Majestic now as the water spreads out across wide stretches of the land it flows through, in an expanse too wide to see both sides of at the same time, the current seem to slow down as if realising that in fulfilling the goal of finding the lowest point it can get to it has also brought itself to the edge of its own demise. The end is inevitable, yet the water can’t stop now. There is too much momentum, too much energy still stored from the driven rush downwards. And so the water reluctantly continues on to meet the fate its own haste created.
Narratives give direction, intentionality and movement to our aspirations. A great narrative, with ourselves as the hero of a heroic quest, helps us achieve more, work harder, and enjoy much more what we encounter on the way. But, like with expectations, we must make sure our narratives are properly aligned with our preferred direction. While inspiring and exciting narratives can be enticing and energising, they can also be seductive and lead us away from our most fitting course.
Constructing the right narrative takes time and self-reflection. It takes discernment and a critical mind. In spite of what we are often being told, the world will not simply fall into step with our desires simply because we are thinking happy thoughts and indulge in wishful thinking. There will be obstacles to overcome and (hard) work to be done. Some things may be within our power to change, some can only be influenced indirectly, others may be completely beyond our reach. The best personal narratives are those that walk the knife’s edge between realistically doable and unrealistically desirable. They challenge us to push the envelope of what we think we’re capable of, without tearing the fabric of reality completely to become fantasies only.
As with unrealistic expectations, overly ambitious narratives can become a source of frustration when they continuously push us towards trying to achieve things beyond our power to achieve, or predict outcomes and improvements that fail to materialise. If we fail to use our power of judgment and discernment we may find ourselves trying to climb a Mount Everest without having the right equipment, skills or levels of practice, to end up discouraged and depressed for not actually making it to the top. Even worse, a strongly motivating but ungrounded narrative may get us to throw all caution to the wind and lead us to into potentially fatal endeavours we may not be able to recover from.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dream big. On the contrary, only bold and audacious dreams can lift us out of the limiting perceptions of our current situation and compel us to rise above them. But between the dream and the execution there should be a time of reflection and consideration. In that time, we should hold our dream up in the light of reason and see where it may be push us beyond what we can even conceive of doing, are woefully inadequately prepared for, lack the means for, or that blatantly violate the laws of reality as we know it. The most important thing here is to use that time of reflection to see if and how the dream can be turned into doable (or at least plausibly doable) stages that we can see ourselves attempting with some chance of succeeding. There is no point in aiming for the stars if we cannot see where to start such a journey and imagine what the first achievable outcomes would look like. Even the longest journey starts with the first small step, and it is our responsibility to ourselves to make sure we are ready for the first step and have some idea where to go from there. If we can’t make those first steps at least somewhat concrete we will not only not get to those stars, we won’t even land on the moon. We are more likely to crash and burn, or nor even get started and run ourselves into the ground with misguided disappointment.
And then remember that the heroic quest is a journey of discovery: much of what we will encounter on that journey is unknown when we set off and we must expect to do much exploring and learning on the way. Part of that learning is that our pre-conceived notion about both the journey and the destination may significantly change on the way there. Like expectations, narratives need to be maintained and tuned, and – even more than expectations – subjected to a critical examination of alignment and usefulness. One thing we definitely don’t want is to get stubbornly stuck on the narrative we set out with, because we have become too attached to it.
Once they reach the lower slopes of the mountains and the valleys below, the waters calm down. The flowing streams deepen and widen into strong, fast flowing rivers, only occasionally thrown into turmoil and chaos where they run into rocky chasms and water-worn cataracts. These rivers are now as much shaping their environment as they are shaped by it. Where they flow through deserts, life teems at their edges; where they flow through ancients plains, they carve out deep shadowy canyons; and where they reach low lying lands they deposit rich, muddy, fertile sediments. But the water itself – though parts of it gets diverted, trapped, and absorbed during its journey – keeps flowing on, driven by gravity to find the lowest places it can get to.
Expectations, narratives and choices are some of the superpowers we can use to give our lives direction, purpose and impact. But like all powers these superpowers come with downsides, risks and consequences we should be aware of before using them. No power worth having can be used for beneficial goals only, and all powers have dark and undesirable side-effects when used indiscriminately. That shouldn’t stop us from developing our powers, however, it just means we must understand the pitfalls and downsides, learn how to avoid them and how to spot them as early as possible so we can take corrective action.
Using power means deliberately trying to change the world to our liking. Changing the world – even in a very small way – creates resistance. The world itself has inertia: it takes energy to overcome the status quo, as the status quo is often the most stable state at that moment. Once the world starts moving, more and more people will start to notice and have their personal resistance triggered, as they, too, may like the world as it is right now and prefer it to stay just where it is.
