“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
– Anais Nin
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
– Anais Nin
“When you start to know someone, all their physical characteristics start to disappear. You begin to dwell in their energy, recognize the scent of their skin. You see only the essence of the person, not the shell. That’s why you can’t fall in love with beauty. You can lust after it, be infatuated by it, want to own it. You can love it with your eyes and your body but not your heart. And that’s why, when you really connect with a person’s inner self, any physical imperfections disappear, become irrelevant.”
Go Straight for the Joy and Follow Your Purpose
Life Coach Martha Beck on trusting yourself, finding what makes you happy and going for it
In 2004 I was enjoying the highest-paying, most respectable job I had ever worked. Everything from the title on my business card to the location of the building fed my notion of success.
Then a Cadillac Escalade sideswiped me on my way home one evening. After an ambulance ride and an MRI, I was told there was a problem with my spine. Over the course of the next few months, I waited to find out if I needed surgery. And everything changed.
“If you had asked me a week before that accident if I was happy, I would’ve said yes,” I told life coach Martha Beck over the phone. “I had this dream job, a nice car, and everybody thought I was hot stuff. But a week after the accident, I found myself saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m scared to death. I don’t belong at that job. I don’t think I like myself anymore. I’m not following my purpose, and I feel like I’m suffocating something inside of me.’ ”
Beck laughed. Not a malicious laugh, but a knowing one. She told me the car accident tore my blinders off so I could see the unhappiness I had been denying in favor of a shiny, socially acceptable image of a successful life.
Since then I’ve followed my purpose in a much more meaningful way, writing to help others while pursuing my dream of becoming a (one-day) published novelist.
But I asked her, “What about people like me who are still living in a state of denial, who are doing everything right on the outside, but somewhere, deep down, aren’t really happy? People can’t just wait to have a car wreck.”
“Oh, sure they can,” Beck said, laughing again. “That’s the thing about planet Earth. It’s just full of car wrecks.”
Beyond Mental Models
Martha Beck was once called “the best-known life coach in the country,” by USA Today. She didn’t start with that moniker in mind, but there was a part of her that always knew she was supposed to help others find their purpose. In her book Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny, she recalls writing a mission statement for a scholarship application when she was 16 years old. It read: “My mission in life is to help people bridge the gaps that separate them from their true selves, from one another, and from their destiny.” She took a few detours after earning her sociology doctorate from Harvard, but over the last 25 years, as a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine, an advocate for indigenous communities in Africa, and author of the New York Times best-sellers Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, Steering by Starlight and Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want, she has followed that mission.
She says that people come to her all the time after experiencing their own version of a car wreck.
“There are three ways to be jolted or moved out of the life that’s not working for you,” Beck says. “One is shock, which would be your car accident or losing your job or whatever it is. The next one is opportunity. Say, you fall in love and you get a chance to marry your soul mate, but it means changing everything.
“And the third is growth; you simply wake up one morning and what satisfied you yesterday is starting to feel empty. And as you grow more and more as a being, you fit less and less into a life that isn’t right for you. You’ll outgrow it like your baby clothes, and then you have a choice to either try to contort yourself back into it or to leave.”
Beck says this kind of growth spurt happens to a lot of people at midlife. Prior to the growth—or the car accident or the life-changing relationship—we become fixated on what she calls “mental models” of what we’re supposed to be. We get these mental models from our families, friends, institutions like universities, and society.
“The nice thing about this point in history,” she says, “is that it really has boiled down to compass versus culture. Your inner compass is now more important than ever because the culture that tells us what we’re supposed to be is fragmenting.”
Beck believes the jobs that once gave us prestige and opportunities to rise through a hierarchy are much rarer, thanks to a culture that is placing increasing value on flexibility and self-expression. “It gives you an opportunity to stop following the culture and start following your inner compass,” she says. “The car crash did that to you, but for a lot of people it’s just a dissolution of other things in the social universe. Industry, jobs, even families are less cohesive than they used to be. And all those are sort of little car wrecks for the mind.”
Following Your Feelings
Whether the life around us begins to fit too snugly or we have a sudden moment of clarity, the question becomes: How do we listen to our inner compass?
“The mechanism by which you find your purpose is born into you, and it expresses itself through emotion,” Beck says. “So what brings you positive, joyful and liberating sensations emotionally—and physically, actually—that’s going to be closer to your purpose. And anything that makes you feel shut down, constricted, weighed down, physically weak—that’s going to be a step away from your purpose. And life is just a game of, you’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder. If you take a step with every decision toward what makes you feel most free, you’ll end up at your purpose very quickly.”
