The Power of Understanding Yourself: The Key to Self-Discovery, Personal Development, and Being the Best You - Dave Mitchell 2019
Age-Worthy: Maintaining the Best Me
Like fine wine, you get better with age.
— At least one Facebook post on your birthday after the age of 40
We have come a long way. At this point, we’ve learned what metacognition entails, and then engaged in that process to deeply explore many aspects of our essence. We have taken responsibility for this journey and what we discovered along the way by manifesting an internal locus of control. We used the principles of horizontal alignment from organizational development to identify the important life inputs that have shaped our behaviors, both good and bad, and formed our current state. We examined our core values and desired outputs. We connected our current state to our desired future state with a core ideology that defines our vision and mission in life. If you have kept up with your Extracting Me Worksheet, you have documented all these episodes of positive self-examination.
That’s not all. We evaluated our style. For many of you, this may have been a review of these concepts but with a fresh perspective turned inward. For others, this may have been the first time you have dissected your own preferences when experiencing the world. Either way, you spent meaningful time considering the influence of your approach to life on the definition of Me. We contemplated how these preferences contribute to our best qualities — and how they can make us vulnerable and oblivious, too. We even explored the complicated role stress plays in our lives. Most recently, we talked about our own veraison, our ability to change as the inputs and outputs in our life do. My hope is that it has been an incredible extraction process for you, filled with revelations, epiphanies, frustrations, and realizations — all culminating with a celebration of self. In that regard, this journey has mirrored life.
But we are not done.
Becoming Better with Age
The finest wines in the world are what we call age-worthy. Age worthy is literal in the wine world. It means that a wine is worth waiting for. Generally, that is cork dork talk for it will get even better with age. For us, age-worthy is a similar concept. Like the cliché in the quote that starts this chapter, it is important that we spend our lives in the continued pursuit of being better. The first 90% of this book involved me facilitating your voyage in self-discovery. Throughout it, I provided personal examples to help you understand the process. If you remember, my vision was to positively affect the life of each person with whom I come in contact. You may also remember that I am a directive counselor. So, did you really think I was going to let you get through this entire book without me allowing my Warrior side to have some time? Remember, my preference for Romantic and Warrior are high and the same. Translated, this makes my approach, “I want you to be happy — and here is the quickest path to achieve that.” Just ask my kids.
Our final metacognitive trip involves some personal attributes that are crucial to age-worthiness. Just as a wine that gets better with age, there are certain characteristics that a person should display as time passes. These exist regardless of all the other variables we discussed. No matter your style, life inputs and outputs, core ideology, or locus of control, the best individuals eventually manifest these behaviors:
· A desire for lifelong learning
· The ability to engage in civil discourse and dialectical thinking
· A commitment to personal wellness
I wish I could tout myself as the embodiment of all three of these important elements of age worthiness. The fact is, like all of us, I am a work in progress. I will say that I can take a certain degree of pride in at least realizing the importance of all three and, despite protracted periods of my life that suggest the contrary, that they are priorities for me. Let’s start with lifelong learning.
An Endless Appetite for Learning
Academics have always come easy for me. I think that this initially had more to do with the fear of my parent’s reaction to poor grades, combined with a developing Warrior preference, than it had to do with intelligence. Intelligence, in my opinion, is a lot more complicated than we educators would have you believe. It also may be less important. Academic success may be an indicator of high intelligence, but it’s far from a definitive one. I have always aligned philosophically with models more like Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner theorizes that there are many forms of intelligence including musical, athletic, visual, verbal, and others. If you are not familiar with the work of Gardner it is definitely worth a trip to the library (or Google search). I particularly like that Gardner lists Intrapersonal Skills — which is essentially metacognition — as one of the forms of intelligence. In short, I have always believed we place too much emphasis on academic performance as a measure of smarts. As a former high school athlete, I would marvel at the ability of a teammate to quickly learn a 200-page football playbook. That same person often struggled in the classroom. When the term lifelong learning is invoked by educators like me, many people associate the concept with their experience in school. For many, that is not a good association. It is unfortunate that the formal education process has turned off so many people to the importance of continued learning.
