Being and Becoming: Learning to love learning
Friends, family and patients often talk about what they want to be. “I want to be rich. I want to write a book. I want to be a better parent.” Children are often asked by their parents, “What do you want to be when you grow up? I think there’s a better way to approach the subject. Why not ask, “What do you want to become when you grow up.” It is so easy to get involved in wanting to be that one loses sight of the processing of becoming. For if people don’t find the joy in becoming they’ll never be who they want to be.
In 1914 Sigmund Freud wrote a classic paper in psychoanalysis entitled Mourning and Melancholia. Although he was wrong about the mechanisms by which melancholia arose, he used exceptionally precise language in pointing out a fundamental truth about human behavior in. Freud recognized that mourning is a process whereas melancholia is a state. Today we call that state clinical depression.
Grief is the common word but, as anyone who has ever lost someone or something dear can attest, grieving is how we come to terms with a loss. Does one ever stop grieving? It depends. Someone I treated who lost a limb during a car crash felt inexplicably sad after her daughter sank the basket that propelled her team into the state basketball championships. We didn’t need to consult Freud to realize that the woman’s daughter’s accomplishment rekindled her sadness for what might have been had she worn her seatbelt the night of the accident. She beamed at the trophy presentation and cried in the privacy of her bedroom.
Parents tell their children they can be whatever they want to be. “Dare to be great,” they say, advice no one can or should dispute. But what about becoming great? How does one become the best they can be?
In my years as a therapist I have been privileged to witness amazing feats of dedication. I saw a young man with potentially-disabling learning disabilities persist through years of twelve-hour study stints to become a doctor. For years he wanted to be a doctor, but becoming one was another matter.
I saw a young woman who spent her adolescence taking care of an abusive, alcoholic parent find the courage to emancipate herself, work her way through college and start the business of her dreams. She wasn’t born an entrepreneur, she became one.
Experts have identified two basic but interrelated forms of knowledge that success entails: declarative knowledge: facts, dates and definitions, what one learns in books; and procedural knowledge, what can only be learned through trial and error, or what the optimist calls trial and success. Success in life usually entails combining both. Either way, the most important word in the sentence refers to trying. How one tries determines the outcome, the most desirable of which require plenty of trying.
Take wealth for example. Buying lottery tickets is an incredibly low probability strategy for getting rich. Directing the lottery ticket money into an investment account is a longer but surer road to becoming wealthy. As a boy, Warren Buffet delivered newspapers and sold magazines door to door.
Or musicianship: it takes seven years of practice to become an overnight rock sensation. Taylor Swift spent her early teenage years taking voice and acting lessons. She was trying to get parts in Broadway Shows, and was rejected time and again.
Or athleticism: every champion spends years practicing, perfecting his or her skills before becoming a master of their sport. Olympic skiing prodigy Mikaela Shiffrin started working on her balance well before she was ten years old.
Or physical fitness: no pill or muscle-building supplement can substitute for time in the gym. A person can’t be fit without becoming fit.
Ironic, isn’t it? Relinquishing the dream of being, frees a person to become.
Hoping to hit the hit the lottery, makes one a better hoper. Waiting to feel energetic enough to work out makes one a better waiter.
There is no one way to become, however every successful person has embraced, not-necessarily loved, the process through which they acquired the knowledge and skills that enabled them to become the person they are. For sure, pursue lofty goals. Aim high. But remember you’ll never hit the bull’s-eye until you’ve become a marksman.
Dream of being a better parent, but spend time working on a project together with your child he or she is interested in.
Dream of being rich, but save and invest to become wealthy.
Dream of being happily married, but relish each opportunity to become a better partner.
Dream of being thin, but become a regular exerciser.
Dream of being a New York Yankee, but go to the batting cage to become a better hitter.
Dream of being a novelist, but become a writer by publishing that first poem, magazine article or short story.
Dream of being famous, but become a rock star by writing a song.
And most important: Find the joy in becoming, which is what people mean when they say, “Enjoy the journey.” Becoming is a learning experience; since learning proceeds incrementally, hoping for overnight success usually leads to frustration. Learning to enjoy learning is the key to becoming what you want to be.