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5 Fun and Free Ways to Identify Your Superpowers

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We all have them: powerful capabilities bestowed by some freak accident that give us the power to vanquish evil and save the world.

Okay, or—perhaps more likely for most of us—they’re incredible talents that we were born with under more normal circumstances, and that may or may not be used towards such a dramatic end.

But the fact remains that all human beings have these amazing abilities that we’re often not even aware of and that have the power to change the world.

They’re responsible for humankind’s greatest accomplishments. They allow each of us to contribute unique and needed gifts to the world in ways that nobody else can. And studies have shown that people who use them are happier, less stressed, more fulfilled, and more productive.

They’re also key to finding meaningful work you love. If you read my blog post about the 5 steps to finding your calling, you know that Step #1 is all about identifying these superpowers and claiming them with confidence.

But how can you know what your superpowers are, and—since I know some people will be asking—how can you even be sure that you have them?

I’ve met lots of people who thought they didn’t have any extraordinary capabilities, but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t actually have at least one. Superpowers are real, and we all have them. It’s just that they’re less obvious than you’d think, and it usually takes some work to uncover them.

So here are 5 fun things you can do today to reveal your superpowers, discover your mission, and make your mark:

1. Get curious about the people you admire.

 Try this: make a list of 5 people you admire. For each one, write down what it is about them that you respect or appreciate. Do this first, before reading any further (or skip to the next section if you can’t do it right now.) Seriously, this exercise will only work if you don’t know what’s coming next.

Okay, so you have your list of admired people and qualities, right?

Now take a few minutes and journal about the ways in which you exhibit these same qualities. See if you can recall any times when you’ve demonstrated them in the past.

The qualities you wrote down for others are very likely key elements of your own superpowers.

Here’s why: the things we admire in others are really core aspects of ourselves. (And conversely, the things that irritate us about other people are also ours to claim, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

The key here is not to get caught up comparing yourself to the people you look up to or what they accomplished. This isn’t really about achievements. What happens when we use our superpowers is not an indication of their strength.

I’m going to say that again, because I think it’s important to really take in: What happens when we use our superpowers is not an indication of their strength.

When we put our gifts to work, the results are like an iceberg. We see only about 10% of the actual effects of our efforts. There’s just no way to know how we’ve impacted everyone or everything we touched, all the ways we benefited them, or how they then went on to help others because of what we gave them.

So without judging the caliber of the qualities you’ve identified, just feel into which ones might belong to you as well. Anything you’re willing to lay claim to is a superpower worth celebrating.

2. Start an Infinite List of what you do well.

If you’re not sure what an Infinite List is, it’s just a list that never ends. What you do well and the contributions you make to the world are neverending, and it can be very helpful to write them down so you can start to notice patterns.

You can do this by taking 5-10 minutes each evening to reflect on and record what you did well that day and what you contributed to others or the world.

The key here is to make sure you’re not discounting any of the good that you do. As a general rule of thumb, if it created any benefits for anyone, if it wasn’t a total disaster, or if you felt remotely good about it even if you’re not sure why, then you should put it on your list.

And keep in mind that small contributions can make a big difference. When I did this exercise for the first time, I eventually realized that something as simple as planting a flower in my yard could bring joy to a passing neighbor, or smiling at someone and extending a warm greeting could make their bad day better.

I recommend adding at least 20 things to your list everyday to make sure you’re fully acknowledging all the good that you do, no matter how small.

After a few weeks of this, you can go back and look for patterns in what you’re good at, including which types of actions you enjoyed most, which had the best results, and which felt most important to you.

3. Excavate your proudest accomplishments.

This one is pretty straightforward, though for some reason we rarely pause to do it.

Make a list of 5-10 accomplishments that you feel most proud of. Keep in mind that these may or may not have anything to do with what society considers important achievements. For example, graduating from college isn’t one of my favorite accomplishments. Working through depression, writing a novel when I was 12, and maintaining close relationships with my family are.

You’re looking for the accomplishments that are most meaningful to you. They may be big, like recording an album, or smaller, like hosting a fun dinner party for a group of friends. Either works.

Once you list your accomplishments, pick the 3-5 that you’re most proud of or that you enjoyed the most. Then tell the story of how you got the results that you did, and what skills, strengths, or characteristics you drew upon.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between skills and strengths. Your superpowers are more about your strengths (though they can certainly help you learn skills). It can be helpful to list both, but try to avoid getting too caught up in what skills you do or don’t have, because you can always learn new ones. Your superpowers, on the other hand, are yours to claim no matter what experience and training you have.

Once you’ve made your list, go through and look for patterns. See what themes or common threads you can find.

4. Ask the people who know you well.

 Often our core gifts come so naturally to us that we assume that everyone can do them. It’s a common but debilitating mistake.

If you’re having a hard time believing that you have any superpowers or getting clear on what they are, the best thing to do is often to ask someone else. I recommend choosing 3-5 people who know you well in different contexts (eg work, family, friends, and hobbies or leisure activities).

Ask each person to spend 3 or so minutes describing what they like or appreciate about you, what they see as your natural gifts, or what they think you do well.

Don’t interrupt them as they’re talking, and for goodness’ sake don’t discount what they say. Instead, take detailed notes or record their words so you can come back to them later. Do your best to believe that they’re telling you the truth, and perhaps even allow yourself to bask in the glow of well-deserved praise if you can.

When they’re done, thank them and do the same for them.

Once again, when you’ve done this with a few people, review what they said and look for patterns. Keep in mind that just because they said it doesn’t mean you have to claim it. I believe it’s important to filter any feedback you get from others by asking yourself: What of this feels helpful and true to me?

Finally, also keep in mind that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to base your work life around it. We all usually have some superpowers that we don’t like to use. (I, for one, am very good at administration and organization, but they’re not things I love to do, at least not at work.)

You get to decide which superpowers to focus on, so when making your list, always ask yourself which ones you enjoy using most.

5. Follow the flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has defined flow as an “optimal experience” in which a person feels “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.” He goes so far as to say it’s the secret to happiness.

Most of us have experienced that feeling at some point when we’re involved in a task, often creative, that feels worthwhile and enjoyable. Our focus is completely on what we’re doing, we’re not fighting ourselves or wishing we were somewhere else, and time seems to vanish into thin air.

Flow is a pretty powerful clue about where your superpowers lie. To follow it, just start to notice when you’re so engaged in something that you lose track of time. It may be at work, but it also may be outside of it. Before I started coaching, for example, I could talk with friends about our internal worlds and what we were learning about ourselves and our patterns for hours and it would feel like just a few minutes had gone by.

As a side note, it can also be pretty helpful to reflect on what you used to love to do as a kid. Children are in flow states all the time, so remembering what you spent many satisfied hours doing as a kid can be another great clue. This is actually how I eventually returned to my love of writing—once I remembered how much I had loved to write as a child, I could no longer justify not doing it as an adult.

The main point here is that what you love to do is often directly related to your superpowers. I like to think of it as the universe’s way of making sure we contribute our greatest gifts to the world and create the things that only we can, by making it enjoyable and inherently fulfilling.

Follow that delicious cookie crumb trail and eventually you’re sure to find your calling.


PS If you’re still wanting help, there are some paid assessments that can help you identify your strengths. I reviewed my favorites here.

On Being Weird

I’ve long had a sense that I might be a little weird.

When I was 12, I began to feel compelled to do rituals like walking around any square table I passed over and over or checking under the toilet seat repeatedly before sitting down.
Sometimes I felt the need to try to talk while breathing in. (If you’ve never tried this, do it now. You’ll then understand why my sister later told me: “If you don’t stop being so weird, you’ll never find a boyfriend.”)

In high school, I didn’t drink or do drugs, though almost all of my friends did. I went vegan (waaaaaaay before being vegan was hip). I went on anti-depressants around the same time, another thing that made me feel like a freak. For a long time it felt like I never quite fit in.

With time (okay, and quite a bit of therapy too), I began to come to terms with my weirdness. I learned, for example, that there was a name for inventing rituals (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and that I wasn’t the only one who did it. I realized that I wasn’t as different as I had imagined (at least 2 of my high school friends had also been on anti-depressants, I later found out). I began to drop the story that I was weird, that everyone else was normal, and that I somehow didn’t belong.

And then I went on a two-week vacation with my husband and parents last month.

Peculiar much?

Now, my family is incredibly loving and supportive, yet even still, this vacation was one reminder after another that the things I do don’t always make sense to other people.

For example:

  • In the car, I acted like a compulsive dog. I rolled my window down whenever I could and occasionally stuck my head outside to see the sky and feel the wind (to the great consternation of one member of my family).
  • I carried huge bags of food with me wherever I went (I won’t eat eggs or milk if I don’t know where they come from).
  • I insisted on carrying empty plastic water bottles (yes, that’s plural, as in more than one) on the airplane because I knew we’d need them later and I didn’t want to create additional plastic waste.
  • My face and shoulders were consistently fluorescent white (because I wanted to use coral-safe sunscreen any time I went near the ocean).
  • I cried at odd times and yelled out “Chicken!” every time I saw a wild hen or rooster (because I’m emotional and love animals).
  • I had several sessions of wild, (really) goofy dancing in our hotel room.
  • I didn’t play any golf (okay, that last one may only be strange in my family).

All of this reminded me of three truths about being weird.

1. It’s always hard.

No matter how loving my family is, and no matter how much I understand that it’s okay to be different, part of me doesn’t like it. I notice when people are looking at me strangely, and I hear the judgment in their voices. It doesn’t feel good.

