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.
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?
IS IT TIME FOR A TRANSITION?
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.
We’re drowning in advice about personal transformation; books, articles, speeches, and blogs chock-full of how-to’s and sage advice. In my earlier years, I ate it all up. I thought I needed to transform myself into who I wanted to be.
Today, after a couple decades of what others might call a mid-life personal transformation — changing my appearance, my career, my country of residence — I now realize that I didn’t transform at all.
I’d simply (finally!) taken off the mask, and then my outer world easily evolved to match my insides.
THE TRUTH IS, WE NEVER REALLY CHANGE
This may be an unwelcome truth, but here goes: we never really change. Just as a dog can’t change into a lion, or a mountain goat into an eagle, we can’t escape our realities. Here I am, like it or not.
We are our truest selves when we’re kids. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you stayed true to that identity as you grew up. But a lot of us — bewildered, believing we weren’t OK as we were, or sensing that we’d get more love if we showed up differently — donned masks to fit in.
Reassuring masks that helped other people feel more comfortable with us.
Constraining masks that squeezed us into boxy jobs designed for specific outputs, not for complex humans.
I kept wondering why I wasn’t content… why things just didn’t work the way I wanted, or why I couldn’t force myself to do the things I thought I should do. Perhaps Mindset 101 was simply too hard for me.
I was driven by the idea of personal transformation, which implies that there’s some magical process that could turn me into the person I wanted to be but wasn’t currently. I sought to eliminate the gap between me and my mask by changing myself to better fit into it… instead of simply taking it off.
I didn’t know that I was yearning to be mask-free — no wait, that’s not enough — to be seen and heard and appreciated for what was underneath the mask. Sound familiar?
Dazzled by too many options
As a coach for “rebels with a cause” — gifted outliers who are dazzled by too many possibilities — I’ve seen how capable we are. We’re quick learners, and it’s alluring to believe we can transform to be someone we’re not. Or that we can fit into snazzy-sounding jobs that really don’t suit us. Or that we can maintain relationships by being what they want us to be.
I can make this work, dammit. This was my refrain for too many years… until finally I accepted that I couldn’t be anything or anyone I wanted. I could only be myself. And the moment I reached this acceptance, everything changed for the better.
Transition, not transformation
Today I think of it more of a transition than a transformation: the same human transitioning into ever-more authentic levels, stepping into their own brilliant truths, making new choices that are more deeply aligned with our passions, strengths and limitations.
The butterfly is already encoded in the caterpillar’s DNA. It transitions; it doesn’t become something entirely different. Its true nature is — and always has been — to fly.
The process starts by seeing and hearing and appreciating ourselves for who we are: no but’s, should’s, self-criticism or judgment. It is enormously liberating to say, I love how unique I am. I don’t need no stinkin’ mask. I don’t need to fit into a box that someone else defined for me.
And I damned sure don’t need personal transformation.
When we finally step into our truth that we’d forgotten, we see all the ways that change truly is needed: not within ourselves as we used to believe, but in our outer worlds and lived experiences that we’d chosen to fit someone else.
The people who have only known your mask will believe you’ve transformed, but you’ll know you haven’t; you’ve simply accepted your true nature… and your wings.
Inviting others, but going alone
We can invite loved ones and friends to get to know us all over again: to set aside what they think they know about us, and enter into truer, deeper relationships. Some of them will, gladly, deeply grateful for the opportunity to know the real you and be known in return.
Others — the ones who love your mask — may be quite upset by this process. They may accuse you of abandoning them, of changing in ways that they can’t track. Eventually you may need to leave them behind, knowing that they’d be happier with someone who is genuinely the person you only appeared to be.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine a thriving, authentic life that fits you like a custom-made suit when that’s never been your experience.
But a lack of imagination doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And you don’t have to make any hard decisions right now. This whole process can be much easier than you might think; when we stop fighting against the current and simply fall into the flow of what is, embracing what’s true, magic happens.
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PPS: I coach rebels through transitions – within themselves, their personal lives, their careers, or even taking their businesses to the next level. I’d be happy to chat with you if you need a sounding board; you can book a no-obligation call here.
