How to Become a Hero c.j. hayden
   How to Become a Hero
   You Are the Champion the World Is Waiting For

   C.J. Hayden, MCC

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Letting go to make room for more 

new yearI always become contemplative at this time of year, considering the year just past and the year to come. I list my successes, achievements, and wins for the past twelve months, and also my failures, breakdowns, and disappointments. Usually, I make discoveries. What I learn from this process leads me to set goals, design projects, and make commitments for the new year that will hopefully result in more wins and fewer breakdowns.

One of my significant discoveries in reviewing 2009 was that many of this year's accomplishments had to do with letting go. I let go of possessions I no longer needed, got rid of some emotional baggage, put to rest projects that were not serving me, reduced my financial overhead, and ended a few client relationships. Simultaneously, many of the year's disappointments resulted from activities and opportunities I wanted to pursue, but couldn't find time for.

Hmm, it seems that there is an equation to be deduced here. In order to make room for more, I need to let go of more.

Like many humans, I often behave as if time were infinitely expandable, adding more and more activities, projects, and relationships to my life until it is bursting at the seams. The upside is that I get a lot done and have the pleasure of playing in many different arenas. The downside is that with my days already so full, there is little room for anything new. And one of the activities I love most is starting new things!

If one is always starting new projects, and none of them ever end, the eventual result is a mathematically predictable state of impasse. So I have determined that my first resolution for 2010 is to let go of projects that are not essential for the present. Every activity and relationship I'm engaged in served me at some point in the past. Many will serve me again in the future. But it is what fills my life in the present that determines both my own happiness and my capacity to serve others.

Since 2003, I've been posting to this blog, sometimes frequently, at other times not so often. It has been a rewarding activity to engage in, and has opened the door to many fulfilling relationships. But... I have concluded that at this point in time, it is no longer essential that I continue it. This will be the last new post here, for the present.

I hope you have enjoyed being one of my readers. The How to Become a Hero site will remain up, so past entries will still be available. If you would like to stay connected, please link to me on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or stop by to see what else I'm up to.

I wish you all the best for your own hero's journey in 2010 and beyond.

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A generation moves from me to we 

Baby Boomers have often been characterized as the "Me Generation," self-centered, self-indulgent, and focused only on their own happiness. Not so, according to a report released by the AARP. In reality, 70% of Boomers feel a responsibility to make the world a better place, 57% try to buy from companies that give back to their communities, and 24% recently volunteered for a charitable cause.

maslow's pyramidI wonder, though, if a survey of Boomer attitudes would have shown the same results two decades ago, during the materialistic 80's. As a Boomer myself, I suspect my personal experience mirrors that of my generation. I spent much of the 80's trying to establish myself in a career and build some assets. By the early 90's, I had acquired a decent education, some marketable skills, and a healthy bank account.

What happened next was that I started to look around for ways to make the world a better place, give back to my community, and volunteer time for causes I cared about, just as the report indicates.

The sheer weight of our numbers in the Boomer generation has swept the rest of society along with us as we have grown and matured. When we were busy finding ourselves in the 70's, the human potential movement blossomed. As we focused on establishing ourselves in the world of work in the 80's, we created a booming economy. The 90's, a decade that has yet to be labeled with one defining characteristic, is when we began to take stock of ourselves once again. And we concluded that the answer to "is that all there is?" was no, that there had to be something more to life than making money and raising families.

So now in 2009, what is the prevailing set of Boomer attitudes? In Maslow's classic hierarchy of human needs, when people are able to satisfy their basic needs for food, shelter, and safety, they first strive for belonging, then for esteem, and finally for self-actualization. This top-of-the-pyramid state includes a focus on others, desire for a mission in life, and kinship with all of mankind.

This is where the most influential generation of the modern era now finds itself -- in a state of mind, and of our own personal development, where making the world a better place is not just a nice thing to do, but our primary goal. And if this Boomer imperative is anything like the others that have gone before it, there's a good chance that the rest of society will follow our lead.

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The world's a mess – so what else is new? 

the world's a messIn 8th century India, the prince Shantideva renounced worldly life and composed the Buddhist teachings known as The Way of the Bodhisattva. Shantideva acknowledged the vast suffering that pervaded his world. People everywhere were afflicted by war, hunger, poverty, disease, and sorrow. As if life itself weren't harsh enough, humans were causing harm to each other daily through aggression, ignorance, and greed. Sound familiar?

Shantideva named just one source as the cause of all this suffering: "All the harm with which this world is rife, all fear and suffering that there is, clinging to the ‘I' has caused it! What am I to do with this great demon?" His solution was simple, although not easy. In The Way of the Bodhisattva, he advocates a way of life dedicated to serving not ourselves, but our fellow humans.

Writing about Shantideva and the bodhisattva path, Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, "When I look at the state of the world today, I know his message could not possibly be more timely." In Chodron's book No Time to Lose, a modern commentary on Shantideva's text, she defines bodhisattvas as spiritual warriors who long to alleviate not just their own suffering, but that of others. Opening with a chapter titled "People Like Us Can Make a Difference," Chodron writes, "Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified this kind of longing. He knew that happiness depended on healing the whole situation. Taking sides -- black or white, abusers or abused -- only perpetuates the suffering. For me to be healed, everyone has to be healed."

On Monday, January 19, 2009, president-elect Obama has asked that we once again honor the memory of Dr. King with a national Day of Service. This year's King Day of Service is expected to be the largest ever, and it's not too late to get involved. Visit to find a service event near you.

A day of service is a generous act, and we should all feel proud to participate. But what King, Chodron, and Shantideva propose is a life of service. Shantideva asks us, "Since I and other beings both, in fleeing suffering are equal and alike, what difference is there to distinguish us, that I should save myself and not the other?"

This is the bodhisattva ideal. The world is a mess. The world has always been a mess. But there is something we can do to lessen our suffering, and that is to strive to alleviate the suffering of others, whenever and wherever we can. And there's no time to lose. In the words of Dr. King, "Life's most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?"

