Take Advantage of that Transition Time in Your Life

I was worn out. I’d been flying around the country for years, chasing big deals with my team, with intense pressure to close them. Our company needed the cash. I was caught between two top executives secretly undermining each other. And I was beginning to recognize that the fit between the company and my values was steadily evaporating.

I wasn’t taking care of myself. Slowly losing touch with my family and friends. Feeling frequent stress and pressure.

The excitement I had felt when we were starting up was slowly dissipating, like air leaking from a small hole in a balloon. I kept going for long runs around the lake, wondering if it was time to move on.

Then one day, I did. I’d had enough. I finally realized it was time.

So I jumped off the train.

I took my life back.

I felt alive and free. And I didn’t leap right away to the next thing. I knew I needed time to detox.

I gave myself an expansive self-imposed sabbatical. A healthy chunk of time to recover and renew. To get my health back. Time to regroup—and to find my way back to myself. I was fortunate to be able to do that. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

I was in transition. And that transition needed time and space to play out without me forcing it.

We all go through transitions in life and work. Some are planned, while others are imposed upon us. Some feel great. Others can be excruciating.

Transitions are common: Youth to adulthood. School to work. From living alone to being in a relationship, or in a marriage, or with a family. Back to school. New job or career. A new city, state, or country. New friends and interests. Transition to midlife, and to retirement, and to elderhood. Breakup or divorce. Empty nest. Illness. Loss of a loved one or pet. Becoming a caregiver.

One thing is certain: transitions are on the horizon. They’re coming for us. Transitions are inevitable.

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.” -Heraclitus, 360 BCE

Given their inevitability, we must learn to live with and manage them. Otherwise they can consume us or take us to dark places.

In his excellent book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, author Bruce Feiler distinguishes between what he calls “disruptors” (regular challenges and setbacks) and “lifequakes” (which can rock our world). He defines a lifequake as a “forceful burst of change in one’s life that leads to a period of upheaval, transition, and renewal.”

How does this play out over the course of a lifetime? Combining the two, Feiler explains:

“The number of disruptors a person can expect to experience in an adult life is around three dozen. That’s an average of one every twelve to eighteen months…. But every now and then, one—or more commonly a pileup of two, three, or four—of these disruptors rises to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events lifequakes, because the damage they cause can be devastating, they’re higher on the Richter scale of consequences, and their aftershocks can last for years.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions

Feiler adds them up, and the totals are jarring: “The average person goes through three to five of these massive reorientations in their adult lives; their average duration, my data show, is five years. When you do the math, that means nearly half our lives are spent responding to one of these episodes” (disruptors or lifequakes).

Looking back on my own life, I see tons of transitions. Moving around so much during my childhood. Then moving to London for grad school, later moving to Sweden with my family, and then back to the U.S. after ten years. Transitioning from a nonprofit think tank to an education foundation to an online education startup company. Starting my own company, and then a partnership. Getting married. Becoming a father. Transitioning to midlife.


Typology of Transitions

Our transitions can be personal or collective. Personal transitions are individual changes related to our health, finances, work, etc. Collective transitions are ones we go through together, such as the coronavirus pandemic, global financial crisis, or 9/11.

Our transitions can also be voluntary, such as deciding to get a degree or change jobs, or involuntary, such as getting fired or becoming ill. Feiler notes that most lifequakes are personal and involuntary. Ouch.

And he shows how smaller disruptors can become bigger lifequakes. For example, some disruptors occur at a moment of personal vulnerability, such as when we’re already burned out or having relationship problems. Or it can be the last straw: when one disruptor occurs at the end of a long string of them, causing us to snap. Or it can be a “pileup”: when many disruptors clump together suddenly, much like a traffic pileup on a busy freeway.


The Difficulties

Transitions are hard. They trigger all sorts of stresses and fears, changing our mental state and our physiology.

And they’re messy. When we’re in transition, we’re leaving something known behind for something new and uncertain. We’re grasping in the dark, suspecting danger right around the corner.

We can lose not only our sense of stability and security but also our identity. We begin to doubt ourselves.

When I left that intense job after months of deliberation, I didn’t know what I would do next. I thought about waiting—playing it safe and lining new things up before I left. That can be a smart play. But it didn’t feel right to me then.

I wanted to give it my all when I was in it and then leave it when I felt I couldn’t anymore—or didn’t want to. I sensed I needed down time to get whole again before figuring out my next move.

It’s unsettling to be in that in-between mode, without clarity our resolution. Who are we without that title and the social capital that we believe comes from our position? Can we handle the gaps, with all their perceived judgment and perhaps even rejection or condemnation?

“People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.”Herminia Ibarra, professor, author, and career change expert


The Benefits

Though surely difficult, transitions also come with a host of benefits, many of them unacknowledged. Here’s a short list of eight main benefits:

  1. Transitions can lead to a better situation, or even a breakthrough.
  2. They’re opportunities for a “do-over,” when we can think and act anew, taking advantage of the tabula rasa.
  3. Transition time is alive time—when things are new or challenging, and when our lives are on the line. The adrenaline surges. Our hearts beat faster as we relinquish safety and venture forth into the unknown.
  4. Transitions allow us to slough off the masks we wear for others and to become ourselves more fully again. We can stop pretending and have the courage to be who we really are, even as we fear the reactions or rejection of others.
  5. When managed well, transitions can lead to powerful and memorable moments in life. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck writes, “Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
  6. Transitions are a real opportunity for a fresh start, when we set down old obligations and get a taste of true freedom once again.
  7. They’re an opportunity to reassess and determine if there’s a gap between the life we have and the one we want. Those gaps can last years, or even decades, as we drift through life, so even painful transitions bear a gift with the wakeup call that can lead to needed change.
  8. Getting good at managing change and transitions is a key leadership capacity. According to leadership expert Warren Bennis in his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, “the one competence that I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders—the key competence—is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is what allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to relentless change.”


The Mistakes We Make in Transition

Despite their relative frequency, transitions generally don’t occur often enough for us to develop natural capacity to manage them. We have to work at it. Meanwhile, we tend to make mistakes, adding to the pain. Here are some common mistakes:

-Awaiting perfect clarity before making a decision or taking action. So we never get off the starting blocks, or we wait much too long.

-Having unrealistic expectations about the pace or scope of change.

-Rushing it, often because we’re feeling behind. Premature decisions can set us up for failure by trapping us in recurring negative patterns.

Going it alone, trying to solve complex life equations without tapping into the wisdom of others who’ve been there before and the support of people who can witness our suffering and sit with us so we don’t feel so scared and alone.

-Choosing for the wrong reasons, such as the desire to please our parents or impress our friends and colleagues. A sign of the prestige magnet” in action.

-Being confined by our past, our relationships, or our self-identity (e.g., “I’ve been a lawyer since I was in my twenties, many of my friends are lawyers, and I don’t know who or what I’d be if I weren’t practicing law”).

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” -Pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

-Wallowing in negative thinking, focusing on the worst case, or ruminating on mistakes or sleights. These only place us in a mental prison of our own making.


Tips for Navigating Transitions

Since many transitions are so hard, we’re bound to fumble through them at certain points. Still, there are things we can do to lighten our load. Here are some quick tips:

-Take care of yourself. Invest in good sleep, exercise, nutrition, socializing, hobbies, and other self-care practices. Without these, everything else will just be harder.

-Develop healthy routines and rituals, leveraging the power of habit. Find what works for you, potentially including exercise, breaks, meditation, prayer, reading, journaling, sleep, and more—especially in the morning and before bed.

-Look for small wins and take a systematic, intentional approach, avoiding the temptation to try to force a breakthrough. Take it one step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race, as long as we’re also awake to opportunities and willing to take action.

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…. Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.” -John Wooden, legendary basketball coach

-Avoid premature resolution. Try to hold out longer in the fog of transition time. Be sure to give yourself adequate time and space to do the necessary inner work of reflection, conversation, pattern-spotting, meaning-making, and experimentation.

“This is now my #1 tip for changing your life. You need to clear a space for the new you to emerge.”Joanna Penn, author

-Get clear about your individual purpose, values, vision, strengths, and passions. These can serve as a safe harbor to return to when you hit storms in your life. They give your life meaning as you tease out the patterns from your personal history.

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back upon himself.” -Charles de Gaulle

-Be willing to join the dance of change, alternating between leading the dance, being led by others, and observing yourself in the dance from afar with your mental observer (your ability to step out of your unintentional thought flow and observe your thoughts and reflect on your life).

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”Alan Watts, philosopher

-Expect and embrace imperfection, messiness, and the unexpected. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as the saying goes.

