David is a friend who’s done a lot of work helping people bring more heart into their work. His superpower is helping others connect with the joy, wisdom, and genius that exists within all of us (yes, even you). He’s profound, hilarious, and great at helping people stop trying to be something else and start enjoying the amazing gifts of who they already are.
Change is hard. For most of us, no matter how much part of us wants to make a change, there’s another part that for whatever reason seems bent on staying stuck in the status quo. As a result, we procrastinate, convince ourselves it’s not even worth trying, or find other ways to stay with the devil that we know.
How can we overcome this tendency in order to move towards what we want more powerfully?
To answer that question, I’m excited to share with you the story of Jeff Siewert, a former client of mine who managed to move past his resistance to change and go from listless executive to impassioned entrepreneur in a relatively short period of time.
Jeff participated in my Pathfinders Group Coaching Program, which is currently enrolling, but he does a great job of identifying what exactly was key to his transformation so that even if you’re not interested in coaching right now, you can get an idea of what to look for from other sources to help you make a similar move.
Here’s Jeff’s story, in his own words:
How Things Were
“Two years ago I was at a crossroads and needed a career change—a life change—but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.
“I was coming off two years at my latest job. I had an executive title and my compensation was as good as it had been in years. I traveled often to New York City and had made two long international business trips. On paper things were good, but I couldn’t help thinking I was in a dissatisfying spot that I’d found myself in before.
“I knew I had the talent and skills to do my job and was performing successfully, but after some of the excitement of rebuilding and creating new improvements passed, I found myself listless and less than fully interested in what I was doing. When I was honest with myself, I realized that I’d come to that same moment of truth before.”
“In some ways I was lucky to have a catalyst for change. There was an upcoming company re-org that would have meant a retrenching and starting over of sorts. This would be a good time to transition to something new, something better. However, I didn’t know what that could be.
“Was I ready to forego the regular income I had now? What did I think I could do that was better? To quote the phrase, wasn’t it easier to stick with the devil I knew? Was I ready to deal with family and friends who questioned my sanity in making a late career change? Was it too late for me to make a change? How was I going to figure this out any better than I had previously?
“I joined Pathfinders Group Coaching after researching several career counseling services. The kicker for me is that I didn’t want job placement advice or simply a list of potential corporate roles I should consider. I wanted answers regarding what types of paths I should be considering based on what my skills and talents are and for what activities I have real passion. Getting to those skills and passions first was more important than jumping to corporate business titles. I knew many of those types of corporate roles already, and the ambivalence I felt about them told me I needed to do some soul-searching work and be honest with myself about who I am and what’s important to me before jumping to solutions.
“I had inklings of some pursuits I might want to try. I decided I needed to be in a group setting, that saying things out loud to others would make my ideas more ‘real’; my group members could hold me accountable. As important, they might make the connections and suggest the actions that I was too afraid to admit to myself.”
How He Did It
“Our group started off with some baseline inventories of our skills and interests. I’d taken some similar exercises in the past, but these were at work and were never going to drive a change from that work! I enjoyed getting into the Enneagram results and those of other tests. It was great to take these at face value and not try to fit them into preconceived slots.
“As we all talked through our stories and baseline assessments, I was comforted to realize that I wasn’t the only one feeling blasé, unsatisfied, or disconnected about where I was going. We were all in that same boat. It was great that we had this safe environment in which to open up.
“However, even with our own homework pointing out new options to consider, we can be our own worst enemies, and we spent some time addressing our ‘Inner Critics,’ those voices that tell us why we cannot do the possible steps we outlined.
“A really valuable Pathfinders exercise is that each of us got to have a ‘Mastermind Session’ in which a person could self-direct a meeting to solicit help and input from others on our progress in turning our ideas into action and results. I had a list of passions and strengths and a tentative idea of groups I might serve. Still, I had trouble taking my ideas and giving form to real options.
“My teammates very quickly told me, ‘You’ve been telling us of your passion for music. You have these strengths and interests in communicating and creating. Why aren’t you writing some kind of music blog?’ They helped turn on the lightbulb I’d been shuffling to the back of my mind. Before my session was even up, my mind was flooded with ideas.”
From Idea Into Action
“I immediately started brainstorming ideas – strategic ones like what would be my vision and mission, and tactical ones like what distinguishing content and web presence should I consider. A name and a logo came to me and I began trademarking and incorporation steps as Atlanta Music Grapevine [AMGV]. Grapevine was to be a news, information, and social site, and eventually a larger Grapevine Enterprises LLC would offer additional services to artists, venues, and music businesses.
“I was well on my way when I started to uncover similar competitors I had previously missed. I wanted to launch with a big bang. I was interviewing web developers to design a super-charged site. Admittedly, seeing others doing some of what I wanted to and being far ahead of me left me feeling discouraged. I had shopped around the idea with people I knew in music and they had been supportive, but my Inner Critic was getting to me again.
“I then heard of other people about to start a similar music magazine. I got fired up and decided that I needed to start. I couldn’t let ‘best get in the way of better.‘ I needed to head off any further competition. Bigger sites were heavily outsourcing to freelancers, but I still wanted some control and consistency over the ‘voice’ and style of the magazine. I decided to customize my own website theme, and read all I could on web formatting. I would launch now and add all the features on my wish list later as I could. We put out our first story the first week of June.
“As Atlanta has nearly doubled in size in twenty years, it’s become home to many talented musicians of all genres, venues that offer music entertainment, and music businesses that make music happen. Atlanta Music Grapevine focuses on Atlanta, not on national acts that play Atlanta. We cover a broad geography, as there is great music happening in the suburbs across the metro area, just as there is inside city entertainment districts. We’ve featured folk singers, jam-band style rock bands, hard rock music promoters, jazz vocalists, and more. We want Atlantans to know the talent we have in our backyards. We’re telling the stories of venue owners who create spaces where people can go see live music. We tell the stories of luthiers, guitar pedal builders, producers, and others with music businesses.”
How Things Are Now
“Reaction from the Atlanta music community and fans of music has been very positive and supportive. I think one reason for this is that AMGV aims to tell the stories of the people behind the music. Everyone has an interesting story to share. I think the stories help make real the people in bands, those at music venues, or those managing behind the scenes. Knowing about the people makes connecting to the music a greater interest. In our short-attention span world, AMGV tends to write longer stories that emerge from interviews that are often two hours long.
“I have not yet begun to monetize the site, as the focus has been on establishing credibility. Yes, I know that it is important. Money, in fact, is a needed part of the change I wanted to make. However, people who like what I’m trying to do are sending me business ideas and offering to make introductions for me.
“Two lessons from Pathfinders come to me as I worry about finances. One I heard during Pathfinders is that if do what you’re passionate about, the money would follow. I can’t tell you how many other people tell me that same thing as I share what I’m doing with Atlanta Music Grapevine. Another lesson is that when you do something you enjoy, you have more energy, time doesn’t creep along sluggishly, and you find yourself absorbed in what you’re doing.
“While these ideas and benefits sound obvious enough, getting from where you are to where you want to be, doing the work to honestly write about your likes and strengths, and admitting to and working with your Inner Critic fears, are not as obvious when trying to do it on your own. Pathfinders gave me a needed structured approach, meaningful exercises, a sounding board, a safe environment, Meredith’s non-judgmental, encouraging coaching, and the support of team members whom I could trust.
“I revisit my Pathfinders homework from time to time and am reminded that while my current endeavors are so far distant from the type of work I did for many years, what I’m doing now is a better, truer version of what I can do. I’m thankful I learned through my Pathfinders experience that it’s never too late to make a positive change.”
As you may have picked up in a previous post, my husband and I are thinking of moving and have been looking at houses nearby.
Recently we saw a sweet one on a beautiful piece of land that was priced well under our budget, but it needed a lot of work if it was going to give us what we wanted. As we met with architects, contractors, engineers, and other experts to explore the possibilities, I paid close attention to my internal response. I meditated on what we found, journaled about it, discussed it with people I trust, all the while paying attention to my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, and listening for the subtle stirrings of desire.
In other words, I was doing my best to hear my Inner Wisdom.
What I heard, over and over, was: Yes. This is the right house, the right step to take. It’s going to be a lot of work. It may be stressful and overwhelming at times. You’ll probably run into many challenges. But you can handle it, it’ll help you grow, and you can create something wonderful on land that you’re already beginning to love. (Fortunately, my husband agreed.)
