The Power of Awe in Our Lives

When’s the last time you experienced awe?

It’s one of the most powerful emotions we can experience. A marker for life at its grandest.

Awe is what we feel when we encounter something so vast or incomprehensible that it defies our current frame of reference. It’s a feeling of reverential respect, often mixed with fear, wonder, veneration, or even dread.

Awe can be inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it “the emotion of self-transcendence.”

Awe gives us an experience of vastness, and of novelty and mystery. And it leaves an alluring and hauntingly beautiful lasting impression.


My Own Awe Experiences

When I think about my own experiences of awe, I’m humbled. They don’t come often, but they can make me shudder. I think about:

  • being there with my wife when our daughters were born and feeling time stand still
  • feeling a powerful, warm sense of love and connectedness during a candlelight vigil when our family members entered the room
  • swimming among bioluminescent plankton in a magical bay in Puerto Rico
  • staring out at the grandeur and near timelessness of the Grand Canyon
  • gazing at the stars
  • seeing multiple thunderstorms in the distance while driving across the Kansas plains with my wife
  • walking between volcanoes and glaciers in Iceland and basking in natural geothermal pools amidst the ancient rolling hills
  • looking up at the gargantuan redwoods in California
  • staring out at the ocean horizon and at the view from a Colorado mountaintop
  • witnessing the playful convergence of music, story, and thrilling acrobatic feats of a Cirque de Soleil show
  • being part of a committed team and accomplishing something together that we barely thought possible
  • reading an incredible masterwork that draws me in and feels like it speaks to me directly
  • marveling at the creative talent and power of a “Hamilton” show
  • looking at our daughters when they’re in their element and reflecting on how much they’ve grown and changed
  • contemplating the vastness of the universe and wondering how it can all possibly be

Awe may be rare, but there are ample opportunities for it if we’re open to it and paying attention.

It turns out that awe isn’t just an amazing feeling. It’s also good for us in a surprising number of ways.


The Benefits of Awe

Experiencing awe, as powerful as it is in and of itself, comes with a surprising number of benefits, including these ten:

  1. Making us feel truly alive, with wonder and gratitude
  2. Inspiring us to want to achieve or be part of something great
  3. Elevating our mood and increasing our happiness and wellbeing
  4. Putting things in perspective, especially when we get caught up in our own little dramas or ego, and boosting our humility
  5. Elevating us from mundane matters and dampening our materialism, essentially reordering our priorities
  6. Reducing our sense of time starvation, giving us a sense that time is plentiful and making us less impatient
  7. Connecting us more with others—and with humanity—and reminding us that we’re part of a greater whole
  8. Increasing our urge to be generous and to cooperate with and help others
  9. Helping us recognize the role that outside forces play in our lives (e.g., the influence of others, or luck)
  10. Potentially improving our health, including stronger immunity and lower levels of inflammation

So what can we do to invite more awe experiences into our frenetic and overly full lives? Or do we have to wait until lightning strikes?


Awe-Inspiring Activities

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley developed this helpful list of awe-inspiring activities:

  1. Write about a personal experience of awe (the “awe narrative” practice)
  2. Take an “awe walk” (ideally in a new place, a natural setting that’s peaceful and quiet, or a place with a view)
  3. Watch an awe-inducing video
  4. Read an awe-inspiring story

(Tip: check out Jason Silva’s excellent Shots of Awe” series on YouTube, perhaps starting with his Awe” video.)

There’s much darkness in the world today. And we live in a culture of overwork, consumption, cynicism, and burnout. It can be a black hole that pulls awe into its vortex and smashes it into oblivion, if we let it.

It may be tempting to give in to these cold and dark forces and just go with the flow, chasing material success, comfort, pleasure, and prestige while letting awe slip away.

But how will that hold up when we look back on our lives? What will be the things we truly cherish? Powerful and profound, our experiences of awe may be some of the most precious and sacred we’re given.

“I felt deep within me that the highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic, and more despairing: Sacred Awe!” -Nikos Kazantzakis, in Zorba the Greek


Reflection Questions

  • When’s the last time you experienced a sense of awe?
  • Is your life overly full and heavy right now, or are you open to small daily experiences of wonder?
  • Do you savor these experiences, and feel grateful for them?
  • What will you do to being more awe opportunities into your life?