I’m on my soapbox! If you’re interested in personal transformation, I talk about the transitions… how we can bring a key innovation process from the business world into our personal growth. If you’d like to jump to the most relevant spot: :42: overview of divergence and convergence 2:14: overview of Kegan’s evolution of the self 5:19: mash-up of the two models 9:20: Intent+Improv: the dance between convergence and divergence 10:49: applied to business strategy 11:45: applied to personal growth
Does this resonate for you? As I work to crystalize my thinking, I’d really love to know what clicks and what might need clarifying. Thanks tribe!
“How are you affording all this?” my mom asked me last year when I shared my upcoming travel plans. It’s a good question, since I didn’t earn money during my midlife crisis. But what most people don’t realize is that it’s far cheaper to live in most countries of the world than in the US. And it’s also cheaper to live out of a suitcase than to pay for:
the typical rent or mortgage
a car payment
US health insurance
stuff I don’t need
Not only that, but I’d found a way to live occasionally rent-free. I extended my stay in Geneva another three weeks at no charge, courtesy of a pet-sitting job I found on Nomador; you could also check out Trusted Housesitters. So let’s take the “I can’t afford to travel” excuse right off the table, shall we? (COVID not withstanding.)
Early 2019, I decided that the best way to figure out my next chapter of life was to strip everything away: no excuses, no distractions, and no baggage other than a suitcase. “All in” — just like when I jumped into triathlon 10 years ago with no prior athletic training.
I’m now getting a lot of questions about how I was able to make this leap to becoming a citizen of the world, and I’m hearing the hidden assumptions behind the question — that maybe I have outsized cojones or a secret stash of wealth that allows me to do whatever I want. I’d like to officially put these assumptions to rest.
If you are one of those people wondering how I did it, perhaps you harbor a secret wish to do something almost as crazy; something you’ve tabled for someday, after ________ (fill in the blank). After the kids are grown. After you save up some more money. After you get married (or divorced). After a promotion. After you’ve lived up to a certain expectation or responsibility.*
*Before you get your panties in a wad, I’d like to acknowledge that yes, sometimes there really are good reasons and obligations that we really can’t get out of. I’m talking about those excuses that we convince ourselves are reasons.
Or maybe there’s no good reason at all; you’ve just assumed, as I did, that it’s something for other people because we’re not _______ enough. Not rich enough, smart enough, brave enough, strong enough, fluent enough, crazy enough… you get the idea. I know this pattern well; I excelled at the fill-in-the-blank game for years.
What inspired me to go full nomad?
The first question people ask me nowadays is what prompted this crazy international adventure. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I grew up in middle America with very little exposure to other cultures. When I got to college, I discovered classes with “international” in the title: law, business, economics. That word — international — made me weak in the knees. I had no idea what it all meant, but it sounded sexy and intriguing enough to combine them all into an invented minor I called International Studies. It looked good on a resume but I didn’t do anything with it; at least not at first.
I got my first passport shortly after my 30th birthday to embark on what I fondly called my “ADD sampler platter tour of Europe:” 5 countries in 10 days. I was dating a Brit at the time, which kicked off a lifelong preference for dating foreigners: Italian, Russian, Australian, Serbian, didn’t really matter. Aside from a few notable exceptions, my dating criteria was really simple: “not American.” Not that I had anything against Americans, mind you; I just felt more at home with people who were from someplace else. Anyway, not long after the Brit, I got a consulting job that took me around the world in business class from Dubai to Singapore to Zurich. The company itself was toxic for me, but I prized the global work and travel.
All of this international action should have been a clue that yes, I could live overseas if I wanted. And I did want it, or so I told myself: I remember journaling wistfully about being a travel writer, photographer and coach in my mid-30s. Around that time I mapped out major milestones for my life on a small white board, which included moving to Paris by my 50th birthday.
But my friends and family can attest that I can be oblivious to clues. Living overseas was something I wished for in a general longing sort of way, but didn’t think would really happen unless I got lucky. And perhaps there was also an assumption that it was “for other people.” For crazy rich people.
