One of the biggest challenges in acting on our big dreams is this: it’s a part of our human nature to focus on self-preservation. Our fear of making big changes has been explored in scientific studies about behavioral economics. William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser first proved the existence of a human, “status quo bias,” in experiments conducted in the late 80s.
Participants were asked in a series of hypothetical questions about how they would react given a set of facts. The study found that it was most common for participants to answer with the choices that involved doing nothing new or maintaining their current or previous decision. This bias to focus on the status quo is often observed in real life. Think about the last time you choose from three or four different health plans at work. Did you go with the default? The one you chose last year? If you’re like most consumers, you choose the plan you knew or were familiar with (i.e. the safe option) or the one that was the default or middle ground (required less decision-making.)
It takes extra work to discover the pros and cons of the new health care plan on the list. It also opens you up for the potential to “choose wrong.” The fear of loss is weighed more heavily by the mind than the potential for finding new gains by choosing a new plan. Weighing losses more than potential positives is also a human tendency observed in behavioral economics, known as the “loss aversion bias.”
Status Quo Works Against Our Big Dreams
The same thing happens with us and our dreams for our life. We can often name what our big dreams are to our friends or our mentors and advisors. However, we often immediately discount or let go of them because the “safe” thing to do is to maintain the status quo. It’s a path we know well. Adding something uncertain to the mix can create fear of loss or be demotivating. An easy response to acting on our dreams would be to say, “not now,” because that lets us hold on to the dream while letting us off the hook for not taking any action toward achieving the big goal.
It’s also much easier to focus outwardly on the external journey of “adulting,” paying our bills, moving through a career progression, buying a house, having a family, and generally “doing what we’re supposed to be doing.” This represents the status quo. Working a new big project that fulfills a passion, taking a sabbatical, or changing a career to do something more fulfilling all represent a departure from the norm and the status quo. We avoid the hard work trying to examine whether our “adulting” and keeping to the status quo in our life decisions hurts or helps us getting to our big dreams.
Yet, simply being aware that we all have a bias toward keeping the status quo or averting potential loss is not enough to fix the flaws in our decision making.
The Inner Journey
That’s why I advocate for lessening the focus on the outward journey and instead focusing on the inner journey, so that we cannot just name our biggest dreams, but go about living them.
“It is easy – maybe too easy – to stop asking yourself what would make you happy and stay close to the things that you think will make you safe,” Sady Doyle, a feminist author once wrote. “This is wrong, and I will tell you why: you are never safe. Loss and change are constants. You will never be safe, and you may not always be happy – but you owe it to yourself to start asking the question.”
How do we start getting comfortable asking, “What will make me happy?” and trust the answer. How do we begin to feel OK making decisions which might take us away from the safe zones of what we know into the potential unsafe places of the unknown that represent our big dreams? The answer is inner work.
For some people this inner work may be about discovering lost memories, analyzing trauma in your life whether from childhood or adulthood. For many of us we have to learn how to be safe being vulnerable with our loved ones. Still others may need to learn to get comfortable with the gifts they already have, or work against imposter syndrome.
As I prepared to write The Resiliency Effect I researched or interviewed more than 50 people. I included those from the LGBTQ+ community, black people and other people of color. The common denominator of the women I profiled was that they made a big change to live a life more in sync with their purpose and passions.
They had untapped potential and found the courage to harness their creativity, their values, and a vision for creating a better community around them. The majority of them also experienced a period of burnout prior to making the big change. What I learned as I researched is that there were some common sources for their resiliency.
Many of them required a complete break or sabbatical from work to get their mindset right. Some of them spoke openly about work they had done in therapy to discover how adversities they, or their families, experienced were impacting them and creating limiting beliefs today. All of them spoke about self-reflection and discoveries they made about what truly provides energy and purpose in their lives. More than half pursued self-employment. More than half of those who are self-employed did so by changing their career path.
