The forest floor is covered in ankle-high layers of dead, brown leaves. It could easily be mistaken for an Autumn scene somewhere in Europe. Yet this is a rainforest in sub-tropical Australia, a country where the trees are always green and shed their bark, not their leaves.
There still is some green around, as the hardier plants and trees stubbornly hold on to the preciously little water they can still access. There are patches of colour even, from flowering trees and shrubs that feel they are dying and push out a last abundance of flowers in a last attempt to produce enough seeds to preserve the species for after the drought.
But most of the trees are bare. The once dense jungle is visibly thinning out. It is like the forest is slowly fading away and becoming transparent, like a ghost of its former impenetrable self. Where walls of green once blocked all views, dark outlines of trees in charcoal black and burnt-earth browns are no more than shadows between here and the now starkly visible horizon.
Is this what the death of an eco-system looks like? Is this how life fades away, one species at a time, until only the translucent outlines of that abundance remain? Will we all become pale, lifeless, shimmering ghosts, aimlessly wandering through a desert of dead and dying dreams, vainly grasping at the mirages of the lush and vibrant riches we failed to value when it was all still alive around us?
Well-prepared and well-planned we are now ready to start the next leg of our journey. We shouldn’t expect everything to go exactly as planned; life seldom does. What we should do is regularly check our progress using the VIPs we defined for ourselves. This allows us to make adjustments as we go along. Staying on course while responding to the world evolving around us is a balancing act. Like walking a tight-rope, it requires considerable skill. A skill we will only get by actually walking that rope. We will fall off. Often at first, then less and less as we get better. As long we don’t see those falls as failures they are simply part of the learning process. We brush ourselves off, take a few deep breaths, and get back on that rope to try again.
Step 7: Making it Happen
As we walk our path we must stay alert to the obstacles and opportunities we encounter. There is truth in the old cliche that says that every obstacle is an opportunity. At the very least, every setback or challenge is an opportunity to reflect and learn. We often encounter resistance, push-backs and roadblocks at the beginning of a journey. Especially when that journey takes us far from the way we presented ourselves in the past. The more we deviate from what the world expects of us, the more the world will try to push us back. Back to where it’s comfortable – for the world. We should remember this when we encounter resistance and see it as a sign we are moving in the right direction. It shows that we are unmooring ourselves from the anchors that held us in place before.
However, we also need some discernment and judgment. Not all resistance and setbacks are signs of progress. Sometimes we are running into real, unforeseen obstacles. We may encounter difficulties we underestimated or did not see coming at all. Sometimes we may, in fact, have begun to veer off our ideal path. When our conscious mind fails to notice this our subconscious mind may be trying to signal us. It may be trying to tell us to pay attention and get back with the program. The way to find out what is actually happening is to observe with detachment what is really going on. What are the source and nature of the resistance we are running into? What is our own role in creating them? How much of a problem do they pose? What does our intuition say about the situation?
We can use our VIPs to estimate how serious the issues are we are facing. How much and what part of our desired progress is being blocked or slowed down here? Is that an essential part, or something we can postpone or move around?
I had been negotiating with a potential government client for some time. Then, as frequently happens in Australia, the political landscape shifted. That caused ripples of change to reverberate throughout the circles of government. Departments heads were replaced. Whole departments had to be reshuffled. Decisions were put on hold and initiatives were cancelled while budgets were frozen. It seemed that a promising start to my existence as an independent consultant was being nipped in the bud.
After venting my frustration to some friends (I am only human) I did an exercise of detached observation. How important was this setback in my current journey of becoming a writer and public speaker? The work would have been interesting and the income always welcome. But the contract was not exactly crucial to the realisation of my ambitions. In fact, this delay could be a blessing in disguise.
Working with large government clients can be very demanding and time-consuming. Things tend to get complicated. A lot of time often gets taken up by the formal and organisational aspects of the work, rather than the work itself. What starts as a part-time assignment can easily become a full-time job.
My stated goal was to work just enough to have time to develop my writing and thinking. Maybe taking on a potentially large contract at this time would get in the way of me achieving that goal? Since the writing was my first priority, would it be a mistake to rush straight into contracted work?
After some introspection, meditation and consultation with my partner, things became clear. The delayed negotiations were not precious time lost, but precious time gained. It was giving me time to write and develop a clearer, stronger story to show to the world. That clearer story would give me a better position to resume the negotiations later. It would be easier for me to focus the contract on my core competence and the things I want to be known for. It would give me time to make sure the client was serious about their commitment to the changes they asked me to facilitate.
In the end, the setback caused by the change in government turned out to be a great opportunity for reflection and exploration. It gave me the chance to explore some of my fears, worries and doubts. It made me reconsider where I needed to put my energy and attention to live my story as I intended. And it helped me to refocus and get back with renewed energy to writing this book. Which was, after all, the number 1 priority on my list.
Obstacles and resistance can be very helpful tools to help us refocus and realign our course. But what happens when we overcome all obstacles? When we successfully push through the resistance we encounter? When our VIPs show we are exactly on course, does that mean we are living our life’s purpose? Does that automatically mean we are getting closer to living our perfect story?
Not necessarily. There is another pitfall we could be walking into when things are going almost too well to be true. That’s the danger of localised optimisation.
Imagine a group of explorers looking for the highest mountain in a certain area. Their mission is to keep going until they can’t go any higher up. If they can see the entire area, this would be easy. They can plot a course to the highest peak and make their way there. With limited visibility – such as fog or darkness – the situation becomes more complicated. When they can only see a few meters ahead of them, their sense of progress is limited to their ability to keep going up. But this can mean they end up climbing the very first hill the come across and then getting stuck. Every step forward is taking them down. With the next peak out of sight, how can they know there are any higher peaks to climb?
When things are going well on our journey, there is a risk we are getting stuck on a local hill. That is partially a problem of visibility. It’s hard to see into the future and the next hill to climb may not be easy to spot from where we are. But it is also a matter of comfort and uncertainty.
