The Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Purpose

Article Summary: 

Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.

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Many of us have a general sense of what we want in life but haven’t taken that furhter into a clear sense of purpose—of our deeper why.

Of all the personal and leadership development practices, purpose tends to be the most difficult for many, in part because of all the myths and misconceptions about purpose. Some people feel what’s been called “purpose anxiety”: distress from not knowing our purpose in life or from not living it.

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. It’s related to but not the same as our values, vision, and passions.

Purpose is important because it gives us a sense of meaning and coherence in our lives, as well as a connection to something larger than ourselves. And it’s hard to live our purpose if we don’t know what it is.

 

The Problems that Come from Lacking Clarity about Purpose

What are the impacts of not knowing our purpose—or from lacking clarity about it? There are many, and some are severe.

When we’re not clear about our purpose, we can suffer from:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • frustration
  • loss of hope
  • lack of a sense of coherence in our lives
  • lack of fulfillment
  • lack of joy
  • less engagement with family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and community
  • lower resilience
  • burnout
  • depression
“If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

When we lack clarity about purpose:

  • It can negatively impact our physical health. Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia. (See the section below on purpose and health.)
  • We feel that our lives lack a sense of meaning and significance.
  • Our goals and actions can be haphazard, lacking focus and direction.
  • We can lose our motivation to work hard or persist through adversity because there’s no animating aim driving our actions.
  • We can lack a sense of progress because we don’t know what our ultimate aims are.
  • It can keep us from growing because we lack the clarity and motivation that comes from a deep and meaningful why.
  • We can feel that success is unachievable because our efforts seem aimless and scattershot, without lasting redeeming value.
  • We start living from the outside in, conforming to the desires or expectations of others instead of living by our own guiding lights.
  • We tend to turn inward and “cocoon” instead of reaching out to others, causing disconnection and loneliness, two of the leading causes of unhappiness.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.

Of course, the flip side is that knowing our purpose and living it comes with many benefits.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

For example, McKinsey research during the pandemic found that people who say they’re “living their purpose at work” reported levels of wellbeing five times higher and engagement levels four times higher than people who say they’re not doing so.

According to a recent McKinsey report, purpose can be an important contributor to worker experience, which is linked with employee engagement, organizational commitment, and feelings of wellbeing. Also, those who experience congruence between their purpose and their job are more productive and more likely to outperform their peers.

One CEO cited in that report noted that articulating his purpose helped make him a more observant and empathetic leader:

“I believe I’m more honest with myself and faster to recognize if I might be doing something that’s motivated by my own vanity, fear, or pleasure. I know I’m more open to feedback and criticism. I spend less time talking about weekend or vacation plans and more time exploring what motivates, frustrates, or scares people—the things that really matter. I make faster connections with people now.”

 

Conclusion

When we’re clear about our purpose and building it into our daily lives, we feel authentic, energized, awake, and alive. The key is not just knowing our purpose but living it—intentionally building it into the fabric of our days.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Tools for You

 

 Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “Many of us are starved for coherence in our lives…. The most effective people know how to carry out daily activities while keeping their eye on a longer-range vision and purpose they want to center their lives around. Purpose has a way of ordering time and energies around itself….” -Richard Leider
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi

 

Appendix: Purpose and Health

Research in different domains has found powerful connections between purpose and health. For example:

Longevity: A study of more than 79,000 Japanese people found that those with a strong connection to their sense of purpose tended to live longer. According to researchers in a 2014 study, “having a purpose in life appeared to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.”

Heart disease: A 2008 study of Japanese men found that a lower level of purpose was associated with cardiovascular disease, and another study found that “purpose is a possible protective factor against near-future myocardial infarction among those with coronary heart disease.”

Stroke: Researchers found that people who say they have a sense of purpose are 22 percent less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke compared to those who say they don’t—and 52 percent less likely to have experienced a stroke.

Alzheimer’s disease: Neuropsychologist Dr. Patricia Boyle found that people with a low sense of life purpose were 2.4 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease.

 

References

  • Boyle, P.A., Buchman, A.S., Wilson, R.S., Yu, L., Schneider, J.A., Bennett, D.A. (2012). Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Archives of General Psychiatry; 69(5): 499-505.
  • Boyle, P., Buchman, A., Barnes, L., Bennett, D. (2010). Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Archives of General Psychiatry; 67(3): 304–310.
  • Naina Dhingra, Jonathan Emmett, Andrew Samo, and Bill Schaninger. (2020). Igniting individual purpose in times of crisis. McKinsey Quarterly.
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science. 25(7): 1482-1486.
  • Koizumi, M., Ito, H., Kaneko, Y., Motohashi, Y. (2008). Effect of having a sense of purpose in life on the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. Journal of Epidemiology; 18(5): 191-6.
  • Rainey, L. (2014). The search for purpose in life: An exploration of purpose, the search process, and purpose anxiety. University of Pennsylvania Master’s Thesis.
  • Schaefer SM, Morozink Boylan J, van Reekum CM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, et al. (2013) Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli. PLOS ONE 8(11).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Lacking Clarity in Your Life

Article Summary: 

Many people aren’t clear about what they want and where they’re going. Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into.

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Do you know who you are?

What you want?

Where you’re going and why?

We may have a vague sense of these things but no real clarity. We lack a clear vision that pulls us forward toward its sweet and compelling destination.

Meanwhile, we keep our heads down and stay busy as a form of avoidance. Sometimes this situation continues for a very long time, placing us in an extended state of drifting.

Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into. Why? Because lacking clarity affects everything, including our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and dreams. And because having clarity is a superpower. Life is so much better and richer when we have a clear vision of a better future, anticipation about what it will feel like when we realize it, and conviction about what’s important and meaningful.

 

What We Should Get Clear About

Okay, so clarity is important, but clarity about what? Here are the ten most important things we should get clear about:

  1. purpose: why we’re here; our reason for being
  2. values: the things that are most important to us; what we believe and stand for
  3. vision: what success looks like—a mental picture of what we want to be, do, and contribute in life and with whom
  4. strengths: what we’re good at, including our knowledge, skills, and talents
  5. passions: what we get lost in, consuming us with palpable emotion
  6. goals: what we want to accomplish
  7. priorities: the relative importance of our top aims
  8. strategies: how we’ll achieve our vision and goals and what we’ll focus on given our available time and resources
  9. capabilities: what knowledge and skills we need to develop to realize our vision
  10. service: who we seek to impact and how

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

 

Signs We’re Lacking Clarity

There’s a big price to pay when we don’t have enough clarity about these things. When we lack clarity, we tend to:

  • suffer from anxiety, stress, self-doubt, indecision, and frustration
  • struggle with knowing where to begin
  • question ourselves and our actions
  • procrastinate
  • begin projects without finishing them
  • struggle with minor decision-making
  • feel like we need advice from others before making most decisions
  • feel overwhelmed and burned out
  • agree to too many things
  • feel confused and uncertain about what to do next
  • be more prone to distraction and disorganization
  • keep comparing ourselves with others
  • put in inconsistent effort
  • remain too busy and frazzled to think about and work toward a better future
  • see a decline in motivation and performance
“Lack of clarity is the primary reason for failure in business and personal life.” -Brian Tracy

 

Benefits of Clarity

On the flip side, there are many powerful benefits that flow from having clarity in our lives. For example, having greater clarity:

  • eliminates distractions and helps us focus
  • helps us establish a definitive direction
  • makes it easier to identify actions to take and prioritize them
  • helps us overcome fear and doubt
  • makes it easier for others to help and support us because they have better insights into what we want
  • allows us to put our energy into what we want
  • helps us get things done
  • makes it easier to say no to things that don’t matter to us
  • helps us manage challenges more effectively
  • reduces feelings of overwhelm and helps us manage stress more effectively
  • helps us make better decisions and reduces decision fatigue
  • allows us to set and enforce boundaries
  • helps us save money since we avoid spending it on things that don’t matter
  • helps us feel contentment and happiness
  • provides the serenity that comes from knowing what matters most
  • leads to healthier relationships
  • boosts our confidence
  • facilitates better performance
“…compared with their peers, high performers have more clarity on who they are, what they want, how to get it, and what they find meaningful and fulfilling.” -Brendon Burchard

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

 

How to Get More Clarity

Given all the compelling benefits of achieving greater clarity, the question then becomes how to go about it. What can we do to bring more clarity to our lives? Here are 16 actions we can take:

  1. Eliminate distractions, clear out clutter, and create more white space in our lives. This makes room for self-awareness, pattern-mapping, and new insights.
  2. Do one thing at a time.
  3. Take more action more often. Many people assume they need clarity before acting, but sometimes clarity comes from taking action. Act, assess, learn, and adjust. Then repeat.
  4. Reflect after acting. Step back periodically to see how things are going. What’s emerging and what’s getting in the way?
  5. Talk to others. Share what we’re unclear about and ask for their input. They may be able to see things we can’t from their vantage point. (Consider doing this in small groups.)
  6. Develop a clear vision of what life will be like when we’re living the life we want. Start by defining what success looks like in different areas, including family, relationships, health, work, education, community, and more.
  7. Spend more time thinking about our desired future. Also, engage in planning and actions that move us toward that future. Best to schedule time for it on our calendar.
  8. Journal about what’s going on and what isn’t clear yet. Write freely and let thoughts appear uninhibited.
  9. Start acting like the person we want to become. Bring our desired future into our present.
  10. Turn our purpose, values, and vision into a daily mantra or affirmation.* This will help embed them into our consciousness and build them into the fabric of our days.
  11. Ask what we would do if we had less time. By doing so, we force tough choices about what to focus on.
  12. Reduce exposure to negative influences. They extract a tax on our energy and attention. And they pull us away from our own priorities.
  13. Engage in regular centering activities. Take breaks and go for walks. Try deep breathing or meditation.
  14. Follow a regular, daily routine. Be sure that it includes time for quiet reflection.
  15. Make time for systematic self-care. Don’t neglect good habits of nutrition, hydration, movement, and sleep.
  16. Work with a coach or mentor. Focus on getting more clarity on purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, goals, priorities, strategies, capabilities, and service opportunities.

 

Related Traps

Lack of clarity is common, and it can be pernicious, affecting so much of how we think and what we do. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Achieving clarity about who we are, what we want, and where we’re going can be very challenging. But lacking clarity leads to drifting and settling. And having clarity is a superpower that adds energy and richness to all we do.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you clear about who you are, what you want, and where you’re going?
  2. What more will you do, starting today, to achieve greater clarity in your life and work?