Unfortunately, that sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy.
To start, Beck suggests we spend more time in silence, which allows us “to find a sense of peace and equilibrium within” and results in a keener awareness of our inner compass.
Fifteen minutes in the morning and at night—whether meditating or walking quietly—is sufficient. The goal is to get in touch with whatever is making our current situation feel too constricting or just plain wrong. Because, she says, the incentive to move and make real change has to come from within. The more attention we pay to our inner compass, the more dramatic the directives will become. Or as Beck says, “The truth of your purpose will start to spin itself out inside you.”
Beating the Bear
Sometimes, even taking the time to look within can be scary. And ultimately, doing something, as she says, “that feels really delicious,” and making a decision to change our life in a way that fulfills our purpose, arouses a good deal of fear.
“Fear actually is not an emotion to which you should pay a lot of attention,” Beck says. “Fear is an automatic response of a very basic part of the brain, and in most people it’s highly active, even when we’re sitting in a completely peaceful spot. We scare ourselves with stories like, ‘I’ll never be able to make it in this rarefied field.’ ‘I can’t quit a steady job; it’s irresponsible for me to give up this paycheck and health benefits.’ ”
Then Beck quotes Buddha: “Just as we can know the ocean because it always tastes of salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it always tastes of freedom.”
She relates this idea to the effort we make at discovering our purpose and then finding the courage to see it through.
“The question is not, ‘Am I afraid to do this?’ ” she says. “The question is, ‘Does the thought of doing this bring me more freedom?’ Freedom is often frightening. But it’s not suffocating and soul-killing.”
The good news, she says, is that neuroscientists now know that it’s the edge between what is possible and what is almost too difficult to master where we actually create the most dopamine, a brain chemical responsible for a feeling of pleasure, bliss and what psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.
Csikszentmihalyi spent decades researching the positive aspects of human experience and summarizes what he found in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He says people are happiest when they are in a state of flow, which entails concentration to the point of complete absorption in an activity. This only happens when we’re doing something that is almost too hard for us, like rock climbing or mastering a run on the piano. The accompanying feelings, such as fulfillment, engagement and motivation, supersede our usual concerns like hunger, worry and regret.
“We call it joy when we come out of it,” Beck says of the flow phenomenon. She uses the example of playing golf: “As strange as it seems, the brain has to be so quiet to do a perfect golf swing, to get everything connected the right way. It’s right at the edge of too hard.” And ask any golfer—it’s addictive.
If we’re happiest and most satisfied when we’re pushing ourselves, and then we have to ignore the fear that tells us if we go beyond our comfort zone, disaster will strike. If we’re to succeed in taking a risk and pursuing our purpose, we have to realize that fear is not a red light, but rather a consistent companion we must learn to manage.
“If there is a bear in the room, fear is useful,” Beck says. “If all that’s in the room scaring you is the thought, There’s no way I could make money by becoming a musician, that’s not a useful fear. It creates a sense of entrapment rather than freedom. So you measure things not by whether they’re scary or not, but by whether they’re liberating or not.”
Creating New Models
OK, but what about a paycheck?
Most of us balk at the idea of chucking it all in favor of a life pursuing our purpose if we may or may not be able to pay the bills, especially if we have a spouse or a family who needs things like Internet access and running water.
In fact, some of us may have known for a long time—years—what our purpose truly is. But we haven’t been able to fit it into those traditional mental models we inherited. Think of those voices that say, “Being an actor isn’t a real job.” Or “Running a nonprofit won’t pay the bills.”
Besides, some of us may discover that our dissatisfaction lies with our relationships or our creative expression outside of a career path.
Again, here’s the good news.
First of all, remember that you may not need to quit your job to follow your purpose. For example, starting a nonprofit may not be the best choice for someone with no business experience. Instead, maybe you’ll find fulfillment in volunteering and becoming an integral part of someone else’s organization.
And if your dissatisfaction lies in unsupportive relationships—family or friends who discourage you from spending the time you need on a particular pursuit—you have some choice in that as well. After all, you set your own boundaries and expectations for how others treat you. Work at compromise with others but don’t compromise your soul’s desire.
