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 What I’d planned back in January was so… outdated.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.

PPS. Get these weekly posts in your inbox!

How to attract the life you want

I was on the phone last night with a dear friend of mine who has always had this feeling she would move from the US to the city of romance: Paris. She’s even had dreams about it.

So she tells me last night (again), “I feel like I’m going to be in Paris. But I just don’t know when or how. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.” This passive phrase coming out of the mouth of a strong woman already in mid-life surprised me. If not now, then when?

I responded, “May I gently challenge that assumption?”

“Yes of course.”

“‘If it’s meant to be’ isn’t enough; it will happen when you make a choice.”

“Ha! Ok… but I don’t have a big stash of money.”

“I didn’t either when I made the leap overseas.”

Really? I assumed you did. Well, what would I do with my cat?”

“Bring the cat. Really, is that the only thing stopping you?”

(long pause)

She looks at me with both fear and delight visible on her face.

“I could really do this, couldn’t I?”

Yes, my dear friend. YES!

What’s stopping you?

What stopped me for decades was an assumption that these magical, fabulous lives that people led were… not for me. I didn’t even question whether or not I could actually move overseas. The desire was more like a wish that had made a comfy nest in a small corner of my mind, accepting that it would be her destiny to stay there.

What’s worse: I’d convinced myself that I didn’t even know what I really wanted because the best options (roaming the planet, photography, writing, coaching) were for someone else. Those options were already taken, and it was “too late for me.” What lay within my personal realm of possibility in this tiny box that I called reality? Nothing fulfilling, as it turned out.

Inshallah… if God wills. If magic happened and someone handed me an opportunity and a pile of cash on a silver platter, then I’d know it was really for me. I’d go along for the ride. “If it’s meant to happen, it will be.” All of my perceived barriers would miraculously be removed. Fingers crossed!

It’s all within our reach

So how do we get out of our boxes? How do we even know the right thing to choose? I’ve written before on the practical how-to’s of finding yourself, which is the prerequisite to knowing your path… but today I want to talk about something else.

I want to talk about faith and enchantment.

I bet that surprised you. I bet when you read “if it’s meant to be isn’t enough,” you assumed that I’d be taking an uber-rational approach to making things happen… right? And while I have a reputation for doing exactly that, here’s what I know to be true… and I’m confident that my friend (who lives a more enchanted life than I ever will) knows it as well:

There’s a big difference between passive wishing and active faith.

  • A passive wisher stays in her comfort zone; an active faither says YES to opportunities not knowing what will happen, but having faith that something magical will come of it. (Is faither evan a word? well it is now…)
  • A passive wisher has limited her vision to what she can see; an active faither navigates life like a bat… feeling into the next step, guided by intuition and the pull of her soul.
  • A passive wisher is boxed in by the practical; an active faither lives an enchanted life, expecting — and therefore receiving — the hard-to-explain coincidences, clues and gifts that she needs to fulfill her path.
  • A passive wisher feels like she has to push boulders up hill to make things happen. An active faither enters the flow; she knows that the right things come easily, and she simply needs to put herself out there to find them.
  • A passive wisher wants to believe in destiny and says things like “if it’s meant to be, it will happen.” An active faither believes in destiny and chooses it to happen.

Faith without action is a wish… and wishes have no power. A meaningful life overflowing with joy is within reach. The only thing stopping any of us is the choice to see the world differently — from our hearts instead of our heads — then taking the next step based on that limited yet accurate sight. And the next, and the next…

And what happens when we do that is… magical. People, answers, opportunities, even parking spots! appear as if conjured out of thin air. We live an enchanted life on faith. But it can only happen if we are active participants in the process. My logical left brain tries to explain it away, but my soul knows better. My soul knows when I’m in the flow.

May 2020 be the year you decide to reawaken the sense of possibility that perhaps you had as a child. To start unshackling yourself from burdens that are not yours to carry, and begin saying YES to what life has to offer.