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Clarity

  • “Clarity precedes success.” -Robin Sharma
  • “Clarity is essential. Knowing exactly what you want builds your self-confidence immeasurably.” -Brian Tracy
  • “Clarity is the child of careful thought and mindful experimentation.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” -Paolo Coelho
  • “As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you—the first time around.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “It is essential to know yourself before you decide what work you want to do.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “People often complain about lack of time when lack of direction is the real problem.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” -Cal Newport
  • “It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” -Steve Maraboli
  • “Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it.” -Don Herold
  • “…as your inner world becomes more orderly and clear, your actions in the outer world should follow suit.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” -Carl Jung
  • “Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening…. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen.” -Diane von Furstenberg
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” -Niccolo Machiavelli
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “We want luminosity—the sense of possibility and promise we feel when we absolutely know that all is well and that we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing, right here, right now. We reach luminosity through a different quality of action—clarity, focus, ease, and grace in action.” -Maria Nemeth
  • “Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more—more unseen forms become manifest to him.” -Rumi

* Brendon Burchard recommends choosing three aspirational words that describe our desired future self (e.g., “kind, loving, joyful”) and making them a daily smartphone alarm to keep them top-of-mind.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Discover Your Purpose

Article Summary: 

Many people struggle with finding their purpose. It can be intimidating and confusing. Where to begin? This article clarifies what purpose is and how to discover it.

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Why are you here? (On the planet, that is.) What’s your purpose?

Do you know? Have you thought much about it? Are you living your purpose?

Note that we’re asking here about your purpose in life, not the purpose or meaning of life generally. Asking about your purpose is a practical matter, not a philosophical one.

Many people struggle with purpose. According to a New York Times article, only about a quarter of Americans have a clear sense of purpose. In a Harvard Business Review article, Nick Craig and Scott Snook noted, “we’ve found that fewer than 20 percent of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.” According to an Edward Jones report, 31 percent of new retirees say they’ve struggled to find a sense of purpose in retirement.

A lack of purpose is behind much of the pain and suffering in the world today, including many of our mental health challenges. We can have many good things in our life, including a nice family, a good career, and friends and experiences to enjoy, but we can still feel like something is missing. Often, it’s purpose that’s missing. Lack of purpose is also one of the drivers of the “Great Resignation” and a big driver of disengagement at work.

“The drive to be more purposeful explains much of the momentum behind the massive exodus from mainstream corporate life.” -Aaron Hurst

 

What Is Purpose?

Part of the problem is confusion about what purpose is (and isn’t). Purpose often gets conflated with things like passion, meaning, and calling. (See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Purpose.”)

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.” Note that purpose takes us beyond ourselves, to something greater.

Author Richard Leider distinguishes between two kinds of purpose:

  1. “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something we can dedicate our life to).
  2. “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how we can contribute to others). Note that “little p” actions are just as worthy, and they can compound over time into something powerful.

 

Purpose vs. Passion

Purpose and passion are connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling. Our passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions, the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Those are important, but they don’t usually take us all the way to knowing our reason for being.

 

Purpose vs. Meaning

While purpose and meaning are related, they’re not the same. Meaning is a broader concept. According to Dr. Michael Steger of Colorado State University, “Meaning in life refers to the feeling that people have that their lives and experience make sense and matter.” He notes that “Purpose is one facet of a meaningful life.” According to Steger and his fellow researcher, Frank Martela from Aalto University, there are three general facets associated with meaning in life: purpose, coherence, and significance. See the image below.

Image source: Derek Hagen, Money Health Solutions, LLC, “Money and Meaning,” https://www.moneyhealthsolutions.com/post/money-and-meaning Used with permission.
“…when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

 

Purpose vs. Calling

There’s also confusion about the difference between purpose and calling. While purpose is why we’re here, a calling has been defined as “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career” (Oxford Dictionary), and also as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence” (Merriam-Webster). So, if we have a clear purpose, it can flow naturally into a calling as a way to express it in the world.

“Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit. Since a calling implies that someone calls, my belief is that the caller is God.” -Dave Wondra

 

The Benefits of Purpose

There are many benefits to knowing and living our purpose. It can be incredible powerful, flowing through everything we do and how we show up in the world. When we know and live our purpose, it gives us the following:

  • direction
  • coherence
  • energy
  • agency
  • hope
  • health (mental and physical)*
  • connection with others
  • community
  • enjoyment of life
  • happiness
  • fulfillment
  • gratitude

When we have a clear sense of purpose, we can reduce our anxiety and stress (which are fueled by uncertainty and aimlessness) and also focus our efforts in the right areas, boosting our performance, earnings, and impact. Our purpose can also help us clarify which goals to pursue and make us more likely to accomplish those goals.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

We can also feel a strong relational and spiritual connection, a sense that we’re linked with others, part of the larger scheme of things, and in tune with nature, life, and God.

Finally, those who have lived purposefully tend to experience fewer regrets in life, helping them face and accept death with equanimity.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Discover Our Purpose

So how to discover our purpose? Here are things we can do to help us discover our purpose:

  1. reflect on what kinds of people or groups we feel called to serve and what kinds of issues we feel called to address
  2. notice what energizes us (and what drains us) and what brings us joy
  3. observe what we’re doing when we’re making a difference in someone’s life and loving the process of doing it
  4. reflect on when we’ve felt the most fulfilled, noting what we were doing (and with whom and where and how), then finding patterns across those experiences
  5. ask what we have a fierce commitment to and what we’re willing to sacrifice for because it’s so viscerally important to us (e.g., family, friends, work, colleagues, community, cause), then reflect on how it might inform our reason for being
  6. notice what kinds of pain and suffering (yours or others’) affects us most (what Umair Haque calls our “zone of heartbreak”) and consider ways to turn that hurt into healing or growth
  7. develop our self-awareness, our ability to see ourselves clearly and understand our feelings, motives, desires, and character
  8. mine our story (our personal history), write it down, tell it to others, and find the themes that animate our lives, including what we loved doing when we were young and the meaning we’ve derived from the pivotal moments and adversity we’ve faced
“Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life. What obstacles have you encountered? What strengths helped you to overcome them? How did other people help you? How did your strengths help make life better for others?” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  1. read books and articles that feel meaningful to you (researchers have found links between reading things like fiction, poetry, and the Bible and having a stronger sense of purpose)
  2. take a holistic view of our life—thinking about our family, relationships, work, learning, community, beliefs, impact, and more—and noting what’s most important
  3. discover our strengths—the things we’re good at
  4. get clarity on our passions—what we love to do and what consumes us with palpable emotion
  5. pay attention to what we’re doing when we love our work
  6. clarify our personal values and consider instances in which we’ve honored or upheld them and what that suggests about our purpose
  7. try different things (experiences, projects, jobs, careers) and gauge whether they feel meaningful or not
  8. engage more often in “discover mode” (learning about who we are and what we can do in the world) and less in “climbing mode” (focusing so much on advancing up the ladder of success)
  9. take time each evening to reflect on the day that just passed and note the activities or situations that felt most purposeful
  10. think about our “ideal self” (the person we want to be, versus the person we are now) and what that person would be doing—and with and for whom
  11. connect the dots between the needs we see in the world and our strengths, passions, and values
  12. ask those who know us best to share the themes that make us who we are
  13. work with a mentor, coach, or small group to help us uncover our purpose
  14. ask ourselves what our older self or a wise mentor would advise us to focus more on
  15. preserve enough white space and margin in our lives so that clarity can emerge
  16. sit and get quiet with solitude and sanctuary so we’re better able to hear our inner voice
  17. engage in an iterative process of action and reflection, of trying things and then reflecting on their meaning and significance
  18. ask ourselves repeatedly what our purpose is (why we get up in the morning) and listen to what comes up
  19. engage in spiritual seeking, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, yoga, or pilgrimage, in the process seeking clarity about why we’re here
  20. project forward to the end of our lives and consider what we want our legacy to be, what we’d want said about us in a eulogy, or what we’d want to do differently if we had another chance at life (the deathbed test)
  21. consider what life is asking of us now and see if meaningful ideas emerge
  22. connect with experiences of awe, since they can help us feel connected to things larger than ourselves
  23. maintain a sense of gratitude (researchers have found connections between gratitude and our propensity to contribute to others, a key aspect of purpose)
  24. keep serving others (researchers have found connections between things like volunteering or donating to charities and having a greater sense of purpose)

In the process of uncovering our purpose, it’s important to slough off the layers of expectations put upon us by others, including parents, peers, teachers, coaches, colleagues, or society. We need to stop caring so much about what other people think and lean into being ourselves more openly and fully.

“Purpose reveals itself when we stop being afraid and start being ourselves.” -Richard Leider, “An Incomplete Manifesto for Purpose”

 

The Universal Purpose

It’s worth noting that discovering purpose is one of the most challenging personal development practices for many people. It can take time to unfold, like a fine wine.

So, what to do in the meantime? Should we sit on the sidelines and await clarity via revelation? Or “monk out” in a remote mountain cave?

Absolutely not. We must stay engaged with the world. Purpose isn’t about navel-gazing. It’s about knowing our reason for being and bringing it to the world via helping others.

Richard Leider suggests that, beyond our individual purpose, there’s also a universal purpose that animates us all:

“The universal purpose is to grow and give.” -Richard Leider

So, if we’re not yet clear on our personal purpose, we can keep growing and giving. When we do that, good things are bound to happen.

“If there’s just one habit you can create to help you find your purpose, it would be helping others.” -Amy Morin

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

 

Examples of Personal Purpose Statements

Sometimes it’s helpful to see examples of purpose statements for inspiration and context. My own purpose is “to help people lead good lives.” For me, that means helping people lead lives of integrity, service, and purpose—and re-connecting them with what truly matters. I’m most keen on helping people develop their own conception of the good life and then bring it to life.

Here are some other purpose statements:

  • “To love God and serve others.” –Bob Vanourek (my father and co-author)
  • “To inspire and empower people to live their highest vision in the context of love and joy.” -Jack Canfield
  • “To wake you up and have you find that you are home.” -Nick Craig
  • “To help others unlock the power of purpose.” -Richard Leider “Big P” purpose
  • “To make a difference in one person’s life every single day.” -Richard Leider “little p” purpose
  • “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” -Oprah Winfrey

 

Conclusion

In the end, purpose is something we should be doing and not just thinking about. We should be infusing more and more of our home and work life with purpose.

