Do You Have “Complete Freedom” in Your Life?

As you consider ways to change your life inertia, it’s helpful to have a vision of the direction you want your life to go. This goal gives you a wished-for destination in your journey of personal growth and change, and helps you to map out the road you will take the get there.

Life is Simple and Complicated

Funny thing about life; it’s actually pretty simple. You are faced with a series of forks in the road. The bad road is the one that you may have been on for so long, driven by your insecurities; it’s a “feel bad, do bad” road. In contrast, the good road is the one you want to be on, driven by your needs; it’s a “feel good, do good” road. If you have the choice between the good road and the bad road, of course you will choose the good road. It’s simple, right?

Life is simple in other ways too. If you do a few basic things, like satisfying your needs, your life can be meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful. You can be happy and content, and find pleasure in its many facets, if you understand what you need, know what you value, and live in accordance with those needs and values.

But another funny thing about life: it’s often pretty darned complicated. Though the good road may be obvious to you, it’s not easy taking it because your insecurities keep propelling you down the bad road. You can feel stuck on the bad road, despite your best efforts to veer off of it. You may allow yourself to be stuck in unhealthy habits and patterns. You may surround yourself with people who drag you down rather than lift you up. You may lose touch with what you need and what you value, and, in doing so, lose sight of what makes you happy. If life was that simple, you would just take the good road, but you can’t.

I have three goals for you in this process of personal growth:

  1. remove the complications that make your life difficult
  2. refocus on satisfaction of those simple things that bring you meaning, fulfillment, and joy
  3. generate a force powerful enough to alter the trajectory of your life inertia

Complete Freedom

What is the point of all of your efforts? The point is to experience complete freedom in your life. Complete freedom involves knowing what you don’t want and liberating yourself from those obstacles that have propelled your life inertia down its current unsatisfying path:

With this complete freedom, you can know that you did everything in your power to live the life that you most wanted and that would bring you your greatest significance and satisfaction. Also, at the end of your day, year, or life, you can be sure that you will not have to experience the most frustrating of all emotions—regret—or have to answer what is perhaps the saddest question of all: “I wonder what could have been?”

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You Can Change Your Life After COVID-19, But it Will Be Difficult

I stand by my general statement that most people won’t change because of their experiences during this lockdown. There are simply too many forces that will push most of us back to our old behaviors, habits, and routines.

But just because most people won’t change doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of using the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to make significant changes in your life. It certainly won’t be easy, but I would be negating my professional life if I didn’t believe that you could take the healthy lessons you learned from being forced to change your life during the pandemic and continue those changes as you leave the safety of your own home and return to life as we have known it.

The challenge is how, despite the forces stacked against you, can you make those changes you want permanent. Let me begin the “how” of making the changes in your life permanent (or at least enduring beyond the shutdown) by reminding you of the obstacles you face in making significant changes to your behavior:

With those challenges identified, I want to provide some perspective on how the degree of change you want to make will impact your ability to make those changes. I’ll start with the premise that few of us are going to use this opportunity to turn our lives upside down. For example, it’s not likely that many of us will sell our worldly possessions and move our families to northern Idaho and live in a yurt (or some equivalent thereof). Again, given that you had chosen your life before the pandemic, the changes you might want to make are likely more around the edges than a wholesale re-creation of your life.

I also want to establish some realistic expectations about what lies ahead for you if you are truly committed to making significant changes to yourself and to your life as the COVID-19 crisis winds down (hopefully). I’m going to say it simply and clearly so you don’t miss the message: Change is difficult, very difficult; otherwise, we would all change every unhealthy behavior, habit, or pattern we’ve ever developed. And there would certainly not be a $10 billion self-help industry in the U.S. alone if change was easy. Despite my cynicism, I do believe that people can change themselves and their lives for the better; gosh, I wouldn’t have a career if I didn’t!

Having established a realistic perspective and reasonable expectations, now we can dive into a process for how you can actually get the positive changes you’ve made during the pandemic to stick while living in the post-pandemic “new normal.”

Step#1: Identify the Way You Have Been

With the simpler and less busy life you’ve been leading during the lockdown, the aspects of your life that you have seen as unpleasant, unproductive, or downright unhealthy likely came into sharp relief. You’ve likely learned that you don’t like some aspects of yourself, and this downtime showed you that you are capable of not being that way; for example, you might find that you are less stressed, more fun, or healthier.

The first step in the change process is to clearly identify what elements of yourself or your life you don’t like and don’t want to continue post-COVID. You can gain this understanding by recognizing your past less-than-desirable self (thoughts, emotions, behaviors, interactions) and observing your much-more-desirable current self. I also encourage you to get feedback from family and friends about your past and current self. Hopefully, this juxtaposition will demonstrate starkly the way you don’t want to be and the way you want to be, which will hopefully inspire and motivate you to make the changes you’ve made during the COVID-19 crisis permanent.

Step #2: Identify the Change

You want to identify the very specific aspect of yourself that you want to change. It might be a counterproductive way of thinking (too self-critical), feeling (too angry), behaving (overeating), or interacting with others (too authoritarian with your children).

Also, as part of this first step, you want to articulate in detail what you have been thinking, feeling, and doing during the lockdown and what you want to think, feel, and do as you unlock your life; for example, more self-supportive, calm, loving, or active.

Step #3: Identify and Remove Obstacles

A simple reality of this process is that all of the motivation in the world won’t enable you to make the changes you want if tangible obstacles stand in your way. To successfully achieve change in your life after the pandemic, you must clear or at least minimize their impact on your efforts. Referring back to the bulleted list above, first, identify the behaviors, habits, routines, institutions, pressures, and activities whose collective momentum will attempt to pull you back on your pre-COVID life trajectory.

Second, you can look for ways to remove these obstacles from your path to change. Ask yourself how you can surmount those barriers by continuing to remove self-defeating emotional triggers, disrupt your routines, choose other institutions to be a part of, focusing on your values and priorities rather than being concerned what choices other people are making, and deciding that some activities you might otherwise feel you need to return to aren’t really that important.

Step #4: Set Realistic Goals

Recognizing that the changes you want to continue in your life post-pandemic will be difficult, you can establish realistic goals that will encourage you to stay committed to the changes you want to make. Identify the end goal of the life you want to lead and then reverse-engineer more proximal goals that keep you motivated and focused on those changes every day. Then, regularly reward yourself for your accomplishing those goals.

Step #5: Enlist Support

Enlisting support from important people in your life is an essential step in keeping the momentum of change alive as you transition to post-COVID. Another simple reality is that if your significant others don’t support or, even worse, undermine your efforts at change, you’re dead in the water before you even begin.

I encourage you to identify key people in your world, share your vision of change, and ask them how they can support you. Even more powerfully, try to get them on board with the changes, especially your spouse, children, other immediate family, close friends, and co-workers who can have a direct impact on the changes you want to make.

Step #6: Take Action

Without putting the above into play, everything is just talk and you will soon slip back into the old you and your old life. After all of that preparation, it’s time to take action. I suggest that you ease yourself into the changes you want to make rather than try to go “cold turkey.” Give yourself time to become familiar and comfortable with the changes you want to make. Also, recognize that you will likely have setbacks and may fall off the wagon periodically because old and ingrained ways of being and living die hard (but know that they will die in time).

For example, you could put your children in recreational sports leagues instead of the traveling teams that they were on before COVID struck, place them in a nearby school they can walk or bike to, commit to buying healthy food, continue to work from home, prioritize exercise, the list goes on and on.

Step #7: 1 C & 3 Ps

As you make the transition from the COVID-19 crisis to a return to normal life, you need four letters to keep you on track. The first letter is C, as in commitment. For you to make stick the changes you’ve enjoyed during the pandemic, you need to have a moment-to-moment commitment to taking action on your change goals. You can expect to be constantly pulled back to the old road you were on in your life and, when this occurs, you must resist with all your might and choose the fork in the road that will take you down this new and healthier life path.

The second is P is for patience. As I’ve noted several times before, change is difficult and it is also slow. There are no quick fixes or instant successes with change. If you become impatient with your rate of change, you will become frustrated, then angry, then despairing, at which point you will likely give up your efforts at a new and improved you. If you maintain a long-term perspective, recognize that it will be difficult, yet have faith that you can make the change lasting, you will show the patience you need to stay committed to your new life path.

The third is P is for persistence. This quality is one of the most important for changing your life. The people who are successful in any aspect of their lives are those who just “keep on keeping on.” Day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, they stay committed and just keep plugging along until their lives are truly changed.

The fourth is P is perseverance. Another essential quality to successful life change because you will inevitably, as I noted above, fall off the wagon, have setbacks, and experience outright failures in your journey to the kind of person you want to be. It’s simple, though far from easy; every time you fall down, you get back up and keep putting one foot in front of the other toward the person you want to be and the life you want to lead.

In sum, the COVID-19 crisis will, in time, pass. When that happens, you will have to decide whether you want to stay on the same road as you were on before the pandemic or you want to choose another road that involves changes to who you are and the life you are leading.

Want to learn more about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in healthy and constructive ways? Read Dr. Jim Taylor’s new book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: 9 Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisis, listen to his podcast, Crisis to Opportunity (or find it on Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, or Google), or read his blog about the COVID-19 crisis.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Will the COVID-19 Crisis Change Us?

This is a question that I’ve been asked frequently of late by family, friends, clients, the media, and random people from whom I get emails, calls, and blog post comments: Will the COVID-19 crisis change us? This question is actually far more complex and nuanced than it might initially appear to be. Certainly, the pandemic has impacted everyone to varying degrees from the tragic (the death of loved ones, financial ruin) to the mundane (stuck in our homes for most of the day, can’t visit family or friends) to the seemingly absurd (having to wash our groceries when we get home, worry that our pets will transmit COVID-19). There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted our lives in ways large and small.

The focus of this article (as those I’ve written previously) will be on the changes that this crisis has forced on us that we have come to see as positive and healthy while under “shelter-in-place” orders. My fundamental question is whether these disruptions in our lives will “stick” after life returns to some semblance of normal or whether these positive experiences and the lessons learned will be lost as we get back on the runaway train that most of us call life.

Before I share my thoughts on answering this question, I want to acknowledge that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on both the physical health of millions of people and the economic health of individuals, businesses, and national and global economies. Our hopes, best wishes, and efforts should be directed, first and foremost, toward those who have suffered most from the pandemic. My focus on the positive aspects of this crisis is not intended to be insensitive to the immense challenges that COVID-19 has wrought on so many people.

Let’s begin by exploring what positive changes the COVID-19 crisis has created in the lives of people who have been fortunate enough to weather this storm relatively unscathed. The primary benefits I’m hearing from people about the “lockdown” include more family time, more time to pursue interests outside of work and family, more time and energy to exercise, slowing down the pace of their lives, and simplifying and decluttering their lives (literally and metaphorically). At a more existential level, broader issues that have been raised include spirituality (whether formal religion or having a personal meaning or purpose in their lives), creativity (ways to express who they are and what they value), and community (wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves).

Certainly, the shelter-in-place orders have given us the time and space to explore any or all of these essential aspects of life. The very fact that these concerns have risen to the surface of our psyches during such dire times suggests that many of us have a strong yearning for something new, healthier, and more meaningful than the lives we were leading prior to the pandemic. And this “disruption” has provided us with a forced opportunity to reflect, reset, and, potentially, redefine our lives. The pandemic has also given us the chance to engage in our lives in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before COVID-19.

I see five primary reasons why most of us will go back to normal when our lives go back to normal. First, the behaviors, routines, and patterns that were established in our lives before the pandemic became deeply ingrained as habits through years of repetition. These habits have been embedded into our minds, both psychologically and emotionally, and hard wired into brains, structurally and neurochemically. The simple reality is that the new ways of living that we have been engaged in during shelter-in-place haven’t had sufficient time to replace those that have been in place for years.

Second, our lives are shaped, usually without conscious awareness or intention, by the institutions within which we live, whether schools, work, extracurricular activities, and popular culture. School and work hours will likely return to some degree of normalcy, requiring us to “capitulate” to them. The activities in which your children participated after school and on weekends, such as sports and the performing arts, will also resume their normal schedules. Though there have been discussions about whether, for example, youth sports will be changed after the pandemic recedes, I would predict not for several reasons. Most kids love their extracurricular activities. Many of these activities have also been turned into lucrative businesses that comprise what I call the “youth sport industrial complex” (you can substitute dance, music, chess, or other activities with sport) that organizes, administers, coaches, and instructs young people in their chosen achievement area. And because youth activities have become big business, the purveyors of these offerings would be stubbornly resistant to reducing or taking away their livelihoods. Without their support for change, we will likely regress back to our old ways, however much we might not want to in theory.

Third, as social creatures guided by social norms, our lives are also influenced by the people around us, whether neighbors or what people on the internet are saying and doing. It is very difficult to swim against the current of popular sentiment for fear of being judged, rejected, or labeled a bad spouse, parent, or friend. In simple terms, there is tremendous social pressure to do what everyone else is doing (“keep up with the Joneses”), whether keeping your kids on their traveling soccer teams or sending them to coding camp.

Fourth, when the shelter-in-place order is lifted and life returns to what we hope will be normal, there will be so many things that we all need to do that aren’t optional or that we are far behind on. Whether commuting, shopping for non-essential items, or repairing your home, the list will seem truly endless. Plus, there are many things that we couldn’t do during the pandemic that we really want to do again because they enhance the quality of our lives, such as going to movies, eating out, socializing with friends, and nearby and long-distance travel.

Finally, though we can all easily complain about how busy and stressful and exhausting our lives are, I’m guessing that, over all, we like our lives. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have chosen them in the first place. Though there is some degree of momentum behind our current shelter-in-place lives, there is far more behind our pre-COVID-19 lives and it is that energy that will likely take over most of our lives as soon as life re-opens.

But wait! Before my pessimistic attitude toward post-pandemic change overtakes you, don’t give up hope just yet. Though I stand by my statement that most people will not change their lives after we return to normal, I do, in fact, believe that it is possible, just extremely difficult. In an upcoming article, I’ll share with you how you can, if you are truly determined, make the beneficial changes you’ve made during the lockdown a permanent part of your life moving forward.

Want to learn more about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in healthy and constructive ways? Read Dr. Jim Taylor’s new book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: 9 Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisislisten to his podcast, Crisis to Opportunity (or find it on Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, or Google), or read his blog about the COVID-19 crisis.

Featured image: Shutterstock

5 Life-Hacks During Shelter-in-Place

The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented in its impact on all of us. It has put the physical and financial lives of billions of people around the world at risk, not only in the short run, but, in all likelihood, for many years to come. The pandemic is truly a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) experience. Though the crisis has many implications that affect all of our lives, when it comes to day-to-day activities, the word that keeps coming to my mind is “disruption.” The unfortunate reality of COVID-19 is that it has thrown a huge monkey wrench in the machinery of our lives What had been predictable is now uncertain. What had been within our control is no longer the case. What had been habit and routine is no more. In other words, our daily lives have been turned upside down.

But that disruption can be a good thing. As I describe in my book, Change Your Life-inertia: Break Free from Your Past and Take Control of the Forces that Propel Your Life Trajectory, our lives can feel like an asteroid hurtling uncontrollably through space. In a sense, due to our upbringings and ongoing life experiences, our lives can develop an inertia that doesn’t encourage change even if the path we are on isn’t what is bringing us meaning, satisfaction, or happiness. The challenge is that, for anyone who is familiar with Newton’s Laws of Motion, it can be very difficult to change course because inertia keeps our lives on their present trajectory.

The COVID-19 crisis has certainly exerted a powerful force on our lives that requires us to alter the path we are on, at least temporarily. Most of that force isn’t positive or healthy because it lies outside of our control. At the same time, we don’t have to be asteroids hurtling through life. Instead, we can be Captains of “Starship You” in which we take command of our lives and use this massive disruption as a positive force to make beneficial changes that will help us in the short term and in the long run.

Certainly, the most immediate and noticeable disruption in our lives has been the “shelter-in-place” order that has been authorized by most states in the U.S. and in most countries around the world. This directive has required us to stay in our homes together either alone (if we don’t have roommates, partners, or family) or with our families. Not being able to go to work, attend school, socialize, run errands, or travel are all new and disconcerting disruptions to the rhythm and flow of our lives.

At the same time, these unsettling changes present us with a surprising opportunity to use this disruption to reflect on and take action to make positive and healthy changes. The goal of these changes is to improve how we deal with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic in the near term and to create a positive and healthy new direction in our lives in the future.

With that objective in mind, here are five “life hacks” that you can do to improve the quality of your life now.

1. Time

Time is our most precious resource because it’s nonrenewable. We want to take advantage of every moment we have. Thanks to the shelter-in-place order limiting commuting, errands, or after-school activities, we now have several extra hours each day to use as we wish. What a wonderful opportunity to be intentional in how we spend those hours.

Take a look at your week and identify specifically what new free time you have. Then ask yourself how you would like to spend it. It might be with your partner or family. It could involve exercise or returning to a neglected hobby. You could devote this time to a new avocation such as learning to cook, taking up a musical instrument, or registering for an online course you’re interested in. Your options are nearly endless, and whatever you choose should pass a simple litmus test: “Am I maximizing the value of this precious time that is available to me?”

2. Family

As a married parent of a teen and a tween, I can attest to the fact that it’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of family life and lose touch with our spouses and children. Work, school, extracurricular activities, homework, and social life all exert a gravitational pull away from the people who are most important to us. Shelter-in-place gives us the chance to spend more time — not just “quality time” — to connect with and strengthen our relationships with our family.

Dinners together every night, walks and bike rides in your neighborhood, weekend outings (close to home and maintaining social distancing from others, of course), games, movies, and just plain old conversation are just a few ways in which you can really connect with the people you love the most.

Admittedly, being together almost 24/7 can also have its challenges as the constant contact can cause everyone to get on each other’s nerves. This tension can also be an opportunity to practice kindness, empathy, and patience with those who deserve it the most.

3. Declutter

One of the most ubiquitous observations I’ve made while walking our dog in our neighborhood since the shelter-in-place order took effect has been the daily piles of junk on the sidewalk ready to be disposed of by our local garbage collectors. With so much free time, everyone seems to have gotten the “declutter” bug. I’m a huge believer in simplifying our lives by getting rid of the junk that we Americans love to accumulate in our closets, storage sheds, and garages. (And to think that garages used to be for cars!)

Without realizing it, clutter can have a big impact on us psychologically and emotionally. As we fill our lives up with stuff that we no longer use or need, clutter can create a claustrophobia that we’re not even aware of. We can feel an undefined closing in around us, a sense of feeling overwhelmed and trapped. Decluttering your space can also declutter your mind, freeing you of unnecessary “mental junk” that encroaches on your thinking and emotions.

The question I’m often asked is: “How do I know what to throw out?” It’s pretty simple; if you haven’t used it or noticed it in the last six months, say goodbye to it. And there is social value to decluttering as well. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” so when you give your stuff away to a charity, such as Goodwill or Salvation Army, those old clothes, games, and toys are going to people who are in need and would value what you no longer do.

4. Exercise

Those extra hours in the day that I mentioned above can be well used by committing to an exercise regimen.

Admittedly, there are fewer options for exercise with the shelter-in-place order in effect. No swimming pools for laps and no health clubs, gyms, or other fitness-related facilities for weight training, spinning, yoga, dance, or other exercise activities.

You can walk, run, or bike outside (while following the social-distancing guidelines, of course), acquire an indoor bike trainer, or purchase some dumbbells, exercise balls, stretch cords, or other exercise equipment for your own “gym” in your house. Some gyms are letting members borrow exercise equipment for home use. There is now a booming online exercise business with tens of thousands of videos offering a plethora of exercise programs that are fun and motivating that you can follow from the safety of your own home.

5. Change Bad Habits

This disruption of your daily routine offers you a unique opportunity to break unhealthy habits that were too difficult to overcome while you were entrenched in your life before the COVID-19 crisis. Your eating habits are one such area in which you are forced to change. If you had a habit of stopping by that donut shop on the way to work, you no longer can. If you got that latte at Starbucks every day at lunch, sorry. If you ate out more often than not, game over (though, in theory, you could do take-out).

Here’s a good exercise for you to engage in to see which bad habits you can break while in “lockdown.”

  1. Identify one or two habits you wish you didn’t have (e.g., snacking on junk food whenever you take a break at work).
  2. Clarify what is bad about them and why you want to break the habit (e.g., causes you to overeat and gain weight).
  3. Specify a new habit with which you can replace the old habit (e.g., instead of eating when you take a break while working at home, take a walk around the block).
  4. Create an enjoyable environment for your new habit (e.g., listen to music or podcasts or talk to friends by phone during your walk).
  5. Accept that you might fall off the wagon periodically, so just recommit to the new habit and get back on the wagon (e.g., if, in a moment of weakness, you bought some potato chips at the store, finish them and resist the urge the next time you are grocery shopping).
  6. Seek support for your new habit (e.g., if you have a spouse or roommate working from home as well, ask them to help you by not buying snacks themselves and joining you for your walks).
  7. Choose a reward for staying committed (e.g., treat yourself to a nice take-out dinner each week).

There is no way that we can completely turn the COVID-19 crisis into a thoroughly positive experience. At the same time, to allow it to be totally negative adds insult (e.g., really bums you out) to the injury that’s already being inflicted on us (e.g., financial, social). Instead, see the pandemic as an opportunity to exert positive forces on your life-inertia and make healthy changes. You garner several important benefits from taking this approach to the crisis. First, you’ll feel a lot better psychologically and emotionally during a time that is a natural downer because you are using your time and energy in a constructive way. Second, your experience of the crisis will be much more positive and uplifting. Third, the pandemic will go by faster because you’re focused on more positive things. And, lastly, when the COVID-19 crisis finally passes, you can take the new changes and enter the “real world” happier and better positioned to enjoy your life to the fullest.

Want to learn more about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in healthy and constructive ways? Read Dr. Jim Taylor’s new book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: 9 Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisisor listen to his podcast, Crisis to Opportunity (or find it on Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, or Google).

Featured image: Shutterstock

10 Mindblocks that Prevent You from Living the Life You Want

Ideally, you should be living in the present while striving for your healthiest goals: for example, meaning, happiness, love, success, and fulfillment. You should feel joy and inspiration. You should be optimistic and able to participate in thriving relationships. You should find satisfaction in your work, experience warm and loving family and friends, and participate in fun and meaningful hobbies and recreation.

Yet, if you could step back and look at your life, you may see that you are, in significant ways, living your life based on who you once were, not who are you now, still reacting to the world much as you did when you were a child. You may still avoid relationships because of a fear of rejection, be carrying a hair-trigger resentment toward authority, or be trying hard to please others rather than meeting your own needs for your own happiness. Why would you still be acting in ways that are no longer healthy or beneficial to you? Because many of those childhood experiences still control you.

You may feel like you are putting your past in front of you, letting it guide and shape who you are, how you feel, and what you do. Your life may be much less meaningful, fulfilling, or enjoyable than you would like. You can be pretty sure that your past is controlling you when emotions such as fear, frustration, anger, or sadness are more present than they are absent in your life. Your thinking tends to take a pessimistic cast and your behavior often undermines what you’re trying to accomplish.  Your work is unsatisfying, you often feel lonely, and you really don’t have much joy in life.

Your life may be driven by many of the things that you worry about and fear: being loved or rejected, liked or shunned, accepted or judged, a success or a failure, happy or miserable, living up to others’ expectations or your own, conforming to the culture we live in or living in a world of your own choosing.

I call the causes of this unhealthy life path “mindblocks,” a portmanteau that plays off of the psychological nature of these issues and the term “roadblocks.” As much as you may want to or have tried, you just can’t seem to remove these mindblocks from your life. I have identified ten mindblocks that most prevent you from living the life you want:

You can see the presence of mindblocks in the attitudes and beliefs you hold about yourself and the world, the emotions that dominate your life, the relationships you have, and the decisions you make and the actions you take. You can get clues about which mindblocks are most prevalent in your life by looking at the work you do, the people you surround yourself with, the activities you participate in, and the routines that you follow. But the ultimate clue is whether you believe that you are living the life that want, a life that is dominated by passion, connectedness, and joy.

Think about the role that mindblocks plays in your life. They scare you, inhibit you, numb you, and limit you. Wouldn’t it be great to free yourself from these restraints? Okay, that might not be possible because you’re human and mindblocks are just a part of being human. But wouldn’t it be great to be on a life path that is predominantly free mindblocks rather than dominated by them? That is a worthy goal indeed.

In future articles, I’ll introduce you to the attitude that will help you dismantle your mindblocks and set you free to pursue the life you wish for most.

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Finding Your Own Personal Greatness

I just read an interesting article about what it takes to be great. It is a different take on the notion of greatness and success and a worthwhile read. I agree with most of it:

One aspect of the article that I disagreed with is that being great is really being good repeatedly. If you are repeatedly good then you are, well, good. If you’re not repeatedly good, you are either lucky or a “flash in the pan.” But if you look at the most successful people in all walks of life, you see that they aren’t just good; instead they do what they do exceptionally well almost every day (they are consistent, but not perfect; even LeBron James has bad games). At the same time, very few of us have the ability to be truly great. Greatness, by definition, is a statistical anomaly; if everyone was great then no one would be great because “great” would then be the “average” and everyone above that would be some other word that describes a new level far above “great” (e.g., exceptional, extraordinary, remarkable).

So, what does it take to be great? I thoroughly reject the “10 years, 10,000 hours” notion that anyone can be an expert if they just put in enough time. The reality is that genes matter, whether innate intelligence or inborn physical talent. For example, you might be an incredible defender in basketball, but if your dream is to be a center in the NBA and you’re not 7 feet tall (or close), then you’re not playing in the paint for the Knicks, Warriors, or another NBA team. Or if you don’t have an incredibly high IQ (which is largely genetic), you’re not going to win the Nobel Prize for physics.

Another reality though is that you can’t control your genes. If you received good ones from your parents, thank them profusely. If you didn’t, don’t blame your parents because they didn’t choose their genes either. Instead, let it go and focus on what you can control because pining away for good genes is a huge waste of time and prevents you from getting the most out of the genes you have.

Innate ability is certainly a wonderful thing to have been given, but it is a bit overrated. Inborn ability is a necessary, but not sufficient, contributor to greatness. You need inborn ability to be great, but it isn’t enough. The world is full of gifted failures, of “can’t miss kids” who missed. Talent is only the starting point to greatness. If you’re fortunate enough to have won the genetic lottery, it puts you ahead of the field at the beginning of the race to be great. But, of course, races aren’t won at the start, but rather at the finish, and you have to work hard, push your limits, and struggle mightily to get to the finish for anything in life worth pursuing.

Ultimately, being great isn’t about being objectively great because, as noted above, the chances that you will achieve true greatness in some aspect of your life is, statistically, very small. Rather, your goal should be to find your own personal greatness. I define that as fully realizing whatever ability you were born with. That innate ability may not be enough to be a superstar in your area of achievement, but, if you do what is necessary (as described in that article), you will be pretty darned good and, well, that is pretty darned good, which probably means that you will find a reasonable level of success.

You might think that personal greatness isn’t the same as true greatness, that it’s just not that great. Certainly, widely recognized greatness has a lot of benefits, whether acclaim, wealth, or status. But if you ask those who have achieved this form of greatness, rarely do they speak about the external benefits (e.g., the Olympic gold medal, the book deal, IPO). Instead, they revel in pursuing greatness, the struggles they experienced and the satisfaction of overcoming them, and the small victories that led to the big success. In other words, and I realize that this is a well-worn cliché, they celebrated the journey to rather than arriving at the destination of their success.

Anyone who aspires to true greatness, but who only ends up finding their own personal greatness (remember, that will be about 99.9 percent of us), can experience the very same intrinsic benefits as those who become superstars in their field. And that experience is the real reason why we suffer the blood, sweat, and tears as we pursue something as elusive and unlikely as greatness.

Is personal greatness a consolation prize for losing the race for true greatness? Perhaps so, perhaps not. Given that it offers many of the intrinsic rewards of greatness and, in all likelihood, some extrinsic benefits, it’s a pretty decent prize. And certainly better than earning the rubber chicken of failure for a lack of trying or an unwillingness to risk.

Achieving your own personal greatness boils down to being:

If you live your life this way, I can’t guarantee that you will completely accomplish your goals, find your own personal greatness, or achieve some absolute standard of greatness, but I can say with significant confidence that very good things will happen. At the same time, I can also say with 100 percent confidence that if you don’t live your life this way, you will never experience the meaning, fulfillment, pride, inspiration, and joy that comes from the journey to your own personal greatness.

Which option do you choose?

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How to Get Major Life Decisions Right

I recently had dinner with a former client I had worked with about 15 years ago. Cassie (not her real name) was in her teens then. She is now a grown woman with a great career and about to be married. She asked for my guidance to help her make a major career decision involving two options.

She can stay at her current job which requires 60-80 hours a week, is very stressful, and prevents her from having any balance in her life. At the same time, it is pays well and could lead to a more desired position in the future.

Or she can take a position with smaller company that would demand less time, have less stress, but also pays less and might limit one particularly desirable future career opportunity.

Cassie asked for my thoughts on how to make the best decision possible. Her predicament resonated with me because it is one that I have faced often in my own life and that I regularly counsel clients on in my professional life.

The crux of this major life decision is one simple question: “How do I make the right decision that will have such a huge impact on my life when it isn’t at all clear what the best decision is?” Here’s what I told Cassie.

There are no crystal balls in life, so no way to know what lies in the future. Attempting to predict the future is a largely frustrating and futile endeavor. You can only make the best decision you can based on the available information, some contemplation of the career and life you want to lead, and your present feelings. Also, recognize that this isn’t your final decision on your career and life; you will have many “forks in the road” ahead of you and few are irreversible (except parenthood!). That should help put the decision in perspective and reduce its feeling of enormity.

There are several facets of this decision that you can consider (with some relevant tangents thrown in as well).

First, what is the objective reality of the two options you face, meaning how will the two paths impact you? A big part of this involves giving a lot of thought to what you want. In Cassie’s case, how will the decision influence her identified career dream goal? Can she live comfortably with less money that will come if she changes jobs? Will the new job really mean fewer hours and less stress? How will either path impact her upcoming marriage, having a family, being a mother, and her overall quality of life? What are the implications of this decision on her future financial goals?

Second, don’t base decisions on something that may or may not happen in the future. I asked Cassie to consider if she really needed her current job to get that dream job that she coveted. Things may change in the future such that she may no longer want that “ideal” job (dreams have a way of changing over time). There no way to know what unexpected and wonderful things may happen. Plus, serendipity has an amazing way of changing our lives.

A third facet of decision-making involves a deep exploration of your values, priorities, and the lifestyle you want to lead. What do you value most in your life? What aspects of your life do you want as your priorities? What kind of life do you want to lead in the short term and in the future, say, in 10+ years? What do you want your life to be filled with (e.g., marriage, children, travel, health and exercise, culture)? I have found that people don’t have this discussion nearly enough or soon enough and they end up just following the path of least resistance and what everyone else is doing.

A fourth consideration is to recognize that time is your most precious resource. Why? Because it is nonrenewable. It’s has always been a priority of mine over money. Don’t get me wrong, I like money because there are some experiences and things that I want to have that cost money (e.g., travel, good education for my children, bikes, skis). Here’s a great question to ask: At the end of your life, how do you wish you had lived your life and spent your time? Will you regret working so much despite the financial reward, or will you look back with satisfaction knowing that you lived your life the way you deliberately chose to?

A fifth facet is entirely nonrational and hard to wrap your arms around. I’m referring to your intuition, your gut — whatever you want to call it. When you think about the two different paths, how do they feel? Which one brings you a sense of calm and comfort and which one brings you angst and discomfort? In looking back at the many forks in the road I have taken, I have found that my gut feeling was usually right. Making a decision in this intuitive way is truly a leap of faith because there is no objective data on which to base your decision. The challenge for you is that it requires a great deal of trust in that nonrational part of you.

That brings me to a very important sixth facet; namely, your happiness. As I have progressed through my life, I have found that happiness should be central to all of our life’s decisions. Yes, success and financial rewards can bring you satisfaction (and it does pay the bills), but only happiness can bring you real meaning, fulfillment, and joy. True happiness comes from living a life filled with your passions, finding love, living a value-driven life, and your life not being about you. So, what makes you happy and unhappy? If your current situation is that bad, run away from it as fast as you can (life is too short).

Finally, if it’s any consolation as you wrestle with major life decisions, there are no bad decisions here. The reality is that, whatever you decide, you will be just fine because you’re a competent and good person who will make the best of whichever path you choose. But, if you asked me what I would do in your situation, I would lean toward what your gut is saying and what will make you happiest now. Your future will, I believe, take care of itself quite nicely.

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Life Inertia: Like an Asteroid Hurtling Through Space

Sir Isaac Newton proposed his First Law of Motion, the Law of Inertia, in 1687: A body at rest tends to remain at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Bodies will continue in their current state, whether at rest or in motion, unless acted on by a greater outside force.

Three hundred and twenty years later, I experienced a eureka moment — I suddenly realized that human beings, too, are subject to natural laws that closely resemble the laws of physics. Playing on Newton, I came up with my own First Law, The Law of Human Inertia: Having once established a life trajectory, people tend to continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force.

My observation turns out to be more than metaphor. The closer I look at human behavior, the more startling are the similarities between human behavior and Newton’s law. Like an asteroid when it first breaks away from a larger celestial body, great forces — in our case, genes, parents, community, and society — are exerted on our lives from inception. People, like asteroids, are set on a path by those early forces and continue on that path throughout their lives, for better or worse, unless other forces alter their course. The trajectory on which our life inertia carries us may also be as arbitrary as that of the asteroid, because when we are young we have no more influence over the direction of our life inertia than does an asteroid over its course. Neither asteroids nor people choose their initial path. And, like the asteroid, we are often unaware of the course we are on or what propels us down that path.

The parallels also explain why it’s so difficult for people to change the trajectory of their lives. Most people think of inertia as an object at rest, like the proverbial couch potato. The reality of inertia is actually quite different. People are in fact moving steadily and inexorably along a path driven by powerful life forces. Seeing people in this dynamic perspective completely changes the understanding of what it takes to shift the direction of people’s lives. We can now see that people aren’t “stuck,” as so many refer to themselves when they are dissatisfied with their lives. In reality, they are moving at warp speed, propelled by multiple forces along their life path. As a result, small forces — such as a modest insight, a brief “aha!” moment, or a nudge from a friend — simply won’t provide adequate power to counteract what currently drives us. To the contrary, because of the great forces that are already controlling our lives, even greater forces must be applied if there is going to be significant change

If we could step back and look at the path of our lives, many of us would find that we are, in significant ways, still on the same trajectory, still reacting to the world much as we did when we were young. We might, for example, still be carrying a hair-trigger resentment of authority, or trying hard to please others instead of meeting our own needs. Why might we still be acting in ways that are no longer useful to us? Because our childhood experiences still control and propel us along the trajectory we’ve been on our entire lives.

We can see those early influences in the attitudes and beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world, how we perceive and think about our lives and the emotions that dominate it, and whether the decisions we make and the actions we take are beneficial or harmful to us. We can better understand what’s controlling us by looking at the jobs we hold, the people we surround ourselves with, the activities we participate in, and the routines we follow. But the ultimate clue is whether we believe that we’re in control of the direction of our lives.

Ideally, we should be on a path toward our healthiest goals of happiness, love, success, and growth. When we’re on this path, we’re able to feel joy and to be inspired. We’re optimistic. A healthy path also shows itself if we’re happy in our work, experience warm and loving relationships, have fun in meaningful hobbies and recreation, and find spiritual meaning in our lives.

Yet some people are on a path that leads to a life less meaningful, fulfilling, or enjoyable than they would like. These people know they’re on this trajectory when they frequently feel angry, sad, or hurt. Their thinking tends to take a pessimistic cast, and their behavior often undermines what they’re trying to accomplish. If their work is unsatisfying, if they often feel lonely, and really don’t have many ways to enjoy life, chances are they’re still on that inertial path.

These people may feel helpless to change the course of their lives. As much as they’ve tried, they just can’t seem to alter its trajectory. And the reason that change is so difficult is that First Law of Human Inertia. If they’re going to change, they need to apply forces that are greater than the forces currently controlling the direction of their lives. To slow down, change direction, and go where they want to go will take a huge amount of fresh energy.

Fortunately, we are not asteroids hurtling through space, lifeless pieces of rock over which we have no control. We are much more like spaceships that we have not had control of through most of our lives — full of abilities that are ready to be harnessed and directed if only we knew how. We can gain control of that spaceship that is our life, and we can become the masters of the journey of our lives. We can achieve total command and, to quote Star Trek, be free to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

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Is the Self-help Industry a Fraud?

Change. Whether you call it self-help, personal transformation, growth, or just plain change, it is a goal to which virtually everyone aspires. Gaining self-esteem, losing weight, improving relationships, achieving success, getting rich, or finding happiness are just a few of the ways in which people the world over want to alter their lives. Our ability to achieve these goals depends on whether we can change the way we think, feel, and behave in ways that will encourage the pursuit of those goals. Without change, as the old Texas adage goes, “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.”

Yet is there anything that we devote more time, effort, and money to than attempting to achieve that elusive goal? And is there anything that we pursue with such vigor and yet with such poor results than the quest for change?

Thankfully, there are a lot of people out there more than willing to help you change, for a small price, of course. Did you know that self-help is a $10 billion-a-year industry? As the late and great comedian George Carlin riffs in one of his stand-up routines, “I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”

What does the size of the self-help industry say about change? For one, no one has found The Secret or The Answer (titles, I should note, of two best-selling personal-transformation books); people are still looking for honest-to-goodness ways to change. And, let’s be really frank here, as George Carlin has also observed, “If you’re reading it in a book, folks, it ain’t self-help. It’s help.” But help is okay too as long as it actually, well, helps.

Unfortunately, change has gotten a bad rap because of the self-help industry; it has become a parody of itself and many of its leading proponents, such as Dr. Phil and Anthony Robbins, have truly “jumped the shark.”  Watching self-help gurus on TV is like watching a Saturday Night Live skit of self-help gurus on TV.

Numerous articles have been written about the disingenuousness and downright dishonesty of self-help gurus and their services and products (just do a web search of “self-help industry” and see for yourself). We hear the outrageous promises of fast and easy change that simply affirm the well-known saying often attributed to P. T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” We hear claims cloaked in scientific language (e.g., the Law of Attraction offered in The Secret is, according to its author Rhonda Byrnes, a natural law as real as gravity). We hear the sardonic commentary that the only people who are being helped are the gurus who are making millions off of gullible buyers of self-help books, podcasts, and DVDs.

You might say to me, “I really do want to change and I really want to be one of those people who actually changes, but it’s the how to change that’s the mystery!” Well, despite the protestations of Rhonda Byrnes, there really is no mystery. Change is simple. You decide what you want to change, you find a strategy that will facilitate the change, and then you commit yourself to making that change.

Change, however, is not easy. In fact, it is downright difficult. That’s why most people don’t change and why the self-help industry is so robust; no one has offered a way for those millions upon millions of self-help consumers to make the changes they want. If someone had actually found the answer to the question, “How do people change?,” there would be no self-help industry, just one very rich person.

People are willing to plunk down $23.95 for a book or $15.95 for a DVD that promises that its method is really — no, I mean really — the one that will help them change. What’s a few bucks for the possibility — whatever the improbability — of finding that pot of gold at the end of the “I can change my life” rainbow? Of course, when that book, podcast, or DVD doesn’t produce the desired change, another self-help product comes along that promises to do the trick. And as long as the price is right, people will continue to line the pockets of the self-help industry in perpetuity. To do otherwise would be to admit defeat and be labeled a loser in our aspirational, “I can have everything I want without any effort” culture. Such an admission would mean a life-long sentence of not being successful, happy, rich, slim, or loved. And that is just plain unacceptable.

There are many obstacles that stand in the way of change, ranging from emotional baggage and ingrained habits to an environment that reinforces the status quo and is hostile to change. And, contrary to the assertions of just about every self-help book that has ever been written, change takes incredible commitment, time, energy, and effort. Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.

So if you’re looking for a quick and easy path to change from any self-help book, podcast, or DVD that promises you instant and effortless change, put it back on the shelf or return it to Amazon. I can assure you that you’re wasting your money and time.

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The Problem with the Mindfulness Movement

You leave work late and drive home in rush-hour traffic, listening to a podcast with a climate scientist explaining the gloom-and-doom scenario that awaits us all. When the traffic jam finally breaks up, you get your economy car up to speed, and — Bam! — you hit the pothole you’ve been avoiding for months, piercing a tire. When you finally make it back to the small apartment you pay too much money for, you check your mail to find a bill from your recent hospital visit just shy of your $2,000 deductible. You close yourself into a quiet room and open the Aura app on your smart phone that guides you through a focused breathing meditation to cultivate mindfulness.

Is it working?

Mindfulness, a practice taken from Buddhism, has steadily popularized as a remedy for daily stresses over the last few decades. Big CEOs, therapists, and scientists have testified for the “life-changing” results of looking inward, but some thought leaders say it’s only part of a wider trend of individualizing societal problems.

When I first spoke to Dr. Ronald Purser, he read my puzzled mind, saying “You’re probably thinking I seem awfully anti-capitalist for a management professor.” Purser, a professor of Management at the College of Business at San Francisco State University, is also an ordained Zen Dharma teacher in the Korean Zen Taego Order. He has been publishing papers on management and organizational change through Buddhist or ecological lenses for decades. His most recent book, McMindfulness, is a critique of the rising industry around the practice of mindfulness and its corporate proponents: elites cherry-picking Buddhism to offer cold comfort and reinforce individualism.

The Saturday Evening Post: What is the mindfulness movement?

Purser: It’s not a monolith, but I think, in general, we’ve seen how a therapeutic modality gradually morphed into a capitalist spiritually, as I put it. Mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention started with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work in 1979. It initially offered an alternative intervention for chronic stress and other maladies, but for many years it was confined to hospitals and clinics. Around 2000 to 2005, it became mainstream. This whole process involved slowly growing scientific interest around mindfulness to garner legitimacy. To offer mindfulness as a medical intervention, it really had to be mystified. What I mean by that, is that the explicit connection of mindfulness practice to any kind of Buddhist sources had to be downplayed. Once it was decontextualized from a Buddhist framework — like teachings on ethics and morality, and so forth — it could gain traction in secular audiences, and then entrepreneurship kicked in.

I think it gained a lot of traction after the financial crisis of 2008 because people were overwhelmed by the stresses and anxieties they were facing. Mindfulness offered a convenient respite, a way to turn away from all of the structural and political challenges of our time.

Post: What’s wrong with people practicing mindfulness? Isn’t it a healthy habit?

Purser: There isn’t anything inherently wrong with using mindfulness to de-stress. The problem isn’t that using mindfulness for stress-reduction doesn’t work — the problem is that it does work! But work in the service of whom and for whose interests?  For example, just as there is nothing wrong with treating those suffering from depression, the problem is when the diagnosis and dominant narrative is that depression is nothing but a chemical imbalance in the brain. The pharmaceutical industry has a huge financial stake in maintaining and propagating such a narrative that is based on biological reductionism.

Similarly, the mindfulness industry and its proponents have a vested interest in maintaining a narrow way of framing and explaining stress in our society, which also adheres to a reductionist focus on the individual. Whether explicitly or implicitly, it sends the wrong message that the stresses people experience are just inside their own heads, or that their external resources and social conditions don’t matter. People may find that they could be a lot less stressed if they organized around collective resources — by building community, and engaging more politically in solidarity with others in changing our political and economic systems. It’s not an either/or choice, but the mindfulness apologists have chosen the individual to the downplaying of the social and communal dimensions of mindfulness.

This is partly because mindfulness has been embedded in therapeutic culture. This is what the late critical psychologist David Smail called “magic voluntarism:” de-contextualized individuals alone are held responsible for their stress and anguish, regardless of the social and economic milieu in which their lives are embedded. And mindfulness is now a DIY technique that an isolated individual can perform in order to cope with the challenges of modernity.

Post: Is mindfulness related to positive psychology?

Purser: These self-help techniques, to me, all represent a way of rekindling individualism in our society. The neoliberal ethos is alive and well, so these methodologies don’t meet any resistance when it comes to integrating them into our culture. One of the latest fads is “grit” or “resilience,” it’s this notion that all of our success and happiness are just a matter of turning inward and finding our inner resources. They all subscribe to the idea of the autonomous individual, which is separate from the community. It’s a sort of hyper-individualistic way of legitimizing neoliberalism.

Post: Would you say we are experiencing more stress in the current time period than times past? I’m thinking particularly of the turn of the last century and the many accounts of widespread stress in this country as people moved into cities in large numbers, among the many other societal changes.

Purser: In the book, I chronicle the long history of how we got to the discourse of stress that we’re using now. At the turn of the century, there was that strange diagnosis called neurasthenia which was a bizarre diagnosis reserved primarily for upper classes. It was actually a badge of honor. They saw it as the price you had to pay for progress and industrialization. But, certainly, they were going through something. The diagnosis at the time was different than it is now, but I think there’s a parallel there. In both cases, you see the medical community coming in and overlaying the etiology, basically saying that it’s located in the individual.

But I think that we are more stressed. There are statistics on this. Workplace stress is on the rise, as are stress-related diseases. A World Health Organization study that found around $300 billion  a year is lost due to stress at work. Part of my critique is that the cure places the burden of responsibility on individuals.

Post: You’re in San Francisco. What can you say about the practice of mindfulness in Silicon Valley?

Purser: It’s huge. It really took off probably around 2010. Google became a sort of poster child for corporate mindfulness with the publication of Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer. Big conferences, like Wisdom 2.0, are held every year here in San Franscisco. It’s very popular in the Valley, which has always had this kind of spiritual, libertarian character to it. Steve Jobs had a background in Zen. But it’s selectively appropriated to optimize worker engagement. They’ll say it’s a form of “brain hacking.” In the 1960s, LSD was used for consciousness expansion, but now it’s used — via “microdosing” — to become more productive. Similarly, Zen was very anti-establishment and anti-materialistic, and now it’s used as a productivity enhancement tool for corporations.

By focusing only on individual-level stress reduction, these programs don’t take into account the systemic and structural problems in the workplace that are causing the epidemic of stress in the first place. In other words, there is no critical diagnosis of workplace stressors, which are long hours, work/family conflicts, economic insecurity, and lack of health insurance. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, called these “aspirin practices” because they promise to make the world a better place, but they really don’t change the root causes of stress that people are feeling.

Things like mindfulness seem very benign on the surface, so it’s almost incredulous to call them into question. But the harm is more at the socio-political level, because you’re basically letting corporations off the hook for responsibility of the social pollution they’re dumping on people. It’s not a form of brainwashing, or some conspiratorial thing, but what it does do is deflect attention away from collective ways of organizing to affect structural change.

Post: Do you see any signs of a movement that addresses your criticisms of this kind of individualistic mindfulness?

Purser: There are a lot of people on the fringes thinking about this besides me. I think we’re at a point where we have to come to terms with the idea that focusing on individual psychology and individual-based interventions are just not going to do it anymore. If you look at the ecological crisis, it’s a spiritual crisis. We’re dealing with suffering on such a systemic level that just retreating into our caves is problematic. I understand the need to cope, but the form of suffering that we’re dealing with is institutionalized and collective, not just at the individual level.

I think things can turn very suddenly and unexpectedly. If I were a practitioner of mindfulness in Australia right now, I think I may start considering other approaches. We have a hard time imagining other possibilities because we’ve been subject to this imagination machine of neoliberalism for so long that it’s hard for us to consider alternatives. We might want to turn to a more creative engagement with our own prophetic traditions — like the Judeo-Christian tradition — which account for social justice and oppression. A fundamental teaching in Buddhism is interdependence with all beings and with nature. I think that part of the equation hasn’t been given enough attention.


Purser’s book, McMindfulness, was published in 2019 by Repeater Books. Purser also recommends The Mindful Elite: Mobilizing from the Inside Out by Jaime Kucinskas.

Featured image by Repeater Books

5 Steps to Positive Life Change (and the Big Payoff!)

In my first article in this exploration of how we can produce meaningful and lasting life change, I described the four obstacles that prevent change. In my last article on this topic, I introduced you to the five building blocks of change. These steps set the stage for change, but the real work lies ahead.

Change can be scary, tiring, frustrating, and repetitious. And change takes time. How much, you might ask. It depends on your ability to remove the four obstacles to change and embrace the five building blocks. It also relies on your ability to commit to the minute-to-minute process of change. But I have found that when you make a deep commitment to change, you can expect to see a positive shift in three to six months.

With the foundation for positive life change now in place, it’s time to take action. Here are the five steps you must take to turn possibility and hope into real change.

1. Explore Your Inner World

Perhaps the most difficult part of changing your life involves exploring your inner world. True change cannot just occur on the surface or outside of you. Change means not only understanding who you are, but also why you are who you are; in other words, what makes you tick. The first step you must take is to identify the obstacles that are preventing you from changing. You need to “look in the mirror” and specify what the baggage, habits, emotions, and environment are that are keeping you from your goals. Understanding these obstacles takes the mystery out of who you are and what has been holding you back. It also gives you clarity on what you need to change and gives you an initial direction in your path of change.

These explorations of your inner world can enable you to finally understand why you have been the way you have been and done things you have done even when neither have worked for you (“So that’s why I’ve been this way all of my life!”). This process will also help you to remove the obstacles that have stood in your path to change. These insights also, at a deep level, liberate you to move from your current path to another that will take you where you really want to go. Most importantly, truly understanding your inner world will allow you to finally put the past behind you, when most of your life you have been putting your past in front of you.

There are many ways to explore your inner world. You can read books, listen to podcasts, or watch videos on the particular areas that are holding you back. You can also attend workshops and seminars that take deep-dives into your obstacles. Perhaps the most effective means of understanding what makes you tick is some form of counseling or psychotherapist. A trained mental health professional (you don’t need to have a mental illness to benefit from one) can guide you on an effective and efficient journey to changing your life.

2. Change Goals

Once the path to your goals has been cleared, you still need to have a clear idea about your final destination. Think of it like GPS; you can’t get directions unless you input where you want to go.

When you establish clear objectives of the changes you want to make, you are able to better focus your efforts and direct your energy toward those changes. These goals should identify what areas you want to change, how you will change them, and the ultimate outcome you want to achieve. Moreover, the goals should be specific, objective, and time defined.

For example, if you are shy and want to feel more comfortable and assertive socially, your ultimate goal may be to walk into a party and engage with people immediately. Intermediate goals might include attending one small social event each week, introducing yourself to three new people every week, and asking people you know out for a beverage or dinner every other week. And with a big party you’ve always wanted to attend but were too afraid to coming up in March, you have a clear time frame in which to commit to achieving your goals.

3. Create Action Steps

So far, everything you have done to change has been talk. Now it’s time to actually make change happen. Action steps describe the particular actions you will take to achieve your change goals. They may range from adhering to an exercise regimen to maintaining emotional control in a crisis situation to staying focused when surrounded by distractions. Action steps give you the specific tools you need to act on the world in the present and to give you alternative actions that counter your old baggage, habits, emotions, and environment.

For instance, in pursuing the goals I just mentioned, you can use positive self-talk, relaxation techniques, and mental imagery to rehearse and see yourself feeling comfortable and competent in your new social excursions. I would also encourage you to seek out support from family and friends to gird your determination, bolster your confidence, and help you focus on what success in achieving your goals will feel like.

4. Identify Forks in the Road

Taking the action steps and achieving your change goals depends on recognizing important forks in the road. I make the distinction between the bad road and the good road (there can actually be multiple bad and good roads, but let’s keep things simple). The bad road is the one that you’ve been on for so long driven by the four obstacles I described earlier; it’s a “feel bad, do bad” road. In contrast, the good road is the one you want to be on; it’s a “feel good, do good” road.

This fork in the road is simple, but not easy. It’s simple because you would, of course, want to be on the good road. It’s not easy because you have years of baggage, habits, emotions, and environment continuing to propel you down the bad road.

A key to the change process involves recognizing the forks in the road when they appear because without seeing the forks in the road, you obviously can’t take the good road; that is, makes positive changes. This awareness isn’t as easy as it seems because all those years of obstacles have created a myopia that can limit your field of vision, causing you to miss the forks when you come upon them. For example, referring back to the example of wanting to overcome your shyness, say you have a new worker in your office whom you would like to meet and get to know. But your natural reaction is to get scared, dwell on what could go wrong if you introduced yourself, and avoid him. You first want to prepare yourself for your first meeting by acknowledging that you will be nervous, rehearsing what you would say, imagining a comfortable interaction with him, and choosing when you will introduce yourself rather than having an unexpected meeting. By doing so, you create your own fork in the road that you are more prepared to take.

In all likelihood, you will initially only recognize the forks when you are long past them. (“Darn it, I wish I had seen that fork earlier!”) But, with time and vigilance, you will see those forks earlier and earlier until one day an amazing thing will happen; you will see the fork when you arrive at it.

Unfortunately, because of the Sirens’ call of the four obstacles, you will still probably take the bad road at first. But, one day, another amazing thing will happen. You will recognize that fork in the road as you approach it and, yes, you will take it! And you will never be the same person again.

Don’t get me wrong; you haven’t it made yet. You’ll have setbacks and struggles because you will still go down the bad road sometimes; those obstacles take time to dismantle. But every time you take the good road, you’ll see what a great road it is to be on. It will encourage you to continue to resist your baggage, habits, emotions, and environment and to take the good road at the many forks that lay ahead. And, after a while, the bad road will become overgrown with detritus until it is no longer recognizable or passable.

5. Remember the Three Ps

One of the most difficult aspects of change is the need to make a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and minute-to-minute commitment to change (Every time you miss an opportunity for change, you further ingrain your old obstacles). A helpful reminder of this necessity is what I call the Three Ps.

The Payoff

There is an immense payoff for your commitment and efforts at change: A life-altering shift in who you are and how you think, feel, and behave. A new direction that your life will take. And finally moving toward achieving your life goals. As a former client told me so poignantly: “I realized that I would never have to go back to the way I used to live my life, and I have never been so happy!”


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5 Building Blocks of Positive Life Change

In my last article, I described how difficult changing your life can be and the four obstacles that you must overcome to achieve meaningful and long-lasting change. Yes, change is difficult, despite the “quick and without any effort” claims of motivational speakers and self-help books.

The reality is that nothing of value in life, including life change, is easy or fast. In attempting to change, you are swimming against the tide of many years of those four obstacles: baggage, habits, emotions, and environment. But if you can dismantle those obstacles (no small task, admittedly) and commit yourself to a new direction in your life, amazing things can happen and positive change can actually occur.

But even before you can begin the process of change, there are five building blocks that you must put into place.

1. Epiphany

Because change is so difficult, it can’t be elicited from the outside (that’s why so-called inspirational talks don’t work), but rather it must come from a very deep and personal place inside of you. Change starts with a simple, yet powerful, epiphany: “I just can’t continue down this same road any longer.” When you experience this realization in the most visceral and overwhelming way, then you have taken the first step toward positive life change.

2. Emotions

Just as emotions can act as obstacles against change, they can also provide a powerful force for change. Positive emotions that catalyze change can include hope, inspiration, and pride. Interestingly, so-called negative emotions, such as fear (e.g., of losing a job), frustration (e.g., at feeling stuck in life), anger (e.g., at being mistreated by a spouse), or sadness (e.g., at being estranged from family) can all be potent motivators for change in the short term; at the same time, because they are so unpleasant, they aren’t a long-term strategy for positive change. In either case, these strong emotions act as the impetus that drives you to initiate the process of change your life.

3. Courage

Courage may be the single most important characteristic for changing your life because change is frightening. Why, you ask? Because deep change means letting go of old ways of living that, though obviously not serving you well, are familiar, predictable, and, in an odd sort of way, comfortable. It involves heading down a road that you have never been down before, the destination of which isn’t clear.

Change also requires risk, and risk is scary because you may fail (of course, the other side of the coin is that only by taking risks can you truly succeed.). Courage to change doesn’t mean not being afraid of what might happen; fear is natural because change takes you out of your comfort zone. Change is about your ability to confront and push through your fear rather than being paralyzed by it.

Courage means the willingness to acknowledge aspects of yourself that you may not know about or may not like, and to experience “bad” emotions as you learn about yourself. It enables you to accept that you might fail in your attempts at change while, at the same time, realizing that not trying is a far worst form of failure.

Change is much like jumping into cold water. It will be a shock at first, and you will initially regret having taken the plunge. But, after you are in the water for a short while, you begin to adapt to the coldness. What was then intimidating is now approachable. What had been unknown is now familiar. What was then painful is now invigorating.

4. Leap of Faith

Unfortunately, there is no certainty in change. You don’t know if, when, or how you might change. And you don’t know how the changes you make will impact your life. That lack of certainty can be truly terrifying. Yet, you must be willing to accept that uncertainty if you want to change. The only way to overcome your fears is to take a leap of faith. A great philosopher once said, “You do or you do not. There is no try.” The great thinker was Yoda, the Jedi Master of Star Wars.

This leap of faith involves having a basic belief in yourself and a fundamental trust in the vision of who, what, and where you want to be in the future. The leap of faith involves your commitment to creating a new and healthy life and the belief that good things will happen if you stay committed to this new path.

5. Resolve

The above building blocks of change result in a firm resolve to change. This determination expresses itself in an unwavering commitment to pursue change, resist the obstacles, and take active steps to change your life. This resolve will motivate you to engage in the moment-to-moment process of change even when you are discouraged, frustrated, and uncertain about whether you can achieve the positive change in your life.


To illustrate how these five building blocks can be laid as the foundation for positive change, let me introduce you to Susan, a vice president at a large financial services firm on Wall Street. Growing up poor, Susan dreamed of being financially well-off with all of its trappings. To that end, she worked hard in school, earning a scholarship to a prestigious college and an MBA from another top school. Through hard work and long hours, Susan steadily rose through the ranks at the investment bank at which she was employed until she owned a beautiful apartment, drove a fancy car, and owned a closet full of expensive clothes. Yet, after 15 years of “success,” she was miserable: constantly stressed, overweight and out of shape, and without a partner to share her life.

One day, Susan had an epiphany: “I simply can’t continue to live my life this way.” Just the thought of letting go of this life that she had pursued with such vigor, yet had ultimately brought her unhappiness, felt as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders as the stress, frustration, and sadness that accompanied that life dissipated. Moreover, in place of those unpleasant feelings, Susan felt awash in a very different set of emotions, relief, hope, excitement, and even joy, for the first time in years.

As Susan pondered what would be a major life change, those feelings led to another emotion that further propelled her toward a new and happier life, namely, courage to face the many challenges that would present themselves as she navigated a change in her life for which she felt largely unprepared.

That courage enabled Susan to take a leap of faith into a new life that began with considerable uncertainty, doubt, and more than a little fear. This leap of faith became more palatable when a friend helped her see the many internal resources (e.g., motivation, confidence, resilience) she had available to her as she charted this new chapter in her life.

Marshaling these four building blocks enabled Susan to gain the resolve she needed to submit her resignation and direct her considerable determination toward building a life that would give her meaning, fulfillment, and joy.

In the next article , I will describe the Five Steps to Positive Life Change.

Featured image: Galushko Sergey / Shutterstock

Your Values, Your Life

Your values form the foundation of your life. They dictate the choices you make and determine the direction that your life takes. Your values will influence your decisions related to your relationships, career, and other activities you engage in. Despite this importance, few people choose their values. Instead, they simply adopt the values of their parents and the dominant values of society. In all likelihood, the values that you internalized as a child remain with you through adulthood (yes, in some cases, people reject the values of their upbringings). Unfortunately, these values may also have created a life that is carrying you down a path that is not the direction you want to go at this point in your life.

What were the values you were raised with? What values are you presently living in accordance with? Are they the same or different? Do your values bring you happiness? These are essential questions that you must ask if you are to find meaning, happiness, success, and connection in your life. Yet, finding the answers to these questions is a challenge, and then changing them in a way that will lead to fulfillment is an even greater challenge.

Deconstruct Your Values

To truly understand what values you possess and live by, you must deconstruct them until you are able to clearly see what exactly you value and why you hold those values.

Looking openly and honestly at the way you were raised is the first step in identifying the values that you acquired growing up. What did your parents value and what values did they impress upon you — achievement, wealth, education, religion, status, independence, appearance? Think back to your childhood and ask yourself several questions.

You might even ask your parents to reflect back on your childhood to see what they perceived their values to be and what values they wanted to emphasize in your upbringing.

Your next step in the deconstruction process involves looking at your present life and the values your life reflects. In responding to these questions, you should ask yourself what values underlie your answers.

You can then ask yourself whether your current values are the same as those you grew up with. Have you gone through a period of examination and reconsideration? Have you consciously chosen to discard some values from your upbringing and adopt new ones? My experience with people who live unsatisfying lives is the values they grew up with were mostly unhealthy and that their present values haven’t changed since childhood. They never questioned their values and simply bought into them early in their lives and created their life around those values. In contrast, fulfilled people tended to grow up with life-affirming values or had a “crisis of conscience” in early adulthood that caused them to re-evaluate and modify their values.

Now that you have deconstructed your life and have a clear idea of what you value, you can see the values upon which you have created your life. You can see whether those values contribute to your dissatisfaction or bring you happiness. Look at which aspects of your life contribute to your unhappiness — your career, marriage, lifestyle — and ask yourself what values underlie those parts of your life. For example, if your career in the business world makes you unhappy (no judgment intended, but many of my clients happen to come from corporate life), you need to ask yourself what values you have held that led you to a career in business and how those values presently cause you to be an unhappy success.

Popular Culture and Values

A recurring theme that runs throughout my work is that inadvertently buying into the values that predominate popular culture — for example, winning, status, power, appearance, and conspicuous consumption — is a leading cause of life dissatisfaction. The popular culture in America today as reflected in our various media no longer has the time, attention span, or energy to devote to weighty and deep issues such as values. It is much easier to focus on the superficial “things” in our culture. Thus, the pursuit of wealth and material goods has become the dominant “value” in much of our society in the mistaken belief that these values will bring people happiness.

One of the most powerful ways in which this “value” was impressed on you was in how you learned to define success. Popular culture typically defines success as winning, wealth, status, physical appearance, and popularity; the more money and power you have and the more attractive and popular you are, the more successful you would be. Growing up with these definitions, success was largely unattainable for most people. At the same time, our culture made losing even more intolerable to contemplate; being poor, powerless, unattractive, and unpopular is simply unacceptable. With these restrictive definitions, you may have believed, like so many others, that you were caught in the untenable situation of having little opportunity for success and great chance for failure.

Blindly having accepted society’s narrow definitions of success and failure takes away your power to decide how you wish to define them. By buying into popular culture’s limiting definitions of success and failure rather than choosing definitions based on your own values, you can’t become truly successful and happy because you are forced down a path that is, for most people, impossible to attain and that is not truly yours. You may become successful in the eyes of society, but you probably won’t feel like a success yourself. And this path certainly won’t bring you meaning, happiness, or real success in your life.

Which Values Will Bring You Happiness?

Hopefully, my perspective on values and the questions I have asked will help you reflect on which values you hold and their relationship to how much meaning, fulfillment, and joy your life brings you. But you’re not finished yet. It’s one thing to know that your values don’t pay your “emotional” bills. It’s an entirely different thing to know which values will help you find the peace, contentment, joy, or connection that have been missing in your life and that you crave at this point in your life.

So, now that you’ve deconstructed your values, it’s now time to reconstruct them. Here are some questions to ask:

Once you identify the values that will bring you what you seek, the tough part is making choices that will allow you to live your life based on those values. These choices might only require small changes in your life; for example, taking up a new activity. At the same time, such choices may demand significant upheaval in your life, such as leaving your marriage, quitting your job, jettisoning your friends, distancing yourself from your family, or moving far away. When faced with major changes in your life as you align your life with your newly identified values, you then must leverage another essential contributor to meaning, fulfillment, and happiness: courage.

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De-Clutter Your Life

Have you seen the late George Carlin’s riff on “Stuff”? If you haven’t, it is brilliant and hilarious, and it exemplifies so much of what I believe about the over-filled, over-scheduled, over-thought, and over-wrought experiences that we now call life in 21st-century America. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of it. There is just too much stuff in our lives and our world and it is making us exhausted, sick, unhappy, and crazy.

Look at your life:

Stuff — of the cultural, technological, spatial, temporal, psychological, and social varieties — does so much more harm than good in our lives. It makes us stressed, claustrophobic, overloaded, overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, and lonely.

Let’s take a closer look at all of the clutter that we fill our lives with.

The clutter starts in our popular culture which is replete with far too much content that fills, yet doesn’t satisfy: reality TV, celebrity magazines, blockbuster movies, and video games. Popular culture in small doses can offer great entertainment. But in the large quantities most typical of how it is now consumed, popular culture acts simply to distract, assuage, placate, and otherwise anesthetize us from our real lives.

This clutter is also found in our technology that includes too many gadgets, hundreds of television stations, almost uninterrupted access to the Internet, a seemingly limitless universe of web sites, more information than we could possibly use, inescapable mobile phone access, email, text, and voicemail messages, apps, and addictive social media.

Our world is cluttered, with too many houses squeezed into too small spaces, massive malls, shopping centers with big-box stores, seas of parking lots, and too much traffic. People everywhere! Our homes are stuffed with so much junk, there is no longer room in our garages for what they were built for. And do you have a storage unit because you no longer have enough room in your house for all of your junk? Stuff everywhere!

Time is perhaps the most cluttered aspect of our lives. Early mornings, long work hours, deadlines, commuting, late nights, too many commitments, activities, and appointments, with not enough time to sleep, eat well, or exercise.

Then there are our minds, filled with too much information, too many choices, too high aspirations, too much societal pressure, not to mention doubt, worry, and fear.

Our social lives have become busier, yet less satisfying, as we spend more time trying to keep up with our “friends,” “followers,” and “likes” rather than with our actual friends and family.

We put too much stuff in our bodies because there is too much stuff to buy in our supermarkets and eat in restaurants too cheaply, not to mention the fat, sugar, artificial ingredients, preservatives, and other junk we put in our bodies from the unhealthy foods and beverages that are too readily available to us.

The only things that seems empty these days are our souls, the one thing we want to have filled. But all of the clutter in our lives prevents us from having the time and space necessary to fill our souls with love, joy, inspiration, compassion, and contentment.

Why would we put ourselves in such an uncomfortable and unhealthy state? Clutter may, in an odd way, make us feel safe because we surround ourselves with high walls (of stuff) that protect us from threats — real, imagined, and existential — that we feel every day. Unfortunately, those walls also imprison us and prevent us from experiencing life openly and freely.

We also clutter our lives because everyone else does; we feel like we have to “keep up with the Joneses.” That is not a very good reason, in my view. I think our goal should be to ignore the Joneses. While they are overburdened, stressed out, rushing around, feeling completely hemmed in, and miserable, we’re feeling calm, relaxed, unhurried, free, and happy.

It’s time to de-clutter your life!:

Ah, your life uncluttered. Enjoy!

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3 Keys to Resolving Conflict

When was the last time you had a disagreement, conflict, or all-out fight (I’ll call them conflicts from now on) with someone close to you? If you are a breathing human being, the chances are it occurred in the last day or so. Whether with a spouse, parent, child, sibling, other family member, friend, or co-worker, conflicts are a natural and inevitable part of the human condition. Conflicts can arise over just about anything, from the mundane (e.g., what to have for dinner) to the everyday (e.g., how to spend your time) to the petty (e.g., are the Red Sox or the Yankees better?) to the absurd (e.g., iPhone or Android?) to the monumental (e.g., global security). Conflicts can occur over differences of opinion in goals, needs, politics, religion, power, money — the list goes on.

Of course, the best way to deal with a conflict is to prevent it from occurring. Though certainly a challenge, such conflict preemption can happen if you:

  1. Keep an open mind
  2. Listen to what the other person has to say
  3. Understand their perspective
  4. Show empathy toward their position
  5. Objectively consider whether they might be correct or your two viewpoints can co-exist, and, if so
  6. Either accept that both positions can be right or concede your position and, in doing so, prevent the conflict from taking hold and escalating

Conflicts that arise and aren’t resolved in a healthy manner are so harmful to relationships because they produce a tsunami of intense negative emotions including annoyance, irritation, hurt, sadness, disappointment, frustration, resentment, bitterness, anger, guilt, shame, fear, and misery, just to name a few. What makes this plethora of emotions so damaging is that, with an unresolved conflict, they linger and can metastasize to the point where the relationship is destroyed, leading to estrangement, ostracism, and, in the case of marriage, divorce.

Given the ubiquity of conflicts in our lives, it’s not a matter of whether we have them or not (no matter how hard most of us try, they are going to happen), but rather how we respond to them. Admittedly, there’s not a lot we can do about conflicts that occur at the societal level. But, there is a great deal we can do when we have conflicts with people close to us in our daily lives.

A colleague of mine talks about conflicts as “ruptures” in a relationship and asserts that they can be healthy and actually strengthen relationships, but only if a “repair” occurs. This reparation phase is where my three keys to resolving conflict come into play.


As members of the animal kingdom, no matter how evolved we may be, when involved in a conflict, our survival instinct is triggered and our fight-or-flight reaction occurs. Our instinctive response is to protect ourselves against “death” (our primitive brain can’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats). This reaction can either mean attacking the other person or avoiding the confrontation altogether. Neither case typically produces a repair or a resolution to the conflict.

When faced with the threat associated with a conflict, the first step is to resist eons of evolution and, instead of protecting yourself, show your vulnerability toward the person with whom you are in conflict. When you put up your guard against the other person, they will too, resulting in a standoff. By the same token, if you show your vulnerability, so likely will they. And with this openness, there is a chance to repair the damage that may have been done. Vulnerability can be expressed in several ways including by showing your own feelings of hurt from the conflict, voicing regret, and apologizing. Admittedly, being vulnerable is risky and takes considerable courage because the other person may not be so forgiving and may use your vulnerability to inflict more damage. But, in most cases, especially involving long-standing, caring, and respectful relationships, vulnerability offered is vulnerability reciprocated.


Another almost instinctive reaction in a conflict is to blame the other person — “It’s not my fault!” This reaction is an unconscious means of protecting our self-esteem; you don’t have to feel bad about yourself if you didn’t do anything wrong. However, conflicts rarely arise in a vacuum or unilaterally. Rather, each person likely plays a role in the emergence of the conflict, so the second key is your own accountability for your part in the conflict.

If you’re in protective mode, chances are that you won’t be able to accept some culpability for the conflict. But, if you embraced vulnerability, holding yourself accountable is much easier because the two go hand in hand. Similar to vulnerability, by taking ownership of your part in the conflict, the other person is more likely to do the same. And when you de-escalate the conflict, it makes it much easier for the other person take some responsibility for their part as well.


Vulnerability and accountability are really impactful, especially if they are genuine and heartfelt. At the same time, they are both talk and, as the saying goes, “talk is cheap.” The final key to resolving conflict involves responsivity, meaning you put your actions where your mouth is and you respond in a positive way to the conflict.

The best way to defuse a conflict is to take action signaling that you want to settle the conflict and repair any damage that may have been done. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Demonstrate to the other person that you want to resolve the conflict
  2. Show how much you care about the other person
  3. Ask questions so you really understand where the other person is coming from
  4. Do what you need to do to resolve the source of the conflict even if it means “giving in” (for the greater good of the relationship)
  5. Do something to make amends
  6. If appropriate, given them a hug and tell them that you love them (or care deeply for them)

When you show vulnerability, accountability, and responsivity in the face of a conflict, you demonstrate a strength, confidence, and unselfishness that will earn you admiration, respect, and appreciation that will pay dividends in future conflicts. Also, both you and the other person will walk away from the conflict feeling “repaired” and good about your relationship. And, like muscles, the more you use them, the stronger they get and the easier it is to use them in the future. These three keys will also just plain make you feel good because you took the high road and did the right thing. And that should give you plenty of “warm fuzzies,” which are far better than the truly unpleasant emotions that you will feel if you leave the conflict ruptured and unrepaired.

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Does Our Primitive Survival Instinct Still Work in the 21st Century?

Our survival instinct, which has served us so well since we climbed out of the primordial muck eons ago may now be failing us. Why? Because the fight-or-flight reaction that arises in response to a threat to our lives is often no longer effective in a world that is far more complex, unpredictable, and uncontrollable than that of our primitive ancestors’ from which the survival instinct arose. In this article, I want to explore this disconnect between our survival instinct and what kind of new survival instinct might work better today.

At the heart of fight-or-flight are what I call the “Big Three” crisis reactions : fear, gloom, and panic.


First, the emotional reaction of fear is instantaneous and intense, ensuring that we pay attention and respond to a perceived crisis. In other words, fear causes us to act fast! Fear paralyzes our ability to think clearly, identify problems, and make deliberate decisions because thinking takes time and there just wasn’t enough time back in the cavepeople days for that; the only viable options were to fight or flee, immediately!

Unfortunately, many of today’s threats can’t be fought because there is no readily confrontable enemy (think terrorist attacks, climate change, and job loss). And they can’t be run away from because many are diffuse rather than localized; you can run, but you can’t hide. And burying your head in the sand may work for ostriches, but for humans, it leaves a very important part of the body exposed!


Second, gloom can work if the crisis is clear and present. In prehistoric times, focusing on the negative dimensions of a threat — namely, what can go wrong in the near term — ensured that we stayed vigilant to the most relevant dangers, allowing us to respond most quickly. By focusing on the negative aspects of the crisis during primitive times, our ancestors had the simple choice of fighting or fleeing. These primitive threats were also usually short lived — for example, an attacking animal or rival tribe — so gloom had no long-term implications.

But today’s crises are often amorphous, distant, and long lasting. So the initial gloom, which had short-term survival benefits, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can worsen the threat. We saw this play out during the Great Recession. Many people distrusted the stock market, many businesses had little confidence in their own survival, and governments lost faith in their ability to overcome the crisis. In all these cases, an attitude of gloom led to behavior that may have actually worsened the financial crisis.


Third, panic produces immediate and frenzied behavior. Panic was quite functional back in prehistoric days because it triggered in our ancestors either a furious attack or a frantic retreat from the threat. Panic in reaction to many of today’s crises, however, produces actions that are more ill-advised and destructive than helpful. Where there should be patience, there is haste. Where there should be reasoned deliberation, there is irrationality. Where there should be calm, there is, well, panic.

In the panic after the fall of the investment bank Lehman Brothers and the stock market crash that followed, many people fled the financial markets, many businesses drastically cut costs by letting go of employees, and governments went into austerity mode at the worst possible time. All of these efforts were intended to ensure everyone’s respective survival, but such panicked behavior was short-sighted and had the exact opposite effect in the long run.

A New Survival Instinct

If these instincts that are so deeply woven into our DNA no longer fulfill our most basic needs to survive, what new form of survival instinct do we need to evolve to help us to endure in the concrete, metal, and hard-wired jungle in which we now live? As with earlier stages of evolution, we need to adapt to our surroundings and produce a response that will be more effective than the fight-or-flight reaction that helped us survive for hundreds of thousands of years.

But we can’t wait millions of years for evolution to do its job and ingrain a new survival instinct in us that is more functional for the modern world. In fact, we can, to paraphrase a well-known adage, take evolution by the horns and bend it to our will with a new survival instinct that is the antithesis of the time-worn fight-or-flight reaction. Instead of overwhelming and uncontrollable fear, a crisis should trigger courage, which isn’t the absence of fear — it’s impossible to not to experience fear in the face of a threat — but rather the ability to confront the fear and act proactively and deliberately despite it. It involves being able to manage negative emotions, such as fear, anger, frustration, and despair, and to generate helpful emotions, including hope, inspiration, excitement, and pride.

Instead of gloom, we should engage in rational thinking that includes calculated risk-reward analysis, in-depth problem solving, and effective decision making. It means being cognizant of the threat, but focusing more on finding solutions to overcome it. In a crisis that encompasses a group (e.g., work, family, team), this reasoned thinking requires that people set aside differences, communicate openly, establish priorities, and work together — because that is the rational thing to do in the face of significant societal crises — to produce answers to the pressing dangers that today’s threats present to us.

Finally, we don’t need to wait for evolution to adapt our survival instinct to today’s challenges. Rather, we already have the capacity to override our primitive survival instinct. We are already capable of experiencing courage, thinking rationally, and acting deliberately. That is the gift that evolution has also given us; it’s called the cerebral cortex.

Tips For Responding to a Crisis

Instead of panic, we should take calm and measured action that is directed and purposeful.  This new survival instinct can increase our chances of surviving during periods of crisis. What results is a psychology—what I call an ‘opportunity mindset’— that is diametrically opposed to and entirely more effective than the survival instinct that now dominates our DNA and our lives.

Of course, the real challenge involves how to resist those millions of years of evolution and stop the instinctive flight-or-flight reaction before it takes complete control of us. Here are a few tips for ingraining a more evolved response to a crisis:

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