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Start scattering 

ideas, free to a good homeHelen Walton, the wife of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, died last year, leaving an estimated $16.4 billion to charity. Walton was at one point the richest woman in the world, but one of her favorite sayings was, "It's not what you gather in life, but what you scatter in life that tells the kind of life you have lived."

Since I ran across this quote, "stop gathering and start scattering" has become a mantra around my home and office. The first place I've decided it applies is my physical environment. I'll be the first to admit that I am a magnet for clutter. I have far too many interests for one person, and each of them attracts quantities of, well, stuff.

Stuff like books, flyers, brochures, business cards, magazines, newspapers, more books, needlework and crafts projects, scrapbooking materials, souvenirs from my travels, more books, music and home study courses on LP's, audiocassettes, and CD's (thank heaven for the iPod), videos on DVD's and videotapes, more books... I'm sure you get the picture.

In this physical realm, what "stop gathering and start scattering" means to me is gathering up the things that no longer hold as much interest as they once did, and scattering them out in the world where someone else can get value from them. Recently, I filled two large boxes with materials from the era when I was interested in planetary exploration and space travel. I donated my collection of books, maps, posters, slides, models, and research reports to a local science teacher who was thrilled to have them for his middle school class. Scattering felt very satisfying.

The next level of applying this mantra for me is with my writing. I write a lot of material that isn't published anywhere, or perhaps only to a small circulation. Some of it is good, useful stuff. As with the items cluttering my shelves, drawers, and closets, more people should have a chance to make use of what I've written. After all, once I write it, I'm pretty much done with it myself.

To that end, I've been working lately on publishing and reprinting more of what I've written for a wider audience. For example, I have a chapter in the book Guerrilla Marketing on the Front Lines, released this month, and one of my articles was the lead feature in the August issue of Home Business. More scattering, with positive results.

The third plane where this mantra applies is in the world of ideas. And this, I think, is where it could become a helpful bit of guidance for any would-be hero. If I have a useful idea, and I don't share it, no one else can benefit from it. In an average week, the new ideas running through my head might range from a profitable new line of business for a colleague who produces newsletters, to a design for a training/coaching program to help people launch social change ventures, to the outline of platform points for an international movement to use business models as a tool for making the world a better place.

If ideas like these just stay in my head (or yours), what good are they doing anyone? Perhaps it's personally rewarding to think them up, but then what? Can continuing to gather ideas, without scattering them out in the world, possibly benefit anyone but the gatherer?

And so, chanting my new mantra, I find myself looking now for the best ways to begin scattering more of my ideas. It's not quite as simple as collecting them in a box and posting a notice on Craigslist: "ideas, free to a good home." Nor can they really be published, like writing can, when they are not yet fully formed.

No, an idea that is represented nowhere other than a cryptic note on an envelope back or a bar napkin has little value. Ideas need to be developed in order to become useful. And herein lies one of the hero's biggest challenges. Developing an idea takes time and energy. Spending time on one means that others will suffer. Many ideas have potential value; how do you choose between them? And if you keep having new ideas, when is there ever time to go back to the old ones?

Perhaps I will never be able to develop and share a fraction of the ideas I have gathered. But I have a renewed commitment now to scattering as many as I can. After all, they're just collecting dust around here.

If you're looking for a few new ideas and could give them a good home, please let me know.

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Is it time to wake up? 

St. Augustine
In his Confessions, the 4th century philosopher and theologian St. Augustine of Hippo writes of being "held down pleasantly, as in sleep," instead of rising to answer the call to an enlightened state. We all know the place between sleeping and waking, when you wake and drowsily wonder, "Should I get up and start my day, or should I luxuriate here in my warm, comfortable bed?" It feels so good just to lie there and ignore the rest of the world, at least for a time. You know you should get up, but perhaps it wouldn't hurt to doze, just for a few minutes more...

Augustine's point was how pleasurable it can be to avoid becoming enlightened, and delay taking action on what you know to be true. Even when you know there is more to life than lying abed, that there are important things to be done, and you should be doing them, it's so much more pleasant to snuggle deeper under the covers and keep your eyes closed a little while longer.

On an average morning in daily life, of course, we do get up, although sometimes a bit later than we should. Usually, someone is expecting us to be somewhere – a spouse, a boss, a child, a client. And so we rise, protestingly, sometimes grumpily, because duty calls.

But answering the call to enlightenment doesn't work quite that way. There is typically no one waiting for you to become enlightened, no expectation that you will be arriving at enlightenment by 9:00 AM, no consequences if you choose not to become enlightened today.

And so the choice is yours alone, and it comes upon you at the most inopportune time – when you are half asleep. How can you be expected, you might protest, to make such a brave choice when you aren't even fully awake? Exactly so. This is why most of us spend as much of our lives as possible in a half asleep state. It's so pleasant here resting between the oblivion of sleep and the responsibilities of waking life. Who wouldn't want to stay here as long as he or she could?

By the very nature of this particular choice, it only comes upon you when you are at your lowest ebb, defenseless, yearning to retain the lusciousness of staying half asleep, even after you know that a more enlightened state awaits you.

The choice is yours to make – sleep or wake, luxuriate in selfish pleasure or rise and meet the day, burrow deeper into your cocoon or open your eyes to what the world needs of you.

Half asleep, your world can be no larger than your bedroom. Wide awake, from your bedroom you can begin to change the world.

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Penguins on land and sea 

Galapagos penguinsI just returned from a trip to the amazing Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, best known as the place where Charles Darwin first developed the theory of evolution by natural selection. Today, 98% of the Galapagos is protected as a national park, preserving the unique species of animals and birds that exist nowhere else on earth.

Because humans are not a threat, and there are no large predators on land, the wildlife has no fear of people. You can walk right up to nesting birds, sunning lizards, or nursing sea lions, and observe them at close range. Among the many animals I got to know this way were the penguins, who swam alongside us as we snorkeled.

