“A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”
Before I found this book I had been struggling to understand why my life had been working out differently than I planned. Throughout college I had the idea that if I worked hard and outperformed my peers it would simplify my future, and once I graduated I could retire from the grind to enjoy the spoils of my efforts. After graduating, a more sobering reality set in instead, and I started feeling my life unravel. Within a few months my family situation became very stressful, I experienced a tough break-up, I discovered the jobs that I was explicitly qualified for were uninteresting to me, I felt betrayed by some of my closest friends, watched as some of my closest friends felt betrayed by me, and I developed a major project (partially to pull myself out of my negative mental state) which I told myself I could only fail by not giving it my best effort, only to turn around and do exactly that. I started to lose my energy and live in a smaller world, and most disheartening of all I started to feel that somehow on my continuous journey of self-improvement, I had become so misguided that I was becoming progressively worse with the passing of time.
Being a self-proclaimed “problem solver” I started applying almost every solution I encountered towards turning my life around. I removed the relationships from my life that I felt were toxic or simply draining me of energy (and mistakenly removed some healthy relationships that I had been misreading). I started being honest, open, and vulnerable as often as possible. I alleviated the constraints I had placed on myself that I believed were contributing to my anxiety and stress. I spent hundreds of hours reading books on emotions and overcoming adversity. I consumed motivational podcasts and movies (sometimes on repeat). I demanded that people treat me the way I wanted (but was unsure if I deserved) and I made hundreds of plans to get myself out of the emotional well I was drowning in. All of these plans stuck tightly to one of two formats: once some specific thing happens (an e-mail, a phone call, the success of a project, the return of an estranged friend, …) then I would feel content with my life, or once I accomplish some specific thing (finding a perfect career, healthy relationship, landing a difficult skateboard trick) then I would feel happy and fulfilled.
Amazing opportunities started presenting themselves to me, including but not limited to: a dream job working with my oldest friend, the introduction of people into my life who learned more about me and appeared to care more for me than the friends I had been closest with over the past few years, finally finding tribes that I fit into, and having almost complete freedom of time. Even with all this abundance, I continued to feel worse as hours, days, and eventually months evaporated away from me. If this weren’t enough to cue me on to the idea that I may be trying to solve internal problems with external solutions, I recognized a deep shame I felt about myself after the thick fog of college busyness cleared from my head, and my friends began pointing out my personal habits and behaviors that appeared to come from a place of deep seeded self-loathing. I decided to contribute a significant amount of my efforts to self-love, but I honestly had no idea where to start, or how this would solve all my problems. I’d tried various other things, but nothing seemed to reverse my downward trajectory. It wasn’t until I was exposed to the ideas in As a Man Thinketh that I gained clarity on how I found myself where I was in life, and received actionable advice on exactly how to overcome it.
I was advised that it was extremely difficult (if not impossible) to become fulfilled when one’s thoughts are in the wrong place, and perhaps more importantly, that my thoughts were very clearly in the wrong place. Life is complicated, everything we encounter seems to be abstract, subtle, or misleading, and in my state of perpetual overwhelm I was not prepared (or qualified) to decode another cryptic self-improvement book, and doing so would have probably only led me to create more problems. Exactly what I needed was (and still is) something short, simple, and direct that tells you exactly how to think, so that I could test it and make my own judgements. As a Man Thinketh does exactly this, and in a short (<40 pages) pamphlet sized book that I read in a single sitting. The message can actually be fully expressed from a single passage of the book:
“A man should conceive of a legitimate purpose in his heart, and set out to accomplish it. He should make this purpose the centralizing point of his thoughts. It may take the form of a spiritual ideal, or it may be a worldly object, according to his nature at the time being; but whichever it is, he should steadily focus his thought-forces upon the object, which he has set before him. He should make this purpose his supreme duty, and should devote himself to its attainment, not allowing his thoughts to wander away into ephemeral fancies, longings and imaginings. This is the royal road to self-control and true concentration of thought.”
