Looking to others can be inspirational at times. Having role models and representation can show us what’s possible. It can spur us on to stretch ourselves and pursue our dreams! But the flip side is that we sometimes look at the lives of others, see what they are doing, and attempt to emulate something that God never intended for us.
Especially during the first days of the New Year, we’re amped and motivated to make big changes! Make healthier choices. Stop procrastinating. Be more consistent. Some positive principles are generalizable. Yet we sometimes make specific goals that aren’t necessarily in our individual best interest. Drop three clothing sizes. Establish a business. Start the day at 4:30 a.m. Sometimes we copy what has been “successful” for others and decide that if we want to capture the same level of happiness that we perceive they have, we should do what they do. But what if the thing that works for others isn’t for you? What if your body is actually healthiest and strongest at a larger size than your “target”? What if entrepreneurship isn’t for you? What if your time for peak productivity is at night? Self-help books and motivational gurus make their living by telling you the necessary “steps” to becoming like them. But following that path might not be your path.
Clearly, we should aspire to improve ourselves—all the time, not just at the dawn of a New Year. And in doing so, we ought to remember that our aspirations should be aligned with the unique plan God has for each of us individually. Merely copying someone else can counterproductively lead to less satisfaction instead of more. We may wind up frustrated that what worked for them hasn’t worked for us. Or worse yet, it does work and we do reach the goal we set only to find out that it doesn’t deliver the fulfillment we thought it would. Many of us experience stress and life dissatisfaction that stems from trying to live someone else’s dream.
We’ve heard and read the story of David and Goliath thousands of times. Recall how David tried on King Saul’s armor and it didn’t fit. It wasn’t what David needed to work optimally and be at his best for the battle. He wouldn’t have been as agile or effective if he had simply worn the king’s garments. What worked for Saul didn’t work for David. What works for them might not work for you. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
So, should we idolize complacency? No. If you have a dream, go for it! Use the impetus of the New Year to motivate you. But make sure it’s your dream. I recently had a relative say she was inspired by me and wanted to get her doctorate. I asked her a simple question: “Why?” While there may be perceived cachet, it’s also a lot of work and requires life adjustments. If you have a clear rationale in mind, your “why” will keep you motivated to finish when the going gets rough. But if there’s no clear reason besides being able to say, “I have what someone else has,” you can become burned out and distraught—which is a danger even when you do have a clear reason! It’s not wise to spend money, energy, and time on a goal that really isn’t yours. On the flip side, another relative said the same thing, so I asked her the same question. She had a definitive understanding of the work involved and saw this as a stepping stone to achieve an even larger purpose.
Think of how much more our communities and churches would flourish with the inclusion of a multitude of gifts instead of encouraging cookie-cutter achievements. We have historically discouraged young people from pursuing certain dreams and elevated others because there is a lack of vision regarding how the former could adequately fit into the life of a “faithful” church member. Even within the ministries of our churches, we are sometimes hesitant to be unique. We even discourage it! All because we want to conform to a “tried and true” pattern. What may be successful evangelism in one context may not work in another. The pattern for one congregation might not be replicable somewhere else. God may be calling you to change, but it may be a call to something radically new that’s never been seen before.
Sometimes we model our ideal habits and lifestyle after others because we are afraid. Afraid of forging a new path. Afraid of being different. If we already see a model of what “success” looks like, we wonder if it’s really possible to find happiness in something that doesn’t look exactly like that. If we don’t follow the mold, what does that say about us? How would we be perceived by the people around us? If my body doesn’t look the same as someone else’s, does that mean I’m unattractive? If I don’t have a business, am I a failure? If I rise later in the day, am I lazy? If I don’t get an advanced degree, am I stupid? If I don’t have a family, does that mean I’m unlovable? If my salary isn’t as big as someone else’s, does that mean I’m a bum? If my church follows a different format, are we being unfaithful? If my ministry is unconventional, am I a heretic? These questions are based in self-doubt—and God-doubt. God’s ideal plan for your life may be wildly different, but no less abundant, compared to the other people around you. Remember that David was selected by God specifically because he was different from his brothers. It turned out that being smaller and not battle-worn wasn’t a bug: it was a feature! Don’t miss out on the victories God wants for you because you insist on trying to be someone else.
As we enter this New Year, let us each seek God’s goals for our individual lives. May God grant you the wins that are intended for you.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
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