Authentic Success: Your Ordinary Self Is Good Enough
Create Authentic Personal and Professional Success -- With Whatever Life Gives You!
"You need only to claim
the events of your life
to make yourself yours.
When you truly possess
all you have been and done
… you are fierce with reality."
— Florida Scott-Maxwell
Authentic Success: Part 1 - When The Cure Is Worse Than the Disease.
"We've had a hundred years of analysis, and people are getting more and more sensitive,and the world is getting worse and worse."
As a personal life coach, I help people on six continents create simple, yet rich, successful, and sustainable lives—in spite of problems, circumstances, and adversity. I help them create authentic success -- success on their own terms.
Sometimes, though, I encounter folks who believe they can't learn to create what matters until they fix who they are. They believe their ordinary self is not good enough.
They assume they can't create desired results until they develop self-esteem, increase self-confidence, process past issues, solve pressing problems, feel good about themselves . . . and more.
Unexamined, such beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. Thinking you have to feel good while you learn new things causes you to quit when learning is uncomfortable. Thinking you cannot create results, you fail to try. So, the self-fulfilling prophecy comes true. Perversely, it validates your belief, setting up a vicious circle!
But, do you have to fix yourself before you can create what matters?
You Are Your Best Resource — Just As You Are!
The first self-help book I read, I Ain't Much Baby, But I'm All I've Got (Jess Lair, 1975) implied an important truth. You—your ordinary self—is all you've got, and it is good enough to start with.
You are not a problem that needs to be solved. Your Life is not an endless string of problems you have to fix. Life is about creating what you truly love and want to see exist in your life, work, relationships, and whatever matters to you. Your ordinary self is all you need to begin to create the life you want.
Along the way, you discover there are things to learn, conversations to enter, skills to develop, attitudes to adjust, and new ways of doing things to experiment with, and develop mastery in.
You will more easily succeed by creating them than by framing them as problems. Better yet, by accepting the circumstances of your life as raw material, you can transcend problems and create the life you long for—and the self that Abraham Maslow says you glimpse in "your most perfect moments." That is truly authentic success.
Creating Results that Matter
Creating is not problem solving. Problem solving focuses on what you don't like and don't want, and taking action to get rid of it (or get relief from its intensity). Creating focuses on what you do want, and taking action to bring it into being.
Throughout history, creators used their ordinary selves to create outstanding results. Many lacked self-esteem or confidence. Think of Van Gogh. Most had unresolved issues. Think of Virginia Wolfe. Others were messy and disorganized: Einstein!
At various points, all doubted their abilities. But, all were ordinary individuals who learned to create extraordinary results—in spite of the problems and circumstances they faced in themselves, and their worlds.
They focused on what they wanted, and what they could already do. By holding a clear vision of a result in mind, together with a clear sense of the current reality of that result, they set up a useful, creative tension. Then, using the energy in that tension, they leveraged their skills and resources into desired results by resolving the creative tension through actions that supported those results.
By starting small, failing lots, and learning from experience, all creators build patterns of success. As they develop competence and confidence, they stretch for larger steps. Gradually, they teach themselves what they need to know and do to complete their creations.
You, too, can be a creator. The universe wants us all to succeed, to become architects of our own existence. What's the alternative? As systems expert Draper L. Kaufman, Jr. puts it, "If you do not create the future you want, you must endure the future you get."
Those who don't know how to create get stuck, trying to problem solve their way to results. It rarely works, though, because problem solving focuses too much on relief, and not enough on results.
Relief Not Results
In my book Simplicity AND Success: Creating The Life You Long For, I described Celia and Alverjo, an urban couple who tried to create a simple, yet rich life by seeking relief from fast-paced city living. They cleared out clutter, sold off their home and many possessions, and moved to the country.
At first, they were happy. But slowly the enjoyment faded. Merely getting relief from what they didn’t want failed to bring them what they truly did want. As Al said, "Once the relief wore off, all that simplicity left a big hole."