Due diligence expired, and I began to get excited. Having made the decision to buy the house, I felt energized, enthusiastic, and capable, not to mention incredibly blessed to have this opportunity in front of us.
And then, a few days before closing, my confidence evaporated. What I can only describe as a tsunami of fear crashed over me, washing away excitement and leaving only panic in its wake. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much money it was going to cost, how much work it would be, and how many things could possibly go wrong.
Doubt overtook me. We were already running into some unexpected expenses. Had we made the wrong decision? Was my Inner Wisdom wrong? Should we back out of the contract before it was too late?
A Confusing Pattern
The same thing happens to my clients all the time. They do a lot of work to come up with promising career ideas, explore them, and use their Inner Wisdom to find a possibility they’re excited about. There’s usually a window of time that lasts somewhere between an hour and a month in which they too feel enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.
The window promptly closes somewhere around the time when change starts to get real. Then suddenly, without warning, the tidal wave comes, sometimes drowning them in fear, panic, and doubt, sometimes merely soaking them to the bone.
So what’s the deal? Why does this happen? And how can we possibly know how to navigate important life decisions when something that feels so good one minute feels so bad the next?
The key to answering all three questions is to understand exactly what Inner Wisdom is.
So, What is Inner Wisdom?
I first discovered the presence of a wise voice inside me when I was struggling with depression in my mid-twenties. I began to find that even in my worst moments, when I felt utterly alone, confused, and hopeless, I could still sometimes hear the whisper of something far wiser than me if I just got quiet enough. It spoke softly, calmly, and compassionately; gave voice to truths that seemed to come out of nowhere; and slowly but surely guided me out of my misery when everything I’d tried before had only made it worse.
One step at a time, I followed my Inner Wisdom out of depression and back to myself.
Since then, that quiet, inner voice has led me to do things that I wouldn’t have thought possible. It steered me towards building a thriving coaching practice, marrying a wonderful man, writing a novel, developing meaningful relationships, returning to my roots in Atlanta, and expanding myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It helps me make difficult decisions that turn out well when there’s no way to rationally anticipate what might be the better option. It’s no exaggeration to say that every time I follow my Inner Wisdom, I discover greater levels of joy, freedom, and fulfillment.***
So what is this voice exactly?
If you’re not the woo-woo type, here’s a scientific explanation: Inner Wisdom (or intuition) is another name for the things we know but don’t know that we know. Recent research suggests that it’s measurable and can indeed help people make faster, more accurate, and more confident decisions. What’s more, scientists have found that there’s an intrinsic nervous system in the heart and a secondary “brain” in the gut, both of which function independently and send more information to the brain in our head than vice versa. In other words, our bodies provide us with information and intelligence that goes far beyond our rational, conscious thought.
I personally see Inner Wisdom as the voice of my true self. It comes from the part of me that extends beyond ego, and that’s free from fear, constrictions, or limiting beliefs.
I also believe that it comes from a collective wisdom that we can tap into if we’re willing to get quiet and listen. Joanna Macy talks about how when we act on behalf of something greater than ourselves, we have access to the wisdom, beauty, and strength of our fellow humans and our fellow species. This absolutely feels true to me as well, and perhaps explains why my Inner Wisdom seems to know so many things that I don’t, and benefits others as much as it does myself.
How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 101
When I coach clients in how to know what their intuition is saying, we usually start with the body. Wisdom can show up in any of our three centers of intelligence, but it’s generally easiest to hear in the body. Paying attention to physical sensations and noticing what helps your body feel more open, spacious, relaxed, or energized can give you great clues about where your Inner Wisdom is pointing.
In addition, observing the flavor of your thoughts can help you identify what’s coming from Inner Wisdom and what’s coming from your Inner Critic. I recently wrote a whole post about how to identify your Critic, and you can learn a lot about your intuition just by noticing which thoughts are the opposite of what I describe there.
To put it simply, your Inner Wisdom is usually quiet, calm, patient, loving, and compassionate. When you listen to it, you understand that you have plenty of time, you’re going to be okay, and no matter how you feel, you’re still a whole, lovable, and worthy human being. Fear and your Inner Critic, on the other hand, are generally urgent, dire, judgmental, and belittling. They make it seem likely that everything good is about to implode, most probably because you’re fundamentally flawed.
A great way to learn more about how your Inner Wisdom speaks to you is to keep a record of all the times you think you hear its voice. Write down how you recognized it, what it told you, what you decided as a result of hearing it, and how that decision turned out. If you’re like me, over time you’ll start to gather evidence that your Inner Wisdom is quite trustworthy, as well as some powerful clues for how to identify it.
How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 201
Now here’s where things start to get interesting.
Often I have clients who tell me that their Inner Wisdom is telling them—surprise!— to stay in their current job after all because they realized that it isn’t as bad as they originally thought.
Sometimes this is actually true; more often, however, it’s a sign that they’ve run face-first into the wall of fear that usually sits just on the other side of wisdom.
Because sooner or later, our Inner Wisdom always leads us towards what we fear most. This isn’t a punishment or sign that we’re doomed to misery; I rather see it as evidence that (as David Whyte puts it) this world was made to be free in. The universe conspires to open us up and remove our constrictions by pointing us towards our fears again and again and again; that way, we have plenty of opportunities to come to terms with and move past them.
This principle explains the tidal wave of fear and doubt that I encountered with the new house, the same one that clients feel when they get into exploring an exciting career idea. Almost every time we attempt to follow our Wisdom into a new realm or on a deeper level, there’s a backlash when we come face-to-face with some of our greatest fears.
It becomes important, then, at this point in our Inner Wisdom studies, to be able to distinguish between the sensations of true guidance and the temporary relief that comes from avoiding something scary or falling back into the familiarity of an old (but unhelpful) pattern.
It takes time and observation to learn the difference. This is like the PhD of Inner Wisdom education, and those usually take what—approximately 102 years based on what my friends who have them say? The point is, try to be patient with yourself. I’ve also adopted the general rule of thumb that I have to talk to at least three people who are wiser than me before abandoning a course of action that previously felt like wisdom.
Feeling the Fear, Trusting the Wisdom
The three wise people I spoke to about the house didn’t seem to share my newfound fear that everything good in my life would turn to dust if I moved forward with the purchase. I also noticed that in those rare moments when I had some relief from the terror and felt slightly more grounded, I still felt excited and energized by the idea of moving forward with it.
So we closed on the house last week. Though I know by now that I can trust my Inner Wisdom, I still obsessed over the budget a few more times, tried to solve every problem we might encounter in advance, and made backup plans for my backup plans. Hey, that’s just what I do.
Which leads me to a final PhD-level concept: Trusting your Inner Wisdom doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair. I’ve come a long way in terms of following my intuition, but as you can see in the house example, part of me trusts, and part of me still doesn’t. The part that doesn’t is going to want me to fall back into old habits that make me feel safe (though I know by now they don’t actually accomplish much in that regard). If it helps calm me down, there’s nothing wrong with doing it, as long as I realize that’s what’s going on and participate with eyes wide open.
Because the part of me that trusts is growing. And the world is already a much freer place because of it.
***The Fine Print:
This isn’t to say that if you listen to your Inner Wisdom you’ll always get everything you crave, things will always go the way you want, or you won’t face any unexpected challenges. This isn’t Manifestation, which can so easily become about listening to ego once again. When tuning in to Inner Wisdom, I find that it’s best to let go of my ideas about particular outcomes and trust that while things may not turn out as I imagine, they’ll result in the best possible scenario for everyone involved. That may not sound very reassuring, but I can also add that in my experience, if you follow your Inner Wisdom, you’ll find plenty of options for taking care of your needs, far more opportunities for creating joy, the ability to share your most powerful gifts with the world, and the promise of serving a greater purpose even when you have no idea what that may be.
Want Help Hearing Your Inner Wisdom?
I offer individual and group coaching programs at various levels of investment that can help you get your PhD in Inner Wisdom and work through the fear that likes to lurk on the other side of it.
Over to You
When have you followed your Inner Wisdom, and what came of it?
Please share in the comments below. You might just inspire someone else to trust their intuition.
Recently I was lying in bed, anxiously tossing and turning, my mind spinning as I fruitlessly tried to relax and go to sleep. The things that usually help me calm down weren’t working, and I had no idea why I was so tense or what I could do to fix it.
After wrestling with my thoughts for what seemed like forever, I finally felt my body begin to release its frantic energy like a top that’s spun itself out. In one of those first moments of stillness a realization surfaced: I was struggling so much not from lack of effort but from an overabundance of it.