If you watch a group of penguins for a while, you'll discover something quite interesting. On land, penguins waddle or hop, sometimes spreading their wing-flippers to maintain balance on their narrow webbed feet. Their lack of grace is frequently comical, and the only way they can travel quickly is to flop on their bellies and slide.

In the water, however, penguins are agile and fast. A diving penguin can travel up to 17 miles per hour. They zipped past us like little torpedoes, leaving streams of bubbles in their wake. Penguins in the water are masters of their environment, while penguins on land are awkward and slow.

The behavior of penguins demonstrates a phenomenon I've often observed in people. Some environments feel natural to us, and when we are in them, we are graceful and adept. But in strange surroundings, we can be clumsy and unskilled. Sometimes we can adapt to new environments, and over time become more capable in them. But not always. Penguins have been spending half their time on land for millennia, and after all that time, they are still more at home in the water.

There's a lesson here for those setting out on their own hero's journey. Your journey may lead you to unfamiliar new environments. By all means, try them out to see if they are a fit for you. You may be pleasantly surprised at how well you adapt. But you may also discover that there are some surroundings where you naturally do well, and others where you constantly struggle.

When I first decided I was going to change my profession to one that allowed me to do more good in the world, I was led to give many talks and workshops in far-away cities. On a typical trip, I would get on an airplane, spend one night at my destination, give my presentation, and fly home again, all within 48 hours. These whirlwind business trips were a challenge for me, but I struggled to adapt. "I should be able to do this," I told myself. After several years of business travel where I got sick, came home exhausted, or suffered from stress and anxiety, I finally realized my mistake. Natural selection was at work, telling me I was not adapted for this environment!

I do infinitely better when I can either sleep in my own bed at night, or spend several days at a destination, becoming acclimated to it. So now when I give presentations to far-away audiences, I either deliver a teleclass or webinar from home, or combine my visit with a vacation where I spend at least three or four days in the area where I am speaking. What a difference! Instead of being an awkward, uncomfortable penguin on land, I become a graceful, at-ease penguin in the water.

Each of us is naturally well-suited to certain environments. But in other surroundings, while we can certainly survive, we will never be at our best. So if you should discover that at heart you are really a penguin, start swimming.


Going the long way around 

Many years ago, at a challenging time in my life, I had a dream of accomplishing an important goal in San Francisco. At the time I envisioned that goal, I was stranded in Indianapolis with no job and no money. I eventually got to San Francisco, and accomplished my goal. But I had to get there by way of Toronto.

Now a quick glance at any map will tell you that Toronto is not on the way from Indianapolis to San Francisco. Since this chain of events took place in the middle of winter, going to Toronto was certainly not going to bring me any better weather. I didn't have a permit to work in Canada at the time I went there, so it wasn't going to be any easier to find a job, either.

But what did exist in Toronto was one person who I believed cared about me, and another person who I thought would give me some money. It turned out I was right on both counts. I got enough money to rent a room; with a place to stay, I found an under-the-table job; with someone nearby who cared about me, I stuck out the lousy job for six weeks and saved up enough money for a bus ticket to San Francisco.

Sometimes the only way to accomplish what you think is important is by going the long way around.

A friend of mine is stuck in his own personal Indianapolis right now. He has an important goal, one that could possibly impact the lives of many people for the better. And he's determined to reach his own version of San Francisco to get it done. But the problem is that he's afraid to leave his Indianapolis until he has the entire journey mapped out, paid for, and planned every step of the way. You see, he doesn't want to end up in Toronto by mistake.

I understand my friend's fear. None of us wants to make a mistake. It seems like it would be so much safer to plan and prepare for every little contingency before setting out. That way you can avoid making any mistakes, right? Ah, if only that were true!

In reality, leaving Indianapolis before he is completely ready might not be such a bad idea for my friend at all. At least he'll be on the road and moving. He'll learn some things; he'll meet some people; he'll find out what it's like to begin pursuing his goal instead of just dreaming about it. He'll work the bugs out of his plan with some road testing in the real world. He might even discover that some of his goal can be achieved before he ever gets to San Francisco.

When the only way you can figure out how to get from Indianapolis to San Francisco is by way of Toronto, then I say, go that way. If you go the long way around, you are still going. If you insist on staying put until you've planned every detail, you're not going anywhere.

The distance from Indianapolis to San Francisco is 2,272 miles. The distance traveled if you have to go by way of Toronto would be 3,193 miles instead. But the distance traveled if you don't go at all is zero. That doesn't sound like a journey worth planning to me.

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Being the change 

March 24-30, 2008 has been designated as Conversation Week by Conversation Café and Global MindShift. This annual event is an opportunity for people around the world to gather in small groups and have meaningful conversations.

I love having deep, purposeful conversations and enjoy being in environments where they can be had. I used to think I was shy because I felt so uncomfortable in many social situations, but then I realized that it was simply because I had never learned to enjoy small talk. What interests me is large talk.

The most important questions for Conversation Week dialogues this year were voted on by 1500 people in 39 countries. Here they are:
  1. How can we best prepare our children for the future?
  2. What does sustainability look like to you? How do we get there?
  3. How do humans need to adapt to survive the changes predicted for this century?
  4. How do we shift from "Me" to "We" on both the local and global levels?
  5. How can you, as Gandhi said, be the change that you want to see in the world?
  6. What kind of economic structures can best support a shift to sustainable living?
  7. How should we re-invent the political process so that people feel that they have a voice?
  8. What kind of leadership does the world need now?
  9. How can we balance our personal needs with the most pressing needs of our community and the larger world?
  10. What can we do to reduce or eliminate violence in the world?

It's a compelling list of topics. I was most taken by #5, "How can you, as Gandhi said, be the change that you want to see in the world?" Conversation Week organizers provided some additional conversational doorways into each topic, and for this one they asked: "What gaps do you notice between your 'walk' and 'talk' and what steps can you take towards 'being the change'?"

"What steps can you take?" What a crucial element this question is for a dialogue about change. Perhaps it is my training and experience as a coach (or perhaps this is what drew me to coaching in the first place), but I often feel driven to end conversations by asking, "And what is your next step?" To me, this is how conversations can be not only meaningful, but impactful.