The photo in this post is from my 6-week stay in the small fishing village of Essaouira, on the coast of Morocco. It’s here that it finally sunk in: I’m doing it. I’m doing what I’d always wanted to do.

How to get stuff done: Lure, don't push

One of the biggest frustrations in my life has been my inability to make myself do what I want to do. I’ll sit in front of my computer with the intention to write a post, and then get lost in Facebook, organizing my digital files, or sending emails. Or the laundry basket piles up to the point of needing to wear bathing suit bottoms instead of underwear. If you can relate, here’s my latest discovery:

You can’t “make” yourself do anything. Just give up.

Here’s what you can do: manipulate your mind into thinking it really wants to do (whatever).

“Manipulation?” I hear a collective gasp. Manipulation has a lot of negative connotations, sure. I was in the customer strategy business for years; my job was to find that magic emotional button to press that would get people to buy stuff they don’t need. I’m glad to turn that experience to more positive uses!

If you don’t want to be manipulated, learn how to manipulate yourself. We can either be victims reacting to the world, or we can gain mastery by understanding how our brains work.

Pavlov’s dogs

Remember the story of Pavlov? Every time the scientist rang a bell, he’d feed the dogs. Pretty soon, the simple sound of the bell would make dogs salivate. They’d learned to associate the sound of the bell with food.

You can do the same thing for yourself. Find a trigger for a feel-good emotion that you can associate with a particular task. For me, music is the best trigger in the world. When I was a little kid, my mom would play a 2-hour reel-to-reel of Simon and Garfunkel to clean house every Sunday; to this day, I feel the urge to clean the house whenever I hear a S&G song.

Likewise, I have my YES playlist whenever I’m feeling sluggish or depressed and resisting doing something that takes a lot of energy. These songs transport me immediately into a YES! expansive, joyful state of being where I can do anything (except work). I”ll use it to trigger a workout, cleaning house, artwork, or some task I’ve been procrastinating on.

I have a different list for work. Now when I feel resistance to sitting down to write, I have a happy, gentle singer-songwriter playlist that I put on. It takes about 3 times of playing a song with my desired action for my brain to make the connection, and then we’re off to the races.

What’s your trigger?

One of the first things I’ll do with a coachee is have them identify some musical triggers to move into a stronger, more empowered state of being. It’s such an easy way to lure our brains into doing what we want!

Here’s how to do it: find your power song. This is one that really lights you up inside! It’s like Pavlov’s “tasty food” that we want to associate with something we’re resisting (the “bell”). Play the song and then do your task; you can make an agreement with yourself that you only have to do it for the duration of the song. If you feel like going longer, great. The point is to associate this FEELING of power with this activity. By the third time, you will hopefully have lured your brain into making the connection.

What are your YES songs? Do you use different songs or playlists to trigger different moods?

Want more tips to find and create your best self? Sign up for my newsletter!

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

How to journal to achieve real breakthroughs

In my last post I discussed the basics: why, when, where, and what to journal. Today’s post covers how to journal to achieve real breakthroughs in self-knowledge, emotional mastery, spiritual connection, and even writing skill improvements. The key is to relax your thinking mind’s tight grip, and dive into the murky realm of emotion.

Write from the heart

Yeah, you’ve probably seen this phrase before. “Write from the heart” appears soft and squishy and rather meaningless… but I’d like to break it down into why it’s important and how to do it.

Pretty much everything in life comes down to how we feel. We like to think that we make rational, logical decisions… but the deep underground rivers of emotion (both positive and negative) are the true shot callers. So why did we never receive training on how to identify what we’re feeling?

Because emotions can be scary. Negative emotions are processed in a part of our brain that doesn’t have words to describe what’s going on… and what we don’t comprehend gets shut down and stored in our bodies. This emotional numbing comes at a cost; if emotions call the shots, and we don’t know how to listen, then we’ve cut ourselves off from our inner compass.

