For a better 2021, think inside the box

The transition to 2021 is well underway, and it couldn’t come a moment too soon! Have you started imagining how this new year could be better than the last? 

The forced solitude and downtime, plus a greater awareness of mortality, are sparking cravings for change in so many people.

Cravings for more meaning, authentic connection, and freedom in our lives and work.

These changes will be unique to each of us. It can be hard to know where to start, or what to focus on first. Tip #1:

wear your innovation hat

I suggest taking a page out of the innovation playbook. As innovation pros know, the best ideas don’t come from a blank page, infinite possibilities, and a generous bank account. 

Instead, the best ideas emerge within design constraints.* Thinking outside the box paradoxically requires thinking inside a box. 

Constraints are even more important for brains like ours that are dazzled by possibilities.  

If we’re smart and talented, perhaps we’ve believed that we could be anything we want. We tend to like novelty, so our overactive brains get busy with endless ideas about what we could or should be. 

We don’t like the idea of limitations… our culture says we’re supposed to correct or transcend them. But  limitations are precisely what we need most. They force us to look at the world more creatively, using fresh perspectives and improving focus and resourcefulness. 

Start with WHO

Tip #2 is my guiding mantra for any kind of strategy, personal or professional: Start with WHO.

Innovation pros know to start with a clear understanding of an archetypal customer: a persona that articulates the needs, mindsets, beliefs and the core challenge to be solved. They know that trying to please everyone results in not pleasing anyone. The persona guides many of the constraints.  

Why should intentional life design be any different? 

Starting with WHO starts with YOU: deeply understanding yourself and how you’re unique. Your core needs that drive your behavior. Your skills, passions, and hard-wired limitations. Those inconvenient facts that won’t change anytime soon: these define your box. 

We stop believing we could do or be anything and start playing with the hand we’re dealt. Not someday in the future if/when our circumstances might be different, but right now. 

Reframe limitations as design constraints

The moment I felt truly liberated was when I publicly claimed what is about myself instead of wishing I was different. I started focusing on what brought me joy instead of being obsessed with fixing or hiding what I assumed was flawed. I stopped waiting for someday or for more money in the bank. 

See, I have a laundry list of personal design constraints: I have a quirky brain that isn’t embraced by most companies. I’m a deeply intuitive dot-connector who doesn’t always understand social rules. I can be too direct, despite decades of practice. I get overwhelmed easily, so I need to carve out a lot of white space. My reality feels slippery: it’s hard to set goals and stick to the plan. I crave novelty and chase shiny ideas. I’m terrible at managing details.

I could have continued my decades-long struggle with trying to “fix” these limitations; instead I embraced them as design constraints in my personal life innovation project. They allowed me to take a pile of wishful options off the table (hurray!) to focus more clearly on my truth.

Is it then any surprise I’ve designed an incredible life in which I get to serve as an “intuitive acupuncturist of the psyche” (as one client called me) for similarly wired humans? In which I can roam the world with my camera instead of sitting under florescent lights getting 2 weeks of vacation a year? Where I outsource what I’m not good at, to focus on what lights me up?

I have designed my perfect life, not in spite of, but because of my limitations. I work with them, not against them. Are there a few things I’d like to improve? Sure. But a lot less than there used to be, when any option was fair game. 

We have very little choice about who we are, but 100% choice with what we do with it. 

Thriving happens when you fall in love with the hand you’re dealt, get creative with what the best version of you might look like, and challenge your assumptions about what’s possible… within the box. 


What are your design limitations? What are your YESSES; what lights you up? When you combine your limits with what lights you up, what ideas are sparked about your work, relationships, location, calendar? What doesn’t fit those constraints you can now confidently take off the table? Share in the comments!

Want to jumpstart this process?

Check out the Intentional Rebels group coaching program starting in January! Not just for career transitions, this program will help you design your most authentic life or work. We start with WHO — your unique needs, values and archetypes — and design from there. 

If you prefer a more personalized 1:1 approach, book a call with me for a no-obligation chat. 

*PPPS. If you want to read more about design constraints in innovation, check out this article in HBR or this one in Inc. 

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Are you designing your life, or is it designing you?

This past Saturday I ventured to the Javakheti Plateau, the high-desert region near the Georgia/Armenia border where the rugged landscape and frigid winter temperatures have shaped the lives of the (predominantly) Russian-speaking immigrants who dwell there. 

I was well aware of my privilege as I photographed the ice fisherman who daily brave sub-zero temperatures to feed themselves and their communities, where they live in cement-block huts with dried dung on the roofs for insulation.