We’re social animals. We’re wired to care about how our pack members feel about us because in our evolutionary history, it was a matter of life and death.

In addition, I’m sensitive to the response of others. I have an ability to tune into other people’s internal worlds and care about how they feel. This ability, which helps me a lot as a coach, also makes me painfully aware when someone else responds negatively to something I’ve done. It’s part and parcel of the same gift.

We’ve all been told over and over to “be ourselves.” In general, this is great advice, but if we expect that there won’t be an internal backlash when being ourselves meets with disapproval from others, then we’re not being realistic.

2. Nobody’s normal.

The idea that we’re bizarre and that everyone else is normal is just a story we get caught telling ourselves.

Once we have a story in our heads, we tend to look for evidence to support it. And just like you can find statistics to prove any argument, you can find evidence to support any story. If you believe that you’re strange, you’ll find plenty of indications that it’s true.

The reality is, we’re all different in some ways and similar in others. No matter how weird we think we are, we share many things with the people around us. And no matter how normal somebody seems, everyone is a unique soul with plenty of quirks.

As my husband and I like to remind each other: everyone’s crazy, and that’s okay.

3. It’s good to be weird.

More than just okay, being strange is great.

Weirdness brings in a different perspective. It challenges the mainstream, making it consider its ways and either recommit to them or change for the better.

Being bizarre is also necessary if we’re all going to bring our unique gifts to the world.

For example, I can’t for the life of me wrap my head around why anyone would actually want to work in politics. That seems so utterly odd to me. But I’m so glad that there are good people who feel differently, because we absolutely need them. The world has lots of needs, and it’s a good thing that we have so many diverse perspectives, approaches, and orientations so that people exist who can address them all.

The skill of being strange

The fact that being weird is hard but that we all have to do it anyway is actually an amazing opportunity.

It means we all have the chance to practice being true to ourselves and our highest truth in the face of disapproval. No matter what we say, do, or create in this world, there are going to be people who don’t get it (by virtue of the incredible diversity of perspectives I just mentioned). Part of being human and creating something that matters is being able to stand strong when others disapprove.

As David Whyte says in his poem Self Portrait:

I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand.

This isn’t a skill we get by reading a book. It’s one we acquire every time we have the courage to sit with the discomfort of being who we are and doing what feels right to us regardless of how others respond.

It’s a messy, imperfect process, but the good thing is, life gives us plenty of opportunities to practice.

So ask yourself:

  • Where in your life are you willing to be weird?
  • Where do you moderate yourself to gain outside approval? In what ways does this serve you well and in what ways not so much?
  • Where would you like to be more willing to look back with firm eyes, saying this is where I stand?
  • What might help you to do this?

May you always feel free to be as weird as you want to be.

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If You Still Haven’t Found What You’re Looking For, You May Be Missing This (Hint: It’s Probably Not What You Think)

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I recently realized that I’ve been missing something my entire life.

It’s stopped me from doing the things I dreamed of. It’s made me feel a lot less capable than I really am. And I see now how it’s gotten in the way of achieving the things I most wanted for my entire life.

What surprised me most when I realized this, however, is that it has nothing to do with knowing enough or doing the right things.

Because that’s where I used to look when I wanted to be successful: what do I need to know to do this? How can I make sure that I implement this the right way so that I find the result that I’m looking for?

What I see now is that without this one thing, knowledge and action—even the most well-informed or well-executed efforts—can be wasted.

How to Know If You’re Missing It Too

When I first started my business, I thought that everything I did was a make-or-break opportunity. It felt like I needed to know everything and do everything right right away.

Every potential client I spoke with needed to work with me if I was going to succeed. Every marketing effort I made needed to have big returns. If it didn’t (and if often didn’t), I questioned my abilities and worried that I’d never be able to make it as a coach. More than once I considered giving up.

I often see something similar in my clients who want to change careers. Frequently when they first get started (and, if I’m being honest, throughout a significant part of the coaching process as well), they have no idea what they want to do next. They’re confused, uncertain, or lost, and they’re anxious because it feels like if they don’t have the answers now, they never will.

It happens again when clients take their first steps in a new direction. They’ve gotten clarity, but now they’re going from theory to reality. Everything feels critical to their success. If they don’t have the skills they think they need, if they’re not sure exactly how they’re going to transition, or if they’re not having immediate success in their new field, it becomes incredibly tempting to just take the first thing that comes along, or give up entirely and go back to what they were doing before.

If you’re feeling a lot of stress or pressure to achieve certain results with what you’re working on; if you wonder if you have what it takes to accomplish what you hope to; or if you doubt that doing what you love is possible for you, you’re probably in the same boat.

We’re missing the bigger picture.

What I realized recently is that success is not a matter of being talented enough, knowing enough, or getting everything right. It’s not about creating great outcomes with everything you do. Rather, it’s about trying things out, failing in some ways and succeeding in others, and then trying things out again.

It takes time, sometimes lots of it, to find out what works and what doesn’t. For most of us, no matter how talented, it takes lots of practice, iterations, and failures to reach the outcomes we long for.

In other words, success isn’t a destination; it’s a path, and most of us are on it long before we realize we are.

When we think of success as a destination, we compare where we are now to that golden isle of perfection and see just far we are from it. When we back up and see it as a path, however, our current endeavor becomes simply a step along the way; we realize how far we’ve come already; and we understand that no matter what the result, our current effort will show us where to go next.

When we see the entire path, we realize that we don’t have to be super smart or extraordinarily talented to walk it; all it takes is a willingness to get dirty, fail, and fall short over and over again.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan has a great quote about this:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

I may perhaps have agreed with this intellectually in the past, but it’s certainly not how I viewed my own endeavors. I was caught evaluating each effort based on its own results. I failed to see how each action was a part of a longer trajectory and process, one that takes time but that can still lead me where I want to go, even with lots of bumps and pitfalls.

Zooming Out

There’s a great book called Zoom by Istvan Banyai. There are no words in the book—just pictures. It starts with a close-up of something that looks like the edges of a red crown. The next page zooms out a bit and you realize that it’s actually the comb of a rooster. Zoom out more and you see children watching the rooster from inside a house. A few pages later, you realize that the rooster and children are part of a play set that a much larger real girl is playing with. Soon it’s revealed that the real girl and her toy set are part of an advertisement in a magazine that a boy is holding on the deck of a ship. A few pages later you see that the ship is part of an ad on the side of a bus being watched on a television by a man in the desert. And the story goes on…

The point is, the world is both infinitely large and infinitesimally small. We need to pay attention to the smallest tasks because there’s so much richness and nuance there—entire worlds within worlds—but we also don’t want to get lost in them and forget that we’re part of a larger universe.

And because the universe is so incomprehensibly large, we can never be sure of the effect our small tasks will have it, what their ripple effect will be, or what they will lead to. We cannot know the true results of our endeavors, whether good or ill, because we can’t even imagine the entire world, let alone see it or predict it.

So the next time you’re feeling stressed about a make-or-break opportunity, wondering if you’re capable of achieving what you hope to, or worrying that you’ll never find your way, stop. Notice how small and narrow your focus has become (literally and figuratively).

Remind yourself that whatever you’re doing right now is part of a longer process. This is not your last chance. No matter how this turns out, you’re learning something valuable, and if you keep going, you’ll have the opportunity to continue refining and trying new things in the future.

If you feel stuck, ask yourself: What have I learned from previous efforts? What can I do differently based on what I’ve learned in the past? What new experiments could I try? What support can I find to make this process easier?

The Benefits of the Bigger Picture

Now that I’ve learned how to zoom out, so much more feels possible. Nothing feels make or break anymore. I have this sense that I can absolutely find what I’m looking for, and what’s even better, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what I know, what I’m doing, or where I am now. I can enjoy wherever I am on the path.

That’s another reason success is a process: when we see the bigger picture, we don’t care so much whether or not we reach our destination. We realize that in most of the ways that matter, we already have.


Photo credit: Kevin Gill // CC

 

The 10 Biggest Myths About Finding Your Calling

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Being married to a Brazilian man, I have a lot of opportunities to see just how differently two people can understand the same word.

One time, for example, the term “boob job” came up. My husband gave me a confused look and asked, “Is that when a woman works giving her milk to orphans?” Bless his literal heart, that’s the first thing he thought of when trying to figure out how a woman could make money using her breasts.

Somewhat similarly, I’ve come to realize that people often misconstrue what it means to find your calling. While I don’t claim to have a perfect or uniquely true understanding of the concept (and I have to admit that I prefer my husband’s definition of “boob job” to my own), I do find that some of the more common misconceptions about discovering what you’re meant to do in the world get in the way of successfully doing it.

So here are the 10 biggest myths about finding your calling:

  1. You only have one.

When we imagine that there’s only one thing out there that we’re born to do, the process of finding it becomes like searching for a needle in a haystack. In my experience, we all have multiple callings, and countless ways we can fulfill them. Nobody is good at only one thing, and almost everyone has multiple interests. We can use all of these in our calling, either in combination or sequentially. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge this abundance and stop trying to find the one, right answer. Instead, listen in to which of the many valid expressions of your calling feels most energizing and needed at this point in your life.

  1. Your calling never changes.

Would that we could stop looking once we find work we love. Fortunately and unfortunately, our calling changes as we do—what satisfied us once won’t do so forever. This can be frustrating to the part of us that hates change and wants to rest effortlessly on our laurels. On the other hand, it’s an incredible opportunity to continue to grow more powerful, learn, deepen, and create new contributions that are freshly responsive to our dynamic desires and the world’s changing needs. So don’t pressure yourself to find something you’ll be happy with the rest of your life; instead, embrace the fact that it’s going to change and find something that feels right for you right now.