One absolutely necessary step in our journey is to make sure we are not knowingly hurting other people. The more we develop our powers, the more important such an ethical baseline becomes. Not that we can always avoid hurting people, the world is too big and complex to accurately predict all consequences of our actions. Yet as soon as we know or even suspect that our actions may adversely affect other people it is time to slow down, reflect and consider other ways of moving forward.
Such an ethical baseline is there for our own good, too, not just to protect others. For me, the whole point of personal growth is to help us lead more fulfilling and satisfying lives. Sustained fulfilment and happiness can only come from caring about other people and from trying to contribute positively to their lives. That is the very foundation of the social side of our nature. Gaining advantage over other people at their expense may give temporary satisfaction, sure enough, but in the long run this satisfaction will fade and turn into something far less positive.
We are all part of the social fabric and our well-being is inextricably tied up with the good of the groups we belong to. We must, therefore, always consider the bigger picture when we design our own journey forward. And get it wrong from time to time. That is perfectly OK, as we should not expect to have the complete picture, ever. But as soon as we become aware of any damage or pain caused by our actions, that’s when we stop, reflect and adjust our narrative. That is how we learn and grow as human beings.
So, let’s take a look at each of the powers I’ve blogged about before and explore how to use them safely and effectively. Even though their dark sides will never completely disappear, awareness is more than half the battle. Properly equipped with warnings and guidance we should be good to go, and start taking control of our destiny.
The Burden of Expectations
Expectations are a powerful force shaping our interactions with the people around us. Our instinctive urge to meet expectations is strong and tends to push us right to where we are expected to be. If those expectations happen to be aligned with our own sense of direction and purpose in life it is perfectly possible to find happiness and fulfilment doing what is expected of us by others. If they are not aligned, however, instead of helping us, those expectations become a counter-force, pushing us away from the life we want to lead and the goals we set. Misaligned expectations are a burden: a relentless force of resistance we constantly need to push against to move forward.
But proper alignment is only part of the solution. In spite of their awesome power to propel us forward, expectations can run into real-world factors we have little or no direct control over. We cannot alter or ignore the laws of nature, for instance, and even the laws of society are hard to escape from. We may have a virtually unlimited capacity for learning and growth, but we are all born with certain talents and proclivities, and lacking others, so it is not necessarily true we can become anything we want to. Someone who is tone-deaf is unlikely to become a musical genius, and a small, frail person is not exactly heavy-weight boxing material. When our own expectations and those that other people have of us become unrealistic or ignore our actual situation and true potential they can become a heavy burden and put us under a lot of stress.
There is a deeper lesson to be learned here, one that requires awareness, self-knowledge and some out-of-the-box thinking. As a general rule, when we become aware of the burden of the expectations we are under – whether self-imposed or from our environment – and we discover that the source of the stress is the unrealistic nature of those expectations, we should not immediately discard those expectations. The exact form of what is expected may not be possible, but maybe there is a way to reframe the aspiration. Maybe there is a way to retain the journey and its ultimate goal by changing some of our assumptions and interpretations of what the end-point would look like. We may never become birds (unless genetic engineering takes a gigantic leap forward in the next few decades) but there are many ways we can learn to fly. We may never learn to play a musical instrument, but we could invent a whole new way of creating music only we could come up with. Just remember this rule of thumb when examining the expectations we live under: when they feel impossible, unrealistic or internally contradictory, first look at the assumptions they come with. In many cases our stress is caused by the limiting assumptions we associate with our expectations, more than by the nature of those expectations themselves.
A more subtle, but no less pervasive, shadow-side of expectations lies in our mind’s tendency to compare our situations against the ideals encapsulated in the expectations we are driven by, and almost by necessity falling short of them. The real world is never perfect and the more idealised the expectations we compare ourselves against have become, the more our minds will conclude we must be failing, since our lives do not (completely) match our expectations.
This expectation ‘gap’ is a constant source of unhappiness and suffering in the world, even though it is just a game our minds play with us. Expectations, as powerful as they are, are not real, nor should they ever be taken as absolutes. They are a direction, a force to help us move closer to where we want to go. We may never get there, but that is not the point. As long as we are getting closer we are making progress, which is all that matters. Letting our expectations drive us forward without driving us crazy requires a mental balancing-act between relentlessly pursuing our ideals and being emotionally detached from actually achieving them. It’s not that we don’t want to achieve them, far from it, it’s just that we are at peace with not actually reaching them, as long we have the satisfaction of getting closer and becoming more aligned with our own narrative and journey in the process.