It’s easier to know when we feel happy or loved, but our emotional vocabulary doesn’t come close to describing the 34,000 emotions experienced by human beings. And when we don’t have the vocabulary, we are unaware of even the positive emotions that motivate us and define us as individuals. We simply don’t know ourselves.

Feel it, label it, and release it.

Journaling can borrow an incredibly effective practice from meditation called labeling. The task is to pay attention to the lived experience and label what’s happening without holding on or rejecting it. We can avoid getting caught up in our own stories by simply getting a better vantage point.

Labeling in meditation typically focuses on seeing our thoughts for what they are instead of getting caught up in them, and then labeling them accordingly, like “thinking,” “judging,” “analyzing.” This technique can also be used to more deeply examine what we’re feeling, as if we’re scientists peering at a new type of bug: “Stomach tense… feels like a ball of twine… shallow breaths… oh, this is what ‘anxious’ feels like. Open and spacious in my chest area, warm and tingly… ah, this is what ‘loved’ feels like. Oh… really open, almost like my energy is in front of me, radiating outward: this is what “freedom” feels like.”

We can combine the meditation technique of labeling with the practice of journaling to fully translate a sensory experience into language and understanding. If you’re only journaling with your analytical mind without feeling deep down into what is really going on, then nothing transformational can occur. We just spin and spin and spin, creating the illusion of progress with no real traction.

Conversely, when we start intentionally witnessing what we’re feeling — in real time or recreated through memory — and translating those feelings into words (especially words on a page), that’s when magic happens. Emotions hold power in darkness, but the light of awareness diminishes that power. We are in control… we are liberated. We have access to inner wisdom, boosting self awareness and assurance.

The practice

We can use the power of memory to explore positive emotions without repercussion. Settle into a comfortable chair, breathe deeply, feeling the air flow into your chest, and then go even deeper — imagine it going down your spine, into your seat, your legs, your toes. Really feel yourself sitting in your body, grounded… not floating up in your head.

Now imagine a time when you felt joy, safe, peaceful, included, free, or valued. Relive that experience. What does this emotion feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? Create the “tasting notes” for your own vintages of emotions. Label them and write them down.

In your journal, explore: How meaningful is this emotion to you? Does it define you or motivate you? Some of us are driven by the need to feel safe, others by freedom, others by purpose or belonging. These “defining emotions” that go hand-in-hand with humanity’s core needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy) help us understand who we are and why we do what we do. They can be used to guide future decisions.

Cool processing

Whether we work with negative or positive emotions, the same caveat holds: don’t drown in the emotion. While it’s important to access and acknowledge negative emotions (shame, rejection, etc), there’s a difference between being an observer of the memory and stepping into the memory. This post does a good job describing “cool” versus “hot” processing; cool processing is being an observer, labeling the emotion and what is happening. Hot processing involves stepping back into the memory and allowing it to re-trigger pain and trauma.

Practice first with positive emotions — accessing, feeling and labeling emotions without getting lost in daydreams — before venturing into negative emotions. Then work with easier negative emotions, like those more distant in your memory (like that time I fell down the stairs on the first day of a new school when I was 11); save the traumatic ones for last.

While it’s much easier and more desirable to “swim around in” positive emotions, we run the risk of drifting off into fantasy land. Our goal is to understand ourselves better, not to self-medicate… so again, labeling is key. Feel it, label it, and release it.

Dear reader, what do you think? Are you ready to try your hand at this?

How to start an effective journaling practice – The Basics

I’ve been a compulsive journaler my entire life, filling countless lined pages with outpourings of inspirations, frustrations, hopes, heartbreaks, and extensive overanalysis. I wrote to understand myself, others and situations. I’ve also learned how to quiet my mind and simply let my pen move across the paper, channeling insights and messages that come from either my wiser subconscious or what you might call God, Spirit, or All That Is.