  1. Finding your calling solves all your problems.

Before, I thought that like a knight in shining armor, a career I loved would slay all my dragons with one swipe of its sword: I’d be happy all the time. I’d have no more doubts and worries. My life would be filled with birdsong, sunshine, beaches, and sunsets.

Yea, not so much. Don’t get me wrong—I love what I do, it’s fulfilling and energizing, and I feel like I’m working on something that truly matters. That makes a big difference in my life. But I still have worries and fears, I still get frustrated by things taking longer than I’d like, and according to my husband, I still snore at night. Our challenges are here to help us grow and expand, to relax into what is, and to embrace life. They don’t disappear because there’s always more worth learning and welcoming. I recommend making peace with your problems as best you can and recognizing the fantasy of the knight in shining armor for what it is—popular fiction.

  1. It has to be big.

A lot of my clients struggle to define their calling because what feels meaningful to them seems too small. I had one client, for example, who found great satisfaction in making people laugh, but he didn’t think it was grand or beneficial enough to truly be called a purpose. After doing some research, however, he discovered that laughter improves moods, decreases stress, boosts our immune systems, strengthens social connections, enhances learning, and has many other benefits for body, mind, and spirit. It turns out laughter is quite powerful medicine.

The world has many needs—how are we to judge with our limited perspectives which are more important or valuable than others? Acknowledging the impact you want to have, not just the one you think you should, is a great way to get started defining your purpose.

  1. You have to make money doing it.

While many people do make money from their passion, and it’s often more possible than you think, you get to choose whether you want to or not. Making money is a means to an end, not a worthwhile goal in itself. If you’re giving life to the things you feel called to create, you’ll feel equally satisfied whether you’re paid for them or not. Many people find great contentment creating and contributing their unique vision to the world without getting paid a dime. How you want to live your passion—not just how you want to live off of it—is one of the most powerful questions you can ask.

  1. You can’t make money doing it.

Here’s the clever reasoning so many of us use not to pursue our calling: “I have to make money doing what I love, but I won’t be able to, so why bother?” This belief is usually the work of our fear, which makes up stories to keep us from taking risks. “Nope, don’t bother making that leap, Chief,” it yells into its bullhorn. “You won’t be able to make a good living from it. Better to stick with what we’re doing now—at least we know it’ll pay the bills.” But unless you’ve actually tried and given it everything you’ve got, you can’t know for sure that you won’t be able to make enough money. And one thing I invariably find with myself and my clients is that there are far more possibilities in the world than we think there are when we’re sitting alone with our fear. So stop telling yourself this story; it just isn’t true. Instead, look for ways to find out for yourself what’s actually possible for you.

  1. You have to find a new job to do it.

Sometimes following your calling will take you into a bold new adventure. But other times it’ll point out ways that you can tweak your current circumstances to allow you to fulfill your purpose. I had a client who was desperately unhappy in her current job. As she got clearer about what she wanted, she realized that by speaking up more with her boss, finding ways to work on certain types of projects, and focusing more on the contributions she was making to her coworkers that went beyond her official job description, she could fulfill her calling without changing positions, at least for the time being. Don’t assume you can’t fulfill your calling until you find a new job; instead, start asking how you can bring more passion and purpose into your life as it is right now.

  1. You have to sacrifice yourself in order to do it right.

I knew someone who was scared to ask the question of what he really felt called to do because he was worried he would find that he needed to sell all his belongings, move halfway across the world, and live in dire poverty helping the poorest of the poor. When he actually did investigate his purpose, however, he found that he could do what was truly important to him while still living a comfortable life close to the people he loved.

You can answer your calling in a way that doesn’t require you to give up what you hold most dear. And if you are asked to give up some things along the way, it can be only what feels right to you, once you’re ready, and in a way that feels like freedom, not sacrifice. The key thing to remember is that answering your calling is about lovingly taking care of what’s most important to you, not sacrificing it on the altar of grand gestures that aren’t authentic to you.

  1. It’s all about what you do, not how you do it.

You could be doing wonderful work in the world, but if you’re killing yourself doing it or compromising your ethics in the process, it isn’t truly your calling. What you do is important, but so is how you do it. That means being able to work with ease, go at your own pace, and act in integrity with your values. So as you continue to move closer to your calling, pay as much attention to how you’re working as what you’re doing.

  1. You’re not already doing it.

Chances are that no matter what you do for work, you’re already fulfilling your calling in some way, shape, or form. The greatest gifts you have to offer come naturally to you and are inherent in how you approach the world, so you’re going to express them whether you intend to or not. I was listening deeply to and supporting others long before I officially became a coach, and I’ve enjoyed putting complex ideas into words and images in various ways my whole life. It’s absolutely a worthwhile endeavor to find ways to express your calling more powerfully, but it’s also great to realize that you don’t have to do anything differently to share your gifts with the world.

Big News Coming Soon

If you could use some help to find your calling (and let’s be honest here, who couldn’t?), then I’ve got good news. I have some exciting offerings in the works and will be making announcements about them soon. If you want to be sure you hear them, then sign up to receive updates in the box below.


Photo credit: Anton Whoa // CC

 

Little One and the Web of Lies (Or, What to Do When Your Inner Critic Attacks)

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Following is the eighth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


In retrospect, Little One realized that he had made a terrible mistake.

The thought occurred to him as he and Ginger walked through a stretch of woods so dense that no sunlight filtered down to touch the path beneath their feet.

They had been walking through this same seemingly endless forest for the past two weeks. Little One was the one who had suggested they enter the woods in the first place.

He had sensed that they weren’t far from the Serpent God’s palace, and their only options had been to cross a giant river filled with raging rapids, try to ascend what looked like an incredibly steep and slippery cliff face, or try their luck in a forest that looked completely devoid of light even on a sunny and cloudless afternoon. Even Ginger had agreed that the forest was the best option until they heard the voice.

They had just stepped into the shadow of the first densely packed trees when they heard it, deep and booming above them. “Warning!” it said. “Go no further!”

They looked all around them but couldn’t see anybody or anything other than gnarled tree trunks, twisting limbs, and fallen leaves. They started to walk again.

“I said: beware!” came the booming voice again. It was so loud it made Little One’s heart pound. He stopped, looking at Ginger. She shrugged her shoulders.

They started walking again.

GO NO FURTHER!” The words echoed around them, reverberating off the trees. “You will not escape unscathed!”

Little One’s stomach leapt into his throat, but this time he had a sense of where the voice was coming from. He cocked his head, looked to his left, and thought he saw something swaying between the limbs of a tree just in front of him.

“No!” said the voice, its pitch a bit higher now. “Do not look for who says this! I am the earth, the trees, the sky itself! I am the power and the will of all the gods who have ever ruled! All you need to know is that what I say is absolutely, unquestionably true!”

That’s when Little One saw it: the tendrils of a web shifting in the breeze between two mighty branches, and in the middle of the weaving was a tiny black dot with wildly crooked legs.

“You’re a spider!” Little One called out, pointing so Ginger could see. “Why are you trying to scare us?”

“I am not trying to scare you!” said the spider, his voice breaking. “I am simply telling you the truth!”

Little One and Ginger walked towards the web. As they approached, they saw a small spider with an absurdly wide abdomen that was white with black spots and lined with large, sharp points that looked like giant thorns.

“Why don’t you want us to go further?” asked Ginger. She sounded like she almost felt sorry for the spider, and in fact Little One’s own heartbeat had slowed considerably since he spotted the awkward-looking creature.

“These woods are cursed!” the spider yelled, his voice booming once again. “Long ago a hunter wandered into this forest and came across an evil monster more terrible than any he’d ever seen before. It was stronger than a minotaur, faster than an arrow, and more relentless than a harpy. After a great battle it defeated the huntsman. Ever since, all the men and women who have dared to enter these woods have lost their minds. When they wander back to their villages years later, they cannot even recall their own names.”

Little One wasn’t sure what to believe.

“Do not doubt!” screamed the spider. “I speak the truth!”

In the end, Little One decided not to heed the spider’s warning. He had a strong sense that their father’s palace lay just on the other side of the woods, and losing his mind seemed both less likely and less risky than losing his life in the river or on the cliff faces they’d seen.

Ginger wasn’t convinced. She wanted to go back the way they’d come and try to find a better path downriver.

After an impassioned argument, Ginger gave in to Little One’s wishes.

“I trust you when you say the Serpent God’s palace is just past these woods,” she said. “You have a good sense of these things. Let’s go on.”

They’d continued down the path into the darkening woods to a loud series of progressively dire warnings from the spider, whose efforts didn’t wane until sometime after they were well out of earshot.

That had been two weeks ago. Since then it had become abundantly clear to Little One that he had made not just the wrong decision, but possibly a disastrous one. He could see how after wandering these dark woods for a little while longer he might really lose his mind.

He was thinking about this, considering what he might have done differently, when he first heard the voice in his head.

It was a deep growl, harsh, and blunt.

“You’re an idiot,” it said. “It’s bad enough that you deluded yourself into thinking that you actually know something about where the Serpent God lives, but to convince Ginger to override her good sense was stupid and selfish. Bad enough that you’re blind, but to be a bully too? Unforgivable.”

Little One’s shoulders sank as he followed Ginger on the trail.

“You realize that this is all your fault, right?” the voice continued. “Any normal person would have found the Serpent God’s palace by now. It’s really not that hard. Nobody else would have struggled so much or worked so hard to be as lost and confused as you currently are. It’s pathetic.”

Just then Ginger turned around to look at him. He thought he saw a flash of anger in her eyes.