The key is not knowing our purpose but living it. That also means focusing on things that are purposeful and avoiding things that aren’t as purposeful. It takes insight, persistence, and flexibility to figure out how to translate our purpose into effective action in the world.

Discovering our purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to quit our job, change our career, or otherwise alter our lives dramatically. Often, we can creatively find ways to infuse our life and work with more purpose right where we are. (See, for example, Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski’s brilliant work on “job crafting.”) Other times, big changes may be warranted.

Discovering our purpose and living it is the work of a lifetime, and it’s incredibly rich and rewarding—especially when we connect it with our core values, vision of the good life, strengths, and passions. Wishing you well with it, and please let me know if I can help.

Gregg Vanourek and his dog

 

 

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

“You may be moved in a direction
You do not understand,
Away from the safe, the familiar,
Towards a vision that is blurry,
Yet still pounds against
The doors of your dreams,
Screams for recognition,
Petitions for understanding,
Whispers for acceptance.
Out towards distant possibilities,
You are propelled by a fire,
You will never fully comprehend,
But cannot extinguish.”
-Susan Rogers Norton, “Destiny”

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you know your purpose?
  2. Are you living it?
  3. What more will you do to clarify your purpose and build your life around it?

 

Related Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

Sources on Purpose

  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA, Mroczek DK, Burrow AL. The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality.
  • Khullar D. Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One. The New York Times. The Upshot. Jan. 1, 2018.
  • Morin, A, 7 Tips for Finding Your Purpose in Life. VeryWell Mind. July 12, 2020.
  • Musich S, Wang SS, Kraemer S, Hawkins K, Wicker E. Purpose in Life and Positive Health Outcomes Among Older Adults. Popul Health Manag.
  • Schippers MC, Ziegler N. Life Crafting as a Way to Find Purpose and Meaning in Life. Front Psychol.,
  • Smith, Jeremy Adam. “How to Find Your Purpose in Life,” Greater Good Science Center, January 10, 2018.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse…. What does life want from us? In the end, the task is not finding our purpose but uncovering it—not propelling ourselves toward a more successful life, but rather getting out of the way of the good life that wants to live through us.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives
  • “Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core. It is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is already within us waiting to be discovered.” -Richard Leider
  • “I believe that we are put on this earth to live our soul’s purpose. To me, that means using our unique gifts and talents to make a positive impact in the world and help create the world we want to see…. We are all born with an inner compass that tells us whether or not we’re on the right path to finding our true purpose. That compass is our JOY.” -Jack Canfield
  • “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life…. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” -Victor Frankl
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “Purpose is the recognition of the presence of the sacred within us and the choice of work that is consistent with that presence. Purpose defines our contribution to life. It may find expression through family, community, relationship, work, and spiritual activities.” -Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • “You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments—whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.” -John W. Gardner
  • “Purpose is a universal need, not a luxury for those with financial wealth…. Money often conflicts with finding purpose, as it creates a false substitute for defining success…. You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.” -Aaron Hurst
  • “The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” -Richard Leider
  • “The difference between success and failure—between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration—is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life…. Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “If you can find a way to use your signature strengths at work often, and you also see your work as contributing to the greater good, you have a calling.” -Martin Seligman
  • “People don’t choose their calling, it chooses them.” -Richard Leider
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi

* Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia and premature death.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Common Myths about Purpose

Article Summary: 

Many people struggle with knowing their purpose. It can be confusing, unclear, and intimidating. Here we bust the most common myths about purpose.

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Of all the top personal development practices, discovering our personal purpose can be among the most challenging for many of us.

It begins with confusion about what purpose is. Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.”

Discovering purpose is also hard because there are many myths and misconceptions about what purpose is.

 

Myths about Purpose

Here are the most common and damaging myths about purpose:

 

Purpose is the same as passion.

People often use the words “purpose” and “passion” interchangeably, as if they’re the same thing. They’re connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling or emotion. (This gets tricky because we obviously feel passionate about our purpose.) In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I noted that passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions. What are the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them? Those are great, but they don’t get us all the way down to our reason for being.

 

My purpose must be completely original.

We need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves when it comes to our purpose. There’s no competition for originality. The key is authenticity: have we landed on a sense of purpose that is real and true to us, that speaks to our essence?

 

Purpose is a luxury reserved for the select few, for the affluent and privileged.

Because it can be so hard and take so long, it’s tempting to conclude that purpose must not be for us. We can dismiss it as something reserved for the elite, or the fortunate, and not for us. But purpose is universally available. A hunger for purpose and meaning is built into human nature, and it’s accessible to us all, especially via connection with and service to others.

“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.” -Viktor Frankl

 

Purpose is abstract, theoretical, and impractical.

It can be easy to dismiss purpose as something that’s impractical. The notion of knowing our purpose can feel quite distant and philosophical. But in truth, purpose is utterly practical. It means infusing our actions with a deeper meaning informed by a highly motivating gift of clarity about fundamental aims. W. Clement Stone observed that “Definiteness of purpose is the starting point of all achievement.” In other words, the path to achievement and success starts with purpose.

“The difference between success and failure—between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration—is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions

 

My purpose should come to me in a revelation.

The notion that our purpose will come to us fully formed and crystal clear is unrealistic. Our sense of purpose can be messy and take time to unfold. We get a sense of purpose as we live our lives and make mistakes, observing over time periods when we feel “on-purpose” or “off-purpose.”

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” -Marcel Proust

 

Purpose is all about me and what I need and want for my life.

To some, the notion of discovering our purpose sounds like navel-gazing. To know our purpose, we must “monk out” and become a hermit in a cave thinking deep thoughts. And then when we figure it out, we’ll be happy and successful. But all this is backwards. We look inside to uncover our purpose so that we can look outside and actualize it in the world, with contributions to others based on real connections and a heart to serve. Purpose always comes back to others and to something larger than ourselves.

“You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments—whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.” -John W. Gardner

 

Purpose is “out there” for us to go find.

Yes and no. We discover a sense of purpose within by bumping up against the world and getting a sense of what feels empty to us versus what fills us up with energy and meaning. And as we begin to discover it, and to feel it deep in our bones, the whole point is to take it out into the world, to actualize it. In truth, purpose is discovered with and realized through both reflection and action in the world.

When we go looking to find our purpose, it can elude us. Purpose is less something that we find and more something that we uncover by peeling off layers of expectation and obligation until we get to the root of who we are and what (or who) calls to us. Also, the point isn’t finding our purpose. It’s living it. The point is living a life that lights us up and beings good things to those around us.

“Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core. It is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is already within us waiting to be discovered.”Richard Leider

 

I have just one purpose—or a purpose can only be manifested in one way.

Oh, the pressure. What’s my one purpose that will answer everything? The poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” And so it can be with purpose. While some may find purpose in ONE THING, others may find it in many different things, from family and relationships to work and hobbies. There are likely to be patterns and themes connecting them, but purpose doesn’t have to be one dimensional.

 

Purpose has to be big and bold (e.g., saving the world).

This isn’t a competition. Purpose is measured less in size and boldness and more in depth, truth, and commitment. Author Richard Leider distinguishes between a “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something you can dedicate your life to) and a “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how you can contribute to others). For example, his own BIG P purpose is to help others unlock the power of purpose, and his little p purpose is to make a difference in one person’s life every single day. Note that little p purposeful actions are just as worthy and valuable, but on a smaller scale, and they can compound over time into something remarkable.

 

My purpose will never change.

Some people may have the experience of an unchanging purpose that remains consistent over time. But many of us go through chapters and seasons in life, and new layers of purpose get revealed in that flow of time. We change in our circumstances and outlook, so our experience with purpose can evolve, for example, becoming clearer, deeper, and richer. It may be there was a deeper underlying purpose there all along, but we change in our ability to see and experience it.

 

My purpose will manifest in the one “perfect job” that I must find.

For most of us mere mortals, there is no one perfect job. We can have a great job, but change is inevitable. The key is continually infusing our work with meaning and contribution and making adjustments along the way. We can infuse any job with purpose, excellence, and contribution.

 

Once I find my purpose, I’ll be done and can move on.

Even if we’ve done the hard work of discovering our purpose (which few people take the time to do), there’s still further richness ahead of us. Most importantly, we must diligently infuse our life and work with that purpose. And we’re wise to continue revisiting that purpose through different chapters and seasons of life, such as school, early career, marriage, children, midlife, etc.

 

My purpose can be revealed to me by a wise elder, mentor, or friend.

There’s no doubt that a wise elder, mentor, or friend can help us discover our purpose. For example, they can ask probing questions that help us shatter our illusions. Or they can help us acknowledge when we’ve lost our way or are in a trap. They can help us see things about ourselves that we’re missing. But in the end, our purpose is our own, and it’s up to us to realize and experience it in its authentic depth as only we can.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Only some types of work are capable of being purposeful.

Some people self-select out of purpose on the assumption that only some types of work are purposeful. Purpose, they reason, is only the domain of activists, changemakers, and healers and not the domain, for example, of bankers, plumbers, and technicians. Extensive research from Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues has demonstrated otherwise. They’ve found three main ways people relate to their work:

  1. Job orientation, with work as a means to an end
  2. Career orientation, with a focus on advancement, success, and prestige
  3. Calling orientation, with work as integral to our life and identity

According to their research, any job can become a career or calling, any calling can become a job or career, and any career can become a job or calling. Much depends on how we craft our tasks, relationships, and thinking about our work—what Professor Wrzesniewski calls “job crafting.”

“You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.” –Aaron Hurst, The Purpose Economy

 

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, there are many myths about purpose. Discovering purpose is hard enough on its own without having to break through these myths and misconceptions.

While purpose is powerful, of course it’s not enough in and of itself to bring us a happy, successful, and fulfilling life. We also need other critical foundational elements, such as values, vision, strengths, passions, relationships, and more.

But purpose is one of the essential elements of crafting a good life with good work. We’re wise to uncover our purpose and build our lives around it.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.” -John W. Gardner

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Have any of these myths inhibited you from exploring or committing to your purpose?
  2. Which myths are the most common obstacles to purpose?
  3. What will you do to further explore or actualize your purpose?

 

Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Do You Have Limiting Beliefs About Yourself?

Article Summary: Many of us have limiting beliefs that detract from our success and happiness. Here we address where they come from and how to change them.

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Do you have limiting beliefs about yourself that are holding you back? Chances are that you do, even if you’re highly capable and successful. Most people do, even if they’re not aware of it, and it’s a bigger problem than most people think.

Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way. They prevent us from achieving our aims and from becoming what we want. In essence, they’re stories we tell ourselves, and they ain’t pretty because they’re a form of negative self-talk and self-sabotage.

