“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
“There’s no such thing as perfect—no perfect diet, no perfect exercise, no perfect lifestyle. Unconcerned with perfection, […] adopt smart rules of thumb that stand a decent chance of being more or less right (the 80/20 rule).” – John Durant
I’m about to share with you the best of the best. The holy grail. The answer you’ve been seeking. The greatest secret in the world of self-development and personal growth.
Ready? Here it is: There is no secret.
Happiness. Success. Fulfillment. Abundance. Wisdom. Joy. Actualization. You actually can have those things. We all can. They’re just not going to come from a quick fix, a pill, a transference of enlightenment, or a weekend workshop that will totally, irreversibly transform you and shape the rest of your life. No matter how sensational the headline or convincing the copy. That’s just not how it works.
“You are capable of great things,” writes Jeff Olson in The Edge.”You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. […] I know this, because I’ve observed the human condition, and every soul alive is capable of great things. Most will never achieve them or experience them. But anyone can, if they only understand how the process works. Show up. Show up consistently. Show up consistently with a positive outlook. Be prepared for and committed to the long haul. Cultivate a burning desire backed by faith. Be willing to pay the price. And do the things you’ve committed to doing—even when no one else is watching.”
What Does It Take to Become the Best Human You Can Be?
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals as of this writing. In his book No Limits, he shares that, “My goal was never to become the best athlete ever; it was simply to become the best athlete I could be.”
I’ve got a similar goal, one that I think we should all share: to become the best human being I can be.
Of course, I also have lofty professional, performance, impact, and creative goals. But I know that to have even a remote chance at accomplishing those things, I need to be consistently plugged in and putting myself in the best state possible. To do that, I need to honor the most basic needs of my physical, mental, and spiritual being.
“When dog trainers are brought in to work with a dysfunctional or unhappy dog,” writes stoic author Ryan Holiday, “They usually start with one question: ‘Do you take it for walks?’ They ask because dogs were bred to do certain tasks – to do work – and when deprived of this essential part of their nature, they suffer and act out. […] The same is true for humans.” If a dog isn’t being walked, it suffers. If we aren’t taking care of our own fundamental needs, we’re also going to suffer, much less be capable of achieving our highest goals. That’s why almost every coaching conversation I have includes the question, “How are your fundamentals?”
The good news is that we know what those fundamental needs are. Things like breathing, eating, moving, sleeping, loving, and growing – they’ve been preached by wisdom traditions for millennia and empirically validated by modern science.
Even though people often spend time arguing over the details (paleo vs. vegan vs. primal or Christian vs. Islam vs. Buddhist vs. …) the basics aren’t up for debate. Let’s focus on where everyone agrees.
Breathe + Eat + Move + Sleep + Love + Expand (Grow)
These aren’t likely new to you. (Remember, there is no secret!) I write and speak about them constantly, and they’re probably things that you’ve always “known.”
The important question is: What are you practicing? Are you doing what you know you should be?
To reiterate, the point is not to become the best at breathing / eating / moving / sleeping / etc. Rather, it’s that if we want to be (and do and serve) at our best, we need to have a strong foundation. Here’s how.
Breathing is THE most fundamental requirement for being alive. We can go weeks without food, days without water or sleep, but only moments without air. It’s the highest-leverage place we have to make a serious impact.
The highlights: breathe in through your nose (<– REALLY IMPORTANT, even during exercise), deeply and slowly to the belly, with as much intention as you can throughout the day. Stay connected to your breath and you’ll stay connected to yourself. “From peak performance coaches to positive psychologists,” writes Brian Johnson, “if there’s one universal theme that ALL great mental training teachers come back to it’s this. Bring your mind back to the present via your breath.
Spend at least one minute a day doing nothing but consciously focusing on your breath (otherwise known as meditating). Feel the air as it flows in and out, slow down your breath, even count the length of the inhales and exhales. (Try inhaling for 6, hold for 2, and exhaling for 7. Repeat 4x. Or breathe in for 5, hold for 5, breathe out for 5, and hold for 5. Repeat 3x.)
Over time, work your way up to 12 minutes a day, and you’ll be re-wiring your brain and re-writing your DNA. The research is unequivocal. When you do that, you activate everything good in your physical, mental, and spiritual body.
Michael Pollan makes this easy for us: he says everything he’s learned about food and health can be summed up in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Eating food means real food. Not food like things. If your great grandmother wasn’t eating it, you probably shouldn’t be.
Eat lots of:
- Healthy Fats (avocados, olive oil, nuts.)
- Plants (full of vitamins, nutrients, anti-cancer and anti-disease agents….)
