“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of
Values”, an inspirational blog taken from the writings of
Paul Volosov, Ph.D.
The pursuit of values: We all know what life is and what liberty
is, but what did our founding fathers mean when they referred to “the pursuit of
happiness”? Paul believes
that happiness is pursued by living a life based on values. This
blog will share
some of the values Paul has developed over the years and
illustrate the meaning of
each with a short essay or story.
COMPETITION WITHOUT COMPETITORS
Winning feels so good because it fulfills my instinct to obtain food by killing it. I am not that hungry. Making sure the other person loses is not about winning. It is about beating. “What is the challenge?” is a higher-level question than “Who is the competition?” When all is said and done, the only real competition is me.
One of my first advisors was an accountant who became a partner in his firm about the same time that I started my business. We were approximately the same age, at similar stages in our careers, and we enjoyed brainstorming the alternative approaches I might take to reach the next level of my company’s growth. I enjoyed the camaraderie we shared, but I particularly liked the way he fed my ego. On numerous occasions he let me know that he considered me superior in many ways to other business people he counseled. The prime trait that he stroked was my seemingly limitless drive to succeed.
About five years into our relationship, I had a particularly nasty conflict with a competitor that ended in a major defeat. We had analyzed what had happened from a variety of perspectives, when he surprised me by saying, “You’ve lost it,” referring to my drive for success. In the context of my recent defeat, I felt particularly hurt.
I thought about his comment on and off for a long time. Once I had the opportunity to gain some distance from my pain, I realized that he was right, at least from one perspective. The very negative experience I had had was the culmination of many experiences that led me to conclude that I really did not want to beat my competitors. No matter how strong, smart, and driven I was, there was always someone who was stronger, smarter, and more driven. Even if there was not, always someone was willing to act in an underhanded way to achieve success. To beat that competitor, I would need to stoop to his level or lower. As my advisor noted, I just was not that driven.
From another perspective -- perhaps a better perspective -- the issue was not a limitation in my drive, but a difference in my drive. I was driven not to beat the competition, but to be the best person I could be. This drive had little to do with how good (or bad) the competition was. It had everything to do with how good I could be. In one sense, I chose to ignore the competition. In another, I set my achievements as a benchmark for future improvements. My challenge was not to beat others, but to best myself in the literal meaning of the phrase. Does framing the issue in this way indicate that I have less drive than he had thought? I do not know. Nor do I care.
If your goal is to conquer a hill, your happiness upon achieving your goal will fade quickly since no single hill makes much difference. If your goal is to be the best person you can be, you can experience the thrill of short-term achievement without losing the excitement of the long-term challenge.
Several weeks before I was scheduled to go through the oral exam that was the final component of my doctoral studies, I was warned by my doctoral advisor that I might feel a profound sense of disappointment upon receiving my degree. He noted that some of his previous students actually became depressed when they completed their degrees.
I had a hard time with the notion that reaching a goal as challenging and important as receiving a doctoral degree would be a negative experience. Would I not feel a profound sense of positive accomplishment instead of a profound sense of negative disappointment?
When the time came, I experienced both. Passing my oral exam and being called Dr. Volosov for the first time was a profoundly positive experience, which is understated by the word “elation.” Within several days, however, as I came down from this high, I began to experience a deep sense of loss and disappointment.
The goal of earning a doctoral degree had provided clear direction to my life for many years. The steps needed to achieve this goal were very clear. So was the outcome. Accomplishing this goal opened up many possibilities for me. The availability of these possibilities was a prime factor that made the goal so important to me, and I felt elated when they finally became available. At the same time, the increased opportunities that these choices presented made the direction of my life much less clear. I missed the clarity of purpose that I had had prior to completing the goal.
At the same time, I questioned what the degree really meant. I did not feel like a different person, and, in fact, I was not a different person. Not knowing what the degree really meant once I had it was a source of confusion and disappointment.
Over the years, I have come to realize that all external goals are really only the means of objectively measuring whether or not I am coming closer to achieving the only important goal: to be the best person I can be. This goal is not time-limited and can never be fully accomplished. It is something to work toward but never to achieve. No matter what external milestones I may pass, I cannot be sure that I am the best person that I can be until my life comes to an end. This life goal must be the guiding value of my life throughout my life.