Beliefs are the hidden scripts that run our lives.” -Marie Forleo

 

Examples of Limiting Beliefs

Our limiting beliefs generally tell us what we’re bad at or what we can’t do (or can’t do well). Beneath them are assumptions that there’s something wrong with us or that things are too difficult for us.

When we’re under their spell, we may believe that we are:

  • not worthy of love (perhaps the most debilitating limited belief of all)
  • damaged goods (because, for example, we’re out of a job or in a rut, or because our parents may be gone or divorced)
  • a failure
  • too busy or too old to do the thing we want (such as try a new career path, start dating again, learn a new skill, go back to school, start a venture, or pursue our dreams)
  • not smart, attractive, strong, or talented enough
  • not as good as our siblings, classmates, or colleagues (note the comparison trap)
  • not cut out to be a leader or entrepreneur
  • not creative, artistic, confident, our outgoing enough
  • bad at certain things (e.g., public speaking, writing, math, money, etc.)
  • too tall or too short
  • never going to be successful (or as successful as we hope)
  • not ready for what we need or want to do
  • stuck because things are beyond our control
  • lacking what it takes (e.g., knowledge, skills, experience, degree, credential)
  • too young to have influence
  • so far behind others that we’ll never catch up (as if life were a race)
  • fixed in our intelligence, abilities, and talents (what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”)

Most of us have more than one limiting belief at work and, in some cases, several. These beliefs affect our choices and actions.

We may have a limiting belief that we can’t leave a bad job or bad marriage because we’ve put too much time into it already and we won’t be able to get a better situation in the future. Or a limiting belief that we can’t quit law school or medical school because our parents won’t approve. Or that we can’t leave a prestigious or well-paying career to pursue something more meaningful, because we’ll lose respect. (See my article, “The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think.”)

Often, there are logical leaps we take with these limiting beliefs. If we embarrassed ourselves once in a high school assembly, we adopt the premature belief that we’re terrible at public speaking. If we got a bad grade in a tenth-grade writing class, we conclude that we’re a bad writer.

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” -Richard Bach

These leaps may be understandable emotionally, but they fall short logically. There are all sorts of possibilities at work in such situations. First, nobody starts out being good at anything. Maybe we were having a bad day when the assembly took place. Or the writing teacher was off base. Plus, we can all learn, develop, and grow into new skills and abilities if we apply ourselves diligently and systematically.

 

Where Limiting Beliefs Come From

Where do our limiting beliefs come from? Many sources, it turns out, including our:

  • parents and our childhood (including well-meaning but ultimately harmful praise only for things like our intelligence, looks, talent, or performance and not our effort, focus, resilience, and improvement)
  • peers and their comments and judgments about us (which we often blow out of proportion)
  • past experiences (and the false lessons we can extract from them)
  • teachers
  • coaches
  • mentors
  • society and its common assumptions about what constitutes success
  • the media, movies, celebrities, influencers, and social media (with their incomplete and misleading portrayals of what life is like for people)

Together, these can mix into a toxic cocktail of harmful notions about ourselves.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

The Effects of Limiting Beliefs

How do our limiting beliefs affect us? They can have profound and lasting effects on our life, work, relationships, and leadership.

Here are ten of the most common effects of limiting beliefs:

  1. lead us to doubt ourselves
  2. lower our confidence
  3. keep us from doing important things (such as going for a dream job or asking someone out)
  4. inhibit our creativity
  5. cause us to reject good options or lose opportunities because we feel we’re unworthy or incapable
  6. keep us in a state of fear, stress, anxiety, or shame
  7. prevent us from approaching or reaching our potential
  8. keep us from achieving success 
  9. reduce our happiness and wellbeing
  10. prevent us from crafting the life we want

When we’re at the mercy of our limiting beliefs, we feel mostly weak, undeserving, unworthy, or incompetent, or just not good enough. And we fail to access our strengths, gifts, resilience, and better angels. Those effects can compound over time into a black hole of negativity that won’t let any of our light escape.

Every belief has a consequence. Long term, your beliefs determine your destiny.” -Marie Forleo

 

Why Limiting Beliefs Are So Hard to Overcome

Limiting beliefs can be tricky because they’re loaded with emotions, fear, and anxiety. They hijack our brains, moving our cognitive activity away from our more prefrontal cortex (where we do our most advanced thinking) and down into our more reactive limbic system.

Limiting beliefs are often subconscious and deeply engrained in our psyche. Although they originate in our minds, we actualize them through our behavior and habits, creating a vicious cycle.

It gets worse. In some cases, our unconscious minds may prefer limiting beliefs over the effort and uncertainty of trying to change them because at least the beliefs familiar, which can provide comfort of sorts. This part of our brain prefers to stick with the “devil we know” versus the stress, pressure, risk, and uncertainty of something new and different (even if the latter may turn out to be much better). If our amygdala values survival above all else, why not stick with what we know and avoid the fear state that comes with change? It craves certainty and familiarity, even when those states lead to complacency and mediocrity.

Our brains are wired to conserve energy and protect us from pain and danger. This can lead to some lazy default behaviors such as staying in our comfort zone and avoiding risk.

Sometimes we’ve had a limiting belief for so long that it feels like it’s beyond questioning or reproach. It feels like it’s an aspect of reality itself, as opposed to the dubious doling of self-sabotage that it is. It can feel like the truth, even though it’s a despicable lie.

 

How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs

When you change a belief, you change everything…. All beliefs are a choice and choices can be changed…. You always have more power than you think. Your mind is the most extraordinary tool you have to shape your reality.” -Marie Forleo

Now that we’ve seen what limiting beliefs are, where they come from, and why they’re so hard to overcome, the next question is: What can we do about them? How can we overcome our limiting beliefs?

Here are the most effective ways to begin overcoming our limiting beliefs:

Understand that all results begin with beliefs, because our beliefs turn into thoughts that drive our actions.

Imagine how much more we could accomplish and how much more happiness and fulfillment we could have if we transformed our limiting beliefs into beliefs that supported us.

Begin noticing the tone of our beliefs—and whether they’re positive or negative, whether they’re supportive or harmful. We need to get better at listening to the negative thoughts in our head, paying attention to our negative self-talk. Notice whether our beliefs are driven by excuses, blaming, or victimhood, versus taking full responsibility and being creative, resourceful, and solution oriented. Be vigilant and keep watching out for cases where we may have unconscious limiting beliefs.

Identify the source of our limiting beliefs, if possible (e.g., comments from a parent, teacher, or boss, or a bad experience).

Recognize that it’s our unconscious brain that’s holding on to the limiting beliefs, not our conscious mind. With that realization, we can change our perception and then our behavior.

Flip our beliefs from unconscious and limiting to conscious and affirming so they don’t continue on autopilot without our awareness, and so they lift us up instead of holding us down.

Reframe the limiting beliefs. A simple way to reframe a limiting belief is to add “yet” to it. For example:

  • The limiting belief, “I can’t do this,” becomes, “I can’t do this yet” (or “I haven’t yet figured out how to make this work”).
  • The limiting belief, “I’ve never led anyone before and I don’t know what I’m doing,” becomes, “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out and I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
  • The limiting belief, “I’m not good enough to manage this project well,” becomes, “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable, and I have what it takes to figure this out.”

Choose one limiting belief to begin working on.

Write down our limiting beliefs about that topic area, also noting how they’re holding us back.

Then, interrogate the limiting belief. What if it’s not true?

Assess the accuracy of our limiting belief(s) by gathering data, from ourselves and others.

Challenge our limiting beliefs constantly.

Prove our limiting beliefs wrong by taking courageous actions that refute the phantom belief and its underlying assumptions. Crush our loathsome limiting beliefs with our incredible capabilities and awesomeness.

Create new beliefs that are beneficial, in doing so changing our self-talk so that it’s positive or supportive.

Strengthen our new beliefs via positive actions that reinforce the new beliefs. (Also consider affirmations and/or visualization.)

Develop a mantra that counters each major limiting belief, replacing it with something better. Examples: “Born ready.” “You got this.” “Everything is figureoutable.” (credit to Marie Forleo for this one)

Seek help from a coach, mentor, or small group that’s supportive and committed to our best interests.

 

Summary

Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way, a nefarious form of self-sabotage. They’re hard to overcome because they’re overloaded with emotions, they hijack our brains, and they’re often subconscious.

We have the power to overcome our limiting beliefs, especially by bringing them into our conscious awareness, interrogating and reframing them, and adopting new beliefs that support instead of sabotaging us.

Sometimes, overcoming our limiting beliefs is a prerequisite for crafting a good life.

“You begin to fly when you let go of self-limiting beliefs and allow your mind and aspirations to rise to greater heights.” -Brian Tracy

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. What limiting beliefs do you have?
  2. How are they holding you back?
  3. What will you do about them, starting today, and which one will you address first?

 

Related Articles

The trap of limiting beliefs doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to several of the other common traps of living. Here are several articles addressing related traps:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Additional Resources

Apollos Hester talking about motivation

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Beliefs

  • “No matter what you’re facing, you have what it takes to figure anything out and become the person you’re meant to be.” -Marie Forleo
  • “The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief.” -David J. Schwartz
  • “Since a leader cannot rise above his thinking, he must assault his limiting beliefs daily through reading, listening, and associating.” -Orrin Woodward
  • “In order to change ourselves, we must first believe we can.” -Marie Forleo
  • “Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you. What you believe, remember, you can achieve.” -Mary Kay Ash
  • “I’m not interested in your limiting beliefs; I’m interested in what makes you limitless.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our powers.” -Mignon McLaughlin
  • “If you accept a limiting belief, then it will become a truth for you.” -Louise Hay
  • “Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.” -Tony Robbins
  • “Courage is your natural setting. You do not need to become courageous, but rather peel back the layers of self-protective, limiting beliefs that keep you small.” -Vironika Tugaleva
  • “Do the uncomfortable. Become comfortable with these acts. Prove to yourself that your limiting beliefs die a quick death if you will simply do what you feel uncomfortable doing.” -Darren Rowse
  • “It’s the repetition of affirmation that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” -Muhammad Ali

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Pretending to Be Something You’re Not?

Article Summary: 

One of the traps we can fall into in life is pretending to be someone or something we’re not. This article addresses why we do it, its consequences, and how to stop doing it so much.

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One of the traps we can fall into in life is pretending to be someone or something we’re not. We may wear a mask for others, adopt a persona, or impersonate someone we think is more appealing.