Journaling was a bit like my compulsive yet sporadic meditation practice; I did copious amounts of both before I figured out the reason why neither of them had been effective. When I made one small but significant change, I began to see real progress in my levels of mental peace and personal growth. I’ll get to that change after we first cover some basics.

Why to journal

A lot has been written about the benefits of journaling, including improved creativity, mental well-being, communication skills, mindfulness, and even IQ. You can click here for a top 10 list of benefits.

But there are many reasons why people journal, and knowing your why will help you stay committed to the practice. Do you want to figure yourself out? Enjoy some me time? Gain clarity? Solve problems? Find your voice? Learn how to stop censoring yourself? Grow as a human being? Express your emotions and feel heard, even if only by yourself? Develop your writing skills? Deepen your spirituality?

If you’re ready to start a journaling practice, spend some time here on your why.

When and where to journal

Keep your journal and a good pen wherever you consistently spend time. My journal is a permanent fixture on my nightstand, but you might have a favorite chair or desk that you use often. Or you can carry it with you so that you can write whenever inspiration strikes.

  • Before bed: At night you can have a bit more time to relax and reflect without the pressure of “gotta get to work.” You can also write down questions you want to solve and let your mind work on it while you sleep. And committing any problems or frustrations to paper can also settle your mind so that you’re able to fall sleep faster.
  • Waking up: In the morning your mind is fresh, clear and unburdened, which makes it an ideal time for free-flow writing, creativity and spiritual practice.
  • Bookends (morning and night). Set your daily intentions in the morning, and assess your day before you go to bed.
  • During the day: If your journal is on your desk, it’s an easy way to experience some self-care: step away from your computer, go for a walk with your journal, and download to paper any ideas, insights, frustrations, or solutions that want to be heard before you get back to the grind.
  • Weekends. I love marathon journaling sessions on lazy weekend mornings in my PJs while sipping my soy latte. I’ll combine it with a thought-provoking book that stimulates my creative juices, picking up my journal and pen when my reading sparks an idea.

What to journal

This, of course, depends on your why. Once I succeeded in figuring myself out and stopped overanalyzing, my focus has shifted to writing poetry, aligning myself with something bigger than myself, and ideating on my new venture (a guided journaling program, go figure!). The important thing to know is, there are no rules. Write whatever you feel like writing. This is a 2-way conversation with yourself and/or the Universe (or whatever you call Her), so you’re in charge.

How to journal

Ahh, now we’re at the heart of the matter. In order to reap all those benefits up in the Why section, there are a couple guiding principles to follow. It’s so important that I’m going to cover it a separate post. Click here to read about the how.

Why New Year’s goals and resolutions don’t stick (and what to do instead)

From the archives, a post I wrote in January 2020 that’s still very relevant!

Every year on New Year’s Day, I would retreat and spend the day journaling to rehash all the things I hadn’t done the previous year, and set goals that I failed to keep for the next. After a few months, I’d beat myself up for the failures. Rinse and repeat, over and over. Not a good recipe for a healthy self-esteem, that’s for sure.

But 2019 was different: I felt no compulsive need to figure anything out. There was no puzzle to solve. Sure, I’d like to get to the gym more often and cut back on carbs, but my life is pretty simple these days. I’m a lot happier. I don’t feel compelled to make any big changes.

What happened?

I spent all of 2019 getting aligned with what brings me joy. It was an elimination diet of sorts; I literally eliminated everything from my life — stuff, job, home — and set out on a nomadic journey to feel my way back into a life that fits me like a tailored suit.

I recognize that not everyone can (or would want to) take the kind of crazy leap that I did. But I’ve made some observations from my transformation process that can apply to anyone.

