It's easy to forget that we are all perfect in our own design. Sometimes we muck it up with habits and choices that do not serve us.
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
What do you think of when you hear the word authentic? The dictionary tells us that something authentic is of undisputed origin. It is genuine, real, and true. I must tell you that for the majority of my life, I was far from genuine. In fact, I ran in the opposite direction of my authenticity. I call these decades ‘my chameleon years’.
Back then, I was as changeable as the person or project I was standing near. The goal was not to be myself. Instead, more than anything, I wished to fit in and to be accepted. I wanted to be recognized for my contribution, to feel that I was an integral part of a clan, and a significant part of a tribe. Years later I understood that this need for acceptance at any price was a way to get my parents to look at me and say, “She’s a success.” I was willing to do anything to get that validation.
So I shaped my life from my head rather than my heart.
I threw myself fully and completely into any endeavor that I believed would count toward something at the end of the day. I pushed my agenda like a freight train. My philosophy in life was ‘show me a mountain and I’ll either climb it or blow it up.’ I amassed seven divergent, yet very successful careers; there was education, public relations, advertising, investment banking, television, and public speaking. I dabbled in real estate development and tackled community fundraising. I entertained like Martha Stewart. I raised kids, pets, gardens, and the American flag on every holiday that rolled around.
Yet no matter how many successes I achieved – and there were some big ones – there was no lasting fulfillment. I did feel the momentary head rush of triumph when a deal closed or at the end of a monumental charity campaign. Any time that I received recognition for my contributions brought validation and happiness. But these feelings of happiness evaporated like the dew on a hot August morning. No matter the accolades, no matter the success, there was no lasting joy, no deep satisfaction, and no inner sense of peace. The emptiness always came home to roost.
And yet, throughout these years, something far greater than I could comprehend was nudging me along a path of discovering my own authenticity. A bridge was being built to call me into my best life, beckoning me from the darkness, victimhood, and scarcity into the light of possibility, passion, and courage.
This gradual change was facilitated by a handful of diverse women who exuded something so alluring, so appealing, and so genuine, that to be in their presence created a deep inner longing to grow into something more. Without recognizing it themselves, they were emitting an energy that was awakening my deepest self.
Carol Smith was one of these phenomenal women. I still remember the day I met her more than 30 years ago. A petite, well-educated, and enthusiastic woman, she was an intrepid entrepreneur at heart. She had just returned from India where her husband had been working for a multinational corporation. While there she discovered a passion for collecting Asian antiques. She founded a direct importing business that would become her life’s passion. Over the next 20 years, Carol immersed herself in her field and grew to be recognized as one of the country’s foremost experts in the colonial furniture of Asia.
While these talents were admirable, she was so much more than the sum total of these qualities. First of all, this woman possessed a deep sense of joy. She never complained – even in light of personal challenges – she lived with the greatest dignity. Each time I was with her, she stopped whatever she was doing and connected as if I were the only person who mattered. She deeply listened to what I had to say. She had compassion for my upsets and challenges. She never tried to fix me, but always reframed things so that I could step closer to uncovering my own solutions.
She loved to empower those around her. She shared her passion for collecting. After returning from her buying trips half a world away – she would regale me with Karen Blixen-like stories inspiring me to become more independent. She was steadfast in her personal beliefs and lived her values. Every day was an adventure and, without knowing it, she inspired those around her to personal greatness.
One day, Carol called me to have tea. As usual, she listened to the laundry list of my problems with a compassionate ear. When I finally asked about her life, she quietly told me that she had been diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, over 18 months ago and that she was now involved in a clinical trial. She knew she was living on borrowed time and was ready to share and receive support from those outside her immediate family.
I was stunned. With tears falling down my face, I blurted, “but Carol, you’ve been back and forth to the far East several times. You’ve been at work non-stop. How could you keep working in light of this devastating diagnosis?”
And she looked at me as a mother would a small child explaining the most basic of concepts. “Jan, I love my life. I wouldn’t change any of it!”
A seismic shift in the tectonic plates of my reality happened that afternoon.
She loved her life, just as it was. No changes. No do-overs. No last-minute reshuffling. She was at peace with it all. Just as it was.
I, on the other hand, had spent my life trying to not be myself. I was the opposite of genuine when it came to how I was living my life. Compared to Carol, I was a counterfeit, a mock-up, a reproduction. I was living my life on someone else’s dime, waiting for approval that never would come. I was a fake.
I cried for days. Of course for Carol, but also for the realization of something far deeper. If I were in Carol’s shoes, there is nothing in my life that I would have continued doing. I would beg for more time to try to discover the real me. To find true joy. To uncover the deepest inner connection that would support my choice to live a courageous life. To be so much more than just happy; to live true joy. To uncover true peace.
It was then I accepted the greatest gift that Carol ever gave me, the true litmus test for living authentically. If I had only 18 months to live, what would I change?
And so it is now, each morning when I awaken, I ask myself that question. And it has provided the greatest impetus to begin living my personal truth and my most courageous authentic life.
Are you living your most authentic life? If not, in Part 2 of this article I’m going to share four practices that I use every day to keep myself on the most genuine of paths. I hope to see you there!
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