In the face of life-altering changes, developments in the health of a close family member, and really just a whole lot of uncertainty and ambiguity, some old patterns had taken over. I was trying to do everything perfectly, from searching for a flawless new home for our family to maturely handling all the fear that change brings up for me, all the while handling my normal responsibilities with ease and grace during a particularly busy time. Without meaning to, I’d raised my expectations for myself so high that despite my best efforts, I was failing to meet them.
In other words, my Inner Critic had taken over.
What Is an Inner Critic?
Perhaps the most important thing to know about the Inner Critic is that we all have one. It’s that voice in our heads that’s always looking for what we’re doing wrong, where we’re not measuring up, and what we should be doing better. It’s also probably the single biggest obstacle to finding your calling, or really just growing, expanding, or moving towards what you want in any way, shape, or form.
When we listen to the Critic (and it’s hard not to, as it tends to speak with such volume and authority that it can feel like unquestionable truth), we doubt ourselves and our capabilities. We feel like what we want isn’t possible, and what we’re doing isn’t enough. We also tend to hold onto old patterns that keep us stuck in the status quo.
There’s a reason for that. The Critic, though problematic, is actually trying to help us. It wants to keep us safe, and it believes that the best way to do that is to make sure that we stick with what’s familiar. As far as the Critic is concerned, its job is to preserve the status quo, where at least we know we can survive, whether it’s an engrained behavioral pattern or a job we’ve been in for fifteen years. And because it’s far more concerned with safety than it is with happiness, it’ll do so by any means necessary, even if that means making us miserable.
How Do I Deal With My Inner Critic?
Despite all this, the problem isn’t that we have an Inner Critic but that we believe it. The most straightforward and powerful way to avoid falling prey to it, then, is simply to recognize when it’s the one talking.
In my own example of the other night, once I realized that all my spinning thoughts were coming from my Inner Critic, they immediately lost their power. My whole body relaxed and felt more settled; I had access to a sense of my own strength and goodness once again; and I was able to let go of the thoughts that I knew weren’t helpful. They became like flies buzzing around my head; unpleasant, perhaps, but hardly consequential.
It’s kind of like how at the end of The Labyrinth Jennifer Connolly’s character, having gone to great lengths to battle David Bowie’s Goblin King the entire movie, finally defeats him simply by saying the words, “You have no power over me.”
The process may be simple, but it’s certainly not easy. Just as I had a hard time identifying my Critic even after years of working with it, I have clients all the time who tell me, “You know, I don’t think I really have an Inner Critic,” or, “Mine’s just really quiet.” Maybe so, but given what I know about human beings, it’s much more likely that their Critic is quite clever—mostly, I think, because they are.
Inner Critics get smarter as we do. As we learn to identify them, they learn how to hide from us. They can also turn anything we discover into a new weapon. The most reliable response to learning that the Inner Critic exists, for example, is to begin criticizing yourself for criticizing yourself so much.
If the Inner Critic learns as quickly as we do, then the question becomes: How can we recognize it consistently enough to continue moving towards our calling despite its wily efforts?
To be honest, I don’t have a surefire, one-size-fits-all answer. But to help, here are 15 definite clues that your thoughts are coming from your Critic:
1. The message is loud.
If the thought is insistent, authoritative, and impossible to ignore, it’s most likely your Inner Critic. If, on the other hand, you have to get quiet to hear it, it feels more like a whisper, or it takes its sweet time to surface, chances are your Inner Wisdom is talking. I don’t know why this is except perhaps that most of us have a bias that makes us more concerned with what our Critics have to say than our Wisdom, so we hear them more easily. The good news is, the more we listen for Wisdom, the more easily we hear it, and the less we buy into our Critics’ views, the less prominent they are.
2. You feel rushed.
Inner Critics tend to be obsessed with speed, even when speed doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I should be moving faster and getting more done, even though I consistently find that I not only enjoy life more but am also more productive when I move slowly (or at least don’t rush). Similarly, almost all my clients worry that they’re somehow behind in their careers, too late in accomplishing whatever they want to accomplish. The truth is, we can trust the timing in our lives. We come to things when we’re ready and when the time is right. Like an oak tree worrying that it’s growing too slowly, we lose sight of the fact that it takes time to develop profound beauty and stature, and that it doesn’t really matter if somebody else does it first.
3. You have the thought, “Everyone else is ___[fill in the blank]___.”
A favorite tool of Inner Critics is setting up false comparisons to others. “Everyone else has this figured out already.” “Everyone else is more successful than I am.” “Nobody else struggles with decisions as much as I do.” Whatever the message, it leaves us feeling inferior and inadequate. The truth is, everybody excels in some ways and struggles in others. Comparing the area in which you struggle to the area in which somebody else excels is a recipe for unnecessary self doubt. Not to mention the fact that things aren’t always what they seem. When in doubt, remember the oft-repeated advice: Don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides.
4. You decide that you can’t do something before you’ve even tried.
Inner Critics don’t want us to take risks or step into the unknown. A great way to accomplish this is to convince us that any goal we may adopt is impossible from the start. I’ve had many clients who thought they couldn’t support themselves or their families while doing what they love, only to find a way to do just that after—shockingly—actually trying. In my experience, if we’re flexible with exactly what form it takes, we can always find ways to realize what we want most, as long as we don’t listen to our Critic and give up before we start.
5. You conclude that if it hasn’t happened by now, it never will.
There’s a theory that Inner Critics develop in childhood, which I’m prone to believe because they’re often quite child-like. One example of this is their lack of patience or a larger perspective. Often what we long for most is complex and requires time to learn, practice, ready ourselves, and gather support. Our Critics tend to forget this, however, and mistakenly conclude that we’ll never find what we want if we haven’t already. They lack the perspective to see that in real life the shortest distance between two points isn’t usually a straight line.
6. A decision feels urgent, dire, or a matter of life and death.
Another example of lacking a larger perspective is the Critics’ near-constant sense of urgency and desperation. They tend to make us feel like we have to get this right, and quickly, or everything will fall apart. In truth, our happiness and well-being are supported by many things and rarely hinge on one decision. Plus, just about any course we take can either be reversed or adjusted along the way so that it works better for us. I’ve gotten to the point where if I’m feeling any urgency or distress about something, I won’t make a decision until I no longer feel that way, because it’s a sure sign my Critic is in charge.
7. You keep returning to the worst-case scenario.
If you find yourself thinking about unpleasant future scenarios over and over, you’ve probably forgotten that in general positive outcomes are at least as likely as negative ones, and the ones you fear most are almost always the least likely of all. This tendency to focus on what might go wrong or to feel like the worst outcome is the most probable isn’t usually based on facts, logic, or even previous experience. It is, rather—you guessed it—another Inner Critic trick to keep us safe in the status quo.
8. You feel guilty for wanting more.
I’ve heard so many people express guilt for not being satisfied with what others might think was a good job, or a well-paying one, that I wrote a blog post about it a while back. The truth is, longing to do work you love isn’t a sign that you’re greedy; it simply means your gifts are wanting to express themselves in more powerful ways. That’s a good thing, not only for you, but also for the world you’re going to benefit through your efforts. If you feel guilty, it’s not because you’re ungrateful; it’s simply your Inner Critic trying to keep you from taking a risk and making a change.
9. You’re focused on what others might think.
If you find yourself worrying about what your family, friends, coworkers, bosses, or anybody else will think of you making a career change (or otherwise following your heart), then your Inner Critic has taken the wheel. We’re social animals, designed (genetically and physiologically) to live in groups and thus care what others think of us. Despite this, most of us understand at least on some level that in our current world our lives and happiness no longer depend so completely on the opinions of others. Our Inner Critics, however, aren’t quite so enlightened, or else they find our conditioned fear a convenient tool to keep us in the status quo. Either way, the solution lies in noticing how much we’re focusing on others, having compassion for its physiological roots, and gently reminding ourselves that it’s no longer necessary (or even possible) to please everyone around us.
