Have you ever wondered how it is that some people are successful in everything they do? Whether they’re an artist, sportsperson, or business person, everything they turn their attention to catches light.
They quickly come up with new ideas, and everything comes together quickly. People love them and line up for whatever they do. It seems as if they glide through life from one success to the next—all the while smiling pleasantly—as if it’s supposed to be this way.
And yet if we look closely at many of the seemingly unstoppable people in life, there is often an imbalance in how they live. Tiger Woods is a classic example of this. Unstoppable golfer and absent husband, all at the same time.
An Unbalanced Life
Tiger is an extreme example, yet many that excel live an imbalanced life. That is to say, these people are great at one thing only. But why is that? Why is it that anyone would choose to be good at only one thing? They do so because they believe that to be successful is to be great at one thing only, and all their attention needs to be on this one thing to be great. It’s paradoxical, to be sure. And certainly, culturally reinforced.
Yet by placing all of their care and attention into this one thing, other aspects of their life naturally suffer as a result. And as they are often judged by this one thing, they appear to be incredibly successful, and this appearance of success feeds the notion that greatness comes from placing all their efforts into just one thing.
By building a life on a foundation like this, it will collapse at some point. It is only a matter of when not if. And only then will they realize their folly. Only then will they see the error of their ways. And this is precisely what happened to Tiger. But it does not need to be this way.
Now, I am not advocating for mediocrity here. I am not putting forward the idea that your life will be great as long as you redefine significant as mediocre. And I am not claiming you should not master one thing—quite the opposite. Nor am I saying that if Tiger had only spent more time with his wife, his life would have been meaningful. That his life would have been truly successful as a result of spending less time playing a round of golf, less time playing around, and everyone would go home happy. This is not what I am saying, as this does not lead to your hidden potential being unlocked.
The truth is, if you want to be successful, you will need to spend time learning the finer details of your chosen endeavor—be that sport, business, or whatever it is that you want to do and get paid for doing it. You will need to put in the effort to master one thing.
The 10,000 Rule is Rubbish
I’ve never fallen prey to the idea of the 10,000-hour rule—that to become an expert, you will need to spend ten thousand hours practicing—and I believe you shouldn’t too. However, there is no getting past having to put in the work to be great at one thing, no matter whether that is 100, 1,000, or 10,000 hours. And just as Tiger spent hours honing his ability to hit a tiny white ball, if you want to unlock your hidden potential, if you’re going to be successful, you too will need to put in your hours to do so, period.
Nor do I wish to champion the idea of a life lived in the present moment— that if Tiger had only been present in the moment both on and off the golf course somehow, this would have prevented his extracurricular excursions into the rough! I am not saying that the power of now is all you need, man. For life as a now zombie, detached from your past and your future, will not enable the life you are trying to build. If you want to excel at life—at every aspect of your life—to do so, you will need cognitive access to your past, present, and future. But if you are only ever in the present moment, you do not have access to your past nor future.
When you fall, it is the ground that inflicts pain. And it is this same ground you use to stand again. Likewise, past failure is the source of future success. But if you are only ever in the present moment, how do you learn from past mistakes? You don’t. If you cannot reach into your past and deconstruct your experiences to learn, how do you learn? You don’t. You are, in effect committing yourself to repeat the same mistakes.
Now, I loved Groundhog Day as a movie, but there it can stay as a movie! I do not wish to live it. And yet that is what many of us do. We make the same mistakes again and again—day after day, year after year, changing only minor details in our lives than thinking, hoping, praying these will change the entire outcome. But just like the movie, it never does. Similarly, how can you plan your future if you cannot project yourself into the future? You can’t. If you do not have the capacity to imagine a future, said future would never come to be.
To break this cycle, we need to reach into our past and learn from what has come before. We need to learn from what does not work, and importantly why it does not work, and then use this information, coupled with your ability to imagine what your future might be like, to build a better, brighter future.
The Great Track Their Momentum, Not Their Progress
After ten thousand attempts at inventing the light-bulb, Thomas Edison was asked why he bothered continuing after all these failures. Loosely paraphrasing his response went something like this: I have not failed. Not one single time. I have succeeded in 10,000 different ways of how not to build a light-bulb. Edison knew what he was trying to achieve, and while he had only an idea of how this might work, he set out to make it by imagining what the result might be. At the end, by what he had learned from his past attempts, and his ability to imagine how this future light-bulb might work, he was able to do so, and the world was changed forever as a result.
