#15 Growing Up



Note: Designing Yourself is produced as an audio podcast. We encourage you to keep in mind that emotion and emphasis may be lost in the written word. Transcripts may contain errors.

Listen to the audio

Paul McAleer: Welcome to another episode of Designing Yourself. I’m Paul McAleer.

Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.

So, in talking about what to talk about today, we were going around and round on how we wanted to grow this podcast, whether we felt we were in a good place with it, and what we were hoping to do with it next. And so we landed on this topic of growth, and we realized that there are a lot of things in our lives that we’re trying to grow all the time.

And when that happens it seems that there’s a question of how to grow in a way that fits who you want to be. And so, this topic of growth is pretty meaty. It isn’t just about the podcast, and it isn’t just about our businesses and our careers. But it’s about who we are as well and how we define what growth is.

So, Paul, I’m wondering, what do you think growth really means?

Paul: Well, to me it means that you are making a conscious decision to devote time and energy and effort and at least some part of your being to getting better at something. And it has to start with an awareness and recognition of where you’re at, for starters. Otherwise you could just say I’m growing, and that doesn’t really have anything behind it.

It’s like saying I’m improving. It’s like, OK. That’s cool. What are you improving in? How are you growing? I associate growth with improvement and not necessarily getting better at something. But that’s a big part of it, is getting better, improving, devoting yourself to getting better at this, and then having some point where maybe you say I’m done improving with this part of me, and now I want to focus on this other part.

So it’s kind of, I guess, I sustained set of changes, I guess you could say.

Whitney: Hmm. It sounds like you see there being an intention behind it, like you set your mind to growing. You have an end goal or at least some semblance of an end goal in mind. And then you put forth a concerted effort to bring about that change that you’re looking for.

Paul: Yeah. I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head. It’s positive. I mean, growth is this very positive thing. And if you think about it you’re possibly getting - you know, we associate growth with, well, many things. I mean, I think about plants and kids, of course. Who doesn’t? I think about growing, you know, up from the ground and, you know, just being bigger and having a presence and being able to do more.

And, of course, being a dad I think about my son and how he grows. And he grows in ways that I can see and I can’t see as well. There are lots of ways that I can tell. Well, he’s taller than he was a month ago. And it’s a very visible sign of growth. But then there’s obviously the growth that we take on that may be focused inward, you know?

All of the work that, I think, both of us have been doing can be seen as growth because we’ve matured in some ways as people in our own pursuits. And that’s not only professional pursuits but also just personally and emotionally and spiritually and all of those other things as well. And I see that as growth, too.

And I really - I don’t know if there’s necessarily a cap on it, ever. But it’s something that can be continual. And what do you think about that? Do you think it ends?

Whitney: Oh, how could it ever? I mean, like we talk about in the very first episode of this podcast, things don’t ever really start as this one point in time. By the time you notice that they’ve started, or by the time that you even set the intention to start something, it really started a lot longer ago than that.

And I think that the same is true for the other end of things, that things don’t ever really finish. Things don’t ever really get a bow, a ribbon with a bow tied around them in the way that we would very much like for it to be a lot of times in life.

I’ve got this Post-It note that I keep on my office wall that is kind of like - I call it designing a website, but it could be anything in life. And it’s time on the x-axis and completion on the y-axis. And it, at some point, tapers out and becomes parallel to the x-axis in that kind of long-tail way.

But I have this line of goal just above the line graph. And you’re never really going to reach that. I mean, you never just - it never can be reached. Like, I remember when, as a child, I was learning about the concept of infinity. I don’t know if you had a demonstration like this. And now I’m not going to remember the theorem.

But there’s two points on either side of the room. Divide that in half. And then a kid walks to the middle of the room and you’ve got a kid on either side. OK, now go halfway between that and that, halfway between that. You can never reach the other end. So I think that oftentimes with growth it is a moving target, you know?

It’s never - we can never plot something and say I’m trying to grow to this point and have that be fixed because as we’re growing, as we’re growing our business, as we’re growing our careers as people and our relationships, what have you, our perception of what that goal should be is shifting because we’re shifting.

And so, the perceived achievement of that goal is none. We can’t ever really cross that line. We can’t ever really stop growing, I think, so long as we’re breathing. But I’m amazed at your ability to go straight for the definition of improvement and betterment as how you see growth because for me that’s a constant battle.

That’s how I want to see growth. That’s the growth that I want to work on. But I feel as if my whole life I’ve been conditioned to see growth as getting bigger, not necessarily getting better.

