You Will Never Succeed If You Can’t Forgive Yourself

“Forgive yourself.”

I used to think that this was advice for the weak. Even now it seems like an easy way out from guilt or failure.

But I’m learning something about growth and improvement: getting back on the horse after failure is half the battle. And for any person trying to mount back up after a failure, the greatest obstacles are usually just guilt or shame.

Maybe you don’t continue down the freelancer path because the last graphic design piece you turned in accidentally including an unflattering picture of your cat. Maybe you don’t get back into sports because you let down your last team in your epic Quidditch match against Slytherin. Maybe you don’t venture back into finance because you lost an embarrassing amount of money “investing” in merchandise from the 2005 Dreamworks film “Madagascar.”

All stupid mistakes. But in all of these cases, there are probably no external factors keeping you from starting over. You’re dealing with shame and guilt alone.

This is when you must realize that, self-forgiveness, far from being an easy way out, is your only weapon.

There’s only so much guilt or shame you can take before you start to freeze. The role of self-forgiveness isn’t self-absolution. Self-forgiveness is just there to give you enough innocence and freedom (the opposite of guilt and shame) to power through to the next failure.

Your self-forgiveness can be based on any number of things, but I find simply that acknowledging my trajectory makes it easier. I wouldn’t need to forgive myself if I wasn’t growing toward the good. But I am – and so *in service of the good (and not of myself)* I can give myself the innocence and freedom I need to try again.

Far from being “soft,” self-forgiveness gives the mental toughness for you carry on. You won’t be able to move on from failures without it, and so you certainly won’t succeed in a life half made of falls and recoveries.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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What If I Become Evil?

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight 

What if I become evil?

This is a great tragedy: to go through life struggling for the good only to become corrupted, to lose, to give in, to actively participate in making the world worse.

Many people (enough to leave an impression) have worked hard for the good – and then fallen. They become jaded, power-hungry, cruel, hateful, spiteful. They become bitter at the things they work so hard for, and so they turn to destroying those things.

We all know there’s a chance of that for any of us. We all know how torn our hearts are between good and evil. And we all want to think that we will die as heroes, instead of living long enough to become villains.

But for me, the answer to that great fear isn’t any guarantee that I will always be good or that I will die well (or that I am good now, for that matter).

I put myself in context of the larger story of good. And then I realize that my own failure (god forbid) would not be the end of that story.

One effect of working for the good might be to show us that while our own goodness is one of the most powerful forces in the world for change, it isn’t ultimately the only power in the world. There is something about reality itself that calls out the good in humans (and you might say in all living things, too).

Sure, some good people become evil. But just as many evil people become good. And even more sleepers wake up to the good within them. The world works in such a way that just as evil gains the upper hand, new heroes rise up. If this wasn’t true, I wouldn’t be here writing to you. History would have ended with the Assyrians, or the Mongols, or the Nazis.

If I decided to take the path of these conquerors, I’d end up on the ash heap of history, too. The good would continue to rise and rise again. I might become evil, but reality would remain good.

I take some comfort in that. And I’ll live as well as I can in that trust – but I won’t slack up either in going after the joy of the good.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Getting Back on the Horse: The Habit That Makes All Habits Possible

“Why do we fall, sir? So that, we can learn to pick ourselves up.” – Alfred Pennyworth, Batman Begins

Waking up early, eating healthy, exercising, reading, painting – perhaps you’re trying to build one of these habits.

Perhaps you’re on the path to transformation and greatness.

Perhaps you are failing. In a world of change and limitation and transformation, it’s practically guaranteed.

In this world there is only one habit you have to really master. When you fail the other habits it’s the only habit that really matters.

Get back on the horse.

Getting back on the horse is the meta-habit of all habits. It makes the pursuit of habits (which is really just a messy, endless series of mounts and falls) possible. And if you can do it, you can – eventually – trust that your desired habits, or something like them, will transform your life for the better.

Stop worrying about perfection. Stop worrying about your habit streaks. Stop worrying about cheat days, and failures, and broken will.

All the worry, fear, and anxiety about the all other habits you are aiming for? Direct it on to getting back on the horse. If you can climb back in the saddle again and again and again and again, none of the habit-killers can stop you. And if you can’t get back on the horse, all of the best-laid plans and best habits in the world won’t save you.

Learn to delight in the falls, the saddle-sores, and the grit it takes to climb back onto the unbroken horse called Habit. That’s enough.

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Quarter-Life Crises Are Good For You

“So teach us to count our days
    that we may gain a wise heart.” – Psalm 90:12

I’m about to turn 23, and I’m feeling the pinch of time. It really does pick up speed.

By 23, I expected I would have my own business, a published book, a trusty old horse, the looks of Indiana Jones, a Batcave, and a sidekick. I’m sure you had similar high ambitions when you were 17 or so: maybe you were going to travel, read all the great books, or invest and become financially independent at an early age.

I’m not saying I’m having a quarter-life crisis. But I am saying I understand the people who do.

Around the time life speeds up, it can be very easy to start forgetting and neglecting all the things you said you were going to do. By the time you reach the quarter-century mark of our lives, you realize you’ve either over-shot our goals or under-budgeted time and effort for your achievements.

I’ve done a lot of cool things in 23 year of life – things I never expected I would do. But I also see all the ways I shirked from my goals, wasted my time, wasted good wealth, and stayed comfortable when I should have been bold and wise.