Remember Dennis, my best friend growing up? He was the co-creator of our homemade version of Strat-O-Matic baseball. Dennis was a fair to poor academic performer. His report cards were full of C’s and D’s. I didn’t have to see the report card to know this, because I grew up in an academic system that flagrantly cast students by their “smarts.” In grade school, our class of just under 100 kids was separated into four sections in each grade. If you were the best academic performers (receiving mostly A’s on your report card), you were assigned to group 1. The above average academic performers — B students — were assigned to group 2. Group 3 was for the below average performers (C’s and D’s on the report card). If you were in group 4, you had the modern version of the scarlet letter D for “dumb” sewn to your clothes. This meant that our classmates spent the exceptionally fertile cognitive development period between the ages of 7 to 12 being assigned to the academic group that corresponded to educators’ perception of one’s “intelligence.” Dennis was in group 3. I am convinced it was a life input that convinced Dennis that he was not smart.
Except, he is. Very smart. Although that system of labeling children at a young age may have imprinted Dennis’ belief system, it could not — and did not — alter his actual cognitive talents. Dennis didn’t go to college, I believe in large part because the system convinced him that advanced education made no sense for him. Instead, he was encouraged into vocational curriculum. After high school, when I went on to get my Bachelor of Arts in mass communication and business administration, Dennis remained in Greenup and worked for my father. Dennis quickly became invaluable to my Dad and his business. As my Dad’s cognitive abilities started to deteriorate, the result of several undiagnosed transient ischemic attacks, it was Dennis who kept the business viable.
Dennis eventually moved away, worked in the Pacific Northwest in HVAC and effectively retired around the age of 50. Today, he works the summer at mountain resorts for six months and takes the rest of the year off. He has no debt, he has no boss — and only a nasty bout of cancer that he fought successfully has interrupted his dream life. His only regret was that he would have liked to be a meteorologist but lacked the education. And he only lacked the education because he believed the label given to him by a system with a narrow definition of intelligence. In all my travels, I have found no person more intelligent than Dennis — particularly if you define intelligence broadly.
Conversely, I know a lot of people who can cite some incredible evidence that they are intelligent using the narrow definition. I have worked with people with advanced degrees from Ivy League schools. I know people who boast of IQ scores above 140. Many of these people are exceptionally bright and accomplished. But others are not. Ultimately, it is not a degree from a school or a pedigree from a job that determines the quality of the intellect. It is the desire to learn. If you aspire to continually learn, you will always be intelligent. And, you will always be your best you. The most age-worthy people are those that continue to exhibit intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn throughout their entire lives. This desire also continues to create new life inputs that can influence your core ideology.
Twenty-five years after receiving my undergraduate degree, I decided to pursue my Master of Education Degree in global human resources development at the University of Illinois in Urbana—Champaign. It was a curious decision given that it was 2008 and I ran a business. 2008 was when the Great Recession began, and it did not seem like the best fiscal decision to invest many thousands of dollars on a degree when there was no indication this would result in a financial windfall. After all, most people return for advanced degrees based on the prospects of a better job and more money. I already had my perfect job, and this degree was unlikely to affect my income. But my decision wasn’t driven by these reasons. I was becoming complacent, and in my mind, complacency equated to ignorance.
As a professional development goal, reading more books would be appropriate for me. I read — just not books. I read newspapers, magazines, online stories, blogs, and social media links. I rarely read books. I am embarrassed by that fact. A large reason for that is self-discipline. Though I know I should read books, I always prioritized something above reading books. If I were going to learn something, I needed some external mechanism to hold me accountable. Returning to a formal education setting made sense for me.
I won’t pretend that I enjoyed everything about the process of getting my graduate degree. It had been a long time since I had to read so much information in which I had so little interest. But I learned so much. I felt so much more engaged. My perspective expanded. It took me just over two years to finish my degree, and I was so energized by the experience that I served as an adjunct professor and mentor to other students who enrolled in the program. I can honestly say that experience in my late 40 s provided the motivational catalyst for my next decade of work. It both reaffirmed and reignited my passion for having a positive affect on others. Lifelong learning is that powerful.
