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Discovering our calling in life and unfolding to our potential
This article explores our Aspirations - The ‘A’ in the ASPIRE model.
I’ve previously introduced my proposed ASPIRE Mastery Model as a structured framework for supporting a person’s progress on their path of mastery from a holistic perspective. A toolkit that can be used in coaching or mentoring conversations or simply as a prompt for someone who is working alone on themselves.
I am taking a ‘building in public’, and ‘learning in public’ approach to fleshing out this conversational framework, asserting my thoughts in the hope of receiving feedback and alternative perspectives so I may make iterative improvements - so any input would be graciously received.
Aspiration is by its nature hard to describe - Is it an idea in your mind? Is it a feeling? Does it come from you, your culture, your genetics, or through the unknown workings of some wider consciousness of the universe? Whatever it is, it emerges in the subjective imagination of the individual, often after lurking for years as latent potential. Its abstract and ineffable nature means I don’t quite know how to talk about the qualia of aspiration, even my own aspirations are sometimes evanescent, hard to uncover, and difficult to put into words - so here I will attempt to meander around the subject in the hope of grasping some of its quintessence, knowing that it is inherently ungraspable.
“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” - Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Perhaps to begin, it might be worth conjuring the image of music producer Rick Rubin who seems to have a knack for listening for the higher potential in musicians and creating an environment for that potential to reveal itself.
As a thought exercise, imagine Rick Rubin was sensitively listening out for your potential, as a producer of your life, showing you what you could aspire to, and arranging events in a way that you could naturally unfold to that potential.
From birth to death, we experience life as an ever-changing phenomenon. We slowly move from one transient state to the next. Ever evolving from the present moment into something new. We can’t step into the same river twice, as the philosopher Heraclitus says, because the river and the person are in a state of eternal flux and flow. We step in and out of the river as different people, the river is ever-changing, and so are we. These moments of change go unnoticed unless we are paying special attention, but over time they add up, and we do notice that we have become someone else. A different person with new ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and acting. With new skills and capabilities. These moments of change add up to what we feel as learning, development and growth throughout life.
Appreciating the transient nature of life may be a stepping stone to letting go of rigid beliefs about our limitations and playfully imagining our alternative potentials.
It was once commonly thought that the human brain is fairly fixed in structure and function after childhood, but we now know that the adult brain retains a remarkable degree of plasticity. Our ever-changing neuroanatomy adapts and grows with our life experiences.
Growth is easy to see in newborn babies as their senses develop to experience the world, and as they take their first steps as toddlers, at first clumsily and with frequent stumbles, but coaxed on by parents they will find themselves stumbling in their intended direction, and suddenly they are toddling. They’ve integrated and transcended all of their previous learnings of spacial awareness, balance, and motor control and developed the new capability of being able to intentionally toddle towards a goal. No doubt they will also feel that inner growth, a warm glowing sense of approval from their parents and a flow of hormones and neurotransmitter activity as a reward.
Even as we reach the latter stages of life, we still grow with every new experience and continue to feel the neurochemical rewards of learning. Perhaps less obvious to external observers than the toddler example, but internally even as we grow old and decline physically we hopefully become imbued with internal reflective wisdom which is only accessible through the experience of life.
Aspiration relies on the assumption that growth can be self-directed so that we can imagine the potentiality of our future selves and take intentional actions to deliberately unfold towards that potential. Unfolding may sound like a strange choice of words, however, it brings a sense of becoming who we think we are meant to be, rather than grasping at an ideal we don’t believe in.
The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me. Or, conversely, I myself am a question which is addressed to the world, and I must communicate my answer, for otherwise I am dependent upon the world’s answer. That is a suprapersonal life task, which I accomplish only by effort and with difficulty.
Carl Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963)
A believable aspiration is cathartic in nature, a meaningful calling from your higher self, or the presence of a daemon seemingly outside of yourself, that is reassuringly confident in your purpose, your true vocation (and vocation is not your job) which is deeply nourishing to your inner self. It may be an exploration of our inner gifts combined with a listening for where we are needed so we can address what stands in the way by cultivating our courage to answer the call. Aspiration involves an honest and courageous inquiry into answering the question “What is my offering in this world?”
