‘What could be wrong with enlightened CEOs?’ my friend Ken wondered over his chai. ‘It could mean that all their power is used for awakening and good.’ We all sat quietly for a moment thinking over this new possibility. Then I asked, ‘Ok, so let’s take a hypothetical scenario here; what if the CEO is someone like Dick Cheney? What if teaching him mindfulness just assists him to feel less stressed and less conflicted about bombing a country?’ We all got quiet again… ‘No way!’ we suddenly chimed naively. How could meditation enable bad behavior?
Sitting across the table from Dr. Hoffman, I observed a very specific sense emerging in the space. It was a feeling of infinite possibility. I felt exceptional self-confidence and sparkle—not in him—in me. I felt, well, remarkable, as if I had super powers and could do anything I put my heart into. It then dawned on me that this was his gift—he saw, and therefore evoked, greatness in others.
I’ve hit another wall, he texted, at 2 a.m. I didn’t respond. I was sleeping. The next afternoon I finally texted back, Good, you are on the right track.
One of my favorite ways to work is with people who are taking that 12,500 foot leap out of their office cubical and into the abyss of their own passion and calling. Texts like the one I received at 2 a.m. come frequently when people are in that soul-calling free-fall.
Like my big brother did when I was learning to ride a bike, lightly holding back of my seat while I wobbled ahead at what seemed warp speed, I run alongside my clients shouting breathless encouragements. Invariably there is a curb, a bush, a misplaced tree. And in that moment between letting go of the seat and eventual impact, a calm knowing overwhelms me—this is exactly how it needs to go.
Few have shared the complicated terrain of a creative, purposeful life. Partly because a lot of us are introverts, and partly because the terrain is rife with self-doubt, so who are we to announce confidently the road map of creativity? But also, let’s face it, there are few who take that 12,500 foot leap. Most prefer the climate controlled plane ride with free wi-fi and movies at the touch of a screen.
Now don’t think that what I’m implying here is that a creative life means dumping your day job, though it could if that was what your passion demanded (and if that is the case, by God, you’d better listen). I mean that regardless of circumstances, that leap requires letting go of predictability, and falling into a whole new dance with the very essence of life force.
Inspire / Inspiration – the word comes from the Latin root “immediate influence of God or a god,” “with spirit,” to “infuse animation or influence,” thus “affect, rouse, guide or control,” especially by divine influence. So, my friends, when one surrenders to the creative life, one let’s go to All That Is. And that’s some pretty big stuff you’re waltzing with now – just ask Joan of Ark or Mary Magdalene.
Whether you are night-owling it while writing a book, or waking up at 5:30 a.m. to map out a new idea before the household awakens, or taking on a side-gig teaching children how to meditate in underserved schools, the creative life is that which emerges from the unknown, summons your deepest intrinsic gifts, and calls them out for expression in the world.
Follow your bliss was Joseph Campbell’s famous rebel yell to all those tempted by inspiration. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be,” he said. “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
When I first starting reading Campbell in the 80’s, I thought that following my bliss would be, of course, blissful. Ok, so I’m slow on the uptake…it’s follow your bliss. Which is altogether different from being bliss. When one is a follower—that is, a disciple—of their bliss, then one is put through an endless stream of tests, trials and tribulations. Forever. Period.
If you’re going to take that leap, consider this very carefully: you must befriend hopelessness, doubt, despair, darkness, terror, betrayal, emptiness, walls, frustration, disappointment, and setbacks. You must get to know these phenomena intimately. Know their ins and their outs and everything in between.
The creative life could come with a warning label, to scare away all those who are only half-hearted: will cause depression, heart palpitations, insomnia, and the strange and sudden desire to cut off an ear. But here’s the secret….enter this world whole-heartedly, and the joy and fulfillment completely outweigh it’s challenges.
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, ‘I was no stranger to disappointment and frustration. But I remember thinking that learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artist [or innovator] of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work.’ She continues wisely, ‘Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.’
One of my favorite bloggers, Mark Manson, says it more directly on finding one’s life purpose, ‘What’s the flavor of your favorite shit sandwich?’ In other words, what do you love so much that you are willing to eat all the shit that goes with it?