You don’t have to return to a formal education setting to be a lifelong learner. Maybe you are blessed with the desire to read. Heck, you are reading now. Some of the most impressive lifelong learners are those self-directed individuals who burn through dozens of books each year. Others dive head long into hobbies that further their knowledge. My wine education is an example of this form of lifelong learning. Whatever device works for you, do it. What interests you? What have you always wanted to learn about? Sometimes, when I am doing research for my seminars, I will end up losing hours of time going on rogue Internet searches on topic, events or people that catch my interest. Lifelong learning is just developing a more formal and strategic approach to acquiring knowledge. Just as the wine continues to expand its flavor profile over time, so must we expand our knowledge. In fact, when you purchase age-worthy wine, you open a bottle every few years to see how the flavors are evolving. Lifelong learning is a lot like that — committing to a process that will likely result in your own evolution over the years.
Civil Conversations for Understanding Different Perspectives
The second component to ensuring that we are age-worthy requires some background. Dialectical thinking is not a simple concept to define. A Google search on the topic is likely to make your head spin. As a philosophy, it is credited to Zeno of Elea, has influenced the renowned trio of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and was reinterpreted by Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx. With all apologies to my college philosophy teacher, I have my own simple way of defining dialectical thinking. And, of course, I have a story. It involves universalistic formal thinking, relativistic thinking, dialectic thinking, civil discourse, four friends, and eight martinis at a remote steakhouse in the mountains of Colorado. You know, just another Tuesday night.
The Bistro Boys were a brotherhood of four friends of vastly different sociopolitical beliefs that would gather monthly at their namesake restaurant, The Bistro at Marshdale, a rustic but amazing steakhouse outside Evergreen, Colorado. The group was composed of Barry (the artist), Mark (the entrepreneur), Wayne (the retired business executive), and me (speaker boy). We would discuss current events and personal dramas while consuming two lovely and expertly made Ketel One martinis each. The meetings lasted two hours and always included some vigorous debate about issues related to the topics making headlines in the nation. Each of our perspectives populated different space along the conservative to liberal political continuum. The conversations were lively but not contentious, enthusiastic but not angry. Our goal, although not expressed, was to engage in dialectical thinking as opposed to the other forms of thinking. When it comes to debating a topic, there are some fundamental approaches.
Imagine there are three ways to discover a truth. One might believe that one absolute truth exists and can be uncovered. This person would be a universalistic formal thinker, believing that there is a formal universal answer for any important question. Once one has identified this truth, then it is just a matter of educating other people about the nature of that truth. There is no need for debate, only for the uninformed to become informed. Conflict resolution becomes a process of the person who is right explaining that to the person who is wrong.
Another person may believe that there is no single truth. This person may approach all situations with “It depends.” This is the nature of relativistic thinking. Employing this perspective, different truths can exist because the context that surrounds the situation differs. How can one apply one truth to situations that are so different? “It’s relative,” they would say. Given that the situations are not identical, how can the appropriate solution be identical? In this case, conflict resolution is merely agreeing to disagree since we can never fully appreciate how the experience within which the situation occurred impacted the truth. To each his own, so to speak.
Dialectical thinking presents a third option, at least in the way I define it. I view dialectical thinking as an extension of my previous contention that we are all delusional. Our behaviors make perfect sense to us and arise directly from the beliefs we possess and cognitive schemas we use to sort through our experiences. In other words, our own inputs, outputs, and core ideology influence our understanding of the truth. When we find ourselves faced with others who believe and behave differently from us about a subject, we are simply presented with a person who possesses different cognitive schemas about this issue. I don’t believe that one is operating from a position of absolute truth while the other is wrong (universalistic formal thinking). Nor do I believe that there is no one truth and that both people are free to continue their own perspective (relativistic thinking). I believe that each will benefit by learning the other person’s perspective, and that the full truth will most likely contain elements of each perspective.
