The Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Purpose

Article Summary: 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Problems that Come from Lacking Clarity about Purpose

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

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

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

When we lack clarity about purpose:

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

Take the Traps Test

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

Related Articles

 

Tools for You

 

 Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

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

 

Appendix: Purpose and Health

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Lacking Clarity in Your Life

Article Summary: 

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

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Do you know who you are?

What you want?

Where you’re going and why?

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

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

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

 

What We Should Get Clear About

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

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

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

 

Signs We’re Lacking Clarity

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

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

 

Benefits of Clarity

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

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

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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

 

 

How to Get More Clarity

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

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

 

Related Traps

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

Take the Traps Test

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

 

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

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Clarity

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

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

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Discover Your Purpose

Article Summary: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Is Purpose?

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

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

Author Richard Leider distinguishes between two kinds of purpose:

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

 

Purpose vs. Passion

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

 

Purpose vs. Meaning

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

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

 

Purpose vs. Calling

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

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

 

The Benefits of Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take the Traps Test

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

 

How to Discover Our Purpose

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

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

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

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

 

The Universal Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

 

Examples of Personal Purpose Statements

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

Here are some other purpose statements:

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Gregg Vanourek and his dog

 

 

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

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

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

Related Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

Sources on Purpose

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

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

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

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

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

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Common Myths about Purpose

Article Summary: 

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

+++

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

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

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

 

Myths about Purpose

Here are the most common and damaging myths about purpose:

 

Purpose is the same as passion.

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

 

My purpose must be completely original.

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

 

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

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

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

 

Purpose is abstract, theoretical, and impractical.

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

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

 

My purpose should come to me in a revelation.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

My purpose will never change.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Only some types of work are capable of being purposeful.

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

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

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Losing Yourself

These days, will all the pressures and pushes we feel, it can be easy to lose ourselves. We get consumed by events or other people’s priorities, surrendering our agency or initiative.

We can lose ourselves so much that we hardly recognize ourselves. Or let our own values, priorities, and aspirations fall by the wayside.

We can become accustomed to suppressing our needs, desires, or feelings. Or lose sight of who we really are and what we want in life. We can stop investing in our learning and growth, stop pursuing our dreams and passions, or neglect our inner life so much that it fades and withers.

Losing ourselves is a common trap these days, but imperative that we address it, because it robs our lives of meaning and joy.

 

When Warren Lost Himself

When Warren Brown chose the legal profession, he probably thought he had found himself—or at least his place in the world.

He had chosen law school, he says, because “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession… driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.”

Warren was successful in the eyes of many, and he had the opportunity to impact many through his work for a government agency.

Down the road, Warren found himself at a Tibetan Freedom Festival listening to a band. He was struck by the lyrics in the song, “Karma Police,” by Radiohead:

“For a minute there I lost myself, I lost myself.”

For Warren, these words hit deep. Out of the blue, his inner voice started interrogating him with provocative questions:

Are you there? Are you happy? Are you you?

His answers to those questions were illuminating:

Yes. No. No.

 Yes, he was there—finally starting to listen again to his inner voice.

But no, he wasn’t happy.

And no, he wasn’t feeling like himself anymore.

The next question that came up was equally surprising:

Are you ready?

Ready? For what?

For Warren, the answer turned out to be baking, a lifelong passion. He realized that for the preceding year he “had been waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I was tired of waiting.”

Warren was ready. The realization that he wasn’t happy and that he had lost himself set him on a new path in which he became what we call a “life entrepreneur”—someone who intentionally and creatively designs his life by integrating his life and work with purpose and passion.

Warren pursued his passion with gusto, and it led him to all sorts of interesting and unexpected places and roles, including founder of the CakeLove bakeries and Love Café, cable TV host, cookbook creator, and more.

 

How We Lose Ourselves

There are several different ways we can lose ourselves. Here we note seven of the most common ways:

1. We can lose ourselves in work and busyness.

The trap here is subsuming ourselves to the needs of our organization, the demands of our manager, or the expectations of our role (and the way we can obsess over it).

In some cases, we end up worshipping our work (and all its trappings, such as wealth, status, and prestige), subsuming our lives to our work. Without enough white space in our lives, we can lose ourselves. And we can lose ourselves in work, busyness, and workaholism.

2. We can lose ourselves in addiction to success or admiration.

The desperate pursuit of success—often fueled by our fragile or wounded ego or by our desire to please demanding parents—can take us away from ourselves. As we get caught up in our desired image, or in the prestige we seek, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value.

We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our authenticity or values on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the people we love or the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and uniqueness. Or we can become success robots, dutifully following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

“As we become more obsessed with succeeding… we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles. The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult—at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

3. We can lose ourselves in trying to please others and be liked

We all want others to like us (except for sociopaths). It’s part of our hardwiring, because there’s safety and comfort in groups, in belonging. But when taken too far, it becomes “people pleasing.”