  • Focus on how you want to feel. Emotions drive behavior, not logic or a list of to-do’s. When we get really clear on how we want to feel in every aspect of our lives, and start taking baby steps to feel that way more frequently, we gradually shift everything in our lives. There’s a reason why Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a global sensation; she’s simply helping people surround themselves with what brings them joy by getting rid of what doesn’t. This book was instrumental in helping shift my own life and I highly recommend it.
  • On a related note, start with releasing. We’re all operating with a finite amount of time, energy and resources that are currently allocated to other things. Most of those other things (people, activities, stuff, work, etc) don’t bring us joy. They’re simply the accumulations of life that we’ve picked up, like a snowball that grows as it rolls downhill. The older we get, the more of this accumulation gathers unnoticed and unquestioned. We all need to get better at saying no, setting boundaries, and offloading what we can. Let’s eliminate the NOs so we can clear space for more YES.
  • Then add easy YESes. It’s hard to commit to the tougher resolutions like diet and exercise if the rest of our lives are lacking joy; you’re just piling shoulds on top of shoulds. No wonder we don’t stick with them! Try this instead: start with clearing some space in your calendar by replacing a NO with a YES… perhaps a cooking class, dancing in your living room, or painting rocks… whatever floats your boat. Clear some space in your closet by taking NOs to a resale shop, and trade them in for something that makes you deliriously happy when you wear it (I just picked up some happy striped socks for Christmas!) Start your day with a routine that puts a smile on your face; I make a perfect soy latte, journal and write poetry. What brings you joy? Do more of it. Simple.
  • If it’s not a Hell Yes, it’s a No. How many of us agonize over whether something or someone is right for us or not? Let’s make this perfectly clear and simple: if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no. Agonizing, debating, writing pros and cons… it’s all useless. Seriously. Look back over your life; can you honestly find one thing you’ve debated that turned out to be a hell yes? Ok, maybe 1 out of 100 times it might be worthwhile… but that means statistically you could save yourself a lot of time and trouble by moving on already. Make room for Hell Yes.
  • Let the process be more organic. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed by stepping off the hamster wheel, it’s this crazy focus on goal-oriented performance. Americans especially are programmed to operate in a linear fashion: set a goal and start ticking off boxes. But most human beings aren’t designed to work that way; like a blind person, we slowly sense our way a new life by making small changes and seeing how they feel to us. If they end up feeling good, we’re likely to do more of it. If it doesn’t, then we stop. So please stop flagellating yourself into performing according to some inhuman standard, and start having more fun with this process. Play. Experiment.
  • … but stick with it. If you’ve decided how you want to feel — let’s say strong and empowered — then the activities that directly contribute to that emotion – in this case, exercise – are no longer optional. It doesn’t matter how you feel in the moment; what counts is that you’re doing the thing that will help you achieve your bigger, more important emotional goal. Chances are the first few weeks are going to suck, and that’s ok. You’ll eventually hit a point where you realize: hey! I’m feeling strong and powerful right now! And boom… this whole process starts getting easier.

Dear reader, what will you say NO to this week in order to clear space for YES? How do you want to feel this year, and what will you start doing to feel that way more often?

The three life-clarity skills

Stuck… swimming upstream… expending more energy than I’m receiving… elusive joy. This is how I felt for years. What I finally discovered after years (decades) of trial and error is that joy and “being in the flow” are outcomes of three life-clarity skills:

  1. Ability to know and act on your YES. If you’ve felt it, you know what I’m talking about. It’s not a rational answer or decision; it’s the way your entire body expands and lights up when presented with something in full alignment with your authentic self. The more clarity you have on your YESSES and the more frequently you embrace them, the happier and more joy-filled your life becomes.
  2. Ability to hear and act on your NO. NO feels the opposite of YES: tight and constricting, contracting like a turtle into a shell. But how often do we accept NOs in our lives out of obligations, expectations, or worrying about what others might think? All these NOs are using space that could be occupied by a YES, and it’s time to clear it out. Clutter can include stuff, being in the wrong job, surrounding ourselves with people who don’t light us up, or living in a place that isn’t aligned with who we are. Like an elimination diet, we first need to release the NOs in order to really hear and embrace our YES.
  3. Using our core needs as a guide. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from your school days? Well, these needs (plus several others that have surfaced in my research like Control) are the ‘programming’ that motivates our decisions… and the primary ones are all unique to every individual. Personally, I need Freedom, Purpose and Aesthetics to have a joy-filled life, whereas you might be driven by Security and Belonging or something else. Our core needs can serve as a Life Compass to help us consistently make better decisions for ourselves. We know when we’re on the right track based on how often we feel like these needs are met. Which means decision-making that places as much weight (or more) on emotions than on rational pros and cons.

