When I was in college, I had a very clear image of myself.
I was the smartest guy in every room. I was a leader. People followed me because they expected great things from me. I was successful at everything I tried. I was going to be given immense political power and prestige soon, because people love a winner. Money would naturally follow, because I was going to do great things.
I wouldn’t have admitted these things, of course, but it’s the way I felt. I’m told by people who knew me then that I exuded a confidence that could seem more like arrogance at times.
I think it’s a miracle that anybody put up with me. At the time, though, it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with the way I saw myself or the way I carried myself. And I didn’t realize for many years that the way I saw myself was almost completely in terms of my public image.
I saw myself — and judged myself — according to how well I played a role. I can’t remember wanting to be or do things to make myself happy or to make myself a better person. All of my goals focused on the image that others saw.
I’ve had to let go of almost everything I wanted back then. Almost nothing that mattered to me then matters to me today — and the things which mean everything today weren’t even on my radar when I was an arrogant college kid.
Today, I don’t care how others see me. I don’t care about my image. I don’t want power or position. I don’t care how other people judge my success. In fact, I’m disdainful of those who are shallow enough to judge my success — or anybody else’s success — in terms of what shows on the outside.
Instead, I’m focused on the things I really want — and the things I want today have nothing to do with the image that was so alluring to me back then.
Although I would enjoy more wealth and public success, those aren’t the ways in which I define myself anymore. I’m interested in loving — and being loved — and I’m interested in finding the place where I belong. With a family and a community in which I’m loved and understood.
In order to pursue the things I care about today, I had to leave all those shallow goals and images behind. I was chasing an image in my early adult life, but the image was less about what I wanted than it was about what I wanted others to see.
And I no longer care what others see.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I do care what others see — especially those who I want to love me — but I want them to see love and empathy and wisdom and spiritual growth. Those are the sorts of things I want them to value in me. In order to become that person, I’ve had to leave behind anybody who wanted me to be that cocky young success who was going to rule the world.
I had a lot of dreams and they meant the world to me when I was struggling to grow businesses when I was in my 20s. I had a strong emotional identification with what I was working for.
But I had to let go of those dreams. Those images, hopes, beliefs. They were all attachments that were like heavy baggage from the past that I had trouble laying down. As recently as 15 years ago, I was still toying with the idea of getting serious about running for political office and forcing my way to great political success and power.
It sickens me today to realize that I could have ever thought I wanted that, especially since I realize it had more to do with gaining the respect and admiration of the world. I was trying to earn the feeling that I was “good enough” by achieving what my culture told me mattered.
I know a lot of people who made decisions about their lives when their values and desires and goals were shallow and immature. They chose careers and partners and lives based on what they wanted others to see. And many of them have achieved those things. They have fancy houses and all the trappings of success — but they are miserable with the results.
Why do they stick with something they didn’t really want — just because it’s familiar?
I think most people program themselves early in life to pursue certain goals — and before they know it, they’ve been on track toward those goals and then moving ahead toward bigger ones — even though they’re miserable with their lives. But they keep right on making the same bad choices — day after day, month after month, year after year — all because it’s what they said they wanted when they were younger and didn’t understand what mattered in life.
As we grow in life, some of us are going to outgrow those immature and shallow goals and images that seemed so important to us in youth. Those people are going to move on to things that matter more to them. They’re going to find lives of deep meaning, however they define that for themselves.
The ones I feel sorry for are the ones who never wake up. They’re the ones who wanted to impress other people. They’re the ones who wanted everyone to know how great and successful they were. And they’re the ones who have never matured enough to set aside such childish things.
Some people are still struggling to be — or to continue to be — the sort of high-flying success that I dreamed of being. I’m thankful that I’m not that person today. He wasn’t a very loving person — and there were many things that kept him from understanding what really mattered in life.
This wisdom has been right in front of me all my life, but I was slow to understand it. In one of his letters to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
That was me.
I spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. I like to think I’ve matured in the right ways. It took me many years, but I like to believe I’ve given up my childish ways — and my childish attachments to things which never really mattered.