We get stretched thin and lose track of our own needs, aspirations, and health. It’s exhausting to be in perpetual pursuit of the favorable opinions of others, especially when the reality is that most of those people are likely caught up in their own challenges and concerns.

“Don’t lose yourself trying to be everything to everyone.” -Tony Gaskins

4. We can lose ourselves in trying to be perfect.

The perfectionism trap is a common one. When caught up in it, we’re overly critical of ourselves and preoccupied with looking good to others. We assume that flawlessness is the only route to peace, but we’re actually waging war on ourselves because that standard is impossible to reach.

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

5. We can lose ourselves by accepting the cultural programming we received as children.

Mindlessly accepting the worldview of our parents or the paradigm of our peers can also lead to losing ourselves. It’s easy to lead our lives around notions engrained in us early on, such as:

  • Life is a competition.
  • Life is a zero-sum game.
  • Everything in the world is winner-take-all.
  • We can’t trust anyone.
  • Life is struggle, and we must fight and grind constantly.
  • We must keep pushing and never stop to rest.
  • We’re worthless.
  • We are not worthy of love and respect.
  • We’re only as good as our achievements.
  • We deserve the bad things that happen to us.
  • Money is everything.
  • Success is everything.

There may be kernels of truth in some of these notions, but we’re all different and on different paths in different times and places. We’re wise to question those ideas and develop our own worldview based on our own experience and intuition.

6. We can lose ourselves when we follow the default option in front of us.

We should ask ourselves a question before jumping into a new project or assignment:

Do we really want it?

We should be wary of the call of the conventional path, the pull of the prestige magnet, the inclination toward conformity, the trap of caring too much what others think, and the Siren call of contorting ourselves to meet the expectations of others.

For example, must passionate and gifted teachers accept a promotion to school administration because others think they’d be crazy not to? Should we all go for the next standard career advancement, regardless of its fit with who we are and what we want or its suitability for the season of life we’re in?

7. We can lose ourselves in a relationship.

We’re so afraid of loneliness—with its longing and its stigma—that we can subsume ourselves to the needs or whims of another.

When we do so, we effectively become a passenger on someone else’s ship.

 

When Losing Ourselves Is a Good Thing

It’s important to be clear and precise here. While losing ourselves can be a painful trap to fall into, there are certain versions of losing ourselves that are good.

When talking about the trap of losing ourselves, we’re not talking about losing ourselves in:

  • a larger cause or in service to others
  • our passions and the things we love
  • a grand adventure
  • an experience of awe 
  • a state of flow in which we experience complete absorption in what we’re doing and lose track of time

And we’re not talking about the normal adjustments and compromises we can and should make in a healthy relationship, with its natural give-and-take.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you losing yourself—in work and busyness, addiction to success, pleasing others, trying to be or appear perfect, accepting your cultural programming, following default options, or a relationship?
  2. What will you do, starting today, to bring more of yourself back into your life—to be you unapologetically?

 

Related Traps

The trap of losing ourselves is related to several of the other common traps of living, including:

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Postscript: Inspirations

  • “…the longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve lost what’s inside me—and ended up empty.” -Haruki Murakami
  • “When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “There is vitality, a life force, energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Once you don’t have freedom and you’re obliged to do many things you don’t want, and it becomes a routine, then your identity is at stake because you can feel that you are not anymore yourself, that you are what they want you to be—and you can lose yourself.” -Ingrid Betancourt
  • “It’s great if you can help others, but seriously don’t lose yourself in the process!” -Karen Gibbs
  • “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself.” -Albert Camus
  • “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

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or subscribe to his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Lack of Focus—And How to Fix It

Article Summary

These days, we’re bombarded with digital distractions, and it’s detracting from our ability to get things done, our leadership effectiveness, and our quality of life. This article notes 15 of the most important benefits of focus and provides 24 actionable strategies for developing and maintaining our focus.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

These days it feels like the world is dead-set against our having focus. We’re bombarded with digital distractions. There are near-constant requests for our attention, many driven by algorithms that have cracked the code on hijacking it.

So we struggle with overload and overwhelm. Our concentration is fragmented. We check our phones constantly.

In such a hostile environment, it’s exceedingly difficult for us to focus. But that’s a disaster, not only for our work productivity but also for our quality of life.

Focus is a complex cognitive phenomenon.* For our purposes here, it entails two main abilities:

  1. our ability to concentrate on something in front of us (such as an article or a person talking), channeling our full attention to it without distraction
  2. our ability to concentrate attention or effort on the most pressing needs out of an array of possibilities (such as our top priorities)

Think of a laser. Is our effort focused like a laser on what truly matters, or getting dispersed into a random assortment of tasks?