Celia and Al were unable to fill the hole because, along with clutter, they also tossed out engagement, challenge, and meaning. Their life became austere, and boring — too simple to sustain. Wiser, they returned to the city. They got meaningful jobs they enjoyed and began to craft a rich yet simple life with who they were, and what they had.
Relief seeking is common in problem-focused approaches. Most problem solving focuses on decreasing the intensity — the pain, conflict, or bad feelings—associated with a problem.
When people try to fix themselves, they usually create temporary relief. Take, for example, a headache caused by work stress. Taking painkillers helps relieve the pain's intensity, but does not eliminate the stress that caused it. Nor does it help you organize work so it flows easily and effectively.
Indeed, by relieving pain, it enables you to keep doing what caused it in the first place. When the medication wears off, you are back where you started, still stressed, closer to ulcers, and more convinced your ordinary self is not good enough
The Cure Is Often Worse Than the Disease
Focusing on relief often lead to problems resurfacing, and with more intensity. It can also lead to worse problems. People who use alcohol or other drugs to relieve stress often end up with addiction problems.
Even well intended "stress management" programs work the same way. By teaching people how to cope with ever-increasing amounts of stress, such programs can change chronic stress into acute breakdown. People learn to cope with more stress until they break.
This counter-productive pattern occurs at societal levels, too. For example, as incredulous as it sounds, when Daimler/Benz introduced the automobile to Victorian Europe they sold it as "the solution to pollution."
At the end of the 19th century, its designers promised the horseless carriage would rid Paris, Berlin, and London of the foul dust caused by pulverized droppings from millions of horses that worked in those cities. Today, a glut of horseless carriages fouls our air and clogs streets and freeways around the world. Rather than a panacea for pollution, the car has become a leading cause of the health-destroying toxic smog that causes so many of us to flee the cities for the suburbs.
But, in their search for smog relief, few suburbanites realize their "solution" increases dependence on cars and SUV’s, compounding the problem they wanted to solve. As the fact of global climate change becomes clear, it is obvious that the Victorian solution to pollution is one of humankind's major challenges. The cure has become far worse than the disease.
Systems thinkers label such results "counter-intuitive effects of naïve interventions." Such interventions are almost always misplaced problem solving. Other examples:
• The overuse of antibiotics lead to deadly, antibiotic resistant "superbugs."
• Dieting to solve the "overweight problem" leads to long-term weight gain by the majority of dieters.
• The British government found that building new motorways encouraged more drivers, and made it easier for them to drive—until their expanded numbers once again clogged the roads.
In each case, a problem was identified and action taken. In each case the solution created a more serious problem than the one it was intended to solve. The cures all became worse than the disease.
The Seductiveness of Relief
Relief is seductive. Purveyors of relief make it sound simple, easy, and effective. "Take this, and the pain will go away." "Buy this, and you won't be depressed or anxious." "Read this, and you'll never be poor again."
"Find their pain, and stick a pin in it," suggests a marketing approach, "and then show consumers how your product or service relieves it."
A glossy "simplicity" magazine has a section titled "Solutions: Life's Little Complexities Resolved." It includes single use sunscreen and an electronic stain eliminator. Buying such items is supposed to simplify your life, and make you feel good. But, underlying such messages is the deeper message that you, your life, and your ordinary self are not good enough, just as they are.
Such magazines hawk journalistic aspirin for those trying to fix their lives through consumption. This approach is easy seductive, and addictive. As time goes by, you get less from it but crave it more. As Eric Hoffer warns, "You can never get enough of what you don't really need."
You may get temporary relief or fleeting pleasure from an electronic stain remover. But when it passes, you are back where you started—with a larger credit card bill, and further proof that you are not good enough.
Added debt increases stress. So, you work more to make money to buy more stuff to relieve the compounded stress of debt and working more. Crazy, eh? You trundle away on the hedonic treadmill, paying dearly, but going nowhere. Over time stuff becomes clutter. Authentic happiness recedes into the distance.
