I recently found a news article that sounded absurd on the one hand … and it moved my heart with compassion on the other.
John Roa, a former Chicago-based tech entrepreneur, wrote a memoir of leading his company, AKTA, to huge success. They grew by over 1100 percentage points in 2014, and began to attract clients as large as Motorola and Exelon.
“Everything we accomplished was earned and deserved,” he told the New York Post. “But in my head, it felt fake and fraudulent.”
Think about that! A tech startup that bootstrapped its way to earned success. We’re not talking about a criminal enterprise, or winning the lottery! These guys busted their tails to serve the marketplace, providing a product or service people wanted and were willing to pay for …
… and they STILL thought they were fake?
Yes, and there’s more ahead. Welcome to the world of having no clue who you are, with your identity all wrapped up in all the wrong places. A reality that won’t go away, no matter how much you bribe it with Silicon Valley’s free-flowing oceans of cash.
I’m sharing this to people who feel unfulfilled, to be sure. But I want to go a step further with this example: you can be “achieving” an awful lot, as the world defines it. That doesn’t mean you get to skip the deep work of discovery and solidifying who you are.
I know this because … well, that was me! Back around the same time that AKTA was killing it, I was achieving my own small fortune in the healthcare sector. The bank account looked good. On the outside, everything appeared to be golden.
But as time would reveal, my life was much more “gilded” than “golden.”
Why You Can’t Take “It” Without “You”
Have you heard the old saying, “You can’t take it with you?” It’s a wise old reminder – our material possessions and money stay right here on Earth when we die.
But what if we shuffle those words around? What if we’d be equally wise to tell ourselves, “You can’t take it without you”?
As in, the real you. The person you’ve sacrificed, for financial gain, because you don’t want to face pain from lack of fulfillment and loss of freedom. So you hope to find them when you get to the summit of your career.
I can promise you – it won’t be there. Don’t take the money, if you can’t take yourself as well.
John Roa is “retired” at age 36, now living on an island in Greece. He reached that summit, and he admits that he’s unsure of what lesson he wants people to take away from his life. I would never presume to speak for him, other than to suggest that there’s a good chance his internal problems are still with him.
But my story’s a little different. After becoming very successful as a businessman, associate pastor and family man in Southern California, I also went through some tumultuous events that shook me to the core.
Following the suicide of a close co-worker in 2016, my wife and I narrowly dodged the fusillade of hell that rained down on the Route 91 concert in Las Vegas in October 2017. I came within a few feet of being senselessly murdered. One of my friends was not so fortunate.
If that’s not enough to make you question the paradigm, I don’t know what will. But I could no longer look at life the way I had. From then on, as I “reopened,” I discovered something else I could no longer do – “take the paycheck and be happy.”
How To Get “Reacquainted” With You
If my story teaches anything, I hope you see that it doesn’t matter how much you fit the “socially desirable template” … you will begin to die inside, if you refuse to deepen your identity and character.
There’s more than one way to be unhappy, but this journey also forced me onto the path of self-discovery that led me to … true, lasting happiness. It was the last thing I expected.
Most people look at this kind of work and think, “Months of therapy.” I never went to a therapist.
In fact, digging deeper than I ever had into my past and unpacking some of the “chapters” I’d lived through, was like lubricating an engine. As soon as the “oil” of honest, loving, willingness to explore and own the issues was there … the cylinders began to fire.
So, here are the first steps to going from “unknown” to “known” … known to yourself.
1. Ask yourself who you are and what’s most important in your life.
These questions sound simpler than they are … but they also are simpler than they sound.
When I say, “Ask yourself who you are,” I’m not pretending you don’t know your own legal name. That would be an insult to your intelligence. I’m talking about getting acquainted with your authentic self, warts and all.
But be careful … people routinely answer this by describing themselves in relation to others. Those concepts can be helpful, but they are not the core of who you are. Neither is it useful to define yourself strictly by your actions, even though they’re a part of you.
Your actions will always tell you what you believe, however. If they are destructive, that’ll help you understand that your identity is compromised. Your relationships and actions are extensions of who you are. What really matters is what you think about who you are.
2. Stop lying to yourself
We underestimate our abilities with things we do well, and overestimate them with things we don’t do well. It’s a paradox of the first order.
Your lower self will spend hours trying to persuade you that your gifts and talents are “nothing special.” Can’t everybody dance, play sports, paint, sing, fix cars or program computers as good as you can? Isn’t everyone equally kind, compassionate, strong and wise as you?
That same treacherous voice will also tell you not to worry about matters where, because you’re not an expert, you should pay close attention. The internal saboteur will try to trip you up by ignoring important details, or pridefully assuming you know what to do when you don’t.
Or you’ll get driven into the wasteland of the soul by being a workaholic solopreneur, when you could pay others to help. You’ll try to solve problems you should let others handle.
3. Remember your most significant achievement in life
Everybody’s got something they’ve achieved. I don’t mean to imply that my success prior to 2017 was worthless … it was just ranked ahead of the more important, foundational work in my soul. It certainly paid the bills, and they don’t stop coming because you’re busy getting to know yourself!
The good thing about our condition is you can come this far, and still have a lot of good achievements under your belt. It’s likely you’ve experienced “flow state” a few times, where everything seemed to be working.
I can recall starting my business with $500 in 2011 … leaving behind a corporate job and bootstrapping my way to independent success. It lacked a good foundation … but it wasn’t bad for a kid who’d grown up in a broken home and dysfunctional relationships.
So don’t despise what you’ve achieved up to this point. You’re going to need to remember what that felt like, to appreciate it when it starts to become the routine in your life.