Having reached a peak gives us a sense of achievement. Our VIPs show we have made progress. We are visibly better off than before. We are closer to our goal. That sense of achievement brings a sense of comfort. We feel good about what we have accomplished. It feels good to be on target.
From that point of comfortable achievement, every move would seem a risk. We could be moving backwards, or away from where we want to be going? Why would risk it? Why would we trade this comfort for the uncertainty of another journey?
Even if we can see the contours of an even higher peak in the distance, uncertainty will hold us back. We are OK where we are now. That other peak may be higher but it will be hard work to get there. Before we can get to that next achievement we may have to give up some of what we have achieved already. We may feel uncertain about our ability to get to that next mountain altogether. Why would we risk losing the good things we have achieved for a goal we may never reach?
This combination of comfort and uncertainty can get us stuck. I am not saying there is anything wrong with finding a local optimum and staying there. That is everyone’s personal decision. I would be the last one to deny people the comfort of having reached a nice local peak from which to admire the view. But if we are committed to a journey of discovery and development, we must from time to time challenge ourselves. We must dare to look beyond our current view to see what we are not achieving and not learning by staying where we are.
Obstacles and setbacks can be great opportunities for reflection, exploration and learning. Times of achievement and easy progress can distract us from growth and development. The art of continuing our journey lies in keeping a detached perspective. Hardship and glory are both passing moments we should not get stuck on. We observe them, learn their lessons and then move on. There is always more to explore and more to learn. There is always a new story to discover, just beyond the horizon.
The difference between wishful thinking and choosing a new direction for our future lies in having a plan of action. This doesn’t mean knowing everything that needs to happen. In a complex world and a constantly emerging and evolving future, we will never truly know everything. The best we can hope for is to have enough clarity about our direction and enough insight into our current situation to know which steps to take first. Every journey starts with a first step, followed by the next, and the next. Those few step are what we need to make happen, and then trust that the subsequent steps will be revealed to us as we progress on our journey.
Step 6: Making a plan of action
There are at least as many planning frameworks and tools as there are books on the topic of planning. Everyone should feel free to use whatever planning approach they feel comfortable with. However, not all planning is equal. Here are a few elements I think are particularly important when planning our personal journey.
Goals & Targets
The first step of planning is making sure we are clear about our goals and targets. That may sound obvious but does require some introspection. Unless we have put them down in concrete terms we often only have a vague outline of our goals, not their substance. Concrete terms are about the visible, tangible and intangible differences we expect to see when we arrive at our destination. The goals we are talking about here are personal development goals. Knowing what we expect to gain by achieving them is important to keep our motivation and inspiration for our journey.
I have left the corporate world to write books and to develop myself as a public speaker and facilitator around topics I am passionate about. I need to generate enough income to maintain a reasonable standard of living. I want to keep the workload balanced between time spent performing in public and time writing so I can keep developing content. My work is meant to motivate and inspire people to take positive action in their own lives, so I need to reach enough people to feel I have any impact at all. Finally, I realise this is just another leg of my ongoing journey of discovery, so I do want to keep feeling I am still exploring, learning and growing as I go on.
To make this more concrete, I have summarised my goals and targets as follows:
2 – 4 public engagements per months for 6 months of the year, leaving the other 6 months for other things, including writing;
Enough income from these engagements to allow me to be highly selective in accepting work that I find relevant, intrinsically rewarding and fun to do;
Continuous improvement of my presentation skills so I get more satisfaction having more impact while expending less energy;
A growing impact so that more people are inspired to take positive action because the content I present;
A deepening understanding of the topics I talk about;
A continuing feeling of personal growth and ongoing progress on my personal journey of self-discovery and self-realisation.
Visible Indicators of Progress
Goals becomes guides when we can articulate them in terms of observable differences, so we can see we are moving in the right direction. They are often not objectively ‘measurable’ – intangible goals and targets seldom are. Still, for as much as possible, we should describe them in ways that help us notice when they occur or fail to occur when we expected them. We must have the differences we expect to achieve so clear in our minds we can regularly scan ourselves and our environment for any signs that those differences are actually occurring.
Since we are planning a journey, not a sudden leap to our destination, we should add a way of sensing ‘progress’ as well. Next to looking for signs that we have reached our goals, we want to define ways to determine we are getting closer to achieving them. We can call such signs “Visible Indicators of Progress” (VIPs). When articulated well, VIPs can be powerful tools to help keep us going on our journey, even when our goals and targets seem difficult to reach and far in the future.
We can use the following questions to add VIPs to our goals and targets:
When the goal has been achieved, how can we observe the difference? What actually changes when we achieve this goal?
When we approach the goal, how can we observe we are getting closer? What changes when I am on the right path, moving in the right direction?
When the goal is receding, how can we observe we are drifting off course? What changes when we are moving in the wrong direction?
Using the 3 questions outlined above, these are some of the VIPs I came up with for my goals:
Public engagement – achieved: enough bookings for the coming year – approaching: a growing pipeline of prospects, invitations and requests – receding: no reaction on my attempts to generate interest
Income – achieved: all our living expenses are covered, plus savings, emergencies and holidays – approaching: a growing pipeline of prospects, proposals and concrete sources of income – receding: nothing in the pipeline and no income for more than 6 months
Improving my presentation skills – achieved: I get more energy out of presenting than I put in every time – approaching: I feel energised more often than I feel depleted – receding: I almost always feel more depleted than energised
At the moment I can honestly say goal 1 is slowly approaching, goal 2 is receding and for goal 3 I need to do more presentations to be certain, but so far, so good.
Choosing Our Actions
With our goals and VIPs defined, we now have a guiding framework to help us choose our future actions. We will have to gain and practice some new skills, increase doing certain activities and diminish or stop completely doing certain others. This is where our choices become the foundation for the future we have chosen to create.
When choosing our actions, NOT doing things may be one of the most difficult things to focus on. We live in a busy world. There are always more things to do than we can hope to complete. Much of this busy-ness stems from other people’s expectations of us. Our jobs, family, social circles all make demands for our time and attention. On top of that there is a constant overload of media (social or otherwise) clamouring for our limited attention.