Accomplishing an external goal may be an opportunity to rest and contemplate my next external goal(s), but it need not be accompanied by a sense of loss. Once I realize that accomplishment of each external goal is another beginning point in my quest to be the best person I can be, I understand that it is not an endpoint at all. Accomplishing an external goal is not a loss. It is an opportunity to commence serious efforts toward accomplishing my next external goal. Even if I do not yet know what my next external goal is, I am confident that important opportunities to strive toward being the best person I can be are around the corner and will become evident soon enough.
I also realize that I do not need to be disappointed with the outcome of any particular external goal. I know that each external goal is only a small part of the real goal. I do not expect accomplishment of any one external goal to accomplish anything dramatic because I know how big and complicated the real goal is. Each external goal is only a small part of achieving the real goal, and I have no expectation that it will dramatically change who I am.
Despite the limited significance of any external goal toward achieving my real goal, I can and do feel elation upon completing external goals. This elation is proportionate to the significance of the external goal to achieving my overall goal, is additive to all my previous accomplishments of external goals, and can and will be replaced with important additional goals as I progress.
Elation without a sense of loss and disappointment: I can live with that!
HEREDITY VS. CHOICE
I am a function of my heredity and my choices. The Almighty retains credit for my heredity. He gives me credit and holds me responsible for my choices. I must choose wisely.
Very few things annoy me as much as people who think they are important simply because they were born into a “good” family. There is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s heritage, and I am very proud of mine. My heritage helps me to define who I am, and how I fit into society. If everyone was proud of his or her heritage and accepting of all other heritages, the world would be a much better place.
Being proud of your heritage is not the same thing as thinking that you are important (or unimportant) simply because you were born into a particular family. The family you were born into either was a matter of chance or based on the Almighty’s plans for the world. Either way, you do not get credit in my book.
What do I give people credit for? For what they have chosen to do. If a person chooses to do something good because his heritage encourages him to do good, he stills gets credit for what he chose to do, and he still does not get credit for the nature of his heritage. Your heritage is important in terms of understanding who you are and what you are capable of. It is not important in terms of determining what you are responsible for.
If you are proud of your heritage and want or need to share that pride with me, feel free to do so. I am interested in who you are as a person and your heritage is a big piece of who you are. But do not expect me to provide you with preferential treatment (either positive or negative) because of it. When it comes to rewarding people in this organization, what you choose to contribute is the only thing that counts.
Is my brother a person who shares my genetic makeup? Or is he the person I turn to in time of need?
People with serious and persistent mental illness generally are very isolated from their families. This is a problem at all times, but it is particularly problematic around the holidays when being alone is most obvious (“I have no place to go for the holidays.”) In the behavioral health industry, we are particularly vigilant for signs that depression may be increasing during holiday seasons.
One of the steps we take to counter isolation around the holidays is to have parties during which the people we support can listen to music, dance, and catch up with old friends. While some people seem to be unable to connect with others at these parties, most seem to enjoy the cheerful spirit and camaraderie. The most successful actually seem to connect with their friends in a manner similar to the connection most of us experience when we visit with family members who we have not seen for a while.
There seems to be a universal human need to have special connections with a few chosen people. For most of us, a spouse, children, parents, and other close blood and marriage relations are the subjects of those connections. Many people without these natural connections can and do find satisfying alternative connections with close friends.
I believe that these substitute connections in some ways are actually better and potentially stronger than the connections we have through blood and marriage. Blood may be thicker than water, but in reality many of us have very little in common with our relations other than the coincidences of birth or marriage. The connections we make with close friends are based on common experiences, preferences, values, and the pleasure we take from mutual companionship and mutual support. Are there any stronger bases for real connections?
The more I give, the less I have. The more I give, the more I am. I would rather have less and be more than have more and be less. The main reason it is better to give than to receive is that I get more out of giving than I get out of receiving.
Most people conceive of the act of giving as a selfless act. When I give to someone else, I put aside my self-concern and act out of concern for others, they reason. Their reasoning may be correct at times. At other times, their reasoning is incorrect.
It is true that when I give to others I have less. It is also true that when I give to others I am more. An act that makes me more is an affirmation of self. Self-affirmation, by definition, is not selfless. Giving, an act that makes me more, is not selfless.
Of course, giving is not selfish either. Selfishness involves an over-involvement with oneself to the detriment of concern for others. Giving to others in a manner that balances concern for others with concern for self is neither selfless nor selfish.
