I was invited to speak again this year at Mark Divine’s Unbeatable Mind Academy in Carlsbad, California. I chose to speak about The One Thing, inspired by that famous scene in the movie City Slickers, in which Curly (played by Jack Palance) holds up one finger to Billy Crystal and tells him that the meaning of life is “…just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean shit.”
I have given a lot of thought to figuring out my own One Thing. I’m still working on it. I thought I had uncovered it – my one main driver – but now, I’m not so sure and am back to re-assessing. To take seriously the question, “ What is my One Thing?” demands patience, self-awareness, and perhaps some painful soul searching.
WHY do I do what I do?
Obviously, I live the way I live, and do what I do in order to get something I want. Which begs the next question: Why do I want that something? The answer to that question begs the next question: Why is that important to me? And then, why again. Our One Thing is the answer to the final “Why” question: Why do I think I am here?
Your One Thing is your North Star – your Guiding Vision, your Purpose. It is the value or principle you choose that underlies the decisions you make and what you do. It is what Mark Divine calls your Set Point, in his book The Way of the SEAL, what Paolo Cuelho calls your Personal Legend in his famous parable, The Alchemist. Cuelho says that the closer your actions bring you to your Personal Legend, the more powerful your Personal Legend – your One Thing – becomes.
Most importantly, your One Thing should be a challenge, and inspire you forward – whether you are 25, 45, or 85 years old. Is your one thing a couch or rocking chair? Or is it a mountaintop – YOUR mountaintop? If your One Thing doesn’t have energy – energy that you feed to it, and energy you draw from it, then it isn’t serving you well, and perhaps isn’t really your One thing.
Determining our One Thing is a process, not a one-time task. It should never be final – our values and our One Thing evolve as we gain more experience and greater wisdom. Mine is somewhat different today than it was 10 years ago, and will continue to evolve.
As we deal with the challenges of our daily lives, it is often difficult to step back and think about what is truly important to us – our One Thing easily gets lost in the noise. But I contend that this is the project of a lifetime. After she died, Mother Theresa’s diaries revealed that she struggled with and questioned her faith, until the very end.
To test the resilience of my One Thing, I try to apply the “Chip Garry test.” Chip is a good friend who many years ago played football for Villanova’s division 1 football team. Soon after he graduated, he was in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver. In an instant, Chip went from star athlete to quadriplegic, and for 30 years, he has been dependent on others to feed him, dress him and help with nearly everything most of us take entirely for granted. Yet whenever I am with him, Chip is upbeat, engaged with life, and cheers up those around him.
Many young men and women who have returned broken and disabled from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced their own versions of what my friend Chip has faced. I have previously written about Dan Cnossen, a SEAL and champion triathlete, who lost both his legs above the knee and nearly died, after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan
The Chip Garry test is this: How would my One Thing hold up to facing what Chip, Dan and many disabled vets have faced? Would my One Thing continue to inspire me to live well, or would it collapse under the stress of such hardship? How would it hold up to having those I love taken away from me? Questions like these are a good test of the resilience of one’s values, of one’s One Thing. My One Thing discussions with Chip have been profound, and are worthy of a separate essay.
How do you determine your One Thing? I suggest thinking about it, coming up with some possibilities, and then discuss it with someone who knows you well. When I shared my One Thing with a good friend, she challenged me with a couple of pointed questions that made me squirm – which told me I had more work to do.
Finding our One Thing can be hard, but when we do, pursuing it can be even harder. If my personal One Thing does not meet the approval of friends, family, or conventional values, then pursuing it requires courage, commitment, resilience, and sacrifice. It is not easy to choose to pursue one’s passion, when our community, friends and loved ones expect, or DEMAND that we fall in line with social norms regarding money, matrimony, getting ahead, and following the well-beaten path toward comfort and conformity.
To thoughtfully consider what is truly important to us, and then to commit to live by those values, to follow our own path, and take full responsibility for that path and its outcomes – is truly challenging.
And because it is so uncommon, it is heroic.
“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.”
Paulo Cuelho in The Alchemist
“So, WTF is that supposed to mean?” (Bob, whispering in Bob’s Corner)
“That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.”
Curly in City Slickers
(Note: The recent book The One Thing by Keller and Papasan was also inspired by that same scene in the movie City Slickers. While it addresses the same One Thing I do, it provides excellent guidance for how to focus one’s efforts toward achieving interim objectives that are part of living in accordance with one’s One Thing.)