What If?

I’m just being exactly who I am right now and seeing how that goes.

After spending nearly half of my time on planet Earth in some kind of earnest form of self-development, I’m giving it up.

That’s right, for the past several years, I’ve suspended my yearning after a new, improved, shinier version of myself. No more workshops, self-help books, therapists, coaches, rigorous exercise regimes, or radical diets. I’m just being exactly who I am right now and seeing how that goes.

Those persistent shortcomings that have been my trusty companions for lo, these many years keep showing up as they always have. Now instead of rolling up my sleeves, getting out my spiritual wrenches, and making a lengthy self-improvement to-do list, I nod and sigh and carry on.

I’m willing to bet that on the day I die I will still tend to impatience, judgment, a craving for salty-crunchy things, and a fundamentalist kind of loathing for any kind of fundamentalism. I’ll have flabby arms and so-so posture and a propensity to waste time on the computer.

This new phase of my life began in a cab in Chicago several years ago. I overheard a conversation between friends as we were driving through the drizzly streets:

Friend One: “I’m on a new raw-food diet now. I’m working with a pilates coach several times a week and enrolling in a new workshop series and working with a new business coach.

Friend Two: “Sweetheart, you’re such a lovely person. What if you stopped working so damn hard on yourself and just lived your life?

What if, indeed?

That proposition struck me so deeply that I went home and wrote a song about it (you can see a video of the song, below). The line that still makes me squirm a little is “what if all this striving to be my best was just self-hatred in a fancy dress?

I’m growing suspicious about the habit of self-improvement. It feels like a subtler, more “enlightened” version of consumerism… a kind of spiritual cosmetics industry. As long as I’m obsessed with a bigger (or smaller), better Barbara out there, I might not notice poverty and injustice. As long as I’m dithering about some intractable personality trait, I might not notice Nature’s incredible unfolding outside my window or my neighbor’s need for a friendly gesture or what a stunning miracle it is to be alive at all.

Just to be clear, I’m not averse to learning. As a singer/songwriter, I will continue to reach for the clear note, the true turn of phrase, the effortless piano riff. As a voice coach, I’ll keep listening deeply to beauty and wisdom within the voices of my clients. As a friend and family member, I’ll continue to bring my heart and attention to the precious humans around me. These things feel distinctly different from those other kinds of self-improvement projects I’ve given up. They seem to emerge from inside me rather than being imposed from some external expectation or standard.

Meanwhile, I don’t need to seek out challenges. Life will keep on bringing me nose to nose with my shortcomings. And when it does, I’ll whine and squirm and – as poet Theodore Roethke so beautifully writes – “learn by going where I have to go.


About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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3 Responses to What If?

  1. Dear Barbara…I love your analogy to the personal growth craze as a ‘spiritual cosmetics industry’ – I agree that focus on self-development can prevent one from seeing the REAL problems in the world of poverty, injustice, economic inequity. This is a time now for collaboration and focus on the whole – the bigger picture – NOT just the self – if you’re interested in checking out what we’re doing in New Zealand re: community visioning & action planning vs.just ‘self-development’, see theawarenessparty.com…Thanks for saying what needs to be said! for voicing yourself fully!

  2. CarolPetering says:

    Thank you Barbara.., Merci and Grazie and all the other ways of spelling out gratitude. I just retired from 47 years of working in health care, helping others to improve their health lives. This is a highly scripted field, even though I spent a lot of time pushing boundaries into innovations.
    But for this new day I wake into, I just feel a strong pull to live in a way and a place outside of expectations – and live this life I have now in however it calls to me, within and without, stepping into the mystery is my new habit, and heeding the call of creativity in all its meanings as my new practice. Your words have encouraged me, and knowing that there are so many more new boundaries I will now bump into, I am who I am and I may still find ways to push boundaries, or walk around it, or find meanings in it for its own sake, or see its beauty and paint it, or take a nap and let the dream-world figure it out, or just walk away. I am grateful for life itself and for those I exchange with along the way, and that seems to be enough.

    • Hi Carol – Thank you so much for your poetic words and the thought behind them. I wish you all the best as you find your way into a more creative and spontaneous way of living!

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