-Focus on changing yourself, not others, and focus on what’s in your control, not on complaining about the way things are.

-Recognize your abilities and assets—and all the previous transitions you’ve navigated. Have a little faith.

-Give yourself grace and practice self-compassion. Recall that transitions are hard for everybody.

-Let go of relationships that are no longer serving you. As terrifying as this can be, sometimes it’s the missing key that will unlock a better future, though it’s likely to take time, pain, grief, and healing.

-Reframe change and transition from something to be avoided to something that’s natural, inevitable, and an exciting opportunity for an adventure and growth. View it as a challenge to overcome, or a puzzle to solve. Transitions can be great opportunities for learning and growth.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” -Frederick Douglass

-Lean on your support network and don’t go it alone. Talk to family and friends. Lean on a mentor, coach, or therapist. Join a small group, perhaps a men’s group or a women’s group.

-Think creatively and boldly about potential change, even fundamental change, over time (while also not rushing it and remembering the power of small wins in the meantime). Otherwise, we risk settling for poor or mediocre outcomes and wasting the potential embedded in the transition.

“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett, investor

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson


Closing thoughts: As much as we can struggle with them, we should give ourselves more transition times in our lives. Too often, we stick it out in a sub-optimal situation for too long.

We should also work to get good at them, allowing ourselves to transform as we learn and grow and as the world changes around us. As we do so, we reduce our self-inflicted wounds and have more time and space to enjoy our lives.

Give yourself more transition time—and get good at it.


Reflection Questions

  • Are you in need of a voluntary transition? Have you been waiting too long? What’s holding you back?
  • Are you taking advantage of the transition times in your life, or jumping right away to the next thing?
  • How can you get better at navigating the disruptors and lifequakes you experience?


Postscript: Quotations on Transitions and Change

  • “To be in transit is to be in the process of leaving one thing, without having fully left it, and at the same time entering something else, without being fully a part of it.” -Herminia Ibarra
  • “It is when we are in transition that we are most completely alive.” -William Bridges
  • “She knew this transition was not about becoming someone better but about finally allowing herself to become who she’d always been.” -Amy Rubin
  • “To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.” -William James
  • “All great changes are preceded by chaos.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” -Marilyn Monroe
  • “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” -Albert Einstein
  • “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” -Rumi
  • “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • “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
  • “Not in his goals but in his transitions is man great.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson



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


Topics: transitions, life transitions, work transitions, career transitions, life design, personal growth, personal development, self improvement, self-leadership, designing your life, crafting your life

The Powerful Pull of the Prestige Magnet

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is not only engaging with students about the subject at hand but also how it may contain deeper lessons that apply to their life and work. The class readings are a reliable vehicle to those insights.

One of my favorite insights recently comes from Paul Graham, the programmer, entrepreneur, writer, and investor behind the acclaimed tech startup accelerator, Y Combinator. In his article, “How to Do What You Love,” he writes about the dangers of prestige:

“You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” -Paul Graham

This notion of a prestige magnet has stuck with me (and many of my students), in part because I think it’s so universal and insidious.

The peril of the prestige magnet is that it can pull us into a strange and unhappy vortex in which we’re avidly pursuing prestige while making ourselves—and often those around us—miserable in the process. A dangerous downward spiral.


Signs of the Prestige Magnet in Action

You may think that you’re not susceptible to the pull of the prestige magnet. You may be thinking, I’m not self-centered. I’m not overly ambitious or too concerned about status and prestige.

Most likely, though, you’d be wrong. Our brains are brilliant at helping us deceive ourselves.

“There are two kinds of egotists: Those who admit it, and the rest of us.” -Laurence J. Peter

Here are some telltale signs of the prestige magnet in action:

  • Wanting a pair of cool sneakers or jeans to impress your friends when you’re a teenager.
  • Enjoying the signaling of social status through the car you drive, the part of town you live in, or where you go on vacation—and the attendant social media posts broadcasting it.
  • Secretly hoping that or enjoying it when your degree, profession, title, or organization conveys status to you.

Let’s be honest. We all want prestige—or have wanted it at some point. It’s baked into human nature.

In a recent “How to Build a Life” column for The Atlantic, Arthur Brooks notes recent studies indicating that the biggest goal in life for American children aged 10 to 12 is fame, and a survey of British children found that “YouTuber” was the most coveted career choice.

Evolutionary psychologists note that we can acquire social status either through dominance or prestige (or both). It’s important because high-status individuals tend to receive more protections from their social group, appear more attractive (giving them reproductive advantages), obtain more resources, and have better health and longevity.

Meanwhile, many of us go through an education system that points to prestige pursuit as the standard recommended option (so ingrained that it’s often simply assumed and not even explicit), and we live in a culture that prizes, and sometimes idolizes, status and wealth.


How the Prestige Magnet Can Warp Our Lives

Clearly, there are advantages of social status, and we shouldn’t hold it against people for deriving benefits from their hard work, commitment, courage, or creativity. Far from it.

But there are also disadvantages, some of which are not only costly but also underappreciated.

Here are nine of the main disadvantages:

1. Career Choices

The prestige magnet can keep us from doing what we really want to do, or what we’re better suited to do, or from pursuing our dreams. It can pull us into career fields for the wrong reasons that don’t hold up over time, and with high switching costs (or even a sort of lock-in effect). I recall how popular and prestige-soaked the fields of consulting and investment banking were when I was getting my MBA. The point isn’t that there’s anything wrong with those professions but rather whether those jobs were a good fit for all those classmates and whether there wasn’t a phenomenon of social contagion at work. (And yes, I dipped my toes in those waters too. Let me be clear: I struggle with this trap, among many others, as well.)

2. Addiction

We can become addicted to the pursuit of prestige and its close cousins (success, fame, wealth, etc.), with all the implications that addictions carry, including crowding out other important areas of our lives, like health, relationships, and peace of mind.

3. Happiness Effects

By pursuing prestige, aren’t we placing parts of our happiness and sense of self-worth into the hands of others, including people we don’t even know or like?

4. The Expense

Pursuing prestige can be expensive, from costly universities to the pricey cars, homes, neighborhoods, and lifestyles that put us on a financial hamster wheel, sprinting to try to keep up. Getting nowhere fast. It can be exhausting—and financially precarious if things go awry.

5. Hidden Costs

Prestige often comes with hidden costs, including:

    • feeling trapped in jobs we don’t like, sometimes with colleagues or bosses we don’t like
    • working excessive hours (many prestigious firms pride themselves on this, as a sort of twisted bragging right)
    • burying ourselves in spreadsheets or presentation decks
    • wondering if our sacrifices are worth it
    • experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression

6. Career Damage

Those who are chasing status and prestige can come across as self-centered and self-serving, which can impair their teamwork and leadership effectiveness, because it’s off-putting. It can even take people on a path to becoming a toxic leader.

7. Identity Effects

If we’re consumed by a hunger for status and prestige during our career, where is that likely to leave us when we retire or if we change jobs or need to stop working? Are we okay with who we are even without the recognition or status? Do we need to be viewed as successful to feel content or happy?

8. Relationship Pain

Being in hot pursuit of prestige can keep us away way too much from those we love, from our spouse or significant other to our children, parents, or close friends. How will we view those tradeoffs and compromises later in life?

9. Regret

Following the prestige path is likely to lead to painful regret down the road, with a rude reckoning for our choices.

We can note here that many of these disadvantages, in the larger scheme of things, are problems of privilege. Many people struggle with much nastier problems, like surviving and feeding their families. Still these problems of the prestige magnet come with real pain and damage for many, and they’re found on all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.

So now we must ask, what to do about it?


How to Demagnetize the Prestige Magnet

From science class, we may recall that physical magnets can be demagnetized via certain techniques. For example, via high heat. Or a reverse field. We can even hammer the magnetism out of it. Best of all, we can leave the magnet untouched for long periods of time, and demagnetization will occur naturally over time. Like magic.

The prestige magnet can also be altered. Here are ten ways to address it:

1. Why

Step back and consider why you’re pursuing prestige, including whether there’s some sort of pain, loss, or hurt in your life that you’re trying to numb—and whether you might address it better by going to its roots.

2. Who

Think more critically about who you’re trying to impress. Who are they? How much do they truly matter to you? How likely is it that they’ll matter to you long in the future? Are they really so concerned about you, or are they more likely to be caught up in their own concerns, including their own prestige magnet?

3. Work

Instead of dwelling on how you stack up, focus on the work itself. Get lost in the process and concentrate on creating value for the intended beneficiaries. Become a craftsman and focus on slow, steady, and systematic improvement.

