Imagine someone dumping you out into the sky about three miles above the ground — with nothing but a huge box of parts with which to assemble your own personal airplane.
Imagine frantically trying to figure out how everything works and then putting the parts together — as you came closer to crashing into the ground every second. Then let’s assume you could assemble this little plane and you manage to start the engine.
Then you can try to learn to fly — as you watch the ground get closer and closer, so you’re constantly scared of what’s about to happen.
The more I experience of life, that’s what it has seemed like to me. The problem is that when we’re young, we don’t even know enough to be scared. We don’t know how ignorant we are. We don’t know how much we need to learn. And we constantly overestimate how far we’ve come on the long and winding journey to safely navigate the skies of our own lives.
I’ve been thinking about this for days. As I’ve found myself going through another big transition in my life, I’m more aware than ever of how far I’ve come and how close I’ve come to wasting my life.
We’re born to parents who have rarely come close to figuring out what life’s all about, but they’re the best we have to learn from. The people around us seem just as ignorant and just as lost, so many of us develop confidence that we’re better off than most.
But we surprise ourselves by hitting bumps in the road. Things don’t go quite as well as we had hoped. We stumble and feel like failures at some point — and we don’t want other people to know about that shameful stumble.
Too often, instead of learning what we need to learn from our failures, we paper over them and move on, hoping we’ll be lucky enough not to stumble again.
Most of us think we know who we are by the time we are young adults. We think we know ourselves and we think our personalities are set in stone by then. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that this is a dangerous belief. It’s painful and terrifying to change — to allow ourselves to grow psychologically and emotionally — so most people stay stuck as they have been, saying, “This is just who I am. I don’t need to change.”
I’ve learned that the personality we present to the world isn’t who we really are. In reality, it is the defense mechanism we use to prevent the world from judging us as we’re afraid of being judged. And it’s scary to abandon those defense mechanisms and grow past them. But until we do, we’re stuck in an endless loop of making the same mistakes over and over in life.
By the time I hit 30, I was stuck in the same loop. I was brilliant, talented and ambitious — but I was also arrogant, bull-headed and judgmental. I came close to spectacular success in my late 20s, but reality bit me and I crashed. It was in the depths of that psychological crash that I started discovering humility and I got in touch with my emotions.
I was so devastated by the failure I experienced — and so chastened by my growing realization of my faults — that I fell into a dark place but then adapted myself according to what I learned when I was there. In a very real way, I was like the Children of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years. I never quite learned my lesson — by integrating my new knowledge with what I had known myself to be — and I drifted through a long period of uncertainty.
Sometime recently — six or eight weeks ago — I had some realizations that led me to tentatively step toward the Promised Land of Canaan. It had been there all along, but I had been too blind to what I needed to learn and fully comprehend to come out of the desert.
One of the things I’ve learned is that I am still the same person I was in my brasher and more arrogant days. I thought I had lost that, but I realize that’s still there — just softened and refined by a new layer. I had thought that new layer was who I really am, but it turned out that it was just another layer which needed to be integrated with what I’d always been.
I’m a stubborn man. I say that not with pride, but just because it’s true. You see, I make my decisions in life from the gut.
I’ve gotten through life by following my gut instinct, whether the subject is goals or love or anything else. It’s not that I can always see the entire picture of where I’m going when I start. But if my gut tells me something is right, I start in that direction and assume the rest will become obvious as I head down the path.
I get into trouble when I don’t follow my instinct or when I allow myself to head down a “reasonable” path that’s easy and I know it isn’t going where I need to go.
For instance, every time I’ve tried to date a woman who seemed perfectly reasonable and “right for me” — but my instinct has been that we didn’t belong together — I’ve never found the fit to get better with time. On the other hand, I’ve been bull-headed about knowing someone was right — despite it seeming like an impossibility — and I’ve never been wrong. Every time I’ve fallen in love, it’s been with someone who I knew from the beginning was who I needed at the time.
Where do these gut instincts come from? I don’t know. Call it intuition or whatever you want. I just know that I feel it in my gut when something — a business opportunity or a job or a woman — is right for me. I could spend all night telling you about times when I’ve followed my instinct and been right and other times when I failed to follow an instinct and realized later I should have.
But as situations change in life, an instinct which rightly says, “Wait,” can eventually change. For me, there are always specific moments when I can tell you that my instinct had changed — and told me it was time to move on. In other words, I believe resolutely in the rightness of an instinct — right up until the moment that something inside says, “It’s time to move on.”
In the metaphorical sense, I was dropped out of my mother’s womb into the sky with that box of airplane parts and I’ve desperately tried to built and fly my plane. I put something together in the beginning that made me think I was going to surpass everybody else. I acted pretty arrogantly. I felt pretty proud of myself. But then it turned out the engine was installed backwards and the wings weren’t quite right and I’ve spent quite a bit of time limping along fearful of crashing.
And now — to keep the increasingly weak metaphor going — I’ve had an engineering insight into why I’ve been limping along. I started making repairs and I’ve gained confidence that I can regain the direction I feared I’d lost. I’m still not flying high yet, but I see the way. For the first time in many years, I see how it can work and I’ve regained confidence that my rickety plane can become a fast and powerful jet that makes life comfortable for me and my family.
I grew up believing I was going to do great things. I really did. But over the past couple of decades, I had lost confidence in that. I got in touch with a side of myself that I needed to grow into, but I thought that doing that had destroyed the things which had made me successful. I’ve found out that isn’t true.
If you’re still the same thing you were when you turned 30 or when you turned 20, maybe it’s time to ask yourself why you’ve allowed yourself to become stagnant. Despite what we like to believe, we haven’t successfully built our plane for life by the time we hit adulthood. If you got to 22 or 24 or whatever and then stopped growing much — if you didn’t learn things which required big changes in your thinking or your actions — you’re probably not looking in the right places. What’s more, you’re probably limiting yourself — just as I had been — making it impossible for you to become what you really need to be.
I’m not finished with the metamorphosis I’ve been going through — and I don’t yet have a fully developed new plan — but for the first time in a long time, my instincts changed about a few things. Some things I had wanted to do suddenly haven’t mattered anymore. Some goals from my past which I thought were dead have turned out to be very much alive.
Now I need a few new partners in my life — each to play different roles — because the things I feel ready to do can’t happen alone. My instincts will lead me to the right people if I only listen.
When this recent change started, I felt more terrified than I’d been in years. I had to question things which I believed were long-settled facts about myself (and then discarding some of them). But as I started discovering the hidden old part of myself — a part which I’ve longed for — the fear gave way to joy and to optimism.
Building and repairing and then rebuilding your airplane while you fly it — while you navigate life — is incredibly difficult. But refusing to improve yourself through radical change is a sure path toward crashing and burning when you least expect it.
If you don’t see that yet, it will become obvious when you crash and you ask yourself why you didn’t take control on your own terms while you still had the chance.