Such a pattern is neither productive nor satisfying. At best, it produces the temporary, reactive simplicity on this side of complexity. At worse, it erodes your ability to handle life's complexities. It prevents you from achieving the rich, effective, and lasting simplicity that comes from creating what truly matters. You waste precious time and life energy trying to fix something that isn't broken — you.
Your Ordinary Self Is Good Enough!
The good news is you don't have to fix yourself. You don't have to solve all your problems. You don't have to get rid of what you don't like and don't want before you can create authentic success. You and your life are the raw material out of which you create the life you most want.
Psychologist Carl Jung recognized this when he wrote: "All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble…. They can never be solved, but only outgrown."
Describing patients' progress, he said, "[It] required a new level of consciousness. … It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge."
The urge to create what matters is one of our most powerful life urges. But people who believe their ordinary self is not good enough often put it aside, in favor of fix-it approaches to "personal growth."
But is growth always good?
Authentic Success: Your Ordinary Self IS Good Enough!
Part 2: Is Growth Always Good?
"Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom."
— Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Is Growth Always Good?
“Psychology,” wonders psychologist James Hillman in We've Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And The World's Getting Worse, “working with yourself, could that be part of the disease, not part of the cure?”
Could a focus on personal growth — by turning us inward, away from the world, and the challenges it poses — ironically contribute to personal and social breakdown? Hillman and co-author Michael Ventura think so.
“The very word grow is a word appropriate to children,” says Hillman. “After a certain age you do not grow.” Personal growth he says is “an idealization that sets you up to fail.”
When ideals become demands—things we must, should, or ought to do—they do set us up to fail. Moreover, a narrow, narcissistic approach to growth does turn us inward, away from our world, and away from authentic success.
Increasing number of mental health professionals point out that many who visit counselors and therapists do not need "fixing." They are not sick. They are the "worried well." Still, much of mainstream psychology, psychiatry, and self-help still take a problem-focused stance toward personal growth. But is this kind of growth really best for us?
Some growth is effective. But unlimited growth is one definition of cancer. Still, when many cannot live up to the romantic, New Age fantasy of an always-expanding, always-developing, ever-bigger and even-better person, they define the situation as a problem. Therefore, they conclude, we must fix or improve our self before we try creating what we truly want.
But isn't this backward? If we want to ceate authentic success, wouldn't we be wiser to focus on creating what we'd love to bring into being, and then allow effective growth to emerge through the challenge of creating results?
When we focus on what we, or others, think we should be, we forget to just "be," and enjoy who we are. We say "No" to our flaws and weakness rather than "yes" to our strengths and dreams. Because we focus on relief, we do not get rid of flaws, nor produce results.
So, feeling flawed, and frustrated with our efforts, we join the worried well. We turn to experts, seeking relief from feelings generated by our judgments about those flaws, and our failure to eliminate them. But—and here's a strange twist—many who go to experts neither want nor get real and lasting change.
"The talkier forms of psychotherapy are acceptable, at least to some degree," say George Leonard and Michael Murphy, in The Life We Are Given, "because they sometimes change nothing very much except the patient's ability to talk about his or her problems."
Even when people talk to psychologists about their plans to change, it is often nothing more than relief-seeking. The technical term for this process is "rehearsal." It can be an important step in the change process, but many people never get beyond rehearsal, into action.
If it merely provides relief from bad feelings, talking about problems is a way to avoid change. It provides an illusion of growth, but the real stuff eludes us. As well, merely talking about desires without grounding them in reality, and acting on them does the same thing. It is just daydreaming.
Often, in turning to experts to solve our problems, we shift our burden. We become consumers of therapy. Shifting responsibility for our well being might make us feel better temporarily, but the dependency it creates makes us feel worse.
When Is Enough Enough?
“This idea of growth can put you into a constant state of failure!” says Michael Ventura, “because you’re constantly comparing yourself to the fantasy of where you should be on some ideal “growth” scale.”