4. People

Spend your time with people who are comfortable with who they are regardless of the vagaries of status—and who care more about your heart and soul than your status and prestige.

5. Service

Serve others. Leave the prestige pursuit behind and focus on helping others. Be part of a community and contribute to something larger than your own personal wants, needs, and insecurities. If you’re in a position of authority, consider practicing servant leadership, a counterintuitive and revolutionary approach to leadership that emphasizes serving others first, including developing them and helping them accomplish things they never thought possible.

6. Purpose

Discover and pursue your purpose, or something that feels significant or meaningful to you, or that captures your heart. This will get your out of your head and into a project or endeavor that motivates you and benefits others. If you’re in a position of authority, consider taking on our triple crown leadership quest—a commitment to building an organization or team that’s excellent (achieving exceptional results and positive impacts for all stakeholders), ethical (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and enduring (standing the test of time and operating sustainably).

7. Gratitude

Be grateful for what you have. Incorporate gratitude practices (e.g., prayers of thanksgiving, meditation, a gratitude jar) into your life. And determine what is enough for you so you don’t catch the “disease of more.”

8. Creation

Build or create something: a side hustle, blog, passion project, memoir, garden, novel, startup, or social venture—whatever captures your interest and gets you lost in a state of flow.

9. Mortality

Think about your death. That’s right. As morbid as it is, remembering that you’re mortal—and given an unknown time span on this Earth—can help you remember what’s truly important in life—and what’s not.

10. Resolve

Decide and declare that you don’t need validation from others to determine your worth. Change your focus from worrying about what others may think of you to putting your head down and being the best person you can be, growing and giving as best you can every day.

The prestige magnet has its pull on many of us these days. Thankfully, though, there are many things we can do to dull its effect while still thriving in our chosen endeavors.


Reflection Questions

  1. How strong is the prestige magnet in your life?
  2. What can you do to reduce its downsides without eliminating its upsides?



Related Traps

This prestige trap doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to many of the other traps we’ve been addressing this traps series, including:



Postscript: Inspirations on Prestige and Ego

  • “Ego is the enemy.” –Ryan Holiday
  • “The bigger your heart, the more you love, the more you control your life. The bigger your ego, the more you’re scared, the more others control your life.” –Maxime Lagacé
  • “Egotism sucks us down like the law of gravity.” -Cyril Connolly
  • “Don’t worry about looking good; worry about achieving your goal.” –Ray Dalio
  • “The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” -Albert Einstein
  • “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” –Steven Pressfield (from The War of Art)
  • “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” -Colin Powell
  • “Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious.” -Paul Graham
  • “When the ego dies, the soul awakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “The foundation of the Buddha’s teachings lies in compassion, and the reason for practicing the teachings is to wipe out the persistence of ego, the number-one enemy of compassion.” –Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
  • “The ego is a veil between humans and God. In prayer all are equal.” -Rumi



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


Topics: prestige, prestige magnet, ego, status, life design, personal growth, personal development, self improvement, self-leadership, designing your life, crafting your life

Why We Want Adventure in Our Lives—And How to Get It

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me. -Walt Whitman

Adventure. It’s an amazing part of life and work, but often overlooked and neglected.

When I was little, my Dad used to tell stories to my brother and me—always about an adventurer, with a rucksack, off on some expedition. We loved it, in part because of the surprise and danger.

It turns out that adventure has much to teach us about living and leading. Of course, it’s not often that we encounter opportunities for exciting, daring, hazardous undertakings of unknown outcome.

But what if we could cultivate adventure in our lives?
What if we could pursue grand and meaningful adventures in our work?


The Benefits of Adventure

Adventure isn’t something just for daredevils and skydivers. It’s something for all of us who want to live well.

Adventure makes us feel more fully awake, alive, and free. It feeds us with the energy and excitement of exploration, discovery, and surprise. It even comes with a physiological response, with norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter that increases alertness and arousal) and elevated respiratory and heart rates.

“The danger of adventure is worth a thousand days of ease and comfort.”Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

Adventure comes with many benefits:

  • Adventure can give us remarkable experiences to savor and extraordinary memories to cherish.
  • It helps us discover who we really are (or rediscover it), which can be hard to do if we’re constantly mired in responsibilities, expectations, pressures, deadlines, and incessant busyness.
“…your dreams come clean over miles of road.” -Jackopierce, from their song, “My Time”
  • Adventure can help us feel whole again, especially if we’ve been living a divided life, and reconnect with our heart and intuition.
  • It can help us learn and grow, as we face new situations and challenges and try to improvise our way through them.
“Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with his own life.” -Herbert Otto
  • Adventure can help us develop our strength and courage as we learn to confront our fears.
  • It gives us an opportunity to transcend limiting beliefs. (In turn, we can move forward toward fulfilling our potential, learn how to trust ourselves, and develop a greater sense of our own agency.)
  • Adventure can lead to the accomplishment of great things, none of which would have been possible if we hadn’t dared to try.
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt


Ways to Bring Adventure into Our Lives and Work

Despite all these benefits, it’s easy to self-select out of adventure opportunities because of a limited view of ourselves as “not the adventurous type.”

But ceding this territory to the adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers is a mistake, especially since there are so many ways to invite adventure in our lives, some of which are straightforward and accessible for many:

Get out into nature, away from civilization and noise, and venture out into new areas. (You can also take it up a notch and do something like an Outward Bound expedition.)

“In the middle of the forest is an unexpected clearing, that can only be found by those who are lost.” -Tomas Tranströmer, Swedish poet

Travel to new places. (When you do so, be sure to get off the beaten path and take what Clif Bar entrepreneur Gary Erickson calls the “white roads.” When cycling through Europe with a friend, he noticed that, on a map, red roads are the big roads, full of vehicles, noise, and exhaust, while white roads are the smaller, quieter, less traveled paths full of surprises.

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful.” -Anthony Bourdain 

Learn or try something new. Try running, surfing, sailing, rock climbing, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, rafting, triathlons… whatever calls to you.

Sample new cuisine. My friends in Maryland are currently on a quest to eat a meal from every country in the world.

Ask someone out if you’re single. Take that chance even if it scares you. You ever know what might be on the other side of that decision.

Engage more with strangers. You never know what you may learn or encounter—or how much it may mean to someone in need.

Make new friends. Too many people start cocooning later in life after settling down, leading to disconnection, loneliness, and unhealthy over-reliance on a spouse or significant other.

Take advantage of transition times in your life (e.g., after graduating, in between jobs, when the kids leave the home, retirement, etc.). (For a great book on this, check out Life Is in The Transitions by Bruce Feiler.)

Launch or join a startup venture, or an innovation initiative or skunkworks project at your workplace. These can be thrilling in their challenges and opportunities—and career highlights.

Break out of a career rut, no longer settling for a bad manager or toxic culture, and finding something more worthy of your efforts and more aligned with your values and aspirations.

Go back to school to help launch you on a different career track that’s a better fit, or just because you’re curious and would like to learn and engage with new people and settings.

If you’re a manager, give your team an epic challenge, or create exciting new experiences for them to break the monotony and invite their creativity.

Join an adventure expedition or festival. There are many options. A summer camp for adults, a Tough Mudder, Burning Man, South by Southwest, and more.

Go on a retreat or a spiritual pilgrimage. Retreats like InsideFirst Roundtables, Modern Elder Academy Sabbatical Sessions, and Inventure expeditions. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Mecca, Camino de Santiago (France and Spain), Mount Kailash (Tibet), and Shikoku (Japan) to something more homegrown and local.

Some of my favorite adventures over the years have included:

  • backpacking through Europe
  • studying abroad for a year in London in graduate school
  • camping and climbing a pair of “fourteeners” (mountains rising to 14,000 feet above sea level) in the Colorado Rockies with friends
  • sailing on an overnight felucca boat down the Nile with my brother
  • performing live music at gigs, bars, and coffeehouses
  • trying to learn how to surf in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, spotting a great surfer on the same beach, asking him if he knew anyone around who could give me surfing lessons, and then getting a personal surfing lesson from him and learning that he was an international surfing competitor
  • joining school plays and musicals despite having no background in theater
  • bridge-jumping with a friend at his college
  • canoeing and swimming in a Puerto Rican bay among bioluminescent plankton
  • cliff-diving at an Adirondack lake
  • working at a tech startup that became a scale-up, with all its highs and lows
  • taking a self-generated sabbatical after leaving that startup so I could take my life back
  • getting married
  • becoming a father
  • moving to Sweden, getting out of my bubble and learning a new culture, language, and worldview (and then moving back to Colorado)

These are some of my fondest memories, but I also see that there have been long chapters in my life in which adventure has been absent.

