The predominant workhorse of the psychological healing world is a family of therapeutic practices and exercises centered on what I call “rational self-analysis”, or more colloquially, finding out “who you really are”. This journey towards “authenticity” is central to most forms of talk therapy, and what most people likely think of when they think of “therapy”, aside from psychoanalysis.
Once you’ve uncovered and clarified what is authentic to you — authentically important, meaningful, or enjoyable — then the general assumption is that you will then act from this place of greater authenticity and integrity. Your goals and actions will be aligned with your values; your ‘wants’ will be oriented towards your vision of ‘your best life’; and your motivations will spontaneously arise from within, and therefore will be stronger, more persistent over the long-term, and more resilient to setbacks, difficulties, and ‘failures’.
This is the thinking behind the many, many self-help gurus, life coaches, cognitively-oriented therapists, and the general wellness industry, who emphasize things like “discover your passions”, clarify your values, create a vision for the life you want to live, set goals and work towards them, break down complex, long-term and abstract goals into specific, measurable, achievable goals with a specific time-frame in mind when you plan to achieve them. Basically everybody who talks about motivation has their own grab-bag of techniques, systems, steps, exercises, anecdotes. These are ubiquitously marketed, so if you want to go down this road, just sign up for whatever life coach or personal growth program you resonate with, and try out their steps for yourself. They all work, some of the time, for some people. The trick is finding the one that works for you.
What is central to all of these approaches is for you to articulate, usually verbally, sometimes pictorially/visually, what you WANT:
- what you want to believe about yourself (i.e., your personality self-assessment);
- what you want to accomplish (i.e., your goals, future life vision, etc.);
- what you want to do with your time (i.e., your passions and interests).
When you clarify what you want, you will then orient towards information in your environment that is congruent somehow (or markedly incongruent), with what you want. As the “salience” of certain stimuli in the environment increases, determined by your wants, you will see opportunities relevant to your wants, and you will also see obstacles that prevent you from getting your wants satisfied. You will see solutions for getting around those obstacles. You will see news stories and Facebook postings and Tik Tok videos and movies and Ted Talks and books, etc., relevant to the things you want. You will talk about them with people, as ‘the things you want’ and all that’s connected to them, will be at the ‘top of your mind’, the relevant information being neurologically easier to access than the infinity of other potential things you could be thinking or talking about at that moment.
This relationship between importance/value (subjectively held value, that is), and attention/salience, is universal in consciousness. There is a galaxy of research on this, the threads running all the way through Psychology back to William James, and all the way through Philosophy back to Plato, and probably even further for all I know, to be honest. I would point the interested reader towards the work of John Vervaeke and “relevance realization”, if you want to deep-dive into this. It’s bloody fascinating and indeed, enlightening.
But for our purposes, it is sufficient to acknowledge that yes, we have IMMENSE control over the world that we subjectively experience. By choosing what we elevate in importance, we effectively choose how the world will reveal itself to us. By choosing what to find important and pay attention to, we choose our lives.
For example, if you’re religiously fundamentalist, like I was at one point in my life, and you find your meaning in looking for opportunities to lead people to salvation (and likely, judging people for their sinfulness), then by god that’s exactly the types of things you’re going to see! You’re going to live in an earnest world, where Good battles Evil, and you are surrounded by a culture of wickedness and depravity and lost souls.
Or if you’re into foraging wild plants and performing witchcraft ceremonies and appreciating the magic of life, then by great Spirit, you will live in a very different world from the aforementioned. Your days will be spent with trees, and breezes, songs and the moon, dancing, probably regular nakedness, incense and herbs, quiet ceremonies, and personalized altars and charms made of feathers and sticks and stones and other personally-special bits and pieces you have discovered in the world. You will live in a world of many beings, and you will blend with a chorus of many voices.
(Yes, no bias here….hehehe….)
If you’re into games, your mind will become patterned with complex competitive strategies.
If you’re into music, your mind will become patterned with complex musical patterns.
If you’re into watching sports, your mind will become patterned with stats and sports trivia, whereas if you’re into playing sports, your mind will become patterned with specific sequences of motor actions and highly coordinated movements.