10. You’re caught in familiar patterns.
This one can be a bit hard to see for ourselves because our patterns are often so ingrained that, like fish in water, we stare right through them because they seem such an immutable part of our experience. But we all have ways of avoiding anxiety and trying to feel safe, whether it’s procrastinating, worrying, blaming, overly focusing on the needs of others, numbing or distracting ourselves, trying to be perfect [ahem] or any host of other problematic patterns. The patterns developed for a reason and serve us in some ways (if not in others), so there’s no shame in them, but they do limit what’s possible for us and usually keep us stuck in a rut. Inner Critics don’t mind the latter at all, however, which is why they see their job as keeping these patterns in place. (That’s why we experience such strong internal resistance whenever we try to change one of these core habits.) On the other hand, when you’re responding to a familiar situation in a new way, doing something you don’t normally do, or feeling scared, vulnerable, or out of your comfort zone, you’ve probably either quieted your Inner Critic or broken free from its grasp.
11. You think, “I should…” or “I have to…”
Everything we do is a choice, even the things we don’t want to do. I don’t like paying taxes, for example, but I choose to do it because I like where I live and don’t want to go to jail. When we think “I should…” or “I have to…” our Inner Critics are trying to make us believe that we have no choice but to do what they want us to do. This is never actually the case. We always have options. When you allow yourself to put all the alternatives on the table and then make a decision based on where your deepest desires and Inner Wisdom point you, you discover a freedom that’s inherent in all of us, no matter our circumstances. A simple way to practice this is to change “I should…” to “I want to…” and then listen for what follows.
12. You feel resentful.
Resentment is a great sign that you’ve denied a desire or been less than true to yourself on account of your Inner Critic. (Never believe your resentment is about anybody other than you.) As we just saw, Inner Critics try to make us do what they want, rather than what we do. When we betray our needs and desires in order to follow their dictates and do what they think will make us safe, resentment naturally follows. So the next time you feel resentful, get curious about where you didn’t stand up for what matters most to you, and how you can make a choice more aligned with who you are and who you want to be moving forward.
13. You feel ashamed.
Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Inner Critics often start with a grain of truth (such as, “You didn’t get offered the job you interviewed for”) and then generate a bunch of bogus conclusions, like:
“You’re terrible at interviewing”;
“Nobody wants what you have to offer”;
“You’ll never find a job”; or
“There’s something wrong with you.”
These conclusions generate a sense of shame and unworthiness, but they’re not actually true. They’re just designed to get you to stop trying (and thus avoid risks) or try harder (and thereby succeed). Either way, the shame isn’t helpful. Your heartfelt desires are a carrot that makes shame’s stick unnecessary, and if everybody who ever failed gave up, humankind would never have made it out of the Stone Age.
14. You feel small.
Inner Critics tend to make us feel weak, inferior, unimportant, and powerless. When I’ve been listening to my Critic, I often find that my shoulders have collapsed, my back is rounded, and I’m physically trying to take up as little space as possible. When we’re listening to our Inner Wisdom, on the other hand, we tend to feel how strong, competent, and powerful we are. We’re willing to take up space. We realize that we’re bigger than our problems, the challenges in front of us, and even our fear. If you’re ever not sure whether a thought is coming from your Inner Critic or Inner Wisdom, take a moment to notice your posture and how big or small you feel.
15. You’re in your head.
Our Inner Critics live in our minds and thoughts. Our bodies, on the other hand, are always in the present moment and free from judgment. If you’re caught up in your thoughts and unaware of what’s happening in your body, it’s very likely that your Critic is active. To counteract this, just bring your attention back to your body and whatever sensations you feel there, over and over again.
Bonus: You wish you could change something (anything) about yourself.
Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once said, “Each of you is perfect…and you could all use a little improvement.” Our Inner Critics would like us to solely focus on the second part of this idea because they think feeling bad about our flaws will help us overcome them. The opposite is actually true, and if you’re not quite sure how to reconcile this paradox, it’s best to focus on the first part first. Once you truly understand how perfect you are, you’ll naturally want to learn and get better, not because you need to change, but because you deserve to grow.
The Final Step
The more you observe your Inner Critic, the more you begin to realize that it sounds like a frightened child. Identifying its messages, soothing its fears, and finding out for yourself what’s actually true can go a long way towards freeing yourself from its power (and pain). But there’s still one more thing to do in order to move towards your calling, and that’s to listen for your Inner Wisdom.
It helps to get quiet and curious and listen, letting it arise rather than trying to figure it out. When I did this the other morning when I was having trouble sleeping, I got a very clear message:
Life is messy, man. I am messy. That’s okay. Overall, I do a good job.
I could feel the truth of that, the peace and freedom and strength of it, all the way down into my bones.
Over to You
What does your Inner Critic say or feel like to you? What helps you break free from its grasp?
A second great way to lessen the power of your Inner Critic is to talk about it with others. You can begin doing this by sharing your answers in the comments below.
Maybe it’s because most of the people I talk to mention fear as one of their biggest challenges. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of not making enough money, or fear of something else, being afraid is one of the main reasons people struggle to change careers.
Or maybe it’s because I personally face fear a lot. And by a lot, I mean all the time. And by all the time, I mean several times a day.
Or maybe it’s because fear is actually an important key to finding your calling, especially if you’re not sure where to look.
The one Evite you might prefer not to get
Stephen Pressfield has a great quote in his book The War of Art that you’ve probably heard me use before (it’s one of my favorites):
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
My own experience backs this up. Every time I’ve gotten clear about the next step towards my calling, I’ve been absolutely terrified, whether it was moving cross country, starting my own business, or sharing words I’d written with the world.
I used to be embarrassed that I felt so afraid, but then I began to notice something pretty amazing: I’m not scared all the time. I don’t feel afraid when I’m staying small, keeping quiet, or hiding inside my comfort zone. I’m only afraid when I try to do something important, grow and expand, or engage more deeply with what I care about most.
If you believe, as I do, that we’re here to learn and develop so that we can share our unique gifts with the world in increasingly powerful ways and have fun while doing it, then fear is a really good friend who points out the best way to do just that.
In other words, fear isn’t a weakness; it’s an invitation to your calling.
Showing the fear who’s boss
Fear, however, is a fickle friend. In addition to showing you what to do, it also gets in the way of actually doing it.
But that’s okay. Because you’re bigger than your fear, and it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can’t kick it out of the car, but you can pry its claw-like fingers off the wheel.
Here are 25 ways to feel the fear and do it anyway:
Unless there’s an actual threat nearby, fear is a fire stoked by our thoughts. Focusing on your body (say, by feeling your feet on the ground or the breath in your chest) removes the kindling and brings you back to the present moment.
3. Show some compassion.
Self-compassion makes fear a whole lot less overwhelming. The three steps to self-compassion are:
Acknowledge the pain with sympathy and kindness;
Recognize that all humans are imperfect and that in any given moment thousands of other people are feeling the same way you do; and
Observe your negative thoughts and feelings with curiosity rather than judgment.
4. Give it a name.
Naming the fear and exactly what it is you’re afraid of reduces its intensity and power over you.
5. Get to the root of the fear.
When you see the fear beneath the fear, you often find that what you’re most afraid of is extremely unlikely, not truly harmful, or (more frequently than you might think) downright impossible. Ask yourself what you’re scared of, then what’s bad about that, then what’s bad about that, and what’s bad about that. Keep going until you find the true essence of what you’re afraid of.
6. Don’t believe everything you think.
Fears are based on beliefs, and beliefs are often usually flawed. Byron Katie has a powerful process that can help you discover the truth behind your fears. First you identify your beliefs (for example, if I ______, ______ will happen). Then you ask 4 questions:
Is it true?
[If yes] Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without the thought?
7. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen?
Often your worst-case scenario is not actually dangerous or devastating. Regardless, if you can find a way to accept it, fear will have no way to stop you.
8. Determine probabilities.
If your worst-case scenario is truly terrifying, get clear on how likely it is to really happen. Of all the possible outcomes, what’s the probability that this is the one you’ll be stuck with? To make sure you’re being realistic, have an objective third-party check your numbers.
9. Calculate your track record.
While we’re talking numbers, go ahead and calculate how accurate your fears really are. Write down all your worries for one month and then go back and note which ones came true. If we take the time to do this, most of us find that we’re batting somewhere close to zero (apology for the mixed sports metaphors).
10. Become your own mentor.
In The Fear Book, Cheri Huber offers the idea of becoming a mentor to the scared part of you. It’s a brilliant and effective strategy. To use it, just ask yourself anytime you feel scared: what would a wise and loving mentor tell me right now?
11. Turn it over.
Whether it’s God, goddesses, the universe, love, your highest self, or your dog, turning your fears over to something more powerful than you are is incredibly freeing. You don’t even have to believe in anything to get started. Just write your fears down, put them in a box, and say, “I’m turning this over to you, [insert higher power of your choice].” Then let go and see what happens, knowing it’s no longer in your hands. Review the items you’ve put in your box periodically and see how they’ve turned out to find evidence that regardless of how you feel about God, you are supported and cared for.
