A conversation with Matthew Kelly, motivational speaker; author

Becoming the best version of yourself

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By Kerry Weber

In order to make a living as an internationally recognized motivational speaker, Matthew Kelly has to have a good stage presence, a booming voice, and a sense of humor. And he does. But to truly succeed, Kelly, 36, also needs to listen. We all do, he says, because there are so many ways in which God speaks to us in everyday life. Paying attention to the ways in which God has called him has helped Kelly grow personally and professionally, and he’s made it his mission to help others notice God’s presence in their own lives. Kelly urges each person to “become the best version of yourself,” and has written 10 books and created multi-media products and teaching tools to help with the process. A native of Sydney, Australia, he now lives with his wife in Cincinnati, Ohio. Kelly took a moment prior to his lecture at the Catholic Thrive conference in New York (see related story) to speak with Catholic Digest about life on the road, finding balance, and his faith.

How did you get your start as a motivational speaker and writer?

In business school I was invited to speak at a monthly event. In my class I was always interested in the ethical questions of business. I guess that made me stand out. They used to tape those talks and pass them around in this network in Sydney, and I just started getting invited to speak at different organizations. I spoke about how business and faith could be integrated. People heard me speak and said, “You should write some of this down.” The writing emerged from that.

When did speaking and writing change from something you did on the side to your vocation?

It just evolved. As my schedule intensified, I took a semester off to travel and speak. I believed I’d take a semester off, do the God stuff, and go back to business school. I never went back. Things are still evolving. We’re constantly looking for new ways to create systems and structures that allow us to touch lives on a deeper level. We created study guides that make it possible for someone to explore a book and then take what they learn to a small group. We also have a DVD series and workbooks. People who may not be able to get up and speak to a group for half an hour can now facilitate a discussion.

What have been some of the most challenging aspects of your career as it’s evolved?

The travel is up there. You’re in different places every day and that creates some natural challenges — eating healthy, working out, finding time to pray, to write — the things that are the core of life.

Do you find it difficult to follow, in your own life, the advice you offer others?

Every day. In many ways, when I speak it’s like an examination of conscience. I’m talking about these things and simultaneously I’m thinking, All right, I’m doing well there and struggling there. It’s very humbling. You’re constantly reviewing yourself.

Are these challenges rewarding as well?

Some more than others. When you know you’re doing what you should be doing, you can put up with those things [that are less rewarding]. Speaking to and being with people is very rewarding. The writing is just hard work. It’s very solitary, and as writers we tend to be very critical of ourselves.

Which book did you find the most challenging to write?

Rediscovering Catholicism
. It’s the kind of book that I’d like to wait another 50 years before I write it. I’m working on a new edition. I thought it was going to be tweaking; now it’s an overhaul. Yet I can see seven years from now wanting to do the same thing.

It strikes me that you’d almost hope that it’d be necessary to rewrite it in seven years; that your faith will have evolved from what it is now.

No question. But you also want to create things that are timeless, things that speak to people today but also generations from now. And maybe in its original form it would.

In The Rhythm of Life you talk about making choices. What is the most important choice you’ve had to make in your own life?

I think one of the most important choices I constantly have to make is to do less. And to believe that by doing less I will actually achieve more. The first 10 years of my work, I just ran around doing talks and people were impacted, but that model wasn’t scalable or sustainable. If you’re a doctor there are many ways to pursue that. You can be a general practitioner or you can work on a cure for cancer. Both are good, but if someone has the skills to cure cancer, it wouldn’t be a good use of time to be a GP. We have to decide what the balance is between ministering directly to people and going out and looking for the spiritual cure for cancer for our age.

You talk and write about how each of us needs to become the best version of ourselves. How do we know when we’ve found it?

That doesn’t happen. It’s a constant process. You can be the best version of yourself in a moment, but in the next moment, lose that. The challenge is to replicate the moments when we are the best version of ourselves and to eliminate the moments when we’re not.

What’s the best way to do that?

It’s through this examination, looking back on a day. We know when we are at our best and we know when we’re not. In the Church, examination of conscience is also an examination of consciousness, because most people are unconscious to the moments when they are and aren’t the best version of themselves.

Do you have a specific way that you examine your day?

I’ve used different ways. Our spirituality has to be creative. I’m familiar with St. Ignatius’ examination of conscience, but recently I’ve been using one someone sent me for businesspeople. It’s been really powerful.

When we’re trying to discern God’s call, how do we distinguish God’s voice from our own desires?

When you feel a call, you have to ask yourself: What is the message, and is the message valid? If you’re making a decision between two goods, ask the question often and keep a journal of what you think the answer is. Keep track of how you feel. If you feel anxiety and restlessness, God’s not in that. If you feel peace, that’s where we find God.

It’s easy to feel inspired immediately after hearing a great lecture or reading a great book, but how can people maintain that inspiration once they return home?

I think people have to work out what works for them and stay connected to that. I am an audio book addict. I listen to inspirational speakers in my car and when I’m flying.

Is there a time in your life when you needed that inspiration yourself — when you felt tested or struggled with your relationship with the Church?

I think I’m always struggling with some aspect of the Church. The Church is not perfect. Find a perfect church, join it, and it won’t be perfect anymore. I think great faith and great doubt go hand in hand. I like that we get up on Sunday morning and say, “We believe.” Because whatever is lacking in my belief is made up for in the person next to me. Yet, at some point I have to say I believe.

What advice would you give to a Catholic struggling with the Church today?

Explore it. Most people don’t understand what it is. If there’s any issue that you massively disagree with, delve into that. There are answers there. Our personal biases and prejudices get in the way. Most of the time when we’re saying the Church is wrong, we’re just saying it’s inconvenient. That doesn’t mean it’s not true.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned from being Catholic?

We all need an organizing principle. And everything I write and speak about is organized around the principle of becoming the best version of yourself. All of us are called to holiness, and that means we should become all that God created us to be. Every decision we make needs to be made in relation to an unchanging principle, otherwise we’re just drifting.  CD

Photos courtesy of the Matthew Kelly Foundation

Kerry Weber

Kerry Weber is an assistant editor for America magazine, a national Catholic weekly. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and earned her B.A. from Providence College. Prior to enrolling at Columbia, Kerry was an associate editor for Catholic Digest. She also has worked as a staff reporter for The Greenwich Post and The Catholic Observer and as a producer and reporter for Real to Reel a television news magazine. After graduation, she volunteered for one year as a full-time special-education teacher in St. Michaels, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Her interests include running, reading, social justice issues, hiking, the Boston Red Sox, quilting, road trips, sheep, Nuts4Nuts, good concerts, tea, pie, and the work of Flannery O’Connor and Nick Hornby.