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.