12. Take tiny baby steps.
Fear feeds on big, overwhelming tasks. To reduce the fear factor, break your goals down into steps. Then break those steps down into smaller steps. Then break those small steps down into even tinier steps until you have a task you can do in 10 minutes. You can do anything for 10 minutes, right? Afterward, be sure to celebrate your win and plan when you’ll take your next tiny baby step.
13. Make a back-up plan.
If things don’t go as you hope, what will you do? Create a plan for how you’ll take care of yourself during any setbacks and how you’ll continue to move towards what you want, even when things go awry.
14. Share with peers.
There’s something about sharing your fears with others who are going through something similar that inevitably breeds courage. Just be sure you’re sharing with people who are actively embracing and facing their fears, not running away from them.
15. Get feedback.
In his book Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields urges people facing anxiety in the creative process to get feedback from mentors, peers, and potential end-users early on as a way of building confidence and comfort. Asking people you trust to give you feedback on your efforts can be terrifying, but paradoxically, it’s also a powerful antidote to fear.
16. Practice discomfort.
When we fail to take action, we’re not usually avoiding a theoretical bad outcome so much as the immediate discomfort of fear or anxiety. Like someone with bad breath, most of us find fear so unpleasant that we’ll do just about anything to avoid it. To stop avoiding fear, you need to develop your ability to sit with discomfort. To do that, just engage in something that brings up anxiety on purpose every day, then practice sitting with it for slightly longer periods of time. When you’re able to tolerate discomfort, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.
17. Slow down.
Kindness is wonderful medicine for fear. If your fear is overwhelming, slow down and maybe even take a break. Do something comforting and familiar, something that makes you feel good about yourself, and then go back and try again.
18. Feel the edges of the fear.
Get curious about how your fear feels in your body. Notice where you feel it, what it feels like, and how it changes over time. After observing it for a little while, start to feel for its edges and begin to notice the places in your body where you don’t feel the fear (your little toe perhaps?). You’ll start to see that fear is actually just a bunch of sensations in your body, that it too has boundaries, and that it’s really nothing to be afraid of.
19. Address the fear’s concerns.
Your fear isn’t the enemy; it just doesn’t want you to become harmed, homeless, or humiliated. You probably don’t either, so let your fear know how you’re going to take care of what’s important to you even while you take a risk; remind it that things like what other people think of you don’t really affect your well-being; and watch as your newly consoled fear steps aside so you can open the gates of change.
20. Imagine a positive outcome.
If you want to loosen fear’s grip, you need to stop playing the worst-case scenario over and over in your head. Since you don’t know what will happen, and good outcomes are at least as likely as bad ones, you might as well choose to obsess about your best-case scenario in vibrant, gory detail.
21. Talk to someone who’s succeeded.
Fear likes facts. When I tell my fear everything will be okay, it demands proof. Finding someone who’s done what I want to do and flourished is pretty strong evidence that success is possible, and learning from their perspective makes it all the more likely. My fear is smart, but it can’t argue with that.
22. Talk to someone who’s failed.
When you do this, your fear is going to want you to use it as an opportunity find all the reasons you’re going to fail too. Resist this urge. Instead, ask this person all kinds of questions about how they recovered from their failure, what they learned, what skills they gained, and what new possibilities it opened up. When we’re afraid of failure, we forget that it actually carries many gifts, and your job is to discover from this person exactly what those are.
23. Find a purpose greater than the fear.
Fear usually stems from our egos’ concerns, like not having enough money or status, or looking bad to others. These aren’t the things that truly make us happy, though. To focus on what matters, define a better purpose for any given venture, one that you can fulfill regardless of where you end up. What might you get out of embarking on this adventure that’s more important than wealth or popularity? What might it allow you to give to others? What would make this effort worthwhile regardless of the outcome?
Fear isn’t the problem; believing everything it tells you is. Meditation is a great way to practice noticing your thoughts without buying into their conclusions all the time. It gives you the awareness you need to question your thoughts and the ability to let them go when they aren’t serving you. It also gives you a way to experience fear without being paralyzed by it. An ongoing meditation practice is one of the main reasons I’m able to do things that scare the pee out of me, over and over again.
Am I repeating myself? Yes. Is it for a good reason? I think so. In addition to giving us the ability to let go of unhelpful thoughts, meditation also connects us to our serenity, wisdom, and courage. We all have these qualities at our core, but we become unable to access them when fear is yammering in our ears all the time. Getting quiet, even if only for milliseconds at a time, helps us reconnect to the part of ourselves that is always compassionate and unafraid.
26. Bonus Idea: Meditate.
I’m not being lazy here, I swear. It’s really that important.
Over to You
What helps you feel your fear and do things anyway? I’d love to know, and so would everyone else. Please share in the comments below.
Most of the work that I do with clients is helping them learn the skills that school didn’t teach so that they can identify what type of work would be fulfilling and make their way through the quite challenging but also very rewarding process of moving into it.
I understand, however, that not everyone is in a position to hire a coach right now, so I thought I’d share the one practice that I consistently see making the biggest difference in my clients’ lives.
Before I share what it is, I’d like to say a few more words about why it’s so important.
The Magic Bullet? (No, But Not Too Far From It)
When my clients begin doing this practice, most of them uncover some pretty huge clues about what matters most to them, as well as what type of work they want to do next.
Even some clients who feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options they have, and others who have no idea what would possibly fulfill them, find that this activity makes it much easier to know in which direction they want to go.
I had one client, for example, who had so many interests that he didn’t know how to choose among them. Through this activity, he discovered that it was most important to him to have some element of entertainment in his next job so that he could make others laugh and feel good about themselves. That realization led him to explore clowning, improv, and corporate teambuilding options.
But the great thing about this practice is that it not only makes it about a million times easier to identify your calling; it also helps you feel more alert, more aware, and more in control—in other words, more connected to yourself. It helps you deal with stress more effectively, and manage your emotions more skillfully. Finally, it lets you know what levers you can pull to find more joy and satisfaction in your day-to-day, in work and outside of it.
I had another client, for example, who was motivated by this practice to stop drinking in bars so much so he could do more of the things he enjoyed, like running races with his friends and daughters.
When I began doing this activity on a daily basis, I was mired in depression and having regular panic attacks. After a few weeks, I was still panicky and depressed, but I had a much better sense of what I needed to do to feel better. Over the next few years, as I continued to work this practice into my daily routine, it helped me heal my anxiety and depression, take bold steps towards my deepest desires, and rediscover my creative talents.
How does one activity do all this?
Moving the Thermostat Indoors
This practice, and several variations on it that can also be used, are so powerful because they close the feedback loop.
Most of us are so busy running around taking care of what we need to do that we don’t take the time to check in with the impact of all this activity—or, more specifically, its impact on us (most of us are very aware of the external results, and whether or not we’re achieving the outcomes we want).
A meditation teacher of mine one time explained this phenomenon as being similar to having a house whose thermostat is outdoors. When we don’t take time to check in with ourselves and how we’re doing, the feedback loop is broken and the thermostat can’t know whether the air needs to be cooler or warmer in the house.
The activity I’m about to share is one very powerful way to close the feedback loop (or, in the metaphor used by my meditation teacher, bring the thermostat indoors). It gives us the information we need to know how to adjust our systems and actions in order to take better care of our own well-being.
In my experience, when we do this—when we close the feedback loop—we begin to automatically make the adjustments that we need most in our work and our lives, often without even thinking about it.
So, Without Further Ado…
What is the practice? It’s actually quite simple. Perhaps even better for most of us, it’s also free and not terribly time consuming.
The idea is to pause a few times a day to reflect on what you’re feeling and why.
There are many ways to do this. The easiest way to start, in my experience, is to identify three times every day when you can take a few minutes to ask yourself two questions. I recommend either doing it before a regular activity (like eating) or setting an alarm or reminder on your phone to prompt you until you get in the habit of it.
When the time comes, pause whatever you’re doing and take a few deep breaths. Then ask yourself:
How am I feeling right now?
What’s my best sense of why I might be feeling this way?
I recommend taking brief notes so you can begin to notice patterns.
Your feelings contain powerful clues about what you want, what’s important to you, and what’s key to your well-being. Getting curious about your emotions and what’s contributing to them will give you lots of incredibly valuable information about your work and your life.
