The Magic Words for Unlocking Happiness (at Work or Anywhere Else)

Quick announcement: Pathfinders Group Coaching is now open for enrollment. Designed for people who want to identify the type of work they’re meant to do in the world and start actually doing it, Pathfinders of one of my most cost effective programs. Find out more and get the details here.

First of all, happy new year! I hope your transition to 2019 was a good one.

Mine, to be honest, was a little rough.

Between holiday preparations, surprises at work, the inevitable glitches of a house renovation, dentists, car maintenance, back pain, and an increasingly intense campaign I’m involved in to protect my city’s trees, I was feeling slightly overwhelmed.

Lying awake in bed one night, I was so wound up thinking about all the things I had to do that I couldn’t sleep. I know by now that such worrying isn’t helpful, so I naturally responded by obsessively creating a list of things I ought to do to calm down, forcing myself to do them, then criticizing myself when I realized that my compulsive problem-solving was making me more uptight and miserable, not less.

Only when the tension got so intense that I could barely stand to be in my own skin did I get desperate enough to admit that I had a problem and no idea how to solve it.

And then, of course, as soon as I did, my misery immediately disappeared.

There’s something magical that happens when we release ourselves from the expectation that we ought to know how to solve all our problems.

It opens us up to find freedom, acceptance, and—paradoxically—the answers to our dilemmas.

When we think that we should know something, our minds are so filled with thoughts, worries, and doubts that there’s no space to notice the solutions that are right in front of us. Only when we give up on knowing are we free to see the clues, ideas, and resources of which we previously weren’t aware.

I talk to a lot of people who are disappointed or even depressed about their work.

They can’t manage to stay satisfied with a job that may be well-paying but is ultimately unsatisfying, ill-fitting, or even agonizing. And yet because they have no idea what would be better, they give up and keep going back to a job that they know isn’t right for them day after day, month after month, and year after year.

The thing is, these folks aren’t actually stuck. They just think they are. They haven’t yet found the power of the magic words:

“I don’t know.”

We’re often told that you have to know where you’re going if you’re going to get there. While that’s true at times, it never is in the beginning. In fact, not knowing your way is a critical first step to discovering it.

In the beginning, every hero’s journey is more about asking than answering, listening than knowing, and seeking than finding. Curiosity is far more useful in the first few steps than confidence.

If you’re unsure how to let yourself not know, try repeating the following phrase to yourself and see what happens:

“I have no idea what to do right now, and I don’t need to.”

You might also sit in a quiet place and get curious as to what not knowing feels like. Admit that you’re clueless and then notice what you feel in your belly and chest. If your heart starts racing and your stomach tightens up, that’s not the feeling of not knowing; that’s the feeling of thinking you should know when you don’t. Repeat the phrase above, focusing on the second part, and try again.

You might find that not knowing isn’t as uncomfortable as we tend to think it is. Wobbly, sure, but also exhilarating; far from empty, it’s actually filled with possibility.

In my experience, the answers always come in time. But only to those humble (or desperate) enough to admit that they don’t have them.

In my next post, I’ll share some ideas for how to get answers once you’ve admitted that you don’t know or need them. (Life is full of paradoxes, no?)

Say What?! (Daring to Hear Your Inner Wisdom)

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.

And when fear holds us in its sticky web like some kind of captured insect, turning back and staying in what appears to be the safety of the status quo can feel pretty good. Not taking the risk now feels open, spacious, and calming. Falling back into our familiar habits can seem pretty gosh-darned wise.

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.

The Power of Desire and How to Use It to Transform Your Life

Last Monday I did an experiment after getting back from vacation. I wanted to see if I could maintain the level of relaxation I’d established the previous two weeks while traveling when I returned to work and my more stressful To Dos.

I decided not to do anything unless I wanted to. I was going to let what I wanted to do, not what I thought I should do, organize my day.

The conversation in my head started off something like this:

“So, what do I want to do now?”

“Are you crazy? You need to answer emails, make your group coaching plans, catch up on bills, and call the dentist, the doctor, and your insurance provider just to start. You don’t have time to ask that question, let alone listen to the answer.”

“No, I know, it’s a lot, but this worked when I did it before. Let’s try it and see what happens. What sounds good to me to do now?”

What you need to do is work. You won’t want to do any of it, but it’s important. We’re talking about your livelihood, your health and well-being, not to mention the well-being of your clients…should I go on?”

“Yes, I know. That’s all really important. I don’t think I’ll actually want to endanger any of that. It can’t hurt to ask, can it? I promise I’ll take care of what I need to. Can I please go on?”

[Internal groan and rolling of the eyes] “Okay, fine.”

So I asked again. And this time, with my Inner Critic willing to stay quiet for the moment, I heard an answer. I wanted to create plans for group coaching. It felt important, meaningful, and even enjoyable.

I focused on the task with freedom and ease. I also didn’t feel rushed; I was curious to see what I would get done rather than engaging in my usual habit of going over and over the list of tasks I expected myself to complete before the end of the day.

I thought it would probably take most of the day and part of the next to complete the plans. Instead, it took 2 hours. When I finished, I asked myself again what I wanted to do. This time my Inner Critic was quieter, having seen what happened the first time.

I heard that I wanted to go on a walk outside, so I did. Then I heard “return phone calls”. Then “catch up on emails”. Then I wanted to take a nap. I made my way through the day in this way and ended up getting everything done on my To Do list. I hadn’t thought that was likely when I started, or even really possible.

The best part, though, was that at the end of the day I still felt relaxed and energized, and that night I slept great.

I say all this because paying attention to what we want is incredibly powerful, but it’s also surprisingly rare. I think most of us have forgotten how to listen to our deepest desires, though we often don’t realize it. The result is that we lack a sense of joy, meaning, and satisfaction in our lives, and it becomes almost impossible to find our calling.

Craving ≠ Calling

I realize that it’s strange to say that we’ve lost touch with our desires in a culture that’s set up to create and then cater to an ever-increasing number of appetites. We all have a list of things, services, or experiences that we want: a new car, the latest iPhone, a thinner body, someone to clean our house, a meal at a hot new restaurant, etc. These are cravings, and they’re not the type of wanting I’m talking about. As I wrote about recently, there are different types of desire.

Cravings, as I define them, are all about quick fixes. We may want deep nourishment and satisfaction, but we crave fat and sugar. Cravings are about what’s immediately available to us, what’s marketed to us, or what we see those around us doing. They promise to satisfy us and make all our problems go away in one fell swoop, but the truth is, they rarely do. Cravings are more often a distortion of what we really want.

In my experience, our true desires are much bigger than what we crave. Often we aren’t even consciously aware of them.

I had a client, for example, who wanted to make a career change but swore she had no idea what she wanted to do next. Then, after several months of working together to discover her passions, she casually mentioned to me, “Oh, didn’t I tell you? Yeah, for a long time I dreamt of being a photographer.” It’s like she herself had forgotten about this longing until that very moment.

