If you could be exactly the kind of person you wanted what would your qualities be?
Tangibles: What material things would you like to own?
Home: What is your ideal living environment?
Health: What is your desire for health, fitness, athletics, and anything to do with your body?
Relationships: What type of relationships would you like to have with friends, family, and others?
Work: What is your ideal professional or vocational situation? What impact would you like your efforts to have?
Personal pursuits: What would you like to create in the arena of individual learning, travel, reading, or other activities?
Community: What is your vision for the community or society you live in?
Other: What else, in any other arena of your life, would you like to create?
Life purpose: Imagine your life has a unique purpose-fulfilled through what you do, your interrelationships, and the way you live. Describe that purpose, as another reflection of your aspirations.
In doing the exercise, he encourages you to avoid self-censorship and be as truthful with yourself as you can. If desiring a villa on the Mediterranean with a Lamborghini in the garage is what comes to mind, then put it down. What becomes really important, though, is to write the vision as if you were already living in that place and time. The richer the rendering, the better. Senge then invites you to go back to what you wrote down and start asking a second series of questions around what achieving the vision will bring you. When you know that, ask the questions again and again to get down to the bedrock of what deep needs are addressed in your envisioned future.
The goal is to dig down beyond superficial desires to unearth the fundamental needs that support them. To take an extreme example, perhaps the rapper’s bling, car collection and mansion are not themselves the deep desires. Rather they are the external expression of a need to achieve security and recognition, borne from a deprived upbringing.
In a recent variant to this practice, my youngest son undertook Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring exercise, which takes a leaf from the Stoics’ idea of negative visualisation to ask what might happen if you don’t lift your vision to the highest version of your imagined self. It invites you to contemplate how poorly your life might turn out if all you are able to bring forth is the collection of habits and indulgences of the mind and are too lazy or cynical to contemplate anything better.
Seeking out personal vision puts you in touch with your unconscious. That in itself is a thrilling, though sometimes terrifying, encounter. But it’s now more than a century since Freud discovered that the deep recesses of the mind are as mysterious as the far reaches of outer space. So if you haven’t done so already, dive right in. At some point on this inner journey, if we choose to live fully, each of us must muster the courage of the archetypal hero, confront the mythical dragon, slay it and return anew—bigger, better and bolder than before. And then the whole process starts again, the old small self dying to make way for a more complete, wiser individual you. Not without pain and loss, mind you. But, so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, we only live once. So why not live fully?
The deeper you go within and the further your vision carries you, the more potent becomes your sense of being in the world. In a paradoxical way, the more individuated you are, the more connected you become to all that is, was and will be. There is a deep lesson most of us learn on our life journeys. That whatever serves the greatest good—whatever it is we do when our gifts are put at the service of all of life—that’s when we feel most alive and most generative. Whilst this might sound like a lesson in spirituality, in its essence, personal mastery is indeed a path to enlightenment. To me, this is the undertow that the current wave of mindfulness practice is riding.
In closing, I find inspiration in the words of George Bernard Shaw in his preface to his play Man and Superman: ‘This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.’
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More Than Just Work distils my thinking about three decades of managing work into a manageable framework. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Filip Varga on Unsplash]
‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?’—Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers
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