Being in dialogue with others is an essential tool for raising our awareness. Sometimes it is the only way we ever find out what we really think. We make a declaration aloud in response to a question or challenge, and find ourselves thinking, "Yes, of course! That's what I believe to be true."

But as significant as that awareness may be, what often happens is that the moment of enlightenment passes, and we go on with our lives as before. We have a momentous realization, but then don't connect any action to it. And then we forget about it until the next time something or someone prods us into awareness again.

Perhaps one move we can all make toward "being the change" is to add this one simple question to our conversations about how the world should be different: "And what is your next step?" Perhaps if we keep asking this of others, they will also start asking it of us.

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We are the champions 

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed a slight but significant shift in its theme over this past year. When I first began writing on the topic How to Become a Hero four years ago, I described the theme of these reflections as "stepping into your own greatness to be of service to others." Later on, this became "finding your right livelihood on the path of service." But recently I made the decision to declare a new theme for these entries: "you are the champion the world is waiting for."

I first began thinking about the need for more heroes in our modern world after the 9/11 attacks. There were many people who became heroes on that day, called forth by the urgent need of others. But so many aspects of this catastrophe could have been prevented if there were more people called to heroic acts before it began. "Why do the heroes appear only after the tragedy," I wondered. "We should be taking steps just as bold to prevent the causes of terrorism, not just responding after it occurs."

Then the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the news was again filled with stories about heroes. But this time many of those profiled weren't just saving lives – they were also responsible for taking them. "What about the warriors for peace and justice?" I asked. "Where are their stories? Aren't they also heroes?" I launched this blog three months after the war began.

And then came Hurricane Katrina. I watched helplessly from San Francisco as people in New Orleans suffered and died. Days passed, and it seemed that news cameras could reach every area of the flooded city while rescuers and supplies could not.

There were many heroes on the ground, doing what they could under desperate conditions with limited resources. But with very few exceptions, those in charge failed to show leadership, courage, or even a sense of responsibility. Instead, rescue efforts moved forward at a snail's pace as government agencies and elected officials protected their turf, pointed fingers at each other, and delayed critical decisions. Meanwhile, supplies, volunteers, and vehicles sent from outside the area were refused admittance to the city.

It was during that awful week that I realized three compelling truths about becoming a hero:

1. We cannot wait for a hero to come and rescue us.
Like the people of New Orleans, we may be waiting for a rescuer to help our community or cause, but it just may be that no one is coming. The most likely place to look for leadership is not out in the world, but within ourselves.

2. We cannot wait to figure out the best possible course of action. Seeking our ultimate life purpose is a worthwhile endeavor, but meanwhile, we should take action to make a difference where and how we can. We will develop our heroic qualities more by exercising them than by contemplating possibilities.

3. We cannot wait for a disaster to hear the call to heroism. If the only time we are compelled to act is when a disaster is at our door, many options are already closed to us. We can make much more of a difference in the world around us by working steadily to address chronic problems and prevent major disasters from occurring.

There is no one better qualified, smarter, braver, or more talented than you and I to redress the ills we see in the world. There are no grownups to tell us what we should do. There are no leaders we can count on to do what must be done. In the words of Freddie Mercury, we are the champions of the world. It's you that the world is waiting for.

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Ignoring the signs 

We live in a country of rebels. It seems that flagrant disregard of signs is part of our national character. I witness this every time I work out at the gym. The line of treadmills, elliptical trainers, and exercise bikes looks out through floor-to-ceiling windows at a spectacular view of the northern half of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay. But directly below, my eyes are drawn to the constant activity on the top floor of the parking garage, an area where all the stalls are clearly marked "Compact Car Only."

During the course of a 40-minute workout, I'll see a dozen different SUV's, vans, and pickup trucks pull in and out of these too-small spaces. With not enough room between the lanes to back and turn, they often have to pull in and out several times, sometimes with the help of a passenger or passerby to guide them. Solo drivers frequently bump into the other parked cars, sometimes leading to altercations.

Why do these drivers insist on ignoring the signs and parking in spaces too small for their vehicles, even when there are plenty of full-size spaces on the floors below? And these aren't the only signs I see being ignored. Daily, I notice people pushing doors marked "pull," standing still on the left side of escalators posted "walk on left, stand on right," and getting out of their airplane seats while the "fasten seat belts" sign is lit. And I can't remember the last time I saw anyone actually observing a speed limit sign.

I guess it's not surprising, then, that we also ignore much more significant signs than these. For example, when you wake up on Monday morning and feel sick to your stomach at the thought of another week at a meaningless job. Or when you have a recurring dream of a promised land you can't seem to reach. Or when three times in one week, news about a cause you're attracted to, but doing nothing about, drops into your lap.

There are times when it may serve you to rebel against authority. Following the rules all the time is not necessarily the best path to making a difference in the world. But when the authority you are rebelling against is your own inner knowing that a path to something greater is waiting for you, maybe you should pay more attention to the signs.


What to do when you don't know what to do 

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of many potential heroes is figuring out exactly what to do. Sometimes we hear the call to make a difference in the world loud and clear... but we wish it could have been a bit more specific. "Get moving!" says the compelling voice in our head. "The world needs you. Do something!" But what's missing from this exhortation is any indication of what that something is.

So then what? Do we wait for another divine transmission with perhaps a few more instructions? Do we begin an intentional quest for our life's ultimate purpose, engaging in study, contemplation, dialogue, and analysis? Do we ignore the call because we don't know what the appropriate action truly is? Or do we begin somewhere, anywhere, not knowing if it's right, and perhaps making a major mistake?

My personal orientation toward action often leads me to "pick up a broom and start sweeping," as I described in an earlier post. I have found that I can learn what the right direction is by choosing a path to take and beginning to walk down it. If it's the wrong path, I find out soon enough. Then I can choose a different one. This type of trial-and-error decision-making usually works better for me than standing at the crossroad trying to completely think things through.