In today’s world of digital distraction, both levels of focus are in jeopardy. We see it in the data.

 

Unfocused Leaders

According to a survey of more than 35,000 leaders from thousands of companies across 100-plus countries, 73% of them reported feeling distracted from their current task some or most of the time. What’s more, 67% of leaders described their minds as cluttered.

The biggest sources of distraction for these leaders were:

  • demands of other people (26%)
  • competing priorities (25%)
  • general distractions (13%)
  • too big of a workload (12%)

Nearly all the leaders surveyed (96%) indicated that enhanced focus would be valuable or extremely valuable to them. The researchers concluded:

The ability to apply a calm, clear focus to the right tasks—at the right time, in the right way—is the key to exceptional results….
we have observed a direct correlation between a person’s focus level and their career advancement.”
-Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter**

According to research from Dr. Glenn Wilson at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, we pay a high price for the persistent interruptions and distractions we encounter. Here’s a summary of the findings written up in The Guardian:

Those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a ten-point fall in their IQ, twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. More than half of the 1,100 participants said they always responded to an email immediately or as soon as possible,
while 21% admitted they would interrupt a meeting to do so. Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.
” (Source: Harriet Griffey, “The Lost Art of Concentation,” The Guardian, October 14, 2018.)

In our age of skimming, scrolling, and swiping, some of us may be losing the ability to read books or study articles for more than a few minutes. Isn’t technology supposed to enrich our lives, not degrade them? We must avoid the sorry fate of becoming slaves to our machines.

A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention….
Attention is the basis of the most essential of leadership skills—emotional, organizational, and strategic intelligence.
And never has it been under greater assault….” -Daniel Goleman

 

The Problem with Lack of Focus

We pay a price for our diminished ability to concentrate on the things in front of us and to concentrate effort on our most pressing needs.

When we’re not focused, we’re:

  • reading something over and over but not absorbing it
  • listening to people but having our mind wander so we don’t take their words in
  • zoning out in meetings or lectures
  • more likely to fall behind, causing stress and anxiety
  • busy all the time—busy, busy, busy
  • stressed, with stress hormones like cortisol overwhelming calming and feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine
  • dealing with repetitive, intrusive thoughts that we struggle to let go
  • tired and depleted
  • overworked and overwhelmed
  • not making significant progress on our most important tasks
  • jumping from task to task, flying around frenetically
  • beholden to working on things that are other people’s priorities, whatever is easiest in the moment, or whatever appears before us as we check emails and respond
  • constantly putting out fires (which is exhausting for us and chaotic and frustrating for those around us)
  • frequently switching between tasks (a big problem, since our brains can’t transition seamlessly across tasks; there’s a major delay and a cost in terms of our energy)
  • working on things that should be done by others or that should be automated
  • doing things that shouldn’t be done at all (the worst of all)

Take the Traps Test

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

 

The Benefits of Focus

By contrast, there are many benefits when we cultivate our ability to focus and prioritize. Here are the most important benefits:

  1. better work quality
  2. higher productivity
  3. better decision-making
  4. enhanced ability to pursue goals intensely
  5. improved cognitive flexibility, allowing us to resist distractions and shift our focus away from unproductive things
  6. greater mental efficiency, since we’re not wasting valuable mental energy on distractions
  7. better time management
  8. full presence in the moment
  9. better capacity for learning
  10. enhanced creativity
  11. less stress
  12. help with managing harmful or unproductive thoughts and emotions
  13. improved ability to develop strong social relationships and empathize with others (by focusing on their point of view as well as our own)
  14. enhanced ability to remain calm under pressure and to recover from setbacks
  15. creation of mental stillness, allowing us to hear our inner voice and pay attention to our gut feelings, which can be critical in wise decision-making

 

How to Develop Our Focus: Strategies and Approaches

So how do we develop our focus? Here are 24 actionable strategies and approaches:

  1. Observe our daily rhythms, including best and worst times for focused work as well as energy levels at different times and on different tasks. Then design our work and schedule to capture our greatest attention, energy, and focus.
  2. Take regular breaks, recognizing that our brains can’t focus all the time and that we need to toggle between focus and rest. (When we do so, we’re able to focus much better when we return from rest, according to the research.)
  3. Practice self-care, including good sleep habits (regular bedtimes, caffeine and device curfews, etc.), eating and hydration habits, and exercise habits to reduce stress and produce energy.
  4. Minimize interruptions and eliminate distractions. (Tip: turn off smartphone notifications and place the device outside the room when working.)
  5. Develop simple rules to maximize time in deep work (e.g., never check email before noon or another time that works for you).
  6. Engage our senses when we’re doing deep work (e.g., lighting a scented candle, playing classical music in the background, or working in a room with a beautiful design or view).
  7. Focus on one task at a time and avoid frequent task-switching, since we waste time regrouping and trying to recover our original flow when we switch tasks.
  8. Design our work for “flow.”
  9. Practice doing things that require concentration, such as reading books or playing games that requires mental focus.
  10. Engage in deep breathing and practice meditation.
  11. Reduce anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk.
  12. Develop clarity on what’s most important.
  13. Determine which tasks will make the highest possible contribution toward our most important aims.
  14. Clear the decks so we can focus on our most essential task for extended periods.
  15. Reduce or eliminate non-essential tasks. (Consider using a “stop doing list” or a “drop list.”)
  16. Schedule the most important tasks and impose deadlines on them. (Tip: be generous in the amount of time given for completion, as we tend to underestimate the time it will take, causing unhelpful stress.)
  17. Learn how to say “no” more often and more easily, especially to things that don’t fit with our top priorities.***
  18. Avoid “sunk cost bias” by asking if we weren’t invested in this already, how much would we invest in it now (with time, resources, etc.)—and considering what else could be done with our time or money.
  19. Get better at cutting our losses, recognizing that it’s a necessary and important part of life
  20. Systematically measure our progress on our most important tasks. (Getting feedback on progress helps maintain our attention.)
  21. Stop focusing so much on results and focus more on deep engagement with the process of doing things that matter (e.g., less focus on our target weight and more focus on the strategies we can learn for healthy eating, sleeping, moving, etc.).
  22. Experiment with different schedules that help us focus better (e.g., themed days, such as a Monday planning day, Tuesday prospecting day, Wednesday writing day, etc.). Or half-days.
  23. Be more disciplined in committing to one thing at a time, as opposed to having to divide our attention across multiple things.
  24. Make a “Done for the Day” list each morning—a list of what would constitute essential progress and that’s reasonable for a single day. (Source: Greg McKeown in Effortless.)

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Tools that Can Help with Focus

Beyond the strategies and approaches noted above, there are also many tools and frameworks that can help with focus and prioritization. Below are several of them:

1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

2. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that larger list, and then only focus on the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

3. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.

4. Brian Tracy’s “Eat the Frog” method: identify one challenging and important task (the metaphorical frog) and complete it first thing in the morning. The logic:

The hardest part of any important task is getting started on it in the first place.
Once you actually begin work on a valuable task, you seem to be naturally motivated to continue….
The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex.
But the payoff and rewards for completing these tasks efficiently can be tremendous.
-Brian Tracy

Related Books

Since so many of us struggle with the challenge of staying focused in our world of constant distractions, it’s good that we have many excellent resources. Below are two helpful books that address the root causes of the problems, with select quotations from the books as well:

Essentialism (by Gregory McKeown):

  • “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
  • “The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.”
  • “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either.”
  • “Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.”
  • “Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.”
  • “The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.” -Gregory McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Deep Work (by Cal Newport):

  • “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. The few who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive.”
  • “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”
  • “Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.”
  • “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
  • “What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.”
  • “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
  • “To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.” -Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you struggling with concentrating on the things in front of you without distraction?
  2. Are you struggling with concentrating your effort on your most important tasks?
  3. Which focus and prioritization strategies and tools work best for you?
  4. Which new ones will you try, starting today?

Postscript: Inspirations on Focus and Prioritization

  • “If there is any one secret of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” -Alexander Graham Bell
  • “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” -Lin Yutang
  • “Learn to master your attention, and you will be in command of where you, and your organization, focus.” -Daniel Goleman
  • “Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” -Tony Robbins
  • “I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “If you don’t guard your time, people will steal it from you.” -Pedro Sorrentino, investor
  • “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” -Steve Jobs
  • “Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time.” -Tim Harford, economist
  • “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Without focus, you can never achieve anything.” -Eric Phillips
  • “What you stay focused on will grow.” -Roy T. Bennett
  • “Where your attention goes, your time goes.” -Idowu Koyenikan
  • “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life!” -Christian Missionary Review, 1902
  • “Half the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quicly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings
  • “Focus is not a zero-sum game. Focus can be trained and planned. And with a bit of effort, your focus can be sustained throughout the day.” -Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter
  • “Focused leaders can command the full range of their own attention: They are in touch with their inner feelings, they can control their impulses, they are aware of how others see them, they understand what others need from them, they can weed out distractions and also allow their minds to roam widely, free of preconceptions.” -Daniel Goleman
  • “My role does not allow for a lack of focus. I can’t afford to be distracted. I must be on point. I have trained my focus while at work for 15 years, moment-to-moment. I feel the brain is like a muscle, and I exercise it all the time.” -Jean-Francois van Boxmeer, CEO of Heineken