Finally, it is important to remember that expectations, like our lives, are not static. They evolve over time, through a combination of what we put in – our words and actions – and how we interact with everybody that relates to us: through gossip, social media, and their words and actions combined. Any interaction taking place in the social spaces we are part of can modify people’s expectations of us.
Expectations, therefore, require constant maintenance. To stay on course, we need to make sure the expectations that drive us still match our own desired journey and destination. Where they don’t, we need to step up and take action to correct that. This means we must actively monitor how other people behave towards us, so we have a good idea of how they see us and what they expect from us. We must then use this information to seed modified expectations against any changes we observe, as early as possible, to prevent unwanted expectations from lodging in people’s minds.
As with striving to close the gap between expectations and reality, this process is never finished and the alignment is never perfect. And in the same way that not reaching perfection does not invalidate our striving for it, not completely managing all expectations that influence us should not deter us from continuing to work on improving their alignment. One way to look at this part of the process is as a dance we engage in with the people in our social circles: a dance to music that we produce collectively with moves and steps we invent together as we go. Part of our social nature is our ability to synchronise with each other by engaging in social activities together. Managing collective expectations taps into this ability. In the same way that we can enjoy the dance for the sake of dancing, we can learn to enjoy managing expectations as something that enriches our lives and energises our journey.
On their way down the tiny streams of water run into each other and combine into bigger streams, increasing their power, pushing obstacles aside or dragging them with them on their journey. The water turns from crystal clear and softly babbling rivulets into sediment-filled, thickly flowing creeks and roaring torrents. The noise of the raging water is now loud enough to drown out all other sounds. The mountainsides become echo-chambers for the water’s many voices and the air itself is almost visibly shaken by the constant roar the streams produce on their quest to find the fastest way down towards the valleys below.
The ability to choose is an essential human capability. We make choices all the time. Every move or non-move is a choice. Every reaction, or lack thereof, is a choice. We cannot escape choice: being endowed with discernment and decision-making faculties, every time we become aware of a possible choice, we are forced to choose. Even deciding not to choose is a choice, so choice is inevitable.
The inevitability of choice may feel like a burden to us. It means we cannot just prance around and follow our impulses and ignore the consequences. Because we have the power of choice, we are – inescapably – responsible for the consequences of those choices (or non-choices) we make. We may even feel guilty when things don’t turn out as we expected and our choices inadvertently hinder or hurt other people. Guilt, however, is a negative emotion which makes us less responsible for the consequences of our actions, not more, as it tends to paralyse us. Instead of observing and judging the consequences and then responding in a way that maximises the positives and minimises the negatives, we get so obsessed with the negatives we fail to respond at all.
The beauty of choice, and the antidote to guilt, is not that we always get it right and that we never cause harm with the choices we make, but that we always have the power and the opportunity to make better choices next time. Choice empowers us to learn from our mistakes and keep trying to make better choices. And every time we make a deliberate choice to do better we exert that power and give a new twist to the world. A twist that is ours, since we chose to do so.
Deliberate choices are those moments where we stop, take stock, and purposefully continue in a way that is in harmony with our beliefs, aspirations, and purpose. Such choices become inflection points: from the infinite variety that was possible before we made the choice most of them will now fall away, no longer possible. Our choice has just reduced the infinite complexity. It is still infinitely complex – that is the nature of infinity – but we have pruned it; bent it – ever so slightly – to our taste and desire.
What amplifies this power is when our choices are not just deliberate but also consistent. By making consistent choices – which doesn’t mean always making the same choices, but basing them on the same guiding principles or framework – our influence on the world becomes a shaping force with increasing power and effect. A series of small but consistent choices are like the pushes one gives to a swing: they may not be powerful on their own, but timed right and aimed accurately they build momentum and make the swing go far and wide.
The narrative we spoke of before is a powerful framework for making consistent choices. Using our own narrative in this way gives us two tools to work with.
It gives us a framework for evaluating the choices we have. For every option we can see we can ask ourselves: “is this helping me further along my journey, or is it taking me away from it?” In most cases, checking against our own narrative helps us rank our choices in order of alignment.Usually we would want to go with the most aligned choice, but it is advisable to do a reality check first to see if there are no consequences or side-effects that would make this choice less desirable. But in general the preferred choice would be the most aligned one, unless it presents seriously undesirable consequences.
It gives us a way to assess the outcome of our choices by regularly asking ourselves: “Am I progressing on my journey? Do I see improvement or progress in those areas most relevant to me and the narrative I am committed to live to?”