I think maybe we dwell on all of our cravings and small aspirations in order to avoid the really big ones. We’re afraid of what we’d find if we let ourselves focus on what we really want. We might find that we want to do work that matters, seek out flexibility and autonomy, quit a job, start a business, write a novel, be a professional artist, get married, have kids, or do something else that’s equally terrifying.

What We Can Learn From the Cool Kids

I believe that letting ourselves want something is one of the scariest things we can do. It makes us vulnerable. There’s a reason that the cool kids act like they don’t care about anything—they’ve already learned that longing, desiring, and hoping open you up to all kinds of potential danger.

There’s something raw, personal, and uncontrollable about desire. It reveals something important about who you are and what matters to you. For some of us, that alone is scary enough to keep our desires safely locked in a deep, dark place.

What’s more, when you want something, you might be disappointed. You might fail to find it, or worse, (the thinking goes) discover that you’re not worthy of it. These prospects can feel so painful that it can seem better to never desire anything at all.

Beyond taking risks, longing also asks you to be uncomfortable. The most important things we want are usually not immediately clear to us. We have to be uncertain and potentially confused for a long period of time before we know what we truly want or where to find it. We have to ask, keep asking, and try and often fail before it becomes clear.

It’s no wonder we avoid our deepest desires like a used handkerchief.

There’s a great cost to doing so, however. What makes our longings so hard to embrace is also what makes them so valuable. Our deepest desires are an integral part of who we are; they bring us home to our essential self, beyond our fears, our ego, or the person that we think we are or that others want us to be. Longings are stronger than steel, out of our control, and bigger than our tiny, willful plans. They force us to share our gifts with the world in ways we might be too terrified to try were the desire not so strong. Finally, wanting things inevitably leads to obstacles, disappointments, and failures that help us grow and learn the things that we’re here to learn.

It turns out that the cool kids aren’t usually the happy kids, at least until they learn how to embrace who they are and what they want.

Learning to Want Again

My own history with desire involves a lot of delayed reactions.

For example, I’ve always wanted to write. But after experiencing a huge disappointment when I wrote my first novel at age 12, I abandoned that desire for years. I decided that I didn’t want to write professionally because it would be too much pressure, and I convinced myself that writing wasn’t really as important to me as I’d thought it was.

None of this was true. After a spiritual, mental, and emotional breakdown in my mid-20s, I began to learn how to decipher what I truly wanted, and little by little, those desires pointed back to writing. It took more than 20 years for me to circle back around, but eventually I found great joy as I started a blog, wrote some short stories, and eventually got started on another novel.

Now I’m waking up to new desires. Coaching and running my own business take up the vast majority of my time and, more importantly, my energy. I love them, but I’m also starting to recognize a desire to have more time for creative projects, and to invest more of my energy in my family life. These desires feel scary to me; they require me to make significant changes in how I work, and I’m still not sure what those will look like or how they’ll turn out.

I feel both excited by new possibilities, and at the same time shaky, vulnerable, and uncertain.

What I do know is that if I want to find the big answers, I’ve got to listen to the little ones I already have. That means committing to doing what I want more, regardless of the fear that that brings up.

As part of that effort, I’m going to change how I publish this blog. For two years now I’ve published a post every other week, mostly because I’d heard that you need to publish regularly and frequently to be successful. Starting now, I’m committing to writing and publishing only when I want and feel inspired to. My Inner Critic is saying that this is an incredibly selfish thing to do and that I’ll be letting people down, but I believe that it’ll mean better content for y’all because I’ll only be writing when I have something I really want to say.

It’s an experiment. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I’m curious to find out. If you have any feedback about this change impacts you, I’d love to hear it.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep listening for what I want. I don’t know where it will lead me, but I do have the strong sense that if I stay true to it, it’ll all be for the good.

An Exercise to Reconnect with Your Deepest Desires

Following is an exercise that can help you remember what it is you truly want. It can also help you reconnect to more joy, energy, and satisfaction when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, exhausted, overwhelmed, or burnt out.

Start by setting aside a block of time to do only what you want, sometime between 1 hour and a full day. When the time comes, ask yourself:

What do I want to do right now? What sounds good to me?

Your mind will probably come up with all types of things that you should do. Let it know you’re doing an experiment and promise not to let it mess up your life too profoundly. Then ask again.

Pay attention to how you feel, emotionally and in your body, as different ideas arise. Which ideas bring up a sense of excitement, energy, or lightness within you?

When you land on an answer that feels good to you, do it, regardless of how silly, crazy, or unproductive it sounds. If it’s something you can’t do right now, make a concrete plan to do it later and ask for what else you want to do right now.

Most of us worry that if we only do what we want, we’ll become lazy couch potatoes, selfish brats, or mean bastards. In my experience, nobody truly wants to be any of those things. Those are the types of things that tend to happen when we listen to our cravings rather than our true desires. If you get an idea and you’re not sure if it’s a craving or a true desire, try it out and see how you feel. You’ll be able to tell the difference by how satisfying (or icky) it feels.

Once you finish an activity or no longer want to do it, ask what you want to do again. Do this as many times as necessary.

When the time period is over, take a moment to check in with how you feel, both emotionally and in your body. Is this better or worse than usual? Also take note of the things you wanted to do. Did any surprise you? Finally, check in on the results of your actions. Did things fall apart? Is there evidence that you harmed anybody else? Did anything good result? These are the outcomes of your experiment, and it can be helpful to write them down.

I recommend doing this exercise/experiment regularly, at least weekly to start. My current intention is to do it all day every day, though I’m not nearly there yet. It can be surprisingly hard to do, but like any skill or habit, it gets easier with practice. And as you uncover your little desires, the bigger ones are revealed.

It seems like a such a small thing, to risk wanting what you want. But it isn’t. It has the power to transform you, your life, and your ability to contribute, not to mention the world.

Over to You

What do you want that’s scary to admit?

What gets in the way of doing more of what you want?

I’d love to hear from you (and I have a feeling I’m not the only one), so please leave a comment below.

If You Want Help Finding Your Answers…

I offer individual and small group coaching designed to help you reconnect with your desires and uncover the courage you need to follow them. Find out more here.

3 Ways to Know When to Push Yourself Harder and When to Let Yourself Off the Hook

Many people I talk to are concerned that they’re not pushing themselves hard enough. They either feel like they’re not trying hard enough to make their current job work, or they worry they aren’t doing enough to transition into a new one.

There’s certainly a lot of traditional wisdom out there about the benefits of pushing yourself hard:

“There are no gains, without pains.” – Benjamin Franklin

“In case of doubt, push on just a little further and then keep on pushing.” – General George S Patton, Jr.

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

My own personality is wired this way. My default, if I’m worried or stressed about anything at all, is to double down on my efforts and push myself harder towards what I want. Left to my own devices, I begin to obsessively go over my To Do list, ignore all my wants and needs, and proceed to power through.