What man in the world would not find his situation intolerable if he chooses a craft, an art, indeed any form of life, without experiencing an inner calling? Whoever is born with a talent, or to a talent, must surely find in that the most pleasing of occupations! Everything on this earth has its difficult sides! Only some inner drive - pleasure, love - can help us overcome obstacles, prepare a path, and lift us out of the narrow circle in which others tread out their anguished, miserable existences!”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Aspiration is very personal, almost selfish. Often we suppress our innermost aspirations, trading them for our ordinary duties and obligations in the world. We forget our true calling and abandon our dreams. We become used to living a life of compromise, sometimes due to the admirable act of honouring a responsibility, a sacrifice we should be rightly proud of, but from time to time we should allow ourselves to revisit our most deeply held aspirations. The present moment lacks meaning and context without aspirations. Only through the self-indulgence of following our calling can we leave our gifts as a legacy for the benefit of those to come. As Jung said, “Each of us ought to leave some trace in this world that we have been here”.
The philosopher Agnes Collard draws a distinction between aspiration and ambition. Aspiration is a desire for an inner purpose in life with certain values, qualities, or activities that have impact. Ambition refers to a desire for a certain kind of status, recognition, power, or success
Aspiration is the conception of an inner purpose in life with specific values, qualities, or activities that have an impact and bring personal fulfilment. By contrast, ambition refers to an externally influenced desire for a certain kind of status, recognition, power, or success. Aspiration is something we discover inside of ourselves, while ambition is where our striving is influenced by the ideals of society. In terms of Erich Fromm’s “To have or to be”, aspiration is in the mode of being, while ambition is in the mode of having.
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” - Marcus Aurelius
There can be a vagueness about an aspiration. Aspiration is pointing in the general direction, a sense of what may arise within you in the future rather than a bold signpost to a destination. Aspiration should feel liberating, contrasted with ambition and big goals which can sometimes feel constraining. In his book, Living Without a Goal, James Ogilvy explores the imprisoning effect of Grand Goals, “Many of us use Grand Goals to deny our own freedom. We allow ourselves to become the slaves of our Goals. You know the story. Get up in the morning. Go to work. You confront the tasks in front of you. You experience each moment as a means to the next. One job leads to another. You become the tool of your tasks. This is slavery, not freedom.“
Perhaps there’s an age aspect to the Ambition vs Aspiration dynamic. As a younger person, I was more influenced by ambition, wanting to fit in and be accepted and respected by the world, wanting to appear as ‘successful’ and ‘resourceful’ in order to attract a mate (hopefully my wife will forgive me), but now as I’m in my 50s I feel that ambition has faded away and I’m more driven by needing alignment with my internal values and principles in the form of aspiration.
So I have changed over time from being externally driven to internally driven. This seems in line with Carl Jung’s thinking: 'The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.'
I’ve used a lot of fancy words and abstract thoughts here, so to simplify for a moment, and to put my own ‘wannabe intellectual’ ego to one side, all I’m really saying about aspiration is that it is how you picture yourself, how you imagine what you could become, and why you are inspired to aim for that image.
Realising the transient nature of things, our transient selves and the potential for inner growth, and being attuned to our deepest aspirations, is essential for finding our path of mastery.
Aspiration within the ASPIRE Mastery Conversational Framework:
Firstly, let’s have a recap of the ASPIRE Model and see where ASPIRATION fits in.
The ASPIRE acronym stands for:
Aspirations: Our inner sense of becoming/unfolding towards who we really are.
Systems: Our practices, what we are working on, and what we are committed to.
Paths: Our potential future pathways, our options, the unknown.
Internals: Our inner selves, who we are and how we experience the world.
Reality: The objective view of where we are right now, and how we are doing.
Externals: The environmental systems we are part of, but can’t always control.
Internals and Aspirations form the left-hand column of the ASPIRE model which taken together is the realm of the self. It is a purely subjective view of who we think we are and who we are becoming. Our Aspirations depend on and influence all other boxes on the grid but will be most closely coupled to our Internals, our inner sense of self, our values, our innermost experiences, and the stories we tell about ourselves.