Thankfully, I’ve been inspired by adventurous friends and colleagues. One friend talked his way onto a naval submarine off the coast of South America so he could hitch a ride down the coastline.

Another favorite of mine: an entrepreneur we interviewed for LIFE Entrepreneurs who retreats to his own “secret office”:

“Each year, I try to take twenty-five work-week days and spend them hiking, biking, or on the water some place. It’s like having your own secret office with the world’s best views. These aren’t bank holidays or the days between Christmas and New Year’s. They’re mid-week days right in the heart of the year when everyone else is at their desk. My best creative thinking is on these days. The places I go are inspiring, and exercise tends to calm my mind and help me see the big picture. Following these days, I try to resist the urge to catch up on emails at night. Instead I’ll write or think about what occupied my mind that day.”Max Israel

If you struggle with jumping on the adventure bandwagon, consider this unconventional motivator:

Contemplate your death.

This ancient practice from the Stoics (memento mori: “Remember that you must die”) and other traditions can help put our lives in perspective while also highlighting their flaws, sparking urgency to grab hold of our lives while we have them.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” -Steve Jobs


The most important adventure of all is the one that’s most hidden: everyday life.

Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of daily activity, it’s easy to lose sight of the grand adventure that is life itself. The miracle that we’re here, wandering on a planet hurtling through the cosmos, all part of a wondrous, incomprehensible whole.

How can it all possibly be? What will happen next, in our lives and the world? Why are we here? What will we choose to do with our unknown number of days, and who with, and to what end? A grand adventure, indeed, and the most precious of gifts.


Traps that Keep Us from Having Adventures

There are many pathways into adventure, from the mundane and simple to the morbid and sublime. But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that it’s always easy, given our circumstances and obligations.

Too often, we fall into the common traps of living, many of which make adventure feel out of reach. Some of the traps:

  • Conforming: conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths.
  • Drifting: getting carried along by time, circumstances, and outside influences.
  • Playing the short game: being short-sighted and neglecting the big picture.
  • Being outer-driven: being driven by external (parent, peer, societal) expectations and caring too much about what other people think.
  • Postponing happiness: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  • Settling: compromising or settling for “good enough.”
  • Being a workaholic: being addicted to work or success, letting it consume our thoughts and time while letting other important things slip away.

The traps are tricky. They sneak up on us, sometimes capturing us for years. But they’re not insurmountable.

We just need something worthy of our efforts to break free. Something like the sweet thrill of adventure and the lasting glow it brings.

Do you have enough adventure in your life?
 What can you do, starting today, to invite more adventure into your life and work?


Postscript: Quotations on Adventure

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is: not to take the risk.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus
  • “Cover the earth before it covers you.” -Dagobert Runes
  • “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” -Helen Keller
  • “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” -Andre Gide
  • “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Only those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” -Robert Kennedy
  • “Jobs fill your pockets, but adventures fill your soul.” -Jaime Lyn
  • “Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you.” -Marcus Purvis
  • “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” -Anais Nin
  • “Above all, life entrepreneurship is an adventure.” -Warren Bennis
  • “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain
  • “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild


Bonus: Inspiring Adventure Classics

Many of us cherish the classic adventure stories from literature and film that inspire our dreams and ambitions. Some of my favorites:

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien took us on an epic ring quest. Starting in the Shire, the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin band together with other wily characters like Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Arwen, Galadriel, Boromir, and others to take on Sauron, Saruman, the Orcs, Trolls, and more hideous creatures and wizards and try to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom, thereby saving the world. It’s a classic tale of courage and good versus evil, wrapped in a brilliant adventure.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -Bilbo Baggins, a character in J. R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Odyssey

In this epic poem by Homer, Odysseus struggles to endure the wrath of the gods, smite mystical creatures, and survive daunting threats—from a cyclops and witch to a sea storm and the alluring Sirens—in a decade-long struggle to return home to his wife, Penelope.

“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” -Homer, The Odyssey

Into the Wild

This book by Jon Krakauer recounts the spirited adventures of Christopher McCandless (a.k.a., “Alexander Supertramp”), a young man disillusioned by the conventions of civilized life in suburban Virginia and its soul-sapping monotony. He gave up his possessions, donated his college fund to charity, and embarked on a brand-new path, traveling westward across the country, abandoning his car after a flash flood, and then hitchhiking to the Stampede Trail in Alaska, where he set off alone in the snow with only ten pounds of rice, a camera, a rifle, ammunition, and some reading.

“I now walk into the wild.”Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

Harry Potter

J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novels tell the story of Harry Potter, a young wizard touched by fate, and his friends and allies Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Albus Dumbledore, and Hagrid. Their escapades at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry place Harry in harrowing battles against Lord Voldemort, the dark wizard.

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”J. K. Rowling 


Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was an explorer who led three expeditions to the Antarctic in the 1900s. During the Nimrod expedition, he and his crew made the largest advance toward the South Pole in history. After subsequently losing the race to the South Pole to Roald Amundsen, Shackleton focused on crossing Antarctica from sea to sea via the South Pole. During this expedition, its ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice and was gradually crushed. The crew camped on the sea ice and then launched lifeboats and traveled an incredible distance to reach Elephant Island and then South Georgia Island.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” -newspaper ad placed by Sir Ernest Shackleton to recruit a crew for his Antarctic expedition


Bonus: Gregg’s Curated Music Playlist for Your Next Adventure

  • “8 Miles from a Paved Road,” Edwin McCain
  • “America,” Simon and Garfunkel
  • “Beautiful Day,” U2
  • “Can’t You See,” The Marshall Tucker Band
  • “Drift Away,” Dobie Gray
  • “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman
  • “Free,” Jackopierce
  • ‘Hit the Road Jack’ by Ray Charles
  • “Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison
  • “I Want to Get Lost with You,” Stereophonics
  • “My Time,” Jackopierce
  • “On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson
  • “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” The Eagles
  • “Ramblin’ Man,” Allman Brothers Band
  • “Roam,” The B-52’s
  • “Route 66,” Chuck Berry
  • “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” by Tom Petty
  • “Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne
  • “Seven Bridges Road,” The Eagles
  • “Shotgun Rider,” Tim McGraw
  • “Southern Cross,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash
  • “Take It Easy,” The Eagles (or the original Jackson Browne version)
  • “The Mountains Win Again,” Blues Traveler
  • “Vineyard,” Jackopierce
  • “Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2

What are your favorite adventure or road-tripping songs? Contact me here to send me suggestions for this list.


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

Topics: adventure, daring, courage, life design, personal growth, personal development, self improvement, self-leadership, designing your life, crafting your life

The Power of Awe in Our Lives

When’s the last time you experienced awe?

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

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

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

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


My Own Awe Experiences

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

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

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

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


The Benefits of Awe

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

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

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


Awe-Inspiring Activities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reflection Questions

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



Postscript: Quotations on Awe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Conformity Trap

One of the biggest traps we face as we make decisions about life and work is the trap of conforming to societal expectations or conventional paths instead of blazing our own path in life.

Conformity entails behaving in ways similar to others or according to their wishes instead of relying on our own judgment or preferences. We see this all time. We tend to mirror the body language and communication styles of our peer groups.

Our penchant for conformity comes from a strong desire to fit in with the group. It can be conscious or unconscious, and it doesn’t require overt pressure. The pressures can be indirect and subtle yet still powerful (or even misperceived—manufactured by our anxious brains).

As humans, we feel a strong, almost primal need to be accepted and viewed favorably by others. It’s a powerful urge baked into our biology, presumably because we found safety in the group that helped us survive despite all the risks we’ve faced over the ages, most of which are more pronounced and dangerous when we’re alone.


Willing to Go Along

To see how powerful the effects of conformity are, consider the classic experiment by Dr. Solomon Asch, a Polish social psychology researcher, who gave people cards with lines of different lengths on them and had them judge which line was the same length as the target line. When people were tested individually, the success rate was of course near perfect (99%). It was a no-brainer. People could see the lines right in front of them with their own eyes.

But when people were tested in a group setting and there were secret people planted in the experimental group who were instructed by the researchers to give wrong answers, it caused many subjects of the experiment to ignore what they saw with their own eyes.

Overall, they agreed with the wrong answer from the majority about the length of the lines a whopping 37% of the time. So the error rate went from 1% to 37% on a simple and obvious task due to group influences. The point is not that their vision was altered but rather that they were willing to go along with something they clearly knew wasn’t right to remain accepted and in agreement with the group.