“Can we take a break?” she asked. “I’m getting tired.”

“Tired of wandering pointlessly through a cursed forest?” said Little One. “Sure, no problem.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Ginger asked as she slipped off her pack and pulled out some jerky. He heard more anger in her voice.

“What’s wrong with me? Nothing, Ginger. But if you’re not happy about coming this way, you can say it to me directly. You don’t have to pout and try to make me feel guilty for getting us lost.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” she answered. “If you do, that’s your problem.”

She stared him in the eyes.

“Oh, that’s just great. So that’s my fault too.” Little One felt the heat rising within him. “This is the last thing I want to deal with right now,” he said. He looked away. “I’m going to go look for water.”

He walked so long he couldn’t see Ginger anymore and then walked a few more minutes just to be sure. He heard what sounded like a stream in front of him and decided to go check it out.

The noise got louder and soon he saw that it wasn’t a stream but a spring making the gurgling sound. And then he saw something that made his heart beat faster: a point of light dancing on the pool’s surface. He followed the point up and saw a few solid rays of sunlight reaching down between the branches.

It was the first sunlight he’d seen in weeks, and he could almost imagine how warm and delicious it would feel on his skin. He walked faster towards the spring, then broke into a run.

And that’s exactly when his foot hit something and he tripped, tumbling to the ground. By the time he stopped moving, he realized he was hopelessly entwined in tendrils of something both sticky and surprisingly strong.

He heard the deep, harsh growl again. “Seriously? Do I even need to point out how idiotic that was?”

Only this time it sounded different. Little One realized abruptly that it wasn’t coming from inside his head anymore.

He managed to whirl his head around. There behind him was the biggest monster he’d ever seen in his life.

It looked…well, it looked almost exactly like the spider they had seen at the entrance to the woods. Only this one was huge, twice the height of an average man. It was so large that he could see its huge pincers this time, along with eight giant black eyes. Its legs were bent at grotesque angles, and the spikes on its back were each the size of a small bear.

“Oh, dear,” the spider growled. “You chose not to listen to me. And so we meet again.”

Little One swallowed. His mouth was achingly dry. “So…so you’re the evil monster you told us about? You’re the reason everyone who comes here goes insane?”

“Well, yes,” said the spider. “But evil? That’s just a matter of perspective. The way I see it, I’m just trying to keep people safe.”

“By tying them up in your giant web?” asked Little One.

“Well, I have lots of ways of doing it. But, yes,” spat the spider. “For the stupid ones I find that binding them is the only way to get them to listen. You were going to get yourself in trouble, my dear boy. This was the only way to protect you from yourself.”

“What are you talking about? Protect me from what?”

“Oh, I know where you’re headed, Little One” said the spider. “Yes, I know who you are. I know you believe you’re the son of the Serpent God, and that you hope to enter his palace. And I know that no matter what happens, you must not be allowed to attempt it!”

Little One just stared at him. His mouth was terribly dry. He licked his lips. “And why not?” he finally managed.

“Because you’re an idiot!” the spider growled. “Because you’re going to ruin everything! Don’t you see? You thought it was a good idea to come into these god-forsaken woods, and look what happened! You waste two weeks wandering around and getting nowhere, you pick a fight and hurt Ginger, the one person who truly understands you in this world, and then you get yourself caught in a giant spider’s web.”

Little One’s stomach felt hollow. He felt a familiar sinking feeling in his gut.

“You know, anybody who was halfway capable would have found the Serpent God’s palace by now. But not you! The harder you try, the more lost you get!”

Little One felt a burning sensation all over his face. He wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground and stay there.

“You overestimate your talents over and over again, and it’s getting dangerous!” the spider screamed. “You should realize by now that you’re not good enough to do this! You need to turn around and go home right now, before you destroy everything we hold dear!”

The word we surprised Little One. A vague realization began to stir at the edges of his mind.

“You left to come on this insane adventure because you thought something was calling you, that you were meant to do something more. Not three days later you got lost and couldn’t find your way. When you finally did manage to get untangled from that, you managed to get trapped underground, scared yourself nearly half to death, and very nearly became nothing more than a pile of bones in a forgotten cavern.”

The smoky thought in Little One’s mind consolidated as the spider continued.

“As if that wasn’t bad enough, you immediately ran into a malevolent sorceress, failed to defeat an ogre, and then had to start all over again. At which point you discovered the City of the Children of the Serpent God, got promptly humiliated by every brother and sister you have, and realized that you have absolutely no significant talents at all.

The thought became clear to Little One. It made him angry, but he let the spider go on.

“Let’s see…what’s left. You blindly fell into a pit due to being a coward and very nearly drowned. Then you wasted the wish you got beneath the Tree of Life because you’re an overly sensitive crybaby. And finally, you decide to enter a haunted forest to start the next foolish phase of an increasingly shortsighted and futile quest born primarily out of your greed and arrogance.”

“Wow!” Little One whistled and clapped his hands in mock admiration. “That’s quite a summary. I’m really impressed.”

The spider seemed taken aback. “Well, you know, I do my best.”

“So where does that leave us?” Little One asked. “After we decided to enter these woods? Let’s see, we were walking into a forest that you say is cursed. But I think it’s not cursed at all. I think you knew that we were close to the Serpent God’s palace and you didn’t want us to actually find it. So you made up a story about a battle between a huntsman and a monster to scare us away and to keep us from finding what we’re looking for.” He watched the expression in the spider’s four sets of eyes, focusing on the largest pair in the middle as he continued.

“And when I ignored your warning, you whispered in my ear to get me angry with myself so I would fight with Ginger and come out here by myself.”

The spider lowered its head in acknowledgement.  “Pretty much,” he said in a low growl. “You listen to me better when you’re by yourself.”

Little One wasn’t sure what the spider meant, but he was more concerned about a different question. “What I don’t understand is why,” he said. “Why don’t you want me to find the Serpent God’s palace?”

The spider looked up. Its eyes had softened. “You really don’t know?”

“No!” said Little One. “I mean, I see now that you’ve been with me this entire time, since I left my village.”

“Well, yes,” said the spider. “I go everywhere with you. It’s just what I do.”

“So you know that this is important to me.”

“Yes,” answered the spider. “I know exactly how important this is.”

“So why would you try to stop me from finding what I want most?”

The spider’s eyes were sad. “Because I want it too, Little One. More than you’ll ever know. But I have a job to do. Something more important even that that.”

The spider didn’t say anything else, so Little One prompted him. “And that is?”

“To keep you safe, Little One. I can’t stand it when you’re in pain. It hurts me more than it hurts you. So I protect you.”

In that moment the world seemed very still to Little One. He felt a slight breeze on his cheek. The earth was warm beneath him. He saw the spider’s eyes in front of him, large, dark, and nearly liquid in their sadness. He realized something.

“You’re afraid?” he said. “That’s why you tried to stop me?”

The eyes trembled. “Yes,” said the spider. “I’m terrified. Please don’t be mad. I only want what’s best for you.”

Little One didn’t know what to say. He weighed the words. He considered whether he believed them. Then he looked at the giant spider, its huge pincers, sharp spikes, and tender eyes, and he knew that he did. Something within him melted.

“I understand,” he said. “You’re doing your best to protect me, even if it is in kind of a backwards way. I mean, I get it. Things have been a little crazy, huh? It’s not easy, all this adventure into the unknown. But do you think I did all those things without realizing how dangerous they were?” He shook his head. “Believe me, I didn’t. I get scared too. But I’m looking out for us. I’m being careful. And I know that we’re capable of doing this. I know deep down that we are. Can’t you feel it too?”

The spider’s eyes trembled. Then he nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I can.”

“Great,” said Little One. “Can we keep going towards the palace then, if I promise to be careful and listen when you have a real concern?”

The spider nodded vigorously and opened its mouth to say something.

“A real concern, my friend,” said Little One. “Not an invented story.”

There was a noise then, of air escaping a small space. Little One wondered if it was the sound of a giant spider laughing or sighing. He couldn’t tell which.

“Great. Help me up then, and we’ll be on our way.”

The spider just stood there. “I can’t help you,” he said solemnly. “But you don’t need it anyway. Just stand up.”

“I can’t,” Little One insisted. “I’m covered in sticky spider spit.”

The spider just shook his head. “Just stand up,” he said again.

Little One could have sworn he’d attempted that before, but he gave it one more try. To his surprise, he was able to move. He put his feet beneath him and pushed up off the ground. He moved upward with such force that the trees seemed to swirl around him and he almost lost his balance.

He looked around to try to find the spider. He didn’t see anything. He was starting to worry that he’d made the whole thing up and was losing his mind after all when he felt something soft and tickly on his foot. He looked down.

There, crawling up over the top of the arch of his foot, was the spider. It was about the size of his thumbnail again.

He picked it up and smiled at it, then put it on his shoulder.

It was amazing how small it was in comparison to him when he was standing on his own two feet, especially since it had felt so much more powerful just a few moments before.

They made their way back to Ginger, and Little One told her what had happened. Then all three of them began to walk together through the dark woods towards the Serpent God’s palace.

Little One knew that the spider was a part of him and would never leave, but he didn’t mind so much; the little guy felt kind of like a guileless friend, and he knew that he could stand up again if he ever felt trapped in its web.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Tree of Life (Or, the Trick to Dealing with Difficult Emotions)

Hero_randen_pederson_new

Following is the seventh story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


Little One had no idea who the woman yelling at him was. She seemed to know him pretty well, though.

