This is not a trick question! But it does have a "tricky" answer.
Most people answer with things like their spirituality, their children or family, their career or health. If those are your answers, you may want to think again.
All of those things are important! But I'm indebted to one of my mentors, Thomas Leonard, for helping me dig deeper on this one. Thomas argued that the most important thing in life is "self-ishness."
Ordinarily, we associate selfishness with spoiled kids fighting over toys in a sandbox, and it's not a pretty picture. Fortunately, that's not at all what Thomas had in mind.
He pointed out that our first obligation is to figure out who we are, what we want, and where we're going in life. Until we discover our "Self," we are in a sense living someone else's life!
And, here's a critical point. Figuring out who we are and what we'll do with our life doesn't happen by accident! Carl Jung said that most people don't figure this out until after age forty. It takes a long time to grow up and take care of life's essentials. As young adults most of us are busy with school and work, starting and raising a family, launching a career, and a thousand other things.
Fortunately, as adults we can pause, step back and ask the big questions. I find it incredibly sad that so many people never face this essential responsibility. It's no good living by someone else's rules or following someone else's dream. Life is a gift, but to make the most of it we must accept that "some assembly is required" and make the effort to find our own way in this world.
Thomas was right about the importance of being "self-ish." But he was wrong about how we do it.
Thomas developed a theory he called "personal evolution" and speculated that we could create a process of "automatically" evolving into the person we want to become. Frankly, as much as I admired him (he passed away several years ago), I think he was wrong about this.
I think some of us virtually "paint by the numbers" or "go through the motions" of living our lives! Existence is (relatively) easy, but growth requires hard work, and a plan.
I think the term "personal development" is a more accurate description of how we earn the right to a "life of one's own." I think responsible adults take control of their own lives because life expects us to learn and stretch. It expects us to make choices, set a course, develop skills and work hard. Life asks us to try things, make mistakes, and commit to a path of growth and maturity. Anyone can get old, but growth only comes with effort and commitment.
So here's the challenge: Who are you striving to become? Do you have a plan? Are you making the daily investment?
I don't think this has to be "hard" or expensive. In many ways, it's very easy! Think about this--would you rather live a life of distractions, obeying other people's rules, and following someone else's script, or a life focused on your own most important priorities? I think in many ways, living a GREAT life is much easier than living an ordinary life. Sure, it requires a few basic disciplines. It requires hard choices and the integrity to stick with them. But in many ways, a GREAT life is actually much easier and infinitely more satisfying!
Here are four simple--not always easy, but simple--steps:
1. Get clear about who you are, what you value and where you're going in life. Be very "self-ish" about this!
2. Develop a plan. What do you need to change? What do you need to learn? Who will you be five years from now, and how will you make that happen? Take notes and write this stuff down.
3. Take action every day. It doesn't have to be dramatic action, but every day, stick with it. Read. Talk with smart people. Eliminate one or two distractions. Spend time on things that make you proud, that stretch and strengthen you.
4. Invest time (and a few dollars) in your self! Get away for perspective. Get away to learn. Get away to THINK! Get away to organize, plan and grow. Get away so you can return home clear-headed, focused and energized.
See you at the top!