I love to help people who are still unsure what they’re meant to do in the world find their calling, embrace their challenges, and discover the hero within.
8 January 2018 | 9 minute read
Every January, the self help world lights up with all kinds of tips and tricks for how to keep your New Year’s Resolutions.
As a personal development coach, I’ve written my fair share of blog posts on the topic, and even delivered a workshop for a local bootcamp on how to create resolutions you can keep.
These days, however, I’m not so interested in achieving goals, and it’s not because I’ve given up on myself, or because I’m too spiritually evolved, or because I don’t think setting objectives or having intentions is helpful. It’s just that I’ve found that they’re rarely helpful in the ways we usually expect them to be.
The Problem With Finding Your Path
Most of us think about our lives in geographic terms. It’s like we’re visualizing ourselves on a map: we’re at point A, what we want is at point B, and our job is to travel the distance between the two, preferably as quickly as possible.
I myself am not immune. As a coach who helps other people identify and move into meaningful work they love, I talk a lot about forging your own path. It’s not a bad metaphor, but it can lead to a fundamental misconception when it comes to understanding challenges.
When something comes up that gets in our way, like procrastination, distraction, lack of follow through, fear, indecisiveness, worry, forgetfulness, or other lifelong habits that slow us down, we see them as obstacles. After all, they’re preventing us from arriving at the place where we’re supposed to be. We think it’s our duty to do what we can to minimize these challenges so we can move towards what we want more efficiently and effectively.
It all sounds so reasonable. But in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
What Really Happens When We Reach Our Goals
I’ve set a lot of intentions in my life. Even when I haven’t had the courage to make explicit goals, I’ve longed for lots of things, like to get married, save the world, buy a house, have children, run a successful business, become enlightened, write a popular novel, help lots of people, earn sufficient money doing what I love…the list goes on.
Some of these goals I’ve achieved and others I haven’t (a saved world and enlightenment, for example, have been particularly tricky to accomplish). What I have found consistently is that when I finally find what I’m looking for, it’s never what I thought it was going to be.
For example, ever since I decided to become a coach, I’ve wanted to run a successful business and earn my living helping others while enjoying what I do. I spent the first five years out of coaching school learning about entrepreneurship, trying out different marketing and sales tactics, and generally doing anything and everything I thought would help me grow my enterprise.
It was hard work, and often left me exhausted, but it felt worth it as I crept closer to my goal. I could imagine all the benefits I’d enjoy when I finally had a thriving coaching practice: I’d finally feel capable and proud of myself for the good work I was doing. I’d help others and know that I was making a positive difference in the world. The day-to-day realities of my life would improve as financial constraints were removed and I experienced more frequent joy, serenity, and freedom.
Then one day I signed up my 16th client and my practice was officially full. I had achieved my goal! But instead of being the panacea I’d thought it would be, it simply brought on new problems.
Sure, there was a temporary pride in my accomplishment. But I soon found that 16 clients were far too many for me to serve well; I just didn’t have the energy to show up for so many people consistently. And even though I had a full practice, I was still prone to doubts about how good of a job I was doing. In the end, rather than joy, serenity, and freedom, most days I just ended up feeling drained and uninspired.
The Upside to Failure
My thriving coaching practice didn’t last for long. Clients completed their engagements with me before I could sign up new ones to replace them. Soon my practice was no longer full and I was back to trying desperately to grow my business.
But then the most amazing thing happened.
I’d been talking to my coach, meditation teacher, and various friends and family (basically anyone who would listen) about all my struggles and disappointments.
I talked about the fear and anxiety that kept me from taking bold action towards my goals. I complained about the self doubt that always made me feel like whatever I was doing wasn’t good enough. I shared about how often the heavy burden of responsibility and duty left me feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and unable to enjoy even the things in my life that I loved and felt incredibly grateful for.
The amazing thing is that slowly, over time, and with the help of my support network, I began to find new ways of approaching things. I started to discover ways of working with my fear and calming my anxiety. I learned how to trust myself and know that there was no way I could ever not be enough. I finally realized that I’m not responsible for everything and figured out how to prioritize rest, fun, and other energizing activities.
In the process, I rediscovered my love of writing. I started creating short stories for my blog and eventually dared to do what I never thought I would: write a novel.
The result? I began to feel capable and proud of myself for the good work I was doing. I knew that I was helping others and making a positive difference in the world. The day-to-day realities of my life improved as I experienced more frequent joy, serenity, and freedom.
I wasn’t yet making as much money as I wanted to, but I had enough, from various sources, and began to trust that I would be okay and find a way regardless of what happened with my business.
Please Don’t Avoid the Challenges
I began to see that our limitations—no matter how messy or embarrassing or undesirable they may seem—are not the problem. Our challenges are not what get in the way of walking our path.
Our challenges are the path.
Research has shown that humans are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. The problem isn’t just that we don’t pick the right things to want; it’s also that we don’t have the context to understand how to find what we’re truly looking for.
We can’t see what we need until we get there. If you would have asked me twenty years ago when I was in the throes of depression what I needed to be happy, I would have told you I needed far less hopelessness, despair, and other painful feelings. What I didn’t understand until I had worked with a therapist for a few years was that I didn’t need less pain—I just needed to relate to it in an entirely different way.
Happiness is almost never found where we think it will be, and it’s certainly not a straight line away. On a map, the journey to anything worthwhile would look more like a crooked line that zigs and zags, disappears and reappears, and sometimes circles back to where we started.
Fortunately, we don’t have to know where the path to happiness lies. All we have to do is embrace whatever challenge is arising for us in this particular moment. It’s by working with these challenges that we’ll find what we truly want and need, but that we probably don’t yet have the context to understand.
Let the Universe Be Smarter Than You
If this feels vague and esoteric, then let me make it more concrete: to find what you’re longing for, absolutely take steps in that direction that make sense to you. Then when something arises that gets in your way, thank your lucky stars.
Name what’s challenging you. Get curious about it. Study how and when and why it shows up. Reflect on it. Write about it. Treat it like the most fascinating phenomenon in the world, one worthy of your most reverent attention.
Then talk to someone else about it. We all have blind spots, and we all need outside perspectives. So find a coach, therapist, mentor, teacher, or wise friend or family member who can help you find a new way of seeing things.
Ultimately, your desire is sacred, but it’s not what you want that’s important so much as what you learn by trying to find it. The great thing about this is it takes the pressure off; it truly doesn’t matter whether or not you arrive at your imagined destination, because you find what you’re looking for along the way.
Knowing this, knowing that whatever is challenging you is there to help you find your path, knowing that the universe is far smarter than you are, it becomes a lot easier to relax into the process and let go of trying to be perfect.
I love to help people who are still unsure what they’re meant to do in the world find their calling, embrace their challenges, and discover the hero within. Click here to get a free guide with 50 practical ideas, resources, and exercises to help you find your calling without losing your mind (or your shirt).