The book details four common themes from these discussions about resiliency: how to unlearn coping mechanisms, how being vulnerable can be a catalyst for change, the role cross functional learning plays in success, and ways to unearth and lean into your passions in life. As the people I profiled made these big changes in life, a side effect was that they found not just outward success in whatever path they chose, but had developed more emotional wealth too.
Grab a copy of the book to explore questions for reflection at the end of each chapter that will help you on your journey.
Is a cross-country move a great way to put a Band-Aid on your problems? You bet it is.
At the end of 2007, I did exactly that. After twenty-five years, I left my home state of Texas—the land of big skies and big highways—to move more than 1,500 miles east to Washington, DC—the land of cherry blossoms and public discourse.
I made a snap decision after a staff meeting on a hot day in July. Among the more mundane updates that day, my boss shared a significant piece of news: “There’s been a reorganization, and it’s possible some of us are going to be spending a little bit more time in the DC office.”
Moments after the meeting ended, I followed him to his office and said, “If you’re looking for volunteers, I’m in.” I’d never even been to DC.
Within six weeks, I’d packed up and sold my house in Austin and moved into a cute little row house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, within walking distance to the US Capitol building. “I’m on an adventure!” was all I would say to people who asked, “Isn’t this all a little sudden?”
The truth is, the move provided a huge distraction from the devastation the previous five years of my life had brought me. I could focus on all the logistics of the move and the discovery of a brand-new life. I also got a lot of attention from colleagues who thought I was brave in deciding to leave home while envious at the professional growth I would gain in a new, expanded role.
The frenzied change allowed me to avoid fully grieving years’ worth of traumatic experiences. These included the early death of both my parents, a lost adolescence and early adulthood, and the bitter end of my first marriage after my spouse cheated on me.
Yet, less than a year later, the cracks in my Band-Aid plan were beginning to show. The novelty of the move had worn off, and I realized I didn’t even like the professional role I was in. I was frustrated I wasn’t making more progress on my personal and professional goals. I didn’t feel happy or fulfilled. Maybe it was time to start over again? Moving across the country didn’t work. So, I thought, “Maybe I need to reinvent my career.”
I took some time to journal and write out the subject matter and experiences that were important and motivating to me. One of the things I had written was that I wanted to help people one-on-one with their finances, including working on financial literacy.
As I penned this aspiration, I immediately thought, “That’s not where I can put my focus right now. I have to concentrate on making the right moves in my current career trajectory.” I took pride in being a realist.
As a federal lobbyist advocating public policy work for the state of Texas, it wasn’t clear to me how I could ever parlay that experience into personal finance. Since I wasn’t on the personal finance career path, I had no clue. I believed what I wanted to do didn’t exist or that I’d have to become famous to have a platform. Meanwhile, the more well-known and common career paths within this field, such as becoming an investment banker or stockbroker, weren’t appealing to me. So, I pushed my personal goal aside and did nothing to make it happen.
Flash forward eight years. By all accounts, I was a success story. I had found new career goals and climbed the corporate ladder. I got closer to my goal of working in finance—at least in the public policy realm—and was well paid and well known in financial circles. I was respected as a sought-after speaker and author on financial regulation for a global news and data organization. I was inching closer to working directly in personal finance.
I enjoyed filling up my life with “to-do’s” and achievements. On top of working full time, I was completing an executive MBA program while also traveling every other week between New York and Washington, DC, for work. The travel alone would be exhausting for anyone—but I thought, “Why not get my MBA?” It was something I always wanted to do, and it would check the box off my list. But even though I was a high achiever with corporate recognition, I was not living my best life.
Contentment was elusive. I experienced burnout regularly, along with bouts of depression. I lost track of the number of times I found myself crying in the work bathroom. Being outwardly successful wasn’t enough—I was unhappy, stressed, and worried that despite all I was doing, I wasn’t enough.
In 2015, the exhaustion caught up with me. I felt like I couldn’t take on one more thing. I was increasingly frustrated and depleted by almost any task I took on—personal or professional. I finally realized I’d been filling up my life with busyness and overachievement because it made me feel like I was worth something. I also started to recognize this type of overwork didn’t begin when I took on the extra travel or the MBA. It had been decades in the making.
