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January 20, 2016

9 Proposals for a Thoughtful Life, from a Serial Inquirer.

Doug Robichaud/Unsplash

I had always believed that I needed permission to be the person I aspired to become. As if fulfillment were a gated community, I imagined it would open after accumulating so many lines on my resume, or achieving specific goals.

Many of us wait. That changed when I began to recognize how people reacted to me, and therefore their perception of me. I understood that I am in control of who I am, just by being mindful of both my inner life and actions.

You can become the person you want to be, just by acting as if it were already the case. Doing kind things designates you a kind person, helping your community makes you active and concerned.

So, I started to listen to everything I could, in more ways than one. Podcasts or books, strangers or friends—I wanted to gather as much knowledge as I could about what changes I could make, and compile them in a simplified way.

This humble list is the result of that search. I share this with you not as required reading, but simply as one person’s suggestions, which might help you in your own growth.

1) Practice Conviction with Compassion.

Holding tight to and defending one’s beliefs is paramount in defining personal values, but too often intractability is confused with strength. Compassion—respecting and legitimizing others’ experiences—is the only way to positively participate in the marketplace of ideas. Ad hominem attacks and belittling phrases are the best way to guarantee that no one will be swayed to agree.

So, let us safeguard our personal beliefs, but have understanding for everyone, especially those who disagree.

2) Avoid Sedentary Activism.

The phrase sedentary activism is borrowed from an interview between Neil Degrasse Tyson and Corey Booker. Booker, a decent and well-spoken man, warns of the dangers of an inactive activism. The old adage goes, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In the digital era, it is easy to become complacent and complain about what should be done, but it’s equally easy to inspire others by sharing personal involvement.

Do something, no matter how seemingly small, instead of allowing passionate convictions to fester and die.

3) Be Mindful of Intellectual and Emotional Consumption.

Each person is a reflection and collection of his or her surroundings. Not only the food we eat, but also what we read or watch and with whom we associate. Without even recognizing it, we can consume an unhealthy diet of junk media—hateful comments, celebrity gossip, baseless claims and the like. Watching cat videos isn’t wrong; what would life be without the occasional treat? Just being aware of the ways these experiences affect our lives would give pause. Knowing, for example, that being exposed to airbrushed models hurts one’s self esteem, or that well-researched articles will enhance one’s understanding of the world is enough to make informed decisions.

It behooves all of us to participate in the culture that reflects the individuals we hope to become.

4) Develop Cognitive Plasticity (Be Adaptable).

Educators and employees have been pushing for a shift toward developing critical thinking skills in students, but that growth does not necessarily need a classroom to happen. We should revel in learning new skills and apply them to old problems, stop relying on routine, be open to new techniques, and develop talents that transcend singular contexts or careers.

Most things exist in a chaotic field; the ability to be flexible and solve problems applies to all of those situations.

5) Foster and Ignite Curiosity.

Most people are not driven by one all-consuming passion, but rather a diverse cluster of interests. Embrace those interests and enjoy the process of discovering them. As Elizabeth Gilbert suggests in her TED Talk, following one’s curiosity is a valid means of making challenging decisions. By doing so, we can spend time exploring new subjects and broadening our horizons. Even if the decisions don’t lead to any great discovery, the time will not have been ill spent.

6) Accept Personal Change.

Each of us can learn to accept that to be alive is to never stagnate, which may mean our tastes, relationships and beliefs will shift over time; so too may our understanding of a situation. Changing one’s mind in light of new information is not a personality flaw, or a sign of weakness; it is an organic and necessary shift. A strong person is open to changing his or her opinions or identity. The opposite is not stalwartness, but rather stubbornness.

7) Examine Everything.

Though tradition is the means by which cultures pass values and rituals between generations, it must not be allowed to continue unmolested by personal accountability. Doing—and continuing to do—something without analyzing its merits has the potential to reduce our lives to that of a domino chain. Let’s think not only about what we do, but why we do it.

8) Be Ethically and Logically Consistent.

Be certain that one’s beliefs and actions don’t contradict one another. Without doing so, the results would be laughable at best (as in the case of ridiculous ironies, like a vegetarian hunter), or an insidious example of cognitive dissonance at worst. If we truly believe something, there should be no need for addendums upon that belief.

9) Develop Novel Creativity.

All humans have a capacity for creativity, but recognizing its forms is necessary. At the basest level, creativity is experimentation. Be it in art, science or business, creating new knowledge, paintings or theories, the process is the same. Let us grant ourselves and others permission to undergo this process, even if failure is a possibility. Fear of failure is the best way to squash an idea.

These are by no means a magic bullet to a happy or productive life, but rather a rough outline of a beginning point. As the author of one, I can tell you with great certainty that no one article is the answer. I came up with these points though my own set of circumstances and desires.

Even so, these kinds of changes are hard, and require consistent, careful consideration. I still struggle with balance; both a manic obsession with self-betterment and its opposite lethargic tendency lead only to frustration and disenchantment. However, the act of moving forward after hardship is a necessary part of the process.

Being able to automatically do all of these things would devalue them. No matter how imperfect or clumsy, it’s the search for and effort toward understanding and fulfillment that helps us make sense of the unquantifiable mystery of the human condition.

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Author: Mary Imgrund

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Doug Robichaud/Unsplash

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