This is where we need enough discipline to shun needless distractions and rigorously reduce the number of things we are trying to do and think about in any given time-frame. We need to understand the difference between urgent and important. We need to discern between what is requested and what is required. We need to choose between what is expected and what is expedient. Then we need the discipline to stick with those choices.
The one activity I had to become much more disciplined in is writing. Publishing books is my chosen way to strengthen my reputation as an authority on the topics I want to be known for. Writing books is hard and time-consuming. There is also the issue of inspiration and the ‘mood’ one needs to be in to write. My past tendency used to be too procrastinate. I collected endless amounts of ‘supporting evidence’ – most of which I then did not use. I kept reading other people’s books for ‘inspiration’. And often I would stare at an empty screen for hours hoping that one golden idea would come to me.
To combat this kind of procrastination I set a daily goal for myself: I would write a minimum of two pages of text each day. I also made sure I blocked out several hours each day solely for the purpose of writing. And then I would sit down, turn of all distractions and simply write. What made this work was my conscious decision to just keep writing. Instead of trying to write perfect sentences and beautifully crafted arguments I often just typed out whatever thoughts occurred to me. Often I would imagine talking to someone and explaining something to them. Whatever I would say in such a conversation I would write down.
In the beginning, this was much harder than it sounds. I had to really focus to shut down my inner critics – those nagging internal voices that keep telling you nothing you write is good enough – and just plough on. The aim was to get my thoughts down on paper. Crafting them into coherent text and artful language would come later. Even when I felt I was not making any sense, I would just type on.
What this disciplined and stubborn way of writing taught me was that the art of writing really is the art of deleting. Much of what I initially wrote never made into any book or blog I would consider publishable. The truth is, however, that to be able to delete things, you have to have written them first. I discovered it is much easier to hone down a rambling and badly-written bloated piece of text to something passable than it is to get every sentence right the first time around.
It has also taught me that the process of writing is itself a process of exploration and discovery. It is another way of capturing and structuring my thoughts. It changes the way I think about things. It brings depth and coherence to ideas. It helps me connect separate ideas together. It exposes gaps in my thinking. Many of what I now think are my best ideas only formed because I ran into them while trying to make sense of something I had written days or weeks before.
Setting Our Priorities
Choosing what to do and what not to do only really works when we have our priorities right. The world has an unlimited appetite for our efforts and attention, whereas we only have a limited amount of each to give. We need to give as much attention as we can to those activities that further our story. If we don’t, our journey will be cannibalised and diffused.
In practice, strict prioritisation means the following:
Never have more than 3 priorities. Period. If we have more than 3 priorities, they are not priorities but just a list.
Next to what we want to do (our priorities), we will have things we need to do (our socio-economic obligations). We need to schedule those in so they don’t obliterate our priorities. When we perform our obligations we need to aim for the acceptable minimum energy and quality. We don’t want to over-perform here and waste precious energy and brain-power. The rule of thumb here has to be: it only has to be good enough to get away with. Anything more is costing more than it should.
Keep some time free for the unexpected. Some urgent can come that cannot be ignored. An opportunity too good to pass over can suddenly present itself. If nothing claims that free time, use it to relax and have some social time with a loved one or some friends. Or really do nothing at all. Just switch off that all too busy brain and stare out of the window or go for an aimless but pleasant stroll outside. Next to doing what is important to us, doing nothing (in all its many forms) is one of the most important things we can do.
This is what my current daily priorities look like:
Read and think
On my list of obligations I have:
Time with my wife
House and garden maintenance
Family and friends
On my list of ‘to avoid as much as possible’ I have:
Social media, except as part of my networking activities
Long conversations with people about nothing
Taking on contracts for work I’m not inspired by
And finally, for my downtime, I have a few relaxation-, recharging and resetting activities:
Watch a documentary
Take a 20-minute power nap
I may not always manage to stick to this allocation of my time and attention, but overall it’s working really well for me. The very existence of this book – written in parallel with one other book and several blog posts – is proof to me that these are the right priorities, obligations, no-go zones and down-time items for me at this point.
Taking the time to plan, setting goals, VIPs and priorities, and then creating structures to help us stick to the plan as much as possible is not always the most inspiring way to use our energy. But it pays off in the long run. And the long run is, after all, what we are in for on this personal journey.
Looking back at our shiny pearls of the past helps us understand the path we travelled to arrive at the present moment. They show us what we enjoyed and what kept us going. They show us what inspired us and what we value. Of everything we encountered on our journey, our shiny pearls are our best reminder that life was and is worth living. It is now, in this present moment, when we decide what steps to take next, that we can use their light to help us design a path that will bring us even more of what we cherish. We may not see the whole future ahead of us, but this very moment is a fork in the road. Which direction to take is our choice, and ours alone.
Step 5: Imagining and Testing Our Future Pearls
Now that we have collected and summarised the shining pearls from our past, it’s time to look to the future and ask ourselves what we imagine that future to look like. Our past pearls show us what kind of situations and actions are most conducive to getting us in that state of flow that indicates we are close to our core purpose and mission in life. Based on that insight, the question we must ask ourselves is: “How can we cause more of those moments to happen in the rest of our lives?” From how and when they happened in the past, can we see ways to increase their frequency and improve their quality? Does the past, next to revealing to us what we want to be doing more of in the future, also contain clues as to the things we must do, change, improve and focus on to increase our chances of living a more fulfilling life in the future?
Bear in mind that in most cases we are not simply looking at repeating what we did in the past. Sure, those moments may have been great, and the pearls shiny enough to fondly remember, but we are no longer the person we were then. We have experienced, learned and changed, most likely brought about by those very moments we so fondly remember, but also as a result of all the other things that happened in our lives. So much so that, should we try to merely recreate the same moments we so fondly remember from our past, they would most likely not give us the same satisfaction. Simple repetition seldom continues to delight, unless we are entirely on target, and do not change much at all. The shiny pearls of our future, then, should be imagined as developments from those of the past: variations that maintain their essence, but adjusted to the circumstances and details to suit who we have become and are growing into.