Here are a few things I wish I had known coming out of my teens into my twenties:

1. Always be cultivating and protecting your independence. Breaking out of the gravitational pull of the life model set by your parents and your peers is harder than you thing. It’s not a once and done thing – as I assumed somewhat. You must constantly review your lifestyle and resist the subconscious pull of imitating others. You must be capable of repeating all of the hard decisions and hard conversations and hard sacrifices of your “coming of age” in new forms.

2 Things come in cycles – so prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. Each moral dilemma, expense, setback, challenge, duty will feel new, like a one-time challenge that can be forgotten and then left behind. But you will realize slowly that these things come in cycles – and that you have to budget for them in terms of time, energy and resources. Too many times I’ve thrown everything I have at a problem or desire, only for it to come back again to find me unprepared. I should have

3. Time dilates. Again, that old thing about time running faster? It’s entirely true. Once you get into work, you’ll find all of that youthful free time shrinking and shrinking. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking that just working a job well is progress. It isn’t – not if you want your own Batcave or cruise ship (insert wildly big goal here). You will have to notice how the weeks and months blend together – and learn from that flow how precious your time is. To manage to reach your goals as your time shrinks, you will have to be increasingly disciplined and intentional about how you use your time.

4. You aren’t special. Around my age, you start losing all of that “special snowflake” status you may have had when you were college-aged. You no longer get to compare yourself to college students. You finally have to compare yourself to what you thought your adult self would be life. And you probably will be disappointed. But that’s a good thing. You should be competing against and aspiring to the kind of lives led by the best men and women in history. And to even start on that path, you have to realize how far off the track and how unexceptional you currently are.

5. Progress and regress both compound quickly. Most if not all progress works on the principle of compound interest. And with time going by faster and faster, you can either see progress or regress compound faster and faster. Every year passing by puts you further behind or further ahead – there is no standing still. Small habits started young will snowball (particularly where character is concerned). I’ve gone from running a mile to running a half-marathon in a year of progress on one metric. I’ve also seen myself spend more and more of my money (money I should be investing) from a habit of trading money for convenience. Not good. I’ve also wasted this effect by spreading myself too thin on things to learn or do.

The reason I’m *not* having a quarter-life crisis? Because now I know these things. And I know it’s half-time for my youth. In the words of Clint Eastwood (just replace “America” with “me”)

“All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.”

We need a good hard slap in this day and age to remind ourselves that life is short. We need a good reminder that life is passing us by and life will pass us by – comfortably – if we don’t do anything about it.

Let’s use our birthdays (and quarter-life crises) to remember that.

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How Hard Would It Be To Enslave You?

Do you believe you’re free?

Ask yourself how hard it would be for someone to enslave you – politically, emotionally, financially, physically, relationally, mentally.

Do you have debt? We may no longer have debtor’s prisons, but for all intents and purposes, you are one collection away from losing your choice.

Do you have compromised character? While you live a lie, you must beg for others to accept your version of reality (H/T to Ayn Rand). You have become their slave.

Do you give in to bullies or crowds? If you don’t stand up for yourself now, how long will you be able to resist when you face real pressure?

Do you work for someone else? How many paychecks away from dependence are you?

Do you spend wealth instead of investing it? Are you building a future of independence or a future dependent on continued luxury?

Are you borrowing someone else’s values and purpose? How will you stand for yourself in any relationship with others? You will be at the mercy of others.

Do you take things you haven’t earned? The bill from the benefactor comes due at some point.

Are you dependent? Will you keep what independence you do have when things get bad?

Are you unskilled? How will you be able to take care of yourself without turning to dependence?

Are you ignorant? How will you know you have been led astray if you cannot think and do not call on wisdom?

Are you shortsighted? You will not see the consequences that will leave you in chains.

These are all questions which come back to character. In the end – as great thinkers from the Romans to today have told us – it is what keeps us free.

“How hard would it be to enslave you” is the same question as “how virtuous are you, and how virtuous are you willing to be?”

Many of these are questions I ask myself. I hope they can be helpful to you.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Why Be Good? One (Self-Interested) Reason

Why be good?

People have spilled a lot of ink on this one. And there are countless bad arguments (“god commands it!” or “society says so!”) as well as more good arguments than you might guess.

Some are pretty simple – and while they aren’t full, rigorous systematic answers to the problem of “why” in morality, they’re useful heuristics for getting through life.

You might consider being good, for instance, because you want to be able to see the good in the other humans you interact with.

It’s pretty obvious that we project our own worst attributes onto others. As C.S. Lewis noted regarding vices like pride:

“. . .the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.”

The same goes for any of the traditional vices: greed tends to cast the world in a greedy light, hate in hateful light, and so on. Your experience of the world will be cast in the light you create.*

Fortunately, you’ll have also noticed that you tend to also see the virtues in others (courage, generosity, honesty, etc.) when you have been virtuous yourself. And no one can deny that it’s strongly in our self-interest to hope for these things in our fellow humans and in the world we live in.

Remember when you helped that poor person, visited that sick person, comforted that lonely person? I doubt you went out afterwards seeing more of the badness in humanity and the world. We control our experience of life and program it with our actions, so we benefit by choosing to cast clear light.

Again, not a full answer by any means to the philosophical question of morality. But then, maybe the question is not as complicated as the philosophers think. Self-interest tends to justify itself, and there is plenty of self-interest on the side of the virtues.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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