Friday, January 28, 2011

Flat-Lining is Not the Goal

Our lives are marked by the beating of our hearts -- that persistent, forward-moving lubb-dub that coincides with the peaks and valleys of our pulse. The EKG image offers a great visual of this. When we are in action or stress, the pace accelerates. When we are calm or in a resting state, the pace is slower. But our hearts never deviate from the inevitable highs and lows of that ever-present beat.

The EKG image is an excellent metaphor for our journey through life. We feel the sharp heights of elation and the positive emotions and thoughts that accompany success and expansion; conversely we travel through the profound depths of challenge and woe. But for much of it, we are moving along a mid-point (pause, breath) with smaller blips that are a part of daily life.

We don’t control the lubb-dub of our heartbeat –- it’s involuntary and driven by our most basic part of ourselves (the primitive brain, the breath of life). Our higher-functioning mind does not think about it, nor do we want it to… we’d screw it up. In life, the highs and lows happen as a normal part of our experience. The mind again has no control over it, nor do we want it to… we’d screw it up.

You might find yourself saying: “Yeah, but I don’t want to go through all that. Isn’t the point of meditation and yoga and therapy (etc., etc., etc.) to calm ourselves and bring more balance?” To which I reply, yes and yes. Calming does not eliminate the peaks and valleys. Balance does not deny the two poles of high and low. If the goal was to rid ourselves of these points, we would not have the full breadth of experience that is fundamental to being alive -- we would flat-line. And we all know what that means: death.

What’s key is how we choose to relate to the beats of life. It is both the joy and sorrow that make our experiences so rich. And it is fundamental to our continual growth and evolution that we travel this path. Our pulse may quicken when significant life events occur in rapid succession (birth, death, change, stress), or may remain slow or relatively constant when we are practicing self-care. But, it never deviates from the inevitability represented in the EKG.

Flat-lining is not the goal. Rather, it is to focus on shifting the line so that it travels at an incline. We must find ways to manage our thoughts and our responses to life by practicing being present more often so that we can make conscious, values-aligned choices moment-by-moment. By this, we make it possible over time to experience more exhilarating peaks and less-strenuous valleys. And we never stop feeling the richness and complexity of the gift of living full-out.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Personal Development Junkie

Few would deny that self-improvement and a focus on learning and development are a powerful way to live. It is an important practice to consistently invest in being your best, healthy self – with the end goal of feeling happy, fulfilled, and at peace. Getting to know yourself and discovering hidden blind spots that profoundly alter your life can become intoxicating. The “high” that is produced from personal transformation is inspiring but can also turn into an addiction. It can lead to a person constantly seeking the “fix” created by finding and doing the new, next best thing that will hopefully reveal “the secret” or give “the answer” to how they can be more, better, or different. The difference lies in the intention behind why you are pursuing personal development and how you go about it.


From a very early age, we infer a variety of messages from personal experiences, the words and actions of family and teachers, and from society and media that we are wrong, broken, or simply “not good enough.” People have different ways they look to prove to themselves and others that this is not so. Some focus outward on achieving material success and indicators of “good enough” (job, possessions, credentials, recognition). Some focus inward on improvement of how they live and experience their inner and outer worlds – through therapy, coaching, self-help books and workshops, exercise, and spiritual practices.

None is inherently wrong, and none is necessarily better than another. I’m a huge advocate of self-development and orient my life around “the work.” However, it is important to ask yourself: Are you pursuing a particular course of self-improvement because you want to be your best you or because you are trying to fix something (inside or out) that you believe is broken? If it’s the former, then that can be an exciting way to live. If it’s the latter, then it’s time to take a look at your motivations and work on healing the past so you can develop a greater sense of self love. As you’ve probably heard before (but perhaps have yet to believe) in a whole range of teachings from Eckhart Tolle to Carl Rogers to Jesus Christ: you are whole, complete, resourceful, and an example of perfection just as you are in this very moment.


There are so many fantastic resources out there for supporting your journey of self-discovery – from racks of self-study books to experiential retreats to 1:1/group therapy. Gurus like Anthony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey; workshops through Landmark Education, Wright Institute, Avatar, and Body Electric; readings from Marianne Williamson, Don Miguel Ruiz, and Abraham-Hicks, and whole array of bloggers – these and many, many more provide incredible insight into ourselves, others, and to existence itself.

You can explore and experience and discover and grow. That is awesome. It takes a certain amount of digging and honesty to get to the real meaty stuff. Learning about yourself is fantastic, but what are you going to do with this information? Where people often fall short of making the true, lasting improvements they are seeking is in the consistent and persistent application.

Do you find yourself hearing and seeing the same messages over and over again? There is nothing new out there, as it’s all been said and done before but repackaged in more or less effective forms. When reading or participating, try paying attention not only to what is being communicated, but how well you are actually applying it every day. It’s great to hear reinforcement of insightful messages, but it’s equally important to take that information and do something with it.

