Finding the Courage to Reset Your Life
Years ago, I had a much different job. Now, I’m a national media correspondent and a political strategist. Years ago, I was a programmer who had a technology firm. And by traditional standards it was very successful. We were growing, our clients were becoming more and more prestigious, and I was receiving awards and accolades as a pioneer in my industry.
The problem was, the more successful I became the more unhappy I was. The stress was starting to get to me in ways that it never did. I was losing sleep. I wasn’t eating right, and the bigger the business got, the more it felt like it was consuming me. Like all I did was feed the monster to keep it happy.
One day my – at the time – very young daughter walked in and she found me alone, in the dark, with my head in my hands, fighting off yet another migraine. And she came up to me, she used these tiny little hands and put them on my shoulder, she said, “Mommy, tomorrow, I want you to go into the office and ask them to fire you”.
Now what I took away from that was, “Oh my gosh, I really have to do a better job at hiding how unhappy I am.”
And so then I got into this horrible cycle of negative self-talk. “Maybe I’m inexperienced. If I knew more I could handle this better. Maybe I’m weak. I just need to toughen up. Oh my gosh, am I ungrateful? I have this great life. Why isn’t it enough?”
Now, imagine going to a dear friend of yours and saying, “I am really struggling right now,” and they come back to you and say, “Well, maybe you’re just weak, inexperienced or ungrateful!” That’s not a friend you should keep.
And yet this is what we do. We chase happiness and I definitely wasn’t finding it. The universe was giving me this sign, “Hey, change course!” and I’m like, “Forget it universe, I am sticking here, okay?”
Now here is a good piece of advice for you. Do not challenge the universe to teach you a lesson. It will always win. In less than a year – and this is true – less than a year after that day, I literally had a client who became a violent stalker, an employee who embezzled from the business, and a family member that I did not know was a drug addict threaten to burn the business to the ground. All of this in a very public fashion, all of it playing itself out in the media – thank you very much – and there is nothing quite like watching everything explode on the news ticker to make me think, “Maybe I should have made some different life choices.”
So, I’m an analytical person. That’s a nice way of saying I’m a big, fat nerd. I set out to do what people like me do. I am going to decipher happiness. This should be easy.
Two and a half to three years later, a lot of research, interviews with very successful and powerful people – public and quiet professionals, those that had happy families and a lot of self-assessments that, quite frankly, I’m surprised certain ones of my friends stuck around for. After a couple of years of that, I found that there actually were common characteristics to people that had full lives.
The first thing crushed me. It was self-care because I am notoriously terrible at self-care. A lot of us are. We live lives of chaos. We would put ourselves last. But I found some good news with this. Self care means something different to every person.
Maybe you’re the type of person that needs eight hours of sleep. Good on you; we can’t be friends okay? But maybe you’re someone who can’t find that time for yourself and that’s okay too. Because equally substantial research states that if you carve out 15 or 20 meaningful minutes for yourself, before you take that rest, that that sleep is more effective. So do what you need to do.
The important thing here, on the self care component, is that people that are who are successful tell themselves in little ways that they matter; that their body matters.
They also have people around them that tell them that they matter.
A second component is they build a circle. That circle of super friends. They can be relatives, they can be people you’ve grown up with since kindergarten, they can be people that you’ve just bonded with over the last couple of years. But the important characteristic – and this is data-proven – is that you have at least three people that you can call at any time, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how much bail money you might need, and they will pick up that phone.
Now there’s a lot of reasons for this. Actually, international studies have verified that people who have three or more dear people in their circle, and they carve out time for them in their lives, that they actually live longer. But for the purposes of living that fulfilling life, the reason that friends are important is because – when you are down and out – you don’t only have all that negative self-talk. You actually have people that love you and care for you, and you start to see yourself from their perspective. And that helps you make more grounded decisions.
The other thing is you have to find a purpose; a daily purpose. What gets you up out of bed every day? Maybe you have a fantastic career. And it challenges you, and you learn something all the time, and that is awesome. Maybe your job is just a job, and that’s okay too. As long as you find that something where you feel valued. You coach a little league team, you’re always the first one at your community meetings to help set up, you are working at your church after hours… whatever it might be. Where is it that – if you didn’t show up that day – people would notice? And that if it wasn’t there for you, you would notice?
Which is closely tied in, but distinctly different, than the fourth element that I found which is: make sure that you are making an impact and a substantial difference.
Now here’s the distinction. I would like to think that my job matters. I would like to think that at the end of the day, I will leave the planet better than when I found it. But I get paid to do that job. That’s not service.