Notes:
* Mental processes related to focus include:

  • cognitive control (placing our attention where we want it and keeping it there despite distractions or temptations to focus elsewhere)
  • selective attention (focusing on certain stimuli selectively when several occur simultaneously, such as focusing on one person’s voice in a crowded room)
  • open awareness (our attention is open and remains aware of everything that’s happening around us, instead of concentrating on one thing)

** Source: Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, “Are You Having Trouble Focusing? These Simple Strategies Will Help,” Harvard Business Blogs, December 26, 2017.

*** McKeown suggests saying “yes” only to the top 10% of opportunities we encounter, in part by using rigorous criteria for giving assent, such as whether the opportunity is exactly what we’re looking for. If it’s not a clear “yes,” it becomes a clear “no.”

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!
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The Complacency Trap

One of the most insidious traps we can fall into in life and work is that of complacency—a state of easy contentment, with a lack of concern about or awareness of problems or risks. Complacency can prevent us from recognizing risks, trying harder, and making improvements.

Examples abound. We can be complacent about our health—or the health of our loved ones. Or complacent about our relationships. About our work, team, leadership, or organization. Complacent about our democracy and planet.

How to know when we’ve fallen into the complacency trap?

 

11 Signs of Complacency

When we’re complacent, we:

  1. Take things for granted
  2. Have too much routine, making things feel monotonous
  3. Stick to what we know
  4. Are too comfortable too often
  5. Stay in our comfort zone
  6. Start to “phone it in”
  7. Stop learning and growing
  8. Begin losing our ambition
  9. Resist change
  10. Avoid risk
  11. Start taking the path of least resistance

Author Brendon Burchard warns us about “the comfortable life:

“…over time, in the comfortable life, something stirs within; maybe not a frustration but something in the sense of restlessness. That restlessness is a feeling or sense that maybe there is something more.” -Brendon Burchard

 

The Problem with Complacency

There’s nothing wrong with comfort and satisfaction per se. These are good things, and we want them in our lives. The problem is when we have too much of them and lose our zest for life and our inner fire to go after our dreams.

Complacency can:

  • sap our motivation
  • lead to inaction when action is warranted
  • prevent us from making needed improvements
  • reduce our initiative and sense of hope
  • lead to mediocrity
  • rob us of future opportunities and benefits
  • derail our career
  • lead us to a “default life”

In their excellent new book, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging, Richard Leider and David Shapiro warn of living what they call a “default life”:

 

“Just floating along from one year to the next, accepting things as they present themselves without question or intention, is a surefire recipe for dissatisfaction and despair in later life. Living the default life is… living a life that isn’t really of our own choosing. It’s living a life that inevitably gives rise to questions like ‘Where did all the time go?’ ‘How did my life pass so quickly?’ and ‘Why did I squander my one precious opportunity for living?’” -Richard Leider and David Shapiro

 

What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to avoid or escape the complacency trap. Here’s a punch list:

Start acting with urgency. Like our time counts. Because it does.

Leverage deliberate agitation. Engage in what Tyler Hakes calls “deliberate agitation” (like shaking a snow globe). He writes:

“You let things settle into place just long enough and then shake them up. Watch to see if they fall into the same patterns or if something new and better emerges…. You deliberately and intentionally question things and change them before they become a problem. You remain vigilant in trying to improve so that way you don’t fall into the trap of complacency that leads to eventual failure.” -Tyler Hakes

Dream big. We should think expansively about all we want to do in our lifetime in different areas—family, relationships, career, education, impact, travel, and more. When we do that, we feel the wondrous and mystical pull of our deepest aspirations.

Step out of our comfort zone. Too often, fear holds us back from venturing forth and risking ourselves. When we push ourselves, take risks, and dare to have adventures, our blood races and we start to feel awake and alive again.

Challenge ourselves to strive for a BHAG—a “big, hairy audacious goal.” This can be a life goal or a work goal, but a true BHAG should take our breath away with its audacity.

“…there is a difference between merely having a goal and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge—like a big mountain to climb…. Like the moon mission, a true BHAG is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort—often creating immense team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines. A BHAG engages people—it reaches out and grabs them in the gut.” -Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last

Calendarize time to work on the most important activities that will ensure we make progress on our top goals. That way, we can not only develop good and productive habits but also become the sort of person who consistently gets big stuff done.

Enlist an army of support. Consider recruiting an “accountability partner”—someone who can help keep us on track (such as a training buddy or someone willing to receive regular progress reports).