One way to find our next shiny pearls is to use the ‘innovation trifecta’ that is part of the Design Thinking approach pioneered by IDEO in the early 2000s. We are, after all, designing our future narrative, so why not use a much-praised design approach to do so?
The innovation trifecta (below) poses three questions designers must ask to determine whether their idea is worth pursuing:
Desirability: do people really want or need this?
Feasibility: do we have the capabilities required to build this?
Viability: is this idea sustainable over an extended period of time?
We can use similar questions to get more clarity about the narrative we are designing for the future.
Desirability: How much do we want the path we are imagining? How close to our sense of purpose and fulfilment is it?
Feasibility: Do we have what it takes to make this happen? Do we have the skills, means and circumstances in place to see how to create those next pearls?
Viability: Will this path contain repeatable moments that can be expanded and deepened in the longer-term future, or would it be a one-off moment only?
All three questions are essential, and we may need a few iterations around the triangle before we feel we are settling on a type of future path we are excited about, think we know how to manifest and is part of our growth curve for the future.
I love being on stage, talking to an interested and appreciative audience. I have enjoyed plenty of such pearls in the past, and I could be tempted to just look for more of the same. Instead, I quit my job. I decided to change my path so I could work on this book and see if I could make a living running my own business.
Why did I do that? My job would have guaranteed many more moments on stage. If I had just continued the path I was on, I would not have to worry about generating an income or attracting an audience. Why was I not content with just more of the good thing I had going?
The main reason is that I have changed since I started that job, almost ten years ago. I have learned many new things. I have honed old skills and acquired some new ones. I have thought long and hard about many of the issues my audience told me they were struggling with. I have read many, many books, talked to hundreds of people, and studied up on the latest findings and publications on history, sociology, psychology, behavioural economy, neuroscience and philosophy. It has changed my perception of what matters. From trying to bring people skills to IT professionals and help technology have a more positive effect on people, my focus has shifted to bringing a human focus to organisations and helping business have a more positive impact on society. My past experiences have brought me much joy and satisfaction, but – more importantly – they have shifted my perspective.
In other words, even I could keep repeating my past performances, talking about the same topics, and drawing the same kind of people, I would no longer enjoy it as much as I did before. That path has served its purpose – and done it well – but it is time for me to look for the next iteration of it; the next stage in my journey as a speaker and thinker.
The next pearls on this particular string will have to relate to topics that are closer to my heart than anything I have talked about before. I want my passion to help me push my talks and presentations out of the conventional safety zone. I want my audience to experience moments of surprise and discomfort. I want to them hear things that contradict and challenge ideas, concepts and knowledge they thought they understood already. If I do it right, my work should cause them to stop and rethink their current thinking. At the very least it should make them examine their ideas to decide for themselves if they want to be persuaded by my arguments to change them.
The desirability question covers what we want our future pearls to look and feel like. The next step is to look at the feasibility of what we imagine those future pearls to be. Do we have what it takes to make them happen? Are they within our reach?
I feel I can safely say I do have the foundations in place for this next leg of my journey. I have honed my presentation skills and deepened and broadened my content. For my next peals to shine, however, I must make sure I can be even more persuasive and thought-provoking. I must think even more in-depth about what I want to talk about. I must push even harder against the conventional wisdom I believe is holding us back. And I must find ways of presenting my material that drives home my messages more directly.
So there is still work to do before my next set of shiny pearls can materialise. However, having work to do is not a problem. What is important is that I am confident that that work is not beyond my capability to carry out. I know how to get there. I have the time and the discipline to work on this at least a few hours a day. I have enough ideas and outlines of stories to feel I am not blindly pushing forward.
I do realise there are some limits to the feasibility of what I am aiming for. I can’t completely break away from my current public persona. People have expectations about me and about what I will be talking about. I can’t suddenly start talking about International trade policies or the complexities of the financial system, for instance, never having done so before. I also can’t make complete U-turns on the positions I have publicly taken in the recent past without undermining my credibility. Where my opinions have changed, I will first have to take my audience on the same journey that led me to reconsider my position, so they understand why I changed my mind. From a feasibility perspective, the next stretch of pearls will have to be a continuation of my current public persona before I can gradually sharpen my positions and what I speak about.
Other limits have to do with reaching an audience on the scale my previous job made possible. I have left the corporate machine that kept bringing in people in large numbers. I will now have to find my own channels and connections. I will have to establish my own brand now I no longer carry the respectability and clout that came with my previous position. The good news is that the past years have helped to grow my network and my personal influence. So I don’t have to start from zero. It’s going to be reasonably modest, to begin with, but I am confident I can grow things from there.
The feasibility question is mostly there to make sure we don’t overreach. Just because we deeply desire something doesn’t mean we are ready to make it happen straight away. We need this reality check, and we need to be honest with ourselves. However, we also need to keep believing. We may find we don’t have the knowledge, capabilities or capacity to go directly to where we want to go. That doesn’t mean we need to give up on our dreams. It just says we need to take a step back and first figure out how we can close that gap so we can get where we want to go at a later time. Acquiring the skills, collecting and preparing the tools we need and practising our moves before we make the next big step are all part of the same journey. As long as we see how we can move forward, we are not giving up on the dream.
The next question is about sustainability and repeatability. Will the next pearl be a one-off event or the start of a whole series? Will it be an item we can tick off on our bucket list, or will it be part of our continuing growth and development?
This question may not be so easy to answer. It involves much guesswork about the future, about other people, about external factors we may not have much power over. It may not even be clear how relevant the concept of viability is to our quest to create our ideal future narrative. Viability is primarily a business concept. Businesses are supposed to aim for growth and longevity. A great trick that only works once is not something you would base a business on.