“It’s their fault!” she screamed. “Your family is the reason this happened! If they hadn’t rejected you and tried to make you more like them, you wouldn’t have been so unhappy there. Remember how your mean-hearted brothers used to make fun of you? And your parents were almost as bad. It’s their fault you left on this ridiculous journey, their fault you’re going to die in a strange land!”

Her face was round and red and only a few inches from his own, but try as he might, he couldn’t remember ever having seen it before.

As the words poured out of her mouth, he felt them enter his windpipe, burning the sides of his throat as they went down. Flames of anger were soon licking the insides of his lungs. He turned his face away from her, tried to focus on the rocks around him. He didn’t want to deal with this, the implications of her words. Not now. Not when he was about to lose everything.

The day had started off so differently.

The sun had risen in a clear, blue sky, warming his face as he awoke slowly from a deep and relaxing sleep.

He and Ginger had a delicious breakfast of fruit and nuts and the rest of a fish they had caught the evening before. They had both been in a good mood, laughing and teasing one another as they broke camp and put on their packs to begin the day’s walk.

They were climbing higher on the mountain now, the trees and animals they saw were getting larger in size, and Little One sensed that they weren’t far from where he’d been when he saw the rainbow-colored lightning that marked the entrance to their father’s palace.

And then they had stumbled upon something even more promising.

They were making their way through alpine forests, slowly traversing the slope of a giant mountain, when the trees gave way to huge rocks and wildflowers as a meadow opened up before them.

Ginger recognized it first and gasped, but he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at first, and she wouldn’t tell him what she saw.

She stayed silent but walked faster, scrambling over boulders with an excitement so infectious that Little One found his heart beating faster even though he had no idea what they were pursuing.

And then after a few minutes Ginger slowed and he looked up from the rocks long enough to see it: the biggest tree he’d ever witnessed in his life.

It hadn’t seemed so big from a distance, and there was nothing close enough to it to give it proper scale. Now that they were within a stone’s throw of it, however, Little One could see that 30 people could hold hands around the base of the tree and still not fully encircle it. Its limbs were larger than the trunks of most trees. And most strangely of all, its roots appeared to continue above ground, hundreds of them emerging from the earth like serpents and wrapping themselves around each other to form the trunk, eventually stretching themselves out to form the canopy and limbs.

“What is it?” Little One asked, knowing this was not just any tree.

Ginger didn’t stop staring at the giant in front of them. “It’s the Tree of Life,” she whispered, awe in her voice.

Little One remembered hearing stories about the Tree of Life when he was a child, but he couldn’t remember anything about them.

Ginger was still looking at the tree, but he could feel her register his confusion. “In the village where I grew up, they say that it’s the home of everything living,” she explained. “Its roots extend in every direction. They say they go all the way to the four corners of the world, ending only where the world itself ends, silently supporting every living thing that’s born and dies above them.”

Little One’s breath caught in his throat. He realized how beautiful this tree was, how profoundly peaceful he felt just looking upon it.

“Little One,” Ginger whispered breathlessly a few minutes later. “There’s something else. They say that the Tree grants all those who find it and spend a night by its base eternal freedom and a single wish.” She turned to look at him. “It could take us to the Serpent God.”

Butterflies lifted off in Little One’s stomach. As excited as he was to meet his father, the Serpent God, there was something even more alluring about the thought of spending the afternoon and evening gazing at the serene beauty of the tree. He nodded his head eagerly.

They made camp by the base of the tree then, careful not to disturb any of its enormous roots. All had gone well until the sun began to set and the first star had appeared in the sky.

They had both been watching the tree as its colors shifted in the changing light. And then Little One heard Ginger make a noise. He glanced over and saw that she was looking at him, though her eyes seemed far off and distant, as if she were staring through him more than at him.

“It doesn’t matter if we find him,” she said softly. Her eyes were bright. “I’ve already failed. He’s gone forever, and nothing will bring him back.” Tears began to fill the corners of her eyes and spill down her cheeks.

Little One spoke to her, asked her what she meant, tried to reassure her, but it was as if she couldn’t hear him. She was silent, looking at him as if listening, but when she responded, her answers made no sense to him.

And then the wind shifted, began to blow more insistently, and Ginger’s expression changed. Her features contorted together and her face became red. “You shouldn’t have done it!” she yelled. “It’s all your fault!”

She got up and ran away from him into the falling darkness.

Little One’s stomach knotted. He didn’t know what was going on and was worried about Ginger, but he didn’t want to leave the tree. Darkness was falling, and he understood they had to spend the entire night by its base in order to get their wish. Still, he got up and was moving after her when he heard a voice behind him.

He wondered how Ginger had moved to that side so quickly. But when he turned, he realized that it wasn’t her at all. It was a red-faced woman with dark brown hair whom he’d never seen before in his life.

Before he knew what was happening, she had put her face right next to his and was yelling at him about his family and how everything was their fault. As her words hit his face, he felt the anger rising in himself. He tried to stop it, tried to think of something else, tried to push down the force that was threatening to erupt within him.

Then suddenly it was too strong to stop and the heat exploded in his chest. Only it wasn’t his family that was feeding the flames; it was this woman. She was the one who was making him feel this way; she was keeping him from finding Ginger and threatening his ability to win his wish.

He took a step back from her, gave her an icy look, and said, “You’re the one who’s mean-hearted. I don’t know who you are, but you’d better leave here right now.”

The woman smiled. “If you want me to go, you’ll have to do something to make me.”

In that moment her smile was so smug, so self-satisfied, as if she were pleased by the distress she was causing him, that he couldn’t help himself. He reached forward with both hands and pushed her to the ground.

He heard her laughing on the way down, and then she disappeared.

Or didn’t disappear, exactly, but rather changed. Because from where her form had fallen on the earth rose up a new one, a man this time, who looked a lot like his father but who had hair the color of the sun.

“Little One,” he said. “You shouldn’t have done that. How could you strike a helpless woman? I know your father taught you better than that.”

Little One felt the truth of the words like a sinking ship in his gut.

“I guess it’s not a surprise, really, though,” the man continued. “Since you’ve always only really cared about yourself. You never wanted to work on your family’s farm, always wanted to do your own thing. And you didn’t care that your family loved you and wanted you to stay when you left for this journey, did you?”

Little One almost argued, felt a spark of something unfair in the man’s words. But the sinking feeling was so strong within him, weighing him down. He must be right, this man, or he wouldn’t feel this way.

“That’s right,” the man said, stroking his beard. “I know you can feel the guilt for the pain you’ve caused. So much unnecessary pain for those who loved and supported you,” he said, shaking his head. “You are a terrible son and brother.”

The sinking feeling became not just heavy but hollow. It felt as if there was nothing within him but a giant void, a black hole sucking the light out of his being. There was no ground under his feet, no warmth in his soul, no solidness within him on which to rest. He was floating in an abyss of blackness, hollow, empty, cold.

He began to fear being lost in the void forever. “It’s not my fault,” he said. “I tried to do things their way, but I couldn’t. They were cruel to me. They forced me to leave.”

The man laughed. “Even now you throw stones at them with your words. Too bad they can’t be here now to hear them, to see you as you really are.”

The ache in Little One’s belly grew so strong he didn’t think he could take it anymore. It felt like it was going to annihilate him and everything good in the world. “Oh my god,” he said. “You’re right. I can’t believe I’m so selfish, so hateful.” He doubled over. When he looked back up, the man was gone.

Another woman, smaller than the other and with curly hair, stood in his place.

“I can’t believe you haven’t gone after Ginger yet,” she said. “She could be ill, dying, or dead by now! What would you do without her? You can’t find your father’s palace by yourself. You’re wasting precious time! You should go after her now!”

Little One felt a snake of fear begin to crawl in his belly.

“I know what’s going to happen if you stay here,” the woman continued, her voice growing shriller. “Ginger will get lost, she’ll get eaten by an animal. You’ll realize that this isn’t the Tree of Life after all, that you wasted your time beneath it. You’ll spend the rest of your days tortured by guilt, wandering these mountains by yourself until you too meet your death. You’ll never meet the Serpent God, you’ll never find what you’re looking for, and you’ll never see your family again!”

Little One’s heart began racing. He felt panic rise within him. His blood ran cold in his veins.

“You need to go find her!” the woman shrieked. “Or all is lost!”

He felt like he was going to explode if he didn’t do something, run somewhere, take some sort of action. It was unbearable. He turned from her, saw his feet begin to carry him away from the tree, heard her laughter loud and shrill behind him.

And then he stepped on something soft and squishy. He heard a hissing noise.

Are you trying to kill me again?” he heard. He looked around, but he didn’t see either of the women or the man.

“Hs-ss-ss-ss-ss,” he heard. “Down here, child.”

Little One looked down. His heart lifted in his chest when he saw a brown snake staring up at him.

“It’s good to see you, Snake,” he said. “But I don’t have time to talk. I have to go find Ginger.”

“Do you, now?” the snake asked. “I thought you were trying to stay the night by the tree.”

“I was,” Little One admitted. “But something weird is going on here. I don’t have time to explain. But I can’t just sit here anymore.”

“You can’t?” echoed the snake. His slowness was starting to irritate Little One.

“No, I can’t. Like I said, I can’t explain it right now. I have to go.” He turned towards the direction Ginger had gone in.

“You don’t have to run from them, you know,” he heard from behind him. “It just strengthens them.”

Little One turned. “I wasn’t,” he said, feeling like a child as he said it.

“You were literally running away when you stepped on me,” the snake replied.

“I wasn’t running away,” Little One insisted. “I was going to go find Ginger.”

“Because of what she said,” said the snake. “And the others too. You don’t have to run from them,” he repeated.