Paul: And bigger in what senses?

Whitney: So, growing your career meaning bigger salary, bigger office, bigger responsibility, bigger power, bigger title, bigger status. In your life, bigger house and bigger space, bigger land, bigger toys, bigger purchases. And also same goes there for bigger responsibilities, bigger vacations, bigger - I don’t even know. Just bigger, bigger, bigger. For me, that’s always what growth was.

So, growing up was like getting taller and weighing more and being able to understand more. So, for the longest time I saw growth as being more intelligence. It’s like this quantitative thing of bigger, bigger, bigger. And I think I lived that way for a long time, but it never sat right with me because I wanted to know why bigger was better.

And there are so many ways in which we know that it isn’t. And so I wonder why I was always trying to grow myself in a way that seemed to value getting better. I struggle with that with my business. Everyone that I would come into contact with who were well-intentioned, oh, how are you growing your business? I took that to mean when are you going to hire people? When are you going to be working in more places? When are you going to have more clients? When are you going to have a bigger income, etc.?

And that’s what I optimized for for a really long time until I got to a point where I couldn’t keep growing in that way and keep being happy and healthy and comfortable and sane and a lot of other things that I really wanted to be as well. So, I had to redefine what growth meant. And that’s very much in the definition that you started with.

Paul: Sure. And I can agree with you in that I initially thought that growth, more so when I kind of got out of college and started my “career” and all that good stuff, it was about growth in that largesse sense, right? It was that I want to get - I want to make more money. I want to have a nicer car. I want to not - I want to have more responsibility at work. I want to have a certain title. I want to have all these things. There’s lots of wants.

What I found is that it was actually not necessarily growth that I wanted, but I needed to feed a very old part of me that really just wanted a lot of attention and wanted people to pay attention to it. And what I found is that, well, ultimately that wasn’t satisfying for me.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t consider those things when thinking about a job or a car purchase or whatever. But I guess I just see less value in assigning and filling that growth with material objects. I guess that’s a pretty fine point to put on it. I just don’t see that as beneficial to me as focusing on myself and my relationships with others.

And that’s - by the way, it’s much harder to do that. It’s much harder. And it takes a lot more attention. And I think that something that it sounded like, based on what you were saying, about making more money, for instance, was that I’m not sure what the intention was behind that. Was it simply to make more money or to amass more power, or was that something more subtle than growth, for instance?

Whitney: It wasn’t my intention at all. It was doing what I thought I was supposed to. It was living by the definitions that I had learned from the outside world rather than listening inward to defining what that meant for myself. I think that for a long time I could say it was not living mindfully, not growing mindfully.

And so, once I started to feel the pain, the growing pains - and we often talk about growing pains as if it’s a good thing, you know? It’s OK, you know? Your body is stretching when you’re in your adolescence. And it does hurt. But you’re growing up. This is a good thing. It will pass. We tend to talk about growing pains as a rite of passage, in a way.

But sometimes you have to use that pain as a cue to explore what hurts so much, why it’s hurting, and to question whether the direction that you’re growing in is really right for you. And so it wasn’t until I was feeling an immense amount of pain, getting sick a lot, not sleeping, having tremendous amount of anxiety about doing what I needed to do and getting work done and getting to the next stage, and it was always about the future.

I didn’t have a sense of contentment around what I had achieved or what I was doing in the present moment. I would even say I wasn’t really there at all. Only then did I kind of start to wake up and say, OK, the direction that I’m growing in, yes, I can do it. It’s possible, and I’ve proven to myself and, I guess, to other people that I can do this.

But this is not satisfying for me. This is more pain than it’s worth. I want to grow in another direction. And it took some time to figure out what those other directions could be and to even acknowledge what you’re saying of this idea of improvement being something that wasn’t just about getting bigger.

But maybe growth is inward and that I can focus my energy on that, keep my salary basically the same for the rest of my career, and that would be success. And if I continue to grow inward, that I’ll still be growing. I’ll still be developing myself. I’ll still be designing a life that I love. But I don’t necessarily have to be measuring that growth in the ways in which I was taught to measure them.

Paul: Right. And I agree with you on that. And it touches back to our very first conversation over a year ago about the titles and the money and how that kind of - that ultimately was not what really was satisfying for you.

I think it’s interesting that you mention a couple of things. First, the idea of us getting better and having this goal that we shoot for. And we never quite reach it. And when you first said that I was feeling a little sad because that’s like, well, Whitney, why do we have goals at all if we’re never going to reach them?