There are many reasons why we do this. It’s quite common.

But it can lead to big problems down the road.

 

Examples of Pretending in Action

What does it look like in practice? It can mean:

  • pretending to be like those around us so we can fit in
  • conforming to the expectations of others by pretending to be or like something
  • pretending we like our job when we don’t
  • hiding our true selves because we’re afraid of judgment or rejection by others
  • pretending to be someone we think our spouse or partner wants
  • hiding our mistakes or weaknesses and pretending to be perfect
  • faking something and deceiving someone to get what we want
  • wearing a mask as a coping mechanism for dealing with insecurity (including our propensity for negative self-talk and the “trance of unworthiness”)
  • acting like we don’t feel anger, resentment, hostility, sadness, or regret
  • feigning indifference to something that hurts us deeply
  • curating a perfect social media image
  • concealing our sadness or disappointment that we’ve given up on ourselves or our dreams

When we do these things, we have an innate, intuitive sense that we’re treading in dangerous territory. We feel a disconnect or a guilty conscience.

We’re all familiar with the sayings over the ages urging us to be authentic and true:

“To thine own self be true.” -Shakespeare
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde
“March to the beat of your own drummer.”
“Know yourself, be yourself, love yourself.”

Is it as simple as that? Perhaps not. There’s some complexity here. For example, what is our “true self,” exactly? Is it always knowable, coherent, and consistent? Might it change over time?

In their article, “The Enigma of Being Yourself,” Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno and Mark R. Leary write: “the human personality invariably contains myriad personality dispositions, emotional tendencies, values, attitudes, beliefs, and motives that are often contradictory and incompatible even though they are genuine aspects of the person’s psychological make-up…. People are genuinenly multifaceted.”

The poet Walt Whitman, writing long ago, seems to agree: “Very well,” he wrote, “then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Jongman-Sereno and Leary also note that our ability to adapt our behavior to meet the demands of different situations is, within limits, generally positive and important for our psychological wellbeing and social relationships. We’re also asked to play a role sometimes—whether at home, at work, or in a community group—and that’s okay.

But it’s one thing to walk around making small accommodations to smooth things out a bit and another thing altogether to walk around wearing a mask and pretending to be something very different from what we are. When we do that, it has consequences.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

The Consequences of Pretending

When we hide who we really are behind a mask and adopt a counterfeit persona, there can be a price to pay. It can result in:

  • putting barriers between us and the people who are important to us, including family, friends, and colleagues
  • forgetting who we truly are because we’ve been disguising ourselves to others for so long
  • feeling like we’re a fraud (see also “impostor syndrome”)
  • feeling exhausted from acting, pretending, and pleasing (which can all lead to lack of energy and motivation)
  • creating a sense of aloofness in which people get the sense that we’re inaccessible
  • continuing a nefarious pattern of avoiding deeper issues and kicking the can further down the road

This can become a downward spiral, leading to even more insecurity and anxiety than what provoked us to wear a mask in the first place.

It’s frustrating for people when they notice we’re hiding parts of ourselves. Its puts a barrier between us.

Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear for I wear a mask, I wear a thousand masks,
Masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them is me.
Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me, but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
Charles Finn in his poem, “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying”

Let’s note here that it’s not just difficult for the insecure people among us. This can be difficult for everyone, including leaders, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and high achievers. Sometimes, more so, due to all the pressures and expectations imposed on them.

“That age-old advice to ‘be yourself’ is deceptively simple. Being yourself is a lifetime’s work of discovery and courage, stepping out from behind your fear of not being good enough.” -Claire Law

 

How to Stop Pretending So Much

Being authentic and true can be difficult because, when we put down the mask and dare to be ourselves in front of others, we feel raw, exposed, naked, and vulnerable. We feel like we can die from disapproval, rejection, or belittling.

“I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” -Chip Conley, author, entrepreneur, and founder, Modern Elder Academy

But we don’t die. We may suffer some adverse consequences, although usually our fears are way overblown. Overall, we tend to thrive when we lean in to being ourselves more fully, openly, and unapologetically.

How to go about it? Here are some of the things we can do to help us stop pretending so much:

  • know ourselves so well and deeply that we feel a sense of clarity and comfort about our true nature and begin to feel more comfortable in our own skin (a lifelong process)
  • accept our flaws (what about Brene Brown calls the “gifts of imperfection”)
  • engage in systematic personal development to build on our strengths, interests, and aspirations and feel the joy of growth and progress
  • develop the courage to let some people go (e.g., people who are judgmental, controlling, or always worrying or negative)
  • notice that things usually turned out better than we expected when we were afraid of failure, judgment, or rejection
  • develop our confidence and truly believe that we’re enough
  • remove our mask as much as possible in front of those we love the most, deepening connection and building our capacity to be real in front of others
  • dig down into the root causes that led us to want to avoid being ourselves
  • take an occasional break from the heavy responsibilities of being ourselves (“The energy required to maintain your identity is probably greater than you realize, and finding a way to relinquish it regularly can help you recharge.” -David Brooks)

Yes, there are many things we can do, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Being true to who you really are can be one of the hardest things to do in life.” -Carlii Lyon, Australian executive

 

The Benefits of Being Ourselves

When we start putting the mask down more often, we’re doing two important things, according to researchers.

First, we’re developing our self-acceptance—our acceptance of all our attributes, whether positive or negative.

Second, we’re developing our authenticity—the degree to which our behavior is congruent with our attitudes, beliefs, and values. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” She notes that it requires audacity to be authentic.

What are the results of developing our self-acceptance and authenticity? There are many benefits, according to researchers, including:

  • improving wellbeing
  • feeling free
  • building confidence
  • developing better relationships
  • boosting work performance
  • protecting our mood in the face of setbacks
  • building our mental strength
  • cultivating a sense of peace
  • feeling less compulsive and anxious
  • lowering the barriers we’ve placed between ourselves and others
  • developing our capacity to distance ourselves from outside expectations and extrinsic motivations
  • avoiding one of the most common and difficult regrets—the regret of living our lives by the lights of others instead of by our own guiding lights
“Studies have even shown that feelings of authenticity can go hand in hand with numerous psychological and social benefits: higher self-esteem, greater well-being, better romantic relationships, and enhanced work performance.” -Jennifer Beer, “The Inconvenient Truth about Your ‘Authentic’ Self,” Scientific American, March 2020

 

Related Traps

Of course, the trap of pretending to be someone or something we’re not doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to several of the other common traps of living, including:

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you wearing a mask in front of others and pretending to be someone or something you’re not?
  2. What will you do, starting today, to lean in to being yourself more fully, openly, and unapologetically?

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Authenticity

  • “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” -e.e. cummings
  • “…psychological suffering always comes from internal splits between what your encultured mind believes and what feels deeply true to you.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity
  • “Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.” -Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist (advice to her children)
  • “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world… life is seen as a journey of personal and collective unfolding toward our true nature.” -Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations
  • “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.” -Francois de La Rochefoucauld
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Being true to the person you were created to be means accepting your faults as well as using your strengths. Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic. The problem comes when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates…. Many leaders—men in particular—fear having their weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed. So they create distance from employees and a sense of aloofness. Instead of being authentic, they are creating a persona for themselves.” -Bill George, Authentic Leadership
  • “…the ultimate self-help strategy, the one practice that could end all your suffering and get you all the way to happiness. Stop lying.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity
  • “Now as adults, we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection—to be the person who we long to be—we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.” -Brene Brown in Daring Greatly
  • “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the integrity that comes from being what you are.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life
  • “Our lives only improve when we are willing to take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” -Walter Anderson
  • “I write from my soul. This is the reason that critics don’t hurt me, because it is me. If it was not me, if I was pretending to be someone else, then this could unbalance my world, but I know who I am.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule—Never lie to yourself.” -Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “Why fit in—when you were born to stand out?” -Dr. Seuss

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Final Note: The Good Forms of Pretending

One final note. As we address the dangers of pretending to be someone or something we’re not, we should be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as the saying goes. Here are several forms of “pretending” that are quite different from that trap, and that have important benefits:

1. Self-Distancing

When we’re “self-distancing,” we’re viewing our own experience from the perspective of an observer. According to the research, self-distancing can:

  • help us overcome difficult emotions and reduce stress and anxiety
  • help us reduce emotional reactivity
  • reduce our heart rate and blood pressure
  • help us see things more objectively and with greater perspective
  • promote wise reasoning about conflicts and how to approach them
  • foster humility, empathy, and open-mindedness

2. Alter Ego

Many people think about things from the perspective of a hero or mentor, even pretending that they’ve assumed that identity. Most of us can relate to this, starting from childhood. As a child, maybe we pretended to be Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Dora the Explorer. If we wanted to be an entrepreneur, maybe we channeled Steve Jobs. If we wanted to be a media maven or overcome trauma, maybe Oprah Winfrey. If we’re Christian, we may ask, “What would Jesus do?” And so on with different religions or influences.

 

3. Visualization

Many people, and most famously athletes, use visualization to boost performance. With visualization, we mentally pretend we’re doing something, simulating it in our mind, forming a mental image of the things we want or the actions we need to take. This helps the brain form neural connections. It can be powerful, especially when it’s followed by action, including extensive, deliberate practice.

 

4. Maskenfreihet

The German word, “maskenfreiheit,” means “mask freedom” or “the freedom that comes from wearing masks.” Many people enjoy going to a masquerade or a costume party, with not only the creativity and fun but also the release from being ourselves.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal growth and leadership development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Bad Habits–And How to Break Them

We go through life assuming we’re in the driver’s seat but often there are other important influences driving our actions. One of them is habits–the things we do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that we’re doing them.

The function of habit learning occurs in the basal ganglia, a group of subcortical nuclei in our brains. A Duke University researcher estimated that more than 40 percent of the actions we take each day are based on habits, not decisions.

Our brains consume a tremendous amount of energy, so we’re wired to preserve that energy whenever possible. If we can avoid engaging our cognitive processing power in certain situations, such as making decisions or invoking our willpower, we’ll naturally take the less energy-intensive path by default.

That works well in term of cognitive energy efficiency but not so well in our profile of habits. Unfortunately, many of our habits are counterproductive, detracting from our quality of life.

Bad Habits to Avoid

We all have bad habits. The question is: how many–and what will we do about them?

Below is a list of 36 of the most common bad habits. (As you review it, make a note of the ones that you’ve engaged in.)