The problem with this No Pain No Gain attitude is that it has a downside—namely the pain. In my case, in addition to the normal discomfort of exertion, it inevitably leads to exhaustion, grumpiness, fruitless labors, and—sooner or later—depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

On the other hand, I’ve found over the years that when I allow myself to stop trying so hard, when I rest and relax and take it easy, I often get more done than when charging in an all-out, take-no-prisoners assault on my To Do list. I certainly enjoy my life more when I find ways to work with ease.

So the question is—my question is—when the going gets tough, how do you know whether to push harder or let yourself off the hook?

A Better Way to Frame the Question

Actually, I’m being a bit disingenuous with that exact question, because my answer to it would be “neither.” Or maybe “both.”

For reasons I’ll explain below, I don’t ever recommend pushing yourself (unless that’s what you call getting over the initial hump of inertia and resistance in order to work on something important to you). And if letting yourself off the hook means not eviscerating yourself physically, mentally, or emotionally, I’m all for it. But if it means giving up on your dreams and intentions, then please don’t ever do it.

The question about how hard to push is actually a question of how best to marshal the power we need to turn an idea or intention into reality.

See, power isn’t all about brute force and intensity. Sometimes that’s what’s required to reach a goal or make something happen, but other times we need softness, flexibility, or compassion. Sometimes we need to stop and allow. Sometimes we need to yield.

You don’t get strong just by lifting weights; resting is an important part of the process. Easing up doesn’t necessarily mean we’re giving up on our intentions or even slowing down the process. It can actually be the most efficient and effective way to get to where we’re trying to go.

The trick is knowing what’s called for when. Not taking action can be productive rest or paralyzed procrastination. Nose-to-the-grindstone work can be incredibly powerful or wasted effort. How can we tell the difference?

I can’t claim to have the final answer, as I’m still working on that myself. But I have found 3 questions through trial and lots of error that can help you determine when to increase your intensity and when to ease up off the gas:

1. Is it aligned?

When I find that a particular task feels like pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill, I’m usually headed in the wrong direction. Redoubling my efforts will probably only make things feel harder and yield fewer results.

That’s because when I’m pushing, I’m relying on willpower alone (which studies suggest is at least in some ways a limited resource ). I’m focused on what I think I should be doing and ignoring what I want, how I feel, and what my inner wisdom is telling me. Often I’m doing something not out of love or intrinsic motivation, but because I’m trying to avoid feeling shame, guilt, or fear.

This is often the case with people who are doing work they don’t like and who feel that they’re either not trying hard enough to do a good job or not trying hard enough to make it work. Because their current job isn’t aligned with what they truly want or feel called to do, trying harder at it is almost never going to provide fruit.

Realizing that our current direction isn’t aligned with our values, desires, or intentions opens the door so compassion can enter. It’s not that we’re lazy; it’s that we’re going the wrong way—of course part of us is going to resist. If it feels this way to you, there’s no shame in easing off so that you can create some space to reevaluate your direction, reconnect with your inner wisdom, and find something that feels more like a pull than a push. You’ll be much more powerful if you can move towards something wholeheartedly.

If, on the other hand, what you’re working on does feel aligned to you, you can move on to the next question.

2. Is it habitual?

As I’ve explained in a previous post, most of us tend to have one of two habitual responses to anxiety: either we move towards it by taking (usually frantic) action or we withdraw away from it through distraction and procrastination.

When things get tough, when faced with uncertainty, when things don’t go as planned—what do you do? Do you tend to push harder, effort more, and try to force things to go your way through sheer force of will? Or do you freeze, shut down, look for other things to get busy with, and fall prey to procrastination? (This last is often the case, by the way, for the people I mentioned earlier who know they want to make a career change but aren’t doing anything about it.)

Regardless of your answer, the best thing you can do in many cases is the opposite of your habitual response. If you tend to push, try slowing down or doing less. If you usually freeze, try taking any action that allows you to engage with what you’re avoiding (and keep in mind that the smaller it is, the better; you don’t want it to feel overwhelming).

The key is to do whatever feels a bit scary and like letting go of control. This will, of course, bring up anxiety because it takes us out of our comfort zone. The key is to develop our ability to stay with this anxiety long enough to be able to experience the benefits of a different type of response.

When I’ve done this, even though part of me screamed the entire way that we were surely headed towards certain death, I ended up feeling stronger and more powerful. I also found that not only did the world not end when I did things differently, but things actually often turned out better than usual.

3. Is it the right time?

Ah, timing. The bane of my existence.

I tend to have certain ideas about when things should happen: namely immediately, if it’s something I want, and absolutely never, if it’s something I don’t.

Unfortunately, the world usually has different ideas. And despite my best efforts to resist, I’ve found over and over again that in a fight between me and How Things Are, How Things Are always wins.

There are so many reasons that this might not be the right time for something I want to do:

  • I might be trying to take on too much now and not have enough time or energy for it.
  • I may need to focus on something that’s more important to me at the moment and not dilute my effort or scatter my energies.
  • I may not be ready yet to take this on. Or other people may not be ready, for that matter.
  • I may not have the external resources I need, and may not be able to get them right now.
  • My efforts might bear more fruit at another time in the future…

The list goes on.

I realize that this can be a slippery slope. For many years I never let myself put things off in the future because I figured that I was just procrastinating and making myself feel better about it by saying now wasn’t the right time. I feared that if I didn’t do this difficult thing now, I never would.

But you know what? That wasn’t always the case. Many times when I forged ahead I was ignoring internal or external signs that the timing wasn’t right, and I had a lot of failed efforts as a result. And I found that when I did put something off when the timing wasn’t right, I usually did come back to it later, especially if it was something important to me.

In evaluating whether this is the right time for something, it can help to look at everything you’re currently committed to and be very honest with yourself about your actual capacity for taking action without losing your sanity. If you’ve taken on more than you’re able to manage, sense what feels most important to do now, and give yourself permission to focus on that and let go of everything else. You can always set up reminders to come back to these other things later. I also find it very helpful to check in with my emotional and somatic intelligence and see what they can tell me about what actually needs to be done now and what might be better tackled later.

When I do this—when I’m willing to listen to what wants to happen and yield to How Things Are—things don’t always happen on my timeline. But the important things do happen, if slowly, with plenty of power and ease, and that’s what matters most.

Bonus Question: Is It Kind?

Regardless of where you decide to intensify your efforts and where you decide to yield, this is a great question to ask. Because no matter how aligned an action is, and no matter how right the timing may be, if you’re being unkind to yourself in how you engage with it, you’re undermining your effectiveness.

Go slowly. Take lots of breaks. Let yourself take the smallest baby step imaginable. Don’t take on more than you can while still taking really good care of yourself.

Often we think that when we feel powerful, when we’ve done enough, we’ll finally be kind to ourselves. In my experience, only when we’re kind to ourselves will we be truly powerful.

