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. 

When the caged bird takes flight

Finding the right work environment for gifted adults, aka rebels with a cause

Fit in.

Slow down.

Follow the rules.

Stay inside your box.

I’m not following you.

No, that idea won’t fly here.

That’s not how we do things.

Sound familiar? If so, we’ve got a lot in common.

Being forced to slow down is worse than sticking a pencil in my eye. It’s the story of my childhood: bored and waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. I must have grown accustomed to this state of affairs, because I never consciously questioned it through most of my adult years. I assumed it was simply the way it was and always would be.

What I never stopped questioning is why things are done certain ways. My mom said that “why” was the second word I learned as a baby, the first being whazzat while pointing at something. Apparently I drove her crazy with my relentless whazzat? why? whazzat? why?  interrogations about everything under the sun.

I avoided boredom at work by taking on too much. In my 20s, I was fired for incessantly breaking rules, which was the only way I could move 80 projects simultaneously towards completion. I found out later that they replaced me with four people. A lot of employers take advantage of fast workers, loading us to the breaking point. And we take it, because we can. Because we’re not good at saying no. And hey, it’s better than being bored.

But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Just because we can see clearly how to solve complex problems that are keeping our companies or clients or societies stuck, doesn’t always mean it’s our problem to fix. Not when our ideas aren’t acknowledged, or we’re dismissed as impractical, or people’s eyes glaze over when we explain the possibilities we see, or budgets aren’t aligned to solve the right problem. I’ll address the question of which battles to fight in a separate post. In this one, I want to focus on something else:

 The tension between security and freedom.

I’m not writing for those who prefer comfort and predictability, who curl up in the crate like the family dog, snug and safe. I’m writing for the caged bird who often doesn’t realize its nature is to fly. Or perhaps it does know – far too well – but is afraid to stretch its wings and step off into space. The cage is the only home it has known; the cage, the bird’s been told, is the only source of safety.

But safety to a bird is in the air. Safety is what land-dwellers call crazy.

I tried to step out of the cage several times throughout my career. I’d start a freelance consulting business, fail, and retreat back to the safety of a full-time job. Rinse and repeat. I convinced myself that I was both unemployable and incapable of running my own show. Unemployable because I couldn’t play the game, incapable because my wings seemed defective.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that I was missing the third way. My coachees hear this favorite question of mine whenever they’re trapped in a binary choice: “What’s the third way here?”

There’s always another way

I was failing whenever I tried to force-fit myself into the wrong place, doing the wrong thing… failing when I relied on my head instead of my heart. For decades, I didn’t know how to listen to the still, small voice within me that I’ve now grown to trust… the voice that has recently helped me step off the cliff with confidence, knowing that my wings will catch me.

I’d convinced myself that the only way I could make it on my own was as a consultant; that it was the only way I could make enough money. The only alternative is starting over at the bottom, right? But working as a consultant meant working in the cage, stubbornly trying to fix what no one else wanted (or felt empowered) to fix. But I kept at it because it was all I’d known; even as a freelancer, I was still playing it safe.

And playing it safe according to other people’s rules is the most unsafe thing we rebels can do.

Trust your instincts

Safety, for a rebel, is acting in accordance with our true nature. It’s being in our element, doing what lights us up, working with people who may not fully understand us, but at least we’re appreciated. We embrace our strengths and weaknesses, and align our work accordingly.  And this only happens when we check our overactive brains at the door and learn how to trust our instincts… the same instincts that have been criticized and ignored and beaten down by the rest of the world.  

We’re neurologically (and sometimes genetically) wired to be different. Wired to explore, to challenge, to envision, to reinvent, to advocate. Which doesn’t mean we have to go it alone: there are plenty of others just like us. We simply need to find our tribe. That may mean finding an innovative company to work in, or it can mean starting your own show.

Life’s too short for a cage, whether it’s a career, a relationship, or a place that simply feels wrong. Trust your instincts. Fly.

Liberation of an Andean Condor. Have you been here? Perched on the side of a cliff, yearning to take flight… stuck out of fear and uncertainty… and then finally stretching your wings? This video gets me every time I watch it.

If you’re ready to figure out your next step but are lost in too many possibilities, that’s my sweet spot; let’s talk.

If you’re called to be a catalyst within your existing company, and/or you need to bring others along in creating change together, that’s not my sweet spot; I recommend Catalyst Constellations to find your tribe.

