Occasionally, I am able to yank something worthwhile out of the river of thought that rushes though my brain. During a run the other day, this phrase occurred to me:
work on yourself
I’m sure I read this somewhere or heard the words spoken by someone. I never could have come up with this by myself. It’s one of the reasons I love to run. Some people meditate. Some do crossword puzzles.
Others do yoga. Still others garden or listen to podcasts. Running is where I do my meditation. In fact, sometimes I zone out so much during a run that even the best thoughts, those I swear I won’t forget, often disappear. But if I’m lucky, a thought like “work on yourself,” comes like a billboard on a highway and stays. So it was a good day when I got to the end of my run and still remembered “work on yourself.”
A day or two later, I figured out what it meant.
I’ve noticed in our culture that we often blame circumstances and people outside of ourselves for our predicaments. Our days are filled with people taking advantage of us, cutting us off, neglecting our needs or wishes, conspiring against us at every turn. The sales clerk at the mall ignores us or the person taking our order at McDonald’s doesn’t believe in
We often blame circumstances and people outside of ourselves for our predicaments.
fast food or doesn’t anticipate that we need additional packets of ketchup for our fries; someone in customer service doesn’t seem to understand our billing problem even though we’ve explained it ten times already; our friend is too focused on their problem to ask about what’s going on with us even though it’s obvious we are not having a good day; a politician accuses an opponent or the system of being unfair without offering real evidence that’s the case.
Everywhere I see people looking outward, seeing reasons they aren’t happier, healthier, richer or somehow better off. Instead they see others as selfish, unintelligent, apathetic or rude and preventing them from achieving their happiness.
work on yourself
My wife is part Swedish. In Sweden there’s a cultural motto of “lagom.” It roughly translates to “just enough.” The culture in Scandinavia embraces a kind of humility. Work on yourself implies a similar humility. Before I criticize or even judge that person across the counter at McDonald’s I need to face that fact that I am not perfect. Working on yourself means first focusing on improving oneself. It means that I have to work hard, grow, learn to do myself instead of expecting others to be responsible for me. People are people. We are all trying to get by.
Another reason I run: Running is taking responsibility for my health. It’s one thing I can do to contribute to my overall well being, avoiding obesity and illness and not taking a hospital bed that might benefit someone else.
We so often become certain our “truths” are universal and obvious…
I enjoy reading. I read a lot of non-fiction. Reading, not surfing Facebook, is a way of educating myself so I might become just a little wiser, a little more empathetic, a little better able to help someone with something I learn. (Here’s a link to one of my favorite spaces on the Internet for learning: https://www.brainpickings.org/) Listening to a podcast from an erudite host who challenges my thinking also is working on myself. We so often become certain our “truths” are universal and obvious that we often are blown away that others can’t see what is so apparent.
Working on yourself is taking responsibility when you mess up. I’ve heard people make half-assed attempts at apologizing, but it turns out to be a passive aggressive way of deflecting responsibility: “Yes, I did that, but it was because you….” When I hear that the only word that matters is “but.”
I am not perfect. I screw up and have screwed up every day of my life. Some of my mistakes have been doozies. One of my favorite authors is psychologist Gordon Livingston, who said in his book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, “You are what you do.” With apologies to those whom I love the most, my wife and my children and extended family and friends, I am what I have done. Please forgive me for my many blunders.
The most intelligent people I know are not only great at working on themselves, they’re awesome at taking personal responsibility for their mistakes and the collateral damage they cause. The crucial element is, despite their failures, however magnificent, they don’t stop moving forward.
Working on yourself means treating failures not as catastrophic and permanent commentaries on one’s character but as life experiments. You had a hypothesis. You tried something and you got certain results. You dissected that data and realized where you went awry. The next time, you do something different to get different results.
We are all imperfect. We all are vulnerable creatures running around in the dark with blindfolds (that’s really dark). We can’t always know what we don’t know. We can’t control every outcome.
Working on yourself is ultimately a mantra on humility. Working on yourself means that one’s accountability starts and ends with ourselves first. Not with expecting others to meet our needs nor our standards. I’m not discounting the importance of parents either. We are responsible for our children’s health and well-being. Teaching our sons and daughters to work on themselves as an ethic is one of the most significant gifts we parents can offer. It is one way of preventing a generation of selfish, apathetic and privileged adults. The very ones we see so much of all around us today.