Get Help to Find Your Calling

If you’d like more help, I offer an online course about finding your calling that’s currently available on a sliding scale as well as one-on-one and small group coaching.

Over to You

What are you making of all this?

How do you decide when to push harder and when to let yourself off the hook?

What helps you know whether an action is aligned, habitual, well-timed, or kind?

Your perspective can help others, so please leave a comment below.

21 Reasons to Get Out of Your Head


“My mind is a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.
–Anne Lamott

I know how easy it is to get stuck in your head. When my brain isn’t churning with thoughts, memories, worries, plans, analyses, or trying to figure something out, it’s attempting to pull me back into its fold by convincing me that it can solve whatever problem I’m facing if only I obsess about it a little longer.

Our minds are incredible, but they’re only part of our natural awesome-ness, and so much gets eclipsed when we over-rely on them. So as much for myself as for anyone else, here are some reminders from my own experience about why we could all use a break from our brains:

1. Your mind is a dark place.

Most of our heads are filled with catastrophes and worst-case scenarios. Though this scenery bears little relation to the real world, the more time we spend in our minds, the more likely these outcomes seem. And because of this…

2. There’s fear everywhere in there.

You can’t jump from one thought to the next without stepping in a pile of it. Not to mention the fact that…

3. Your mental landscape is covered in rationalization.

Our brains are smart, and they know how to talk us into our out of just about anything, regardless of how we really feel about it. Just ask Lance Armstrong, or someone who’s convinced themselves to stay in a job they hate for 30 years. And on top of that…

4. In your head, self doubt is rampant.

Doubting your abilities is a mental habit, not some intuitive truth about yourself. And the more time you spend in your head, the more likely you are to run face-first into it.

A lot of this can be explained by the fact that…

5. Your brain has bad eyesight.

What I mean by that is when you’re in your head, you’re not paying attention to what’s happening around you. You’re not taking in new information, and you’re not seeing, feeling, or experiencing what’s actually occurring in the real world right now.

When you do…

6. You see that you’re okay, no matter what’s happening.

You observe that there is always support available to you. And you see how much you’re able to handle day-in and day-out, no matter what comes your way. In fact…

 7. You feel more powerful and confident.

Without your thoughts distracting you, you’re able to sense into that quiet place within that feels how strong and wise you really are.

8. You aren’t so worried about what other people think.

Self-consciousness stems from thoughts, so without them, you don’t feel so dependent on other people’s approval.

9. You’re less stressed.

These days, our fight or flight response is triggered mostly by thinking (there are fewer actual tigers prowling around in modern times). Without worries, your system is free to rest and digest in peace. And because of this…

10. You’re able to sleep more easily.

When you learn to get out of your head, you can choose whether or not you want to follow certain trains of thoughts. You get to decide which thoughts to amplify and which to let go of. As a result…

11. You obsess less.

And the same skill would make it possible that…

12. You stop beating yourself up over your mistakes.

 Not to mention the fact that…

13. You give your poor mind a break.

(Your brain gets tired too.) In addition…

14. You feel more connected to others.

Connection is what happens naturally when we’re present with others instead of trying to listen while really being caught up in what’s next on our To Do list.

And maybe best of all…

15. You stop asking yourself: “Where did all the time go?”

When you’re present in the current moment, time doesn’t disappear. It may go faster or more slowly, but you’re there experiencing all it has to offer—things like beautiful sunsets, dreamy birdsongs, and the delicious food you happen to be ingesting.

It’s true that your brain is smart. It’s also true that your smarts aren’t all in your head. If you got out of there more, you’d see that…

16. You’re more creative.

 Ever heard of the shower effect? (It refers to the fact that many of us get our best ideas in the shower.) Or the fact that almost every model of the creative process includes a step called something like “incubation” where you stop thinking about an issue and put your attention somewhere else?

These occur because creativity depends on more than our brains, and in fact, sometimes our brains get in the way of the process. Which is true of something else as well…

17. Decisions are easier.

Neuroscientist Antonio Demasio found that people with brain injuries that prevented them from feeling their emotions suffered a similar effect: they couldn’t make decisions. They’d list out the pros and cons of each choice and bounce back-and-forth among them endlessly without being able to decide. It turns out that emotions are key to making decisions. Furthermore…

18. You have greater access to your deepest desires.

Studies show that our brains are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Our emotions and bodies, on the other hand, can point to this information much more directly.

In fact, our emotions and bodies have lots of important information to offer us. Which is why…

19. You tap into your inner wisdom.

Here’s what I mean by inner wisdom: Intuition. Guidance. The bigger picture. Knowing what’s most important. Malcolm Gladwell called it “thinking without thinking” in Blink. It’s your ability to sense the truth in ways other than reasoning and deduction. And it’s incredibly powerful.

Because you have so much wisdom within you…

20. You get better without trying.

When you’re following your inner wisdom, every experience is educational and every challenge becomes a teacher. You don’t have to worry if you’re learning enough or doing it right. Your true self is in charge, and it knows what it’s doing.

Because of that…

21. You find what you’re looking for without trying.

Everything we want—peace, love, admiration, security, excitement, happiness, etc.—is already within us. The problem is, at some point we begin to feel disconnected from it, so we start to seek it out—a process that actually takes us farther from our goal. A lot of this effort takes place in our heads. When we relax back into our hearts and bodies, we re-connect with what we thought we were missing.

If you’re at all like me, right about now you’re thinking something like: “That all sounds great, but how do I actually do that?” I’m so glad you asked. I’m super excited to share an opportunity with you to…

Learn how to get out of your head and in touch with the wisdom of your body.

I’ve mentioned some exciting new offerings in the works, and the first of them is coming up! I’m partnering with my good friend and amazing teacher Natalie Biniasz to bring you: Tune Into Your Body’s Intelligence: A FREE Call to Unlock Greater Power, Presence and Wisdom on Wednesday, May 11th at 6:00pm ET. It’s going to be fun and practical and will show you various ways to get out of your head and in touch with your inner wisdom. And did I mention that it’s free?

If you want to get the details about how to sign up for this call and future opportunities, leave your information in the grey box below!

Photo credit: zaphodsotherhead // CC


Too Many Interests? How to Choose a Career When You’re Multi-Passionate


I talk to a lot of people who struggle to decide what to do next in their careers because they think they have too many interests.

It’s fine, they say, if you’re passionate about one thing; that makes the decision easier. But what if you’re fascinated by a lot of different fields? What if you feel equally pulled by politics and interior design?  Entrepreneurship and music?  Photography and nursing?

I’ve had clients that faced these exact conundrums. I’ve also faced similar ones myself.

In school, I loved the richness of reading and writing. I also took pleasure in the predictability of math. Later on, as I learned about the world around me, I developed an equally stirring passion for animal rights, social justice, and environmental restoration. At work, I enjoyed working in operations, management, customer service, community development, marketing, and sales.