Identify and remove barriers to change. When we’re stuck, it’s easy to become complacent. We’re good at acclimatizing ourselves to a new situation. So get to work on identifying the major obstacles to progress and how to overcome them.

Notch short-term wins on meaningful work to build momentum. Draw on what researchers call the “progress principle”:

“…of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.” -Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in The Progress Principle

Take full responsibility. Be what my co-author, Christopher Gergen, and I call a “life entrepreneur.” We thrive when we take ownership of our life and recognize our agency—when we take our life back. Life entrepreneurs create opportunities for themselves. They bring their dreams to life. They intentionally craft a good life with good work.

Get clear on our personal purpose, values, and vision:

  • Our purpose is why we’re here. It’s what gives us a sense of meaning and significance—often by connecting with and serving others.
  • Our values are what’s most important to us—our core beliefs and principles that guide our decisions and behavior.
  • And our vision is what we aspire to achieve in the future—and what success looks and feels like for us.

 

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

Build vitality. We feel better and achieve more when we develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness. When we’re intentional about productive and energizing habits, rituals, and routines.

Let go of limiting beliefs. Too often, we’re our own worst enemy. We’ve placed ourselves in a mental prison of judgment, negativity, and rumination. We have the power to upgrade our mental operating system, which will help us break the chains of complacency.

Set and maintain high standards. We tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. We often do better with deadlines, accountability, and high standards of personal and professional excellence.

 

Related Traps

The complacency trap is common, and it can be deeply damaging. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:

 

Take the Traps Test

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

Final Thoughts

The complacency trap can rob us of quality time and experiences as well as passion and achievement. It can be tricky because we do want satisfaction and serenity, and not a life of frenetic striving and hair-on-fire busyness and hustle.

Somewhere in between, there’s a healthy place of commitment and urgency to live and work purposefully, achieve worthy things, serve others, and cherish our days, not squandering our time in a cool cloud of complacency.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent has complacency crept into some aspects of your life and work (or that of your friends, colleagues, or organization)?
  2. What will you do to regain the clarity, motivation, resolve, and urgency to get out of this trap?

Wishing you well with it—and let me know if I can help.

 

 

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

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Postscript: Quotations on Complacency

  • “Complacency keeps you living a comfortable life… not the life you desire. Challenge yourself to do something different. Then, notice the new charged quality of your life.” -Nina Amir
  • “The life you have left is a gift. Cherish it. Enjoy it now, to the fullest. Do what matters, now.” -Leo Babauta
  • “Never be passive about your life… ever, ever.” -Robert Egger
  • “The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” -Benjamin E. Mays
  • “I really try to put myself in uncomfortable situations. Complacency is my enemy.” -Trent Reznor
  • “Complacency is a blight that saps energy, dulls attitudes, and causes a drain in the brain. The first symptom is satisfaction with things as they are. The second is rejection of things it as they might be. ’Good enough’ becomes days today’s watchword and tomorrow’s standard.” -Alex and Brett Harris
  • “History and experience tell us that moral progress comes not in comfortable and complacent times, but out of trial and confusion.” -Gerald R. Ford
  • “Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.” -Jim Rohn
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” -Nelson Mandela
  • “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 conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous 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. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
  • “Our best enemy is the one who challenges us, and so doing, teaches us to set out to discover our potentials, while our worst friend is the one who is numbing us and lulling us into complacency, always being consenting or acquiescent.” -Erik Pevernagie
  • “Success is not guaranteed, it’s temporary.” -Frank Sonnenberg
  • “As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal.” -Robin Sharma
  • “By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees.” -John Kotter

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Blaming Others

When things aren’t going your way, it may be tempting to deflect attention from your own role in things and blame others. Perhaps you’re blaming your spouse. Or boss. Perhaps you’re blaming a friend or colleague. Or the economy or inflation—or politicians, the media, or a rival political party. Your parents, or your circumstances.

Blaming may give you a feeling of satisfaction as you look outside for responsibility and wallow in the unfairness of it all. But that feeling is fleeting. In the meantime, you haven’t moved forward at all. In fact, you’ve moved backward.

