The image of human excellence I would like to offer as a counterweight to freedom thus understood is that of a powerful, independent mind working at full song. Such independence is won through disciplined attention, in the kind of action that joins us to the world. And—this is important—it is precisely those constraining circumstances that provide the discipline.
There is a current personal development trend that emphasizes being your “best self.”
It’s a bit vague but it generally alludes to adopting the mindset and actions of the person you want to be. It manifests in inspirational quotes and photos about working out, staying positive, overcoming adversity, etc.
In its more satirical version, it is used to point out when we are obviously not being our best selves, such as when we are eating copious amounts of snacks in front of Netflix for an entire Saturday.
The thing about this version of the “best self” is that it is almost 100% oriented towards…well…yourself!
But you can’t become your best self in isolation. Cultivating the best version of yourself requires active engagement with others and the constraints the world impose on you.
The Instagram best self requires you to shape yourself, while the true best self requires that you also allow yourself to be shaped by others.
For example, there are a couple domains in which I am being “shaped” into my best self.
One is fatherhood. It is a ruthless and joyful school that forces you to consider the needs of another before your own. There are countless times when I want to work on my own projects but instead need to play with my daughter. But my schedule is no longer solely on my own, so I’m writing this at 5 AM on a Wednesday before I head to the track to do a workout with a buddy. There is simply no other realistic time to do these activities.
Do I wish I could get more sleep? Of course. But being forced to work around these real constraints makes me appreciate the opportunities I have to pursue personal projects.
I get the sense that I am becoming better as a person because I prioritize the needs of my kid over some of my needs.
Another domain is my work. I have my own government contracting business and as anyone in the industry can tell you, it is bureaucratic and soul-draining in many ways.
There is no way to simply “best self” your way to an ideal working situation in this environment. I have to do good work, have uncomfortable conversations with clients and other contractors, and work around bureaucratic nonsense.
Engaging with the uncomfortable reality of the workplace forces me to develop new skills and ways of thinking that shape who I am as a “professional” (in quotes because the idea of me being a professional would be funny to anyone that knows me).
Like most variations of personal development content, there is nothing wrong with “best self” material per se. Of course you should try to be motivated and courageous and think bigger.
But reality is more nuanced and textured, and crafting a life in which you can become your “best self” will require engaging with this reality in ways that can’t be captured in an Instagram snapshot.