Postscript: Quotations on Awe

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” -Albert Einstein

“I have just come from four days rest in Yosemite… Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build.” -Theodore Roosevelt

“There is one means of procuring solitude which to me, and I apprehend all men, is effectual, and that is to go to a window and look at the stars. If they do not startle you and call you off from vulgar matters, I know not what will.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle

“We fit the universe through our brains and it comes out in the form of nothing less than poetry. We have a responsibility to awe.” -Jason Silva

“The scenery bankrupts the English language.” -Theodore Roosevelt, speaking of Colorado

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living….” -Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder

“To be inspired is the ultimate antidote to existential despair.” -Jason Silva

“If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” -Dorothy Day

“The most beautiful experience in the world is the experience of the mysterious.” -Albert Einstein

“Awe is the best drug in the world.” -Jason Silva


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion, co-written with Christopher Gergen) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great,” co-written with Bob Vanourek). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self improvement, self-leadership, awe, gratitude, savoring, wonder

The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life


It’s a word we hear a lot. We take on more responsibilities as we go through life. Responsibility for the rent. Car payments. Mortgage. Deadlines. Getting the job done. These things can be daunting.

But there’s another aspect of responsibility that cuts the other way, that empowers us: taking responsibility for our lives.

And not just responsibility. Full responsibility.


What Does It Mean to Take Full Responsibility for Our Lives?

What does this mean? Carry out the logic and it leads to a sweeping conclusion:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives.

Carry out the logic still further and it leads to a stunning insight, one that’s capable of transforming our lives:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives, regardless of what has happened or why.

That means taking full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, words, actions, circumstances, and impacts. It means taking full responsibility for our health, relationships, education, career, finances, choices, behaviors, and free time.

Our ability to accept responsibility for things depends on our sense of agency: our perceived ability to influence events and direct them toward the achievement of our goals.

That brings us to what psychologists call “locus of control”: the extent to which we feel that we have control over the events of our lives. Are we the captains of our fate, steering the ship toward our horizon of choice, or are we drifters on a raft, being carrier by the current and winds randomly out to sea?

Drive and direction matrix from the book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek


Researchers distinguish between an internal locus of control (when we believe that control over what happens resides within us) and an external locus of control (when we attribute success to luck, fate, or other outside influences). Note that locus of control occurs on a continuum; it’s not a one-or-the-other situation.

According to researchers, people with an internal locus of control tend to:

  • be healthier
  • report being happier
  • exhibit more independence
  • achieve greater success in the workplace

So far, we’ve seen that it means to take full responsibility for our lives. It sounds simple enough. But it’s quite difficult to do it consistently—and it’s exceedingly rare.


How to Know If You’re Not Taking Full Responsibility?

Most people bounce back and forth between taking responsibility for their lives and shirking that responsibility. How to know if we’re not taking responsibility?

When we’re avoiding responsibility, we’re tending toward the following:

  • blaming others
  • complaining about things
  • feeling hopeless
  • experiencing “learned helplessness” (when we stop trying to change things because we’ve become conditioned to believe that a bad situation is inescapable)
  • feeling powerless
  • drifting through life without traction on our deeper aims
  • settling for a less than ideal situation


The Incredible Benefits of Taking Full Responsibility

Taking full responsibility for all aspects of our lives, regardless of what has happened or why, is one of the most important things we can do to improve the quality of our lives, relationships, and work outcomes. It comes with many benefits. Taking full responsibility can:

  • boost our confidence
  • provide us with a more resilient sense of calm which isn’t dependent on others
  • increase our decisiveness
  • improve our health
  • reduce our stress levels
  • lead to taking more action in life
  • help us achieve our goals
  • free us up to see the good in people and situations
  • help summon our courage
  • lead to better relationships
  • help us improve our follow-through
  • invoke our power to choose
  • dramatically improve our leadership
  • help us craft our life intentionally


What We Must Give Up When We Take Full Responsibility

Clearly, the benefits are extensive. But they come at a price. Taking full responsibility means giving up on several bad habits and guilty pleasures. For example:

It means giving up on complaining.

“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” -Maya Angelou

It means giving up on making excuses.

“He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” -Benjamin Franklin

It means giving up on blaming others.

“An important decision I made was to resist playing the Blame Game. The day I realized that I am in charge of how I will approach problems in my life, that things will turn out better or worse because of me and nobody else, that was the day I knew I would be a happier and healthier person. And that was the day I knew I could truly build a life that matters.” -Steve Goodier

It means giving up on being a victim.

“Abandon the idea that you will forever be the victim of the things that have happened to you. Choose to be a victor.” -Seth Adam Smith

What to do instead? Instead of complaining, making excuses, blaming, or playing the victim, change your mindset toward one of agency and accountability. Instead of deflecting toward others (or toward bad luck), turn your gaze within and ask:

What is my role in this?