No good comes from blame.” -Kate Summers

 

Signs of Blaming

How to tell if you’re blaming others? When blaming, you’re likely:

  • holding others responsible for your own frustrations and problems
  • expecting others to change to suit your needs
  • showing defensiveness
  • causing emotional escalation with the person and issue at hand
It is far more useful to be aware of a single shortcoming in ourselves than it is to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” -Dalai Lama

 

The Problem with Blaming Others

kids blaming each other

Wherever you find a problem, you will usually find the finger-pointing of blame. Society is addicted to playing the victim.” – Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Though it may feel good in the moment, blaming comes with many problems:

  • Most importantly, it doesn’t work. You don’t move forward in any way, shape, or form when you’re blaming. (“The blame game is a waste of time. Any time you’re busy fixing blame, you’re wasting energy and not fixing the problem.” -Rick Warren)
  • It often backfires, making things worse.
  • Blaming robs you of your own agency.
  • It makes people defensive.
  • Blaming damages relationships. (People don’t like it at all when they’re the target of blaming.)
  • It reduces your productivity and effectiveness.
  • Blaming often entails lying—bending the truth to minimize or eliminate your own responsibility while exaggerating the fault of others. As such, it harms your credibility.
  • You suffer the most, not the person you’re blaming.
  • Blaming leads to escalation into bigger issues—especially when it’s unfair blame or blame that misses important contextual factors because you don’t have all the information you need.
  • You don’t learn from mistakes since you’re focused on the fault of others.
  • Blaming can lead to other negative emotions—such as anger, resentment, or even hatred or rage—which are even worse.
  • It can rob you of your potential influence on others.
  • Apparently, blaming can be contagious, leading others to fall into this trap as well in a downward spiral.
Blame is fascinating—it shapes our lives. It can be a benign way of positioning ourselves, a gentle joust or banter, or it can be poisonous, hurtful, or devastating for its victims. It can tear apart marriages and fracture work relationships; it can disable major social programs; it can inflict damage on powerful corporations; it can bring down governments; it can start wars and justify genocides.” -Stephen Fineman, The Blame Business

 

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Why You Blame

It’s natural and common to play the blame game. But that doesn’t mean it will serve you well. Your brain my subconsciously leap to blaming by default. What’s going on here?

Blaming is an odd combination of defense mechanism and attack strategy. You’re defending your precious ego by attacking another person with the assignment of fault. It’s a way to avoid or release negative emotions.

Blaming preserves your self-esteem by helping you avoid responsibility for mistakes. You want to be right and win the argument to protect your fragile ego. By blaming others, you feel like you can escape guilt and responsibility.

Blaming is also a form of social comparison, allowing you to feel superior and gifted with greater social status, at least in the situation at hand.

Also, blaming can come with perfectionism, giving us a way to maintain our illusion of perfection as we find fault in others instead of ourselves.

 

How to Avoid the Blame Game

So far in this article, you’ve seen what blaming is, the signs of blaming in action, the many problems with it, and why we do it so much.

But you can’t stop there. You need to know what to do about it—and what to do instead. Here are six top tips for avoiding the blame game:

  1. Stop ruminating on the problems at hand and turn your attention instead toward something more positive.
  2. Practice empathy and try to understand the context, motivations, and feelings of the other person. Work to account for the other person’s perspective. Ask questions and explore their perspective.
  3. Focus on finding a solution, not a scapegoat. In the end, that’s most important.
  4. Instead of assigning all the blame to another person, try a “50-50” split instead: assume equal responsibility for the problem, or at least joint responsibility. Ultimately, the allocation of blame matter much less than resolving the issues well.
  5. Focus on collaboration, not blame. Consider ways in which teaming up to address the issues may benefit you both and avoid unnecessary emotional potholes.
  6. Take full responsibility for your life, choices, behaviors, and outcomes, even if there are outside factors present (as there always are). It’s a powerful practice that will serve you well.

Final Thoughts

Though blaming is common and natural, don’t trade in it. It’s a trap. Blaming gets you nowhere fast and will even take you backward and cause damage. By avoiding the tram of blaming, you can improve your mental state, quality of life, relationships, leadership, and effectiveness.

It’s always easy to blame others. You can spend your entire life blaming the world, but your successes or failures are entirely your own responsibility.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

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Reflection Questions

  1. Are you playing the blame game?
  2. Is it serve you well—or harming you?
  3. Which of the top tips for avoiding blame will you try, starting today?

Wishing you well with it.

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Blame Trap

  • “When we blame, we give away our power.” – Greg Anderson
  • “To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents.” – Maya Angelou
  • “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.” – Stephen R. Covey
  • “You become a victim when you blame yourself or others for some problem or error.” – Jay Fiset, Reframe Your Blame, How to Be Personally Accountable
  • “A loss is not a failure until you make an excuse.” – Michael Jordan
  • “Blame is the demonstrated lack of self-respect choosing to deposit one’s negative actions onto others to reinforce one’s view of being of good, fair, and approved.” – Byron R. Pulsifer
  • “Stop the blame game. Stop! Stop looking out the window and look in the mirror!” – Eric Thomas
  • “Blame means shifting the responsibility for where you are onto someone or something else, rather than accepting responsibility for your role in the experience.” – Iyanla Vanzant

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Benefits of Systematic Personal Development

Personal development entails efforts to improve yourself—to develop your potential and capabilities. With systematic personal development, you can improve nearly all aspects of your life.