  1. Advice: giving advice without being asked
  2. Avoiding hard or uncomfortable things, topics, or people
  3. Being alone too much
  4. Being inside too much and not getting fresh air and sunshine
  5. Being late too often
  6. Being passive instead of taking action
  7. Binge-watching shows or content
  8. Blaming others instead of taking responsibility and finding solutions
  9. Catastrophizing
  10. Complaining
  11. Compulsively using social media and smartphones
  12. Doubting ourselves
  13. Drinking habits, such as not drinking enough water or drinking too much alcohol
  14. Exercise: not moving enough
  15. Feeling sorry for ourselves
  16. Financial: overspending and not saving and investing
  17. Food: overeating, eating too quickly, stress- or binge-eating, eating junk food or fast food too much, or eating late at night (detracting from sleep quality)
  18. Getting caught up in urgent but unimportant tasks
  19. Having a victim mindset
  20. Losing touch with family and friends due to being too “busy”
  21. Lying
  22. Making excuses
  23. Negative self-talk
  24. Not removing ourselves from toxic people, relationships, or bosses
  25. Overcommitting on things (and not learning to say “no”)
  26. Overpromising and underdelivering on tasks
  27. Playing the short game (doing what’s easy or right in front of us instead of looking ahead and investing for our future)
  28. Procrastinating
  29. Quitting
  30. Reacting to situations instead of anticipating and driving them
  31. Sitting too much
  32. Sleep: irregular sleep times, scrolling on the phone or watching TV before bed, consuming caffeine late in the day, and other actions that reduce our sleep quality
  33. Smoking
  34. Taking the easy way out
  35. Talking about people behind their back
  36. Work habits, such as overwork, checking email compulsively (and first thing in the morning or each time we open our computer or smartphone), not taking vacations, or staying too long in bad jobs

Clearly, there are many bad habits. The more we have, the more we’re shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to the quality of our life and work. Sometimes we let our bad habits go on for years or even decades.

It’s important to understand that our bad habits often signal something deeper–a problem or concern that prompts us to engage in a bad habit as a coping mechanism. Though there are many causes of bad habits, researchers point to two underlying culprits: stress and boredom. (Stress, of course, has many underlying causes.)

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Break Bad Habits and Create Good Ones

photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Unfortunately, our bad habits can add up to big problems over time: poor health, lower performance, unhappiness, feeling stuck, lost time, and harm to our relationships. So what to do about them?

It’s not as simple as trying to increase our willpower so we can be stronger when it comes to avoiding bad habits. We need more sustainable strategies, since our willpower can erode over time. And we must begin by believing that we can change our habits.

There are many approaches we can take:

Study our bad habits.

Develop self-awareness and get a clear sense of the patterns of our bad habits: What triggers them? How and when? Where? With whom? How often? Then devise a plan to derail those factors driving bad habits.

Understand the underlying drivers of our bad habits and deal with those deeper issues.

If stress is prompting one or more bad habits, deal directly with the person or issue that’s causing the stress. That will eliminate the need for a habitual coping mechanism.

Focus on “keystone habits,” since they have leverage over several areas of our life.

In his excellent book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg noted the importance of “keystone habits” that can cause widespread shifts in other areas. For example, he cites the following research about leading keystone habits:

  • A habit of regular exercise often leads people to eat better, smoke less, become more productive at work, show more patience with people, use credit cards less, and report feeling less stressed. (“Exercise spills over. There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.” -James Prochaska, University of Rhode Island researcher) Exercise has been a powerful keystone habit for me and many of the people I know who thrive in their chosen personal and professional contexts.
  • The habit of eating together as a family is associated with children having more confidence and emotional control, as well as better homework skills and grades.
  • The habit of making our beds each morning is associated with higher productivity, greater financial discipline, and a greater sense of well-being.

Prime our environment to promote good habits and prevent bad ones.

For example, we can set out our workout clothes and gear the night before so we’re more likely to exercise in the morning. Or we can prepare healthy meals on weekends and pre-pack them in containers so they’re ready for the week ahead. We can leave our smartphones in a different room when we need to focus so we’re not tempted by their notifications or buzzing. (Source: James Clear, Atomic Habits)

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.
We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort.
Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is,
especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment….
We will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work….
Create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.”
– James Clear

Focus on developing systems that promote good habits instead of simply setting goals and trying to reach them.

Can we automate things that we do over and over? Set up processes that help us eliminate non-essential tasks and avoid repetition? Use our calendar to ensure we’re focusing on the right things at the right time? Collaborate well with others so that we can all operate at our best?

If you want better results, then forget about setting goals.
Focus on your system instead….
You do not rise to the level of your goals.
You fall to the level of your systems.”
– James Clear

Follow the four laws of behavior change when creating better habits:

  1. Make it obvious. Example: use a visual cue that tees up the intended behavior. When I leave out the materials I need for my workout drink, it reminds me to get my workout in.
  2. Make it attractive. Example: give yourself a reward—ideally something you crave—after you do the desired habit, such as getting to watch your favorite show that night only if you reach your daily quota on completing that important project.
  3. Make it easy. Example: if your phone is in another room while you’re doing deep work, it won’t be difficult to fight the temptation to check emails.
  4. Make it satisfying. Example: use a checklist and revel in noting your progress as you go when you’ve had the discipline to do your important work for the day. (Source: James Clear, Atomic Habits)

Focus on who we wish to become through our good habits and systems, not on what we want to achieve.

There’s something surprisingly powerful about this one. If we become the kind of person who exercises every day, or who eats healthy food, it starts to become engrained and automatic. We don’t have to keep fighting for it. We live into it.

The most effective way to change your habits is to focus
not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become….
Your identity emerges out of your habits.
Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
– James Clear

Focus on replacing bad habits with good habits instead of on breaking our bad habits.

For me, replacing a hazy morning of checking the news or email with an intentional morning of reading, affirmations, meditation, prayer, and exercise has been a game changer. Another example: if tempted to smoke, do a deep-breathing exercise instead. A simple replacement can go a long way.

Eliminate the triggers that our brains associate with the bad habit.

Don’t keep junk snacks in the pantry. Turn off the notifications. Move the remote control away from the TV.

Leverage technology to help us automate our habits.

Build good habits into our calendar and set reminders for them. Many apps have this functionality built in, but keep in mind that apps use neuroscience in the war for our attention. This one can be a double-edged sword, so be wary.

Find an accountability partner to help with habits.

Make joint commitments, check in regularly to hold each other accountable, and celebrate progress and victories together.

Surround ourselves with people who live the way we want.

We’re social beings, so we don’t want to be viewed as the one who lets others down or doesn’t follow through with commitments. Also, we can surround ourselves with visual cues of what we want—like photos, posters, paintings, screen savers, Post-It notes, whiteboard messages, refrigerator decorations, or vision boards with a message or images of our desired future.

Try not to break the streak of a good habit.

Track progress and celebrate success as we go along so that we feel a sense of progress and momentum. Sometimes gamification or challenges can be real motivators for us (motivation to succeed and/or motivation to avoid failure).

Anticipate setbacks.

Don’t expect perfection in all habit-busting domains. We’re all imperfect and we all encounter new contexts, some of which make it harder to follow through and maintain progress. If or when there is a letdown, commit to getting back on track right away so the bad habit groove doesn’t re-establish itself.

Final Thoughts

There you have it: fourteen approaches for breaking bad habits and developing good habits in their place.

Sometimes we assume that we have to make things difficult. We must fight for the things we want, we have to go after our goals, we have to invoke our willpower over and over again. That’s all right, at least sometimes, but it’s not nearly enough. What if we could replace our bad habits with good ones, design our environment to be more conducive to the life we want to live, and develop systems that help us be our best? That would mean great leverage—much more progress, even with less fighting and effort. We could stop shooting ourselves in the foot and instead help elevate our days, habit by habit.

The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements….
Small habits don’t add up. They compound.
That’s the power of atomic habits. Tiny changes. Remarkable results.
– James Clear

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your most detrimental bad habits?
  2. How are they affecting your quality of life?
  3. What will do about the, starting now?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Habits

  • “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” – William James, 1892
  • “Drop by drop is the water pot filled.” – Buddha
  • “Habit, if not resisted, soon becomes necessity.” – Saint Augustine
  • “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” – Octavia Butler
  • “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.” – Colin Powell
  • “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” – James Clear
  • “Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.” – James Clear
  • “Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.” – James Clear
  • “Good habits are worth being fanatical about.” – John Irving
  • “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” – Aristotle
  • “Habits change into character.” – Ovid
  • “In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.” – Tony Robbins
  • “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” – Jim Rohn
  • “Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” – Brian Tracy

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!
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The Trap of Dissatisfaction–And Its Surprising Upside

“I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones

We all go through hard times in life, with setbacks and disappointments. It only becomes a trap if we experience a chronic sense of dissatisfaction—not being content or at peace with what we have.

It’s a trap if we develop an enduring sense of disappointment, of never feeling at peace. Or a chronic craving or dwelling on things we lack. In this state, we’re missing a sense of acceptance, of contentment, of serenity.

Such dissatisfaction can be a sign of maladaptive perfectionism—when our personal performance standards are hopelessly high and we’re extremely self-critical in judging ourselves. (See my article on “The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It.”) It can also lead to a negative spiral when things don’t go as we hoped. In this spiral, discouragement accompanies any imperfection. Not a good place to be.

Some people get addicted to the dramas and disappointments of life. It becomes part of their identity. They use them to rile up their ego with outrage or grievance. It can give them a strange sort of satisfaction in the moment, but overall they’re really just making themselves miserable for large swaths of their life.

“Most people are in love with their particular life drama…. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

 

What Leads to Dissatisfaction

There are many external triggers of dissatisfaction, but what causes people to fall into the trap of chronic dissatisfaction in which they view life through a lens of disappointment or bitterness?