To those of us who need to make a profound career shift, Beck says, “This is the best time ever to strike out on your own and create income in new ways. There are ways that creativity is wanted now that couldn’t possibly have generated income in the past.” She points to Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. In it, Pink writes:
“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”
Beck says the whole concept of a job in the 20th century was based on factory labor, where you show up and put in a certain number of hours in the same place with other workers. Today she believes technology is making that largely unnecessary, so those types of jobs are disappearing. “And these weird opportunities to make money doing creative things are starting to open up,” she says, and then corrects herself. “They’re not starting to open up—they’re avalanching.”
For example, when Beck’s daughter graduated from college and was going to move on to graduate school, she asked her daughter how she felt about the decision. Her daughter replied, “Well, the only frustrating thing is that it’s so hard to find time to draw, and actually that’s how I’ve been making money recently.” Turns out, Beck’s daughter had been illustrating a very successful webcomic. From that project, she got referrals and commissions to the extent that she was making so much money at it, she wondered why she was going to graduate school at all.
Selling illustrations from a webcomic may not sound like a career when we compare it with our current mental models, but it is, in fact, a viable way to make a living doing what you love. “Who cares if it doesn’t exist as an official career?” Beck asks. “Let’s make new models.”
While that may seem well and good for a young woman fresh out of college, it can be tougher for people who are more established in life to follow that deep calling and make drastic changes that alter our career paths. Beck says Seth Godin “does a brilliant job of figuring out how to monetize creative endeavors and how to use the new technologies to set you free to do what you love and still make a good living.”
In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Godin writes, “The problem is that our culture has engaged in a Faustian bargain, in which we trade our genius and artistry for apparent stability.” And while he agrees you don’t have to necessarily quit your job to do it, he suggests that, “It’s time to stop complying with the system and draw your own map.”
Going for the Joy
Beck was 25 years old when she had her own version of a car wreck and was forced to draw a new map. Over the phone, she relives her moment of clarity with me, recalling the incident that inspired her 1999 book, Expecting Adam.
“I was almost six months pregnant,” she says. “All my adult life I had been at Harvard and really thought that the purpose of my life was to climb this hierarchy created by my culture, which in my case was education. But, you know, I hoped it would lead to moneymaking and power, wealth and status.
“My child was already very real to me, very bonded. I’d been feeling him kick for months. It was not early in the pregnancy. Then he was diagnosed with Down syndrome.”
The people who had been her mentors, her teachers and leaders, told her she shouldn’t have the baby. “I was told that his life was worthless and meaningless and really shouldn’t happen. And the people who told me that meant well, but suddenly I began to wonder, What is the purpose of a human life? What makes it OK to bring a human life into the world? And I realized that a lot of the people who were telling me that this baby could never be happy, were not happy.
“I didn’t know anyone with Down syndrome, but I had heard they could be happy people. And well, in that case, what is the justification for being? I decided the experience of joy is its own excuse for being. And that if I could have none of that in my life, it wouldn’t be worth living. And that if my son could have a tremendous amount of joy in his life, then it was worth living even if he never went to Harvard. So I did not terminate the pregnancy, and I have had this little Zen master ever since.
“Go straight for the joy,” she says.
Beck says what we really want isn’t stuff. It’s the emotion we associate with the stuff. This was revolutionary to me—the idea that when we want a nice car, what we are really after is the exhilaration we feel when driving a powerful engine at high speeds or the pleasure we get from fine craftsmanship or the improved self-image from being seen in a nice car. Unfortunately, the possessions, jobs and relationships we go after don’t always give us the emotions we think they will yield.
“So go straight for the joy,” she says. “Eliminate the middleman.”
Beck changed her path once Adam was born. She started studying how other people were creating fulfillment in their lives. Today, as a mother of three, she suggests that finding joy involves mindfulness, which is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow.
Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as the process of actively noticing new things, letting go of preconceived ideas and acting on our new observations.
Mindlessly pursuing the safe things in life—the routine, the expected career path—may seem like a sure way to security and happiness. But when we live mindfully, noticing and following our good feelings, we discover what makes us truly happy. We discover our purpose.
While that may temporarily translate into difficulty and fear, we have the choice to approach these not as obstacles, but as the paths that lead to joy. We have a choice to either try to contort ourselves back into a life that no longer fits us or to get quiet, listen and act on what we hear.
Finding our purpose is about finding the willingness to listen to our truest selves and then ignoring the fear. Unless, of course, there’s a bear in the room.
Minding Your Purpose
Martha Beck recommends employing mindfulness to discover what you truly feel about various aspects of your life and, hopefully, to point you in the direction of your purpose.
One sensation in your body points toward your purpose—the good feeling. And the other points toward what you’re meant to avoid.