- Prebiotics (healthy gut bacteria = huge! Sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.)
- Sustainably sourced Proteins (meats aren’t bad, but most of what people eat is factory farmed and full of toxins and other junk.)
Limit or eliminate:
- Grains (the grains we eat now have nothing in common with pre-industrial age ones, and most of our bodies aren’t built to tolerate gluten well.)
- Dairy (it was created by nature to get tiny animals as big and fat as quickly as possible, probably not the goal of most humans. Plus it can wreak havoc on our gut bacteria.)
- Sugar (do you know anyone who recommends eating more as part of a healthy diet?)
Eating well starts in the grocery store. If you don’t want to be eating it, don’t buy it. I have comically low willpower when there are “shouldn’t be eating” foods in the house.
Also remember that perfection isn’t possible, or even desirable. Still, try to make better choices more often than not.
Everything works better when your physiology works better.
Aim for twenty-five minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per day, with shorter bursts of high-intensity movements.
Make it fun. Find the things you enjoy doing. Walk the dog, go for a run, climb a mountain, start practicing yoga, try boxing, throw around some heavy objects, go for a swim, ride a bike, sign up for a fitness competition or physical challenge. Get creative!
Importantly, don’t stay seated for long periods of times. Take periodic breaks every 30-60 minutes to stand, stretch, walk, grab water, etc. Find “Opportunities to Move,” or OTMs, as per the world’s leading biomechanist Katy Bowman.
Your body is the physical manifestation of you, and when it goes, you go. Get strong, flexible, balanced, and adaptable.
The unfortunate reality is that most people are so sleep deprived they don’t even realize they’re sleep deprived. I used to think that I was among the tiny percentage of people who could function well on little sleep until I spent time prioritizing it and realized the haze I’d been previously living in. Not good.
A few simple questions to tell if you’re getting enough sleep: do you need an alarm clock to wake up? Do you need stimulants to get or stay alert? No – keep doing what you’re doing. Yes – consider making a few changes.
Aim for a consistent sleep and wake time, make your sleep den cool and light-less, limit screen time and artificial light before bed, and avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Meditating has also been shown to improve sleep quality. (It improves just about everything. If you aren’t meditating yet, why not?)
Also – take naps!!! Here, again, the research is unequivocal. Naps improve creativity, energy, emotional stability, etc. The ideal length is either less than 20 minutes (before entering deep sleep) or 90 minutes (a full cycle).
Most of us think of love as the super-intimate feeling that we can only share with a few people. However, that’s a limited definition that may be holding us back from higher levels of joy and human-ness.
Barbara Frederickson defines love as “micro-moments of positivity resonance” and tells us “love is available to us at every moment of every day.”
How? By being kind. Make choices that contribute towards positive futures. Celebrate the best in others, and be compassionate to those who appear to be suffering. Hold the door. Say thanks.
Be open, honest, authentic, genuine, vulnerable, and seen. Hold space for others to do the same. Be present with the people who you are around. Know that just having a phone in sight decreases the quality of the interaction.
Also, try giving heart hugs: left arm up and over, head to the right of theirs. Heart to heart.
We are not fixed entities. We are always growing. It’s in our nature. It’s why many people feel anxious or stifled when they’re not growing.
Always strive to become a better version of yourself. At the same time, be appreciative and grateful for where you are.
Read, learn, study, experiment, practice, get uncomfortable, stretch yourself.
I also practice this with daily, weekly, and quarterly reviews – all following the same rough template:
- How are my fundamentals?
- What went well? Celebrate?
- What could have gone better? Learn from mistakes and note how to improve.
- What does the ideal look like? Put in place a few action steps to get there.
What small improvements can you make?
Before moving onto whatever’s next in your day, pause for a moment and ask yourself two questions:
- What’s the #1 thing that, if I STARTED doing it, would have the biggest positive impact? (+1)
- What’s the #1 thing that, if I STOPPED doing it, would have the biggest positive impact? (-1)
PS. Researchers tell us that when we make the connection between our actions and their consequences, we’re more likely to stick to positive habits. Be aware of what you do and how it makes you feel. For example, when I meditate in the morning, I’m more compassionate to myself, better to others, more creative, more productive, and calmer. When I workout, I feel better, have more energy, and am more emotional stable. If I take a short nap after lunch, I get more done that afternoon. If I make poor eating choices, I feel it, sometimes painfully.
“Joy for human beings lies in proper human work. And proper human work consists in: acts of kindness to other human beings, disdain for the stirrings of the senses, identifying trustworthy impressions, and contemplating the natural order and all that happens in keeping with it.” – Marcus Aurelius