Why, I asked myself when looking for a new job, couldn’t I have the clarity or depth of expertise that comes from being interested in one thing only: say 13th Century French literature? Or CSS frameworks? Or the plight of the delta green ground beetle?

The Most Frequent Misconception About Finding Your Calling

I think this is, in part, why the idea of finding your calling can get such a bad rap.

People assume that this implies that there’s one thing (and one thing only) that you’re “supposed” to be doing.

So let me go on record here and say that I disagree. Completely. I don’t believe that there’s one thing out there that you’re predestined to do. There’s no star out there that has written on it “Meredith Walters = Career Coach.”

Your calling, rather, is a living, breathing thing. It’s a part of who you are and what you have to offer the world.  It’s your unique answer to what the world is asking for in this moment, and it can be expressed in lots of different ways.

Finding your calling isn’t about choosing one thing; it’s about listening to what you feel called to be and create in the world, no matter what that is. It could be one thing, or it could be 200. It may be big or it may be small. And you can bet that if you’re paying attention, it won’t be the same forever.

Ways to Work With Too Many Interests

Here are some ways you can follow a multifaceted calling:

  1. You can combine your interests into one outlet. Often this commingling will give birth to new, innovative forms. Like Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness, for example, who combined his interests in video games and healthy living into a business that helps nerds “level up their lives”  with better exercise and diet. In my case, starting my own business has allowed me to support others in ways that I love, write, and do all the parts of business-building that I liked from previous jobs.
  2. You can focus on one and then another. As Emilie Wapnick discusses in her TEDx Talk, what you learn in one field often transfers and helps you bring unique skills and perspectives to another. In other words, nothing you learn is wasted. I discovered this for myself when I transitioned into coaching, believing that my days of using my MBA were behind me. Turns out that what I learned in my MBA has come in incredibly handy as I run my own business.
  3. You can lead a rich life with many hobbies and contributions. I had a client once with strong interests in running, photography, writing comedy, helping disempowered people, and putting his expertise in IT to good use. He found a job that allowed him to do the last two while giving him time and money to pursue the former. In this way he’s enjoyed lots of activities and made meaningful contributions in multiple areas to his daughters, friends, clients, and colleagues.

A Hidden Gift

In some ways, having lots of interests can make your decision-making clearer, because you can begin to look for work that combines your interests rather than jobs that force you to choose between them.

And no matter what you decide on, you’ll bring unique perspectives and ideas to whatever you do if you can embrace your role as a bridge between lonely and distant shores.

Find Work That’s Right for You

Sometimes an outside perspective is key in helping us see clearly what the world is calling for from us. If you’d like to know how coaching can help you find work that’s an expression of your unique calling, then click here to apply for a free, no obligation Clarity Call.

Photo Credit: Ben Mortimer // CC

How to Know If Saying No Is Wise…Or Otherwise

“Resistance obstructs movements only from a lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually. So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to a launch a career in telemarketing…relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.”

Stephen Pressfield, The War of Art

I recently learned about a mentorship program designed to help businesses like mine grow in new ways. Since I’ve been trying to expand more online, and since I have very little idea of what I’m doing in this arena, I was seriously considering doing the program.

At first when I learned about it, I could hardly contain my excitement. It seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.

And yet as I continued to sit with the decision and consider the hefty price of participation, something began to change. Doubts began to arise: Would I like the other people in the program? Would it require more time or energy than I have available? Would it be worth the money that I put in?

In short, I got scared.

Wisdom vs Fear

I often say that you can tap into your wisdom by listening to your gut and following your intuition, both of which are expressed in your body.

And it’s true. But what I don’t always say is that sometimes your body can give you mixed signals. Sometimes an opportunity can feel good and bad at the same time.

That’s because—as Stephen Pressfield points out in his brilliant book The War of Art—when our wisdom guides us to do something that’s going to take us into a “higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually”, resistance and fear kick in. Part of us digs in its heels and says, “Oh, helllllllllll no.”

This happens to me nearly every time I consider doing something that will allow me to grow and flourish, and I’m pretty sure it’s happened to just about every person who’s ever considered doing a coaching program with me.

The danger is, blindly following our resistance is the most effective way to run smack into what we’re afraid of. If we listen to the fear and ignore what we feel called to do, we won’t do the things that will help us to succeed. We won’t sit down to create, we won’t share our work with the world, and we won’t seek the help we need to expand and grow and learn. Without these actions, we’re almost certain to fail, and thus our doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how can we tell if the negative response we feel is coming from our wisdom or fear? How do we know whether it’s best to say yes to an opportunity or politely decline?

Identifying Wisdom

The voice of wisdom feels different than the voice of fear, energetically and in the body.

Though each feels different to everyone, there are some general rules of thumb:

Wisdom tends to be quiet, relaxed, patient, energized, or grounded. Even when it’s giving us bad news or pointing out a legitimate concern, it’s not shoving images of failure in front of our faces. It’s simply saying, in a calm and neutral way, “Something about this doesn’t feel quite right for us.”

Fear, on the other hand, tends to be loud, urgent, heavy, tense, and exhausting. It’s obsessive and can’t wait to talk about what could go wrong. It tells us we have to figure this out now. It uses whatever images, ideas, and volume it can get its hands on to increase our sense of panic and unrest.

You can get a lot of clarity just by noticing the flavor of the different thoughts in your head.

Listening to Fear

Once you’ve identified your wisdom, it can give you all kinds of useful guidance. But what we sometimes forget is that the fear can too, if we only take the time to listen.

Sometimes fear is just asking for reassurance.  You can do this by asking yourself how you know your fear to be true. What evidence do you have that things will go badly? And if they do, would that really be as catastrophic as you imagine? Alternatively, what evidence can you find that things might actually go well? When have you made good on opportunities in the past or accomplished what you set out to do?

If you can’t reassure your fears, then be kind to them. Listen to them. While it’s not good to reflexively make decisions out of fear, it’s also not helpful if we force ourselves to stretch too far too fast.

In my case, my inquiry into intuition and fear led me to two realizations: first, that I absolutely wanted to commit to myself, my potential, and my intentions by investing in support that could help me to grow.

What I also realized was that this growth will necessarily challenge me, and I need to step into it slowly and gently. So I got on the phone with the woman leading the program once again to ask her some targeted questions. I found out that she’s all about being gentle and going at a pace that feels right. Learning this, my intuition confirmed that this is the right step for me to take.

I patted my fear on the head, took a big gulp, and paid my deposit.

Over to You

How do you tell the difference between wisdom and fear? How have each helped you make good decisions in the past? Please share your ideas and experience in the comments below.

Find Out What Your Intuition Is Telling You

Sometimes we need a little help to be able to hear what our inner wisdom is saying. I offer 1:1 sessions designed to help you get clear about what you’re wanting and how to find work that’s aligned with your calling. Click here to find out what else you’ll get in a Clarity Call and how to schedule yours at a time that’s convenient for you.