In precisely the same way, we need to lean on our past to learn from it—to understand what not to do. And by knowing what not to do, coupled with a clear idea of where we are headed, that is to say, what we want to achieve in our future, we move forward until we have achieved our light-bulb. And we can only do this if we take a holistic approach to the very meaning of success.
What I am saying here is that we have a tendency to define success too narrowly, and in doing so, we inadvertently create the cause for our failure sometime in the future. This is so because limiting success to excellence of only a single thing—and therefore excluding our mindset—we set ourselves up for a breakdown, not a break-through. Tiger failed as a husband, and when the truth of this smacked him in the face, his golf suffered just as much. By focusing on only one thing and becoming great that this—thinking this will bring success and often at the exclusion of all other aspects of our life—we are creating the cause for our future failure as a result.
However, instead of this holistic approach, many believe that to be successful, we must be great at one thing and one thing only. When we are great at this one thing, the rest of life is taking care of automatically. At best, this is nothing more than an assumption. At worst, it’s just plain ignorance. And if you look at your own experience, you know this to be true. You will see that the secondary aspects of your life do support your main thing, and both are supported by your mindset.
Yet many people do not think deeply enough to see the real causes of success, and as a result, they either fail to be successful in the first place, or they appear to be successful until what they are neglecting makes an appearance in their lives—then all the cards come tumbling down. Until then, they will continue to believe that placing all of their attention into this main thing is the cause of their success.
This leads to what I call cycles of failure, but through fear that this article will be too long, I will not go into the details of this idea at this point.
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A Mindset of Growth
Now, imagine if Tiger had placed importance on mastering his mindset and defining his success across multiple domains of expertise. What if he was as interested in being a great husband as much as he was in being a great golfer. Would this have affected his golf? I’m here to say, no. Indeed, I believe it would have enhanced his game by the sheer fact that the skills required to be a good life partner are transferable.
That is to say, the skills required in relationships are directly applicable to art, sport, or business. This is true because by developing patience, empathy, and thoughtfulness—standard qualities required in relationships—these skills can make us better in other areas of our lives. Indeed, these three have an inherent self-reflexive quality, such that by developing them, we are also developing our own self-knowledge. This, in turn, allows us to manage our own mental state in an ongoing moment by moment fashion. How could mastering his mindset across all areas of his life possibly negatively affect his game?
Imagine Tiger as we know him —an amazing ability to concentrate, swing powerfully and with such consistency that he was the youngest US PGA winner of all time—imagine this, and that he was also a devoted husband. That felt gratitude, not dissatisfaction, or when he did, he had the self-awareness and mindset skills to manage this dysfunctional state of mind. Imagine he knew from within his own lived experience the real causes of his success were much more than just an ability to play golf. This is a paradigm shift but imagine if Tiger was equally a great golfer and a great husband. Do you think his results would have been the same?
Having it all! Why do we think this impossible? Why is it so hard to imagine? Are we saying that someone like Tiger was a great golfer because of his infamous lifestyle? That his infidelity was the cause of his ability to hit a little white ball? It’s ridiculous when put this way I know.
Indeed, I put it this way to show just how ridiculous it is. So perhaps there is something deep within the human psyche that habitually causes us to see outcomes as binary options—to believe that we can only have one thing at a time. We do tend to think we can only have one thing at a time. Don’t we? It’s either this or that! That is why we hear people making rationalizing comments such as, “You have to sacrifice to get ahead.” “You can’t have everything.” But who made this a rule? Why is it that we need to sacrifice anything at all? Why can’t we have everything? It’s not a rule. It’s not law.
This is nothing more than a story you tell yourself about yourself. It’s nothing more than your mindset telling you; you are not good enough to have everything, so don’t even bother trying. The question you need to ask yourself at this point is, does it have to be that way? Is there not an alternative to this black and white binary thinking?
Life is Not a Zero-Sum Game
Yes, I am saying you can have everything, but only if you understand the real causes of success. To be successful in one area of your life, you need to be successful in more than one area of your life—including your mindset— and that this requires the cognitive ability to understand your lived experience.