So, on the day before my last MBA group presentation, and a week before graduation, I gathered up a lot of courage and quit my job. I graduated and then took a six-month sabbatical from any work. For the first time in years, I set aside my incessant need to do more and more so I could feel like I mattered.
The break was transformational. It led me to start my own business in—you guessed it—personal finance. And as I look back on it, I wonder why it took me more than eight years to get where I wanted to be.
Interestingly, I’m not the only one who has a story like this. As I started working one-on-one with clients, giving them the clarity and confidence to see that their finances could allow them to live the lives they were meant to, I noticed a pattern. Far too many of us aren’t living the lives we dream of out of fear, uncertainty, or simply inertia. And this is not because we lack success or the will to work for it. For many of us, our drive toward outward success is a symptom that needs to be treated before we are able to live our best lives.
Here’s how this shows up in real life. A 2015 Deloitte study discovered that 77 percent of respondents experienced burnout in their current position—feelings of energy depletion, negativity, or cynicism about work, and/or reduced personal and professional capacity. As it turns out, another study linked this high rate of burnout to health care spending and mortality, finding that more than 120 thousand US deaths per year are associated with workplace overwork.
For years, we’ve read articles and had discussions about how imposter syndrome gives us limiting beliefs, making us feel unworthy to pursue our big dreams. But did you know just how prevalent imposter syndrome is? Studies dating back to the ’80s show up to 70 percent of us experience it. It turns out the stronger your overachieving tendencies are, the more likely you’ll feel like an imposter.
Personally, I’m the kind of person who craves understanding. It’s motivating to understand not just how prevalent these beliefs are, but why they are so prevalent and why so many of us aren’t living our biggest dreams.
In my experience talking with friends and with clients, I’ve found that nearly everyone believes they’ll tackle their dreams “one day.” The problem with this approach is all those other years in between when we’re giving in to workaholism, burning ourselves out, traveling to another state or country, or job-hopping to get ahead. It feels like we’re always trying to achieve yet another thing on our list that is not related to our big dream.
“You’re such a good student,” they said. “You’re so strong. We’re proud of all your success and how well you’ve done for yourself.” No matter how many times I heard this, I didn’t feel like enough. A six-figure career, being published, appearing on TV; none of this success brought lasting fulfillment or happiness for me. Upon deeper reflection, I discovered these feelings of not being good enough date back to the way I grew up.
My parents were alcoholics, meaning that a lot of the time they weren’t paying attention to me or my needs. I learned from an early age to be hyper-focused on everyone else’s needs and feelings as a coping mechanism. On top of that, I felt the need to do everything I could to appear like I had it all together and didn’t need any help. I didn’t want to make waves in the family and add complexity to an already complex situation. Becoming an overachiever earned me a lot of outside validation and praise, but it also helped me hold the family together.
Both my parents died of alcoholism-related diseases within two years of one another. As the oldest of three, I was suddenly in charge of not only managing their estates, but also taking care of my two younger siblings. At the age of twenty-two, I became the guardian of my sixteen-year-old sister, which was an unbelievable amount of responsibility to be handed to a young adult.
However, I was always given and took on way too much responsibility because of the household I grew up in. In fact, becoming the guardian of my sister was probably one of the least challenging responsibilities I experienced as a child and young adult. All of this has lasting effects on me today, especially, I learned, as it relates to pursuing my deepest dreams.
Sadly, the topic of trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is still so loaded and focused on either treating members of the military returning from war or what I call “capital-T,” event-related Trauma like abuse, assault, or injuries. Within the realm of PTSD, there’s significantly less focus on the millions of us who grew up in households that seem okay from the outside, but actually lacked basic support, communication, and understanding.