Excellent Sheep

“They’re anxious, timid, and lost… heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. They’re violently averse to risk as a product of being shackled by their academic success.” -William Deresiewicz

In his book, Excellent Sheep, teacher and author William Deresiewicz describes how this problem shows up in elite universities. He heard the term “excellent sheep” from one of his students. It describes a phenomenon in which students “feel toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression,” are in a “constant state of competition,” feel a need for “compulsive overachievement,” go through “endless hoop-jumping,” and are loaded up with schoolwork and extracurriculars and stressed out and miserable most of the time.

The result: a stunning amount of them end up going into the same well paying, high-status, professional careers, dutifully following the herd and the wishes of their shepherds. Yes, problems of privilege, but still problems.

Consider the response of a former student of mine when asked in survey about top challenges faced:

“We feel the pressure of achieving high grades in school, having a job, doing extracurricular work such as volunteering to build up a CV, having a social life, and exercise—all at the same time. Social media makes it seem as if everyone is totally capable of juggling twenty balls at once, emphasizing only positive experiences. Nowadays, the only thing that is important is ‘measurable’ success. Anything you cannot put on your CV or on social media doesn’t count anymore…. Because of all these measurements, I feel like I am only extrinsically motivated. And I don’t want that. I want to be intrinsically motivated and block out everything that others or society expect of me—but do the things that I want to do because I value them.”

The Problem with Conformity

“Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, University of California at San Francisco

The problem is that this conformity urge can interfere with our ability to make good decisions—decisions that keep us safe or that leave our character intact.

Bronnie Ware identified the “top regrets of the dying” after years of work as a palliative nurse caring for people in the final weeks and days of their lives. The top regret she noted was this:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

These conformity and pressure patterns start early and continue with great momentum throughout our lives. Common examples during adolescence include pressure to do the following to fit in:

  • bullying, racist, or sexist behavior (going along with it or looking the other way)
  • casual sex
  • alcohol or drugs
  • ditching school or vandalism
  • cheating and cutting corners (according to researchers, we’re more likely to engage in unethical behavior when we see others succeed at it)
  • feeling that our parents will only be satisfied if we do what they want us to do, regardless of what we want, and following their preferences toward safer and more lucrative and prestigious careers (note also that they may have felt similar pressures from their parents, and so on, in some sort of endless family loop; making things worse, we’re conflicted because we love our parents and don’t want to disappoint them but we also want to find our own path in life).

Consider this message from another former student:

“I am facing a few obstacles at the moment, and most of them are related to what is expected of me, especially by my family. I have always been a very good student at school, I got the highest grades throughout high school, I was valedictorian at my graduation, I got into a top university for my bachelor’s degree and my master’s, and I have been working full-time and part-time during my studies as well. I’ve always heard from everyone around me that I would make a great businesswoman, that I would get in to ‘any of the top companies’ I wanted. And now that I’m at that point, I don’t know if that’s the type of success that will make me the happiest…. So at the moment, my major obstacle is internal; do I risk disappointing them for not following the path they would expect me to? Or do I accept the fact that I might end up working somewhere that is not a true ‘fit’ for me to make others happy?… Another obstacle I have is internal; I don’t want to fail. And I am terrified of failing. And this fear of failure is putting limits to what I will allow myself to do…. I am scared of taking a step in the wrong direction.”

When we conform, we can lose our individuality and uniqueness. What’s more, we feel anxiety about having to maintain an image of near perfection.

It’s important to note that conformity is not all bad. We evolved with a desire for it for good reasons, and there are some benefits of it.

For example, it can make our lives simpler and easier because we don’t have to worry as much about being judged harshly by our peers. It also gives us something of a safety net we can fall into when we’re anxious.

The Second-Order Effect of Conformity

Here’s the problem that rarely gets noticed. We move through different social circles during our lives: from childhood and teen friends to early-career colleagues and neighbors, to new people we meet at work or in new places we live or visit, including our spouse or partner’s friends.

Sometimes we make decisions about work to impress certain people and fit in, but we won’t even be in touch with those people in a few years. As we age, we can be shocked by how little it matters what some of those people think, when back in those early days it felt like the weight of the world was upon us. And yet we make big decisions that are hard to change based on those often superficial and unhelpful influences.

The effects of conformity can be long-lasting and hard to unwind, given the switching costs of trying to make big changes later (like a change in career or college major).


What to Do about It

So the forces of conformity are powerful and hard to resist. What to do about it? Here are a half-dozen tips:

First, know yourself. That begins with knowing your story—and weaving it into a cohesive narrative based on the patterns you’ve seen in your life and especially drawing on your sense of purpose, values, strengths, passions, and aspirations. It also means learning from challenges, setbacks, and tragedies but not letting yourself be defined or limited by them.

Second, embrace your uniqueness as part of your identity. That way, you can explain your nonconformity with the group using your difference in a way that fits with your core identity—with who you really are.

Third, build up your courage—the courage you’ll need to resist the Siren call of conformity. How? By practicing hard things. By doing what you think you can’t. Start with something small. See how often it turns out that fears were phantoms, and that the worst cases imagined almost never materialize—and how resilient and resourceful we can be when we need to be. The good news is that, as we develop an increasing ability to withstand criticism and fight against the pressures of conformity, our confidence increases and we develop a clearer sense of our identity and uniqueness. It can turbocharge our life and work.

Fourth, find support from people who value you for your uniqueness and differences—and who don’t pressure you to fit into to conventional boxes. (And be sure to reciprocate.)

Fifth, stop spending time with people who put you in uncomfortable situations. Terminate the toxic in your life.

Sixth, and most importantly, JUST BE YOU. Stop following the crowd and blaze your own path in life. It may make the difference between a lifetime of fulfillment versus regret.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you falling into the conformity trap in areas of your life? If so, which ones?
  • How is it hurting you or holding you back?
  • What will you do about it, starting now?



Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Conformity Trap

  • “Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be.” -Parker Palmer
  • “There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice.” -Po Bronson
  • “But there is something that’s a great deal more important than parental approval: learning to do without it. That’s what it means to become an adult…. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.” -William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep
  • “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.” -Robert Louis Stevenson
  • “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
  • “Middle-status conformity leads us to choose the safety of the tried-and-true over the danger of the original.” -Adam Grant in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
  • “Any day of the week I would choose to be ‘out’ with others and in touch with myself… than to be ‘in’ with others and out of touch with myself.” -Portia Nelson
  • “Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.” -Shakti Gawain
  • “Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’ Consensus asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular… but because conscience tells one it is right.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living


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

Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?

Work is a big part of our lives. It’s essential to our income and security, and it can be a source of meaning and satisfaction. But there are dangers with having our identity too wrapped up in our work.

What happens if we’re laid off? Or in-between jobs? No longer able to do that kind of work? Retired? We’re vulnerable to an identity crisis and a downward spiral when the work that animates our identity disappears or changes.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” Colin Powell

For sure, there are many different types of workers out there: nine to fivers working for the weekend, side hustlers, part-timers, hybrid professionals, unemployed, underemployed, and more. The job market has been brutal for some during the pandemic, better for others. Some like or love what they do. Others despise or endure it.

Some toil away in a workaholic organizational culture. Others are trying to live up to parental expectations. Some are trapped in golden handcuffs. Others can’t stop ruminating about work situations and scenarios.


The Traps of Overidentification with Work

There’s nothing wrong with working hard. Or with loving or liking what we do. Or with identifying with our work.

The problem comes when we identify too much with our work, losing other important aspects of ourselves and our lives in the process.

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f**king khakis.”Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Problems come when we bury ourselves in busyness and overwork—when we glorify being busy and can’t slow down and shut if off (or can’t feel good when we’re not working). According to a meta-analysis of 89 studies, workaholism is related to lower physical and mental health and lower job, family, and life satisfaction. Sometimes we use overwork to avoid dealing with difficulties, disconnections, rejections, or wounds.

We get into trouble when work is all about trying to please or impress others. When we reject who we really are—abandoning our true nature and avoiding our calling.

Problems pop up when we bury ourselves in someone else’s priorities so much so that we never get to our own.

It’s nice when we get recognition, praise, or even prestige from our work, but it’s dangerous when we become dependent on those, addicted to our next hit.

It’s a problem if we feel terrible when work is going poorly, clouding everything in disappointment.

It becomes a trap when our relationship with work becomes an obsession in which we’re constantly striving and can’t switch it off—when we’re never satisfied with things as they are.

It’s trouble when our attachment to work disconnects us from meaningful relationships—from the people we love and who need us.

“…the work I’ve put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm.”Don Henley in “The Heart of the Matter”

It’s limiting when our current work keeps us from moving forward and trying new things, because we feel safer in the current iteration of our work and wary of venturing forth. So we avoid the uncertainty and awkwardness of the in-between periods of our lives—the ones that tend to lead to the biggest breakthroughs in growth and fulfillment after we ride out the storms of fear and doubt and stare down the unknown.