If you really want to up the ante, Beck suggests cutting out one thing you were going to do that gives you a negative reading and adding one that gives you a higher reading. She says if you keep making that replacement over time, you will create the optimal life.
Founder at Virgin Group
If I Were 22: Have A Blast But Build Your Purpose
If I were 22, I would be out working hard, playing hard and having the time of my life. Hang on, what’s the difference between 22 and 63?!
There are lots of things I know now that I wish I had known when I was 22. I would have loved to have known that Sir Tim Berners-Lee was going to invent the Internet, so that I could have invented LinkedIn – not to mention Google, Twitter and Facebook! It would have been useful to have known that Steve Jobs was going to launch the iPod and the Internet was going to revolutionise the music industry – I would have sold our record shops and got out of the music business a lot earlier.
If I were 22 today, I would embrace the opportunities technology has given us. While I am in my sixties, I am incredibly excited about the transformative power of the web and all sorts of new technology. From opportunities to tackle climate change to research to beat terrible diseases, as well as inventions to improve everyone’s lives, I am sure the coming years will be a period of tremendous innovation. Most 22-year-olds today think that the way to make their fortunes is through setting up tech businesses, and it is true that can be a fruitful direction. But other more conventional businesses shouldn’t be forgotten. There are still plenty of different sectors that need shaking up. It is more important to follow your passion than going into tech simply to make a fortune. Not everybody is technically minded anyway, and if you don’t really love what you do you won’t succeed.
As a 22-year-old starting again, I’d love to spend my life from a really young age doing things that completely transform the world. We started Student Magazine in order to protest against the Vietnamese War and other outrages, and the Student Advisory Centre to help young people going through various troubles. However, we didn’t really embed true purpose into Virgin Records from the beginning. If I was to go back, I’d start Virgin Unite, our non-profit foundation, at the same time as the record label. I’d also look into incubating initiatives such as The Elders and the Carbon War Room even earlier.
Having said that, as a 22-year-old it is important to have an absolute blast. You are only 22 once! Make sure you have the time of your life, stay up for plenty of sunrises and meet all kinds of people in as many places as possible. If you get the opportunity to travel, grab it with both hands and don’t forget your toothbrush (ok, condoms)! Get out there, dance and play as well as working hard and creating things.
I never looked 40 years ahead. It was one step at a time, building block upon block and sometimes finding those blocks fell to the ground on the way. But I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, have a wonderful family and friends, and would change very, very little. I absolutely love being in a position to make a positive difference in the world – I am going to do my best not to waste that position. I don’t have any regrets about my decisions aged 22, and would try to live with the same zest for life whether I was under 20 or over 100. Age isn’t as important so long as you are surrounded by people you love, doing things you passionately believe in.
Best Advice: Protect the Downside
This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers share the best advice they’ve ever received. Read all the posts here.
Last year I wrote about my best advice coming from my mother. This year, I wanted to share the best advice my late father gave to me. When I was 15 and wanted to leave school to start a national Student magazine, I remember him telling me that I couldn’t do so until I had sold £4,000 worth of advertising to cover the printing and paper costs of the first edition of the magazine, so we knew the sales would be all upside. I worked out of the phone box with even more determination to try to get advertisers to support us. Once I’d got the advertising sold I went to see the headmaster and told him I was leaving school. He told me I would either go to prison or become a millionaire! While it was a big risk to leave school, I knew I had a good idea and knew I had the downside covered, so I was confident I was making the right decision.
When I decided to go into the airline business, we were the hottest independent record label in the world and were as profitable as we had ever been. I remember having to sit down with my fellow directors at the record company and tell them that I was thinking of starting an airline. You can imagine their reaction! There was a serious danger that friends for life were going to change to ex-friendships rapidly!
One can fully understand why. The idea of putting 20 years of building a record company at risk – they just couldn’t understand where I was coming from. The airline industry at the time was absolutely awful. You were lucky to have a cold bit of chicken dumped in your lap during a flight, there was no such thing as in-flight entertainment, the cabin crew never smiled and the experience was dreadful.
I really felt if we could create a really fun, high quality airline that got all the details right, we’d have a chance to survive and even flourish. You can never be sure until you’ve tried it. So, once I had negotiated the price for a second hand 747 from Boeing, I said to them that if Virgin Atlantic wasn’t successful, then I wanted to be able to hand the plane back at the end of the first year – therefore protecting the downside. It was the most difficult thing to negotiate, as Boeing wanted to be sure that the plane was off their balance sheet and a successful sale. Fortunately for me planes weren’t selling all that well. They decided they would take a risk with me as they wanted a competitor to British Airways in the UK, so BA couldn’t hold them to ransom every time they negotiated on a plane.