And if you’re not sure why you’re feeling a certain way, don’t worry about it. I find that it’s extremely helpful to ask the question, but that it doesn’t matter so much if you don’t get an answer every single time. With enough repetition, you’ll start to see patterns, and what’s most important will be revealed if you just keep asking.
One final word of warning: please don’t do this practice as a way to get rid of your feelings. Paradoxically, listening to our feelings can help them move through us instead of getting stuck on repeat, but in order to listen to them, you have to be willing to embrace them with compassion and a bit of loving kindness.
For Those Who Want More…
Once you’ve incorporated this practice into your daily habits, if you’d like to go deeper, you can add a third question between the first two:
How does my body feel?
Scan your body to answer this question and use sensation words like “light,” “heavy,” “warm,” “cool,” “tense,” “relaxed,” “tingling,” “prickly,” “energized,” “tired,” etc.
Finally, one of the other most powerful practices I personally use is a natural offshoot to this one, and that’s to set aside time each day to let yourself feel and express your feelings. Beyond identifying, this means sitting with the emotions (perhaps in meditation), taking time to feel them in the body, or doing things that express them (like crying, yelling, hitting pillows, etc.).
Feelings we don’t feel get stuck, but when we find ways to be with them and move their energy through us, they stop leaking out in our daily lives as irritation, impatience, and anxiety.
Instead, they simply move over and through us like waves on the ocean. And these waves whisper words of guidance to us as they go, if we’re only willing to pay attention and get curious as to what they have to say.
For Those Who Want Even More…
I’m now offering a new way to get the guidance and structure you need to move into meaningful work you love.
Passion Quest: 5 Steps to Find Your Calling in a Fear-Based World, the online course I ran last year, is now available for self-study. It’s a comprehensive program with videos, downloadable PDFs, and supportive emails to help you work through the same process I use with my individual coaching clients. This is the first time that you can access it anytime, anywhere, and work through it at your own pace.
Because I want this material to be as accessible as possible, I’m offering it now at a super special rate (almost half the price of what I charged for the live version, and a small fraction of the cost of individual coaching). You can check it out here if you’re interested.
Over to You
If you try the feelings check-in, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
What went well?
What did you learn?
What was challenging, and what questions do you have?
Any new practice is going to have its high and low points. I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.
One of the most common concerns I hear from people who want to find more fulfilling work is that they don’t want to start over.
Starting over—whether it’s in a new field, new role, or new organization—definitely has its challenges. For one thing, in many industries rookies aren’t paid as much as veterans, so starting over can mean at least a temporary pay cut, which some people just can’t afford.
Career change also implies that you’ll need to learn new skills. This takes time, sometimes a lot of it, and can be very humbling. Nobody’s ego likes to be a beginner. If you’re used to being an expert, or even just experienced in your field, it can be uncomfortable to suddenly become the new kid on the block, asking the questions instead of answering them.
There are, however, ways to work through these challenges. As I like to remind folks (including myself), you always have options. Here are 3 ideas for you if you want to make a career change but don’t want to start over:
Option 1: Look for a job that changes enough but not too much.
Sometimes we don’t need to transform everything about our work in order to find fulfillment. In my experience, when people take the time to get clear on what’s absolutely essential to their happiness at work, they discover that they could find these things in a variety of ways, some of which can leverage their existing experience.
For example, I had a client once who was miserable in his job as the manager of an IT department. He tried out some radical changes, including becoming a comedy writer and an Uber driver.
Eventually he found that starting over so suddenly and dramatically didn’t work for him. He went back to the things he had identified that were vital to his fulfillment at work. Central to these were working more directly with customers, helping people, and having time outside of work for other things that were important to him.
Before long he found a job at a local department of community affairs. It provided all the key elements he needed to feel fulfilled and leveraged his 20+ years of IT experience. It also gave him the opportunity to continue to explore a career in writing in his time off.
If you don’t want to start completely over, you might:
Change industries, but not roles;
Change roles, but not industries; or
Change organizations, keeping the same role and industry.
This last alternative includes the possibility of going from employee to freelancer, which I’ve seen work well for many people.
You have so many options for how you put your strengths to use in the world. The key is to take the time to uncover them by brainstorming, exploring, and asking those around you to help you discover possibilities you may never have thought of on your own.
Option 2: Go slowly and work your way in gradually.
Often you can avoid the most difficult parts of starting over by doing it one step at a time.
If you’re interested in starting your own business, for example, you don’t have to quit your day job right away. You can start your venture on the side and work your way through the learning curve at your own pace. This also allows you to have a steady income for as long as you need until your business is big enough to support you on its own.
There are similarly lots of ways to gain new skills and experience while still in your current line of work. You can take an evening class, volunteer with a non-profit, or initiate a project at work that would allow you to build your desired capabilities. I had a client, for example, who was interested in project management, so she persuaded her boss to install a more effective IT system and let her lead the implementation process. In this way, she got to try out this type of work and gain experience in a new role all as part of her regular 9 to 5.
If your current job won’t allow for this type of learning, you might consider making a lateral switch to a job that may not be ideal in the long-run but can provide a good foundation from which to make a slow and steady transition.
It’s not always what we most want to hear, but the truth is that most successful career changes happen over time and often in multiple steps. This is actually a good thing, as it means you don’t have to rush. It also lessens fear and anxiety, as you can continue to enjoy the security and familiarity of your day job while stretching yourself to step into new frontiers outside of it.
The other good news is that because we tend to feel better when we’re actively working towards something we want, we don’t have to wait until we’ve made our final move to experience more joy and satisfaction.
Option 3: Find something that makes starting over worth it.
You may find, however, that once you’ve explored some options and found something that excites you, you won’t mind investing time, money, or even some discomfort in making a change. This becomes easier to do when you have a better idea of what you can expect to get in return.
I had a client, for example, who worked in a well-paying job at a prestigious company. When we started working together, she desperately wanted to make a change but felt frozen and unable to justify giving all this up to start over in a new career that might end up disappointing her.
We worked through some of her fears together, and she became more willing to take necessary risks. But she wasn’t truly ready to take a leap until she found out about an opportunity to work on the gubernatorial campaign of a former colleague. Her love of politics, her respect for her former coworker, and her ability to visualize exactly what she would be doing and how she would feel about it gave her the confidence she needed to make a change. Suddenly the discomfort of starting over seemed like a small price to pay for doing work she would enjoy and was passionate about.
Before you make up your mind that you don’t want to give up what you have by starting over, you might want to take the time to explore whether there’s anything out there that would give you something greater in return.
It may not be as bad as you think.
There’s one other reason why you might want to consider starting over.
Sometimes we anticipate what we think it’s going to be like to begin again. We imagine how hard it will be, how embarrassed we’ll feel, or how much work we’ll have to do. We might envision every task that’s involved and feel overwhelmed, deciding then that it’s not for us.
But starting over doesn’t have to feel daunting. You can take it one step at a time at whatever speed works for you. Instead of going over the entire process in your mind, focus on whatever your next step might be.
And keep in mind that may not be as hard as you think. In my experience, when you’re moving towards your calling, the universe will help you in ways you wouldn’t have expected.
As Cheri Huber says, “Fear of the unknown is really just fear of our own imagination.” And fortunately, starting over can be easier, more energizing, and more enjoyable than you might imagine.
Over to You
What are your fears about having to start over?
When has starting over been helpful for you, or at least not as bad as you imagined?
What might you gain from a fresh start?
Your answers could really help others, so please take a moment to share them below.
I received an email recently from a lovely woman describing a very common problem.
She reported feeling blessed in many ways: she has a wonderful son, a career in a respected field, and a job that offers flexibility. Despite this, she’s not happy with her work and is sad and frustrated much of the time. As a result, she feels guilty, ungrateful, and selfish.
I’ve heard some version of this from many people over the years:
“I’m lucky to even have a job. Why can’t I just be satisfied with that?”
“Work isn’t supposed to be fun. That’s why it’s called work, right?”
“Nobody really likes their job. What makes me think I deserve better?”
I can’t address the issue of who deserves what; nor can I say how work is or isn’t supposed to be. In fact, none of these questions really have answers, which is part of why I think we ask them. The true purpose of this line of thinking seems to be keeping us stuck knee-deep in the status quo (more on this below).
It’s Your Choice
What I can say about the nature of work is that we get to choose what we want it to be: fun or boring, joyful or unpleasant, fulfilling or dissatisfying.
