Proving or improving?

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Over the past couple of decades, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to 21 countries on three continents (Asia, Europe, and North America). Although this journey has taken me to less than eleven percent of the 195 countries in the world today, it has given me a broader perspective on how other cultures view the world and our place in it.

Numerous changes over the last few years – including the passing of my mother and three grandparents, concluding public service in a pair of state and federal government leadership positions, and taking a sabbatical from active involvement with my fraternity after more than 20 years as a volunteer mentor – have coalesced with lessons learned on these travels to provide some new insights about life.

I suppose this happens to a lot of men in their mid-40s, sometimes manifesting in the proverbial red sports car or even an extramarital affair. In my case, it has simply caused me to ask and attempt to answer a question with which many of us grapple:

Is my life focused on proving or improving?

Western culture, unlike that in many of the countries I have visited, places an inordinate emphasis on proving ourselves through status, wealth, and power, however illusory they may be. We are socialized from a young age that one demonstrates his worth by accumulating things (titles, possessions, and now even “friends” on social media) and comparing his success in doing so against that of others.

We all know the script. Do I make more money, is my house bigger, is my car nicer, is my lawn greener? For those of us who have worked in the political arena, these questions seem to have higher stakes answers as they are acted out on the public stage. Have I attained the next higher office, did I fundraise more money, am I positioned to advance into a leadership post?

In many ways, we never seem to outgrow the chatter of boys: “my dad is stronger than your dad.” As men, we simply shift from that playground boast to “my corner office is bigger, my country club is more exclusive, or my service on these nonprofit boards is more noble.” We convince ourselves that all of this proving is the proper – indeed, the exclusive – measure of our inherent value.

In our modern culture, keeping up with the Joneses is not just looking across the street to admire (or is it envy?) the neighbors’ new swimming pool but seeing daily humble-brag posts on the highlight reel of social media. The stakes seem ever higher to prove ourselves worthy to others. The hamster wheel spins faster and faster until we are so dizzy we don’t know what ails us.

I’ll offer myself as “Exhibit A.” College and graduate school degrees (first in my family for both) by age 24, a rapid ascent in federal service to the civilian grade of GS-15 (a full-bird colonel’s equivalent) by age 29, service in elected office by age 35 and legislative leadership by age 39, national president of my fraternity by age 41, and, among other accomplishments, decorated senior officer in the Navy by age 43. Always striving, always climbing, always competing, always proving. Why?

At this point in my life, I am more interested in whether I am improving than in what I am trying to prove. I seek to be a person who, as Dr. John Maxwell suggests, is working to shift from a focus on success to significance.

Now, before someone revokes my red-blooded, American male card or thinks I’ve given up at “halftime” in life, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m enjoying leading a new company, serving in a regional leadership role in the Navy, volunteering in my community, and embarking on a doctoral degree later this year. I’m still working on the things that matter to me, but my focus is different now. Each time I consider an opportunity, I ask myself the question: why do I truly want to do this? Is it still to prove myself in an endless, fictitious, zero-sum game with others – or is it to improve myself with the investment of life energy in exchange for something better and meaningful?

As with most alternatives to the familiar or easy way, asking and answering this question requires even harder work than keeping up with the torrid pace on the self-imposed societal treadmill many of us have sadly accepted as “normal” in Western society. The inner work of self-improvement, if we are willing to give it a try, is challenging but incredibly rewarding.

About 15 years ago, I began encountering older men in my network (whose age, incidentally, I have now attained!) who would take a week or two each year and go on a retreat, leaving behind family, jobs, and the travails of daily life. Whether engaging in a week of silence at a monastery or participating in a ritual retreat with other men, they invested the time and other resources in quieting the noise in their spirits to listen for God’s voice.

In much the same way light pollution has restricted our ability throughout vast swaths of the United States to see anything resembling the true brilliance of the night sky (which is incredible when viewed from a remote place in the Middle East, for example), we have so cluttered our existence with the cacophony of daily life that we have shut out the only thing that really matters: our relationship with the Almighty.

This week, I encourage you take some time to focus on self-improvement rather than self-aggrandizement, in whatever form(s) you may indulge the latter. Set aside daily time for contemplation, prayer, or simply silence. Explore the possibility of joining a men’s small group at church or take the initiative to form your own group with a few friends or colleagues, or do some research on opportunities for a retreat where you can experience nature by yourself or with others.

The world is bigger than an endless stream of meetings, emails, text messages, and striving to demonstrate our worth by being “busy” and involved in everything. Less is more.

Life is short – and beautiful. How about actually enjoying the journey?

The Grindstone Institute is developing programs to help men – young and more seasoned – be more deliberate about their inner work. You can help us make sure these efforts hit the mark in a meaningful way by sharing what you would like to experience from such events. Let us hear from you!

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