"Shoulding" on yourself— demanding that you be different than your are is damaging to your effectiveness, and to your happiness. When a couple I described in Simplicity and Success tried to become “the most frugal simplifiers”, their overly-competitive approach resulted in a life that was so austere that they could not sustain it.
Just as there is a point at which we all could realize that “enough is enough,” and start enjoying what we have, might there not also be a state of personal growth at which we say, “My ordinary self is good enough?”
I think there is, and many of us have passed it.
So, instead of focusing on who we think we should be, I suggest we accept who we are, learn to love what we have, focus on creating what matters to us—and give our creations to the world. By mastering the skills and structure of creating, we can learn to work with our ordinary self to create authentic success -- the results that matter to us, and to the world we care about.
I think the choice to create indicates a coming to maturity. This is, I think, what Erich Fromm meant when he said the healthiest among us are “moving in the direction of being …, transcending the having orientation of the majority.”
Research into the lives of creators, combined with twenty years of teaching people to create has shown me you do not have to be anyone other than who you are to create authentic success. Your ordinary self is what you have to work with — and it is good enough.
Tragically, however, many growth devotees still take their cues from a psychotherapeutic establishment that promotes consumption of treatment (often in the form of pharmaceuticals). Or we fall prey to marketers that promote growth through consumption of relief products and services.
“This fantasy of growth,” says Hillman, “fed by many sorts of therapies, can’t help but make people feel more like failures in the long run. This in turn can’t help but increase the general feeling of powerlessness. That’s a pretty vicious circle.”
Lost In Therapy
I’ve seen the results of such vicious circles in my coaching clients.
Gail came to me because she felt her life was “a mess.” In spite of her therapist's warnings that she was not ready to do so on her own, Gail wanted to simplify her life, and focus on what mattered. However, after ten years of therapy, she felt “mired in self doubt.”
Worse, she feared she’d become “lost in therapy.” She no longer trusted her ordinary self. She felt dependent on her therapist, and wanted help reclaiming her ability to deal with life's challenges on her own.
Many people seem lost in therapy. Maybe it’s because problem-focused therapy assumes that the causes of problems are rooted in the past. This backward-searching approach reminds me of people lost in the woods who waste precious time and energy fretting about how they got lost. Is that the best use of time and focus?
No. Not in the woods or in life.
If you’re lost — in the woods or in therapy — what matters is that you:
1. Get clear about and commit to your destination, to a vision of what you most want to create;
2. Get clear about current reality, where you are, and what you have (without undue focus on problems, or how you got there);
3. Hold vision and current reality in creative tension;
4. Decide what your next steps are, and then take actions that consistently move you toward where you want to be;
5. Learn from mistakes. Adjust, and take new next steps;
6. Build momentum that leads toward your desired result. Be open to surprise, novelty, and invention. Experiment!
7. Finish fully. Celebrate success! Start on your next creation.
These seven steps for creating almost anything may over-simplify the challenge. There are skills to learn and structure to organize. But, such a results-focused approach is absent from “fix-it” forms of therapy. So when we rely on them, as Gail did, we easily get lost, backtracking the labyrinth paths of our past.
Gail told me she still “wallowed” in past pain. Although her therapist told her that life should be easy, joyful, and painless, she also told her that emotional scars caused pain, and that only getting rid of those scars would give Gail the joy she "should" feel. Worse, she stressed that only more therapy could rid Gail of her scars and pain. No wonder Gail felt that her ordinary self was not good enough!
The therapist is right that scarring can cause pain. But she is wrong when she says scars must be eliminated. Getting rid of scars is mostly cosmetic therapy. Usually, it has as much to do with authentic success and health and being true to yourself as stuffing silicone bags into your breasts or buttocks does with making you authentically fit and attractive.