Here are some of the most common sources of such dissatisfaction:

  • Resisting what happened to us in the past and hanging on to it instead of letting it go.
  • Getting so caught up in hoping for a better future that we neglect the present moment or discount it because it hasn’t yet brought us our desired future.
  • Not distinguishing between our needs and wants, and then lamenting that we haven’t yet attained things which turn out to be fanciful or unnecessary. (Note: We should also be mindful of the doom loop that keeps us in jobs we don’t like in order to meet those supposed “needs.” See my article, “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”)
  • Getting swept up in “negativity bias.” (Researchers have discovered that negative things like troublesome feelings or frustrating social interactions often influence our mental state much more powerfully than positive or neutral things.)
“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.” -Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
  • Having a “scarcity mindset”—a pervasive sense that we don’t have enough (time, money, happiness, etc.), flowing from an often subconscious belief that life is a zero-sum game with a brutal competition for scarce resources.
  • The unrealistic and pernicious expectation that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. In our culture today, we tend to worship at the altar of happiness. Whenever we encounter negative emotions like frustration, sadness, disappointment, or regret, we assume something’s wrong with us, and that it needs to be fixed (often with medication or numbing behaviors). (See my Happiness Series.)
“Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • Falling into the “expectations trap”: When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we go beyond aspirations and into the realm of attachment to our expectations, we feel disappointment or judge our lives negatively, even though our life may actually be going quite well. It stems from what Buddhists call “the wanting mind,” a major source of our own suffering.
  • Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons. Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often, comparing ourselves to others on things that are fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to an unrealistic standard, such as the richest person we know, or the most outwardly successful or beautiful. A recipe for disappointment.

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Signs of Dissatisfaction

How do we know if we’re in such a dissatisfaction spiral? Here are six of the most common signs of it:

  1. Never feeling successful enough.
  2. Constantly feeling behind.
  3. Overwork and burnout in a relentless and grasping pursuit of success, driven by a need for recognition or approval from others.
  4. Resentment at our station in life or at the success of others.
  5. Recurring thinking patterns about being a victim in a world that’s hopelessly unfair.
  6. Habitual patterns of complaining about things, so much that it becomes a routine that defines our relationships with certain people and would leave a gaping hole in that relationship if we didn’t have things to complain about. These neural grooves can be deep in our brains and take time to reprogram.

So far, we’ve seen the signs and causes of negative dissatisfaction spirals. But we should pause here and note an important nuance: while dissatisfaction can make us miserable if taken too far, it also has some surprising and important upsides.

 

Not So Fast—The Important Upsides of Dissatisfaction

What are the potential upsides of dissatisfaction? It can be a source of motivation and urgency for us, helping us move forward and drive progress.

Dissatisfaction can provide needed motivation to change. To overcome.

“Until you get dissatisfied, you won’t do anything to really move your life to another level. Dissatisfaction is a gem. If you’re totally satisfied, you’re going to get comfortable. And then your life begins to deteriorate.” -Tony Robbins

There’s a signaling function at work here. Chronic dissatisfaction can serve as a sign that there’s a deeper problem in our lives that needs attention. It radiates angst so we’ll pay attention.

In some case, it can also serve as a conduit, via painful feelings and disturbance, to great music and art. We’d be crazy to wish that on ourselves, but we humans are resilient, and sometimes our creative powers are enhanced by dark and painful experiences.

So let’s clarify that, while we can use dissatisfaction as motivational fodder when necessary, we want to avoid the dissatisfaction doom loop that has us walking around in a fog.

There’s a beautiful tension here. We can do both. We can love our lives as they are, as Hal Elrod entreats us, even while we’re working on creating the life of our dreams.

 

What to Do

How to avoid or escape the trap of chronic dissatisfaction? Here are 21 of the best dissatisfaction destroyers that we know of:

1. Let go of our reactive, automatic, negative thought patterns that only make things worse for us in already difficult situations (e.g., rumination).

2. Recognize our negative thoughts when they appear, let them go, and rewire them by bringing in newer, better thoughts, over and over again, until new thought patterns appear.

3. Focus on what we have instead of what we lack, and on what’s going well instead of only on what’s not (remembering that we have a negativity bias to compensate for).

4. Cultivate an abundance mindset, recognizing that things like love, happiness, connection, and opportunity can be renewable resources when approached wisely.

5. Engage in centering practices, like deep breathing, meditation, savoring, and raising our gaze to the sky or horizon, helping us regain perspective and calm.

6. Recognize that happiness doesn’t come from our circumstances being perfect or always in line with our expectations but rather from crafting our life and work so that we lead a good life as we define it.

7. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations.

8. Let go of rigid expectations about how things will go and leave more room for the unexpected—and even challenges, recognizing that they can help sharpen and improve us.

9. Recall that outcomes are outside our control and that we can only control our own actions and mindsets.

“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius

10. Cultivate a growth mindset (a belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed, which tends to come with an appreciation for challenges instead of resentment of them).

11. Focus on serving and giving to others instead of whether we’re satisfied or not.

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice in which we regularly return to the things we’re thankful for.

13. Design our work and leisure activities to facilitate more “flow” states in which we’re so absorbed in activities that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

14. Build more of our passions into our life and work.

15. Apply our strengths to projects, groups, and causes that feel meaningful.

16. Rewrite the story we tell about ourselves from one of disappointment and lack to one of appreciation and hope.

17. Stop taking things so personally; we all face ups and downs, and it turns out that we’re not actually the center of the universe.

18. Work at being more accepting of things as they are, as opposed to how we predicted or hoped they would be.

19. Develop practices for detaching from heated situations and rising above them without getting engrossed in them, including meditation or mindfulness practices.

20. Recognize that being judgmental—about ourselves as well as others—is a trap that only leads to misery (for us and others).

21. Reduce the call of our ego (which is focused on accumulation, praise, winning, success, and control) by tapping into the call of our soul (which is grateful for the abundance of life and not interested in petty dramas or comparisons with others).

“Fulfillment is not a matter of self-improvement. It involves a shift away from the ego’s agenda, turning from externals to the inner world. The soul holds out a kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on whether conditions outside are good or bad.” -Deepak Chopra

 

Final Thoughts

In the end, we can use dissatisfaction when it suits us to light a motivational fire, but not so much that we walk around in a fog of angst all the time, lamenting the sorry state of our lives or the things we don’t have. Is that really a good way to answer the gift of life?

Here’s the key: use dissatisfaction to fuel us when necessary, and don’t let it vanquish our spirit.

If we can learn to let go of the chronic dissatisfaction that follows many disturbances, or at least reduce its effect and frequency, perhaps we can create our own personal weather system around our overactive minds more conducive to enjoying our days and uplifting others.

 

Related Articles

* Featured image source: Adobe Stock.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Postscript: Inspirations on Dissatisfaction and Serenity

  • “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is…. When you live in complete acceptance of what is, that is the end of all drama in your life.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.” -Audre Lorde
  • “Chronic dissatisfaction is how you sense that you are living a lie.” -David Deida
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ’voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” -Lao Tzu
  • “Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
  • “To become mindfully aware of our surroundings is to bring our thinking back to our present moment reality and to the possibility of some semblance of serenity in the face of circumstances outside our ability to control.” -Jeff Kober
  • “We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy.” -Sri S. Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Discover Your Core Values

Our values are what we consider most important in life—what’s most worthy and valuable to us. Values can also be beliefs, moral principles, or standards of behavior (e.g., commitments for how we will treat each other). In other words, what we believe and stand for.

Our values should guide our choices and behavior, helping us determine how to act in various situations. What to pursue and defend. And what not to.

“Values are basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions. They help us to determine what is important to us. Values describe the personal qualities we choose to embody to guide our actions; the sort of person we want to be; the manner in which we treat ourselves and others, and our interaction with the world around us. They provide the general guidelines for conduct…. Values are the motive behind purposeful action.” -Steven Mintz

 

Where Our Values Come From

Where do our values come from? From many places, it turns out, since we’re complex and multifaceted. Sources of our values can include:

  • parents and upbringing (including things we don’t like and reject from our formative years)
  • teachers and mentors
  • religious leaders, spiritual teachers, or faith traditions
  • intuition and gut instinct
  • our soul

When we’re dealing with values, we’re engaging both our head and our heart. We’re paying attention to our thoughts and ideas about things, but we’re also sensing and feeling—and diving deeper into our experience of being alive.

 

The Benefits of Knowing Our Core Values

It’s helpful to think about our values on different levels of priority, from values at the bottom that are loose and casual (nice to have, if possible) to values at the very top that are core values—non-negotiable, deeply held beliefs and top priorities that serve as a driving force for our lives. Our core values are our most important, central, foundational values.

One of the most powerful personal development practices we can engage in is discovering our core values—and living by them. This can improve all dimensions of our life and work. For example, it can:

  • increase our self-awareness
  • clarify our priorities and purpose
  • help us choose an organization to work for—or a career (or whether to change one)
  • boost our confidence
  • improve decisiveness and decision-making abilities
  • bring more meaning and significance into our lives
  • help us make hard decisions (through a determination of the values fit, or lack of it)
  • guide our behavior like a compass
  • facilitate an action orientation
  • help us avoid mistakes and regrets
  • move us forward in realizing our potential
  • boost our happiness and quality of life
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” -Roy Disney

 

How to Discover Our Core Values

Each of us is different, and there are many things we can do to uncover our core values. Here’s a sequence of steps we can take that I’ve used myself and with many others:

  • mine our life story for values nuggets by recalling significant experiences that revealed what was most important to us—especially moments that were our happiest or proudest, or when we were most fulfilled or at our best, and our toughest struggles and worst moments
  • think of our desired impacts (on people or a place or a cause we care deeply about), or the legacy we aspire to
  • talk to friends, coaches, or mentors about what’s most important to us
  • think of people we admire and determine what it is that we admire about them
  • choose potential core values from a list of values (see our Personal Values Exercise)*

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

  • categorize the longer list of potential core values into related groupings
  • look for themes in those groupings and then choose a word that best represents the theme of each grouping
  • winnow the list to three to six core values (and no more than ten) to ensure focus
  • add a phrase or sentence to explain what we mean specifically by each value word to give it more clarity and power (this is a critical step that many people skip or overlook)
  • share this draft list of core values with trusted friends or mentors and ask for their input (but recall that these are our values and ours alone, so don’t accept all the input without checking to see if it truly resonates)
  • keep the final core values list handy and view it regularly, also memorizing the final core values words so they’re top of mind

 

Final Thoughts

The key, of course, is not writing our values down. That’s only the beginning. The key is living them. Using them to inform our decisions and actions. Infusing our lives with them.

It’s essential to revisit our values regularly, checking to see if we’re living and leading by them.

Ultimately, we can use our core values as a guide to crafting a good life with good work. We can live our values, honor them, savor them,—and watch as the astonishing power of values alignment infuses and uplifts every aspect of our life and work.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you discovered your core values?
  2. To what extent are you honoring and upholding your core values today?
  3. What more could you do to integrate your core values into your life and work?
  4. What actions will you take today to start this?

