“My Highest Ambition Is To Be What I Already Am.”

“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself–and if I accept myself fully in the right way I will already have surpassed myself.

–Thomas Merton, Journal, October 2, 1958

I love this quotation so much that the first line of this passage is the epigraph for my forthcoming book The Four Tendencies. (Choosing the epigraph is probably my favorite part of writing a book. How I love quotations!)

I’ve spent a lot of time studying Merton, because as a Trappist monk and definite Rebel, he was a fascinating case study. He kept voluminous journals, as well as writing essays and memoirs, so it was possible for me to have true insight into his thinking.

When I first started studying the Four Tendencies, I was puzzled by the not-infrequent pattern of Rebels being attracted to areas of high regulation, like the clergy, the military, and big corporations. Now it makes sense to me. It’s a whole section in my book.

If you’re intrigued by the book The Four Tendencies, you can pre-order it here (pre-orders really help me, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I very much appreciate a pre-order).

If you don’t know which of the Four Tendencies describes you — whether you’re an  Upholder (like me), Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel (like Merton), you can take the quiz here.

I also love the way writer Flannery O’Connor put it: “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.”

These quotations remind me of one of the paradoxes of my happiness project: I want to accept myself, but also expect more from myself.

This tension between “accepting myself’ and “surpassing myself” — how we must accept ourselves in order to surpass ourselves — is something I think about often. What is self-acceptance, really? Or self-knowledge? A mystery.

How do you think about self-acceptance and self-knowledge?

  • Had a similar discussion with my wife last night. I was listening to the Secular Buddhist podcast, and the topic a few episodes back was “Looking Deeply at Suffering,” and how suffering arises naturally when we wish life to be different than it is. It creates a certain desire which says ‘this moment is not enough.’ If I catch myself in the cycle of trying to improve who I am constantly, I am not accepting all that I am. Of course, there will always be certain habits to change. For example, I have bad anxiety. I’m not going to accept anxiety as a definition of who I am. I have anxiety, but I am not anxiety. I manage it now. It’s part of who I am. Not who I am.

    Thanks for sharing your words.

  • I was surprised by my results as an Obliger. It’s making me consider some things a little more deeply.

  • Katie T

    Looking forward to your new book. I am almost done with better than before and have read both of your other books. I am an obliger. I feel a deep sense to accept myself but feel tension from my obliger tendencies to put the needs of others ahead of my own. I also think this season of life (married and at-home mom to two boys ages 7 & 10) can create tension in accepting myself and expecting more.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so pleased to hear that you think “The Four Tendencies” will be helpful. The chapter for Obligers is one of the longest chapters!

      Gretchen Rubin

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      • Katie T

        Just saw this yesterday and I knew you would appreciate:
        “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” – Chinese Proverb
        Thank you so much for your books, blog, and podcast – they all have had a big impact on my life!
        – Katie

  • Debbie

    When I’m comfortable, I’m a questioner. When I’m uncomfortable, I feel like an obliger – specifically a people pleaser.So, what to do? My obliger side feels like a stumbling block.

  • Arlene H

    I love quotes as well! This is a definite keeper and will be one that I refer to on my “digital Post-It Notes”. I keep finding myself trying to continually achieve and move upward in life, wherever that may be. There has to be a balance between goal setting and achievement and acceptance. Still trying to find that balance, but I am glad that I am aware and able to see how I am moving between the two extremes. I often find that I am searching to fill a void with my achievement in that I will never be satisfied. I am hoping to learn more acceptance and how to balance that with achievement. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and books with the world! Already pre-ordered the Four Tendencies book! I am an upholder and I definitely agree that structure leads to freedom.

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