Conversations to explore aspiration:
The conversation in the Aspirations box will require patience and a deeply trusting relationship in order for the participants to have sufficient space in which to explore who they really are and to allow the emergence of ideas on who they could become. This will be a time for divergent thinking, creatively playing with possibilities, of trying on different hats, and different personas, to see how they feel.
We are not concerned here with the practicalities of how to fulfil an aspiration - we only want to have a dialogue to point us in the right direction - aspiration is more of a guiding ideal than a destination. Instead of coach/coachee or mentor/mentee relationships, the emphasis should be on what emerges from a process of companions in conversation -an infinite game of mutually exploratory dialogue.
Companions in conversation:
The following conversational prompts are presented here as inspiration and are not intended for formulaic regurgitation. These have been deliberately framed as conversational prompts for an ongoing process of self-discovery, and not to be used as a questioning format which may feel like an interrogation. The conversation should be a mutual exchange where each participant can be a catalyst for new perspectives and insights through the way they listen and reflect.
I will apply the following tags as an attempt at categorisation (this categorisation is more art than science as many of these topics can be interpreted to span multiple categories):
#Fulfilment; #Legacy; #Purpose; #Meaning; #Vocation; #Calling; #Gift; #Growth; #Acheivement; #Creativity; #Courage;
When do you feel most engaged and connected? #Fulfilment
What could you do if you really put your mind to it? #Acheivement #Creativity
What is your unique offering to the world? #Gift
To what extent are your aspirations influenced by those around you and the wider society, rather than coming from your inner sense of purpose? #Purpose #Calling
What are the things that give you fulfilment in life, as well as the things that do not bring fulfilment? #Fulfilment
What does the world need that interests or excites you as an opportunity? #Purpose
How might you be trapped in a story about how you think your life should go? #Courage
What do others see as your offering to the world? #Gift
How can you combine your skills and interests to bring something unique to the world? #Gift #Creativity
To what extent are you chasing ideas of success that you haven’t really thought that much about? #Purpose
What's one thing you've always wanted to create but haven't had the time or resources to do so? #Creativity
What is your suprapersonal life task, which you will accomplish only by effort and with difficulty? #Calling #Meaning
What are some things you've always wanted to learn or try, but have been too afraid to attempt? #Fear #Growth
What have been your peak experiences in life, and what made them so special? #Fulfilment
What is your definition of a meaningful life, and how does that definition shape your aspirations? #Calling #Meaning
How do your spiritual or philosophical beliefs shape your aspirations? #Meaning
What are your unmet longings? #Calling
When are you in your element? (as per Sir Ken Robinson) #Fulfilment
How do you feel about taking a step into the unknown towards your aspirations? #Courage
What dreams did you have as a child, and how have those aspirations evolved over time? #Calling
What do you think you're capable of achieving, but haven't attempted yet? #Acheivement
What did you dream of doing when you were younger that you haven't pursued yet? #Calling
What kind of impact would you like to have on the world, and how do your aspirations align with that vision? #Meaning #Purpose
What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? #Courage
How do your current aspirations align with your sense of purpose and meaning in life? #Meaning #Purpose
What's a secret passion of yours that you haven't shared with anyone? #Courage #Calling
What have you always wanted to do, but haven't because you're afraid of what others might think? #Courage
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? #Legacy #Meaning #Purpose
When was the last time you felt truly inspired or had a sense of awe? What were you doing? #Calling #Meaning
What makes you feel most alive and engaged, and how can your aspirations reflect that feeling? #Fulfilment
If you imagine taking a huge bet on yourself to successfully navigate the path of mastery in one area of your life, what would it be? #Creativity #Calling
In which areas of your life are you lazy or unmotivated? #Growth
Everyone leaves a trace from their interactions during their lifetime, what trace do you wish to leave behind? #Legacy
What do you wish you had more time for in your life? #Calling #Meaning
What is just one area in your life where you could do better? #Acheivement
What inspires you? #Calling
What would you like to learn and understand more about? #Growth
Are your aspirations aligned with who you are and your fundamental principles? #Meaning
Looking back to when you took your first step on your path of mastery, what was it that inspired you? #Calling