Yet privilege does not automatically bring freedom to design our lives, n’est pas? Privilege simply provides the opportunity; we must choose to take advantage of it. 

For decades, I was no more free than these ice fishermen. Sure, I lived in a beautiful Pacific Heights apartment in San Francisco, and traveled the world with my consulting job. But I wasn’t free. 

I was trapped by the perpetual running on the hamster wheel in order to (barely) afford my life. Trapped by my own mind, by should’s and expectations, by assumptions that the life I yearned for was for other people. Lucky people. Not for me. 

Freedom, first and foremost, is a state of mind. 

You were born with an incredible gift: the gift of choice. Perhaps you’re already choosing your YES, intentionally designing your life instead of allowing it to design you. Awesome; you can stop reading!

But if you’re feeling trapped in a life of quiet desperation, wanting more joy but not really knowing how to attain it — or worse, knowing but frozen by fear — I’m writing to you. 

Are those real restraints on your life? Maybe so. Or maybe they’re excuses… or failure of imagination… or refusal to challenge your own assumptions. 

The only thing that truly holds us back is not soul-crushing poverty or the lack of education or opportunity: it’s ourselves. 

Liberation of the mind, heart and soul starts with radical understanding and acceptance of who we truly are, without apology; this self-acceptance is the key that unlocks the power of choice. From here, it’s easier to know instinctively what we want; we’re no longer dazzled by too many possibilities. And it’s also easier to take that first step into the darkness of unknown, trusting deeply. 

It took me until I was 50 years old before I learned how to listen and trust the innate wisdom in my body instead of my brain…  through a lot of trial and error. They don’t teach this stuff in school. I don’t want it to take that long for you. 

Will 2021 be another groundhog year, endlessly repeating the same stuck behaviors and situations? Or will you choose to diverge from that pattern, making new choices that are more aligned with who you truly are? 

The power is in your hands. A simple choice — “to hell with it… let’s just do this already!” — can change the entire trajectory of your life. 

PS. Sometimes we need a little guidance and support as we leave the security of our comfort zones. My role is that of the sherpa who knows the terrain and can walk alongside you. One of my amazing clients wrote about our 4-month journey together: 

“Jen has been through her own dark night of the soul, so she knows the territory and is able to hold all that comes up along your journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. She’s creative and has a rich toolkit of frameworks she’s designed to help you explore your inner landscape to find out what’s alive for you and what wants to emerge. She uses her strategic mind to help you make sense of all that’s uncovered, seeing patterns and helping you see the forest when you’re stuck in the weeds. She’s also versed in somatic and mindfulness practices which enrich the self-discovery journey by bringing in the wisdom of the body. If you’re looking to birth a more authentic version of yourself or need help navigating transitions, you could not ask for a better partner and guide than Jen.”

– Kate, Creator of Contagious Vulnerability

You can work with me 1:1, or join a supportive tribe of fellow rebels (sign-ups end soon!). If you’re curious, feel free to book a no-obligation call with me. I’d love to hear about your aspirations for 2021. 

Trouble setting goals for the new year? Do this instead.

The beginning of each new year was always a shining beacon of hope for me — This year will be different! I’d set goals and actually achieve them! That hope always fizzled out, courtesy of a total inability to stay on course. 

Everyone else seemed capable of working in a linear fashion towards a goal… why couldn’t I? The clue came when I tried a planner that was designed to link daily, weekly and monthly activities to the annual goals.

Every month, I’d do the reverse of what the planner designer intended: I’d change the annual goals to match the flavor of the month. Six months into the year, this annual goal page was nearly unintelligible with scratch-outs and scribbles in the margins.

It’s not that I couldn’t hit the target. The targets kept moving.

But I couldn’t help it! What I’d planned back in January was so… outdated. Passé. I’d gone way past January’s thinking. Other opportunities flashed before me (squirrel! squirrel!) that seemed much more interesting.

Can you relate, dear reader?

Traditional goal-setting doesn’t match how our brains work

Nowadays I no longer beat myself over my inability to work like everyone else. As a rebel with a cause, aka gifted adult, I understand my brain is wired differently.

Rebels are usually dazzled by too many possibilities. We think and move fast, love to explore, don’t stay in our lanes… which means a loss of interest in January’s goals is virtually guaranteed come springtime.

The moment we’re introduced to a new data point that changes the pattern, we see a new possibility. We need a different process that works with this gift instead of against it.