Simple and actionable. If you need convincing that this is true, or examples of how it manifests, the majority of the rest of the book is dedicated to illustrating that, but what I have quoted above is everything I needed to dramatically improve my thinking process (and as a consequence my life). I trust this advice because I naively followed it on my last major endeavor, college. I entered largely unqualified for what I’d hoped to achieve, and exceeded even my greatest expectations, which I think is largely due to my adoption of this mindset. I decided weeks after graduating high school that I would push myself to do as well in college as possible. I was dedicated to this idea for the next four years, and I realize now, that that dedication came from the centralization of this idea in my mind. I created an identity and self-image in which I was some sort of academic genius, and spent enough time and energy trying to attain this ideal that it started to feel deserved. I filtered every decision I made through the heuristic: is this the action that a valedictorian would take? This eventually led to a top-down reorganization of my life: I found smarter, and more academically focused friends, I talked mostly about math, physics, learning and school, I started spending a large percentage of my money on textbooks I did not need (nor was ever recommended) for my classes, my most common nightmare was missing a test or forgetting I signed up for a particular class, my summer and winter breaks were filled with learning experiments, online courses, and head-starts for my classes, and instead of my heart being split between what feels like 100 desires like it is now, I really only wanted one thing, and I eventually got it. After graduating my focus was lost, and so was my guiding star. Problems felt more real because I didn’t know what I wanted, and I felt like I was going backwards because I couldn’t commit to a single direction. In college when my relationships ended I only felt sorry for myself in the time I had already allotted to be distracted, usually three hours or less a day, the rest of the time I was worried about something more important to me, my next test, homework, or project, the next task in my supreme duty. The more I let this idea simmer, however impersonal it may sound, being dedicated to a single purpose for a long period of time has improved the quality of my life and my general well-being more than probably everything else I’ve ever done combined.
Armed with an understanding that the secret to fulfillment is to purify one’s thoughts and align them with one’s chosen purpose, how then does one find a legitimate purpose? While this initially sounds like something so difficult I would indefinitely procrastinate on it, the passage quoted earlier continues to say:
“Even if he fails again and again to accomplish his purpose (as he necessarily must until weakness is overcome), the strength of character gained will be the measure of his true success, and this will form a new starting-point for future power and triumph.
Those who are not prepared for the apprehension of a great purpose should fix their thoughts upon the faultless performance of their duty, no matter how insignificant their task may appear. Only in this way can the thoughts be gathered and focussed, and resolution and energy be developed, which being done, there is nothing which may not be accomplished.”
For me, this takes all the pressure off. Whatever my duty is I must just stick to it, which is ultimately the best way to accomplish whatever I hope to accomplish, even when I don’t know exactly what that is right now. Allen never praises having a purpose, but focuses his energy of encouraging the committed pursuit of a purpose. My takeaways from the book can be understood by practicing two short exercises:
1. Choose something you want to do (don’t worry about it being a true purpose, just something you want to achieve) and make it your purpose starting today.
2. Commit to it as fully as you can, imbed the message deep in your actions and deeper in your mind. Remove what detracts from your purpose. Continue to deepen your commitment until you achieve your goal, or find a greater purpose (which you should immediately recommit to), leaving the past behind you.
What I was missing after I graduated was a purpose, and a disciplined way of thinking. It wasn’t the issues I brought up earlier that were tearing my life apart, but it was my lack of purpose that allowed them to bring me down, and caused at least half of them to happen in the first place. In less than an hour Allen led me to the solution of all of my perceived problems, and that is a truly rare and valuable experience to have.
The rest of the book is great, and helps you understand that your mind created the prison you may be living in, and teaches you to precisely how to repurpose this tool (your mind) to build your kingdom. This book changed my life, seriously read it, and give it to anyone who is experiencing a rough time, living in stasis, or embarking on an ambitious journey, since it will help anyone improve the one thing they spend the most time and energy doing, thinking.