I am not saying you need to be everything to everyone. Nor I am not saying that success comes only to those in relationships. By including mindset education in the very definition of success, you give yourself the chance to become a more capable human being across the entire scope of your life. This, in turn, allows you to be greater at that one thing you chose to focus on than you could have ever been by defining success in an old-school way.
However, you sell yourself short when you define success as excellent or outstanding at something other than or external to your entire lived experience. But when you choose to be great and to master your mindset, you set the trajectory of your life by putting into play robust psychological markers that will define your life beyond what you think currently possible. By placing your mindset at the front of your life, you are setting the course of your life in the general direction of greatness in doing so.
All of that is to say, mastering your mindset is the key to a successful life regardless of what it is that you choose to do with it. By mastering your mindset, you have the cognitive ability to understand at a deep level what is and is not working in yourself, how to fix it, the confidence to do so, and the skills to manage the vicissitudes of the journey. Would the light-bulb have been invented if not for an ability to learn from past mistakes, to be confident enough not to give in when everything looked hopeless, and to manage the fear of failure, the naysayers, and an internal dialogue that must, at times been difficult to ignore? I dare say not.
To my mind, the ancient Delphic maxim, know-thyself, has never been more critical than it is today. Once upon a time, you could grow your food, have kids, and have them look after you in old age—and you could do so without ever participating in a global economy. But that is no longer the case. Today’s world is so clearly interconnected that we have no choice but to master our mindset precisely because our well-being is interconnected with the well-being of other people with whom we have no connection beyond the fact we all live together on this planet.
The qualities of such an imaginary person may seem beyond you right now, but I want you to know they are not beyond your capacity. You have the potential to create an extraordinary life—to have everything you want and more—and such a life comes not by being great at one thing but by understanding your mindset and crafting your lived experience right out of it. To understand your mindset and create this life, you must, therefore, learn to think like a meditator.
Be Like a Meditator
Contrary to what you may have read in popular books on meditation, to me, meditation has nothing to do with becoming more relaxed or being more mindful. These are effects of meditation, to be sure, but they are not its purpose nor its primary concerns. The word meditation is a translation of the Sanskrit term bhavana, and the Tibetan term gom. Gom has the connotation of becoming familiar with a constructive state of mind, thought pattern, and emotion. In contrast, bhavana has more of an ambiance of cultivation. Together we can understand these two as something more like mental training, training the mind, or mindset training.
Just as we go to the gym to look after our physical well-being, meditation—both on and off the cushion—is the means of looking after our psychological well-being. It is not merely to become more relaxed. Moreover, given the primacy of our psychology in the construction of life, it is prudent that we take mindset training seriously as it can literally change the world we see.
I, therefore, think of meditation as an analytic, diagnostic, and therapeutic tool used in the endeavor of creating a good life. It’s analytic in the sense that by focusing deeply on a specific type of awareness, we can tease out of our lived experience our dispositional narrative. And as we begin to understand how we see ourselves and the world around us from this perspective, we begin to see how dispositional narrative creates the world we see—not the other way around. That is to say, the world is not something “out there” that we perceive but something we co-create.
If the world is indeed, co-created, what part are we playing in its creation? What is it we are already doing that is preventing the life we desire? From this point, we can begin to diagnose the factors and the exact stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that have us pinned to a life of limitation. This is the diagnostic aspect of meditation as we can see for ourselves what we are doing within our own lived experience and thus diagnose ourselves. And this process is therapeutic in the sense that through seeing how our mindset is creating this life, and not the other way around, we can begin unlocking our potential.
To think like a meditator, therefore, is to take your understanding of meditation, and your understanding of yourself garnered through the meditative process outlined above, and integrate this knowledge back into your daily life. This does not mean you must spend hours in meditation— although a meditation retreat is a great way to focus exclusively on meditation for more extended periods. And it does not mean you need to become part of a counter-culture movement and begin wearing flowers in your hair.
But it does mean that your general life’s orientation, your way of being in the world, places your mindset, and the training thereof as central to living a good life. To think like a meditator is to embrace your inner world and take seriously the notion that you are your creator of your lived-experience. Then go about doing just that. For those ready, take up this challenge — and let’s be honest, it can be a challenge — the rewards are extraordinary.