The problem is when our identity is wrapped up too much in our work, with too much emotional investment (and time). It leads to stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression—and a sense of emptiness, disappointment, or regret.

Who are we? Are we only our title? Only the person who gains income or accolades? Yes, we are those, and we’re wise if we’re intentional as possible about infusing those activities with as much heart and soul and fun as we can. It’s great if we can integrate our life and work into a cohesive whole that suits us. It’s powerful if we can integrate our values, passions, and authenticity across all the domains of our lives, bridging them with an overarching sense of purpose.

“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher

But aren’t we also husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, friends and neighbors, lovers and dreamers, community members, citizens, and humans bound together on spaceship Earth?


What to Do About It

What to do when we’re identifying too much with our work and not honoring other important areas of our lives?

Return to what’s important: who and what do we love? What do we long for? What are we missing in our life?

Do we have enough vitality, connection, and contribution in our lives? Do we have a strong sense of our “core identity,” and are we living with “authentic integrity” (integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature)?

We all get off-kilter sometimes. We need to cut ourselves some slack. But we also need to stop lying to ourselves. We must take our lives back when we’ve given them away. We must honor the fullness of our nature and the marvelous range and depth of our lives, both in and out of the work we do. If we do, we can learn to be well regardless of the events and circumstances of the day, grounded in a deeper presence and appreciation for all that we’ve been given.


Reflection Questions

  • Are you identifying too much with your work?
  • What important areas of your life are you neglecting?
  • What will you do start doing to make yourself whole again?


Postscript: Inspirations on Life, Work, and Identity

  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus
  • “‘Can I be comfortable in my own skin regardless of what’s going on around me?’ And that to me is the definition of true success.” -Peter Crone
  • “People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.” -Herminia Ibarra


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living


Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (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). Sign up for his monthly newsletter for inspirations, articles, tools, and opportunities.

The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Though we like to think of ourselves as free, many of us are confined to a mental prison we’ve built for ourselves.

Our most vicious jailer is our unhealthy “self-talk”—our inner critic that savagely sabotages us with haunting doubts and harsh judgments. We’re our own worst enemy.

We’re a prisoner of our “monkey mind”—feeling unsettled or restless and easily distracted by thoughts that bounce around like agitated apes. Often, we’re dwelling on the past or worrying about the future—always neglecting the present moment.

Most of our mental prisons are fictional stories our minds invent to prevent us from potential suffering. The sad secret, though, is that the suffering is wildly unlikely to occur outside our overactive imaginations. Our mental prisons are fear factories.

“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands.”Martha Beck in Steering by Starlight

Sometimes our mental prison is the need we feel, often flowing from childhood, to gain approval and be liked or admired, or it’s the prison of the expectations of others (or, more accurately, what we presume those expectations to be, often wrongly).

Here’s the thing: We think we’re struggling with the outer game but it’s actually the inner game that’s tripping us up.

“Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically.”Shirzad Chamine, author


The Toll of Our Mental Prisons

These prisons are harmful in countless ways:

  • Lower confidence, sense of wellbeing, and joy.
  • Decrease in motivation and performance.
  • Distorted perceptions: we’re looking at reality with an overlay of past memories and hurts as well as future hunches and worries, skewing our senses.
  • Loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility—sometimes by blaming all our troubles on a single source (such as an ex-spouse, or an addiction), when in reality there are multiple factors contributing to problems (including our own mindset and behavior).
  • Learned helplessness”: a well documented phenomenon in which we give up after a number of futile attempts at something, eventually surrendering our agency even when there may be potential solutions and overlooking opportunities for change.


The Building Blocks of Our Mental Prisons

Building our own personal confinement is a strange endeavor, yet all too common. What drives it?

It begins with root causes that are exceedingly difficult to overcome because they’re often subconscious. First is depending on circumstances for our happiness: “If and when X happens,” we believe, “then I’ll be happy.” The logic seems sound, but it’s deeply flawed. We’re terrible at knowing what will truly make us happy and fulfilled over time, causing us to spend time on the wrong things. Also, with this logic, we’re placing our happiness in the hands of too many factors outside our control. The key is to learn to be happy and well regardless of our circumstances.

Second is our automatic emotional reactions to events, preceding our rational brain’s ability to interpret the situation from a higher level of consciousness and with a broader perspective and openness to different interpretations and possible responses.

There are also more mundane but also significant contributors:

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety. This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life.” -Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

In her book, Mindfulness, psychologist Ellen Langer identifies several causes of mindlessness that also inhibit our mental wellbeing:

  • Having a narrow self-image, such as defining ourselves solely by our work (e.g., as a project manager, bookkeeper, or customer service rep) as opposed to all of our multifaceted identities (for example, son or daughter, mother or father, friend, colleague, artist, gardener, athlete, etc.). Being overly invested in one part of our lives is risky because it’s likely to go up and down over time—and can even disappear entirely.
  • Having false beliefs about common things. Example: conflating old age with poor health. While they’re correlated, they’re very different, and there are many examples of people who thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically in their later years.
  • Preoccupation with expected outcomes that sometimes fail to materialize (based on many factors outside our range of influence), instead of a healthy focus on the process.
  • Making faulty comparisons with others based on the outcomes they have (e.g., wealth, accomplishments) instead of the process they used to get them.


Our Mental Saboteurs

Shirzad Chamine, an executive and best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has done important work that can help us understand how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

He identifies nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. As you read them, note which ones challenge you:

  1. Judge: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances
  2. Victim: focus on painful feelings as a way of earning attention or empathy
  3. Pleaser: flattering, recuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance
  4. Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts
  5. Stickler: excessive need for perfection, order, and organization
  6. Restless: needing perpetual busyness and never being content with what is
  7. Controller: anxiety-based need to control situations or others
  8. Hyper-achiever: depending on achievement for self-acceptance
  9. Hyper-rational: excessively analytical processing of everything, including relationships
  10. Hyper-vigilant: excessive vigilance that never stops, seeing danger around every corner (Source: Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence)


Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Enter Carol Dweck and her pathbreaking research on mindsets. Dweck is a professor at Stanford University who studies motivation, personality, and development. She distinguishes between two mindsets:

  1. Fixed mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents are fixed. People with a fixed mindset tend to:
    • Want to look smart
    • Avoid challenges
    • Ignore useful negative feedback
    • Feel threatened by the success of others
    • Plateau early and achieve less than their full potential
  1. Growth Mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. People with a growth mindset tend to:
    • Want to learn
    • Embrace challenges
    • Learn from criticism
    • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
    • Reach ever-higher levels of achievement

It makes an enormous difference whether we approach a situation with a desire to look smart or a desire to learn. Our mindset is especially evident in our reaction to failure:

Do we dread the prospect of failure because we view it as an embarrassing reflection on our competencies? Or are we open to the prospect of failure because we view it as a sign that we’re stretching ourselves in new areas?

Dweck notes that mindset plays an important role in virtually all aspects of our lives, from school, sports, and business to parenting, relationships, and more. Our mindsets shape our:

  • enjoyment of challenging tasks
  • goals and ideas about what we’ll strive for
  • honesty when confronted with situations where we may not look as good as we’d like
  • performance on tasks

We’re all born with certain predispositions, and our mindsets can vary in different areas in our lives, but here’s the good news:

“Can mindsets be changed? Can they be taught? Yes.” Carol Dweck, psychologist

How to Escape Mental Prison

If mental prisons are common to the human condition, what have we learned about ways to break free? Much, it turns out.

For starters, a surprising intervention involves breath work to change our physical and mental state: breathing deeply and intentionally, as with “box breathing.”

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

We also want to start noticing our thoughts more—observing the strange things that pop into our heads and spotting the negative patterns that reappear. It helps to label them (e.g., “My ‘controller’ is making me feel anxious, or “I’m being overly judgmental again”).


More Actions We Can Take

  • Focusing on what we can control, and not worrying about the rest.
  • Exploring different aspects of the issue with a sense of curiosity and fascination.
  • Remaining open to new possibilities and alternate interpretations.
  • Avoiding the trap of catastrophizing (assuming the worst or exaggerating our flaws).
  • Changing our context to bring a different perspective and renewed energy, especially to a place that provides sanctuary.
  • Replacing our inner critique with a more charitable and helpful narrative.
  • Cognitive reframing: shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a different and more helpful perspective, such as redefining a problem as a challenge or puzzle that we become curious to solve.
  • Playing: it often changes our physiology by moving us into a state of deep engagement or flow.
  • Taking action: there’s freedom in action, and it reveals fear for the false phantom it is.
  • Choosing what to think and be mindful about. Many people become passive victims of the random thought-stream in their minds instead of engaging their “observer” or deeper perspective and employing their ability to choose which thoughts to keep and which to dismiss as unproductive or unwelcome.
  • Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others.


