Personal Growth and The Adventure Life

The idea of self-improvement has taken on many names and forms over the years from Self-Help, to Self-Improvement, to Personal Growth, to Personal Development, to Personal Whatever’s Next. And in every instance the whole idea of improving yourself has been repackaged and re-marketed into a message that sounds compelling and may inspire us in the short run, but may not really help us in the long run.

I believe that the self-improvement thing has been hijacked by some professionals, and misrepresented by others, to the point that, over the years, the message gets questioned, ridiculed, or even just ignored.

The thing is that, underneath all the marketing and hype, there is a foundation of helpful ideas that have been around for a long, long time. If we can filter out the fluff and stuff that we don’t believe in wholeheartedly, what’s left is some very valuable and important material.

If we can take this material, adapt it to fit our personality, then apply it to our everyday lives whenever possible, we can make incremental improvements to ourselves and start living a more satisfying, more fulfilling, more adventurous life.

We All Have Flaws

All of us are flawed in some way, and most of those “flaws” are minor and harmless and are what make us who we are, they make us human. These are the flaws we should embrace. “We should be loved for who we are, flaws and all”. But some of these flaws are not so minor and harmless. In fact they can be downright harmful to us physically, emotionally, and mentally, and they serve as obstacles on our path to where we want to go in life.

The flaws that we most easily recognize in ourselves are usually the harmless ones. Ironically, the ones that we really need to discover and work on fixing are the ones that hard hardest to recognize and consequently the hardest to fix. Some of these flaws are not flaws at all, but human adaptations to a world that is changing far faster than we were equipped to deal with.

By discovering which flaws are unique to us, which ones have been programmed into us, and which ones are not really flaws at all, but just misunderstandings about our surroundings, we can differentiate which is which and determine where to focus our energies.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

We are flawed, but we can allow ourselves to accept those flaws which we embrace about ourselves, while we decide to fix the ones that need fixing. This is the path of becoming a better version of ourselves. Once we figure out what these flaws are, we can start to figure out how these flaws came to be and why they took control of us in the first place.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” - Albert Einstein

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In the first half of the 20th century, psychologist Abraham Maslow, worked to combine the insights of earlier psychologists such as Freud and Skinner (who focused on the darker, more basic human instincts) and the more upbeat work of Jung and Fromm (who insisted that the desire for happiness is equally worthy of attention).

Instead of focusing on the worst parts of human psychology, Maslow directed his attention to the most positive aspects of what humans are capable of. He focused on what the most psychologically healthy were doing instead of the most ill.

He determined that human behavior is dictated by a prioritized organization of innate and subconscious set of needs:
1) Physiological - Food, water, and even sex.
2) Safety and Security - Shelter and protection from outside threats.
3) Love and Belonging - Finding a mate and a few friends.
4) Self-Esteem - Feeling good about oneself and their standing in the group.
5) Self-Actualization - Self-fulfillment, or the feeling that one is doing what they are supposed to be doing in life.

Maslow posited that these needs are the same for every human, are cross-cultural, and need to be satisfied in a hierarchical order from the most basic deficiency needs up to the most advanced need for self-fulfillment. A person who is starving is not focused on finding a mate, and a person longing for love is not that concerned about whether they are becoming enlightened.

What we can take from this is that, maybe some of our biggest struggles occur when we get stuck in a certain level of need. Maybe we get stuck there because we are subconsciously trying to satisfy higher level needs by doing the same thing that successfully satisfied a lower level need. Are we trying to satisfy our needs for love, self-esteem, and even self-actualization via a successful career? Are we satisfying our need for comfort, belonging, and love by eating?

"If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"

When we can recognize what needs are being met, which ones have already been met, which ones are not being met, and the disconnect between those and the needs that we are trying to meet, we can free ourselves from the level we are stuck in and advance toward living a more self-actualizing life.

To be self-actualizing means to have freed ourselves from the worries of finding food and shelter, or being loveless and alone, or even lacking self-confidence and feeling inadequate. To be self-actualizing means that we are living a life of our own design, not stuck on a path that was dictated to us.

Humans Seek Happiness

Happiness is at the core of every action, every goal, and every decision that we as humans make every day.

