Tell me if this rings a bell:
As a kid, your options seem limitless. Whether you want to be an astronaut, build the next supercar, or win a national championship, your possibilities seem limitless. Yet, as you got older, days seem to get shorter. You set out to accomplish one thing, but at the end of each day, ten other things pulled at you, and the goal you are aiming at is still just as far away. Your youthful optimism has been replaced by the realization that your talent and potential are very limited indeed — by time, intellect, innate biology, and luck of the draw.
As adulthood approaches, you adjust your expectations. Maybe you won’t get that Olympic medal after all. Perhaps instead of a mansion a middle-class home and a steady job will suffice. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden in 1854: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” In other words: we settle.
And yet, not everyone settles. Some people do achieve greatness. While cynics may attribute success to luck, the fact is that many great men and women reach success not just once, but again and again. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jack Dorsey reinvented themselves and built empires in unrelated fields. (I’m a fan of tech moguls, but pick your own field, and it will hold heroes.) I am convinced there is a method to success, and while mastering it won’t necessarily make you a billionaire, you don’t have to settle for mediocrity either.
Later in Walden, Thoreau writes: “That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.” To me, that “sacred and auroral hour” is an aspiration that when I sit down to work the next day, it will be with a renewed vision for my future, a single-minded focus on my chief goal, and untainted optimism that despite the limited time I have, I will yet accomplish my highest goals.
The “secret” to success is deceptively simple: daily progress. The primary reason for failure is not a lack of talent, intelligence, or bad fortune, but perseverance. As midcentury radio speaker Earl Nightingale wrote “most people live a life of quiet mediocrity and never achieve the success they truly desire because they get impatient. They want easy success or none at all. They see the path to success as a frustration, an impediment. Each day spent short of the ultimate goal is viewed as a time of failure and as an annoyance. As such, they get distracted by hundreds of little things that each day try to get us off our course. Yet the successful among us know the truth.”
Last week was the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah, which celebrates the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. Jews celebrate this day by collectively unwrapping the Torah (a single scroll containing the first five books of the bible) around the temple, as the rabbi reads the highlights, starting with Genesis and ending with the death of Moses. Just as the Torah tells the story of the Jewish people, I imagine my life as a scroll that contains my own trials and tribulations. As I wander through the time and space of life, I work towards a single goal: the perfection of my soul. In this mission, I have two aims: to discover the Good and to integrate it fully into myself and my world.
I believe that life ought to be a mission, a destination, and I must stay focused on my Grand Journey to move consistently toward my destination. You are on this journey whether you accept it or not. The only choice you have is whether to choose a destination and make daily progress towards it or to wander aimlessly, circling around to the same place again and again.
Your Great Journey has a beginning and an end, but what is your destination? Psychologist Kurt Goldstein thought it was “self-actualization” — the achievement of your full potential. I see it as the building of one’s soul — from an immature and imperfect one, to one that maximizes the flourishing of all the aspects of being human — social, romantic, parental, professional, and material.
The only aspect of life we ever have total control over is our mind, but the way we perfect our mind is through our actions — which become our habits. Therefore, I make big plans, while focusing on daily habits that move me towards them one day at a time.
In short, this is my advice for fellow travelers: in the journey of life, you will face a daily struggle. Don’t become so immersed in it that you forget to choose a destination. Make big plans, and then take small but consistent steps toward them, and you will reach them.
I will conclude with a quote from 19th-century architect Daniel Burnham:
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Think big.