True freedom versus “toxic individualism”

I’m writing about freedom from my home in T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia, where the 2-month-long state of emergency is just now coming to an end. The sweeping restrictions on freedom were received without protest; borders were closed, freedom of movement in and out of cities came to a halt, masks were donned, small stores closed (and many went bankrupt,) and compliance with the curfew mostly adhered.

The Georgians, renowned for their hospitality and community, did what needed to be done; new coronavirus cases are now down to a trickle. Last night I gathered with my local and expat friends to celebrate the end of curfew, and life in a safe bubble that integrates “we” with “me” (the resulting economic tragedies not withstanding.)

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Nelson Mandela

The US news feed offers a stark contrast. 100,000 dead in the name of freedom from “government over-reach” with no real end in sight. A feud by store owners and customers over the “right” to not wear masks. A deadly, narcissistic definition of freedom and liberty that is poisoning the concept of Autonomy, a fundamental human need that cannot be properly understood without the context of Belonging.

freedom/ˈfriːdəm/

  1. the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. “we do have some freedom of choice.” Similar: entitlement privilege prerogative
  2. the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. “The shark thrashed its way to freedom”

Ouch… no wonder we’ve gone astray; this is not exactly a healthy definition of freedom. “As one wants” is a dangerously slippery slope, focusing solely on the outer world: physical barriers to break or actions we want to take. But freedom in the outer world is only made possible by freedom in our inner worlds; inner and outer worlds are mirrors of each other. Interconnected, both/and, simultaneously.

Balancing we with me

Insead published a thoughtful article on this topic last year that highlights two types of groups identified by 19th century sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. In Gemeinschaft (community), the welfare of the group takes precedence over that of the individual. By contrast, Gesellschaft (society)is more impersonal; it came to represent urban environments with a more individualistic outlook.

The author notes that the focus on what’s best for the community has morphed into what’s best for me. Self-promotion and individuality rule the day. He calls for a balance of the two types within societies and organizations, neutralising the “faulty premises of the self-esteem movement” and developing the skills of empathy and compassion.

I’d like to build on his core premise and try to go beyond the duality of me versus we. The author’s implication is that the “I” needs to be reigned in, and through one lens, he makes a valid point. But in another sense, perhaps an insufficient “I” is the root cause of this dysfunction we see in the world.

What do I mean by that?

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds.

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds. People denying the freedom of others aren’t free in their own minds. People fighting against government overreach (“don’t take my liberty!”) aren’t feeling free in their own minds.

So if we want to see more freedom in our outer world, we have to go deep inside ourselves… which is where the root of the problem lies. We paradoxically need to focus more on our own healthy sense of “I” — developing the strength of confidence, character, freedom — in order for a healthy “we” to emerge.

I’m not going to say I have all the answers; I’m still sorting through this topic. But what is emerging for me thus far are paradoxes. Here are three of them:

The way of freedom knows that we’re already free

A frequent theme in my coaching calls is the A > B > C path. “I need to keep this job in order to feel safe.” “I need to be a digital nomad in order to feel free.” “I need to find someone to date in order to feel loved.” We want C — the feeling — and then try to find a B to make that happen. But what if we recognize that A > C is a simpler, easier and faster path to the same outcome?

Instead of seeking freedom from or freedom to, we simply recognize that each of us is freedom itself. It’s possible to experience that authentic state of being that is both boundless and bound in love; it requires dropping from our overactive minds into our hearts, and getting deeply connected with the truth of who we are.

The more I contemplate this topic and feel into my own lived experience, I understand that freedom emerges from a feeling of safety… the kind not dependent on the outer world like jobs, relationships and routines (which all can vanish at any moment), but rather on a deep inner-world core: a healthy, flexible skeleton of self-assurance. This allows us to discard our psychological “exoskeleton,” or protective armor, designed to protect but instead imprisons.

With this idea in mind, I am not surprised about the protesters fighting for freedom from masks, or freedom for guns; these are people whose inherent feelings of safety are threatened. They’re grasping for outer-world freedoms instead of tapping into the inner wellspring of safety-empowered freedom that is within all of us.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

victor frankl

I believe that when enough individuals make this shift from outer-world to inner-world — freedom from fear, freedom to be lovingly true to ourselves, freedom to choose joy in any circumstance, like a holy prayer — we’ll hit a tipping point and trigger a phase change in our environments. Like water transforming to ice or steam, we each have the opportunity to create a freer society by first freeing ourselves within.