But I like the finer point you put on it of that we set them in our present state. They change and evolve over time just as we do. Then it makes sense. It makes a lot more sense to say that I’m growing towards this or this is where I’m headed more in a slightly abstract sense, just because it allows us that space to, well, be in that moment and change our minds and not necessarily be bound to a particular plan.

I also love the phrase “growing pains”. And it’s interesting because when you mentioned it, of course first I thought about the physical pains that are involved with growing up that you brought to mind as well, right, because it can hurt. There are times when it can hurt.

But, to be honest, it feels like we never really get out of growing pains. We just experience them in very different ways. They may not be physical anymore, especially when you’re older. Or maybe actually when you get older they do become physical again, actually. You’re growing in a different way.

But they affect us more inside. And it becomes more of a component that goes along with change. And you’re right in that it’s interesting that we kind of poo-poo it and say it goes along with the territory and you’ll get past it. You’ll be better for it. So it really suggests that with any kind of growth there is going to be something that hurts, and not necessarily in the physical sense but possibly in the sense of having to let go of something or having to change an attitude or a belief or a pattern or recognizing something in yourself that you might not like.

Like, all of these things that I associate with pain and negativity in order to get to a point where you can grow, that kind of goes along with it. And it’s a little daunting to think about that there is pain involved with it. But then there’s got to be something better on the other side of that.

Whitney: Well, absolutely. And as you’re saying this I’m thinking, well, life’s a journey, not a destination. We fight so much against that in our culture. And yet it’s all there is, literally. Now is all there is. And we’ve spoken about present so much, so I don’t want to belabor the point. But growth is the present tense.

We don’t say “having grown,” you know? We’re putting value in growing, present tense. So there isn’t a destination. There isn’t a goal that needs to be achieved. We set the goal for having the opportunity to determine the direction that we want to grow in so that we spend our time growing, present tense, doing the things we really enjoy and eventually creating opportunities for ourselves to get to a new destination where we can then begin a new journey, not to be at the destination but to continue on the journey that we want to be on.

So, when you say things like getting yourself to a point where you can grow, it just makes me think, well, that first phase was a growth of another kind. And the pain that you’re talking about is - the other side of it is pleasure. Sorry, pleasure and pain, and I named it that for a reason. They’re both happening simultaneously. And that is all there is, as they say. And that’s all there is.

It’s painful, and it’s pleasurable, and we’re living it right now. And that’s it. So, it’s not - you don’t need to feel bad about when I say, well, you’re never going to achieve it. No one ever achieves it, whatever it is, that thing that they’re trying to grow towards, because you are achieving it. It is waking up every day breathing and setting out to do what you do and doing what you do all day with the intention of creating something new in your life.

I mean, to me I don’t know that growth and change are necessarily that different except that change doesn’t have necessarily a value judgment on it. It’s just a shift of some kind. And growth sounds like it has a value judgment on it where it’s positive change.

Paul: And I think it can be very positive change. But then there’s also, to depersonalize it a bit in the context of business, if you’re growing that could be good until a point when you get to be too big. There’s that point where a company, for instance, may just be too big and may be too powerful, etc.

Do we see that in people as well? Can people become too big, too powerful? I mean, I would say yes pretty easily. But is that mostly in the financial sense and just the material sense? Or is it more in the personal growth sense as well? I wonder about that.

Whitney: Yeah. So what is it that you’ve got going on in your life right now that you’re trying to grow?

Paul: Ha-ha-ha, that’s a good question. I’m trying to - wow, what am I trying to grow right now? I’m trying to grow my work on my days and what I do with them. I’m trying to grow my sense of intention and direction around my days and what I do with them. And, to me, that is moving away from the day-to-day and focusing just a little tiny bit more on how to be more present. It’s that continuing practice.

Before we started recording we were talking about topics and what we might chat about, and I came up with practicing. And I see that as a form of growth because if you are working on something, if you choose to, then that goes hand in hand with potential growth, because the more you do it, the more - well, the more you do it, the more you do it. There’s no other value there. But you might become better at it as well if that is what you want to do.

I could see that as a way to grow, for sure. And for me I think the biggest, hardest thing, the gnarliest thing that I deal with, is really how can I be more intentional with my individual days? Not the big plans, not the tiny plans, because I feel like those are in a decent place for now. But what about when it comes to a day? How can I really - to use a clichéd phrase, at the end of the day, how can I look back on it and say that I really did fulfill my intentions and not goals but intentions for that day?