But this works for me because I have a high tolerance for risk and don't place much value on caution. When I took Martin Seligman's Signature Strengths Survey, one of my top five strengths was "bravery and valor." My strength in "caution, prudence, and discretion," on the other hand, was ranked way down at #22 out of a total of 24. So it's no surprise that I'm more willing to leap into unknown territory than I am to carefully consider all my options. In fact, I'm actually better at leaping than at considering.

For me, the best answer to "what to do when you don't know what to do" is clearly to take action in a new direction, because that capitalizes on my strengths. In addition to bravery and valor, I also score high on curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. But mine is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If your strength is in caution and prudence, I would guess that a careful analysis might be a valuable next step. Or if your strength was in spirituality and faith, you might spend time in prayer or meditation. Or if it was in teamwork and loyalty, you might ask for guidance from others close to you.

If there is a single recipe that everyone could follow to determine what to do when you don't know what to do, perhaps it is this: 1) Know what your strengths are. 2) Find a way to use them that will help you move forward. 3) Repeat as necessary.

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How is your obituary coming along? 

The past two months have seen the passing of two significant people in my life. First, my coaching mentor Laura Whitworth died of lung cancer. Then my father passed away at the age of 91. The blessing and the curse of being a writer is that people expect you to come up with the right words for important occasions. I was asked to write obituaries for both Laura and my dad, and to speak at both memorial services.

It's a challenging task to sum up a person's life in a three-paragraph obituary or five-minute speech. What should you include? What do you leave out? What would the person you are honoring have wanted you to say?

Both Laura and my father had an impressive list of achievements to acknowledge. Laura co-founded three professional organizations and six businesses -- one of which became the largest coach training company in the world -- and co-authored a bestselling book. My father held five patents in electronics and automation, and published over 50 professional papers.

Even so, neither Laura nor my father felt as if they were done yet. Laura had far-reaching plans for her newest project, The Bigger Game. My dad was working on a book about the history of film and broadcast technology.

Immersed on preparing these life summaries, I couldn't help but wonder, what will be in my obituary? Because I notice that in both the obituaries I wrote, completed projects made the cut, but work in progress did not. If I were to die today, my obit would mention the two full-length books I've published. But all the blood, sweat, and tears I've put into the other books I haven't finished yet wouldn't even receive a mention.

In order to become a part of your personal legacy, the work in question must actually be done. Dreams, ideas, goals, and plans, no matter how visionary and grand, don't count in the end. When you are gone, what stays behind to make an impact on those who outlive you is what you have completed, not what you hoped to accomplish some day.

And so I ask, how is your obituary coming along? Which of your treasured dreams and plans have you already brought to life, and which are still waiting for you to act on them?


Do you need a gatekeeper? 

Recently, I've been tempted by a number of interesting opportunities that I've had to turn down. They were all possibilities that had merit, and some of them were options that I myself had initiated by setting wheels in motion at an earlier time. But it often seems to me that there are too many desserts on the buffet table of life. One or even two can be delicious and satisfying. Putting four or five on my plate at once, however, does not produce a beneficial result.

It's always a challenge when I'm faced with several different new opportunities, all of which are appealing. I want to say yes to them all and figure out later how I will fit them in, even though I know from long experience that this is a recipe for disaster. The trickiest part is when they arrive not in a bunch, so I can choose between them, but one by one, so I don't know what's coming next.

On Monday, I'm asked to deliver a keynote in Orlando. On Tuesday, I receive a request to write an article for a trade journal. Wednesday, I'm invited to serve on an industry committee. Thursday, I'm offered several days of training in Europe. And Friday, an exciting new client urgently wants to work with me. If I were comparing all five of those choices side by side, knowing that I can't pursue them all, the one I might pick first is the exciting client from Friday who needs to get started right away. But if I had already said yes to two or three of the earlier invitations, I might no longer have the time and energy to even return that client's call.

This is where my gatekeeper comes in. Executives, celebrities, and other important folks have people on staff to screen the requests they receive and decide which ones are worth responding to. They give their staff criteria to use in screening calls and mail in order to decide who gets through the gate. Now maybe, like me, you don't have a full-time staff, but you are still an important person. Why not design criteria like these that you can use to screen your own opportunies?

I hit upon this strategy some time ago in a moment of complete overwhelm, and (when I remember to use it) my gatekeeper has served me well ever since. When faced with a tough choice about whether or not to engage in an attractive project, I let my gatekeeper decide. What is this gatekeeper? It's a list of criteria I designed in a visioning session with myself, and I use it to evaluate the project in question to see how well it fits.

To give you an idea of how this works, here are the main criteria on my gatekeeper's list:
o Will this project make the world a better place?
o Does this project honor my personal values?
o If I am being compensated, will I earn at least $X per hour for the entire project, including time required to write a proposal, prepare for the work, and travel there and back?
o If I am not being compensated, is the population being served in alignment with my mission?
o If I am speaking or writing for promotional purposes, is the topic and audience one that serves my current strategic plan?
o If travel is involved, is there at least a one week buffer zone before and after any other travel dates or major deadlines?
o Are there currently ten or fewer projects I am committed to that will require my attention during the same week as this one?

Your gatekeeper's list may be quite different from mine, but if you haven't considered using a system like this before, you may find it both valuable and enlightening. The first time I tried out my fairly simple screening criteria, I was shocked to discover how many projects I was already working on didn't measure up!

A critical moment on the hero's journey is when he or she faces several doors and must choose which one to open. It could come in handy to have a gatekeeper standing by to advise you which door leads to the treasure and which one conceals the dragon.


A poverty of ambition 

Listening to Barack Obama's podcast recently, I heard a talk and Q and A session he gave for Partnership for Public Service interns last July, where he referred to a "poverty of ambition."

It's not the first time Obama has used this compelling phrase. Here's a quote from his commencement address to Knox College in 2005: "Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you do have that obligation. It's primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential."