What I’m talking about is actually finding a way to give, in a meaningful way, to someone else’s life. Now this is important and especially now because it comes down to the why. Why do we do this? Because it’s the right thing to do? It is. Because it makes us feel good? It can. But I want you for a second to let the gravity of the world’s largest problems that we’re facing right now hit you. I want you to imagine that if all you did was let empathy of how other people are hurting right now strike you in a full way, you would never get out of bed.
What having a service project does for you, it makes those huge problems seem like something you can change. It’s that incremental difference that we make in the world that suddenly makes all change feel possible.
Some changes are easy to make. The fifth component that I found that was common in all the people that I studied, interviewed, and researched, was that they set attainable goals for themselves and went and did them.
Now, this might seem silly in the scheme of things, but it can be whatever is bothering you. That corner of the garage that when you walk past it you’re just gritting your teeth. It can be that squeaky floorboard or that book that you’ve meant to read and all your friends have read and you never just made time.
Now, why was is important? It’s two things. First, if you have this list of things surrounding you, that is nagging at you, it’s a constant message that, “Oh my gosh, I can’t even get that done; there’s no way I can achieve this!” That is a horrible environment to put yourself in.
But the second thing is the other side of that coin. Studies have proven that when you actually take 15 minutes a day or an hour a week, and you have something that you accomplish – no matter how small it is – there is a physical rush of endorphins. And it powers you, both emotionally and physically, to move on to the next thing that life throws your way. So, it is true that you literally get a rush from, “Oh, my gosh, I now know what’s in that junk drawer!” Okay? That is really an important part of this.
Bigger picture, stepping back for a second…
The next component has to do with whatever your dream is. However bold, however audacious. I found it is important to do two things. First, state it. Clearly, plainly to a friend, to a piece of paper that you cannot easily burn right away, somewhere where you are held accountable for what that dream is. And then, secondly, take an actionable step towards it.
That actionable step is critical because, if you want to be a millionaire one day, go sit down with a financial planner and find out what you need to do to set money aside… even if you can’t do it all right now. If you want to travel the world or you have this one thing you’ve always wanted to experience, go to a travel agent and find out what it would take to get there and open a savings account where you put five or ten dollars in there. If you want to open your own business, take a course online and learn about what you would need.
And the reason is, that actionable goal makes it attainable. And suddenly, the attainability of that dream makes it likely. And even if you adjust it, adapt it, and things – once you take two steps forward – result sometimes in three steps back, you will eventually either get to that dream or a variation. And I assure you, that you will find another to replace it.
Now the seventh step has to do with learning who you are when you fail. This was very difficult for me because, not only do I like to think that I failed spectacularly – I mean, let’s be honest – but I also failed publicly. And this wasn’t supposed to happen. I was a good person. I did everything “right”. Yes, but I was on the wrong path.
The thing is that all of us are leaders. We’re leaders in our communities, we’re leaders in our businesses, in our classrooms, in our communities, in our households. There’s a great responsibility that comes with that, but there is also something scary that comes with that. Which is, when you’re a leader, there is no map. You’re a trailblazer. There’s no step-by-step guide. You don’t get one. So failure is the only guidepost that we have to show that we’re going the wrong way.
There is a power to learning to recognize your failure, learn the lessons that it was trying to teach you, and eventually to be grateful for it. Every successful person I talked about giddily explained and bragged about how they had failed spectacularly. It was so empowering. But it led me to understand that the entire time I had been chasing happiness, I had made yet another mistake.
Happiness is fleeting. When you think about it, it’s kind of a shallow, selfish emotion. What I really should have been chasing after was fulfillment and I’m going to illustrate the difference for you. When I eat well and I exercise, I am fulfilling and honoring my health and my body in a way that’s important. I can assure you I am not happy while I’m doing it. When I am saving for my child’s college or for retirement, it’s fulfilling. I feel proud that I’m able to do that, but I don’t always feel happy when I’m writing the check.
At some point, when my daughter decides to move out and live her life – whatever remarkable journey that is gonna be – I can assure you that that will not be a happy day for me. But what more rewarding, fulfilling experience can we have as a parent? Or as a teacher?
This is about purposefully building a life of intention, a life of fulfillment, and making the most of the moments that you have. There is no script. There is no do-over. But when you do that, you can’t ask for a better ride.
Right now, this world is hungry for leadership, hungry for individuals, hungry for people that have the courage to step up, look deeply, and say, “Where do I fit in? What is my trail to blaze?”
And I hope that I have save you some of the bruising of learning everything the hard way. And I look forward to the power that is going to be unleashed when you all find your fulfilling life’s goal.