“Just as you have physical scars,” says James Hillman, “so you have soul blemishes. … And they are what you are. It’s peculiar to believe that this stuff all gets ironed out. … (As the poet) Rilke said about therapy, ‘I don’t want the demons taken away, because they’re going to take my angels too.’ Wounds and scars are the stuff of character.”
Wounds and scars are part of your ordinary self, and that self is all you have. Instead of trying to get rid of them, I suggested to Gail and I suggest to you, you'd do better to embrace them, learn from them, and transcend them in favor of creating what you truly want.
Next, we'll see two remarkable women who did just that. And we'll see how Gail found her way out therapy, into a simple, effective, and flourishing life that felt proud of creating.
Part 3: Embracing Scars; Transcending Pain
“The world breaks everyone,
some are strong in all the broken places.”
— Ernest Hemingway
Remember the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Kim Phuc?
She was the naked nine-year old Vietnamese girl running toward the camera through the smoke and dust of a terrifying US bombing attack. Arms outstretched, her back ablaze with flaming napalm, mouth stretched in an agonizing scream, Kim was truly wounded. It is a miracle she lived. All her family and ninety-percent of her village were killed. Yet, I recently saw Kim on the Canadian TV program Witness, a strong, grown woman who tours the world, working to create peace.
One scene featured Kim and the photographer who shot the dramatic photo. They were at an exhibition of photos taken of her over the years. One photo, a portrait of Kim cuddling her new baby, moved me deeply.
The photo framed the back and side of Kim’s bare upper body. The baby gazed lovingly into her mother's eyes. Contrasting the baby’s smooth, soft skin, Kim’s back was a dark, knotted mass of thick, raw-looking keloid scars. They looked more like pine bark than skin. I had to force myself not to look away.
Later, Kim visited her plastic surgeon and told him the scars still hurt. “Like a needle,” she said, “like a needle.” The surgeon told her that is how scars are. “It is fully healed,” he said, “but the scars are tight and they will sometimes hurt.”
The most gripping scene occurred when Kim spoke to a Veteran’s Day gathering in Washington, DC. “We cannot change history,” she said, “but we should try to do good things for the present and the future.”
She shared her desire to meet and forgive the pilot who dropped the bomb that burned her. No one can know which B-52 pilot did so, but the officer who called in that air strike was in the crowd. Captain John Plummer, Retired, now a Methodist Reverend, worked his way to the ring of park police surrounding the dais, and passed a message to Kim. A meeting was arranged in a room nearby.
They sat side by side on a couch — the warrior and the wounded. Kim wore a nervous smile and tugged at her skirt. Captain Plummer wiped his hands on his pant legs and knitted his damp brow into a rigid furrow. As they turned to face each other, tears burst from his eyes. “I am so, so sorry," he blurted. Kim smiled, took him in her arms, and told him she forgave him. Although tears stained her cheeks, her beatific smile lit up the room.
James Hillman would recognize Kim’s journey into her own creativity. He would see her scars as the stuff of character. So did she. Rather than waste energy trying to get rid of scars and pain, she embraced and transcended them by working for peace. She did, I think, what the writer Florida Scott Maxwell urges us all to do.
“You need only to claim the events of your life,” she says, “to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.” And well on your way to authentic success!
Embracing Reality, Transcending the Past
Susan Swan is another wounded woman who became fierce with reality by embracing and transcending a traumatic past. Susan’s story was documented on the CBC-TV program, Man Alive.
A dark-skinned, part-Ojibwa, single Mom with striking native features, Susan expressed a powerful love for her equally striking blue-eyed, blonde-haired daughter—a child conceived when a stranger picked Susan up off Toronto’s inner city streets, and raped her.
Susan had lost her parents. Tearfully she shared a tale of abuse at the hands of foster mothers and fathers. She'd denied her Ojibwa heritage, ran to the streets, did drugs, drank alcohol, and was raped. As she grew into her twenties, she realized if she did not get off welfare, get a job, and care for her daughter, she was headed for the "scrap heap of humanity."