Then magic happened.
Remember that white board with the milestones? Yeah, me neither. I stashed it in storage where it sat, gathering dust, for 15 years. I must have seen it when I went into that storage unit – it was hanging on the wall when I briefly used the space as an art studio until the paint fumes got to me — but I didn’t really see it, if you know what I mean.
Six months before my 50th birthday I started getting business opportunities overseas. I wasn’t seeking them out; they just came to me. A friend introduced me to her former client in Geneva; that conversation led to a project proposal and a prospective business partner. My buddy from the dog park in Santa Fe wanted to hire me for a photography gig in England, Germany and Italy as soon as his funding came through. I also received an outreach from a former client with potential strategy work in emerging markets.
And I still didn’t get it. Not at first. I booked a photography trip to Morocco as a 50th birthday present to myself, and was haunted for a few months by the vague, unarticulated thought of “I’m not sure I’ll want to come back home.” And then one day in mid-December, I woke up. In that moment of clarity, I remembered what I’d always wanted to do… and I knew I had to make a choice. I could go back to sleep in the safe haven of my excuse-laden comfort zone, or jump into the abyss of not knowing.
I jumped. It was a spontaneous decision, but I knew it was now or never. Over the next three months I sold everything I owned, a brutal yet liberating process that you can read more about here. And I departed JFK five days before my 50th birthday on a one-way ticket to Nice, close enough to Paris to fulfill my prophesy.
It’s not really
People say it takes a lot of courage to do what I’ve done. But it’s not courage I feel; it’s relief. I simply reached the point where my comfort zone started feeling itchy and uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s like how an infant feels when it’s time to be born; it’s traumatic and messy and too damn bright out here, but if you stay put, you’ll die. This process of waking up to who we really are is a rebirth, an uncomfortable eviction from the soothing womb of our constructed realities.
Remember the movie the Matrix? It’s my favorite movie of all time. Just before Neo takes the red pill and discovers he’s been living in a dream world, Morpheus tells him:
I know the splinter well. The soft padding I’d wrapped around it in my younger years had become worn and frayed as I approached the second half of life, and I’m glad for that. Splinters that are buried, padded and tucked out of sight are the source of a host of physical, mental and social ills.
Perhaps you’re splinterless and exactly where you need to be. If so, congratulations… seriously. It’s rare and beautiful thing to be true to yourself under the expectations and shoulds that rain down on us every day. But if you’re feeling the splinter — that nagging feeling that you’re living someone else’s life — the only healthy response is to do something about it.
How to make the leap
Here it is: the part where I give a recipe for exactly how to realize your dreams. That’s what you want, right? Yeah… I didn’t think so. Because then you wouldn’t have any excuses left. At the end of the day, there are only two things we need in order to revolutionize our lives:
The ability to listen to your gut and translate its signals into meaning and insight. Tall order, but how else will you know if your secret desire is your authentic self talking, or indigestion from that cheeseburger? (I’m working on an upcoming series on this topic so stay tuned.)
Once you know what your gut is trying to tell you, the second step is very simple: make a choice. And keep making that choice again and again. Step by step. Even in the darkness of “holy shitballs, what did I sign up for?” which will inevitably happen at least once during this process (remember all those business opportunities I had? None of them have panned out yet; every day I take a deep breath and trust the process.)
My first draft of this article included a list of common excuses for not venturing overseas (which I hear often) along with some facts and information that render those excuses irrelevant, or at least more manageable. I deleted that section because a) it’s too damned easy these days to get the answer from Google and you can do it yourselves if you really wanted, and b) it might not be relevant to you. Head over to my personal blog if you’re curious about where my journey took me.
Bottom line, while you may have special circumstances, a lot of so-called reasons are simply fear of the unknown. We choose the devil we know over the angel we don’t.
A few thoughts to ponder
Do you have a secret wish that has never entirely gone away?
What is your biggest reason for not acting on that wish?
What does Google have to say about that reason, and how other people are handling it?
What tiny step will you take this week towards making it a possibility?
What do you think, dear reader? Does this resonate? I’d love to hear from you.