“I didn’t!” yelled Little One. He was started to get angry.

“Ignoring it, blaming others, blaming yourself, jumping into action—it’s all running away in the end.”

Little One just stared at him. “Running away from what?” he asked.

“The ghosts,” said the snake. “What you carry in your heart.”

Little One tried not to let his irritation show. “So what would you have me do?”

“Running, you grow tired. Ignoring, they grow louder. Arguing with them, they get stronger. You cannot escape them. To free yourself, you welcome them.”

“What does that mean?” Little One was tired of trying to understand riddles.

“Sit with them. Befriend them. Ask them about their days. Or don’t. Just let them pass through you. But first you have to open the gatessssssss.”

This wasn’t helping Little One understand anything any better, but he knew the snake was trying to help. “Anything else?” he asked.

“When in doubt, be still.”

Little One heard a slithering sound. He realized the snake was moving away from him. “Wait, I don’t understand!” he said more loudly than he’d intended.

“You will,” said the snake. And then he heard hs-ss-ss-ss-ss again, and then nothing.

He walked back over to the tree. Standing next to it was the woman with the curly hair.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “You’re losing your chance to save Ginger, to get back your wish and find the Serpent God!”

He felt the stirrings of fear in his belly once again. But instead of running he went to the base of the tree and sat down.

He looked at the woman in front of him, who was getting more and more agitated. She began pacing back and forth, wringing her hands, and making dire predictions. The more upset she became, the more the panic rose within him. He tried to push it down, but it only grew stronger.

He remembered the snake’s words and had an idea.

“I welcome you,” he muttered to her. She looked at him, overwrought.

“What?” she said.

“I welcome you.” The woman looked at him a moment longer and then faster than he could follow with his eyes, she dove straight into his abdomen. He felt her enter like an icy gust of wind that exploded into his veins and ran all the way down his arms and legs and out to his fingers and toes. He felt like he was falling through an endless, freezing night.

For a few, long moments as the coldness took hold of his heart, he thought he was going to die. But then, just as he had the thought, the icy blast subsided. He felt the warmth return to his fingers and toes, felt the ground, reassuring, beneath him again.

When he looked up, the woman was gone.

One by one he invited the ghosts to enter him. He felt the suffocating weight of shame flooding over him, making it difficult to breathe. He experienced the all-consuming fire of anger that burned and roared and crackled until there was nothing left. He felt disappointment, jealousy, guilt, rage, and despair, and each time he thought he was surely going to die.

But he didn’t. He invited each of them in. When they entered him, they exploded with a fury that he thought he couldn’t stand. And then they left.

By the time the stars began to fade and light touched the farthest corners of the eastern sky, he could barely move his limbs and his eyes were heavy with exhaustion. Wearily he welcomed the next ghost. This time, however, nothing came.

He sat there for a long moment, remembering the snake’s words about staying still. And then, after an impossibly long time he became aware of something new within him. It felt like calm waters after a storm, beautiful and undisturbed. It expanded within him, empty and yet filling every corner of his body with warmth, limitless and still and impossibly light.

He felt exquisitely alive, connected to something powerful and enormous that he couldn’t explain. All his previous thoughts and worries seemed impossibly trivial, unimportant. He had the sense that the largest storm in the world wasn’t powerful enough to disturb this enormous stillness and peace.

Just then he heard a noise and saw Ginger walking up from the other side of the tree. Her head was low.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve ruined everything. I don’t even know what happened, I just suddenly felt so…so…”

“I know,” Little One said. “I did too. And it’s okay. You didn’t ruin anything.”

But Ginger wouldn’t look up. “No, we were supposed to pass the night by the tree together so we could both wish to go to our father’s palace. Now I’ve ruined it. I’ve ruined it,” she said again, and he saw that her eyes were filled with tears.

“You haven’t ruined anything,” Little One found himself repeating, but he realized it wasn’t doing any good.

He walked over to her, put his arms around her as she buried her face in his chest.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve failed. This isn’t the first time I’ve let down someone important to me. He’s gone, Little One, for good. Because of me.”

Standing there, holding her, feeling her body move up and down as she sobbed, Little One suddenly realized that the wish to go to the Serpent God’s palace wasn’t the right one to make. He made a different one instead.

Ginger kept sobbing for a little while longer, her body shaking between his arms. Then finally, finally the shaking stopped and she settled into a silent stillness.

Little One looked at her. When she glanced up to meet his gaze, he recognized something familiar in her eyes.

Freedom. Forgiveness. Peace. An expansive ocean of stillness.

He smiled. His wish had worked.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Eagle (Or, What Really Keeps Us Safe)

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Following is the sixth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


Little One was worried.

It had started to rain a lot. He was afraid that their supplies would be ruined if the rain got in, so he spent hours covering their packs with resin from pine trees.

The storms had brought lots of lightening as well. He was concerned a fire would start if a tree was hit, so he packed up all their things at night and put them under his head. That way if there was a fire, he could grab them quickly before they ran.

He heard noises in the trees at dusk and feared there were wild animals nearby getting hungry. He started to wake himself up in the middle of the night to keep watch with a knife so that nothing could attack them once the fire got low.

He was worried they weren’t making good time. Though they walked from sunup until sundown, often at a tiring pace, Little One could sense the summer getting ready to turn into fall. He knew that once the snows came, they could trap them in these mountains where they would starve without food and water.

So many things could go wrong.

Working so hard to keep them safe and on track was exhausting.  Just this morning he had fallen asleep as he was checking (and re-checking) the map he found at the City of the Children of the Serpent God. He was trying to decide whether to go high on the mountain and risk lightening or stay low by the river and risk flooding when all of a sudden he heard Ginger call his name gently.

“What?” he asked, irritated at the interruption.

“You fell asleep again,” she said. “Why don’t you take some time to lie down and rest?”

“No,” he said, standing up and folding the map. “We need to get going before the sun gets too hot. We don’t want anybody fainting from heatstroke.”

Ginger nodded her head. “Okay. But I really don’t think you need to keep watch tonight, Little One. The animals here aren’t the kind that attack humans.”

“I was almost killed once by a wild creature that surprised me in the night,” Little One said. “I’d really rather be safe than sorry.”

Ginger smiled. “Okay. Then let me do it. Let me keep watch tonight so you can sleep.”

Little One shook his head. “I appreciate it, but no thanks. I’d rather do it myself.”

Ginger shook her head. “Alright,” she said sadly. “Can I at least carry some of the supplies in your pack?” She gestured towards his bag, which was stuffed full of food, water, blankets, and firewood in case they couldn’t find any at their campsite tonight. Then she swept her hand towards her own, which was half empty on the ground.

“No, thanks,” Little One said grimly. “I’ve got it.”

They walked for a long time in silence.

Little One knew that Ginger was worried about him, and he sensed that she had a point. He was feeling more exhausted than he’d ever been in his life. Every time he sat down, he thought of something else he should be doing. When he got up to do it, he immediately felt guilty as he thought of three other things that were equally if not more important that he should have done already.

Even when he did lie down, it took him a long time to fall asleep because he was thinking through everything he needed to do the next day. His mind raced, his stomach tightened, and his breath got faster and faster as he lay there and realized he wasn’t going to have enough time to do everything he should.

No matter how much he did, there was always so much more to do.

He hadn’t always felt this way. It had started on their second day on the road together when Ginger was telling him stories she’d heard about their father, the Serpent God.

“The elders in my village told a story of how he came to live in a palace at the very top of the highest peak,” she said.

“In the beginning, the Serpent God lived in the mountains with all the other gods.  But after a while, he grew so tired of them coming to him to ask for favors that he built a separate palace for himself.  He hung it above the mountains and made it invisible to everyone, even the other gods.

“They say he guards his gates with fierce storms and lightning that incinerate anyone who tries to knock at his door,” Ginger said breathlessly. “The storms, like the palace, are invisible to most.  But one type of person can see the lightning, which the elders say is lit with all the colors of the rainbow.

“Because the Serpent God wanted one type of person to find him, he made his rainbow lightning visible only to a special group—his children.  They say he waits in his palace day after day waiting for one of them to find him.”

Little One was quiet as he considered this. They walked in silence around a bend in the path and then came upon a fork in the road. One branch led up a steep ravine while the other followed a creek around the base of a large mountain.

A spark lit in Little One’s chest as he realized which path he wanted to take. “I want to find his palace,” he told Ginger. “Let’s take the one that goes up.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Ginger said and smiled.

Little One was excited. He had so many questions he wanted answers to, about how he had been conceived, why he had been called to this journey, and what his secret gifts and talents were. He knew his father could give him the answers. Maybe he could even tell him what he was supposed to be doing on this journey to make it all worthwhile. Little One wanted to know so badly that his stomach ached when he thought of it.

Ever since that moment, images of things going wrong came unbidden to his mind: of him and Ginger getting lost and wandering the mountains for years without ever finding their father’s home; of one of them falling off the side of the path where it got steep and dropped off; of getting drowned, eaten, or burned alive and never crossing the threshold of their father’s house.

He hadn’t really had a destination in mind previously, so he hadn’t worried about getting there. Now that he knew where he was going, it became abundantly clear to him how very many things could prevent him from arriving.

They walked for a long time without talking. Then, as they were cresting a hill, Ginger suddenly stopped. She was looking up towards the sky.

“What is it?” Little One asked. He followed her gaze upwards and saw it: a giant eagle circling up above them.