Yes, I understand that there are limits on our options, and that there are times when we may need to take a job we don’t particularly like because we need money to take care of ourselves or someone we love. Still, we’re choosing to do so because the rewards are greater than the costs.
We always have options. Victor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor, put it very eloquently: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In terms of your career, that means that though you may not like your job, you can find meaning, and thus a measure of contentment, in anything you do. (Frankl also said, “Life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”)
And just because you took a job you don’t like doesn’t mean you have to stay there forever. The truth is that most of us have many more options than we realize; we’re just either discarding them prematurely or we haven’t done the hard work of uncovering exactly what they are yet.
So I’ll say it again: We get to choose what we want work to be in our lives, and there are some pretty compelling reasons for choosing something better than miserable or even mediocre.
Wisdom Speaks With Many Voices
I think we beat up on ourselves for wanting more because we’re confusing ego with inner wisdom.
When we want more money, more fame, more power, or more of the things that make our small, scared selves feel safer but that don’t actually improve the world or our true well-being, the desire is probably coming from ego. Egoic desires usually feel dire, urgent, and ultimately unfulfilling if or when we finally manage to grab hold of them.
But not all our desires come from ego. Some come from a deeper part of us that’s far wiser than ego and that somehow knows what’s best for us and for the world. I call this voice inner wisdom. We all have it. We don’t always hear it, because it tends to be much quieter than ego, but it’s in there. Most of us have had an experience at one point where we heard its guiding whisper and had no idea how such clarity or wisdom came out of our own confused brains or being.
The thing about inner wisdom is that it speaks to us in lots of different voices. One of its favorite ways to communicate is through emotions, including the difficult ones. If you’re feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, sad, or otherwise miserable in your work, you can bet your inner wisdom has something to say to you. Your job isn’t to judge it; your job is simply to listen.
Feeling unhappy in your current role is usually a sign that something wants to change. It may be in how you approach your work, but it might also be in the type of work itself. Regardless, the important thing to remember is this: whatever your inner wisdom is telling you to change, it’s not just for your benefit. That would actually be reason enough, but it’s far from the most important one.
The best reason for listening to your inner wisdom—your frustration, your sadness, your longing—is that it’s trying to point you towards work that’s going to allow you to share your unique talents and gifts with the world in ways that only you can.
A World Without Genius
I met my own coach during my training program and have been working with her ever since. Not only has she taught me an amazing amount about how to support other people’s growth and transformation, but she’s also helped me through some very difficult times with great compassion and wisdom. I feel totally loved and supported by her, utterly unconditionally.
My coach had a long, successful career with a telecommunications corporation before her inner wisdom encouraged her to leave it and enter the world of coaching.
What if she hadn’t? What if she had decided that work wasn’t supposed to be fun or that she should be grateful for what she had in the corporate world and not leave it for something else? I, and all her other clients, would have missed out on so many incredible gifts over the years.
Martha Graham said: “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”
In Joy We Trust
One of the biggest pieces of evidence I’ve come across for the world being benevolent is the existence of joy.
In my experience, when we’re putting our greatest gifts to use, we often feel a sense of joy. I find it when writing, learning about personal growth and development, having meaningful conversations with others, and spending time in nature. It was by following the joy that I felt in these activities that I eventually stumbled upon my calling.
Joy, no matter how intense or faint, is a wonderful indicator that we’re using our best talents and having a positive impact on the world. I like to think of it as the universe’s way of encouraging us to live lives of creativity, meaning, and contribution. Ignore joy, or convince yourself that it isn’t important, and you not only deny yourself great pleasure, but you also rob the world of your unique gifts.
The Real Reason We Feel Guilty for Wanting More
It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I believe that the real reason we feel guilty about wanting more isn’t that we’re selfish or ungrateful. In this case, guilt isn’t pointing to a lapse in integrity that we need to make amends for.
The reason we feel guilty—or undeserving of a job we enjoy—is that we’re afraid.
Making a change, especially in an area that impacts our daily routines, our sense of identity, and our financial well-being, is terrifying for almost all of us. In the beginning, we don’t know what’s out there, what’s possible, or what will happen. We fear we might lose everything we have; we might be proven incapable; or we might experience rejection and humiliation.
Asking questions without answers and convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t want more than what we already have is a great way to justify staying with the status quo.
More Or So Much Less
In many cases, and especially in the world of material objects, more isn’t necessarily better. But when the yearning is coming from deep within us, trying to talk ourselves out of our desire denies the unique spark within us. It smothers our capacity for joy, wisdom, wonder, contribution, and aliveness.
This is a high price to pay for the sole privilege of avoiding uncertainty. What we find when we’re willing to follow the call of our longing and step into that uncertainty is that we’re far stronger than we imagined. And we realize that fear and the discomfort of the unknown are actually much easier to endure than the pain of losing connection with who we really are.
Help Makes More Possible
Most of my clients have the feeling that they’re meant to be doing something more but either aren’t sure what that is or don’t know how to go about finding it. Coaching helps them find the clarity and confidence they need to find what they’re longing for.
I offer individual and group coaching programs at various levels of investment designed to help you listen to your wisest inner self, discover what you’re meant to do in the world, and get started actually doing it.
I know how helpful it can be to hear about people like you who have made successful career changes, especially those who have overcome common challenges along the way.
With that in mind, this week I want to share with you Jeff Leon’s story so you can learn exactly how he went from a job that filled him with dread to work that he’s excited about.
One caveat: Jeff is a client of mine, first in Passion Quest and then in Pathfinders Group Coaching. Though this is significant, I also believe that his story can help inspire and guide you whether or not you ever choose to participate in one of my programs.
So, in the hope that it can catalyze your own journey to work you love, here’s Jeff’s story (in his own words):
How Things Were:
“In March 2016 I defended my PhD dissertation in archaeology at Cornell. It was the end of a long and arduous process that took the better part of seven years, but rather than being a moment of excitement and enthusiasm for the next steps in my career and life, it was a moment of complete fear and confusion.
“I had realized by that point that I spent the better part of the last three years of my PhD dreading the work I was doing, dreading the solitude of the research, and dreading many of the professors and administrators I was working with.
“I knew I wanted (and needed) to make a career change and find something that was more fulfilling and rewarding to me, but I didn’t have anything resembling a professional support system. I was blessed with strong personal support from family and friends, but no one quite knew how they could help me or what my next steps could look like. I felt like I was staring into the deep, dark unknowable future all by myself.”
“Looking back, the fundamental challenge I faced in my life transition in March 2016 was that I didn’t really know what I was even looking for – and it’s hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for to begin with!
“In a sense, I had forgotten who I was, what I was naturally good at, and what I valued most; by doing that, I had lost touch with my purpose in life and, ultimately, happiness.
“During grad school, I had enjoyed and found value in discussions with students, debating, and problem-solving, but [later on] I was being encouraged to publish research that few people read, or present papers at conferences to add another line on my CV. Deep down this kind of work felt valueless and unimportant to me. I knew I wanted to spend my time making the world a better place, but I didn’t know how.
“I also suffered from a couple key mental blocks. For one thing, I had a bad case of imposter syndrome and it was doing a number on my self-esteem. When you’re surrounded by Ivy League PhDs who have 10, 15 or 30 years’ more experience than you, and whose job is to critique and ignore your work in equal measure, it’s easy to feel dumb and think you have nothing to offer the world.
“Beyond that, I looked at the years I took to complete the PhD as ‘sunk costs’ – I thought about how while I was sitting in a library by myself learning about things I cared less and less about, my friends had been off building job experience, professional connections and 401Ks. It seemed like if I didn’t become a college professor (even if it made me very unhappy), my 20s would have been a waste of time. But the problem was, I just couldn’t bring myself to apply for jobs in academia, which meant (in my mind) that the whole exercise in getting a PhD had been a big, long failure.
“As I was coming to grips with all this and wrapping up my degree, I began meeting with career counselors on campus. After a couple of meetings they told me that academics ‘weren’t my tribe,’ which was an important insight. But, the trouble was, they didn’t know who my tribe was, and neither did I. I was adrift, unsure of which way to turn, and thinking I had wasted my 20s on a fool’s-errand of a PhD. Worst of all, I was terrified to make another seven-year career mistake.”
How He Did It:
“First, it took time and it took patience. I know that’s the last thing anyone wants to hear when they find themselves in a period of chaos in their life – and it was the last thing I wanted to hear when I first spoke to Meredith, but it true and it was right. I (like many people, I imagine) wanted the 10-day solution, and maybe, just maybe I could hang on for the one month solution, but a six month-plus solution?! No way. But that’s how long it took me, and it was well worth it.