He writes, ‘Because here’s the sticky little truth about life that they don’t tell you at high school pep rallies: everything sucks, some of the time.’ You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to tolerate. So the question is not so much, “What are you passionate about?” The question is, “What are you passionate about enough that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”
‘If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands of times, then you’re done before you start,’ says Manson. ‘If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eight-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.’
Most of my real work with people is not in the “what are you passionate about” bit, but the, “oh my God I’ve made a terrible mistake, I’m a fraud, and I’m going to go broke” bit. This is where things get really sweaty. And where many try to turn around, clamor back up the parachute lanyards and scurry right back into the plane.
Recently a friend of my partner, who is a master coach, a veteran of 30 years, indicated that out of all the people who invest tens of thousands of dollars to get certified as executive coaches, only about fifty percent of them are still coaching within one or two years. My hunch is that no one told them about the shit sandwich.
If you are a creative….wait a minute….let’s reword that. If you are allowing your natural, god-given, available-to-everyone, creative energy to express itself in one form or another…as a coach, a yoga teacher, a CEO, an entrepreneur, a singer-songwriter, a poet or an actor…then start to warmly acquaint yourself with your own unique personal hell realm.
‘Ah, yes,’ I’ve learned to say when I hit a snag with a particular project I used to be in love with, ‘This is the part where I watch way too much television, and eat lots of sugar.’
‘Oh yeah, here’s that “you are such a fake” week that happens right before a breakthrough.’ And, ‘Yep, about now is when I sabotage everything by spending too much money on unnecessary plastic objects.’ Or, ‘Oh, hello wall-of-hell, where I feel dead, morose and exhausted.’
And my favorite, after the project successfully comes to completion, ‘This is when I beat myself up for not doing it sooner, and imagine that as punishment God is going to deprive me of any kind of creative endeavor for the future, AND I’ll be a bag lady, AND my kids won’t love me.’
I’ve learned to befriend these dark places, and help others befriend theirs. When you see them as part of the process—the necessary contractions that herald a birth—you learn to surf them. My business partner Scott quickly responded to one client after she declared, panic stricken, that she had hit “that wall! That wall that has ruined everything in the past”,
‘Great!’ he said, ‘Once you get through this old familiar one, there will be a brand new shiny one awaiting you!’
Gilbert encourages, ‘Over the years of devotional work, though, I found that if I just stayed with the process and didn’t panic, I could pass safely through each stage of anxiety and on to the next level. I heartened myself with reminders that these fears were completely natural human reactions to interaction with the unknown.’
So. You out there slumped up against that same ol’ wall, bemoaning your bad luck, and how this is proof that you really are a fraud. Get yourself up and dust off those sweatpants. Pull out the picnic blanket, cast it across that well-worn place right in front of that wall, and smooth out the creases. It’s time to dine on sandwiches, the shit kind, that you just can’t get enough of.
I can’t help it. The new year rolls around and I already have a list a mile long about all the ways I want to do better, be better, work better and be a better friend.
On top of that, in the aftermath of a soul-shredding election season, we are told this is our year to rise up. To show up. To be the change, because every human right, every civil right, and every acre of wilderness, we’ve fought for is at risk.
I believe now is our time to really show up in the world. And it will require our entire capacity—nothing half-hearted. We have too much to lose. But recently I noticed a deep exhaustion creeping into the edges of my resolve—and it’s only mid January.
When I traced the exhaustion back to its source, I discovered that a habit to please still pervades many of my good intentions. Yep, I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m a pleaser. It stings a little to confess. But it’s time the pleaser in me saw the light of day, because pleasers cannot be warriors.
The ‘Disease to Please’, as author Dr. Harriet Braiker coined in 2002, sounds like a kitten amongst the other pathologies. But make no mistake, underneath that fluffy exterior is a saber-toothed tiger that shreds relationships, and leaves behind veritable battlefields of collateral damage.
And if this is the year to rise up and show up, then my habit to please cannot come along. Not even a tiny bit. Pleasing creates an oxymoron of just about every virtue. It cancels out courage. It eradicates authenticity. It neutralizes strength.
After three whole decades of wrestling with my habit to ‘please first, and ask questions later’ (I’m a slow, yet thorough, learner), what I finally saw was not the ‘nice’ part of the pleaser facade, but a woman terrified of conflict. Now that was something I could sink my teeth into!