To illustrate these three ways of thinking, allow me to delicately dip my toe into spirituality. Why not, I have already alluded to politics. Maybe later I can address sex and complete the toxic trinity of subjects never to bring up at a party. Anyway, an individual who is employing a universalistic formal perspective may argue that their religious beliefs are the absolute truth for understanding spirituality. They subscribe to a specific set of beliefs that they believe define God. Someone with a relativistic perspective would believe that there are infinite ways to express spirituality depending on the orientation of the individual. Live and let live, many paths to god, that kind of thing. The dialectical thinker prefers to discuss the different opinions in hopes that this dialogue will get us closer to an understanding of the truth. I prefer this approach because it encourages discourse and open-mindedness in both parties. Employing the other two approaches seems to dismiss the need to discuss our differences since a universalistic formal thinker is unaffected by another perspective and the relativist is content to coexist without being persuaded by the other perspective. Dialectical thinking is based on discourse.
Now, that is not to say that each argument has the same merit. People can be largely or even completely wrong. What I am saying is that they arrived at this opinion through a process that made sense to them and to appreciate what that is, one must first listen to what they say. I also believe that when people engage in true dialectical thinking, the truth has a much better chance of emerging, and viewpoints held that exist far from that truth become harder to maintain. All of this is based on civil discourse.
It is this last point that made the monthly Bistro Boy meetings so powerful. Here we had four successful individuals, each over 40 years old with long-held opinions, a wide variety of life inputs, outputs, core ideologies, and interactive styles sharing distinctly different points of view for two hours — and no one got angry. I cannot speak for the other three, but I know that my understanding of issues and appreciation for diverse perspectives was expanded each time we met. We met for over 10 years, and still do when I am in Colorado for an event. Granted, the martinis were a draw to the gatherings, but it was the exercise in dialectical thinking that provided the true value.
There are two notable advantages of civil discourse on extracting Me. A commitment to continually engage in a process of broadening your beliefs will help ensure that your core ideology evolves positively and inclusively. Civil discourse and dialectical thinking also makes us better role models. To be age-worthy, we must serve as mentors in our society. There is an obvious deterioration of civil discourse in our nation, perhaps the world at large. We are creating more echo chambers via social media that serve to feed our own confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. The danger in this is that it creates false truths for the universalistic formal thinker, beliefs that they will argue with confidence rather than seek to broaden their point of view. The relativistic thinker will too quickly validate these false truths as a legitimate alternate position.
When I was younger, my goal when I found myself with an opinion that was different from someone else’s was to win the argument. Perhaps this is the Warrior in me. After failing to win many of those arguments over the years, I began to realize that trying to inflict your universalistic formal thinking on someone else’s was a fool’s errand. Now, I realize there are three options using dialectical thinking:
1. Listen and ask questions to better appreciate the other person’s perspective.
2. Share your perspective in hopes you can broaden the other person’s perspective.
3. Agree to discuss this at another time if there exists a risk to civil discourse between the two of you.
The important application as it relates to extracting Me is to be interested in this other person’s view and pursue a better understanding of his or her perspective. Dialectical thinking does not require that you change your viewpoint, but it does provide the opportunity to do so. That is important to our evolution and our continued pursuit of extracting Me. Like the making of an age-worthy wine, the winemaker’s philosophy evolves. It is rarely the first vintage of a wine that becomes the classic.
Aging Well Physically
The last of the trio of age-worthy elements of Me seems obvious. Though we have spent our entire time engaged in an evaluation of our cognitive space, we are just as much physical creatures. I have always imagined myself as existing much like the alien prince Rosenberg in Men in Black. You may remember that he was the tiny guy inside the head of a human-sized robot disguised as a New York jeweler operating the body of his human-sized robot disguised as a jeweler with a series of levers. They discovered him in the morgue when his robot face opened to reveal him near death. He delivered the critical message to Will Smith about the location of the Arquilian galaxy. Remember? No? Guess it was just me. My point is, I think of individuals as two distinct systems: one for thinking and one for utility. Our cognitive function houses our essence, but without the physical vessel we do not exist — at least as we understand existence to be right now. Although it’s important to place much emphasis on the former, the health of the latter is also critical to our development. Further, our physical well-being influences our life inputs, outputs, and core ideology.