It seems to me that a poverty of ambition in our modern world afflicts much more than young people making career decisions. We each must choose -- not just once, but many times throughout our lives -- whether to act purely on our own behalf, or to raise our ambition to something higher than our immediate wants and needs. Too often, we choose simply what serves us in the moment. I'm not talking about just you and me making decisions that affect our own lives and those of our families. Our political leaders, business leaders, and community leaders, more often than not, are limiting their ambition to choices that are poor in every sense of the word. And we're letting them get away with it.

When we raise our ambition to seek out solutions that benefit everyone instead of settling for those that help only a few, we call forth the amazing richness of our human potential. By expecting more -- of ourselves, our leaders, and our communities -- we raise the bar for what is acceptable. A raised bar causes us to stretch our capacity, to explore new ways of doing things, to sometimes simply leap, and by leaping, set a new record for what is possible. In this rich territory of stretching and exploring and leaping, we not only discover what we were already capable of, we make ourselves more capable than we ever could have been without the challenge.

Realizing our true potential as people, as leaders, as a nation, and as a global community requires a higher ambition. It is by growing ourselves that we can truly grow rich.

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A life's work or a day's work? 

It's hard to set out on your hero's journey when you aren't sure where you are going. If I had to name the one thing that prevents more bright, talented people from making a difference in the world than any other, I'd say it was not knowing what the difference is they truly want to make.

It seems that most of us would-be heroes are listening very hard for The Call -- the inspired message that will tell us once and for all what we are supposed to do with our lives -- but we aren't quite sure how to recognize the real thing. One morning you feel unusually determined to do something about global warming and you wonder, "Is this it? Have I heard The Call now?"

But when you find yourself the next day strongly pulled toward a project to help teenage runaways, you think, "I guess that global warming idea wasn't the real thing. Maybe this is it." And your plans to take action about global warming go out the window. But you're still not sure about helping those teenage runaways. After all, you were wrong before about hearing The Call. Maybe you had better wait and see how you feel tomorrow.

As someone who has heard and acted on more than one inspired message in the course of a lifetime, here's my experience with the "how to be sure" question. You can only ever know what is right for you today... or maybe this hour, or this minute.

There is a moment on each journey when we take the step that sets things in motion which prevent our easy retreat. And I think that often it is the mood we are in at the very moment we take that step that determines the journey we go on.

There is probably no single mission in life that will hold your attention forever. There may not be just one mission that will satisfy you completely for even a short time. But one thing is sure -- if you wait until you know without a doubt what that mission is, you will also be waiting to do what good you can in the world in the meantime.

I say if there is a mess in front of you and your hand lights upon a broom, pick it up and start sweeping. Perhaps ultimately a mop might do a better job, or even a shovel. But the longer you wait to decide what tool to use, the longer the mess will be there.

I don't mean to suggest you should just throw a dart at a random list of ways to help the world. But you have probably already done a lot of studying and thinking and listening about what your mission in life should be. Most people I talk to are seriously considering no more than a handful of different ideas at any one time.

What I am suggesting, though, is that you should allow yourself to be moved in the direction of action regarding one of these ways to be of service the next time some useful action presents itself to you.

There will be a moment when that action will turn into a commitment and then there will be another point when you can decide if the direction you are going feels right. Even after you commit, most commitments are negotiable. Once you have set upon a course, you can usually still change it, although it becomes harder to do the further along you go.

But since it's likely that no decision you make will be permanent anyway, why not simply choose to make one based on what is calling to you most in that moment? Then you will act, and in acting, you will learn more. After deciding, you will feel differently than before you decided, and that too, you will learn from. When you decide and act, you will tell people about your choice, and from their reactions (and from your own when you tell them), you will learn still more.

And while you are learning these things, you will simultaneously be contributing your unique talents in the direction of cleaning up a mess that is much in need of cleaning.

In many ways, I think there is little effort in acting to clean up the world's messes that is truly wasted. If you decide to work helping runaways for a time and then decide it is not for you, the runaways and you will still benefit. In fact, if you were to work or volunteer on a different path of service every month for the rest of your life, you and the world would still benefit.

In the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami, I read a news report that created a subtle but profound shift in my thinking on this issue of waiting to be sure about the best way to be of service.

A village leader in the Aceh province of Indonesia was interviewed by a journalist two weeks after the tsunami. "How much foreign aid is reaching your village?" the journalist asked.

"We can't understand it," the elder replied. "All we see are journalists and aid agency workers making studies. People come with cameras and clipboards and ask many questions. Then they leave and never come back. We need food, we need water. People are dying. Please stop sending people with questions about what we need and send us some help."

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One heroic act 

Did you make any resolutions this New Year? According to an A.C. Nielsen survey, over half of all the people in the world did in 2007. The most popular resolutions worldwide were to get more exercise and have a better work/life balance. Other top choices were to go on a diet, quit smoking, avoid bad relationships, and change jobs.

There's nothing wrong with resolutions like these. If we all paid more attention to our physical and emotional health as well as our job satisfaction, the world would be a happier place. But I'd like to see another sort of resolution make the top ten. What if we were all to resolve to do just one thing this year to make the world a better place?

Imagine the positive impact on a global scale if each of us took on just one significant task to better the lives of others or the state of our planet. We all have the capacity to be heroes if we allow ourselves to claim our own greatness. Could this be the year that you take a giant step forward on that path?

Here's my invitation -- choose one heroic act that you are willing to perform in 2007. Look outside yourself and your circle of family and friends to the wider world that is so in need of your skills and talents. What's just one thing that you could do to be of greater service?

I've pondered this question for myself, and decided that my heroic act this year will be to launch or join a project in support of educating girls in the developing world. There are several organizations already doing great work in this area, so my commitment is to forge an alliance with one of them and contribute enough of my time and energy to send at least 30 girls -- a classroom full -- to school this year in a developing country.

That's my heroic act for 2007 – what will be yours?