How have I contributed to this?

What will I do about it now?

Get curious about what happened and why, and what you might do differently in the future to make it better or avoid the same mistake.


What Taking Full Responsibility Doesn’t Mean

Taking full responsibility means holding ourselves totally accountable, but it doesn’t mean being a “Lone Ranger,” disconnected from others.

Even as we take full responsibility for our life, we can—and should—reach out to others for help. We can ask for their input, or for them to help hold us accountable.

For most people, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness. We’re wise to take full responsibility for our relationships too, instead of expecting others to know what we want or waiting for others to change.

Being accountable doesn’t mean being alone. It means being the captain of our lives, being a “life entrepreneur.”

And it ultimately means changing the trajectory of our lives toward more fulfillment and better outcomes.

“The luckiest people are those who learn early… that it’s essential to take charge of your own life. That doesn’t mean you don’t accept help, friendship, love, and leadership—if it’s good leadership—from others. But it does mean recognizing that ultimately you’re the one who’s responsible for you.” -John W. Gardner


Reflection Questions

  1. In what areas are you:
    • complaining?
    • making excuses?
    • blaming others?
    • being a victim?
  1. What will you do, starting today, to take back the initiative and take full responsibility for the situation?
  2. Are you taking full responsibility for everything in your life, regardless of what has happened or why?



Postscript: Quotations on Taking Responsibility

  • “Self-leadership means taking responsibility for our own lives.” -Andrew Bryant & Ana Kazan, from Self Leadership
  • “Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” -Joan Didion
  • “The degree to which you accept responsibility for everything in your life is precisely the degree of personal power you have to change or create anything in your life.” -Hal Elrod
  • “Personal responsibility is the foundational key that opens the door to freedom…. the moment you choose to accept personal responsibility for all your inner experiences independent of what appears to have caused them, the escape hatch automatically swings open, providing you with the opportunity for passing into the land of freedom. You become authentically empowered, and you discover there really is a calm at the center for the fiercest hurricane where you can reside. In fact, eventually you realize that you are that calm.” -H. Ronald Hulnick and Mary R. Hulnick, from Loyalty to Your Soul
  • “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anyone else expects of you. Never excuse yourself.” -Henry Ward Beecher
  • “Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” -Robert J. Burdette, 1883
  • “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” -John Burroughs
  • “Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • “Never tell your problems to anyone… 20 percent don’t care and the other 80 percent are glad you have them.” -Lou Holtz
  • “Don’t complain; just work harder.” -Randy Pausch
  • “See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” -Eckhart Tolle, from The Power of Now
  • “I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does—even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.” -Jocko Willink, from Extreme Ownership
  • “You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you’re responsible for the energy that you bring to others.”  -Oprah Winfrey


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self improvement, self-leadership, responsibility, accountability, agency, locus of control

The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

One of the greatest assets we can build in our lives is an action orientation. No great things are possible without action.

Dreams and visions are good, but worthless without action. Plans may impress, but they lose all value if not acted upon. Opportunities fade if we don’t seize them soon enough.

If we want a good life with good work, we must get good at taking action—and putting ourselves in a position to be able to do so. Too often, we hesitate. We wait to long before acting, as we try to line things up perfectly. A costly mistake.

“Action is the foundational key to all success.” -Pablo Picasso


The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

There are many benefits of being action-oriented, and their effects accumulate and compound over time. Here are 14 of the top benefits:

1. Being action-oriented builds our confidence.

When we’re out in the world making things happen, we naturally begin to trust ourselves more. We develop self-assurance, which becomes increasingly valuable for future scenarios.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie

2. It helps develop our courage.

The process of taking action and dealing with the consequences shows us that we can overcome fear and survive challenges, often becoming stronger in the process. Courage is one of the most important qualities we can develop, because most great things in life are impossible without it.

“Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his ideas, to take a calculated risk—and to act.” -Maxwell Maltz, surgeon and author

3. Being action-oriented helps us avoid the cost of regret for not trying.

Most people have regrets. Some of the most common ones are about the things we wished we had tried: the new ventures we dreamed of starting, the new relationships we wished we pursued, the places we longed to visit.

“The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German mystic

4. It comes with a learning premium.

We develop knowledge and insights from trying things and seeing how they go. Learning is one of the best investments we can make. It pays rich dividends.