“It’s beautiful,” Ginger said. “I used to study them, you know, back at the City. I was designing wings for those of us who don’t yet know how to fly. I wanted to learn from the best, so I started to study eagles. They’re incredibly strong and powerful, but they hardly exert themselves at all when they’re circling like that. They don’t flap, they don’t beat, they don’t effort. They just hang there. They let the air hold them up. It’s amazing.”

Little One lowered his gaze. “Yea, must be great to have hollow bones and lots of feathers,” he said. He stepped around Ginger and started walking along the path again. “Too bad we’re stuck with heavy skeletons and flesh and fat.”

“What do you mean?” Ginger called from behind as she tried to catch up.

“I mean it’s great for something like an eagle to not effort, but air alone isn’t exactly going to keep me from falling to my death, is it?”

“No, but it seems to me the earth is doing a pretty good job of that,” said Ginger wryly.

Just then a root caught Little One’s foot and he fell to his knees. Before he could catch himself, the weight of his heavy pack threw him face first towards the earth. His forehead hit the ground with a smack.

And then it kept going. Suddenly Little One found himself falling headlong into what looked like earth but felt like a pool of thick water. It gave way beneath him as he fell deeper and deeper into its blackness. He couldn’t breathe.

He felt the first stirrings of panic in his belly. He tried desperately to pull himself upright with his arms, but his backpack was too heavy and kept pushing him down.

He kicked his legs out to the sides and reached out with his arms, trying to find something solid to hold onto. It was useless. There was nothing but watery sand all around him. The panic extended from his belly into his chest and throat.

He tried twisting, flapping his arms, and curling himself into a ball, but the more he struggled, the faster he fell.

This was exactly the type of thing he had worried would happen. He almost smiled with bitterness as he realized that there was nothing in his heavy, thoroughly-prepared pack that could help him in this particular situation.

He felt the darkness getting deeper as his lungs screamed for oxygen. Knowing it would do no good, he still kicked his feet a few more times and reached to find something solid with his hands.

He couldn’t. He was falling fast now. Soon the blackness became all encompassing and he felt himself drifting to sleep.

*   *   *

He was floating above a mountain peak, deep blue sky embracing him from all sides.

He saw a valley far below him. He could make out small trees, boulders, and a river glinting in the sun.

The wind was cool on his skin and he felt the infinity of space extending all around him. The view was beautiful from up here. He felt light, relaxed and free.

Just as he began to enjoy himself, the wind slowed and he felt himself fall. His heart jumped into his throat and his muscles tensed.

But then, after a moment of freefall, he felt something sweep beneath him, pushing him higher again. It held him there, solid and unmoving.

This happened a few more times. Slowly understanding dawned on Little One. Soon it felt so obvious and clear to him that he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before.

His body relaxed. All tension faded from his muscles. He stopped trying completely. He felt himself melt into the air beneath him, his mind as empty as the sky above him.

*   *   *

The light dimmed, the expansiveness shrunk, and his lungs were screaming once again. He was back in the watery pit.

Keeping his muscles relaxed, he stayed still. He was no longer falling. Barely moving, he easily slid his arms from his backpack. He felt light as a feather.

Just then he felt something tap his head. He reached up and grabbed hold of what felt like a thick rope with something tied to the end. With the last of his strength, he pulled himself up the rope enough to put the weight between his legs. Then he let go and all was black.

When he woke up, he was on his back and Ginger’s face was above his, her brows furrowed with concern.

“Why the long face, friend?” he croaked.

Ginger’s face broke into a smile and she clapped her hands. “You’re alright! Wait, you are alright, right?”

“Yes, I think I finally am,” Little One said. “Though I managed to lose my backpack down there.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” sighed Ginger. “You don’t need it.” Suddenly she looked away shyly. “I guess you did a pretty good job of proving me wrong, though, didn’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean literally the moment I told you that the earth was doing a good job of holding you up, you fell right through it.” She turned back to meet his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Little One. I feel like this is my fault for not taking your concerns seriously.”

Little One laughed. “Actually, I realized something down there, Ginger. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. I almost killed myself trying to keep us safe from everything that could go wrong. But you know what I learned from all this?” Ginger shook her head.

“Well, first of all, I think it’s pretty clear I can’t keep us safe from anything.” Little One shook his head and smiled.

“And I also realized that that’s okay. Because when I blacked out, I dreamt I was an eagle. And every time I fell, I was carried back up again. It’s like there was something rock-solid supporting me. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, but then I understood.”

Ginger looked at him. Her expression was thoughtful, her eyebrows arched. “What was it, Little One?”

“I was being held up by…me. Not by what I do, but by who I am. My safety doesn’t come from what’s happening outside of me. All my efforts to control the external world are pointless. What keeps me secure is what happens inside of me. It’s the strength in my soul, the peace in my heart, and my intrinsic ability to respond to whatever’s happening in the world with kindness, compassion, and love that keep me safe.  That keeps my internal experience secure regardless of what’s happening outside.”

Ginger’s eyebrows arched curiously. “And I realized something else,” he continued. “When I saw how supported I am by who I am, I realized how supported I am by everything else.”

“Like what?” Ginger asked.

“The wind. You. My family. The serpent. The world. Everything, I think. There’s so much support available to us all the time that we don’t even see.  I mean, think about the people who love us, the plants that feed us, the rain that nourishes us, and the sun that warms us. Lots of bad stuff can happen. But the whole world is always holding us up.”

Ginger’s laughter was like bells filling his ears. He looked over and met her eyes. “And now,” he said, smiling, “speaking of food and nourishment, I’m starving. Would you mind making me something to eat?”

Ginger giggled. “I’d love to!” she said. “I’ll just need to go collect some food. Somebody got so excited by how supported he is that he threw all of ours away.”

Little One laughed. He had no food, no supplies, no map, and no plan, and yet he’d never felt more confident and secure. Everything he needed was already within him. He folded his arms behind his head and laid back on the earth, enjoying the sensation of the entire world holding him up.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Find your own strength

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Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

 

Everything You Need to Know About Being Human in Less Than 500 Words

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Wouldn’t it be nice to have an operating manual for how best to be human?

If the Lego Movie’s Instructions to Fit In, Have Everybody Like You, and Always Be Happy leave you wanting more, you’re in luck.

You see, in addition to being passionate about helping others do meaningful work they love, I’m also a personal development geek.

And while I really can’t claim to know everything there is to know about being human (believe me, I am reminded daily just how much I have left to learn), I have learned a thing or two from a lifelong obsession with trying to figure out why we do the (lovably quirky and frequently irrational) things we do.  And there are some truths that are simple, if not easy.

The truth about who we are

What I’ve found is it pretty much comes down to this: We are all amazing.  Breathtakingly, beautifully, without-a-doubt awesome.  And we all have everything we need within us—security, confidence, power, love, harmony, wisdom, joy, guidance, etc.

But we forget.  Inexorably, inevitably, tragically we forget.  As we go through pain, loss, frustration, disappointment, and rejection, we misinterpret events and lose touch with all these wonderful things within us.

The big mistake every one of us makes

At some point, when we’re young and not very wise to the truth of the world, we come up with strategies to try to get these very wonderful things back.  Strategies like people-pleasing, or power-grabbing, or worrying, or trying to be perfect.

Our strategies, which we might also call our personalities, feel like they’re helping us, but they’re actually quite short-sighted.  And in the end, they take us further and further away from what we’re truly wanting.

How to make things whole again

So the key, I’ve found, to finding what we’re looking for, is to begin to observe ourselves and notice which particular strategies we’ve chosen.  And then to see in what ways they’re helping us and in what ways they’re not.

And then, the most important thing we can do is not to try to fix anything or—heaven forbid—improve ourselves.  Because that’s just another strategy, and it hardly ever works.

Once we’re intimately (and nauseatingly) familiar with our patterns, the best thing we can do to reconnect with our amazingness and move towards what we’re wanting is…

…to relax.

That’s it.

You see, it’s the tightening—from fear, from disappointment, from stress, from pain—that makes us lose connection with who we really are and lets us think we’re anything less than incredible.

When we relax, our natural awesomeness rises once again to the surface.

Breathe

Relaxing is simple, though not really very easy.

It helps to stop believing all the negative stories in our heads and start seeing things as they actually are.

It’s beneficial to take loving care of ourselves and connect meaningfully with others.

It’s useful to notice all the ways in which the universe is supporting us and to contribute to something larger than ourselves.

Most of all, it’s helpful to breathe.  Oxygen is far better than valium.  Relax the body, relax the mind, relax the ego.

Over to You

I’m curious—what do you make of this?  What resonates?  What doesn’t?  Please let us know in the comments below.

Relax Into Your Awesomeness

This is all way, way easier said than done.  I needed lots of outside help before I was able to begin to relax into my true self.  If you want to reconnect with your inner awesomeness, click here to join the next Pathfinders: a Group Hike and Discussion to Discover Your Calling.  You’ll go on a beautiful walk in the woods, talk with others like you, and get new ideas about how to find work you love.  Oh, and you’ll breathe fresh air.  Lots of it.


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Can You Always Trust Your Gut?

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In my last blog post, I wrote about the benefits of trusting your gut.

I claimed that your somatic—or gut—intelligence, when combined with your feelings and intellect, provides everything you could ever want in a state-of-the-art guidance system.

I alleged that by listening to your gut, you can not only make better decisions, but find the right path every time.

But is it really true?  Can you always trust your gut?

I can imagine some legitimate pushback:

How can our gut possibly take into account—let alone process—all the information out there about conflicting preferences, possible choices, and probable outcomes?

What about those times when I listened to my gut and it steered me wrong?

If we all listened to our guts all of the time, wouldn’t we be prejudiced, irrational, and impulsive?