Photo credit: Ahmed Rebea // CC

7 Things You Can Do When None of Your Career Options Feel Right


I’ve always found decisions stressful, probably because I’m usually trying to find the right answer.  That’s how I know that having options can feel just as stressful as not having any if none of them feel right.

I meet people all the time who are incredibly discouraged because they feel stuck—they desperately want to find a new job but none of the alternatives they come up with feel good enough to pursue. It’s easy to become frustrated, self-critical, or even hopeless and depressed.

Is it the options, or is it you?

It may be that you haven’t yet found the right idea. But it’s equally possible, if not more likely, that something is blocking your ability to recognize what feels really right.

Even if you have a block, you’re perfectly capable of finding your path (and keep in mind that there’s probably more than one that lead to what you’re wanting).  Following are 7 things you can do to find your way when none of your career options feel right:

1. Get more information.

Lots of times nothing feels right because we don’t know enough about what it would look, sound, taste, or feel like. It’s like we’re trying to make a decision about which house to buy when all we know about it is the color and number of rooms.

Take time to do research. Read. Talk to people. Go and visit.  Sometimes we resist doing this because we’re afraid we’ll be disappointed and stranded without options if we don’t like what we find.  But disappointment is inevitable if you’re truly living your life, and you’ll never be without options. At worst, what you find will prompt you to generate better ones.

2. Try it out.

This is really an extension of the last idea. Sometimes you can’t know until you try. If I asked you if you like walking on the moon, you’d probably have a hard time answering without trying it.  Fortunately, trying jobs out is often easier than space travel. Shadow someone for a day. Get an assignment in a different department. Volunteer. Do a freelancing project on the side. Make something. Sell something. See what it feels like.

3. Get clear about what you want most.

Often we want multiple things, and each option offers part but not all of what we want.  If this is the case, try to prioritize your desires.  What’s a must-have and what’s a nice-to-have?  What’s most important to you? What’s been key to your sense of well-being or fulfillment in the past?

4. Look for the should.

Nothing can scramble your internal GPS more than the belief that you ought to be doing something. When you feel you should be doing something—say, making more money, doing the “practical” thing, or pursuing what others think you should—you tend to become deaf to your actual desires. Hence, nothing feels right.

Make a list of all the things you think you should do. (Think: “Fathers should…”  “Mothers should…”  “Responsible people should…”) Now ask yourself: where might you be shoulding on yourself when considering your career options?

5. Distinguish between what feels scary and what feels wrong.

Sometimes we get a negative response from our bodies because an option is clearly wrong for us.  Other times we get a negative response simply because we’re scared.  The anxiety of a wrong choice feels different in the body than the fear of doing something desirable but outside of our comfort zone. For most of us, distinguishing between the two sensations is a subtle discernment we have to learn how to make over time, but it’s a worthwhile effort nonetheless.

6. Brainstorm more options.

It is possible you haven’t yet found the right idea for you.  Once you’re clear on what you really want, take time to brainstorm possibilities.  Allow yourself time to generate wild and improbable ideas without judgment (you’ll have time to get practical later).  Ask others to help you.  And play around with tweaking your existing options.  How might you combine them?  Could you do them sequentially?  What would you need to add to or take away from each one to make it feel right?

7. Wait.

If all else fails, wait. It might just be that the timing isn’t yet right. I had a client who felt stuck in a corporate job because none of her ideas for leaving felt justifiable. She was unduly hard on herself for not taking the leap. Then, after having some time to get her ducks in a row, someone offered her a job to work on an upcoming political campaign. Suddenly, what before felt wrong now felt right. She jumped at the chance and never regretted it. Timing really can be everything.

Over to You

What’s helped you move forward when none of your options felt right?  Please share in the comments below so we can learn from your experience and/or insight.

Find the Right Path for You

Right now I offer a free, 60-minute Clarity Call to anyone who wants to find out how coaching can help them find clarity about their calling and how to pursue it. I won’t be offering this session for free for very much longer. I’ve gotten such good feedback on the calls and have had so many requests for them that once my new website goes live, I’m going to start charging for these in-depth sessions. If you’re interested in coaching and would like to experience it for free while you still can, click here to request a Clarity Call.

How to Make Hard Decisions Easier


A reader recently asked a great question in response to a piece I wrote about how to make impossible decisions.

That’s all fine and good, she said, but what about permanent, irreversible decisions, like whether to have another child? You can’t just try it out and you can’t choose another path later.

It’s a good point, and she’s not alone in struggling with such a choice. I know from experience how stressful, terrifying, and even paralyzing big decisions can be. It can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and if you mess it up, you (and perhaps the people you love) will pay a huge price.

The thing is, most of our stress in making choices comes from a misunderstanding of what’s at stake. Here are 3 ways to make hard decisions—even permanent or irreversible ones—easier:

Embrace your lack of control.

When we face a hard decision, we usually want something.

Consider a decision you’re in the process of making and ask yourself what you want out of it.  Now think about all of the factors that influence these results. How many of these factors are under your total control?

The truth is that almost all outcomes depend in large part on the actions of others, genes, timing, circumstances, luck, and a whole host of other things that have nothing to do with anything you can change. Yes, you have influence and power, but you’re not even close to being in control.

And that’s okay.

I mean, you’ve made it this far, and without knowing you, I’m quite sure that you’ve accomplished a lot in your life even though you’re not in control. In fact, things often turn out far better on their own than they would have if we had been in charge of everything.

Flawless decisions won’t guarantee ideal outcomes. But we don’t have to control things for them to turn out just fine. Our best efforts and imperfect influence are enough.

Know that you’ll always have options.

Even if your decision is irreversible, you’ll always have options.

Example #1:

The other morning I was feeling overcommitted and desperately tired. I couldn’t think of a way to get out of my upcoming commitment and still feel good about myself, but I could find a way to make time for a nap later that afternoon.

Example #2:

I had a client who was fed up with her job but felt like she needed it for now for the income. So while she worked to get clear on her next steps, she also chose to advocate for projects she wanted and assert herself with her boss more. This took the sharpest edge off her work and allowed her to enjoy it more. She still had the same job, but her choices made her experience of it better, while opening up new possibilities for the future.

Example #3:

I had a friend who decided to go to Stanford’s law school. Three years and over $100,000+ later, she decided she didn’t want to be a lawyer after all—and there was nothing she could do to undo the debt she had taken on. So she made a choice. She took a corporate job that she really didn’t want and worked for a couple of years. She did everything she could to make her life as enjoyable as possible while she paid off her debts. When it was over, she made another choice to move to Europe with her family and make a fresh start as a teacher, writer, and speaker. Her choices may have been imperfect and irreversible, but they didn’t stop her from finding what she was looking for.

Don’t believe in heaven or hell.

There’s a story about a Zen master who’s visited by a samurai warrior. “I want to learn about heaven and hell,” says the samurai. “Do they exist?”

“Tell me,” answers the master, “why would I waste my breath explaining that to an ignorant brute like you? Don’t waste my time with your stupid questions.”