If you’re into nature, your mind will become patterned with information about flora and fauna, your senses will likely become more acute, and you will actually SEE more when you go for a walk in a forest.
If you’re into technology and gadgets, you’ll learn a great deal about….technology, and gadgets!
If you’re into cooking…..space travel….making money…..porn….poetry…..ANYTHING, then you will pattern your mind-body to process information in those domains more efficiently, with more nuance and complexity.
Whether these things are “good” for you or not is beside the point. Of course not everything will affect you the same over the long term. Spending your years learning how to be really skilled at smoking drugs will likely not produce the same outcomes as spending your years learning how to commune with the Divine, or how to exercise and eat well, or how to have satisfying relationships, or how to raise healthy children. But, in whatever domain you DO pay considerable attention, you WILL get better. You will develop not only knowledge relevant to that domain, but also biophysical patterns — reflexes, perceptual abilities, automatic responses, habits, behavioural techniques, skills.
As a result, the sexpert very likely has more nuanced sex than the average person, just like the surfer has more grounded and responsive balance, the singer has more precise and powerful vocal control, the philosopher has more sophisticated logic, the martial artist has more effective attack and defence capabilities, the drummer can replicate tighter and more complex rhythms, the pianist has more impressive manual dexterity, and the Dungeon Master tells more exciting stories.
(Errrr, depends on what kind of dungeon master we’re talking about. ……Hmmmm, then again, maybe it doesn’t; they probably all tell pretty exciting stories….)
The family of techniques I am calling “rational self-analysis”, work, therefore, by orienting you towards things that are compatible with your “authenticity”. As you decide, discover, and become more aware of “who you really are”, you will therefore pattern your life more effectively around things that are compatible with your authentic self. Instead of running around trying to please other people all the time, or trying to hide or make up for your perceived deficiencies, or trying to “cope” with the stresses of life, you will instead be more capable at exercising your agency effectively. You will become a more powerful actor in the world.
You will, in short, be good at stuff you care about.
This is why I strongly believe you should not advise kids to pursue careers based on how much money people make, on average, in those careers, or what the probability is, on average, of finding a job. Personally, I think that is a terrible strategy for patterning one’s life, a strategy that begs for mediocrity and a mid-life crisis where they’ll be thrown into personal chaos wondering what the hell they just did with the last few decades of their lives. Instead, advise kids to pursue things they enjoy and find fascinating. Because, if you do what you love, you will do it well, and the world will reward you. I’d say it’s much better to be a freaking awesome axe-juggler, if that’s what you’re into, than a mediocre accountant. The question boils down to, how DO you want to spend this wild & precious life of yours?
Think about what would happen if you became an absolutely incredible axe-juggler. (Likely not most parents’ wish for their children’s career, and not the most statistically reliable one, for sure.) But if you absolutely love juggling axes, and because you love it so much, you practice practice practice ’til the proverbial cows come home, then eventually, you will make it. Maybe you’ll join an theatre or circus; maybe you’ll become a YouTube sensation. Maybe you’ll go on America’s Got Talent and become famous.
(Or, you might lose your hands, and then go do something else with your life….I mean, who knows?) 🙂
And of course, “axe juggling” is a bit of an extreme example. But, replace it with the vast majority of what people actually want to do with their lives. If you do what you love, and apply yourself to it, you’ll be amazing, and for sure, the world will have opportunities for you. Maybe you want to be a Dungeon Master, of one kind or another? I’m sure you’ll find a way to make a living at it, if you really commit yourself to your craft.
Heck, even playing Minecraft can become a full-time, and very lucrative, career, if that’s what you’re into. I’m sure all the people who comprise the Dream SMP are happy they didn’t follow the advice of the well-meaning adults in their lives who didn’t believe that playing games and making videos could be a “real career”.
But if you have no goals, or poorly articulated ones, or they are so dimly held in your awareness that you’re not really thinking about them most of the time, or your goals are too easy and un-challenging (e.g., my goal is to sit here on this couch and eat Mr Noodles until I die), then you are in all likelihood not going to do all that much with your time. But if you have wild, inspiring, beautiful, meaningful, heart-lifting, fascinating, awesome goals, then….maaaaaan, who knows what you’ll accomplish?