Friday, October 9, 2009

What do you want?

“What do you want?”

I sat for a minute contemplating that question. I was sitting in front of 7 other people, most of them strangers on the first night of a Coaching Tools for Leaders class I had signed up for. I wanted to know what coaching was so I could more effectively market the program. I had volunteered to be coached the first night. I was now regretting that decision. "What do you want?" was a tough question because it was asked in such an unbounded way. It was not: “what do you want for dinner?” or “what do you want to do about the credit card bill?” or even “what do you want for your birthday?” it was open ended. “What do you want?”

My thoughts raced around. I felt as though I was trying to grab each thought off of a fast moving merry-go-round and I couldn’t move fast enough to get them articulated before they flew away only to be replaced by something else. As I started to clumsily list things I thought I wanted the instructor/coach begin giving me feedback. In a matter of minutes I had achieved something called “clarity.” Out of everything that bubbled up and over in response to that question we had identified one thing that was very important. Even though the session was ended prematurely I had a new understanding about myself. I had uncovered a need.

Over the coming weeks I coached and was coached in the class and I found myself asking “what do I want?” Is this the life I want? As I contemplated that question I came up with an interesting illustration that describes my life right now. Imagine there is a train. You really want to get on the train and to get a ticket you must do a certain thing. You complete this task or reach the goal and are allowed on the train, in the very back car. You are thrilled. You’re on the train. Sure it’s just the back car, but who cares? Turns out, you do. You go up to the front of that rearmost car and peer through the window into the next car and you see the next car up is even nicer than the one you are in now. It’s so much better in there. You decide you want in that car. The conductor tells you what you must do to get into the next car. And you set off working thinking that you will be happy once you’re in the next car without realizing that in front of the next car is an even better car and you’re stuck in a viscous cycle of sacrificing your ability to enjoy life in the present for the possibility of enjoying life in the future.

Six years ago I met a man who has become one of my dear friends at a coffee gathering. Shortly after I met him his life began to reorganize. At first the pace was almost glacial. As the years progressed this process of reorganization began to pick up momentum. Until he packed everything he could in his car and headed out across the country in what I could only call a pilgrimage. Those were dark days. He was mired in uncertainty and experiencing the pain of seeing the things he held as important ripped away. In the end he was left with an opportunity to start from scratch.

Now his life is almost unrecognizable from what it once was. Through his journey he was able to find what is most important to him and let the rest go. He is now pursuing the life that is far more rewarding. What’s different? I think he has organized his life around things that are actually rewarding and fulfilling to him, as opposed to an idea that he thinks will be rewarding.

You see, I believe that if we are not following our passion then at some point we reach a barrier. We go as far as we can go on our quest to pursue something we’re not passionate about and then, in a last ditch effort we over extend ourselves and we end up putting enormous amounts of energy into maintaining a lifestyle that just is not worth it.

At some point we run out of energy and like a plane that is flying too high and too slow, we stall out and begin to fall back to the ground. The fall is scary. Often times we crash leaving our life in a heap of wreckage. In that moment of destruction we are given an amazing gift: the opportunity to start from scratch. And like my friend we are able to pay close attention to the things that bring us joy and the things that do not. We have the chance to only bring those things into our lives that are enjoyable.

What if we caught ourselves before we stalled? What if we recognized the indicators early? Pilots are trained to recognize the early signs of a stall (the moment when the weight of the plane exceeds the amount of lift provided by the wings and the plane begins to lose altitude). In order to recover they point the nose down. As the plane loses altitude it picks up speed and as it picks up speed it regains lift and the pilot is able to recover without crashing.

What are the warning signs of an impending stall? For me my number one indicator is lack of motivation to do things I do not want to do. If I am living a life that is rewarding I can handle doing things I do not want to do to a certain extent. Yet if my life is not rewarding then those things I do not want to do become impossible tasks. When I get to this point I know it’s time to start taking a look at my life.

Don’t wait until you’re life is a heap of burning wreckage. If you feel like the effort required to get what you think you want exceeds the possible enjoyment it’s time to step back. Look at each piece of your life and ask yourself, “does this add value?” If it doesn’t you need to make a strong case to keep it.