Until that happens, I’m not sure much will be done about the structural outer-world barriers that inhibit basic freedoms and rights for millions of fellow humans.

True freedom means we are not free to be anything we want.

Only human beings try to be something that we’re not. A mountain lion is not free to become a dolphin; a sand-hill crane is not free to be gorilla. Freedom is found in being true to who we really are, owning and celebrating constraints instead of seeking some imaginary idea of perfection or contorting ourselves into what we think society, organizations or families want us to be. When we limit ourselves to our zone of authenticity, only then can we be truly free.

In other words, true freedom requires limits, but not solely in the way that the Insead article writes. This is about acknowledging the realistic constraints on who we are as individuals; these limits are like the banks of a river. When the banks are absent, water spreads and stagnates. Establishing solid banks will channel and focus the power of the water, leading to the state of flow. Living in our truth, what I call the ground of power, means everything gets easier.

There is no I

One of my favorite images from my meditation practice is that of waves on the ocean. Each wave is simultaneously individual and inseparable. Both/and. In this context, no one is free until we are all free. We free ourselves precisely by freeing others.

“And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”

KHALIL GIBRAN, THE PROPHET

Book a 1:1 coaching call with me! No obligation; I free myself by helping to free others.


The tension between feeling safe and feeling free

I was captivated by the freedom of a child playing in the surf in Sidi Kaouki, Morocco – April 2019

I’m now in the business of freedom. Just saying that out loud makes me so damn happy, because stuck was the theme for most of my adult life.  Stuck in jobs that didn’t light me up, stuck in a life that I was supposed to live, stuck in fear of not doing “it” right… “it” being nearly everything. The analogy that kept coming to mind was that of a grounded airplane, and I just couldn’t get lift-off.

After two years of physical freedom and a lot of solitude – roaming through the American West with my camera and camper in 2018, and through 14 countries in 2019 (this blog post photo is from the tiny surf town of Sidi Kaouki, Morocco) – the psychological baggage dropped away. I feel truly free for perhaps the first time in my life; a freedom that comes from being grounded in the truth of who I am.  

Hang on a minute… freedom comes from being grounded?

When I drop into my body to sense what freedom feels like, it’s light, expansive, untethered… as if I could rise unobstructed above the earth.

And yet I couldn’t feel free until I experienced true groundedness: the deep, rooted stability of a willow tree. This type of grounding is my source of safety and resilience. I maintain my balance during this coronavirus upheaval precisely because of this deep inner work. I liken it to the 300-foot-deep pylons that keep the San Francisco skyscrapers anchored in bedrock even as they’re built on sand; they sway, but don’t fall.

I’ve been so luxuriating in this feeling of safety and groundedness that it only recently occurred to me how free and liberated I feel. The head-scratcher is that my freedom was found in going down, not up. Like most universal truths, it’s a paradox.

Here are a few ways I am trying to articulate this concept… to myself and to the women I’m coaching, who are all wrestling with the tension between wanting to feel both safe and free:

Freedom doesn’t come from lifting off, like a bird or an airplane. It’s more like the flowing of a stream: the source is deep underground, unmoving, yet it creates a powerful flow of movement; the more it’s tapped into source, the more freely it flows around and over barriers.

Another angle, helpfully suggested by one of my readers which I like a lot: freedom is a kite. It’s the tension of being connected to the earth that allows it to fly higher. The stronger the attachment to the earth (perhaps connected to a pylon driven deep underground), the larger the kite and the higher it can fly.

What does freedom mean to you?

The freedom to travel and work remotely from anyplace you choose?

The freedom to speak your mind with confidence in the boardroom?

The freedom from the incessant voice in your head whispering that you’re not good enough, or not doing it right?

The freedom from burnout, drowning in to-do lists and expectations?

The freedom to simply be yourself without worrying what other people think?

The freedom to create the job you really want because you’ve invested in yourself?

All of these freedoms require a solid, immovable ground of being from which you can spring into a life that is true to who you really are.

Love, Jen


How can I serve you? I’m currently offering free coaching calls to professional women during coronavirus. You can access my calendar here. I can’t wait to meet you.