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Values

  • “The more that we choose our goals based on our values and principles, the more we enter into a positive cycle of energy, success, and satisfaction.” -Neil Farber
  • “The ultimate test of integrity is what we’re willing to risk to uphold our core values.” -Adam Grant
  • “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.” -Dalai Lama
  • “Personal values are those things that are important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life…. Values matter because what you deem important guides your behavior. Many people run into trouble when they start living and leading in ways that conflict with their values.” -Bob and Gregg Vanourek, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations

 

* Don’t worry about what other people think, or what you think your values should be. Focus on what’s actually most important to you.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Be More Decisive in Your Life and Leadership

“Should I stay or should I go?” -the Clash

We make many decisions every day. Many are trivial, but some are consequential and taxing. Which career to pursue (or transition into). When to make a big move. Who to live with, work with, or hire. Whether to start a new venture.

To live and lead well, we must get good at making decisions.

On the leadership front, do we want leaders who wallow and waffle? Or leaders who move forward despite uncertainty; home in quickly on the key issues; actively gather input before deciding; involve others in decisions; invoke their experience, judgment, wisdom, and gut instinct; and remain calm under pressure?

There’s a lot at work with making good decisions. The neurological mechanics of decision-making are breathtaking. When we make decisions, we’re using the brain’s prefrontal cortex for what’s called “executive function.” We’re drawing upon an array of cognitive processes, including: attentional control; cognitive inhibition; working memory; cognitive flexibility; reasoning; problem-solving; differentiation between conflicting thoughts; value determinations (good, bad, better, best, worse, worst); prediction of outcomes; and more.

No wonder so many people sometimes struggle with indecisiveness—wavering between different courses of action and having trouble deciding and moving on—and its related problem of “analysis paralysis.”

Truth be told, getting good at decision-making isn’t easy. This isn’t a new challenge. Even Aristotle mused about the absurdity of the idea that “a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.” Indecisiveness indeed.

The challenge can be even more complex with making decisions in organizations. As expected, there’s much room for improvement here as well. According to a McKinsey Global Survey, only 20 percent of respondents say their organizations excel at decision making. What’s more, a majority report that much of the time they devote to decision making is used ineffectively.

Clearly, we have work to do.

 

The Problem with Indecisiveness

“Indecision may or may not be my problem.” -Jimmy Buffett

Indecisiveness has many drawbacks—and sometimes costly and painful consequences. For example, indecisiveness can:

  • make an already difficult situation worse
  • create delays that have spillover effects, impeding important progress
  • cause frustration
  • reduce productivity, effectiveness, and credibility
  • inhibit innovation
  • bring about stress
  • lead to team and organizational stagnation, breakdowns, and failures
  • prevent us from realizing new opportunities
“Indecision is the greatest thief of opportunity.” -Jim Rohn

When making decisions, we can experience “choice anxiety”: feeling distressed because we can’t seem to determine what’s right, with the fear of making the wrong decision shutting us down.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz talks about the “paradox of choice” and claims that the freedom to choose, while sounding nice, is actually one of the main roots of unhappiness today, in part because we live in such abundance. Choice overload leads to anxiety. We fear making the wrong choice or fear missing out on the “right” choice.

Schwartz cites an intriguing “jam study” in which a store gave one set of shoppers a range of six jams to consider, and another set of shoppers a range of 24 jams. In the end, shoppers were ten times more likely to purchase jam from a range of six jams than from the much larger set. 10x.

Choice overload can easily lead to not making a choice. We simply walk away. (See my article, “Choice Overload and Career Transitions.”)

Another big problem is second guessing—when we keep revisiting previous decisions and agonizing over whether we should change them. An unproductive and frustrating doom loop.

 

Causes of Indecisiveness

There are many causes of indecisiveness. Here are eleven of the leading causes:

  1. personality (e.g., our levels of neuroticism and anxiety)
  2. fear of making the wrong choice: we’d rather not decide than risk making the wrong decision, due to loss aversion
  3. fears of failure or of rejection or loss of social status
  4. lack of confidence
  5. excessive risk aversion
  6. lack of clarity about what we want or where we’re going
  7. conflicts between our own preferences and the expectations of others
  8. decision fatigue (a state of mental overload and depletion from making many decisions)
  9. family or cultural conditioning (such as excessive punishment for making mistakes)
  10. lack of accountability for indecisiveness
  11. a history of perfectionism

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Be More Decisive

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to become more decisive. Note that decisiveness doesn’t mean making hasty, impulsive, or rash decisions. It means making decisions quickly, firmly, and effectively. Here are 22 tips and techniques for developing our decisiveness:

  1. recognize that decisiveness isn’t a set trait, and that decision-making is a skill that can be practiced and developed
  2. acknowledge that indecisiveness is a form of self-sabotage, only making things harder for ourselves and others
  3. become clearer about what we want—including clarity about our personal purpose, core values, and vision of the good life
  4. build our confidence (the good kind, which is earned through hard work and disciplined attention to growth and development), since this is a key factor in decisiveness
  5. develop systems to make as many decisions as possible habitual, routine, or automatic—such as having a regular reading or workout routine at a certain time on certain days (this helps us avoid decision fatigue and frees up cognitive resources for other decisions)
  6. increase our self-awareness so we know under what conditions we work and decide best (and worst)
  7. recall that most decisions involve uncertainty, which tends to come with anxiety, and learn to expect and account for that
  8. develop mechanisms for coping with anxiety and stress, since these contribute to indecisiveness
  9. recognize the difference between fear and actual danger, noting that our fears are often exaggerated versus the actual dangers we face
  10. recognize that being decisive isn’t about always being right (instead, it’s about being able to make clear decisions—even tough ones—quickly, firmly, and confidently despite uncertainty)
  11. distinguish between irreversible and reversible decisions (Jeff Bezos wrote about this in his 2015 letter to shareholders with the distinction between one-way doors, where there’s no going back, and two-way doors in which you can simply “reopen the door and go back through.” He lamented that too many big companies use one-size-fits-all decision making, treating all decisions like one-way doors and in the process slowing everything down.)
  12. get curious and investigate why we avoid making decisions
  13. build our decisiveness and decision-making courage by working to make decisions more quickly and more boldly—and then take stock of how things turn out
  14. start small and make less consequential decisions more quickly at first, building from there to bigger decisions
  15. divide bigger decisions into smaller ones (or a series of steps) that are less intimidating and more manageable
  16. summon more urgency into our lives, since time is precious and wasted time is a common regret
  17. set deadlines for making decisions
  18. “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as the expression goes. Look for the point where we have enough information to make a reasonable decision instead of waiting until we have nearly all possible information, variables, and scenarios accounted for. Focus on pursuing learning and growth instead of perfection when making decisions.
  19. recognize that we can’t control our future and that we can’t make perfect decisions
  20. use the “only option test”: imagine that only one of the two options were possible and then see how it feels; then imagine that the other option was the only possible one and see how it feels; then consider whether we have two good options, and it doesn’t really matter so much which one is chosen*
  21. focus only on the most important things and don’t get caught up in the rest, thereby reducing the total number of decisions to make
  22. pray on or sleep on important decisions, summoning deeper wisdom and grace
“If you were omniscient and had a time machine, you would know everything you need to know about the [the results of your decision], but the problem is that we don’t have either of those things, so we don’t have perfect information when we’re making a decision.” -Annie Duke

The key isn’t just decisiveness. What we really want is skills in making good decisions. It’s about both decision-making quality and decisiveness. Surely it’s easier to be more decisive when we know we have a good decision-making process. So what does that look like?

 

How to Get Better at Making Decisions

A good decision flows from a good process for deciding. Here are several ways we can get better at making decisions:

  • look into whether there’s more information readily available that would be important for making a good decision—or not—and gauge whether we have enough of the right kind of information to decide
  • get input on decisions from trusted friends and colleagues
  • evaluate the likely impact of a decision before making it
  • invoke our intuitive sense (gut instincts) as well as our reason and logic when making important decisions
  • distance ourselves from the situation (e.g., project forward decades into the future and think about which choice will serve us the best over time)
  • view the issue from a different perspective (e.g., ask ourselves what we’d advise our best friend to do in the situation at hand)
  • look for innovation solutions such as creative combinations or trials* (example: when I was in graduate school, I did two different summer internships to get a feel for both opportunities—and learned that neither was a good fit for me)
  • get feedback and coaching or mentoring on decision-making

 

Final Thoughts

One of the keys to decision-making and decisiveness is learning to trust ourselves more. Without self-trust, all of this can fall apart quickly. We don’t need to be perfect. We just need to apply ourselves consistently at getting better.

Once we make a decision, it’s important not to dwell and not to agonize. We must let go of the myth of the one perfect decision and focus more on making the best of the decisions we’ve made. Focus more on developing and using a good decision-making process instead of on whether any decision is “right” or “wrong,” and then trust in that process to serve us well over time.

Refuse to live in a state of regret: take full responsibility for our choices and move on. Make changes when needed. Give ourselves credit for doing our best.

Finally, consider this: If we can get good at making decisions and being decisive, it will help us with everything we do. There’s incredible leverage that comes from improving this. Wishing you well with it.

 

 

 

 

-Gregg Vanourek

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent is indecisiveness causing you problems (and in which areas)?
  2. What can you do to improve your decision-making process?
  3. What will you do, starting today, to become better at making good decisions with urgency and resolve—at becoming more decisive?

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Resources on Decision-Making

 

Postscript: Quotations on Decisiveness and Decision-Making

  • “Indecisiveness is the number one reason for failure. Lack of ability to make a decision in a timely manner causes most people to fail with their projects and plans. Identify this challenge and decide to no longer let it be a setback from your success.” -Farshad Asl
  • “Be decisive. A wrong decision is generally less disastrous than indecision.” -Bernhard Langer
  • “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” -Theodore Roosevelt
  • “Ambivalence is like carbon monoxide—undetectable yet deadly.” -Cherie Carter-Scott
  • “A person’s greatest limitations are not genetic, but imposed by self-doubt, insecurities, indecision, and timidity.” -Kilroy J. Oldster
  • “What is fear after all? It is indecision. You seek some way to resist, escape. There is none.” -Anne Rice
  • “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.” -Tony Robbins
  • “When you make the best decision you can at a particular time, it’s never worth looking back. Getting stuck in ‘I should have’ or ‘I could have’ is only a waste of precious time and energy.” -Dr. Carla Marie Manly
  • “A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” -Tony Robbins

* Source: Erin Bunch, “Decisiveness Is a Learned Trait—Here Are 11 Tips To Master the Art of Decision-Making,” Well and Good, March 22, 2021.

** Featured image: photo by Jon Taylor on Unsplash.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!