This all seems entirely obvious except when you take inventory of the people around us. We are not behaving in a manner that supports how important our physical health is to our personal development. I know this sounds preachy.” It is not meant to. I am not a health nut, nor am I qualified to provide guidance on nutrition and fitness. We have already established my fondness for martinis and wine, so I will not be throwing any stones at those who choose some bad habits. My point is that being cognizant of things like diet and exercise as early in life as possible will pay dividend in your pursuit of age worthiness. Finding your sweet spot for good nutrition and activity is as valuable to your development as effective metacognition. Health related problems can significantly alter your desired future state.
After “retiring” from organized sports, I spent nearly a decade without any formal exercise program. In my early 30s, my lifestyle had become quite sedentary. Fortunately, I struck up a friendship with a neighbor in Central Florida named Terry. Terry introduced me to weightlifting. Much to my surprise, I loved it! We also played pick-up basketball, which I enjoyed but placed a heavy load on my body as I moved into my 40 s. When I moved to downtown Orlando, I lifted with Michael and afterward we would play tennis. Eventually the wear and tear tennis placed on my body also became unappealing. I started running and hated it, so that was no go. So were kickboxing and spin classes. I later moved to the mountains of Colorado and supplemented weight lifting with hiking. That was perfect. I tried yoga, but that was a no go, too. I am way too Type A for yoga. In fact, I seriously injured my neck trying to do head stands. It is uber embarrassing to injure yourself in yoga. I did not return. I had a brief mountain biking affinity that was replaced by bike-path biking and then eventually dismissed entirely. You see, the point is to find some activities that you enjoy and make them a part of your routine. It doesn’t even have to be a conventional exercise activity. I enjoy clearing our property of debris and dead trees, and burning tumbleweeds. After several hours of that activity, I am far more exhausted than after a wander ponder. Extracting Me is also a process of finding the best way to use your physical attributes.
There are many things I could do better. I am squeamish about doctor’s visits and must be near death to seek out their consultation. I should get physicals more often. Although I eat healthy for the most part, I love Friday pizza night and the siren’s call of a ribeye steak is impossible for me to ignore. We all need to find our sweet spot for personal wellness. However, to not give any thought into the influence that our physical condition has on our cognitive state is to ignore the obvious. As the saying goes, “there’s no time like the present.” The truer statement is, “the only time is the present.” To be age-worthy, make commitments to your personal wellness that will work within the framework of your essence and keep them. You may be surprised that refining your personal health commitment may influence things like core ideology. I know of many people who changed dramatically because of a new or renewed emphasis of physical fitness. Even if your cognitive Me doesn’t change, the likelihood that it sticks around longer increases by including this age-worthy element to your life.
When you order a vintage wine — one that has been allowed to age in a cellar before drinking — at a restaurant, the server often asks if you would like it decanted. Decanting an age-worthy wine allows it to stretch out, expand, and reach its full potential. Personal wellness is very much like decanting your brain.
A Plan for Greater Achievement
Every good performance evaluation involves a developmental plan. As a human resource professional, I recommend to my clients that appraisals focus both on documenting past performance as well as outlining some commitments to even greater accomplishments in the future. The commitments to the elements of age-worthiness are just such a developmental plan. By outlining ways to continue your journey with lifelong learning, civil discourse, and personal wellness, you help ensure that the best you will only get better over time. Just like that fine wine.
So head back to the Extracting Me Worksheet one last time and contemplate the trinity of age-worthiness: lifelong learning, civil discourse, and personal wellness. Construct a plan for integrating all three into your life. If they are already prominent in your world, good for you. You are well on your way to achieving the best you.