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To make a difference, be bold 

In the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge newsletter this week, I discovered the book Be Bold by Cheryl L. Dorsey and Lara Galinsky. “The urge to live a life of meaning,” the authors say, “is one of our most elemental desires as human beings. We want to make a difference in the world; we need to leave our footprint in the sands of time to mark our existence. By honoring the beliefs and values we hold dear, we allow ourselves to live lives that matter.”

In less than 100 pages, Dorsey and Galinsky share powerful concepts like having the “gall to think big” and choosing to be “bold as a career choice.” They remind us: “Never forget that doing nothing is as much a choice as doing something. Choosing to get engaged in a cause that you deeply care about or launching a career in the nonprofit sector are not only courageous acts of service, but also the most powerful weapon against the horrors and injustices of the world that require indifference, inaction, and silence to thrive.”

You can download at no charge the preface and introduction to the book, as well as a Be Bold personal journal, from the Be Bold website if you join their free virtual community of readers and social change advocates. Be Bold carries a valuable and timely message to would-be heroes everywhere.

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Lost and found 

How often do you lose your way? It's easy enough to get lost on the highway or in the forest, but what about your path through life? You would think that regarding a matter so important -- our life's mission or purpose -- we would stay constantly focused. But it seems that much of the time, we don't.

I know I find myself frequently off track with what I consider my life's work. Sometimes the detours are small, and I can easily find my way back. Other times, I discover that I have somehow wandered far from the path, and getting myself headed in the right direction again can be a struggle.

Yesterday, I was looking at a lengthy list of to-do's that all needed to be accomplished before the end of the month. The list was far too long to tackle, so I cut it down to what needed to happen in the next couple of days. When I discovered it was still too long to possibly complete in the time available, an alarm bell rang. I've been in this place before, and luckily, I recognized it. Too long a to-do list is a signpost informing me that I'm off track in life. Even though I was sure I knew my way this time, somehow I'd gotten lost again.

Your personal signpost for this place may be different, but if you look carefully, you'll identify it. Perhaps it is sleeplessness or bad dreams that let you know you've taken a wrong turn. Or you find yourself avoiding things you "should" be doing by watching TV or surfing the web. Or a loved one tells you that you seem unusually irritable or sad.

Once you know that you are lost, how do you find your way back? I recently asked some readers of this blog for their ideas about how to return to a purposeful path once you have wandered away. Here are some of their suggestions:

o Make a plan for what you're trying to do. Then you can refer to it and see where you need to go next.
o Get back in touch with your initial vision or passion -- read what you wrote about it, or go back to the spot where you last experienced it.
o Do just one thing that will point you in the direction of your mission.
o Connect with others who you believe have a similar vision.
o Seek out a role model or mentor to inspire you -- someone you know or someone you've heard of.
o Start a group where you are the leader and your followers will keep you on track.

For me, struggling with my mile-long to-do list, I started by asking how many of the items listed there were "on purpose." It turns out that very few of them were. I don't mean that they got on my list by accident or someone else's request -- I had chosen them all. But only a small percentage of what I had chosen was relevant to my true mission in life. The rest were a collection of shoulds, nice-to-have's, and the result of old habits I keep trying to outgrow.

After deleting a big chunk of the off-purpose tasks and moving some of the on-purpose items to the top, I felt much more on track. At least for the moment -- I'll probably have to do the same thing again a month from now.


Karma = action 

Watching a video course on Buddhism from The Teaching Company the other day, I learned something fascinating about the word "karma." I had always thought this term represented a sort of cosmic bank account where our good deeds counted as credits and our bad ones as debits. But it turns out what the word actually means is "action" or "the result of action."

The Wikipedia says "Karma is not about retribution, vengeance, punishment or reward. Karma simply deals with what is. The effects of all deeds actively create past, present and future experiences, thus making one responsible for one's own life, and the pain and joy brought to others." So, karma is simply what you do... or what you don't do.

I've been thinking and talking a lot about taking positive action over the past year. Ever since Hurricane Katrina struck last August, it has seemed more and more important to me that those who want to help others and make the world a better place need to go beyond conversation and good intentions, and do something about it. I've been taking action of my own in a few different ways -- working on several different Katrina relief projects, serving on the board of a nonprofit, starting work in earnest on the How to Become a Hero book, and hosting a discussion group for readers of this blog for the first eight months of this year. But I feel called to do more, and I want what I do to encourage others to do more, too.

To that end, I'm organizing a one-day retreat on Oct. 21st, called How to Become a Hero: Your Call to Action. I'm inviting a small group of like-minded people to gather in Marin County to explore their calling to serve others, deepen their commitment to this mission, and discover the course of action that will bring it to life. If you are in the Bay Area and this agenda speaks to you, please join us. I've kept the cost very low so it won't be a barrier to attending.

I've also decided that instead of spreading my volunteer efforts and donations among a variety of causes, I'm going to focus on just one cause. After much consideration, I believe I have found one that honors my values, satisfies my requirements, and that I feel a deep connection to. By choosing a solid anchor for my charitable work, I feel I can make more of an impact. I'll be sharing more about this cause in future posts.

So those are the actions I have chosen, or should I say, this is the karma I am choosing to create. What karma are you creating today?

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Time waits for no one and it won't wait for me 

Has anyone seen the month of May? I seem to have misplaced it. When I sat down this morning to post to this blog, I discovered that my last post was on April 30. I could have sworn I wrote those words no more than two weeks ago. Perhaps gremlins changed the date on my blog page.

But no, further detective work in my office indicates that May really was somehow stolen from my working life. I located a stack of unopened mail with May postmarks in the vicinity of my desk, which turned out to hold both an undeposited check and an unpaid bill. Yikes!

If I wasn't even opening the mail last month, it's pretty likely I wasn't making any progress on my heroic journey either -- you know, the "Big A" agenda I have for making the world a better place. Not a good thing.

I could just write the month off. After all, I have a good excuse -- I must have been busy. But how good an excuse is that really? Here's some food for thought from success author Zig Ziglar: "...are we really busier than we've ever been? In reality, based on what 10,000 people recorded in their hour-by-hour time diaries, Americans, on the average, have 40 hours a week of discretionary time which they can invest as they please. This is more than they had 30 years ago and five hours more than they had in 1975."