There are times when giving may be a selfless act. Giving in a way that does not consider one’s own benefit at all may be both selfless and self-destructive. A person who can never say no because she does not have enough self-esteem to put her own welfare above the selfish and inconsiderate demands of others may be selfless, but this is hardly an admirable trait. Extreme selflessness is very self-destructive and should neither be encouraged nor admired.
This type of extreme selflessness should not be confused with an extreme act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. A heroic act of self-sacrifice that benefits many others is the ultimate gift that one human may choose to give to his fellows. An act of this type is never done because of inadequate self-esteem. On the contrary, a heroic act of this type can only be accomplished by a person with exceptional self-esteem who, in an ultimately self-affirming act, chooses to sacrifice himself to enable others to live. Here, too, the act of giving results in having less but being more.
Self-destructive selflessness should also not be confused with the selfless behavior of people who are truly saintly people. These people are few and far between. While they act selflessly, they have positive self-images that they enhance by forgoing their own needs for the benefit of many others. This type of selfless behavior is very positive and deserves our utmost respect. I do not have a problem with this type of selflessness. I just do not believe that it is something that I can strive toward. This, no doubt, is a reflection on my limitations, not theirs.
In a very real way, the primary reason to give to others is not so that they can have more. Providing others with more is one of the ways that the Almighty has given us to facilitate our own growth. I give to others because I value being more to a greater extent than I value having more.
The only people who “know” that they never have needed and never will need mental health supports are people who are in desperate need of mental health supports.
I was talking to a large group comprised of people with mental illness, members of their families, and members of our staff. The topic was the stigma of mental illness and how it inhibited people from seeking the help that they needed. At one point, I asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they knew that they never have needed and never will need mental health supports. Only one person raised her hand, a woman with an extraordinarily serious and complex mental illness who had very little insight into her disease. I mention this, not to belittle this unfortunate woman, but to underscore the belief that “I have perfect mental health and I am exempt from mental illness” is not a result of superior mental health.
In any given year, approximately one in 10 Americans will be treated for a mental health issue. An equal or larger number in need of treatment will go untreated, in some cases because of financial constraints, but in others because of a refusal by the individual or a parent to acknowledge the problem. It is no exaggeration to say that more than one in five Americans would benefit from mental health supports in any given year.
If the same people needed mental health supports every year, one might conclude that the potential need for mental health supports is still limited to a minority of people. In fact, with the exception of a small fraction of people with the most persistent mental illnesses, predicting who will need mental health supports in the coming year is very difficult. Even people with the most serious mental illnesses frequently have remissions of symptoms and can go long periods without the need for supports in this area. Even people who have displayed no overt mental health problems may decompensate in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe. The probability that a person may benefit from mental health supports at some time during his or her life is actually close to 100 percent. Demographic research indicates that this probability does not seem to vary from society to society.
No race, no nation, no religion, no family, and no individual are exempt from the challenges of mental illness. Mental illness is part of the human condition. We humans may have many issues to be ashamed of. Mental illness is not one of them.
RUNNING IN CIRCLES
A pitcher without a catcher spends most of his time chasing the ball.
In baseball, great pitchers seem to get an enormous amount of glory while great catchers do not. I am not against glorifying great pitching. Pitching takes great talent and should be appropriately recognized and rewarded. So does catching and so should catching. In fact, great pitching without great catching without great fielding without great hitting and without great coaching is not much of a sport.
Everyone talks about the importance of teamwork. Some people really mean it. Most of us still idolize individual team members who stand out by performing exceptionally in an obvious way. If entertainment was life, these exceptional people would fully deserve our adulation. In reality, entertainment is or at least should be secondary to life.
The more I have achieved personally, the more I realize that I have not achieved anything of significance as an individual. My achievements are not standalone achievements. They are totally and inextricably intertwined with the achievements of others. The more I achieve, the more this is true. As my organization has grown, what I can do personally has contracted. It seems to me that I do nothing anymore as an individual and that everything I accomplish is through the actions of other people.
For years, I have recognized that my job is to do nothing except motivate other people. This is a great job that takes time and skill and indirectly supports many important achievements. Yet, I do not accomplish anything directly.
This is actually a great advantage. As an individual trying to accomplish directly, I am limited in what I can accomplish by the limitations of time, space, and personal capacity. As a motivator, there are no limits to what I can accomplish by motivating others.
My organization helps others on a 24/7/365 basis. As the leader of the organization, so do I. Isn’t it wonderful that I get to accomplish great things while I sleep or otherwise take care of my own needs?
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