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.
We all struggle with self image issues, self doubt, and feelings that we are not good enough. Sometimes self doubt can prevent us from trying to push toward our biggest dreams. That’s part of the reason I wrote The Resiliency Effect.
The problem with self-doubt is, it usually doesn’t matter how often we hear we’re smart or successful or great at what we do from our loved ones, our colleagues, our peers and our bosses. Self doubt persists.
One reason it crops up is because it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others.
It can also be left over from experiences we had as children or young adults.
Sometimes when we aren’t nourishing ourselves or are feeling burned out it’s easy for us to give into feelings that we’re not so good or right or smart. This can be especially bad in corporate environments.
If we stay in our own heads this can run rampant.
As humans, we have a negativity bias. It’s not learned: it’s inherent, and it’s even been found to exist among babies less than a year old. When comparing negative thoughts or things that have happened to us with positive thoughts and events, we both remember and place more weight on the negative.
It takes work to “undo” negative thoughts. Oftentimes, we have to unlearn this habit because it’s a coping mechanism designed to protect us. Evolutionarily, it was more important to remember where the bear lived because that increased our chance of survival. In fact, for every negative thought we have (about ourselves or others) we need five positive thoughts to undo the effects of the negative. This was first discovered by John Gottman as applied to marriage conflict, but I think it works for starting to overcome our own limiting beliefs about ourselves as well.
We have to be aware of these things that we have taken on, and beliefs about ourselves, that are just not true.
I definitely see it in the corporate world. I have not coached a woman yet coming out of a corporate job and starting her own business, that didn’t relate to me in one way or another, that she had issues around confidence around the ability around being good enough or smart enough to run a business. This is just extremely common because our world is still so focused on output, results, and achievement which drives us to push too much and burnout. This is not at all conducive to deep creative problem solving.
Knowing how common it is, what can you do when self-doubt strikes? Here are two ideas to try:
Set up weekly wins:
I had a lot of success when I first started my business sending myself a “weekly wins” email every Friday. It serves two purposes: 1) to keep tabs on everything I did that week that moved the needle, and 2) to remind my brain to do a little celebration for all the things that went right this week.
Once you get into the habit, you’ll find that you begin to recall more of the good things happening instead of getting wrapped up in all the might be going wrong. Even the littlest thing can serve as a “win” you can tout for yourself. Making the perfect cup of coffee, ending work on time 5 days straight, finishing a section of a project. Get creative!
I even apply it outside my own business. When I participate in study groups of other financial advisors, I request that we each share three wins and only one loss when we meet so that we try to focus more on the good things. Try suggesting it during your next meeting / status update at work and see how much more cheery people are.
A well-designed affirmation can help fix the ratio of negative thoughts and help us work through being uncomfortable as we explore getting vulnerable about the reasons we’re fueled by overwork, burnout and perfection. A tool I use and teach to others is how to design good affirmations.
When we first start writing affirmations we may use tentative language (such as “I can, I may, or I will”) or take great strides to create an affirmation about how we will avoid something destructive or depleting to us. I’d encourage you to take the time to tweak your affirmations so that they put your brain in a place of acting “as if” you’ve already experienced the desired result. Avoid using negative words and make sure you’re sending your brain the right signals. Avoid using phrases like “I won’t” or “I don’t.” Here’s a read out from my actual client sessions where we tweaked affirmations:
- You said: I don’t want to build other people’s dreams. I want to support that, but I don’t necessarily need to put other’s goals above what mine are.
- A better affirmation might be: “I’m working to build the awesome life that I’ve dreamed for myself”
- You said finding a job “is going to be hard and going to take time”
- A better affirmation might be: “The perfect job that meets all my qualifications is out there, and I’m actively searching to find it.”
- You said, “I typically charge what people can pay, honestly.”
- A better affirmation might be, “I work with the right kind of client who sees the value in my standard fee.”
- You said, “I want to have more cash to spend on fun stuff for me too.”
- A better affirmation might be, “I’m worth making the salary that allows me to live all my biggest goals.”
Here are some real affirmations that I have used in my own personal life which help me let go of some of my perfection. I often pull out my list of affirmations and either read them or say them to myself when I take a walk. Notice you could put tentative language like, “I can,” “I may,“ or “I will” in front of many of these, but it’s more powerful if you tell your brain that you are already doing these things by leaving out the tentative words can, may, or will.
- It’s OK to make mistakes, hear criticism and grow
- I treat myself gently
- I distinguish with wisdom and clarity my past emotional reactions from my current emotional response
- I deserve stability
- I am open to considering a range of ways to be or see a situation
- Today I am enough
- I ask for help when I need it
I consider using affirmations to be an integral part of my self-care. When I say them and mean it, it helps me remember to take care of myself and actively works against my default position which used to be runaway overachievement and perfection. It may feel hokey to say such things to yourself, especially if you’re in a place where you’re hurting, but it’s made a huge difference in my life.
I will warn you, there’s always a period of time initially where an “inner critic” voice in your brain immediately tells you this isn’t true/right. But that’s the point of saying and repeating these. The more we repeat, the more that voice of disbelief quiets down.
Many of these techniques we acquire while we’re focusing on our inner journey can help us in unexpected ways. They can help increase our resilience against future adversity, help us see patterns, and make us more creative problem solvers.