The enraged samurai lifts his sword and prepares to kill the man. Just before his sword descends, the master says calmly, “This is hell.”

Understanding dawns on the samurai as he realizes that he has just created his own hell of hatred and resentment. Realizing this, he is freed from it; his eyes fill with tears and he bows to the master in gratitude. “And this,” responds the master, “is heaven.”

Heaven and hell are internal states.  The best decision cannot guarantee joy, and the worst decision does not doom you to misery. You can find good in just about any path you take.

And if nothing else helps, remember this one thing: nothing—neither heaven nor hell—lasts forever.

The best thing you can do is make the best decision you can—and then breathe, try to relax, and enjoy the ride.

Over to You

What helps you make difficult decisions?  Please let us know by sharing your experience in the comments.

Make the Best Decisions Possible

If you’re struggling with a decision that feels impossible to make, come find help.  The next Pathfinders: Group Hike and Conversation to Find Your Calling is coming up.  You’ll meet other people facing difficult decisions, have the chance to talk through your dilemma, and learn techniques to get in touch with your intuition, all while going on a beautiful walk through the woods.  To find out more or to register, click here.

Photo credit: Bill Ohl//CC

How to Make Impossible Decisions


Some decisions seem impossible to make.

No matter how much we think about them or talk about them or obsess over them, we don’t get any closer to a satisfying answer.

Why are these decisions so difficult?

In her TED talk on making hard choices, philosopher Ruth Chang asserts that decisions become difficult when the options are neither better nor worse nor equal. In other words, we struggle to decide when no single choice has more benefits than the others. The example she gives is deciding what to eat for breakfast: eating a donut would taste better, but eating a bowl of cereal would be healthier. Both options have roughly the same amount of benefits and drawbacks, but the benefits and drawbacks they offer are different.

So if no choice is clearly better, but they’re also not equal, then how in the world do you make impossible decisions?

Believe it or not, you can do it, no matter what’s at stake. Here are some ideas to help you:

Make sure you actually have a real decision to make

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people stuck because they were trying to make a decision that didn’t exist.

Often we try to make decisions before they’re actually real. Beth tries to decide what her answer will be to a job offer she might get. Jim wants to figure out what he will do if his roommate decides to move out. Mark really does need to decide where his daughter will go to high school, but only after she’s actually born.

The thing is, it’s very difficult—if not impossible—to make a good decision based on hypothetical information. Beth doesn’t know if she’ll even get an offer, or what the terms will be if she does, or what other offers she may have by that time. Jim has no idea what he’ll feel or what he’ll want if or when his roommate gives him notice. And if Mark thinks he can make decisions for a teenager without any input from her, he’s likely to be sorely disappointed.

Making imaginary decisions is not only difficult; it’s an incredible waste of time.

So if you’re struggling with a decision, the first question to ask is: Do I actually need to make this decision? And if so, by when?

If you’re not facing a real decision, or if your drop dead date is a ways in the future, then I recommend waiting.

I know, I know. If you’re like me, the idea of prolonging uncertainty sounds about as relaxing as a bath in hot tar. But I promise, you can do it, and it will save you time and energy and lead to better actual decision-making in the long run.

Embrace the fact that there’s no wrong answer

Often we struggle with decisions because we imagine that if we can just get it right, we’ll be able to walk down Easy Street the rest of our lives.

This just isn’t true. Remember what Ruth Chang said about the options in hard decisions: one isn’t better or worse than the others. They all have pros and cons. No matter what we decide, there will be benefits and challenges. There’s really no way to go wrong.

If you still feel you have to get it right, remember that every decision you make is just for now. Sometimes you can’t know whether something is right for you until you try it (if you think you should be able to figure everything out in your head, then please imagine trying to decide whom to marry without ever actually going on a date).

If you try something out and find that it’s not right for you, then you can adjust. Ruth Chang herself offers a great example of this. She had a decision to make about whether to be a lawyer or a philosopher. She chose law. It wasn’t a good fit. So she switched things up and pursued philosophy. Now she’s a professor at Rutgers and is giving TED talks watched by over a million people.

You are just as strong, capable, and adaptable. You can absolutely handle challenges and make adjustments if things don’t go your way. That’s the best way to grow into a wise, mature, and loving human being anyway.

A straight line between two points is definitely the shortest, but a crooked, wavy, and curvy line is probably the fun-est. Who wants life to be short, anyway?

Use your IQ, EQ, and SQ

As I say in almost everything I write, we rely on our heads too much in our current culture. Our heads give us great information, but if that’s all we’re using, we’re leaving a lot on the table.

I recently worked with a client who couldn’t decide if she wanted to find another 9-5 job or try to freelance on her own. She was caught in her head analyzing the decision and felt paralyzed, confused, and unable to decide.

She was applying her Intellectual Intelligence (IQ) quite effectively to the problem. But she was letting her Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Somatic Intelligence (SQ) lay idle. When she started to tap into the information her feelings and body were giving her, she realized how much more excited she was to work for herself. Bam. Her decision was made. And the more she tuned into her EQ and SQ, the surer she was it was the right one.

The key to using your EQ and SQ is to check in with your feelings and body sensations. Imagine yourself in each scenario. Paint a richly-detailed picture complete with sounds, smells, sights, and textures for each possible option. Or actually try it out. Hang out in the house you’re thinking about buying. Shadow a plumber for a day if you think you might like to be one. Take care of your friend’s pitbull for a week if you’re thinking you’d like to get a dog.

Then—and this is the most important part—pay attention to how you respond. What feelings come up for you when you’re snaking people’s pipes? What body sensations do you notice as you do yoga in the living room or take the pitbull on a walk? Are they opening, lightening, relaxing sensations, or do they feel more tense, heavy, and unpleasant?

You have enough intelligence in you to make even the most difficult decision wisely. Just remember your most powerful smarts are not always located between your ears.

Look Your Fear in the Eyes

Fear is like one of those annoying 24-hour news network pundits: it has an opinion about everything.

No matter what decision you’re facing, fear is going to be involved. So rather than pretend you can’t see it, why not give it a place at the table?

What are you afraid will happen if you make the wrong decision? What thoughts, when you have them, make your belly tighten or your blood run cold? What would you like to avoid at all costs?

Fear is not a bad thing; it’s simply an indicator that we care about something and we’re facing the unknown. You get to decide how much credence you want to give your fear.

Does the pundit have any useful suggestions for you? Something you want to pay attention to or keep in mind as you decide? If so, great. If it’s a bunch of hot air, that’s fine too. Either way, thank your fear for its opinions, nod your head, and then go back to more productive conversations with your other dinner guests.

If you’re having a hard time discerning your voice of fear from your voice of wisdom, try imagining yourself at 90 years old. Once you have a good picture of yourself after a successful and fulfilling life, ask your inner 90-year-old what he or she thinks of your decision. What would he or she recommend? Older people have a much broader perspective and tend to be able to distinguish fear from wisdom, even if they are imaginary.