In addition, these public discussions about trauma often focus on physical and mental health, but not on how they relate to our career and finances. Studies show that 64 percent of us have experienced one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs—a list of ten specific types of experiences that include having a parent with a mental health issue or experiencing divorce or neglect. Based on that fact, it’s rare to be a person who grows out of childhood free of adversity. Yet no one is making these linkages between our early struggles and how they affect our ability to find contentment in our calling.
I believe trauma is the root cause behind much of our limiting beliefs. Given how widespread traumatic experiences are, this undoubtedly has an impact on our ability as a society to act on our biggest dreams. The good news is that going through trauma also creates resiliency. When we channel our resiliency in the right way instead of letting our coping mechanisms take center stage, we can find more purpose in our lives.
Starting with my sabbatical, I embarked on a new inner journey—one that was not achievement-focused, but rather more exploratory in nature and without expectation. It gave rise to a self-employed career that affords me time for service to others and introspection. I have been able to create a life for myself that has more balance, more purpose, and most importantly less stress, fear, and pain. I want to help you find that, too.
In the The Resiliency Effect, together we’ll dive into why this happens to us and learn from other people about how they’ve found and acted on their true callings without suffering financially. We’ll talk more about what trauma and ACEs are, why it’s important to acknowledge the double-edged sword of resiliency, and how you can turn your experiences into opportunity. We’ll also talk about how to unlearn coping mechanisms that may be getting in your way and what you can do instead. Finally, we’ll give you some actionable insights and journal prompts to sort through your thoughts so you can take steps to launch your biggest dreams.
This is an excerpt from The Resiliency Effect: How to Own Your Adversity to Act on Your Biggest Dreams. To read more, check out the book here.
I write a lot about helping people achieve big dreams they have in life or career. What I’ve found from my own experience and working with others is that employing lifehacks or working harder, faster or smarter is not the answer.
The challenge lies in doing the deep work that will give you the energy to not just say what your biggest dreams are, but to take action on them.
One challenge you may run into (or perhaps have already experienced) is the high potential for burnout. I know I have.
A lot of the time the reason we get burned out is not just because we’re highly driven or motivated or because we’re biting off more than we can chew. Sometimes we’ve been conditioned to believe that if we’re not busy we must not be trying hard enough.
Society tells us we need to be busy and productive to be worth something, but why hasn’t anyone questioned why our worth is tied to production in the first place?
I wanted to seek the answer to that question for myself and it’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, The Resiliency Effect.
Burnout is a Big, Global Problem
Being busy only leads us to burnout, overwork, and suffering. Yet we can’t stop ourselves, and it’s getting worse—so much worse that governmental organizations have started to notice.
Beginning in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) started classifying burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” They define it as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The organization further describes it as feeling depleted or exhausted, experiencing distance or cynicism related to your job, and/or being less effective at work. They are so concerned that they are launching research to create evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.
When respondents were asked as part of a 2019 Meredith Corporation study about how stress and anxiety have contributed to trouble with planning, decision-making, or sleep during the last five years, 48 percent of women respondents said burnout was so bad that it keeps them up at night! And 35 percent of women said they have trouble concentrating. (Men experienced these too, but to a lesser degree.)
Burnout Can Be Linked Back to Adverse Experiences
Through my research, I found there’s a link between burnout, busyness, imposter syndrome, and traumatic experiences in our lives. This link is what’s keeping us focused on producing, despite the cost to our health and well-being. As a society, we haven’t been encouraged to deal with the root causes of why we feel imposter syndrome and why we need to prove our worth through productivity. It’s rare, as a human, to have not had some type of adverse or traumatic experience. It’s worth considering how it might be driving you to overwork yourself (or employ some other coping mechanism preventing you from living your best life).
This was the case for me. I spent years in a cycle of burning myself out at work, quitting my job, finding a new job, only to start the process right over again. My own adverse experiences as a child and young adult growing up in an alcoholic household made me more prone to behaviors like perfectionism, people pleasing, and denying my emotions and myself.
What to Do Instead
The opposite. If we’re always responding to the people who rely on us so as not to let them down, where do we find the time to devote to dreaming up our big dreams? Solving problems bigger than ourselves? Or truly finding satisfaction in who we are rather than what we do? We’re all trying to do way too much. Doing the opposite means giving ourselves permission to slow down…way down.
Make creativity and dreaming a priority
Instead of working ourselves to the bone, make something else the priority. Many of us put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. But when we simply allow ourselves to dream, there is no expectation. Start with something creative. Many people believe that you have to be an artist or a musician to be creative. I like to expand my own internal definition to all sorts of creative activities such as planning a meal, dancing in my living room, even taking a moment to write in a journal.
When we’re burned out and overworked it can be extremely difficult to focus on anything other than the tasks at hand. But something as simple as prioritizing time away to take a walk can both count for being creative and giving yourself a break. You’ll be amazed at the problem solving your brain will do in the background when you’re not intentionally thinking about your to-do list.
Schedule recharge time like you would a recurring meeting
As you begin to make dreaming and creative endeavors a priority, it may make sense to schedule time for these things like you would for a recurring meeting.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests doing something called Morning Pages — free writing when you first get up on anything that comes to mind. It’s not about producing something beautiful, it’s about creating a habit that’s different from your life and day-job.
One technique that I use is to prioritize non working hours during my work day. I’m more of an episodic worker and writer anyway and no two days look the same for me. A week or two in advance I look at my calendar for time slots where I haven’t planned to work on a project or meet with clients. Those are my time slots to take walks, do something creative, or do nothing at all.
This is an active way I protect myself from burnout.
Take an extended break
Sometimes we need to go more extreme to protect ourselves from burnout. When you start to feel that familiar anxious feeling, like everything around you is an emergency, it’s a good indicator that you should take a break….a long one. I’m not talking an extra hour for lunch here. I’m talking about a long weekend or even a week-long vacation.
Some of us may get to a point where taking a full sabbatical for multiple weeks or months may be necessary.
Before I developed the courage, the focus and the energy to start my business I took a 6-month sabbatical. An important benefit from that time was that it allowed me to reset my expectations of what I considered “productive.” It allowed me to have motivation to set up boundaries to protect my time and prevent energy depletion as an entrepreneur.
Consider getting rid of to-do lists
I’m a reformed to-do lister. I used to have a to-do list as long as my arm at all times. It felt really good to check off things one my one. But the huge problem for me was that the to-do list never ended. There was never such a thing as completing everything on my to-do list.
I’ve always had an over functioning streak and this common tool made me feel like I had something more to work on all the time, no matter how productive I’d been. So, I gave it up. No one ever said on their deathbed, “I sure am glad I finished my to-do list.”
Instead I use time-boxing. Whenever I have a task from remembering to respond to an email to completing a complex tax analysis for a client, I estimate how much time it will take me to complete it and put a calendar entry into my calendar. Each type of task (revenue generating, marketing, creative, administrative) gets a color code in the calendar. That helps me visually keep track of where I’m spending most of my time. This can also be done for more complex or creative projects. I like to write, for instance, when “the mood strikes,” when I get into flow, I get way more written than I think I will. So, I sometimes will adjust my timebox on the fly to account for finding myself in flow on a project.
The main benefit for me in using time-boxing instead of to-do list is that my brain is much more ok accepting a starting point and ending point to my day. It’s also easier for me to accept and embrace those recharge time slots that I bake into my weekly schedule. The result is I feel less depleted and usually more recharged by the end of a week.
Remember: being busy ≠ reaching our dreams
Getting another one of our to-do lists done doesn’t mean we’re happy, fulfilled or are living our big dreams. Sometimes taking a step back to prevent or cure our burnout is the only way we can make true progress toward reaching our goals.
More about The Resiliency Effect: Drawing on the fields of life coaching, financial planning and psychology, Cady’s book offers a way to develop excitement and energy around your purpose. The Resiliency Effect includes actionable advice and exercises, as well as chapters dedicated to realizing common dreams such as how to change careers, take a sabbatical, or start a business.