Reflection Questions

  • Is your self-talk too negative?
  • Are you disrupted my “monkey mind”?
  • What will you do to start arranging your escape from mental prison?


Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Break Out of Mental Prison

  • “When you fight life you lose but only 100 percent of the time.” -Byron Katie
  • “To me, real success is where I can be at peace in the midst of chaos.” -Peter Crone
  • “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.” -Byron Katie
  • “The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” –The Bhagavad Gita
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “Everyone fails…. There is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?’” -John W. Gardner
  • “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “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
  • “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.” -Eckhart Tolle

Books that Will Help Free Your Mind and Mindset


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and facilitator on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (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). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Do You Have Margin in Your Life?

Many of us are always “on” these days, running from task to task. Never-ending demands. Frenetic pace. We fill every available moment with activity or scrolling through our digital feeds.

Young hustlers making it happen. Working parents managing the household. Climbing the corporate ladder or growing our small business or nonprofit.  Perpetual busyness.

It feels heavy always going at this pace. We get exhausted.

The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

It’s not common to talk and think in terms of margin in our lives. But it’s needed now more than ever. A margin is the border between things, like the margin on a page. Filling every page up to the max just gets overwhelming.


The Consequences of Not Having Margin

The consequences of not having margin are severe: lower quality of life, less happiness and fulfillment, and lower performance at work over time.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.”General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps General

It can damage to our health and relationships—and our soul. It can lead to burnout and a sense of emptiness. It takes time away from the things we enjoy, such as hobbies or time with friends. It prevents us from exercising enough. It induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

The Benefits of Margin

Having margin gives us room to breathe, to reflect and renew. To “sharpen the saw,” as author Stephen R. Covey wrote. With margin we can rise up and view things with perspective. We can reactivate our creativity and wisdom.

When we have breathing room, we can start to see where we’re going wrong—where we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with dysfunctional behaviors. We begin to see the possibilities for change.

Without margin, we keep our heads down and keep ploughing forward, stuck in the same traps and not even admitting it to ourselves. Sometimes we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

What to do with the margin we carve out in our lives? With it, we can:

  • reflect on what’s important
  • assess how things are going
  • see if there’s a gap between the life we have and the life we want
  • consider new ideas for closing that gap
  • experience mindful living in the present, without fretting about the past or worrying about the future

Why Is This So Hard?

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy feat in today’s world of dizzying distractions and cunning algorithms designed to hijack our attention with chemical manipulations in our brains. At bottom, they’re not giving us a better life but an escape from it.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster

The evidence is alarming. Average daily digital content consumption (including time spent on social media, news sites, and streaming) is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

This can lead to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder in the mind, often including a chaotic mental review of things that impairs our effectiveness. He writes that it “involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish.”

It’s especially difficult if we’re trying to please everyone and not learning to set boundaries and say no—a big challenge for some people. In turn, this leads to us becoming overcommitted and falling into a death spiral of too much anxiety without the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with it and too much work volume without enough deep work to handle it.

“Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”Tim Ferriss

For some, a compulsion to achieve, win, or achieve recognition or status prevents us from carving out enough margin in our lives. This can lead to workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we can’t switch it off or stop thinking about it. Another factor is being overly optimistic about what can get done by when—wearing “rose-colored glasses,” as they say.

What to Do about It

How to get more margin in our life? It helps to acknowledge the problem first, perhaps flowing from an assessment of how we’re spending our time and determining the areas in which it’s not time well spent. (Yes, there are apps for that.)

Perhaps most importantly, we must get clear on what’s important to us, starting with our values (what we value most in life—and the behaviors that manifest those things), purpose  (our reason for being, or what infuses our life with meaning and significance), and aspirations for our life and work. Modern movements like essentialism and minimalism can help us avoid the trappings of overconsumption and overscheduling while distilling things to the essential few that enrich our lives.

It’s essential to establish clear and challenging criteria for what to say “yes” to and to get better at saying “no” to many things that come across the transom in our lives. As author Greg McKeown advises, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Next, we need to build renewal into our days, giving us a sense of serenity instead of that precarious state of anxiety from the cumulative effects of overwork, stress, poor sleep, and not taking caring of ourselves or connecting enough with others. There are limits to our energy. We need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” John W. Gardner

Even better if we can find “sanctuary” in our lives—places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there’s an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. It’s the serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

It helps to schedule margin into our lives: put it on our calendar and protect it. We must regain control of all the things that eat into margin, such as email or Slack, meetings, smartphones, interruptions, and messy workspaces. We need to get better at anticipating and preventing distractions, thereby creating the conditions for focus, flow, and deep work.

We should also look for smaller things we can do—quick and easy hacks that help us preserve margin. In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recommends the “ten-minute rule”: waiting ten minutes before giving in to an urge to check our phone as a pacification device.


Reflection Questions

  • Do you have enough margin in your life?
  • How is lack of margin harming your wellbeing, relationships, or work?
  • What steps will you take, starting today, to reclaim your life and the margin it requires?


Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Build More Margin

  • “I love a broad margin to my life.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • Margin is “time to make room for change.” -Jeff Sapadafora, author and coach
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence…. Silence is the general consecreation of the universe.” -Herman Melville
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Books that Will Help Change Your Life with More Margin


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and facilitator on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (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). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Trap of Deferring Dreams and Postponing Happiness

One of the most common—and costly—traps of living is the trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness. We do it, we tell ourselves, because it’s not practical or “the right time.”

So what happens in the meantime? We endure work without enjoying it. We suffer through the days. We become resigned to the dysfunctions of our work, and habituated to its anxiety and stress. We sacrifice health, family, and dreams for the job. We neglect precious relationships with family and friends with the rationalization that we’ll make up for it later.

We wait. Hmmm….


Waiting for that “Perfect Time”

“People wait. They wait for the elusive day when they’ll finally have enough time (guess what? — you never will), enough education (there’s always more to know), enough money (no matter how much you make, someone will always have more)…. People wait until that fateful day when they wake up and realize that while they were sitting around paying dues, earning their keep, waiting for that elusive ‘perfect time’ their entire life has passed them by.”Richie Norton, The Power of Starting Something Stupid

For some, this means enduring a mediocre or even miserable, stress-filled present on the bet that if we keep grinding it out today (this year… this decade…), we’ll magically arrive in happiness heaven at some point.

Don’t misunderstand: hard work is good. Paying dues can be valuable. Not everybody is blessed with options.

But here’s the reality: If we spend our days deferring our dreams and postponing our happiness, then our life will be, well, one of deferred dreams and postponed happiness. Too often, the dreams and happiness never materialize. We put them off until it’s too late, or we burn up too much time in deferral mode.

Life is too precious and short to wait. It comes with unknown contents and duration. Is it really worth the wait?

According to Emma Seppäla of the Yale School of Management, “This theory of success, the idea that in order to be successful you have to postpone or sacrifice your happiness, is simply false.”


Why Is This So Hard?

Of course, we understand the dangers here conceptually, yet we still end up falling into this trap of waiting, deferring, and postponing. Why?

First, we undervalue ourselves, subconsciously believing we’re so flawed that we’re not yet worthy of happiness. Sometimes, we learn these self-beliefs or worldviews from our family, born in a different time or with a different outlook.

Second, we fear failure. Our brains are wired for it. We submit to our risk aversion. As we mull our decision whether to wait or go for it, we overweight the cost of potential failure while underweighting the value of failure (from what we’ll learn and the pride we’ll feel for having tried) and neglecting altogether the cost of regret (the anguish associated with looking back and wondering about missed chances).

Third, we’re paralyzed by uncertainty about how to venture forth into the murky territory of our hopes and dreams. There are a couple factors at work here:

  • The “paradox of choice” (with anxiety coming from choice overload, causing “analyis paralysis”), as noted by psychologist Barry Schwartz
  • The belief that we have to find the one “perfect idea” and make the one “right choice,” with advance certainty that all will work and that it will go according to plan. (The reality is that it almost never does.)

An important note: postponing happiness also means postponing purpose—one of the most important drivers of a fulfilling life. True happiness comes not just from savoring the simple pleasures but also from connecting with others in deep, reciprocal relationships and contributing to something larger than ourselves, whether a family, neighborhood, organization, community, nation, cause, or planet.