So instead of wrestling with the pleasing part of me, like I’ve done for so many years (with stellar lack of success) I’m confronting my fear of conflict. Specifically, I’m confronting my fear of all those uncomfortable sensations associated with conflict—anxiety, worry, hurt, fear and betrayal. I’m confronting my fear of anger, of being a disappointment, and of accusations. I’m facing my terror of being abandoned or cast aside. I’m walking straight into my fear of being judged as lazy or selfish.
And guess what, pleasing everyone never prevented any of that stuff anyway.
So my resolutions are taking on a whole new flavor this year. Instead of all the ways I can be ‘better’, I’m going to take an altogether different approach. I’m going to risk the unthinkable: I’m going to be ok with disappointing someone.
With luck, I’ll disappoint a lot of people.
These times are calling for the end of pleasing. Instead, we need to challenge. We need to confront. We need to call out the difficult dynamic. We need to risk unrest and opposition. We need to send back the proverbial cold pasta.
As people pleasers, we run around doing things that on the surface seem compassionate or caring, even noble. Upon reflection, I’ve seen that some of my softer attributes were actually just cowardice cloaked in spiritual clothing.
If you find that you do a lot of the following, perhaps your pleaser factor requires attention: understanding, compromising, letting go, not attaching, ameliorating, subjugating, apologizing, tending, being flexible, bending, attending, appeasing, charming, entertaining, placating, pacifying, rescuing, fixing, complying, and obliging.
Love—real love—is part support and part challenge. When you compare those two parts in your life, which side is more weighted?
So how to change? Like all good brain rewiring, start with small actions, as many times in a day as possible. Think of it like brain weight-training. Start with ‘light weights’, and as many reps as possible. Before you know it, you’ll be creating resilient neural pathways that can face conflict with more confidence and courage.
Coach and mentor, Dr. Adrienne Partridge writes in the Huffington Post that a Google executive told her that when she was trying to stop being a people pleaser, she started making a point to disappoint someone every day. “Go out and disappoint someone today, “ she writes. “Tell your waiter how you really feel about the food, tell your family you are not coming home for the holidays, or say ‘no’ to a project at work because it takes too much time away from your children.”
Ending the addiction to please is a practice that requires presence and mindfulness. As you tell the waiter you are disappointed with their service, slow yourself down and breathe through his or her reaction, and your subsequent feeling-response to their reaction. Watch their facial gestures. Feel your uncomfortable feelings. Just stay really present and breathe through that really hard moment. You are literally building new neural pathways.
Recognize that pleasing actually does a disservice to the other. It assumes the other person cannot handle disappointment. It holds them small. It refuses a growth opportunity to the other, and keeps them mired in a limited environment.
Another great exercise is to make a list of what you love, and what you love to do. Make it exhaustive….hiking, dancing, drawing, playing with the dog. Think of things you used to love a long time ago, add them too if that feels right. Then go over it very carefully and see if pleasing has robbed you of any of those things. No more playing your guitar because you are too busy taking care of a project you never really liked in the first place? What about that yoga class you’ve been meaning to take, but you just can’t get away from the kids?
Slow down and take a moment before responding to requests. Get in the habit of saying things like the following:
“I’m not sure, can I get back to you about that?”
“I am willing to do that, but only for an hour.”
“I need some time to think about that before I commit.”
“I can only see you between 10 and 11.”
And lastly, start to build your capacity for uncomfortable feelings. Expect that as you practice saying ‘no’, you will feel anxious, conflicted, guilty, worried and scared. That’s ok. Good things sometimes require feeling hard feelings. Don’t interpret their presence as an indication that you’ve done something wrong.
I can tell you that as you break with your habit to please, life can get a lot harder before it gets better. People who rely on your bending yourself into a pretzel might get really angry with you at first. You are changing the game plan. That’s ok. Take the pushback you are receiving as a sign that you are growing. Inwardly thank those that give you a hard time. Imagine their resistance working like inner weights in the gym of your growth.
Over time, you’ll discover that relationships (the ones that survive) become more alive and vibrant. And you have more energy, joy and levity. Relationships that do not survive your shift were probably too small for you anyway. Bless them and send them on their way.
We need warriors. We need you. Start by disappointing someone today.