How could you best serve the most people? #Gift #Purpose
If you could try any career or job without worrying about money, what would it be? #Vocation
In what areas of your life would you like to develop and grow as a person? #Growth
Consider what makes you feel most alive and engaged, and how can your aspirations reflect that feeling? #Fulfilment
What do you see as your unique gifts and strengths, and how can your aspirations reflect those qualities? #Gift #Calling
What fears or doubts hold you back from pursuing your deepest aspirations? #Courage
If you were to experiment with different paths and different ways of doing things, what could you do? #Creativity;
What are your deepest regrets about the paths you have not followed? #Courage
What is stopping you from taking a risk with your aspirations? #Courage
What do you love to do that you haven't done in a long time? #Fulfilment
What do you secretly wish someone would come and ask you to do? #Vocation
If you could go and make anything, what would it be? #Creativity
What could you see yourself being resolutely committed to that would make your life feel meaningful? #Meaning
Who could you be if you weren’t held back by your backstory? #Courage
In which areas of your life do you still need to mature? #Growth
Relationships with the other boxes on the ASPIRE grid
The other boxes in the ASPIRE grid will provide different perspectives from which to explore aspirations. Let’s start with the Internals box which is most closely related to the Aspirations box:
Who you are, your inner essence, and what is meaningful to you in the world should be deeply connected to your aspirations. It’s a continual process of discovery and as you discover more about yourself, your blind spots, and how you change and adapt, so your aspirations should keep in line. How you create meaning in life, and the wisdom you gain from the experience of unfolding towards your aspirations will form a perpetual feedback loop in the infinite game of mastery.
We should regularly check that our aspirations are aligned with who we are.
We experience the world relationally, the wider ecosystems in which live and how we adapt to them have a deep influence over our innermost experiences. Our habitat, culture, and the people we interact with are shaping our experiences and our adaptations to them. If our environment is not designed in a way that is aligned with our aspirations then we may need to make changes.
It’s also worth considering the extent that your aspirations are influenced by those around you and the wider society. If your aspirations are not aligned with your inner essence and your deeply held values and principles this should be seen as a big red flag and could highlight a need to explore whether your aspirations are actually more like ambitions, driven more by society’s values than your own.
This is where we explore the various pathways that will help us unfold to our aspirations. The adventurous work of navigating the inherently unpredictable paths available to us, balancing probabilities, and course correcting along the way.
We should regularly review the path we are on to ensure it is aligned with our aspirations while revealing and assessing other possible paths.
Being as objective as possible to truthfully see the reality of your situation and assessing your growth against the ideals you aspire to will provide the necessary data for iterative course correction as you unfold toward your potential. The Reality box should be visited frequently where critique and feedback are accepted neutrally as data for you to make sense of and respond to.
Our systems of practice are the foundational piece that holds all other boxes on in the APIRE model together. This is where we do the work, this is your dojo, this is your ritual, where you push the edges, make mistakes, integrate your previous learnings and push further to discover new abilities. This is where we lay the seeds for growth.
It is important that our systems cohere with our aspirations and that our practices are designed to move us forward at a sustainable pace.
For me, this article has been an exercise in thinking about the words and concepts to use to have a conversation with people about their aspirations while reflecting on my own. It hasn’t been an easy piece to write because I feel my own aspirations are on hold and in question while I’m trying to sort out some ‘life stuff’ after recently being made redundant. But life is transient and ever-changing, and so are our ideas of ourselves and what we aspire to be.
I’m not entirely happy that I’ve caught the full essence of what I’m trying to say in this piece, but I’m learning in public and this is a process, my own circumambulation as I iterate towards my own aspirations for greater clarity of thinking. Essentially I wanted to begin by capturing the essence of aspiration while contrasting it with ambition and big goals.
In the next article in this series of 6, I will explore Systems, the S in the ASPIRE model, the need for commitment to ritualistic and systematic practices on a path of mastery.
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