Related Traps

There many related traps resonant with this trap of deferring dreams and postponing happiness, including:

  • Drift: getting carried along by time, circumstances, and outside influences—eventually wondering, “How did I get here?”
  • Empty: feeling empty about what we’re doing, without passion or joy
  • Fear: holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • Golden handcuffs: financial or lifestyle choices that inhibit us from doing what we want (for example, being financially tethered to a job that’s not a good fit)
  • Hedonic treadmill: working harder and gaining more wealth or possessions without increasing happiness or fulfillment (a professional hamster wheel)
  • Inertia: sticking with a sub-optimal path, often because the switching costs are high
  • Settle: compromising or settling for “good enough”
  • Sleepwalk: going through the motions of life and feeling “half-awake”

There’s no magic formula for determining the right time to make a change—or how to go about it. But we do know that if we don’t chase our dreams and aspirations, they’ll die a cold and lonely death from neglect. Is that what we want for our lives?

The most important thing, then, is first to decide to avoid that fate and second to get started.


Reflection Questions

  • Do you have dreams you’re deferring?
  • What are you postponing?
  • What can you do, starting today, to begin pursuing your aspirations?
  • What are you waiting for?


Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, columnist and humorist
  • “Am I doing things that allow me to live the way I want, serve the way I want, and be the parent I want to be? The last thing we wanted to do was live in a way that was talking about tomorrow instead of living it today.” -Stacey Boyd, entrepreneur
  • “There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?” -Warren Buffett, investor
  • “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time.” -Albert Camus
  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
  • “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic
  • “I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? …. You might demand of it, ‘Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?’ The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: ‘Because it’s fun, isn’t it?’ Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth—not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity?” -Elizabeth Gilbert, author and journalist
  • “The way to live our vision on a daily basis is to understand that right now is the only time we have.” -John Hanley
  • “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” -Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author
  • “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” -Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is: not to take the risk.” -Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher
  • “A lot of times we’re driven and limited by perceived risk. But perceived risk is unrelated to actual risk. Real risk is not starting a business you are passionate about. Real risk is staying at a job that isn’t fulfilling; wasting your life.” -Jim Koch, founder, Boston Beer Company
  • “The most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar, tech executive, entrepreneur, and author
  • “If you truly love life, don’t waste time because time is what life is made of.” -Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor, and director
  • “Instead of your heart beats faster, why not you just act faster a bit; instead of just thinking about it, why not do something about it? Poor people fail because of one common behavior: their whole life is about waiting.” -Jack Ma, entrepreneur
  • “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” -Carl Sandburg, poet and biographer
  • “In the time of your life, live.” -William Saroyan, novelist and playwright
  • “It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is—we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.” -Seneca, On the Brevity of Life
  • “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” -Shakespeare
  • “I must change my life, so that I can live it, not wait for it.” -Susan Sontag, writer, philosopher, and teacher
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague, clergyman
  • “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, English writer, poet, and academic


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (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). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living or his TEDx talk.

The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think

We humans are social animals. We’re wired to think about our role in the group and about how others think of us. It matters in our families, friendships, and work relationships. We can’t survive and thrive without tending to these relationships.

But there’s also a big trap here. The problem is when we’re so influenced by what others think—or, to be precise, what we think others will think—that it causes us to make choices that won’t serve us well over time. We avoid the short-term pain of a possible loss in status in exchange for the long-term loss of missing out on better things.

This dynamic can cause us to drift away from who we really are and what we really want to do. To drift toward the safety of what others expect. We can lose bits of ourselves as we seek approval from or try to please others.

These are common traps. And painful ones.

“The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what other people think.”C. JoyBell C., writer

To be clear, it’s not that expectations are bad. They’re needed, and they can be helpful in many ways. The problem is becoming addicted to approval or fenced in by others’ expectations.


Haunted by Expectations

I see this again and again—and especially among young people early in their career. As they navigate through the dark and disorienting maze of career options, they’re haunted by the expectations of their parents—and of teachers, coaches, and peers: Be a doctor. Or lawyer. Or architect. Join the family business. Choose a profession. Go for salary and status. Climb the ladder. (Regardless of who you are, what you love, and what you long for.)

There’s a deceptive calculus at work here. The benefits of the approval flowing from those safe and respectable options can turn out to be shallow and fleeting. We can find ourselves in a career filled with things we don’t like—or even resent—and we’ve signed up for about 80,000 hours of it (the average amount of work people do today over a lifetime). So how does that bargain look now?

Meanwhile, there may be other costs: Paperwork. Time sheets. Bureaucracy. Boring meetings. Energy-sapping colleagues. Lousy bosses. All for what?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, lawyer, architect, or whatever, or with joining the family business, or pursuing a traditional career path IF—and here’s the rub—IF it’s a good fit for you. The key is that it’s your choice and that you’ve tried it and found it to be a good fit for you. That it fills you up with energy more often than it drains you.

Of course, not everyone has a choice. Sometimes we’re buried in debt or mired in financial stress and insecurity, or lacking better options. Many people face structural or institutional barriers or biases. But we usually have more choices than we think. It often comes down to our courage and agency, and to our imagination and hustle, despite the obstacles.

My sense is that we tend to overweight the external factors of approval and status early in life, while the intrinsic motivations quietly and steadily grow in importance as we grow older.

Avoiding this trap of getting pushed off course by the expectations winds is especially hard during transitions, because taking a step back to chart a new course summons potent fears of judgment and disappointment from others, though the reality may be that many are excited or even a bit envious about our new adventure (and most probably won’t even notice or think twice).


The Costs of Caring Too Much about What Others Think

When we’re in this mode of being driven by outside expectations, we tend to:

The need for achievement-based approval can become a compulsion. We become approval addicts looking for our next hit, and then the next. When does it end?

Life is too precious and short to let others determine our path.

It gets worse: The expectations of others are a terrible guide for deciding what’s right for us in our own particular context. Those expectations can be unrealistic, or even contradictory. What are we supposed to do with that? If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.

By surrendering to the Siren call of people-pleasing, we violate a silent sacred pact with ourselves, denying our nature and denigrating our integrity, leading to a downward spiral of self-doubt and inner turmoil.


Why Is This So Hard?

It’s easy to understand this problem conceptually, harder to self-diagnose because it’s emotionally charged and sometimes subconscious, but very difficult to address properly. Why?

For starters, we’ve been doing this for our whole lives—a tough habit to break. It’s been part of our conditioning as children—seeking the attention and approval of our parents and striving again and again to demonstrate our worth. When we did what was expected, we basked in soothing acceptance.

Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards of this stimulus-response feedback loop from our neurotransmitting hormones. This loop began in early childhood and it’s etched deep into our neural pathways. According to the late leadership expert Edward Morler, the stages of human development include moving from a focus on “Am I good enough?” in childhood to a healthier focus on “I am enough” in mature adulthood.


Related Traps

This excessive need for approval can also manifest is many related traps, including:

How to Stop this Downward Spiral

Okay, so we know it’s a big problem. What to do about it? Here are 8 things we can do to stop this downward spiral:

  1. Acquire more self-awareness (in part by paying attention to our instincts and listening to our inner voice)
  2. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that we’re clear about our deeper why, what’s most important to us, and what we want for our life
  3. Cultivate self-acceptance: Appreciate what we have and do well while shutting down our unrealistic inner critic
  4. Take time before saying yes to a new task or commitment and have clear and high standards for what we’ll spend time on
  5. Gain perspective: How much will what they think matter in a week, a month, a year, a decade? In the final analysis?
  6. Experiment with what it feels like to experience disapproval, sitting with it and getting a sense of how much it matters (if at all?)
  7. Notice how people may respect us for setting boundaries and for being clear and committed to our goals and aspirations
  8. Imagine and pursue the freedom and power on the other side of this mental block—the gift of finally letting ourselves be who we really are and long to become

“The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer

Reflection Questions

  • Are you caring too much about what other people think in some areas of your life?
  • Which ones?
  • Which action steps above will you start taking?
  • Who can you turn to for help or accountability?



Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” –Martha Beck, author
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” –Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession. [I was also] driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.” –Warren Brown, entrepreneur
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” –Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “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, entrepreneur and author
  • “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ’no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” –Stephen R. Covey, author
  • “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.” –Bill George, leadership expert and author
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” –Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “Listen to your heart above all other voices.” -Martha Kagan
  • “‘Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.” –Emily McDowell, writer and entrepreneur
  • “So long as you’re still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself.” –Neale Donald Walsch, author
  • “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, Univ. of California at San Francisco

I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped. -Fritz Perls, Gestalt Prayer


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living


Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (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). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk.