If you could go back and ask your 20-year old self what the path to success and happiness is, what do you think you'd say? I probably would have told you that there is some sort of predictable path with boxes to check. For many years, I believed the lie that if I would just check all the boxes, then I would be happy.
But that didn't exactly work. It was around 2013 when I couldn't figure out why I was so unhappy when, on paper, my life and career looked pretty good (according to society's standards).
I felt so STUCK. I remember thinking that there had to be something much more fulfilling out there. Could there be work that actually aligned with my values and true self? There was, but taking meaningful steps in that direction was not going to happen by creating another list of boxes to check.
So, let's just talk about some of the boxes that I checked and maybe this will resonate with you if you're sitting and wondering why you are feeling so bored in your work. I had gone to college and earned a degree. I had a leadership role for a well-known organization in town that frequently won best place to work awards. In the evenings, I was a part-time management professor at the local university. I took good care of myself, and recently had lost 30 pounds. I checked all of these boxes that “society” (who is society, really?) said that if you accomplish them, then you'll be happy.
However, after the allure of a title, salary, or the desired outcome wears off. We're just left with what is. Many times, I’ve learned the hard way that the reality of what I thought I wanted doesn’t actually fit my value system. It’s not something I truly love and enjoy, and often thought I needed to check the next box.
Where I was at that point in my life was my problem. It wasn’t a list or goal problem. It wasn’t the fault of my employer or the people in my life. This was my problem. I was the common denominator. It led me to realize that I had to get clear about what lies I was believing and how my ego was limiting my ability to make meaningful progress.
3 Ways The Ego Keeps Us Stuck
There’s one logical and safe path to happiness and success.
Look good on paper. Take the logical next promotion. Work for an established company. This will keep you safe and successful. (By “safe” I mean protected in terms of salary, benefits and continuous employment.) What if the counterintuitive is true? What if logic actually makes us quite unsafe because we buy into a system that isn’t aligned with our true self and values? What if we’re unsafe because we’re just existing in a system and showing up at half of our potential, and not using our full talent and creativity?
One of the things that I had to unlearn is that what’s logical doesn’t always mean what’s the right thing to do. In fact, when it comes to human potential, nothing fails you quite like logic. What seems to look good on paper can keep us playing smaller than we’re capable of and along a path that everybody says that we should do in order to be successful. Nothing about my career leaps looked good on paper. Sometimes, I took a pay cut. Many times, I lost perks and benefits. When I leapt into entrepreneurship, I lost the ultimate safety net – I had zero guaranteed income. But with each leap, I was happier, more creative, and more fulfilled.
A few questions to consider if you feel stuck: Am I following what looks good and safe on paper? Because society or my family says this is what I should do? How could this path actually be more risky than what I truly desire to do?
I’ll wait for clarity before I make a change.
How often have you stalled on a big idea, having a courageous conversation, or taking a brave step toward something new because you weren’t sure how it would turn out? Many times I stalled because I was so scared I would make the wrong decision – I just wanted to KNOW. I wanted more data to see exactly how it would turn out. The ego hates ambiguity and loves to have us believe that one more data point or waiting a bit longer will gives us the clarity we think we need. Except the problem was I would probably be waiting for the rest of my life.
Martin Luther King, Jr says, “You don't need to see the whole staircase. You just need to take the first step.” I learned was that ambiguity is actually the certainty of taking unprecedented action. Ambiguity is the certainty of doing something that you've never done before. If all I’m focusing on is how much I don’t know, I tend to lose sight of what I do know. I forget that my intuition and my gut has made the decision long before my mind catches up.
Making a big change in the unknown doesn’t require you tackle the entire goal, but take the smallest, bravest step in the direction that carries you closer to your goal. Ask yourself, when I stall because of ambiguity, what’s the smallest action I could take to move me closer to where I want to be?
What I do is who I am.
This belief kept me stuck for years because I hand tangled up my identity and my sense of worth in my title and the well-known company I worked for. It was part of my conversations and how I introduced myself to new people. I struggled with the thoughts, “Who would I be if I wasn't part of this company? Without my title?” Our ego loves to assume an identity and attach a label to it. To move forward and get unstuck I had to untangle my who from my do. This happens to many leaders that I coach when they move into new organizations where they used to be the expert, and they lose that label and gain a new one the ego doesn’t like. Novice.
Untangling what I did with who I was, that was a messy process. I had to reframe my thinking that my worth, qualifications and confidence was built by a much Higher Source, and not by any temporary labels. As my “who and do” began to untangle, a sense of freedom to advance with courage and clarity emerged. Who would you be free to be if you didn’t belief that your worth came from your job, role or title?
Hopefully these might help you think about how you can get unstuck and give you more confidence to take a brave next step and try something that you've always wanted to do. We can avoid falling victim to is what Marshall Goldsmith names the “Great Western Disease,” which is, “I’ll be happy when __________”. I'll be happy when I get a raise. I'll be happy when I lose 20 pounds. I'll be happy when I finally earn this title, this salary. I’ll be happy when I move into this house or when I meet the right person, only to find that when we get to those places, the happiness wears of pretty quickly and we’re seeking it again.
Happiness is something we can choose today. Right now. Regardless of our circumstances. Happiness is the cause, not the result. It’s what remains when the illusions fall away that something better exists in the future than the reality of right now.
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