To make viability relevant to our personal narrative and the string of pearls we are constructing we need to redefine it slightly. We can make it more about whether we think the effort and time required will measure up against the duration and intensity of the satisfaction we expect to get out of those future pearls. In other words: will it all be worth striving for?
That is a very personal question. I find it hard to give any clear guidance or rules for it. We all have different desires and fears. What feels like the Holy Grail for some may ultimately fail to motivate someone else.
What matters here is our own feeling when we think about the pearls we plan on creating next.
Imagine those next pearls in their shiniest possible form. Everything works out exactly as planned and maybe even better than that. How does that make us feel? Does it give us a surge of energy; a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction; a sense of achieving a significant milestone in our lives?
Now imagine the work we need to do to make those pearls happen. Think of the time and effort we estimate it will take us. The pearls will still be the same. But do we still feel that same energy and inspiration? Or does the prospect of all that hard work ahead of us diminish our sense of satisfaction and achievement?
There is no mathematical formula to objectively calculate the balance of costs and benefits of reaching our next perfect moments of flow. All we have is our intuition and our emotional system signalling to us. If we feel more inspired than cowed, we should go for it. If nagging doubts and a sense of dread diminish our enthusiasm, we must not ignore those signals. We must check first whether we are letting our fears and doubts hold us back unnecessarily, or that our emotional system is trying to warn us that the next pearls we envisioned are not actually worth going for.
If the balance of the viability questions turns out to be negative – more trouble than the reward is worth – all is not lost. We should be thankful that we discover it now before we have invested too much in moving forward. We should also remember that in matters of personal choice a ‘yes’ has to be an absolute yes. Anything less than that is at least cause to pause and reconsider. Ignoring nagging doubts, however small, is asking for trouble later.
If we are not convinced we have found the next version of our story, we return to step 4 of the process. We re-examine our collections of pearls and how we summarise their essence. We re-imagine what the next pearls could be, leaving out the paths we have just dismissed. We could find entirely new ideas for pearls we want to make happen. Alternatively, it can mean we modify how we imagine them. We could go for smaller steps that are easier and quicker to achieve. We could imagine ‘intermediate’ pearls that we don’t see as end-goals but as stepping stones to where we want to go later. Such intermediate pearls can be satisfying in their own right and inspire us to keep going while we are learning and practising the skills we need in the future.
It may take a few iterations. We may experience some stops and starts. At some point, however, we will find the future pearls we deem desirable, feasible and viable. Now we need to take a few deep breaths and calm our minds. If we are sure we have found the right pearls, we calmly make the decision. These are the pearls we will focus on for the next months or years of our lives – for as long, in fact, as we think it will take us to achieve them, and for as long as we think we want them to happen.
Each moment in our life can be a teaching moment, if we let it speak to us. If we stop and listen closely we can find significance, insight and inspiration in even the most mundane events. By comparing and grouping similar moments we can start to see patterns and trends. Those patterns and trends carry our stories – the narratives we construct to give meaning and purpose to our lives. By seeing more clearly how the stories we have been living resonate with our authentic core, we can begin to project our most authentic life’s story forward. Instead of waiting for the next chapter to be written for us, we can author that next chapter ourselves, and then make it happen.
Step 4: Summarising the Essence
Having grouped our shiny pearls, we can now summarise the essence of what these pearls have in common. The idea is to capture not just the facts of those moments (such as the location, actions, actors and situation) but much more the energy, emotions and significance for us, so that when we retell the summary we actually evoke the feelings we had when we first experienced the moments we summarise.
The following questions can help to construct our summaries, but we should be careful not to fall for a strictly formulaic approach: this is about personal experiences, so we should feel free to construct them in a way that feels most powerful and meaningful to us. But these questions are a useful framework to start with. Looking at the group of pearls to summarise:
Do they have the same/similar location?
Do they have the same/similar actions?
Is there a way to characterise the setting?
Is there a way to characterise the outcome(s)?
What did they make us feel?
What about them led to that feeling?
What can we leave out without losing the essence of what makes those moments special?
Over the past 35 years I have had many opportunities to perform on stage, either alone or with other people for audiences ranging from a few to a few thousand. The pearls in this group that really stand out are the ones where it is just me and the audience. I am singing a song or doing a monologue but even before I would start I would have this feeling that something special was about to happen. I am standing on the stage, looking around, and feel the anticipation of the people in the audience. I am a little bit nervous, but in a good way, an energising way, that heightens my senses and sharpens my concentration. As soon as I start speaking or singing, I feel connected to the audience: I am communicating with them, not just projecting at them. I feel that I am taking the audience with me on an adventure, and exploration either of the story I’m telling or the emotions I’m singing about. When I’m talking I play with the tempo and volume of my voice, I pause at moments to look around and make eye contact, then speed up to convey enthusiasm and energy and I feel the audience coming with me, as if I have direct access to their emotions and energy.
The best of these moments end in a very natural and satisfying way, with the song or story ending with a feeling of completion and closure, as if there was no better moment to stop than this precise second, and no better way to end than with these very last words. With songs, of course, the timing is as much determined by the music as by me, although with a great pianist (which I was lucky enough to have worked with a few times) I have the freedom to play with the tempo and pauses and the music would follow. But with monologues the timing is completely in my own hands. Especially when delivering presentations, rather than fully scripted monologues, I am in control not just of the timing, but of the very story itself. Sure, usually there are slides that give a pre-ordered structure to what I am talking about, but over time I have learned to reduce those slides to a bare minimum, considerably increasing my freedom to improvise, skip and add anecdotes, examples and even whole lines of thought as I see fit. In the best of these pearls, even though I feel I’m just improvising and saying what comes to mind, there is a strong sense of coherence and rhythm, as if there is a script I’m working from, and the story comes to a natural end at exactly the right time, usually a few minutes before the hard stop most of my performances are set to, so that there is time for the audience to reflect on what I have told them and ask some questions before we have to leave the room.
It is not too hard to see that these pearls have a lot of things in common:
The location is a stage (or something functioning as a stage, such as being in front of a group of people in a class-room, standing behind a lectern in a lecture theatre, or standing on a makeshift platform in some venue during an event. Sometimes it’s an actual theatre, though I haven’t performed in theatres that often.
The action is me talking (or sometimes singing) solo to an audience of multiple people. It’s a staged performance, in other words I have been asked to perform and the audience has some expectation of what I will talk about or what I will be singing.
The setting is of positive expectation: I expect the audience to be interested in what I will be presenting to them, and they expect that to be relevant, interesting, educational and entertaining. There is a clear expectation about the topic and the mode of delivery, and there is predetermined time-frame for the whole thing to play out in. I don’t expect to have to fight for the audience’s attention, or to compete with others for it: they are there because they are already interested to hear what I have to say. Of course, if I perform badly I may disappoint them and lose their interest, but they definitely start with a willingness to hear me out.
The outcome of these pearls is a feeling of accomplishment, a happiness bordering on euphoria at times, a deep gratitude to the audience for going on this journey with me, and a sense that I matter – even in a small way – to the world and to my fellow human beings. As far as I can ascertain, the outcome for my audiences is a sense of motivation and inspiration, as sense of having learned something useful for their professional or personal development and a feeling of having spent their time in a sensible, productive way.
What exactly leads to those feelings in myself and in my audience may be a bit hard to analyse in detail, but I think what it comes down to is that these moments give me a combination of a few different types of satisfaction, all of which are relevant to me and what I perceive as my mission in life:
They give me a sense of accomplishment: of a difficult job done well thanks to practice and preparation;
They give me a sense of connection: of reaching out and touching other people’s minds and hearts, even if only for the duration of the performance;
They give me a feeling of being helpful and supportive: of bringing useful and practical information and advice to people that – should they choose to work with it – can have a positive effect on their lives;
They give me a feeling of being appreciated and respected: of people actively seeking out my insights and advice, rather than having to chase them and beg for their attention.
In their most abstracted form, these pearls are all examples of me communicating with groups of people, entertaining them with my stories, educating them with my information and insights, and motivating them to improve themselves with my tips and advice.
What this group of pearls seems to tell me is that being on stage is important to me. But not just being on stage: the most satisfying moments were when it was me addressing an audience directly, moving them with both my messages and my delivery. And it wasn’t only about entertaining them either: there had to be a motivational and educational part to my performance as well, to really make me feel it was all worth doing. Making sense of the world, understanding on a deeper level what is really going on and why and how things are happening, is apparently a core need in me. Being able to help other people with that understanding is a close second, as that links back to my own need to feel useful, as well as my desire to lessen the (often self-inflicted) suffering in the world.
We live our lives from moment to moment, each moment an experience added to our personal story. Each moment is potentially a learning moment, if we only we would take the time to find out what it was trying to teach us. The art of living a self-directed, self-authoring life lies not just in living your life to the fullest – that’s just being busy. The real art is to stop from time to time to check each experience against the wisdom and direction of our authentic core. If it resonates with our core, we aim for more of those experiences. If it feels wrong, empty, or somehow not quite what we were supposed to do, we aim to avoid them in the future. And then we adjust our direction, recalibrate our speed, and try again, each time a little bit more on course and a little truer to the journey we came on Earth to travel.
Step 2: Finding Our Moments of Flow
Looking more closely at our collection of the shiny pearls we separated from the dark and dull ones, it will be clear that though all these pearls are bright and shiny moments from our past, they are not necessarily all of a similar nature. In fact, at first they may all look like separate, disconnected events, with little in common. Some may simply be happy memories of something we saw or witnessed, others may be moments we spent with loved ones. What we are looking for to build our narrative on is a particular group of pearls: those bright and happy moments when we were actively doing something and were fully engaged, more or less ‘in the flow’, and which we associate with a feeling of fulfilment and of being in the right place at the right time at the right place. We can call those our ‘active moments of flow’ as those moments are most closely linking our own actions with our emotional system’s sense of optimal state, suggesting that we were in those moments doing things that closely match our temperament, our personal preferences, and – more significantly – our intuitive sense of purpose and fulfilment.
I always loved going to school. There was just so much to learn there, to find out about this mysterious world that was said to exist beyond the few streets of the town I grew up in. My earliest memories of moments of flow are writing essays in class, or solving some problem we were given. Once I started working it was as if time ceased to exist. All that existed was the topic or problem and me exploring it, solving the riddles it posed and looking for the right words to put the answers in. Quite often, once the task was finished, I read back what I had written and would be surprised at the result. I could not remember writing it, and could often barely believe I was the one that wrote it. I often wondered where these writings really came from; they felt so much better than what I though myself capable of.
I used to play field hockey in my sporting days. We played mostly for fun and for the social activities around it, not really to win. I was an OK player and a slightly better than average goalkeeper, but my performance was never very consistent. Often, especially when the game was a bit slow, my mind would start wandering and I would get so distracted by thoughts and ideas I would fail to be of much use to my team. But sometimes things were different. I loved being goalie in tournaments, for instance, when we would play against teams that were much better than us. I would be so busy defending the goal that I would stop thinking about what I was doing. The moment my thoughts stopped, my body seemed to take over. As I discovered, my body was a much better goalie than my mind ever would be. Unfortunately, I never discovered how to make that particular kind of flow happen. Maybe I could have become a star goalie if I had.
Step 3: Sorting Our Pearls
Having separated our active moments of flow from our general collection of pearls we can now begin to group together the pearls that seem somehow related to each other. They may be linked by the place or situation, by the actions we were engaged in, or by the kind of satisfaction we got from them. While it may take some reflection and thinking to find a satisfactory grouping, we should not agonise too much over getting this 100% right. This is actually a great opportunity to learn to trust our intuition and to listen what our feelings are telling us, rather than what our mind comes up with. So, if we do get confused, we just relax, breathe, and simply imagine grouping our pearls purely by feeling. That should be good enough for our purpose.
When I first starting collecting my pearls I did not at first see any similarity between my schooltime moments and those playing hockey. They didn’t seem to have anything in common. The school moments were purely cerebral, had nothing to do with physical activity, and were never about winning or losing, but purely about the joy of solving problems and putting the answers into words. The hockey moments were almost the opposite: it was physical, the purpose was to win (or in my case, prevent the other team from winning by defending our goal), it was non-verbal, and often too fast to even have time to think. On further reflection, however, I did find similarities. Similarities that later turned out to be important op pointers for my personal development and the direction my personal narrative would take.
Both at school and on the field, the ‘triggers’ – the circumstances that would help me get into the state of flow – were similar. Both involved time pressure: in school there was a limited time in which to produce the results, on the field time was dictated by the speed of the opponent and the ball that was coming at me. Both posed an immediate problem that had to be solved right there and then. In school I found that if the task was too broad, or the problem not difficult enough, nothing much would happen. I would do the work but did not experience a sense of flow. On the field it was the same: the higher the pressure, the more intense the action, the easier it was for me to go into the zone and stay there. Apparently pressure – of the right kind – helped me focus. Another similarity was that I never did either activity for the points or the glory, but purely because I enjoyed the feeling of getting it right. Both in school and on the field the joy of solving the problem was more satisfying than getting an A or winning the match.
So, interestingly, these seemingly very different moments were actually very similar in a very specific way. Those similarities told me a lot about myself and some of the choices I made in my life.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all live up to our full potential and become that person we know deep down we could have been? If only we had not been shaped and moulded by so many external voices telling us what we should and could do, what we shouldn’t do, what to fear and what to obey. If only we had managed to keep hold of the innocent curiosity and imagination of our early childhood, when everything was an adventure, everything was new, and learning was as natural as breathing. If only we had been allowed to make our own story, instead of living one made up of a thousand borrowed pieces. Making Your String of Pearls is a way of finding our way back to that original story – the one we never got to finish but still, somewhere deep down, long to live.
The Origins of This Approach
The idea behind the ‘string of pearls’ approach was taught to me by my late wife Michal. She was an extraordinary person, healer, psychologist and wise woman. Her life’s work was helping people realise their full potential. She believed that most people get stuck in a narrative that is not their own, but is an amalgamation of everything we pick up from other people as we grow up: fears, worries, hopes, expectations, beliefs, assumptions … All these ‘borrowed’ bits of story end up hiding our own, authentic story – the story we would have chosen for ourselves if we had not lost touch with what we were really meant to become.
Michal’s work focused on two processes people needed to follow to get back to their own narrative. One is the process of ‘unwrapping’ the layers of acquired narrative – discarding the emotional and mental baggage others have put on our shoulders but we no longer want to carry with us. The more of this material we can let go of, the more we will be able to tune into our true self – our authentic core – that little voice inside that still holds the innocence and promise of how we entered this world. I will write much more about this process later in this series, under the header Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence.
The other process is the work of constructing our desired story – the one we want to live by. It’s a narrative about what we love doing, what gets us in the flow and what gives us a sense of purpose and fulfilment. It’s a process of finding glimpses of it in our past – moments that we were close to living it, or felt that we were on the right path – and using those moments to extract the underlying story and project that forward into the future. That 7-step process is what the next instalments of this series will be about.
Michal’s teachings have had a huge impact on my life. From the time I met her, during all the years we were married, and ever since she passed away, I have been working on her two-pronged approach to finding my own potential and realising it as fully as I possibly can. It has led me into strange and wonderful discoveries and adventures. It took me halfway across the world, from The Netherlands to Australia. It helped me discard a lot of unnecessary baggage. It made me realise that most of what I now do and practice I have always felt I wanted to do, but kept it hidden underneath the layers of acquired narrative that told me I should forget about ever following my dreams. While discovering more of myself, my passion and my purpose, I tried a range of jobs, from the very technical – designing IT systems – to the purely human – teaching people how to improve their personal and interpersonal skills. I have been a teacher, researcher, software developer, consultant, manager, trainer/coach and public speaker. All that time I also was a father, a husband, a friend and even – not deliberately, but simply because life is never without conflicts – occasionally an adversary.
I now see all those different experiences as part of the process of finding out what my true path should be. Each experience was also an experiment; a test to see what that particular situation would feel like, bring me and cost me, and what it would teach me about myself. Seen like that, none of those experiences was ever a failure or a waste of time. They were all a necessary part of the learning process. Even (or should I say especially) the jobs I hated, the people I fell out with and the places I did not feel at home in, gave me insight about my own authentic core and helped me refine my future path.
I would love for everyone to see life like this. Like an adventure in which every new experience is a learning experience. An adventure in which we are the main protagonist and the author at the same time. A journey that is both the path itself and the way to find a better path. That is the essence of the string of pearls.
Now, let me take you through the steps.
Step 1: Collecting the Pearls
Sit comfortably, relax, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Let’s imagine our life as a collection of experiences, stretching from the present moment back to our earliest memories. Each remembered experiences is a tiny time-capsule, in which information is stored about the location, the situation, what happened, what we did, what we said, and – most importantly – how we felt at that moment. In fact, for most of our remembered moments we will find that what we felt is recorded much clearer than many of the factual details. Especially when we have attained a reasonable level of emotional awareness (and I promise I will come back to how to attain this in later instalments), the feeling of the moment may actually be the key to locate the memory, and then unlock the capsule to find hidden there information we thought we had completely forgotten.
I once walked into a candy store and was immediately overcome by a sense of fear and nausea, as if something dreadful was about to happen to me. I made my way out of there as soon as I could. Outside, in the fresh air, I calmed down enough to ask myself what on Earth had happened in there? What was it that brought about this violent reaction? I had to find out, so I braced myself, took a few deep breaths to calm my still somewhat agitated nervous system and stepped back inside. The moment I opened the door I noticed a particular smell, something sweet and salty with an undertone of aniseed. As I focused on that smell I could feel the panic rising deep inside me. But because I was expecting it, I managed to stop it from overwhelming me. Instead I mentally went towards it, focusing on what it was that made this smell so threatening to me. And all of a sudden a scene from my childhood – something I had completely forgotten, or so I thought – came rushing back to me.