So how do we get clear on our YES, NO, and Needs? The answer is to stop searching out there, and simply remember who you’ve always been since childhood. Popular self-help books want you to believe that your choices are infinite, and that we can be and do anything. But that belief creates an overwhelming amount of choice, and it’s misleading. Each of us was born with a unique set of wiring: we have innate interests, talents and preferences that have always brought us joy.

You may really want to be a lion… but you’d be a lot happier as a swan if you’re covered in feathers and love the water.

This doesn’t negate the opportunity to develop specific skills, but it certainly helps eliminate overwhelm by taking options off the table. The more we can say NO, the faster we can get aligned with YES. The breadcrumbs along the path: remembering what lit us up as kids. These are the clues for where to begin the excavation and find ourselves under the rubble of shoulds, expectations, conformity or self-abandonment.

A couple more principles to keep in mind…

  • Love and trust the process. Daily journaling and meditation are transformative practices that take time but pay off big (I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s really true)
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment. How do you know your YESSES and NOs unless you get out of your comfort zone and try some new things?

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

How to listen to your gut: the three levels

Did you know you have two brains? We humans have an entire neural network in our guts that not only impacts our emotions and overall well-being, and also plays a strong role in intuition. But the problem, of course, is that it’s not always clear what the heck it’s trying to tell us.

My vote for the #1 most essential life skill is hearing and interpreting our gut signals, no question. It’s the built-in navigation system for our lives. Most life coaches start with vision and values, and sure, these are important. But if your mechanism for truth-sensing isn’t working properly, how do you know if your vision and values are the right ones for you? Are you certain they aren’t the result of the bombardment of cultural and family influences that we so easily absorb like big wet stains into our paper towels?

People ask me how I was able to sell everything and take the leap to become a digital nomad. While I have a long answer that I’ll cover in another post, the short answer is: I’ve gotten really good at listening to my gut. Don’t get me wrong: gut messages are never like Siri telling you to go three miles and turn left at the stoplight. But with dedication and practice — and learning what happens when you ignore your gut (it’s never good) — it’s possible for big decisions to seem really easy.

Twenty years ago, give or take a couple months, I started learning how to listen to my gut. I remember it vividly: I’d just started seeing a brilliant therapist, Dr. Carole Cole in Dallas, Texas, to help me break the pattern of dating emotionally unavailable people. One day, likely exhausted from my extensive logical analysis of the situation, she asked me, “well, what is your gut telling you?”


This question assumes three interrelated skills, none of which I had at the time:

  1. That my gut is capable of eliciting some level of discernible feeling.
  2. That I am capable of interpreting signals into meaningful insights that can guide decisions.
  3. That I act on what my gut is telling me.

I used to think all three of these were mashed up into one, but I’ve learned over the years that there are “levels” to gut listening. It’s a bit like a video game, where it helps to master one level before moving on to the next.

Level 1: Feel your gut

When Dr. Cole saw my deer-in-the-headlights reaction to her question, she immediately launched into an exercise to help me improve my gut-feeling skills. Want to play along, dear reader? If you’re already skilled at this, you’ll think it’s ridiculous; if so, please accept my congratulations and proceed to Level 2. For the rest of us, here goes. The trick is to find a blindingly obvious statement about yourself and say it out loud. Then say the opposite. Simple, right?