Emotional happiness may resist our efforts to tame it by description, but when we feel it, we have no doubt about its reality and importance. Everyone who has observed human behavior for more than thirty continuous seconds seems to have noticed that people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy. If there has ever been a group of human beings that prefer despair to delight, frustration to satisfaction, and pain to pleasure, they must be very good at hiding because no one has ever seen them. People want to be happy, and all other things that they want are typically meant to be a means to that end. - from Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert

Happiness, success, excitement, and flow are all interrelated. The true feeling of happiness we experience usually involves the successful execution of an exciting period of flow. The key idea here is that these are experiences not things.

But these experiences of happiness are fleeting and short-lived, and the more that these feelings come from external sources, the shorter-lived they will be. Sadly, this is even true for crazy, exciting outdoor adventures. But if we can learn something from these experiences, if we can grow from them, then those experiences can last a lifetime, not only in our memory, but in the person that they help us become.

So, how does seeking happiness work within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The most important experiences of happiness occur at the top of the hierarchy, the level where we are growing and developing or self-actualizing. But they can also come as we experience growth while moving up the hierarchy as well.

As we satisfy our deficiency needs and focus on higher level needs, it can give us a feeling that we are conquering the fears that kept us stuck in survival mode and advancing to a more enlightening and fulfilling phase of our lives.

Our Two Fears

Ultimately, all the hurdles in our way to achieving happiness, or success, or anything for that matter are built on a foundation of fear, the fear of failure. And that fear of failure can be broken down further into just two core fears - our fear of dying and our fear of being alone. Knowing this can be very powerful because, unless what we are fearing could really lead to death or loneliness, that fear is not real and can be conquered.

The problem is we don’t even recognize these fears because they are deep inside us, having evolved in us over thousands of generations. Passed down to us from a time when failing to bring home a paycheck (i.e. the game we hunted), could mean starvation. When failing to fit into your social group meant being alone, which most likely meant death.

Today, in most of the developed world, our deficiency needs (food, water, and shelter) are not that difficult to meet, and yet it seems like we put so much of our energy into guaranteeing their acquisition. It becomes our excuse to work long hours, or to stay in a job or career we hate. We still have fears of things that we have no reason to fear.

While some fears are important and can help keep us alive, most have become the obstacles that keep us locked in an emotional prison of our own making. These are the fears that were programmed into us to keep us on the safe and comfortable path laid out for us, not the uncharted one that our imagination had in mind.

We reactively live the scripts handed to us by family, associates, other people’s agendas, the pressures of circumstance - scripts from our early years, from our training, our conditioning. These scripts come from people, not principles. And they rise out of our deep vulnerabilities, our deep dependency on others and our needs for acceptance and love, for belonging, for a sense of importance and worth, for a feeling that we matter. - from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Our Domestication

The life we have been living was not of our choosing, it has been chosen for us, and we have accepted this life because we have been conditioned to. This conditioning, or programming, began a long time ago at an age we can’t even remember (maybe before we were even born), and has continued through to the present. We have been taught how to act and behave by our parents, our teachers, our neighbors, our social groups, and society as a whole. When we follow the social rules and achieve “success” we are rewarded, and when we break these rules we are “punished”. This is how we learned to fit in and find our place in the social order. We were told that if we followed this path we would find happiness along the way, or at least at the end of it.

We see the world, not as it is, but as we are - or, as we are conditioned to see it. - Stephen Covey

Very few of us were asked if we agreed with these rules for “success”, we were just told that this is the way it is. If we imagined a path that was much different than the one that was laid out for us, we were told that it was childish daydreaming. If we wanted to live a life of our own design, one built from our imagination, and one that would fulfill our dreams and desires, we would have to draw it up ourselves.

For most of us, it was just a lot easier to follow the plan given to us and maybe, through hard work or clever trickery, rise above the rest and achieve success that those in our social group would envy. This is a deeply flawed plan that serves society well, but fails us miserably as individuals.

Day by day, at home, at school, at church, and from television, we are told how to live, and what kind of behavior is acceptable. - Don Miguel Ruiz

So fast forward a few years, or decades - if we find ourselves on a path that doesn’t feel quite right and maybe life is not as fulfilling as we had imagined it would be, then maybe we are ready to make a change. Maybe we are ready to start discovering new ways of living. And just maybe we are ready create a new path in life of our own choosing.

I imagine this path will change often, and sometimes we might get detoured or even lost (that’s the adventure part), but the goal will always be the same - to live the most adventurous life possible for as long as possible.

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