Bounce it off someone else

Okay, you may have tried this already, and if you haven’t—why haven’t you? Other people can’t tell you what’s right for you (because there’s no way for them to know), but they can help you sense into what’s right for you.

Other people can:

  • Reflect back to you not only what they’re hearing from you, but how they’re hearing it (ie, “You just sound really excited when you talk about that possibility.”).
  • Help you think through factors you hadn’t considered, or see other options you didn’t think of.
  • Help you articulate things more clearly than they sound when they’re swirling in your head at a 100-miles-an-hour.
  • Say things that you can notice your response to (ie, if you find yourself arguing against someone’s suggestion, now you know what you really want).

I’ve found over the years that the people I talk to about my decisions usually have no idea about what’s best for me (how can they?). They have different values than me, and their experiences, though perhaps related, don’t necessarily indicate what the future has in store for me.

But in noticing how I respond to others, I get lots of information about what’s true for me. Recently I was deciding what color to choose for the roof of my chicken coop. I kept asking different people their opinion until I found someone who suggested red. Suddenly I didn’t feel the need to ask anybody else. Bingo. That’s what I really wanted all along.

We don’t have control over much in this world, but we do have control over what we decide. Maybe that’s another reason why decisions are so stressful, because on some level we realize that they’re the only influence we have on this wild and chaotic world.

When we realize that it’s only the decision itself, and not anything that follows, that is under our control, we can begin to relax into a sense of freedom.

I can’t guarantee that I’ll meet all my work goals or have a close relationship with my family or a stress-free summer or anything else I might desire, no matter how many brilliant choices I make. All results and outcomes depend on things that are far outside of my control—the choices other people make, the environment I’m working in, events that I have nothing to do with. So I can stop laboring under the illusion that if I just make the right decisions, I’ll get everything I want.

I can embrace instead the truth that no matter what happens, there will be gifts and challenges. That I am capable of handling whatever life throws my way. That whatever results, I can choose how I respond and find joy in what’s good. That often what happens is far better than what I could have orchestrated. And that good things often come from unexpected places.

When we realize how little we control in this world, and how unnecessary control is for happiness, decisions become a whole lot easier.

Get More Help to Make Impossible Decisions

I offer individual and small group coaching that can help when answers are hard to find. Find out more here.

***Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff//CC

[gravityform id="3" title="false" description="false"]
<script type="text/javascript">var gform;gform||(document.addEventListener("gform_main_scripts_loaded",function(){gform.scriptsLoaded=!0}),window.addEventListener("DOMContentLoaded",function(){gform.domLoaded=!0}),gform={domLoaded:!1,scriptsLoaded:!1,initializeOnLoaded:function(o){gform.domLoaded&&gform.scriptsLoaded?o():!gform.domLoaded&&gform.scriptsLoaded?window.addEventListener("DOMContentLoaded",o):document.addEventListener("gform_main_scripts_loaded",o)},hooks:{action:{},filter:{}},addAction:function(o,r,n,t){gform.addHook("action",o,r,n,t)},addFilter:function(o,r,n,t){gform.addHook("filter",o,r,n,t)},doAction:function(o){gform.doHook("action",o,arguments)},applyFilters:function(o){return gform.doHook("filter",o,arguments)},removeAction:function(o,r){gform.removeHook("action",o,r)},removeFilter:function(o,r,n){gform.removeHook("filter",o,r,n)},addHook:function(o,r,n,t,i){null==gform.hooks[o][r]&&(gform.hooks[o][r]=[]);var e=gform.hooks[o][r];null==i&&(i=r+"_"+e.length),gform.hooks[o][r].push({tag:i,callable:n,priority:t=null==t?10:t})},doHook:function(o,r,n){if(,1),null!=gform.hooks[o][r]){var t,i=gform.hooks[o][r];i.sort(function(o,r){return o.priority-r.priority});for(var e=0;e<i.length;e++)"function"!=typeof(t=i[e].callable)&&(t=window[t]),"action"==o?t.apply(null,n):n[0]=t.apply(null,n)}if("filter"==o)return n[0]},removeHook:function(o,r,n,t){if(null!=gform.hooks[o][r])for(var i=gform.hooks[o][r],e=i.length-1;0<=e;e--)null!=t&&t!=i[e].tag||null!=n&&n!=i[e].priority||i.splice(e,1)}});</script> <div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_3' ><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' id='gform_3' action='/category/making-decisions/' > <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_3' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_3_1" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_3_1' >Email</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_1' id='input_3_1' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_3_5" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label screen-reader-text gfield_label_before_complex' ></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_3_5'><li class='gchoice gchoice_3_5_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_5.1' type='checkbox' value='GDPR-yes' id='choice_3_5_1' /> <label for='choice_3_5_1' id='label_3_5_1'>I give consent to use this information to send emails and communication as described in your Privacy Policy​.</label> </li></ul></div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_3' class='gform_button button' value='Submit' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_3"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_3"]=true; ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_3"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_3"]=true; jQuery("#gform_3").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_3' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='3' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_3' value='WyJbXSIsImY5NDlkMWNjNTJmNGNmYzAyOWRlNGE3ZjRmNWViODExIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_3' id='gform_target_page_number_3' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_3' id='gform_source_page_number_3' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> <p style="display: none !important;"><label>&#916;<textarea name="ak_hp_textarea" cols="45" rows="8" maxlength="100"></textarea></label><input type="hidden" id="ak_js_1" name="ak_js" value="229"/><script>document.getElementById( "ak_js_1" ).setAttribute( "value", ( new Date() ).getTime() );</script></p></form> </div>
[gravityform id="3" title="false" description="false"]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_3' ><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' id='gform_3' action='/category/making-decisions/' > <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_3' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_3_1" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_3_1' >Email</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_1' id='input_3_1' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_3_5" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label screen-reader-text gfield_label_before_complex' ></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_3_5'><li class='gchoice gchoice_3_5_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_5.1' type='checkbox' value='GDPR-yes' id='choice_3_5_1' /> <label for='choice_3_5_1' id='label_3_5_1'>I give consent to use this information to send emails and communication as described in your Privacy Policy​.</label> </li></ul></div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_3' class='gform_button button' value='Submit' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_3"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_3"]=true; ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_3"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_3"]=true; jQuery("#gform_3").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_3' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='3' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_3' value='WyJbXSIsImY5NDlkMWNjNTJmNGNmYzAyOWRlNGE3ZjRmNWViODExIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_3' id='gform_target_page_number_3' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_3' id='gform_source_page_number_3' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> <p style="display: none !important;"><label>&#916;<textarea name="ak_hp_textarea" cols="45" rows="8" maxlength="100"></textarea></label><input type="hidden" id="ak_js_2" name="ak_js" value="250"/><script>document.getElementById( "ak_js_2" ).setAttribute( "value", ( new Date() ).getTime() );</script></p></form> </div>