Even if our choices do not immediately lead to the desired outcomes – and they often won’t, as the terrain ahead of us is largely unknown and we need to explore and learn before we become better at making the right choices – with the narrative to guide us, by deliberately making our choices we are empowering ourselves to be the author of our own story, the director of our own drama, as well as the main actor in it.
That’s the power of choice: shaping the world to the best of our abilities to match the narrative we want to live by, instead of being a powerless, passive passenger and mostly observer of world that passes us by.
We are a storytelling species. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s how we share our experiences with each other, which is how we bond, stay together and evolve together. As far as our experience of reality is concerned, unless we can turn it into a story we can not really say we have experienced it in a meaningful way. If a tree falls in the woods it probably always makes a sound, even when there’s nobody there to hear it come down. But without a human being there to witness it, experience it and turn it into a tall tale to share about a giant crashing to the ground and the impression that made on the observer, the tree might as well have gone down in silence. The medium carrying the fall’s physical sound is the air, the medium carrying its metaphysical sound is the narrative – and as far as humans are concerned that metaphysical sound is all that matters.
Narratives help us categorise and order reality to make it comprehensible and manageable for us. We use stories to assign significance to what would otherwise be random events. But narratives are not static. They do not just describe and categorise their content: they bring their content to life by including movement and momentum. Our stories mimic our experiences by operating in time: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories capture and inform the reality we experience by adding a sense of direction: an intentionality of movement that imbues our journey from beginning to end with a deeply felt significance.
To have any direction at all, stories must contain action; they must be about things happening and – to give it human significance – things being done either to make those things happen or in response to them happening. From a narrative perspective we are all much more living doings than living beings. We are much more a process than a thing. Our nature is defined by movement, transformation and progression: from birth to death, from food to tissues and energy, from desire to action, from fear to flight or fight, it’s the processes far more than the objects that form the essence of our lives.
All this living doing is both circular and progressive: circular in that life comes and goes in many interconnected cycles; progressive in that – at least in our human perception – it seems to have a direction, goals and purpose that makes it move forwards and outwards rather than just around and around. The cycles repeat, but are never quite the same the next time around. Life evolves, species come and go, life becomes more complex, more intricate, simple forms combine to form larger ones… It is not just that we observe direction and progression in the world around us. We impose it on that world in our need to give it structure and meaning. Life would be unthinkable and unbearable for us if it had no direction. We need a sense of purpose and goals – something that drives us forward and things to aim for – and a sense we are actually moving in the right direction. We can endure almost any hardship on our journey as long as that journey is taking us somewhere. A journey that is not moving towards some goal or destination is not even a journey: it’s an aimless wandering in an endless wasteland with no sense of progress to measure our movements by.
That’s why our stories are crucial to us. They impart the world around us with order, intentionality, purpose and agency. Our stories allow us to make sense of the world, even if that sense is just a figment of our own imagination. We ‘make’ sense rather than ‘find’ it: it is a construct of the human mind, not something pre-existing waiting to be discovered by us. And as we make sense by creating stories, our stories energise us by giving us the will to continue our journey and keep moving forward.
In order to improve ourselves we need a sense of direction: we need to have something to move towards, something that compels us forward and makes it possible to turn mere busy-ness into an actual journey, with a start, milestones, progress and ultimately a destination. Since we are (largely) the authors of our own stories, it could be argued that the actual direction we journey in doesn’t really matter – it’s all a fiction anyway. For the purpose of self-improvement, however, and for living an empowered and fulfilling life the direction we travel in does matter and requires thoughtful consideration. The power to choose our own direction, walk our own path and write our own story is at the core of our human condition: we may not have the power to change the conditions in which we are living but we do have the power to live through those conditions in the way we decide for ourselves. Exercising that power is what makes us active agents rather than passive objects in the currents of the river of life.
I am not suggesting that simply by creating our own story and direction we are in any way guaranteed to reach the goals we set ourselves or come even close to fulfilling our chosen purpose. But by not crafting our own narrative we do not have any goals to aim for and even if we should accidentally and unintentionally some outcome, it would never feel like our own purpose and lack the sense of fulfilment that comes from a journey chosen ourselves and travelled voluntarily, with the commitment of our own volition to keep us going.
That is the power of narratives: to make us feel we are on a journey that is taking us somewhere, rather than being thrown around by random forces without any sense of direction or progress. Narratives encapsulate the human powers of sense-making and intentionality. The world may be chaotic, bewildering and ultimately indifferent to our plights, but our personal and collective narratives turn the chaos into orderly structures, turn bewilderment into meaning and enlightenment, and refute the Universe’s indifference by empathically stating that our lives matter because we choose to make them matter.