Here’s how our discussion went:

Dr. Cole: “Please repeat after me. I am a woman.”

Me (laughing): “Are we really doing this?”

Dr. Cole: “Yes. Humor me.”

Me. “Huh. Weird. Yes, I am a woman.”

Dr. Cole: “I am a man.”

Me: “I am a man.” whatever.

Dr. Cole (leaning forward): “Do you feel it in your body when you say something that’s not true about yourself?”


Dr .Cole: “Hmm. Ok, let’s try this again. I live in Dallas.”

Me. “I live in Dallas. Obviously.”

Dr. Cole: “I live in Brazil.”

Me: “I live in Brazil.”

Dr. Cole: “How does it feel when you say something that’s true versus what’s not true? Can you feel the difference?”


Distressed about this obvious deficiency in gut-listening skills, I began practicing. All. The. Time. I became obsessed with it. Every day I’d pose questions to myself and try to divine what the oracle of my body was telling me on topics like who I should date, the meaning of life, and what brand of toothpaste I should buy at the store. “What does this one feel like? Ok, what does that one feel like?” Rinse and repeat. Over and over. After months and eventually years of this practice, combined with numerous week-long Zen meditation retreats, it all started to become clear.

Truth feels expansive and uplifting, permeating my entire body.

Untruth feels tight and constricting, mostly in my stomach… literally, in my gut.

Over the subsequent two decades, my gut has evolved from a shy wallflower locked in the basement to a boisterous roommate who doesn’t hold back in speaking her mind. Fortunately I’ve learned through trial and error that it’s pointless to try to shut her up; she’s going to make a ruckus until I stop ignoring her and PAY ATTENTION ALREADY.

How do you score?

I’ll provide a scorecard after Level 3, but this is where it all starts. A couple questions for you:

Is your gut locked in the basement where it’s impossible to hear? Or is your gut a constant chatty companion?

What signals does your gut send? I’m curious to know if it’s the same feeling of expansion vs. contraction for everyone.

Stay tuned for Levels 2 and 3 in the next post.

And in case you’re interested in more information, check out this layman-friendly overview of our second brain:

Navigating life like a bat

Another mini-crisis of “what the hell am I doing” hit me during my 48 hours in Lyon, France. To be clear, I’m not questioning whether I should be doing this crazy adventure; I know that that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, metaphorically and spiritually speaking. No, it’s the stability-versus-freedom question I wrestled with in Morocco, now triggered by a very practical question: where do I keep my stuff?

By early August, I’ll need to find a new home for my 2 full suitcases and box of camera gear that are currently 30 minutes outside of Geneva in my buddy’s storage unit. I’ll need to swap summer clothes for fall layers, and this somewhat-frequent exchange process isn’t convenient for either of us. A paid storage unit is the best short-term solution until I put down roots. But where?

Turns out that picking a storage-locker location is a bigger deal than I’d thought. But hey, it’s my closet, so it needs to be someplace conveniently located and less expensive than Geneva. And yeah, that could be pretty much anywhere, so let’s add a filter: I should have other reasons to return, like friends, work, creativity, vibe… I mentally run through all the places I’ve been already – Tel Aviv? Cyprus? — and places that are on my list that I think I’d like – Paris? Berlin?  Madrid?

This train of thought opens up the Pandora’s box of taxation and visa issues, leading me right back into the “permanent place” question that’s haunted me since I started this adventure and I’m not ready to deal with. Argh… what should I dooooooo??

How do we know what to do?

Remember when we used to print out maps from Mapquest? Or, even better, when we had to follow someone’s directions (“when you get to gas station – the one with the red blinking light, not the other one — look for the fork and then veer left”). Back then, we had to pay attention to where we were going. We knew how to get places; routes were committed to memory. Then came the GPS revolution and… snap! Overnight, no one knew how to get anywhere. We just hold out our phones and follow the blue dots like zombies. Technology has made navigation exceedingly simple, but it’s also decreased our self-reliance.

