I am honored to coach many thoughtful and creative individuals who are blazing their own trails, very often carving out a career or a way of being in their world that is radically different from the corporate, consumerist, cookie-cutter model. If you’re challenging the status quo, you’re bound to feel a bit lost from time to time. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel joy and deep connection with others, too. In fact, people walking their own paths in this world are among the most joyful and connected I have ever encountered. But it’s a complex journey that sometimes gets oversimplified in the social media world of catchy memes and self-help quotes.
My own coach has pointed out more than once that the bigger the vision or goal, the longer the on-ramp. Short-cuts like “think positive” and “follow your heart” don’t quite get us there. While not entirely untrue, these snippets overlook the messy truth of what it feels like to actually live in a way that is both purposeful and sustainable. Transformation is not all rainbows and fluffy white clouds. Sometimes it’s really tough.
This article offers a framework to orient you toward a realistic and rewarding way to work with a vision or goal. As you review each step, ask yourself: Where are you now in the cycle? Which phase needs a little more investment right now?
Step 1: Vision
We all know by now that we need to have a goal in mind in order to achieve it. But this is actually easier said than done. What do you really want? Answering that question in an authentic way can take a while, which is why I like to think of vision more as an ongoing activity rather than something I do just once. Think of vision as a verb: to vision. This takes some of the pressure off. If I’m not entirely sure of the specifics yet, it’s ok, I can still activate part of the vision and keep coloring it in as I go.
Few of us have linear paths toward our goals. The more common, and productive, experience is trial and error, learning as we go, refining our idea into the fullest version of itself. Most successful entrepreneurs and business owners have long lists of “failed” attempts behind them. That’s because the way vision works is more like an engine to get things moving. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want, it’s useful to sketch out a vision anyway, to get the process started. Here are some examples of visions or goals in particular areas of life:
I’d like $100,000 in my savings account by next year at this time.
I’d like to leave work at 5pm every day and have energy for my family at night.
I’d like to take on a new project that motivates me to learn new skills.
Once you’d sketched out what you want as best you can, ask yourself how you will FEEL once you have that thing. This part of the the vision is crucial, because it activates your sensory nervous system to start looking for aspects of the vision in your everyday life. When you activate your vision with a feeling state, you actually begin to see, hear and discover things that were flying under your radar before.
I’ll feel safe.
I’ll feel relieved.
I’ll feel energized.
Step 2: Action
Once we’ve sketched out a vision, many of us are tempted to make a big giant leap to get there all at once. Unfortunately, this is not typically the way things work. At least, it’s not the path of sustainable achievement. Your nervous system is wired for homeostasis, and so a big change is felt as a shock to the system. Most often, it will just snap you right back to what is familiar, or recreate a similar situation again. Incremental changes over time, however, are far less threatening to the nervous system, and therefore result in more lasting change.
Rather than emptying your next paycheck into your savings account, setup an automatic monthly deposit in an amount that feels doable. After a few months, reassess. If you typically work late, try leaving 30 minutes earlier for a week. Reassess. Move the dial slowly, and before you know it, a handful of those small changes will accumulate into what seems, in retrospect, like a very big change indeed.
Step 3: Resistance
As you begin to make small changes, sooner or later (usually sooner) you will encounter some resistance. This can feel like exhaustion, hesitation, procrastination, fear, anxiety, distraction, even illness. It can show up as conflict with real people or events. It can also show up, stealthily, as self-sabotage and negative thinking.
The bigger the change, the fiercer the resistance. This is your body’s way of helping you establish the most effective size of your next step forward. What is the system able to accept? You want to feel a little bit uncomfortable as you make change, but not terrified or overwhelmed. If your resistance is too intense, you’re probably in the snap-back zone. It’s too much change all at once. But if you don’t feel anything, you’re already at homeostasis, so you need to take a slightly bolder step. It’s crucial to “right-size” the changes you’re making in your life, and not to compare or judge the size of your own next step relative to anyone else’s.
We don’t like to talk about resistance, but I’ve come to think of it as the most critical step in the process of change, because it’s usually the place where we stop and complain that we’re stuck. My approach to resistance has become another mindfulness practice. When I hit an internal block or an external challenge, the faster I can just get quiet and observe it, the faster I can get the message it’s there to give me. And the message is the key. The message is the gold. Once I get the message, I can right-size my next step.
Personally, I find that working with a coach is most powerful when you’re hitting resistance. You have your vision, you’re taking some steps toward it, or at least you think you are, but nothing’s happening and you feel confused, lost, frustrated, panicked, or overwhelmed. That’s resistance. Understanding and integrating patterns of resistance is not the same as “powering through” or “just doing it.” Those strategies are the same as trying to make too much change at once. Your nervous system will just snap you back to where you started to find homeostasis. The creative dialogue of empowerment coaching, on the other hand, is a precise tool to excavate personal patterns of resistance and re-integrate or re-frame them so that sustainable, incremental change can continue.