5. Being action-oriented changes our self-identity.

Suddenly, we think of ourselves as doers. As people with power, potential, and agency. We become the kind of people who act when others are watching or waiting.

6. We learn about ourselves when we take action.

It reveals our character and our tendencies. Our doubts and fears. It gives us a glimpse of our resourcefulness and persistence—and the things we need to work on to get better.

“Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet, scientist, and statesman

7. It expands our sense of possibility.

Entrepreneur Steve Jobs spoke about this in an interview—about how everything changed for him when he learned to stop accepting life as it is and start poking and pushing it instead (and, in his case, start building things). When he realized that things around him were made by people who weren’t smarter than he was, he felt excited about improving his life and putting a “dent in the universe.”

8. Being action-oriented builds momentum.

Things start to click, almost moving of their own accord once we’ve done the heaviest lift of beginning. Things pick up speed and start bouncing around. The game is afoot.

“The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” -Tony Robbins, author

9. It positions us as a doer and leader—and people respond to that.

The best leaders and entrepreneurs are doers, with a strong bias toward action. People respect us for trying, for starting, for daring. They respect us for getting things done—and for being the kind of person to jump into the fray. It inspires them to start doing so as well.

“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.” -Napolean Hill, author

10. Being action-oriented yields better results over time and increases our probability of success.

We get better results in part because we get more attempts. (There’s simple math at work here.) Also, we learn what works and what doesn’t, and we develop experience, confidence, and resilience.

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey player

11. It invites serendipity.

When we take action, we start making unintended or unexpected but fortunate discoveries.

When we’re taking purposeful action and following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell advises, we start meeting people who can help us, and doors open for us, almost like magic.

12. It’s more fun to be in the game than on the sidelines.

Do we want to watch others play, or be the ones in the maelstrom facing challenges and having a chance to prevail?

13. It gives us more chances at breakthroughs.

Windows of opportunity are only open for so long. Without taking action consistently, even when we don’t feel fully ready, we’re prone to missing big chances, including opportunities for breakthroughs.

14. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect time or “the right time,” we might as well get started.

What’s the point in waiting? Where does that get us? How many times will we sit and watch opportunities pass us by?

“Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” -Napolean Hill

What It Takes to Be Action-Oriented

Clearly, there are many powerful benefits to being action-oriented. It changes our trajectory and prospects.

But it’s not easy. It requires at least five big things from us:

1. Being action-oriented requires motivation.

We must summon our drive to achieve, and our desire for a better future. We must get off the couch and get to work.

2. It requires courage.

It requires a willingness to act in spite of our fears. A willingness to go for it, despite the risks.

3. Being action-oriented requires a willingness to pounce when opportunities arise.

We must be willing to strike, even when the picture isn’t fully clear. This requires tapping into our warrior spirit.

“All of us, whether or not we are warriors, have a cubic centimeter of chance that pops out in front of our eyes from time to time. The difference between an average man and a warrior is that the warrior is aware of this, and one of his tasks is to be alert, deliberately waiting, so that when his cubic centimeter pops out he has the necessary speed, the prowess, to pick it up.” -Carlos Castaneda in Journey to Ixtlan

4. It helps to have a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is a belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. By contrast, if we have a fixed mindset, we’ll be preoccupied with the prospect of looking bad or being wrong, without realizing that it doesn’t matter as much as we may think because we can always learn and develop.

5. It helps to be clear about what we want and where we’re heading.

Action is must better when it’s pulled from a powerful vision of success, a motivating dream of a desired future, as opposed to being pushed from a troubled situation we seek to flee.


Warrior and Sage

Of course, being action-oriented isn’t the only thing we need to succeed. We need discernment and insight. Experience and wisdom.

We’re better off when we iterate between action and reflection, when we flex between being warrior and sage. We’re better off when we take action, then learn and adjust. But too often, people get stuck in thought and doubt when what they really should be doing is getting started.


Reflection Questions


What are you waiting for?



Postscript: Quotations on Taking Action

  • “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people doing it.” -Chinese proverb
  • “Successful people start before they’re ready.” –James Clear, author
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague
  • “I think the number one advice I can give is: you just have to start it. Just get your feet in the water and do it. I learned a lot from just trying it out.” -Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japanese entrepreneur
  • “I said to myself, You know what? This is the wrong time to do it, but there is never a perfect time. We have the right idea, and I’ve got to try.” –Seth Goldman, social entrepreneur, when thinking about launching Honest Tea



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, action, massive action, action orientation, leadership, entrepreneurship