As I walked home from dinner last night, I thought about bats: tiny blind creatures that lack the ability to ask Siri or Facebook or Google what they should do for work, or where to live, or what will bring them joy. But they don’t deserve our pity, as bats have something better: a built-in navigation system. They simply make some noise and use the echoes to course-correct. There’s no need to map out the whole route in advance when they can fly through dark, narrow passageways instinctively and unerringly.  

Fact is, we humans aren’t that much different from bats. We’re all flying blind in the dark; we can only know what is happening right now from our limited vantage point. We can’t see the future: not even the second after this second. How do we make decisions and chart our own course? 

Like bats, we have an unerring navigation system: our intuition. The tragedy is that gut-listening isn’t taught in schools. Conformity is rewarded by society, not independence, which results in three types of people:

  • Those who never realize their blindness because they simply follow what everyone else is doing. The blind following the blind, generation after generation, century after century, convinced of their ability to see.
  • The lucky ones who figured out their path early on: maybe they learned it from their navigator parents, or perhaps they were just born with a fully functioning sense of who they are.
  • The rest of us — me and perhaps you, dear reader –who are in between; we’re refugees from the first group regarding the second with envy, wondering how they did it.

Members of this last group don’t often realize that we need a totally new set of skills. What worked on autopilot is not a navigation system, but we try anyway, overly dependent on our logical minds, past experiences, and trial and error. Lots of error. We obsess over doing rather than being. And when we’re really stuck, we revert back to group-1 thinking and ask what other people would do.

Fact is, it’s hard to hear the echoes of our own voices.  And upon hearing those echoes, trust them to guide us into the light instead of a brick wall.

Our metaphorical navigation system

I couldn’t do this adventure without a sturdy navigation system. I’ve deliberately stripped away anything that could influence me — the noise, lights, distractions, things we own, things that own us, our senses of identity that may or may not be truly ours – in order to find my own path. The way in front of me is pitch black. I have no lamp. No one else is in this cave with me. The light behind me is getting smaller… fainter… but I can’t go back.

I just realized that this whole process of selling everything and launching into the unknown was one giant “SHHHHHHHHH” to the entire world. Shush! Be quiet!! I cannot hear myself! And if I can’t hear my true voice, I cannot navigate my path…  cannot make decisions and trust that they are right for me.

When I try to reason out the answers to my questions – where should I go and why? What must I learn? What the hell am I doing? Who am I, anyway? — I fail. My usually trusty brain encounters its limitations, which is perhaps the hardest part of this journey; I’ve been able to think my way out of pretty much anything except for this. Like eyes in the darkness, logic doesn’t work in the dark night of the soul.

I’m starting to gain a tiny sense of what the blind know: when eyes fail, other senses gain strength. I entered into this cave with a decent level of confidence in my intuition (which took me two decades to develop) but now it’s really getting a workout. I tap into my sixth sense daily, feeling the echoes in my body when presented with this choice or that: like deciding whether to walk a new city at night, or choosing a new destination. I don’t move until I feel it in my bones.

A few months ago I was nearly paralyzed by all the infinite choices that could play out, but now I simply consult my navigation system: I take myself to dinner with my journal and work through my now-well-established process. I know what “yes” and “no” feel like. I know what “wait; not yet” feels like, which is the answer to my question about where to rent a storage locker. I haven’t yet pinpointed the difference between “resistance due to fear” versus “no,” but I’m working on it.

And many of you, dear readers, are watching to see what happens. I’ve heard from you. I know that you are standing at the entrance to your own dark caves, taking baby steps in, searching in vain for the light switch that’s not there. And that’s why I feel compelled to share this journey with you… not only because writing helps me understand myself better, but just maybe this transformation game doesn’t have to be so solitary for either of us.