At some point, you have to ask yourself how much more “work” you need to do on yourself before you can live the life you want. If you’ve been at this for a while, you probably already have enough to work with. Strive to create structures, commitments, accountability to others – anything that will support you in taking the action to reinforce and sustain your transformation. Remember this is not all about “achieving” happiness; you must allow it to unfold organically. Focus on breathing, quieting the mind, and finding ways to be more present, peaceful, and accepting (toward yourself and others).

The choice is yours: You can either seek out the next “high” (that may lead to the next “low”), or concentrate on healing the why of your addiction and commit to applying all you’ve learned in your daily life.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Discomfort is a Good Thing

When we are feeling threatened or in danger, our instinct is fight or flight. This is an evolutionary mechanism that protects us. However, despite living in relatively safe environments, we still operate in this fight or flight mode when presented with challenges of a mental or emotional nature. It’s our primitive selves in action, even though the threat of physical harm is usually low.

As humans, we typically try to avoid anything that causes us discomfort. This is one reason why change is so hard. However, what people don’t necessarily realize is discomfort is a prerequisite for lasting change and growth to occur, because it requires that we break out of the familiar and stretch toward something outside our comfort zones. While I might not go so far as to say “no pain, no gain,” I will say that you want to strive to push yourself past comfort because that is the real sweet spot.

When I consider the areas in my life that had the most lasting impact, they were areas where I was pushed/pulled toward an expanded version of who I know myself to be. Just like growing pains were a natural part of our physical development, so is the discomfort that accompanies our emotional and mental growth.

Rather than resisting that which makes us uncomfortable or arouses fear, we can benefit from walking toward it knowing that is where the value and power lie. Don’t resist it (fight) or run from it (flight) -- it’s a good thing to feel uncomfortable because you know you are entering new territory. Stay with it and know it’s an important part of the process. Discomfort can be our friend if we are able to see it as an opportunity for growth and change.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Taking Action: Before You Do, Start with Be

As the cliché goes, we are notoriously “human doings.” We are action oriented, and evaluate ourselves daily on how much we are doing, producing, and achieving. We have to-do lists and goals and resolutions and "shoulds." We tend to place priority on problem solving and accomplishing tasks (do), so that we can yield some sort of outcome (have), and then be something or someone in the world.

When we are in this Do-Have-Be orientation, we often are evaluating our actions and whether or not we are worthy, valid, successful, productive, or [insert judgment here]. How many of you out there do your work/career, so you can have the money to create/maintain the life you want, so that you can be happy and fulfilled?

Our intentions are not bad; rather they are misguided. What would life be like if we were clear about who we are and what’s important to us, and made choices in alignment with that? It would seem our actions would flow more naturally and be better suited to what we really want today…as opposed to this continual tackling of to-do lists and email requests, and “shoulds” and “have tos.” Perhaps we would no longer feel like we are pushing a boulder uphill. Perhaps we could feel energized knowing that our actions are based on a solid foundation that is a reflection of the person we are now, not what we were in the past or believe we should be in the future.

Our perspective and approach to what we are up to in our lives is just as (if not more) important to the outcome as the actions themselves. We tend to be happier and more satisfied when our actions are grounded in a sense of purpose and are aligned with our values.

Rather than enacting the Do-Have-Be approach, consider instead the Be-Do-Have Model -- a cycle of thought and action related to making, enacting, and evaluating choices.


Rather than focusing first on the action and the "Do," let’s start with who we are and what’s important to us, or the BE. While it is important to create structures, accountability, and targets, how often do we take a step back and ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing? We get so caught up in the go-go-go of daily life and all the responsibilities that go along with it, we neglect to ask ourselves on a regular basis about:
  • Purpose/Calling: Who am I? What am I passionate about? Who do I want to be in the world?
  • Values: What’s important to me? What do I stand for?
  • Motivators: What turns me on and off? What keeps me going?
  • Influencers: What am I capable of? What do I really want?
How clear we are about the “why” has a huge impact on our levels of commitment, engagement, and satisfaction with the experience. It also affects our effectiveness, innovation, creativity, and ability to maintain and sustain the action over the longer term.


We are experts at this part. However, when we are clear about who we are and what is important to us, the choice to act is much simpler. While we might need some assistance in figuring out the best actions to take, the bigger picture goal is self-evident. We know we want something and are willing to take the steps to move us in that direction.


Whether we are happy with the results or not, we get something. Perhaps it’s something tangible, or maybe it’s a feeling. Whatever the case, we are in a position to evaluate our outcomes and choose whether we want to continue on the same path, cease what we are doing, or reevaluate how we are going about it. When we reevaluate, it is important to cycle back through BE to confirm whether our self-assessment was accurate. If so, we analyze what worked and didn’t work in our previous effort to identify where our actions need to be repeated or tweaked.

You are free to approach your experiences in whatever way you choose. Greater happiness and satisfaction in work and life come from being conscious of who you are and what’s important to you as a foundation for what you choose to do and create.

If you are interested in learning more about this, I am happy to share the Master’s thesis I wrote at Northwestern University titled: The Quest for Happiness: An Exploration of Values, Vocational Choice, and Meaning in Life and Work. Email me and I’ll send you either the full thesis or an executive summary.