Discovery of Ourselves

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

For one year, from June 1973 through June 1974, my husband, our three kids and I lived in a 21 foot Winnebago, and we wandered through Central and South America. It was an extraordinary experience.  You never knew what was down the road and around the corner.  You didn’t know whom you’d meet or what you’d eat or where you’d sleep…That was the thrill of it.  Even if it was a bad day, it was a vivid day.

At that time it had become important for my husband and me to set out on a voyage of discovery. It was less an exploration of foreign cultures than it was a discovery of our selves.  We had come to the realization that in the career-dominated pattern of our lives, we had let the rest of our commitments plateau.  We had allowed life and relationships to become habitual.  Anything that becomes routine, is not really experienced.  It was only in work that we were passionately alive and so we had become workaholics.  To recapture life we had to take work out of our lives.

The next time you walk through the door of your home, pay attention to how much you saw. Your home is filled with things you selected.  You chose the furniture, the rugs and all of those decorative objects…many things were probably bought on trips which makes them doubly special…But the reality is, when you walked through the door of your home you didn’t see anything because it has all become too familiar.

The opposite of vivid is routine; routine is the enemy of a life that is rich in experience.  Most people allow their lives to gradually fall into narrow and deep routines.  We see the same close friends and have the same conversations week after week…We go out to dinner every Saturday…and friends and family come over for lunch on Sunday… While routines are often comfortable, they are always deadening.  A repetitious life is a life that is flat; it has plateaued.[1]

Everyone, but especially workaholics, needs the equivalent of a Winnebago adventure, even if it’s on a small scale. It’s not hard to achieve. I’ve been doing hatha yoga first thing in the morning for over thirty years. It’s also been our practice to hike the mountain we live on at the close of the work day. One day we hiked first thing in the morning: what a revelation that was! The light that permeates our landscape was different, it was luminescent. The streets were filled with people – which we never see – and they smiled and waved. It was a great beginning to the day. To get off a life plateau, just do some things differently; create an adventure; face up to a new challenge; find something that makes you gasp or smile or sing.

I recently saw a photograph of my mother when she was a beautiful young woman of 21, with me, aged about one year. It’s not possible to see that image and merge it with that of my mother seen through the lens of age.  Life is so fleeting.  Therefore, live life vividly and with some sense of adventure.

To have a worthwhile life, achieve some things you believe are important. As long as there are commitments or goals or issues you care about, then your work can be significant – to you.  It is another issue, and not nearly as important, whether or not your work made a significant difference to the world.  To put that in perspective, most people’s work is interchangeable.  It doesn’t matter who did it.  Doctors in clinics as well as shoe salesmen in malls are interchangeable.  But parents are not interchangeable.  That’s why a lot of people, perhaps the majority, find their most significant work in raising their children.

A soaring stock market, exuberant excess in consumer spending, and the millionaire neighbors next door, in combination with the borderless world’s relentless demands for do it better! faster! cheaper!, led many Americans in the 1990s toward a life dominated by the priorities of work. We not only gave work the largest amount of our time, we gave it the largest amount of our passion. And we paid too little attention to the fact that a work-absorbed life is also a commitment primarily to “Me.

While there is no lifestyle which is the best one for everyone, it is fair to say that no life is best satisfied by meeting the needs of “Me” or “Us.” At different stages of life, “Me” or “Us” will loom larger or smaller, but in the longer term the narcissistic workaholic needs an “Us” commitment in order to feel grounded and the “Us”-committed person needs to gratify “Me” or resentment of those they are caring for follows.

September 11th made America wake up to the fact that while work and success are often exciting and engrossing, it’s the quality of your life that’s always at stake and our lives require connecting as well as succeeding. Everyone needs to have an “Us” and a “Me” in their life. I wish everyone a life filled with experience and a legacy they’re proud of, based on values and commitments that make life rich and meaningful.  If we pay conscious attention to what really matters to us, and we make decisions that are a Best Fit, and we use life’s plateaus to revitalize ourselves, we all can and should achieve a life that satisfies and matters.


[1] For more information about plateauing see my book, The Plateauing Trap, AMACOM, N.Y., 1991.

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