One day she heard the police force was looking for women and natives to broaden its diversity. “Hey!" she thought, "I'm a woman; I'm native. What the hell?”
She applied, took the tests, but didn't hold much hope she'd be selected. Her personal and cultural history had taught her not to hope. Then, one morning she answered her phone and was shocked to hear the person on the other end ask, “Hi! Is this Constable Susan?”
It was her new commanding officer. Now Susan works Toronto's mean streets with teen girls she affectionately calls “little Miss Cool’s.” She has a way with these girl/women who, as she did at their age, seek solace, community, and ersatz love in the company of others who are running from demons.
Susan’s scars are psychic scars, soul scars. However, she too embraced and transcended her pain.
“I would not change any of it,” she said, speaking directly into the camera, eyes glistening with held-back tears, jaw jutted forward. “I am really grateful for all the abuse I have suffered. It has made me to be the person I am today. You see the kids, you tell them, ‘Shit happens. Hang in there. It can get better.’”
Because of who she is, the kids believe her. She is effective in her work, and in her life. Both Susan and her daughter flourish.
Your Ordinary Self Is Good Enough
“A pearl,” wrote philosopher Stephen Hoeller “is a beautiful thing that is produced by the injury of the oyster. The treasure of our being is (similarly) produced by an injured life. If we have not been wounded, if we have not been injured, we will not produce the pearl.”
Why did Kim and Susan produce pearls but Gail did not? Why did Kim and Susan experience the fierce focus and contentment of the simplicity on the other side of complexity while Gail got lost in therapy?
Because Kim and Susan took a creative stance toward their lives. Both realized their ordinary self was all they had to work with. Both knew what mattered. Both claimed the events of their lives, became “fierce with reality,” and created results they cared about. So, eventually, did Gail.
After a weekend creating workshop and six months of coaching, Gail left therapy. Instead of trying to fix her past, she focused on developing her capacity to create what mattered—in the present and the future.
Slowly, she learned how to accept, rather than fix, the complex mess of feelings she'd struggled with for ten years. As regular practice built her skills, Gail created her “dream job” as a part-time teacher, part-time graphic artist. She met a man she enjoyed being with, who enjoyed her company, and who shared her goal for a simple, yet rich, and meaningful life. She also thoroughly enjoyed the process of creating.
“Since I learned to create,” Gail told me, “my life is way simpler and a lot richer. I do more, and get more involved, yet it all seems to flow. Sure, there are ups and downs, but I don't dive into the pain pool anymore. I know the pain comes from nutty stories I tell myself. I also know I can feel bad and still create what matters. Every day, the pain fades a little.”
By shifting to a creating stance, Gail, Susan, and Kim transcended the pain and frustration of relief-driven problem solving. Rather than shift the burden of well being to experts or drugs, each empowered herself by accepting that her ordinary self was good enough—and starting with what she had to work, created what was most important to her.
Each had a clear sense of vision. Each was fierce with reality. Each was at ease with the gap between vision and reality and let creative tension drive out emotional tension. Each used creative tension to organize, contain, and guide their choices and actions. Each started small, learned from experience, made adjustments, and followed through to complete results they envisioned. By mastering their capacity to create what mattered to them, they were able to bring into being profoundly simpler, more effective, and deeply fulfilling lives—and to create authentic success.
Your situation may be different than Gail, Susan, and Kim's. But you, too, can learn create what matters. You can create authentic success and a simple, yet flourishing life—and you can start with your ordinary self. It is all you have, and it is good enough.
So why not start now. Let go of the problem-focused story about your life, a victim story. Let go of your victim stories. Shift toward a results-focused story of creating your life. On your own, or with coaching help.
Remember, your ordinary self is good enough. With it, lots of practice, and a little luck, you can create extraordinary results.
Free e-book THRIVE! and info about Bruce Elkin's creative life coaching approach. Google "Bruce Elkin" for my site URL. HP won't let me link to it.
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