When I sat down with the directors at Records, I was able to say at the absolute worst we would lose six months’ worth of profits. But if it went well, we would then be able to buy a second and third plane, build another successful business and something we could be really proud of. Because I had the downside protected, they could see the logic of my decision. While they didn’t welcome it with open arms, they gave me their blessing.
I’ve written this sounding incredibly sensible. The truth is, rules are made to be broken. There have been many occasions, especially early on in my business career, when I’ve had to ask my ever-understanding wife to sign a sheet of paper with me to put a second mortgage on our home in order to get a business deal done! However, the theory is sound: trust your instincts, but protect the downside. And, of course, remember to listen to your mum and dad’s advice!
CEO at IDEO
Why Daydreamers Will Save the World
Daydreaming has a bad reputation. Just think of any classroom scene on TV where a teacher is chiding a child for staring out the window during class. Traditionally, those kids have been thought of as slackers, but, according to a recent report on education and entrepreneurship for the UK parliament co-authored by my friend, Professor Andy Penaluna, they’re exhibiting the behavior of innovators. They’re engaging in “relaxed attention.”
During relaxed attention, a problem or challenge is taking up space in your brain, but it isn’t on the front burner. Relaxed attention lies somewhere between meditation, where you completely clear your mind, and the laser-like focus you apply when tackling a tough math problem. Our brains can make cognitive leaps when we’re not completely obsessed with a challenge, which is why good ideas sometimes come to us when we’re in the shower or talking a walk or on a long drive.
Unfortunately, in both the UK and US education systems, since the late 1980s, the trend has been away from unstructured play and time studying the arts—both prime times for switching gears into relaxed cognition—and toward more structured, standardized National Curriculums. According to the report, this focus on finding the single right answer for the test instead of exploring many alternate solutions has resulted in “a significant decline in creative thinking scores in US schools. Using the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), and a sample of 272,599 pupils (kindergarten to fourth grade), evidence suggests that the decline is steady and persistent [affecting] teachers’ and pupils’ ability to think creatively, imaginatively and flexibly.”
While we can’t turn our entire education system around overnight, there are a few things you and your school-age children can do to enhance your creative capacity through engaging relaxed attention:
+ Walk away from the problem, literally. As the philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietsche once said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Maybe it’s the increased blood flow from exercising or the emotional distance gained by walking away from a problem, whatever it is, walking works.
+ Carry a notebook with you at all times, even by your bedside. You never know when good ideas will come. Having something nearby to jot them down ensures they won’t be forgotten along the way.
+ Turn your “snooze button” into a “muse button.” Use those few minutes of half-consciousness every morning to let your mind wander over problems you’ve been wrestling with during waking hours. With some practice, you’ll start discovering fresh insights before your first cup of coffee.
New York Times Bestselling Author
The Simplest Way to Avoid Wasting Time
I recently met with a capable executive who is passionate about his work and good at it. The problem is he pursues so many initiatives that by the end of the year people don’t really know what he has accomplished. They know he has done a bunch of stuff but it becomes a blur of busyness. It’s the career equivalent of Apple’s undisciplined strategy of “add more product lines” before Steve Jobs’ return; they reached 330 different products and it almost sunk the company.
The executive I was meeting with wanted me to run essentialism workshops to every person in his company or if not that at least to every manager in his company. Still, with no sense of irony he is also wanting to roll out five different workshops to every employee in his company. He has added two different leadership competency models, a values list and on and on. He is enthusiastic about it all. But it is all just too much. He is making a tiny amount of progress is too many directions.
I advised this executive to become far more selective. Following through with the Apple metaphor, Steve reduced the number of product lines from 330 to an astounding 10 products. And, of course, it proved critical to the turnaround of the company. The mantra was to say no to almost everything in order to say yes to a few “insanely great products.” It is a principle that can work for companies and also the people who work for them. Instead of trying to do everything, popular, now we can pursue the right things, for the right reasons at the right time. By doing fewer things, better we can make a higher contribution.
We can supercharge our career by simplifying it. Here’s how:
In the end, it is this idea of choosing to be different that can be so powerful. Designing a career of contribution is less about adding layers of activity like we do in an oil painting. Instead, it is about becoming more of who we are already are by chiseling away those things that don’t feel right.