Here in Ontario, the hot, muggy summer days have been giving way to patches of bracingly cool weather. Today is warm and sunny, but the writing is on the wall. Fall, in all its technicolor splendor, will soon be upon us.
The turning of the seasons is a natural time to reflect, to think about where we are in our journey and where we’d like to go. We’re reminded that all life is transient, in a constant flow of change. We must grasp and make the most of each moment.
The most important changes are always internal. Think about the qualities that we had in childhood. A zest for learning and play, an unbridled enthusiasm, a taste for mischief. As we mature, we cultivate other qualities that only begin to bud when we’re young. Among these qualities are compassion, gratitude, acceptance and forgiveness. We reach our full maturity when the qualities of the child and the adult fuse together and reinforce one another.
The degree of maturity that we reach in life is different for everyone. It depends on our willingness to honestly examine ourselves and to be open to change. We’ll never be perfect, but we can always strive to be better.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In the middle of the last century, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed an influential theory of personal growth known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As we mature, we move from satisfying basic needs for warmth, food and security to satisfying higher needs for belonging and the esteem of our colleagues. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, where we achieve our full potential.
Later in life, Maslow realized that the peak of the pyramid includes self-transcendence as well as self-actualization. In time, we come to understand the deeply-interconnected nature of life. Contrary to our belief as children, we realize that we’re not the center of the universe. Like us, everyone is driven by their own insecurities and hopes, the search for meaning and the need to connect deeply with others.
Acting Without Ego
In the basic similarity of our shared nature, we find common purpose. We begin to act without ego to transcend the self, at least sometimes. We still work hard to achieve our personal goals. However, we also join with others to pursue goals that are bigger than any individual. Often these higher goals can’t even be achieved in our lifetimes.
At our best, this higher purpose infuses our work as public servants. When we find meaning and purpose in our work, we are happier, more productive and kinder to others. And there is nothing like public service to conjure up a feeling of higher purpose. After all, governments are an expression of our collective ideals and values.
Office politics, scrambles to meet deadlines, overflowing inboxes and unforeseen crises that threaten our well-laid plans are everywhere, and government is certainly no exception. The contingent nature of life and work can be exhilarating if we learn to surf above the commotion. However, it can also narrow our sights, obscuring the deep importance of the work we do.
Three Things That Promote Balance and Growth
If we’re losing that feeling of connection to a higher purpose, is there a way to regain it? To rediscover the zest and enthusiasm of our inner child? To get back on a path that leads to greater self-awareness and growth?
There is no magic bullet, but here are the top three things that have helped me. Don’t just take my word for it; numerous studies also confirm their benefits.
- Practice Mindfulness– Regaining our feeling of connection to a higher purpose is often a matter of regaining our connection to the present moment. When the mind wanders, it tends to turn to negative thoughts, either ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Try spending at least five minutes each morning sitting quietly and watching your breath. Over time, it will bring a greater feeling of balance into your day.
- Express Gratitude– Taking time each day to write down a few things that fill you with gratitude will remind you of what truly matters. In addition to my boyfriend and family, I often find myself expressing heartfelt gratitude for my colleagues, even the difficult ones!
- Get and Stay Involved– As we progress in our careers, our inbox tends to expand and bulge with new and more complex demands. We may be tempted to cut out activities that are actually indispensable to our happiness and growth. These might include belonging to a community group, coaching a kids athletic team or participating in committees at work that seek to bring positive change.
John Burton is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.