Replace goals with a compass

Let’s use the travel analogy. Goal-oriented people already know that they want to get from, say, Michigan to Brazil. This allows them to map their route and book planes, trains and automobiles accordingly.

But in the face of infinite options, we’re not 100% sure that we want to go to Brazil. I’d love to see the Northern Lights, work remotely from a fishing village in Egypt, plug into the innovation community in London, and/or ride the Trans-Siberian Rail to Mongolia. How to choose? 

We need an inner compass that consistently points us in the direction of our personal True North.

Instead of focusing on what we want to do (which changes constantly), focus on how we want to feel when our core needs are met.  Core needs, or “motivational DNA,” usually stay constant through most of our lives. Needs and feelings drive behavior, regardless of brain wiring.

Of the 12 core needs I’ve identified in my human-motivation research, three of them consistently show up in the humans I call Rebels with a Cause: Autonomy, Purpose and Belonging.

Every one of the Rebels I coach has chosen these three (plus a fourth) as part of their Inner Compass, but how they define these needs is incredibly unique. Their specialized skills, interests and their YES (what brings them alive) point them in different directions.

How do we know we’re going the right way? Not with our overactive brains. Instead, we feel it in our bodies. The compass lives inside us. We either feel impactful, free and connected (or however you want to feel)… or we don’t. And we can make our decisions accordingly.

With this reliable built-in compass, we can consistently and confidently move forward… even when we don’t know the destination. As one of my coachees wrote: 

“The Inner Compass has become more of a living document to me, a canvas I feel into and fine-tune periodically. Each time I come back to it I see more clearly how to give grace to the many facets of my identity in new and shifting work contexts.”

Play in your possibility space

The compass keeps us on track while we play and experiment to see what path lights us up, allowing the answers to emerge.

The compass sets the boundaries – we know we’re going North – and within this general direction lies a more manageable field of potential opportunities. I call this the possibility space.

“What can you take off the table?” is a question I ask a lot. The only surefire way to gain clarity on your YES is by removing all the NOs: clearing the possibility space of anything that doesn’t align with your compass.

There’s often an immediate sense of clarity once you take the NOs off the table, along with a sign of relief. This process removes the sense of overwhelm that Rebels often face, and allows the YESs to be more visible.

How will 2021 be different for you?

Here’s how you can make progress using your gifted brain wiring: 

  1. Identify how you want to feel in 2021. What lights you up? In what ways do your current job, career, relationships, geography, and life in general help you feel that way?
  2. Align or take off the table anything that doesn’t help you feel that way (this is usually a gradual process!)
  3. Pluck the low-hanging fruit. For example, since I can’t travel, I scratch my freedom and creativity itch with photography day trips out of the city. What can you start doing right now that activate your core needs and emotions?
  4. Experiment. Talk with people who are already playing in your possibility space. Try things on for size.
  5. Feel your way forwardnavigating like a bat. What feels like a YES?
  6. Each month, measure how well your emotional needs are being met… not whether you’ve checked a bunch of to-do’s.

One more option, if you’d like some help within a supportive community: join the Rebels in Transition group: an 8-week group program to design your Inner Compass, along with your unique Archetypes, and experiment your way into a more authentic life. Limited to 10 people, there are still a couple spots left. 

Authentically yours,

PS. For a more customized, hands-on experience, I have two spots open for 1:1 coaching. Book a no-obligation call with me to see if there’s a fit.

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Feeling stuck? Here’s how to get lift-off without burnout

For most of my adult life I felt stuck. I knew that I wasn’t living my best life, but inertia and resistance kept me grounded… like an airplane on the tarmac unable to get enough momentum to achieve lift-off.

Conventional wisdom said I simply needed to work harder. That’s what an airplane pilot would do, right? Expend more and more effort against a single goal until you gain enough speed for the air to catch under your wings.

Plenty of people are able to get lift-off in this way, so I assumed I was defective when I couldn’t make myself do it: when some other interesting shiny thing would catch my attention… when I’d question whether this direction was really worth this amount of effort… when I felt burned out and joyless… when I simply couldn’t work in a linear fashion.

An airplane is the wrong metaphor

After decades of racing up and down the tarmac, I’m finally getting lift-off… and it’s not from treating myself like a machine. Instead, I’ve been working with the laws of nature in a much gentler fashion.

My process now is more akin to a hot-air balloon. When air is heated, it rises and expands, filling the balloon and lifting it off the ground. When air is cooled, it sinks.