I was 6 or 7 years old and about to undergo tonsil surgery – something that was rather too routinely done to children in those days. The anaesthetic that was used was a kind of sleeping gas, administered through a cap that was placed over my nose and mouth. I remember the nurse telling me that it was OK, nothing to worry about. I would soon be asleep and would feel nothing at all. And when I woke up it would all be over. But what I experienced was this strong and strange smell rushing into my nose and mouth. I could feel it spread into my lungs and as it did so I saw black rotating figures – like propellors – speeding towards me, as if they were about to chop me up. And I felt myself falling through the chair and accelerating downwards. I tried to hold on to something, but there was nothing to hold on to. As I fell, my vision narrowed till there was only a small tunnel of light left, through which the black shapes were still chasing me. Just before I lost consciousness – and I still clearly remember that feeling – it all of a sudden dawned on me that I was about to die and would never wake up. Then everything turned black.
Once I remembered it, it all made sense. Not only was the smell in the candy shop similar to what the sleeping gas smelled like, walking into the long, dark and narrow shop must have felt like entering that tunnel I saw just before I lost consciousness. What I found fascinating was how the smell had not just triggered the emotion, but had also unlocked a hitherto completely forgotten traumatic experience from my childhood in great detail. And not just the moment itself, but also the story of what led up to it, and the rather painful and equally traumatic recovery period that followed. It was as if the smell had been the key to a vault I had carefully locked and hidden away.
Rediscovering the memories themselves was interesting. But far more interesting was what I could learn from now having access to those lost moments. It made me realise why I distrust people wearing lab coats, for instance. Or why I don’t like those long, dimly lit hallways in many office buildings. But more importantly, it helped me reconnect to a much larger period of my childhood I had almost completely forgotten. Revisiting those moments through an adult’s perspective has taught me a lot about myself and helped me to adjust some long-held beliefs and assumptions about myself and my place in the world.
Now look at this collection of remembered experiences and imagine them as tiny balls, not much bigger than an average bead. When looking at the whole collection, some of the balls will be dark, others will be dull, but there will be some that appear to shine and sparkle, like highly polished pearls. The dark and dull balls are memories of negative or uninspiring moments, experiences where we were not inspired or engaged, possibly even suffering, stressed, afraid or hurt. Ignoring the dark and dull moments, we should be able to pick out the shiny pearl-like ones instead; those are our best experiences: the times when we were full of energy, in the flow, inspired and happy. Some may be small, fleeting even, others may be a big as marbles and full of details clearly remembered; some may be so long ago we had almost forgotten them, others recent and still fresh in our minds. Those details don’t matter now. What matters is that we should be able to collect our pearls from between the dark and dull beads and put them aside for further study and reflection.
If there is one thing that makes us human it is our need to find meaning in our lives. No matter what we are doing, at some point the question of purpose will come up. Why are we here? What’s the meaning of our lives? How can we make our lives more fulfilling and meaningful? Rather than trying to answer this question solely by using our rational mind, I believe this is where our emotions are a great source of information, once we learn how to listen to them.
The more aware we become of our emotions and feelings, the more we will notice how they change over time: how they sometimes peak with feelings of happiness and fulfilment and at other times slump towards a sense of dread, stress and emptiness. Our emotional system is our mind-body’s monitoring and regulating system. It keeps track of everything that goes on around and inside us and evaluates that in terms of its relevance to us. Even without us paying attention, our emotions are working 24/7 to help us find the optimum state possible for our system, striving for what some people call “optimum homeostasis” or the best stable state achievable at that moment in time.
Keeping our system in an optimum state of balance is no easy job. In fact, given the complexity of both our system and the world we live in, and the many, often contradictory, demands and forces we are subjected to, there will never be a truly optimum state, nor will it be stable for very long. All we can hope for is an approximation of that optimum and a relative stability that doesn’t wildly swing back and forth at the merest change in conditions.
If we accept the fact that our emotional system is there to find the best possible state for us under the given conditions, we can learn a lot from working out what our changing moods and feelings are trying to tell us about us and the situations we find ourselves in. Some states feel better than others. Some states energise us and help us achieve great things, other states drag us down and stop us from doing anything much. Some states we feel as stressful and uncomfortable, other states are pleasant and relaxed. Sometimes we feel focused and ‘in the zone’, at other times we can barely articulate coherent thoughts or keep our attention on a single thing for more than a few seconds. Our emotions are not just regulating our body-mind system, they are communicating to us as well. They are telling us, through the way they make us feel, what is beneficial and healthy for us, and what is detrimental and damaging.
There is one state in particular that is important for us finding our purpose and fulfilment in life. That is what is often called the state of ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’. It’s a state in which we get so absorbed in what we are doing that we seem to stop thinking about it and just go with what is happening in and around us. It’s as if we are being led by a different intelligence: a mode of thinking and acting that doesn’t require our self-aware and conscious mind to interpret, classify, explain and decide before we can act. This state allows our body-mind to just act, with ease and spontaneity, in harmony with our situation. When we’re in the flow we often achieve our best performance and produce our best work, but it almost feels as if it gets performed through us, rather than us consciously and laboriously producing it.
There’s a lot that could be said about this state of flow and, indeed, whole books have been written about it. For now, all I want to point out is this: the state of flow, or states that are similar in feel and effect on us, are our best tool to discover our purpose and fulfilment in life. Our emotional system produces the state of flow when we are closest to our optimal state of being, where our situation, actions, mindset and intentions are all aligned and work harmoniously together; where we are not struggling with ourselves or with the world; where we are not ignoring or suppressing our true feelings; where we can just be in the moment and run with it, not against it. By identifying the moments we were in the flow in the past and recognising the unifying patterns and similarities between them, we can use that information to start shaping the foundations for our own personal narrative. This is what I call “Making Your Personal String of Pearls”. In the next instalments of this blog I will tell you exactly how to do this.