Whitney: Yeah. It’s so amazing that you’re bringing this up, because I have a coaching client who’s working on something. I’m not going to go into detail because it is not public. But it’s essentially exactly what you’re describing - a way to set your intentions for the day.

And, one of the things that we were recently talking about is how on the one hand having a way to set an intention is really valuable because so many of us spend our time each day at the end of the day thinking we spent it poorly. I wish I had more focus, or I wish I had taken that moment to decide what was really important to do today and then done that. I wish I had a way to set that, to track that, to remind myself of that throughout the day. That’s incredibly valuable.

And I see that as absolutely being a huge part of personal growth. But it also - growth has a lot to do with recognizing what you have accomplished as well. And there’s so little out there in our world of productivity - tools, methods, you name it - that celebrate what you have accomplished. And, again, it is part of our society’s obsession with attainment and the future that I think has created that.

But it’s worth us recognizing just how valuable it is to not just set the intention at the start of the day to focus your time and energy throughout the day but then to have that moment at the end of the day where you take a look back. And rather than coming down on yourself for all the things that you didn’t do that you had intended to, recognize the progress that you did make and the growth that you did create in your life and feel satisfied with that, because I have a hunch that feeling those positive feelings is more beneficial to your future growth than the negative ones.

Paul: Yeah. For goodness’ sake, go easy on yourself. I mean, we’re all trying. We’re all human. And if you’re putting in effort, even if it’s not necessarily conscious effort, if you put in an effort that day that’s all that matters in the end. But then to reflect on, well, if it didn’t meet your expectations or what have you, well, why not? And not in an accusatory way, but just exploring that. I think that’s pretty important.

And, you know, it’s funny that - it’s funny, and maybe it’s just an awesome coincidence that you have a client who’s thinking about this as well because I wonder if it goes hand in hand with the idea of growth and material stuff, because apparently that’s where I want to go with this, because when you attain a certain level of, oh, any level of financial stability, I mean, then there’s a matter of - there’s a component of showiness that you have to - well, don’t have to, but so many of us choose to participate in if we can. If we have disposable income we want to demonstrate that in different ways.

Some of it is more about status, right? So, in the absence of that, if you take that away as a way of showing growth, then how do you do it? How do you show to yourself because that’s kind of who you’re accountable to first, that you’ve grown? How does that manifest itself? How do you keep track of it?

Whitney: It’s so funny that you’re asking that question because I am in a period of growth in my life where having less and less and less is the direction in which I’m growing.

Paul: Sure.

Whitney: You know, we got rid of a lot of stuff when we left New York. We really could only have what fit in the jeep and that was it. And so, it required eliminating a lot of possessions that I previously felt defined my success in a lot of ways. I used to have an apartment in Tribeca and then one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I had photos of my travels around the world professionally blown up and framed and hanging on the walls so that any time someone came over they would see all the beautiful places I’ve been to and all the great experiences I’ve had there because at the time I needed other people to recognize that in order for me to feel good about it.

Paul: Aha, sure.

Whitney: You know, I wasn’t feeling it inside of myself for a lot of reasons. And so, that it was outside of me and hanging around me - and even though I say, oh, it was for my friends who I was inviting over, family who was coming over, it was for them, it was probably just as much, if not more, for me coming home every day, seeing that or sitting at home working, being surrounded by that on my walls, to reinforce what I couldn’t acknowledge about myself or about my life.

But over the last few years it’s been about eliminating that stuff, you know? Yeah, I spent a lot of money to get those photos enlarged and framed. OK. That’s money I’m never going to see again. But I don’t have those photos with me anymore. That’s no longer a part of my life. And we live in a furnished rental. None of the furniture is ours. Almost none of the artwork on the walls are ours.

We have our own stuff in the cabinets, the drawers and the shelves. That’s pretty much it. And we’re now talking about buying a sailboat and living aboard. It’s something we’ve wanted to do pretty much since the beginning. But we weren’t ready. It was way too painful to think about having that little in our lives.

Even though the purchase of a sailboat is a lot and it’s much more than either of us own right now, there’s quite a bit less that you’re capable of having in your day-to-day life if you live on a sailboat. There just isn’t a storage space.

I have hardly anything of a wardrobe left at this point because of all the times we’ve moved around. But I’m going to have to have even half of what I have now. And so that growth in the opposite direction, I guess, of what we typically think of as growth - and how do you measure that? And how do you show for that? I don’t know that there is a way to outwardly show it to yourself or to others.