The cold, hard truth

The science isn’t prolific, but it is consistent: you can absolutely trust your gut.

Researchers have found that the network of nerves lining our guts is so extensive that many scientists now refer to it as our “second brain.”  It contains over 100 million neurons, can act independently from our primary brain, and according to one expert at UCLA, is “ way too complicated to have evolved only to make sure things move out of your colon.”

Studies have shown that when it comes to making major life decisions, “trusting your intuition leads to better outcomes than trusting your logical, thinking brain.”

One study has even shown that our bodies can accurately tell us the best choice to make before that choice has come into existence.  In this study, researchers found that physiological responses of participants accurately predicted which curtain on a computer screen an object would lay behind—2-3 seconds before the computer itself selected which curtain to use.

Not just in the labs

One of my clients owns a small business.  He recently had an opportunity to consult with another entrepreneur who was looking to make his business investment-ready.  My client was excited by the idea of consulting but worried that it would pull him off-course from his own endeavors.

His concerns were valid.  And yet when he checked in with his gut, he found that his state-of-the-art guidance system was telling him to do it.

He trusted his gut and was pleased with the results.  He found that consulting and giving back to others energized him so much that he was able to bring back renewed vitality to his own projects.

He also discovered benefits that he couldn’t have anticipated—for example, while working on the project, he reconnected with some key investors just before he developed a new business idea that he found out would soon need financial support.

Far from pulling him off-course, listening to his gut made him even more powerful in pursuing his goals in ways he hadn’t dreamed of.

The caveats

You can trust your gut—always—but it is important to understand more about how our bodies work.

We can, for instance, be reprogrammed by traumatic experiences.  This can lead our bodies to give us false signals.  If you’re in a bad car wreck, for example, your fight or flight system might begin to send you warning signals any time you approach a car in the future, whether or not there’s any real danger present.

And there are subtleties in how our guts respond that we need to learn how to untangle.

We need to learn, for example, the difference between what feels good because it’s easy and what feels good because it’s right for us.

We have to be able to distinguish between when we feel frightened because something is new and when we’re anxious because we’re not on the right path.

Our bodies themselves can help us make these distinctions.  As we learn how to speak their language more fluently, we discover that each scenario feels different in the body: easy feels different than right, and fear when something is new feels different than anxiety when something is fundamentally wrong.

Trusting your gut doesn’t mean immediately reacting to the first thing you feel.  It means listening for and interpreting what your body is telling you.  When you integrate that with what your emotions and your rational mind are telling you as well, good things happen.  Very good things.

I met my husband because I trusted my gut.

I got married earlier this month, and I never would have met my husband if I hadn’t trusted my gut.

There were a whole host of choices I made that led up to our lives converging.  One was my decision to start training capoeira 10 years ago in San Francisco, something I was terrified of but felt instinctively drawn to nonetheless.

Another was my decision, 7 years later, to move back to Atlanta after nearly 15 years in the Bay Area.  I had rational reasons for staying and going, but in the end it was my gut that told me to move back.

It was also my gut that told me that there was something special about the handsome and playful Brazilian instructor who visited my new capoeira group in Atlanta soon after I moved back.  It suggested I would do well to stay close to him and get to know him better.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did.

Over to you

When have you trusted your gut and had good or surprising results?

We would love to hear from you, so please share your comments below.  (As an added service to our community, a link to your latest blog post–if you have one–will appear after your comment.)

Learn how to let your gut guide you.

It takes skill and practice and lots of courage to trust your gut.  If you don’t know what your gut is telling you, or if you’re having a hard time doing what you feel you should, coaching can help.  Click here to request a Clarity Call and find out how you can learn to trust your gut and discover good things in your future.


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The Power in Powerlessness (Or, What to Do When Things Feel Out of Your Control)

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I’ve been learning a lot lately about powerlessness.

Case(s) in point: I’ve been waiting for many months for the U.S. government to issue a visa for my fiancé to be able to come back to the States so we can get married. My parents’ dog (whom I adore) just got diagnosed with cancer and doesn’t have long to live. A few of my backyard chickens have intestinal worms that won’t go away despite multiple treatments from the vet.

And that’s just the start.

Here’s what I’ve learned through all this powerlessness:

  1. I hate feeling out of control.
  2. I’ll do pretty much anything I can to avoid it.
  3. Almost everything is out of my control.

The truth is, we are powerful in many ways, but we’re powerless in many more. Most of what happens in this world is not up to us. In fact, when we try to stay in control, what we’re actually holding onto is the illusion of control.

And the illusion of control may make us feel safe, but it’s also at the heart of most of our problems.

Think of it like this: when we come face-to-face with something we can’t fix, it can feel like we’re drowning in the inescapable force of a stadium-sized whirlpool. So we fight the current and swim harder to get back to what feels like solid ground. But the more we fight, the more exhausted we become, and the farther we drift from what we want.

The key to getting out of a whirlpool is to stop fighting: you accept that the force of the water is more powerful than you and let yourself sink to the bottom so the vortex will spit you out.

I’ll give you a real-life example. The other day I woke up in a bad mood. I was cranky and irritated and frustrated that I was so grumpy when I had nothing real to complain about. The more I tried to relax and lighten up, the worse I felt.

But then it occurred to me that my moods are like the weather—they come and go of their own accord and are not up to me to fix. And lo and behold, as I accepted my inability to rid myself of my bad mood, it slowly but surely started to lift.

There’s a power that comes from accepting our powerlessness.

Imagine this: you’re walking down the street when you come across a man who is repeatedly banging his head against a granite wall. When you ask him why he’s doing this, he looks at you like it’s obvious, then realizes you’re an idiot and explains:

“This wall is causing me a lot of pain. I’m trying to knock it down so it won’t hurt me anymore.”

Like this man, we often fail to realize that what’s causing our pain is not other people, things, or the situation we’re in, but the fact that we’re trying to change them. We tell ourselves nasty stories about what it means that things are this way; we imagine bad events that will occur because they are.

We bang our heads against the wall because it’s all we know to do.

On the other hand, when we stop trying to change things that are out of our control, they no longer have the power to hurt us in the same way. Granite walls stop being headaches and start to become….granite walls. And when we finally see things how they really are instead of how we want them to be, solutions begin to emerge on their own.

I am in no way saying that we should never take action for change. But paradoxically, we will become far more powerful if we can fully accept our powerlessness.

Here’s how to start:

Step 1: Acknowledge what you’re powerless over.

This can be harder than it sounds.

When I’m not sure whether I’m banging my head against a wall or simply being persistent, I use the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

That kind of wisdom can take years or decades to come by. Here’s a cheat sheet:

What you can control: Your choices and actions.

What you can’t control: Everything else.*

*Including but not limited to: everybody else’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and the outcomes of all your efforts.

Often we get it backwards: we spend so much time trying to influence others and the external world that we forget to focus on what we have the most power over: ourselves and our own choices.

  • You can work incredibly hard on a project, but you can’t control whether you get a promotion.
  • You can be as loving as possible to a friend, but you can’t stop them from getting angry with you.
  • You can make a clear and reasonable request to someone else, but you are powerless over how they respond.

If you’re still in doubt, check in with how you’re feeling.  Usually if you’re taking care of something within your power, there is a sense of strength, ease, and groundedness.  If your efforts make you feel more along the lines of exhausted, angry, or anxious, then it’s likely you’re pushing on something over which you have no jurisdiction.

In a world where we’re trained how to exert and maintain control, acknowledging what you’re powerless over is a revolutionary act.  It’s also a powerful one.

Sometimes just admitting that we’re powerless is enough to solve our problems.  When I’m feeling overwhelmed, acknowledging that I’m powerless over the fact that I have limits frees me to stop trying to do everything. And suddenly, I’m no longer overwhelmed.

I can’t tell you how many problems I’ve solved simply by admitting that I can’t change the laws of reality.

Step 2: By all means change what you can.

If you still have problems after conceding you’re not omnipotent, you have options.

You could ask for help.

Often we’re powerless to do something by ourselves, but we find a new power by enlisting others.  Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on this principle (the 12 steps require members to ask for help from both God and fellow alcoholics) and has proven it’s a sound one.

You could make lemonade.

If you can’t sleep, read a good book. If you’re caught in traffic, call a friend. If you don’t get the job you want, look for a better one or start your own business.

You could find a new way of looking at things that makes you happier.

If others are critical of you, choose not to let your satisfaction or self-worth depend on the opinions of others. If things aren’t going according to plan, consider that there might be a plan better than the one you made. If you’re not getting the results you wanted, keep in mind that what you’re getting may be better in the long run than what you had imagined.

It’s not what happens to us that determines our happiness but rather the stories we tell ourselves about it.  And you can always choose what story you tell yourself about anything.

Step 3: Accept what you cannot change.

Ultimately, we will be a lot happier if we can accept things the way they are and stop fighting reality.  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

There’s no magic bullet for acceptance.  It can help to look at things from different perspectives, talk to others who see things differently, and do your best to be compassionate with yourself and make sure your needs are getting met.

If something still feels absolutely unacceptable to you, the best thing I know to do is pray—not to get what you want, but to be able to accept what is.

You don’t even have to believe in God to do this. Pray to the universe, your dog, or the tree in your yard. The important thing is to ask somebody—anybody—to help you find acceptance.

Prayer is, after all, a form of accepting powerlessness.

And that, as we have seen, leads to serenity, freedom, and ultimately–in a process that’s totally outside of our control–power.


Now over to you:  What do you make of all this?  What makes you feel powerless?  How to you deal with a lack of control?

***Photo credit: Frederic Bisson