When we do what we love and what brings us alive, we feel a whole-body YES: it feels warm, light, expansive; we can’t help but rise. When we’re not in alignment, it’s like cooler air: we contract and sink.

Lest you think this sounds too easy: yes, we still need to do the work. But we’re no longer fighting against our own nature, burning the candle at both ends in order to succeed in a life, career, or relationship that doesn’t light us up.

Instead of putting the pedal to the metal, we can be more emergent: resting in one place, adding more fuel to the fire, building our skills and connections in a way that’s aligned with how we’re wired.

A balloon festival is much more fun

Do you ever see people congregating on a runway celebrating the planes taking off? Not often. Sure, there are airplane shows, but let’s leave those to the hard-charging linear thinkers. We’ve got something better.

Let me tell you about the Albuquerque Balloon Festival… now that’s a party. I lived in Santa Fe for a couple years, and this was one of the highlights. Watching the balloons at dawn gently lift off and take flight is one of the most magical things I’ve seen. It’s here I discovered my love of photography.

The festival is technically a competition, but with a strong spirit of camaraderie. Everyone’s balloons are unique, but they all share the love of flight.

We’re each in our own balloon, navigating the winds and weather… but we can fly together.

Ready to fly?

If camaraderie is your thing, check out my upcoming Rebels in Transition group coaching program, where you’ll create your Inner Compass and get lift-off with other rebels who understand how your mind works.

Want more intensive support? I have one 1:1 coaching spot left in 2020; book a call here to chat with me.

Why transitions are so hard for rebels with a cause

They say that you don’t find your niche; niches find you. The more I understand myself, the more rebels I coach, the more I learn about the unique neurology of the gifted adult, I have surrendered to the knowledge that my sweet spot is helping ‘rebels with a cause’ through transitions — to a more authentic life, a better-fit job, or creating a new venture. And, I can see clearly in hindsight that I’ve always preferred working in this liminal space of possibility.

Transitions are usually more difficult for rebels, which is my term for the gifted adult: resistors of the status quo, constant askers of why, obsessors over fairness and justice. We tend to be dazzled by far too many possibilities, endlessly diverging while being deeply uncomfortable with converging. Diverging keeps us in the realm of possibility, while converging… well, that just triggers FOMO. What if we choose the wrong thing?

Our minds are like the starry sky

We’re divergent because our brains take in more information than most humans. We have low “latent inhibition,” meaning that our brain’s filter is more open and permeable, yet we also have higher working memory and intelligence to use all that extra information productively, connecting dots previously disconnected.

I like to use the starry sky as an analogy: when there’s less light pollution, the atmosphere is clearer; we see billions of stars whereas people in big cities can only see a handful of the brightest ones. We quite literally see what others can’t (which explains why they often look at us like we’re crazy when we point out that never-seen-before constellation.)

When faced with a transition, the neurotypical human — let’s say someone living in LA or London — looks at the equivalent of the night sky and sees limited options. This human can move in a straight, linear way to the next best option; the constellation pattern between a handful of stars seems clear and obvious.

Rebels, on the other hand, can be nearly paralyzed by too many choices. The night sky in the desert is dazzling and often overwhelming. It seems easier to stay where you are in this converged position, rather than explore what appears to be infinite possibility.

We need different tools to explore our options

Casual stargazers are content to rely on their eyes to discern patterns, but serious ones know that they need more advanced tools. If you’re searching for another planet that could provide a perfect habitat for you, a space telescope and spectrograph would be more helpful to narrow down your options.

Lucky for us, we have similar sense-making tools built right in. Our inner wisdom is powered by over 100 million neurons in our guts, and 40 million in our heart areas. I call it “navigating like a bat,” sensing rather than seeing or intellectualizing decisions. We can also turn to our core needs and emotions that drive our decisions. Sadly, Rebels tend to be over-reliant on overactive brains while neglecting the immense wisdom in our bodies.


  • Do you know what a whole-body YES feels like in your body?
  • Do you know what NO feels like, and are you willing to take NOs off the table?
  • How do you want to feel? Which direction will help you feel more of that?


I’ve developed a process called the Inner Compass that uses these senses, plus core needs, emotions and Archetypes, to narrow down the field of possibility to the options that best fit you and your unique gifts. Then we can experiment, testing and learning our way to a whole-body YES.

I have one 1:1 coaching spot left in 2020! I’m also developing a lower-priced group coaching program for developing your Inner Compass to navigate your transition. If you’re intrigued, simply click here for more.