“The first step for me was to ‘show up’ and confront the turmoil I was struggling with, and the second step was to trust the process. I had to give myself the time, the space, and the permission to find out who I was and what made me tick. Weekly and bi-weekly group meetings with Meredith were crucial in helping me in this process. They were tangible examples of progress in my self-discovery and helped mark my progress. Plus, I learned to meditate and it’s a practice that I’ve begun to incorporate into daily morning yoga sessions to bring clarity to the beginning of my day.
“I also learned a number of important tools and exercises to help me check in on myself and to really listen to my mind and body to understand how different events and situations were affecting me. Most of all, I learned to trust myself again, and to give myself permission to explore, be curious, and make mistakes.
“I learned these things in a supportive, collaborative environment with other people going through similar challenges to myself—people who had suggestions, solutions, and—perhaps most important of all—smiles and words of encouragement. The unknowable future was (and still is) scary, but I began to feel much better equipped to take it on.”
How Things Are Now:
“After a few months of working with Meredith I had built up the confidence to begin setting up informational interviews in fields that struck me as interesting. In other words, I had re-developed the confidence and self-esteem to be curious again and to explore potential career options.
“I was intrigued by a user experience designer I spoke with, and one conversation led to another until I decided to enroll in a 10-week immersive user experience design program at an educational tech incubator called General Assembly. It was thanks to Pathfinders and the process of re-building my self-esteem that I was able to confront the fear of the unknown head on.
“Taking that leap was a great decision – I’m currently about halfway through the course, building a portfolio of work, and looking to apply for jobs in February and March. The work is fascinating, the people are fun and energizing, and the field is growing, so I’m excited about my prospects.
“I realize my path is still uncertain, but having participated in Pathfinders I feel like I have the tools to help me navigate similar challenges throughout my life.”
Last Chance to Join the New Year’s Pathfinders Group
Pathfinders Group Coaching is one of the most powerful and cost-effective programs I offer to help you identify and move into work you love. It teaches you the most powerful tools and techniques I refined over 6 years helping dozens of individual clients find their calling and supercharges that process with the support and power of community.
Highly interactive small group sessions that walk you through the 5 Steps to Find Your Calling, help you work through common challenges, and give you opportunities get ideas and feedback from the group
Specific action steps to take in between sessions that help you clarify and move towards work you love
A private Facebook group where you can get support between sessions
Email access to me for any questions or challenges you need help with
An Enneagram assessment to determine your type
A one-on-one onboarding call with me to go over your Enneagram type and create personal strategies for you to get the most out of the group
Access to Passion Quest, the online course I created to teach you how to find your calling, and all its modules, recordings, and PDFs
To find out more, click here to schedule a free 1:1 call with me. We’ll discuss your needs, go over the details of the program, answer any questions you have, and find out whether group coaching could help you find the work you were meant to do in the world. (There’s no obligation to buy anything on the call.)
Over to You
Which parts of Jeff’s story can you relate to?
Do you have your own story of successful career change that you can share to inspire others?
Please leave a comment below. (As a bonus, you’ll have the option of publishing a link to your latest blog post alongside your comment.)
I had a humbling moment the other day when I went to do my year-end review.
I was feeling stressed out by the list of things I wanted to take care of before the New Year, which was getting longer rather than shorter with each passing day. I was convinced I wouldn’t have the time and energy to do everything; my obsessive planning and thinking was keeping me from sleeping well; and as a result my stress and anxiety were ramping up by the minute.
Then I glanced down at my year-end review for 2015 and saw my list of intentions for this last year. Leading it off was: Don’t get so stressed by the small stuff. Let go and find ease. Don’t try to do everything.
Clearly this isn’t a new issue for me. I’ve been aware of it for a long time, even known what to do about it, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always successful in actually doing it.
I bring this up now because the New Year is a time for making resolutions and setting new intentions. It’s also a time for falling short, disappointing ourselves, and beating ourselves up.
In short, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the process of personal growth. What I’ve found over the years is that change is hard. We have decades of experience doing things a certain way, and deeply engrained habits won’t often shift in just a few weeks (or even a few months). Change also requires us to face our fears, sit with our anxiety, and spend more time outside of our comfort zone. No matter how much part of us wants to change, part of us tenaciously resists; preferring the familiarity of the status quo, it tries to pull us back into old habits which, while not ideal, are at least known to have gotten us this far.
Despite all this, there is one thing that can help us make changes more easily. And it has to do with recognizing a fundamental misconception that most of us have inherited about how change occurs.
Here’s how most of us imagine we make a change:
And here’s how change actually takes place:
This knowledge alone can help us make changes much more easily. But we can also use this information in a few specific ways to make our efforts more effective:
1. We can stop beating ourselves up.
I used to think that the reason I reverted to old behavior was that I wasn’t capable or dedicated enough. Since then, I’ve seen some of the most amazing people I know struggle to make progress, almost always taking two impressive steps forward followed by one rather large step back. Seeing this enough times, I finally realized that change is messy—for everyone—no matter how smart, talented, or well-prepared we are.
This realization helped me forgive myself for my lapses and shortcomings and even see them as a sign of belonging. After all, they connect me to every other flawed and amazing human being on this planet. None of us gets to be perfect, and we don’t need to be flawless to make incredible contributions to the world. When we’re not too busy beating ourselves up over our limitations, after all, we can begin to actually learn how to work with them.
2. We can embrace the low points as a necessary and valuable part of the process.
Too often when we fail to make progress, we think it’s hopeless and give up. But I’ve seen over and over again how the low points—the slip-ups, backtracking, or times when we feel most stuck—are actually catalysts to growth. It’s in these moments that we’re forced to be humble, recommit ourselves, and take a good look at what’s actually going on. As a result, we learn more about ourselves, discover the patterns that limit us, and begin to develop new responses. We also have the chance to practice patience and self compassion. As one of my mentors says, “These are opportunities to love ourselves more deeply.
3. We can find new ways to evaluate our progress.
Too often we feel like failures because we still haven’t found our dream job, didn’t meditate for three days in a row, or failed to make it to the gym. Instead of getting frustrated, we can instead ask ourselves what other progress we might be making. For example:
Did we learn something new about how resistance shows up for us?
Did we discover any helpful ways to overcome it?
Did we learn anything about what helps us stay focused?
Did we practice resilience and try again the next day?
Were we finally willing to reach out for help?
Not all progress has to do with how many job offers we’ve gotten or how well we can articulate our purpose. Often the things we learn along the way to reaching these goals are the most powerful in terms of finding long-term fulfillment.
4. We can recognize that we’re never done, and that that’s a good thing.
I often wish my efforts at change would end with a graduation ceremony and certificate of completion. But the truth is, no matter how successful we are at transforming ourselves, there’s always more work we can do. Rather than taking this as proof of our inadequacy, we can see it as confirmation that we’re exactly where we need to be. We’re always going to be a work in progress with incredible gifts and inherent limitations. So rather than rushing and worrying about our progress, we might as well relax, enjoy the ride, and trust that whatever speed at which change is unfolding is the best possible pace.
5. We can develop a better strategy.
Since the change process doesn’t look much like what we usually expect, it follows that we might benefit from some new strategies in how we attempt to approach it. The right strategy won’t get rid of the ups and downs, but it can help us navigate them more easily and efficiently. There are four things I’ve found that can help us do this well:
Support and guidance (from people who have been there before);
Community (with people who are going through the same thing now);
Encouragement (from anyone and everyone); and
Compassion (primarily from ourselves).
The more we can build these things into our strategy, the more effective (and enjoyable!) our efforts at transformation will be.
A Program to Help You Make Your Own Career Change More Easily
Pathfinders Group Coaching offers support and guidance from an experienced career coach (that’s me) plus plenty of encouragement from a community of other people who are also facing their fears and moving into more meaningful work. I’m starting a new group right now, so it’s a great time to join, but there are only 2 spots left. To find out more about how Pathfinders can help you transition into work you love more easily and effectively, click here to apply for a free, no obligation call.
Over to You
What changes are you currently trying to make? What helps you handle the low points? What have you learned from previous setbacks and/or failures?
I’d love to hear from you, and your experience could help others. Please leave a comment below. (As a bonus, you’ll have the option of publishing a link to your latest blog post alongside your comment.)