Many different personal development “proverbs” appear at first glance to contradict each other. However, upon examination, they generally yield a more profound, underlying truth.
“Set definite goals” vs. “be outcome independent”
It is a truism of self-improvement that absolute clarity and dedication in goal setting are necessary in order to make positive changes in your life. At the same time, much is made of being resilient in the face of outcomes – that is, “outcome independent”. How is this possible? How can you be both goal-oriented and yet outcome independent?
The answer that reconciles these apparently contradictory ends is to focus on the process of goal achievement, rather than the endpoint. By selecting end goals that “automatically” improve you as part of the path that you follow to reach them, you can let yourself fall in love with the process, and release your focus on the outcome.
A couple of contrasting examples illustrate this. Suppose you set a goal to win the lottery and live a life of luxury and ease with no responsibilities or obligations to anyone else. The process of pursuing this goal is extremely simple and easy to practice – “buy lottery tickets until you win”. However, this is a pretty foolish goal. You don’t become a better person, learn a useful skill, or help anyone else out by repeatedly purchasing lottery tickets. (You’re also very unlikely to actually reach this goal, based on the usual probabilities of winning the lottery.)
In contrast, suppose that you set a goal of earning a black belt in karate. The process of pursuing this goal is also simple, but it’s certainly not easy – “study karate for years, earning different colored belts in order, until you finally pass your black belt test”. The difference between this goal and the previous one is that the process of moving toward the black belt is one of constant effort, growth and improvement. Even if you don’t reach the ultimate goal, you will have grown greatly in the process of pursuing it. Your investment of time and effort will not have been wasted.
“Go with the flow” vs. “develop strong self-discipline”
Genuine personal growth and development is impossible without a strong sense of self-discipline. Practicing positive habits – for example, exercise, healthy eating, and self-education and study – is a challenge for someone who lacks self-discipline. At the same time, much personal development literature advises us to enter a state of “flow” and to let go of trying to control things. How do we resolve this?
The key is to recognize what kind of situation we’re operating in. Are we in a situation where we are truly able to exercise control effectively? Or are we in a situation where trying to control things is irrelevant, or even counterproductive?
For example, at least in theory, we have the potential to exert absolute control over our eating habits. Despite what we might wish to believe, the donut did not jump into our hand and demand to be eaten, and the triple bacon cheeseburger did not order itself from the menu. In this case, exercising self-discipline is a pretty simple matter – “going with the flow” to its logical conclusion is probably going to lead to a stomachache.
However, in other situations, strong self-discipline can backfire and make things worse. An overly zealous and disciplined salesperson who calls a prospect repeatedly might wind up losing the sale by irritating the prospect before they are ready to buy. An athlete who trains in the face of serious pain could be sidelined by a serious injury that would have been prevented by some extra rest days.
The challenge here is to recognize which situation you’re working in. It’s important to calibrate your response to what appears in front of you, and to be absolutely honest with yourself. This isn’t an exact science, and you can always fool yourself here and there. However, your results will be best when you are as clear and direct as possible.
“Drop your ego” vs. “develop a strong personality and express what is unique about you”
Recognition of the essentially false nature of the ego and the mind is a key goal of meditation in many traditions such as Zen, Vipassana, and others. These practices are known to have very positive effects on your moods, mental health, and your overall experience of happiness in life.
At the same time a key long-term goal of a great deal of personal development work is to identify, and ultimately to express the best and most unique contribution that you can provide to the world. But how do you cultivate that strong, unique personality that will deliver this contribution, without dependence on the ego?
In fact, it’s much easier to create and express what is truly interesting and authentic about “you”, when you release your grip on the mask of the ego and all its associated, petty needs and demands. The ego is so defensive and nervous, always concerned that it’s getting proper credit, wondering whether it looks good, hoping that it’s liked and recognized by others as being “special”, and so forth.
When you are not worried about yourself and how you may be appearing to others, you are not conscious of your false “self”, which is the ego. You are, literally, unselfconscious. This is a great state to be in, since you are then able to give your gift to the world around you much more effectively. People describe this state as being “in the zone” or “in flow” – everything simply goes naturally, without strain or apparent effort. In this state of being, you are able to most naturally express what is uniquely valuable about you, your gift and contribution to the world. Even though they might disagree, the ego and the mind are not actually a part of this. Let them go.
“Cultivate non-attachment” vs. “be in touch with your feelings and emotions”
Some people criticize Zen and other Asian meditative traditions for their apparent “coldness” and detachment from the rough and tumble of daily life. They assume that following tenets such as “non-attachment” is intended to cultivate a detachment from emotions and feelings, and to create a cold indifference to the emotional highs and lows that people commonly experience.
This is a mistake, however. Buddhism does not teach detachment and denial, but rather recognizing and embracing the transient nature of all the things that we see. Pain arises when we lose something important to us. For better or worse, pain is inevitable – everyone loses things that are important to them. Suffering arises when we think that this loss should not have happened, or that it is unjust and unfair, or when we cling to the way things used to be and enter a state of denial. Suffering is optional, since we do not have to believe such things about our loss.
Understanding the true nature of the reality in front of us is best done without the filters and judgments that the mind places between our senses and reality itself. All things are transient, whether physical objects, or emotional or mental states. Recognizing this fact means that we can dwell more effectively in the present moment, which is our only true interface with reality. As such, we are able to respond to what is true – including the feelings and emotions that represent our internal state – instead of filtering that truth through the stories of past and future that are constantly replayed back to us by our anxious, noisy minds.
As these examples demonstrate, the combination of two apparently contradictory, true statements is often a more interesting and somewhat deeper truth. Exploring these contradictions is a great way to understand more about the individual “proverbs” as well as to understand the underlying reality to which they both point.
If you enjoyed reading this article...
1. Please get my premium personal development tips here, featuring special content not published on the blog.
2. Please follow the thirtytwothousanddays RSS feed here for up-to-date, practical, and inspiring resources that will put you on the fast track to personal growth and happiness.
3. Please follow me on Twitter here.
4. Please share this article with a friend, or anyone else you think could use a little extra peace and happiness today! 🙂