In my one ear, a 26-year-old demoralized by prestigious MBA school rejections. In the other, a 52-year-old terrified by unemployment yet thinking about rejecting a great job... because it lacks status. Makes me wonder, when does it end? When do we stop needing society's stamp of approval? When do we become our own authority?
I stand on a hotel balcony far from home and all its perceived constraints. Scanning Athens from the 20th floor, I feel joyfully free.
There's a wind. Clouds stream quickly over top of the iconic Hilton, impervious to the policy makers within conferring on how to solve the Greek crisis. In seconds the clouds cross behind Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens, for centuries visited by military strategists and romantics alike for its inspiring view.
Gathering with a mind of their own, the clouds are obviously determined to make the rain they love to make. Do they care about the past? History in the making? My plans for a long walk?
No, they don't. And that makes me smile. They are their own authority. The clouds rise above.
There comes a time when validation from others and the importance of generic measures of success fades compared to what really energizes us. Or brings us a sense of harmony within, and with the world.
From the time we're adolescents trying to get into some college, through the years when we are regularly submitting our CV for the next promotion, to when we're contemplating going gray, we are constantly consulting our book of opinions to decide what's "right."
And then one day, you open that book for a consultation and see that the book's rules have become an irrelevant bunch of clutter. You don't see yourself in there anymore.
When Do You Know It's Time to Become Your Own Authority?
Quality of Life
Friends often ask each other questions like- How's work? Serious about anyone yet? Working out? Socially-sanctioned measures of success.
But what would you say if someone asked, "How's life?" Life, now that's a very different question. Not about the check-lists in your head; about how you feel and the quality of your life. If this question causes hesitation, it may be time to give your inner authority some air time.
Life is a story and also a book that ends with us looking at ourselves in the mirror. At some point, each of us alone has to decide what we want to see in that reflection. As New York Times columnist David Brooks says, your eulogy will not be your resume. People will describe the essence of your soul (assuming you've let anyone see it). How will you be remembered? He always asked great questions. She had such a sharp mind. His openness made this company successful. Or... she was always angry.
For many people the idea of becoming your own authority doesn't enter their minds much until they lose a significant authority in their lives. Like loss of the last living parent. Loss or decrease in the power of a strong workplace figure can be similar. Without that authority's opinion to consider, many people finally feel liberated to do exactly what they want to do, and may have wanted to do for a long time.
For others it's a wild-card that makes them decide to take charge. Something that changes the equation, maybe makes attaining the social perfection impossible. A rejection, losing a job, divorce, widowhood, retirement, illness. An abundance of something can be just as challenging as a loss: talent, a huge inheritance, or great beauty. These are all things that differentiate us and alter the social contract. If this comes with a reminder that time is limited, urgency makes us extra impatient with other people's ideas of a good life.
This is when we are ready to go beyond being socially-actualized and becoming self-actualized. When we feel the courage and determination to spend a good part of our days doing what we want to do... including peacefully owning the costs and rewards of our choices.
What will bring you to this point, and when is difficult to predict. But if you wake up one day and consciously decide to put your foot down and walk the way you want to, here is a guide to help you become your own authority.
What Does It Take to Become Your Own Authority?
• Some Quiet Time: You need to step back and reflect.
• Clarity about Your Values: You need to have had life experiences that test your values, forced choices, taught you about yourself. And a good memory about what you are sure you do and don't want to live without. Make a prioritized list and post it visibly. If this seems overwhelming, go back to when you were a seven-year-old proclaiming, "Strawberry. I like strawberry ice cream. That's for me." Somewhere inside you, you know what you like.
• Readiness to Accept Limitations: Sometimes growth is about accepting limitations. Every stage of life has limitations. Only a specific skill set will get that job. Only so much time you should spend comparing yourself to women who didn't take 10 years off from their careers to be at-home mothers. Or women who did. Only so many more years you will be alive. Do the math.
• Awareness that Limitations Can Be Liberating: Come on, in a way it's a relief to accept that that skirt is history. It's passe now and someone who buys it in a vintage shop will be thrilled to have it. And did you really want that work assignment? Aren't you actually tired of being so sleep deprived? Let go.
• Forget "Reinvent Yourself" -- Uncomplicate Yourself: One school of thought says you need to constantly "reinvent yourself." How terrifying. What could be worse than losing your identity? Diane Sawyer says, " If you want to keep the propulsion, you can't have all the complication anymore....The greatest power comes from being -- feeling most like yourself." Find people, challenges, and blank canvases of all kinds that need that special something that is especially you. Now you are thriving.
• A Good Memory: Think back to a time when your answer to the question, "How is life?" was "Good." Recall that feeling of peace and balance. Inner happiness. Caution: Do not try to replicate what you had then.
Be Bold Instead. Hold that good feeling as a compass... avoid people and situations that confuse it... and start moving toward whatever keeps the compass needle on your own, self-authorized, true north. Feel that smile emerging? You have become your own authority.