The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness

17Jul/122

Dear Grandson,

I am not 75, nor do I have a grandson, but...

A few years back I read a book about finding your purpose (I can't remember the title.) The author asked me to go through several exercises, for example writing my own obituary, to discover what I want to do with my life. One exercise was to write a letter as my 75 year old self to my hypothetical grandson who was asking for advice about life. I had a lot of fun with it, and just came across the letter today.

I'm no wizened old guru but I share the letter here anyway, unedited, hoping you'll benefit from the lessons I've learned through a lifetime of seeking the best way to live. Enjoy.

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A letter to my Grandson, on my 75th birthday

Dear Sefringem,

Einstein funny faceI am honoured by the compliment you’ve bestowed on me by asking for my advice about life, the Universe, and everything!  The best advice I can give you, is that nobody on this Earth has all the answers.  Their wisdom, even if it is gained over 75 years, may not always be applicable to your situation!  We do not know why we are here on this planet.  Did ‘God’ put us here?  Are we just some cosmic accident?  Whatever the case may be, so what?  My point is, finding the ultimate meaning of life is probably a lost cause.  And although for a long time this was a source of frustration for me, at some point it is helpful to realize that maybe the best we can do is just enjoy the time we have here.

So what to do?  The answer? Whatever you want!!  The multitude of possible experiences are virtually endless.  It matters much less what you do, than how you do it.  In my 75 years, I’ve come to a few conclusions on how best to ‘do it’ (best for ME, at least).

First and foremost, as much as possible, do everything with love.  Treat others with love (the way you would want to be treated), and you will be richly rewarded.

Be honest.  A vast portion of human suffering throughout history has been caused by people being dishonest, either with others or with themselves.  The latter is hard to do.  Sometimes we are going to see what we want to see.  The challenge is to always strive to know thyself.

Find what you are passionate about, at any given period in your life.  This will change over time. Your goal is to recognize your passion, grab onto it and see how far you can go in life with it.  Under no circumstances let other people or society tell you what is important to you.  Others may have advice (some of it good!), but never answers.

Laugh.  I spent far too much of my life being serious and unhappy.  I held onto many things too tightly.  And if something is making you unhappy, remove it from your life, if possible.

Surrender to fate/the universe/whatever.  You cannot change everything.  The best you can do is set goals, and work your ass off to get there.  Sometimes you’ll fail to reach your goals, and it is how tightly you are attaching yourself to the outcome that determines how painful it is when you do fail.

Carry your own ‘weather’.  Strive to not let other peoples’ moods affect you, especially strangers, or people whom you don’t respect.

Don’t take other peoples’ opinions of you too seriously.  Someone doesn’t like your lifestyle? Too bad. As long as you are not hurting anyone else and you are living with integrity, love and honesty, you’re halfway to happiness.

Travel.  I cannot stress this one enough.  Get out of your city and your country for an extended period of time.  You cannot possibly learn about life as quickly if you are sitting in your home town, exposed to people who are simply recycling ideas and attitudes.  Not to mention, it’s amazingly good fun!

Be patient.  This one is hard.  Especially when you’re younger, and you’d prefer to have things now.  But a great many of life’s endeavours only come to fruition after several years, even decades.  This is related to determination and perseverance, two other important qualities to develop.

Funny grandpaDetermination allows us to accomplish incredible goals, ones which we may have never thought possible.  I’m sure you have heard of the saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Perseverance gives us the staying power to remain committed to a cause even when you experience (sometimes monumental) setbacks.  Nothing great has ever been accomplished by anyone who did not employ perseverance and determination.

Have dreams, and follow them.  The rational man adapts himself to the world around him. The irrational man tries to adapt the world to him.  Therefore, all progress depends on the irrational man.  Go ahead and build your castles in the sky.  Then, work toward putting foundations under them (that’s the hard part, but it’s made a lot easier if you do it with passion and love).

You will make so-called ‘mistakes’ in your life, whether they are determined to be so by society, family, or yourself.  They are going to happen. They are going to be painful.  But God damn it, life is an adventure.  Either you go balls to the wall, or don’t bother getting out of bed in the morning.  The challenge is to learn from these mistakes and not make them again.

Get a good education.  This is something that nobody can ever take away from you.  You don’t have to go to university or college, but only finishing high school is not an option.  You will thank me for this one.

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What is your advice for living well? Please leave a comment below.

3May/120

The Pursuit of Excellence

SoldierLifelong learning. Physical and mental fitness. Honesty, integrity, and compassion.

If these ideas get your motor running, chances are you're familiar with the pursuit of excellence.

The pursuit is a challenging one. Excellence asks that you sacrifice--by waking up earlier, studying longer, and training harder. It asks that you plumb the depths of your soul to battle your most vicious demons. And it asks you to hold yourself to a higher moral code than those around you, even when it may cost your life.

But the reward is nothing less than becoming your best self.

To the ancient Greeks, there was no higher aim. They called this special type of excellence areté. The concept is beautifully captured in one of my favourite novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

"The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing areté."

Areté is seen in men and women of great accomplishment, like Aristotle and Leonardo Da Vinci. But you don't need to be a Renaissance Man to know areté.

"A man can do all things if he will."
- Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)

All you need is to cultivate a sense of duty. Not to others, but to yourself. You must believe with burning passion in the value of excellence and work relentlessly to become the man or woman you know you can be.

Vitruvian rockerIf the pursuit requires such hard work, why bother? Isn't it better to relax and enjoy life? Watch some TV? Take the day off?

Maybe. That's a choice we're all free to make for ourselves. But in the pursuit of excellence you will find much greater rewards, like happiness, fulfillment, and peace.

And there is something greater than personal fulfillment at stake. The world suffers from an excellence deficit. Greed and incompetence has led the global economy into turmoil. Ignorance and fear still divide our human family. Building a better society requires that a critical mass of men and women decide to become their best selves. It's worth fighting for.

"The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there."
- Robert Persig

The altruistic argument will not appeal to everyone, and that's ok. We're all walking various paths at times in our lives, and no matter where they lead, we learn something valuable along the way. If you are ready, please join me; the world needs you.

But no matter where you are don't forget to enjoy this beautiful life however you can.