I mean, maybe just the presence of a sailboat in our lives will be a way for me to point and say, see? We live on this. See how I’ve grown from living in a sweet pad in New York to this? See how much I’ve changed and for the better, I hope? Instead, I’m starting to believe - I’m not living it yet, but I’m starting to believe that the only way that I can show that is in who I am, in the way that I act, in the way that I treat people.

And I think that what’s really hard about hanging your hat on that is that we fuck up all the time. I fuck up in the way that I treat people, in the way that I handle myself, in the way that I carry myself, in how I present to the world, all the time. We all do. And if I don’t have any of the typical possessions and typical cues of my success, and I’m basically saying, “You know what I want to be the demonstration of my growth? How I act every day.”

Then I’m really opening myself up to a whole lot of criticism and from myself, foremost, because I don’t have the photo on the wall to remind me of X, Y and Z. all I have is how I was today, how I am right now.

Paul: It’s like going hyper-minimalist. You don’t have anything else, you know? I mean, if you diminish the number of things that you’ve got, whether by choice or not, that’s funny to think about that as a way of growing. But it’s almost this trajectory that it sounds like, to a degree - I’m not living on a boat anytime soon - but to a degree that both of us had where there’s a point where you just have stuff and/or money and/or title and/or what have you. And that says to the world that I’m growing. I’m improving. I’m making it, all those things that Peter Gabriel sang about.

That’s all happening, right? So it’s like, hey, hooray for me. And when it comes down to it, though, those are just things. They don’t last forever. They won’t last forever. They’re very temporary. But if you have those things and you own those things and, as you say, you fuck up, you still have them unless you fucked up in a certain different way. And then you wouldn’t have them anymore, right?

But generally if you use them as kind of a way of showing how you are and a way of showing how you have grown and/or changed, then there is the other side of that, is that, well, then people may only see you for those things and in that way. And then if you do actually change and/or grow, the people that were around for that may no longer be there, you know?

Whitney: And, guess what? They’re not. And that is a very helpful process to live through because the ones who are are the ones who mattered all along. And the ones who aren’t are themselves probably not growing. Or, if they are, they’re growing in a direction that’s different than you are, and that’s OK.

Paul: It is OK. But isn’t it something how you can catch up with somebody that you haven’t seen in a long time, maybe from high school or even elementary school, and be like, wow, they haven’t changed at all. And, sure, they’ve changed a lot. But maybe they haven’t, too.

But it’s funny how we notice that in others. And sometimes we just turn it off and say, wow, that person really hasn’t changed. And it’s not necessarily - it could be a negative thing. But maybe it isn’t either. Maybe it’s something that we can kind of depend on in a way, that even though we’re growing and we’re changing, we’re still us in a way. We may be different flavors of us in that current moment, but it’s still us.

Whitney: I couldn’t agree more.

Paul: All right. That was a nice little chat about growth.

Whitney: Oh, it’s always so funny how these topics overlap as much as they do. But I still think it’s worth taking a little time to try to focus in on one and see where its borders are.

Paul: I agree. And, you know, with something like this and, frankly, all of our topics there’s a lot of overlap. And it’s almost a circle of a Venn diagram. But I love exploring the sides of it and kind of looking at how these things all work together because as we’ve talked about before life is messy and all of this stuff does overlap. So there’s no reason to fully separate it out. But, you know, I appreciate that we’re able to separate it ever so slightly so it’s easier to listen.

Whitney: Well, I can’t wait until we pick our next topic and do this again.

Paul: Same here. Thank you so much, Whitney.

Whitney: Thank you, Paul.

Designing Yourself is hosted by Whitney Hess and Paul McAleer and is edited by Aaron Dowd. Our theme music is “All Heroes” by Ardecan Music Productions with some rights reserved via creative commons. You can follow Whitney on Twitter at @whitneyhess. And you can follow Paul at @paulmcaleer.

Paul: If you like what you heard on this episode, stop by our website at DesigningYourself.net. You can subscribe to the show via your favorite podcasting app or via iTunes. We love to hear your feedback. So if you have an idea for a topic, a guest, or just want to say hello, you can call our listener hotline. Call 1-404-500-SELF. You can always reach us on Twitter at @designingyou, and our super-secret email address is designingyourself@gmail.com. Thank you for listening. We’ll talk again soon.