The Art of Becoming
By Don Staheli

In the process of becoming,
the journey can also
be the destination.

I spoke with someone recently who had just left her teens and was entering into young adulthood. I gave her advice and tried to create some images to which she could relate, so she could develop a sense of what this new stage of her life is all about – responsibility, stability, learning, work, formalizing her preparation for life. Neither one of us thought it sounded like she was in for much fun. Thank heaven it sounds worse than it is!

As time brought our conversation to an end, I asked if she understood what I was trying to tell her. She said she did, but then posed the best question possible after such a talk: “But how do you do it?”

Excellent question! How do we implement all the good things we learn? How do we act in line with what we know? There is something in our human nature that allows us to go on doing, time and again, things we know are not right, or at least not the best for us to do. This is particularly true if our less-than-best behavior is not illegal or harmful to others and we are not, therefore, forced to change. I don’t know that I could come up with detailed instructions for an easily followed, step-by-step approach to becoming who we ought to be, but perhaps a few thoughts will be helpful.

First of all, it is important to realize that the goal is to be who we are, not who we think somebody else is or who others may want us to be. The obligation we have to ourselves is to develop what is in us, who we are inside. Others may give us input in the process, but no one else can really know what and how we should be. They can know their own reaction to our behavior or make their own assessment of the correctness of what we do, but they can only surmise how well it fits with our own thoughts and feelings about who we are. We are all unique and should glory in that uniqueness.

In knowing that, though, it is also important to realize that there is nothing wrong with some dependence and some conformity. It is perfectly normal to lean on each other for assistance. None of us is in this life alone. We all need the love and support of others. It should also be acceptable to us to corral some of our self-centered notions and align ourselves with principles of behavior that lead to the well-being of the whole group.

In becoming who we are, we should be careful not to lose our dignity in the name of individuality. We should not forget that propriety is important. Even when we know our heart is right, there is a lot to be said for acting and looking that way, too. The more we fit in with the society of which we choose to be a part, the more likely we are to be successful in the culture of that group. Little signs of behavior that might be considered rebellious, even though seemingly harmless, may allow people to take us less seriously than we hope they would.

Remember that self-development is an ongoing process, not a solitary event. It happens a little at a time, as we learn how to do it. In fact, it really lasts a lifetime. People who expect to be everything all at once are generally quite frustrated much of the time. On the other hand, those who don’t expect enough of themselves fail to make much progress. They often end up wishing they had done more, tried harder, and pushed themselves further. They are frequently jealous of the accomplishments of those who did pay the price for success. The key is achieving a good balance – doing our best, but not expecting more of ourselves than is reasonable.

Another very important factor is limits. One of the most exciting things about becoming an adult is freedom from many of the limits that were imposed by parents and other caregivers. The natural tendency, as soon as we get some freedom, is to resist the imposition of limitations in what we can do. That is all right to a degree, but not when it leads to excess or irresponsibility.

The most successful people set their own limits. They do not necessarily do what they do because mom and dad told them to, but because they want to do it that way. They have set their own reasonable limits and chosen to live within them. They may be more strict with themselves in some areas and less strict in others, compared to what they did at home, but the limits are theirs. They are in reality doing what they want to do. It may not be what they could do, what they are capable of doing given no limits, but they have chosen, in their pursuit of success, to limit themselves in certain areas.

The interesting thing is that these kinds of limits will result in greater freedom down the road. The man who limits his spending such that he can save a little will have more money later in life and far greater financial freedom than the one who has no early limits. In fact, he will likely be making his money from the ones who spent freely early on and then have to pay it back later, with high interest.

I hesitate to use the word that best describes this limit setting, because of the bad vibrations it causes in many people, but the word is discipline. Discipline is the foundation of success. Disciplined eaters are thinner and generally healthier. Disciplined spenders are wealthier. Disciplined followers of religious faith are disciples indeed, and capable of loving and serving others. Those without some discipline usually wish they could be like those who have it.

Again, however, balance is important. We determine the level of success we desire and then practice the level of discipline that will allow us to achieve it. And the level will vary as circumstances change in our lives. The sad thing to see is someone who keeps saying he or she will practice discipline, but who keeps putting it off in a very undisciplined manner and then winds up frustrated and disappointed with life.

Much of our sadness in life is based on wishing things were different. Undisciplined people are almost always wishing things were different. Those who have some balanced discipline in their lives may still want things to be a bit different, but, because of the limits within which they live, they see progress and maintain a lively hope that they will have what they want. Deep down, undisciplined people have a lot of hopelessness. In the back of their minds, they know they won’t have what they want because they aren’t doing what it takes to have it.

The last thing I would suggest is to have some focus. Even if is quite broad and general, some direction is very important. Discipline provides momentum, but without direction we leave our destination to luck or to chance, and the odds are heavily against us arriving where we would want to be. Direction doesn’t have to be unwavering. We can change direction anytime we need to. In fact, minor adjustments may be important as we gain a more clear understanding of where we want to end up.

In summary, the successful transition into adulthood would seem to be achieved through:

. appreciating and trusting our uniqueness
. accepting some dependence and conformity
. being patient with ourselves
. creating limits and disciplining ourselves
. developing a general sense of direction

Life is full of challenges, rough roads, accidents, mistakes, and surprises, but the good times far outweigh the hard times. Life is a wonderful adventure in learning, sharing, dreaming, failing, starting over, and achieving. My young friend is in for a real treat, and it will be all the more sweet for her as she incorporates the principles here mentioned. I think she’ll do it. After all, she was smart enough to ask how.

Editors’ Note: This article is from The Principle of the Thing, a wonderful collection of short essays by Don H. Staheli. If you want to learn more about it click on the name of the book.

2006 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.