“Personal development refers to activities that improve self-knowledge and identity, develop talents and potential, build human capital and employability, enhance quality of life, and contribute to the realization of dreams and aspirations.”Bob Aubrey, from Managing Your Aspirations

You can also leverage personal development to address challenges in your life, such as:

  • dullness and monotony in your days
  • unfulfilled dreams and ambitions
  • feeling stuck or uncertain about what’s next

Personal development involves both inner and outer work. And it can have mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions. It can involve learning and growing from various sources, including reading, courses, workshops, assessments, tools, and actions taken, perhaps with coaching and feedback. Ideally, it’s a lifelong practice. We’re never done learning, growing, and developing.

 

Benefits of Personal Development

When done well, personal development has many benefits. Through systematic personal development, you can:

  1. increase self-awareness
  2. get more clarity about who you are and what you want to do
“There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know—exactly what you want.… Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.” -Agnes Martin, painter
  1. improve health and wellness
  2. build confidence
  3. develop knowledge and skills (e.g., communication, interpersonal, and time management skills)
  4. discover your purpose, values, and passions
  5. determine and develop your strengths
  6. clarify and pursue your dreams and aspirations

  1. develop a growth mindset
  2. advance in your career
  3. increase your earnings and build wealth
  4. feel a sense of accomplishment as you grow in your capacities
  5. realize more of your potential and achieve more of your goals
  6. develop perseverance, resilience, and capacity to navigate change and uncertainty
  7. reduce stress and anxiety
  8. increase emotional intelligence
  9. improve relationships
  10. build your personal power (your ability to influence people and events)
  11. improve your leadership or prepare to launch an entrepreneurial venture
  12. increase your happiness, wellbeing, quality of life, and likelihood of success
  13. deepen your spirituality, if you’re so inclined
  14. be truer to yourself despite social pressures or external expectations

 

Personal Values Exercise

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

 

Personal Development Practices

Though it can vary widely by person and context, personal development practices often include:

  • identifying areas of your life you’d like to improve
  • analyzing what’s going well and not (which requires brutal honesty with yourself)
  • developing goals, strategies, and tactics
  • planning your time (i.e., your day, your week, your year: “Either you run the day or the day runs you.” -Jim Rohn)
  • prioritizing and focusing on the most important things
  • developing good habits and practices (e.g., a “golden hour rule” or a “morning miracle” in which you start your day early and invest the first hour in yourself, such as with reading, meditation, prayer, exercise, affirmations, and/or journaling).
  • creating and employing personal development plans and/or life design approaches
  • using timelines, deadlines, and action plans
  • assessing and measuring progress and adjusting as you go
  • working with an accountability partner
  • spending time with people who challenge you and make you better

 

Take the Traps Test

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

 

Final Thoughts

Done right, personal development isn’t a solo endeavor. It works much better when you engage with others (e.g., a coach, mentor, accountability partner, counselor, teacher, guide, manager, or group).

Recall that personal development includes both inner work (reflection) and outer work (action). You often learn, grow, and develop the most when you’re out there trying things and making mistakes. You’ll do much better when you’re action-oriented.

If you’re thinking that you’re already busy and that all this seems like a lot of work, a few thoughts:

First, note that it can begin with small and simple steps. Then, with progress, you gain momentum and start turning the flywheel.

Second, consider all you’re losing and missing by not investing in your development.

Third, when done right, it’s rewarding, energizing, and fun.

Reach out if I can help. Wishing you well with it.

Gregg Vanourek

 

 

 

 

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Reflection Questions

  • Are you investing enough time and resources in systematic personal development?
  • What more will you do, starting today?

 

Resources on Personal Development

 

Related Concepts

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Personal Development

  • “Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development, because success is something you attract by the person you become.” -Jim Rohn
  • “Growth is the great separator between those who succeed and those who do not. When I see a person beginning to separate themselves from the pack, it’s almost always due to personal growth.” -John Maxwell
  • “Taking charge of your own learning is a part of taking charge of your life, which is the sine qua non in becoming an integrated person.” -Warren Bennis
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” -Paolo Coelho
  • “…your life gets better only after you get better.” -Hal Elrod
  • “Your action, what you do, depends on who you are. The quality of your action depends on the quality of your being…. So there is a link between doing and being. If you don’t succeed in being, you can’t succeed in doing.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
  • “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is in your daily routine.” -John Maxwell
  • “Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming.” -Alice Walker
  • “As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you—the first time around.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” -C.S. Lewis

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

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.

 

Take the Traps Test

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

 

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.

-Gregg

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!