The Art of Becoming Your Best & Highest Self

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast. Share the gift of inspiration this holiday season with our new hardcover book Evergreen: 50 Inspirational Life Lessons. Learn more at Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from The Aim of Life by Philip Stafford Moxom, published in 1894.

Life is a mission. Every other definition of life is false, and leads all who accept it astray. Religion, science, philosophy, though still at variance upon many points, all agree on this: that every existence is an aim.

It is the high distinction of humanity that we are capable of living with an aim — that is, with a purpose which, reaching through all our lives, unifies it, and gives it directness and force. An aim in life would be impossible if we were not a rational, free personality, having duty and a destiny. There is, then, a singular abdication of real dignity if you live your life without purpose; and there is no more serious and important matter for you to consider than your life’s aim.

It is important because it intimately concerns success, and, still more, because it concerns the formation and development of character. I wish you to think of this whole subject with a new seriousness and force. Life is tremendous in its possibilities. More than half the battle for true success is won in beginning right.

I do not ask now, what’s your aim in life? That question we shall mutually consider a little later. Let us first think about the general question. The aim of life includes both an object or end toward which life moves, and a purpose which impels it to that end. By this phrase I mean the supreme object and the ruling purpose of your life.

Although we may have many minor and subordinate aims, we can have but one supreme aim, and from this supreme aim all the others take their real character. Our aim in life is that object or end which draws to itself our highest thought and aspiration and endeavor; and it is that purpose which, consciously or unconsciously, makes the strong mid-current in the stream of our activity that ever moves onward, however many may be the eddies and transient back-currents that perplex the stream’s margin.

The aim of life is that which creates life’s tendency, and supremely determines conduct. The real aim of life, let me remind you, is not always the apparent aim; for we are often self-deceived as to the chief ends, and often others are deceived by them. But conduct, in the long run, must be consistent with our ruling purpose, for it is this which qualifies and directs conduct.

What you are supremely living for determines the course you are taking year in and year out. For example, there are two main directions which your life may pursue: one is toward good; the other is toward harm. A stone thrown from the hand goes up or down; it never keeps a horizontal line. Gravitation pulls it toward the earth; the moment it leaves the hand, gravitation begins to overcome the upward propulsion and at last is completely victorious. The track of the stone is a curve, the farther end of which rests on the ground.

In the realm of the moral life, there are only two tendencies and directions, upward and downward — the gravitation toward harm, and the attraction or propulsion toward good. You can find in the universe no neutral course for a moral being. There may be confusing oscillations in a life’s tendency — it may at some point describe a crooked and uncertain path; but as a whole it has a definite trend this way or that.

The definite trend of your life discovers your real aim; you cannot disguise it except transiently. It is not something outside of you, compelling you this way or that; it is you — the complex of your generic choices and volitions. I dwell on this because it is one of those trite yet tremendous truths which so many forget or ignore, and which has such vital consequences in the destiny of the soul.

Always you are moving somewhere, always you are becoming somewhat; and the direction which you are now taking, the character which you are now forming, the success or failure of your life, is unchangeably determined. The most critical moment in your experience is when you consciously and deliberately ask: “Where am I going; what am I becoming in thought and feeling and character?” Then (if ever) is the choice made, the purpose formed, which henceforth makes your life-story easy to read.

When we step upon the threshold of adulthood, we often ask questions, such as: “How can I best earn a living? What trade or profession shall I learn? What business shall I follow? How can I get an education? How can I make a fortune?” But deeper than all these is the one question that gives meaning to all the rest: “What am I living for? What shall be the supreme purpose and result of my life?”

The thoughts that I wish to present to you now gather themselves naturally about two simple propositions: The first of these is: Every one ought consciously to have an aim in life. Whether we are conscious of it or not, everyone has a ruling tendency; but everyone should also have a controlling and persistent purpose in life. No one has a right to live aimlessly, for no one has a right to abandon reason and self-control, and consent to be a mere waif drifting like a plaything of the winds.

We are endowed with powers that make us capable of good and often great achievement. We are gifted with reason and conscience and will, in order that we may both become and do that which is noble and beneficent.

In the mythology of the Greeks, Phaethon (fah-ay-thawn) aspired to drive the flaming chariot of the sun. The task was beyond his human powers, and his disastrous rashness resulted in his death by a bolt hurled from the hand of Zeus; but the Naiads (nay-uh-deez), who buried him, wrote in his epitaph: “He could not rule his father’s car of fire; Yet it was much so nobly to aspire.”

The individual who drifts aimlessly through the years from youth to age does not truly live. Indeed, those whose aim is even lower than the highest, less than the greatest, is nobler than those who have no conscious purpose in life. But, besides being ignoble, a purposeless life is inefficient; to aim at nothing is to hit nothing.

The cannon-ball strikes • somewhere, though the cannon be fired at random. So each of us is moving toward some end. Each soul should be, not a missile aimlessly flung upon destiny by external forces — not the ball that flies wildly toward an unperceived mark — but the archer that aims with conscious purpose and inherent propulsive force, onward to a definite goal.

Many a person falls short of that at which they aimed, and some people attain more or other than the specific object which they sought; but no one who has lived with a purpose has failed of a certain efficiency. The dreary and desert hell of utter failure is reserved for the soul that has not lived, who has existed without an aim.

Of first importance, then, in the consideration of the question as to what your life shall be, is the fact that you cannot avoid moving toward some end, good or bad, and that it is your duty to move consciously in the line of a clearly defined purpose.

The second proposition that I would present to you is: The supreme aim of life should be in harmony with the nature and capabilities of the whole person. The chief end sought should be such as to bring to highest development all our powers: mental and spiritual. It should be comprehensive enough to include all right temporal ends, and of such moral excellence and attractive force as to subordinate to itself, in complete harmony, all the limitless detail of our daily choices, plans, and endeavors.

It is a principle of practical ethics that every person should aim to do some one thing in this world supremely well; and in order to attain the highest efficiency, it is necessary that each should do that for which, by temperament and training, they are best fitted. There is a natural division of labor indicated by natural aptitudes: one person is born with a special aptitude for trade, another for invention, another for teaching, another for mechanics, another for persuasion and argument.

No person can do all things, or even many things, equally well; efficiency inexorably demands concentration of effort. Definiteness of aim in life’s work is a chief factor in successful achievement. Aimless effort is fruitless effort, like the action of an idiot or a madman. History and experience abound in illustrations of this truth. The failure of many a business person is clearly traceable to their lack of concentration upon some one line.

The majority of people, if they would succeed, must be content to do one thing and to do that with all their might. If you are fitted to be a mechanic, be a mechanic, and such a mechanic that those about you will find your services indispensable. If you are fitted to make shoes, make shoes, and such shoes as all the world will wish to walk in. If you are fitted to be a farmer, be a farmer, and with such deliberateness and skill that the earth will give to you as to a master the reward of her most abundant harvests.

Be an artisan, be an engineer, be a merchant, be a lawyer, be a physician, be a teacher, be an artist, be a poet, be a worker, a producer of values, a true servant of your fellow citizens — and, whatever you do, do that with all your energy; only thus can you hope to attain any earthly success worth having. But, remember, the main business of life is not to do, but to become; and action itself has its finest and most enduring fruit in character.

All these ends in the sphere of utility are relative; they are not ultimate. No person has a right to be a mere tool, a mere wheel or spindle in the great manufactory of the world; and no person can rest with lasting satisfaction in the achievement of any material end. The person whose entire mind is concentrated on some temporal object, who seeks only success in business, or eminence at the bar, or fame in literature, will find at last that there are capabilities in their nature for which they have not provided. You may reach what you aimed at — wealth, power, pleasure, fame — and be, after all is said and done, essentially a poor creature.

No earthly and selfish pursuit can absorb the whole of a person’s thought and desire without doing them irreparable harm. What is more pitiable than a rich tycoon with a little soul, or a learned professor with a starved and shriveled heart? True manhood and womanhood is of more worth than money; character is more precious than craft or skill. Fullness of being is superior to encyclopaedic learning; the graces of gentleness and pity and love are more beautiful than all the accomplishments of art. Integrity and wisdom and chivalrous temper are better than power and fame.

To be a capable artisan, a successful salesman, a great financier, an eloquent orator, a brilliant writer, or an accomplished teacher is of much less importance than to be a true, whole man, a true, whole woman. Completeness in life is attained only in the line of some aim which reaches beyond earth and time to find its full scope in the eternal life of the soul.

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