I could argue that as a business owner, I have less discretionary time than the average bear. But that's nonsense. In reality, I have much more. I don't have a boss telling me what to do with my work time -- I'm telling myself what to do. If I'm not spending enough time on the things that matter most to me, there's really no one else I can blame.

I ran across a quote from an old interview with Michael Landon, and I've decided to make it my theme for the month of June: "Someone should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it, I say! Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows."


Face to face with the second step 

Years ago, someone gave me a Richard Stine greeting card showing a dog climbing a flight of stairs. His nose is pressed against the back of the staircase, his tongue hangs out, and the caption reads "face to face with the second step."

At the time I received this card, I was at a loss for what I was going to do next to earn a living. I had quit my job and rented an office in order to give myself a place to figure that out. I was working part-time as a corporate consultant, but I knew that wasn't the answer. The card expressed my state of mind exactly. I had the time; I had the space; I had a little money to spare; what was next?

I posted the card over my desk and stared at it daily, wondering what my next step was going to be. I wanted to do something important, something that would help people, something that would use my talents and skills more fully. I was all ready to do IT, but I just didn't know what IT was.

In my eight steps to becoming a hero, this wondering, waiting time is the heart of Step 2, Listening for the Call. For someone like myself with five fire signs in my astrological chart and a Myers-Briggs type ending in "J," not knowing what to do next was like being lost in the dark with no lantern, no map, and no watch.... and late for dinner. I felt an incredible urgency to be going somewhere and doing something. Every moment I didn't know my destination felt wasted and irrecoverable. But I was determined not to do what I had always done before, which was to simply take the next career option that appeared. This time, I was going to wait for inspiration. I was waiting to be called.

The hero's inspired call to action can take many different forms. It can be a nagging intuition, a sudden realization, a divine transmission, or a subtle wondering. It can strike out of the blue without warning, or come as the result of a deliberate process of mining one's thoughts, feelings, and muses for guidance. Sometimes you don't even know when it has arrived. You go to sleep one night without it, and wake up the next morning finding it there, as if it had always been.

For me at that time and place, the call that finally came was of the sudden realization variety. One moment I was lying in bed on a Sunday morning reading a magazine, and the next moment I knew what I was going to do. Within a week, I was headed down the path that ultimately resulted in my becoming a business coach. The magazine article triggered the inspiration, but what actually created it, I believe, was all those weeks and months of actively listening for it.

When you find yourself in a waiting, wondering place like this, how do you go about listening? Some people choose meditation; others journal; some pray; others draw or paint. You can learn more about yourself through assessment, participate in a personal growth weekend, work with a spiritual advisor, or explore your options with a coach. But the key is allowing open channels for the inspiration to enter. When you are listening for a particular sound, you're much more likely to hear it.

P.S. We'll be discussing the second step in my How to Become a Hero Discussion Forum on Feb 14 if you would like to join us.

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Optimism in bad times 

Historian Howard Zinn gave me a compelling take recently on the role of optimism in keeping a heroic outlook despite overwhelming odds. Zinn is the author of A People's History of the United States, which turns traditional history texts upside down by presenting the viewpoints of African Americans, women, Native Americans, war resisters, and poor laborers about historical events.

In his memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn writes: "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic... If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

Zinn reminds us that we cannot predict the future. There is no reason to expect that present conditions will continue. In fact: "...the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience -- whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union." For more on this topic, read Zinn’s essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty.

It may seem that one person cannot make a difference, but this is where great ideas and unstoppable movements begin. By raising your voice, you give others the courage to raise theirs. By taking one small step, you make others believe it is possible to take steps of their own. If there is something about the world you wish to change -- no matter how permanent and immovable it may seem -- with enough people pulling in the same direction, change can occur.

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The fast track to finding your path 

In the current issue of Inquiring Mind, I ran across this powerful statement in an article by Susan Burggraf, titled "Ordinary Buddhas: That Means You, Babe." Writing about finding one's path, Susan says, "Here's the big trick: don't work with what you don't have, don't develop new skills. There are so many doors and so many openings, so there's one that's sized right for who you are right now."

This is one of the keys to setting out on a heroic path. True heroes take action; that's how they become heroes. They don't just think and talk about what needs to be done some day; they start doing something about it now. Instead of taking one more class, reading one more book, earning one more degree, or working one more year at the job that eats away at their soul, they find a place to begin today.

Bilbo Baggins left home without even his handkerchief. Why do you think you need to learn more, grow more, or acquire more before starting out on the path you were meant for? You will never be completely ready. Start from wherever you are.

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Aquinas on the banks of the Ganges 

I live across the street from the neighborhood recycling center, and in some ways it's like living on the banks of the Ganges River. Not that it is a particularly holy place, but it is where everyone in my neighborhood deposits their unwanted items. It's a community ritual when you move out of the neighborhood to make your last stop the recycling center, casting on its waters everything you couldn't pack, sell, or give away. A trip to the center often includes serendipitous finds of some amazing items. For example, a frosted glass vase of the exact color and shape I needed for a table display at my book launch party, or an advance reading copy of Dan Millman's The Journeys of Socrates the month before it was published.

This week's find was a quote from the Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, printed in Gothic type on the eggshell blue letterhead of a painting company, and placed behind glass in a wooden frame. Here's the quote: "Between the two extremes of timidity and boldness, it is more necessary to overcome the first than the second, for it is more difficult to repress timidity than to moderate boldness, because the dangers that result from the latter are sufficient to temper its excess, whereas the thought of serious evils which result from timidity ends in making us more timid still."

It seems to me that Aquinas has given us the practical explanation why "the only thing to fear is fear itself," to invoke Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once you enter into the cycle of listening to your fear, it can be difficult to break out. Your fears suggest dire consequences that may ensue when you take a risk, make a change, or try something new. If you listen to that dialogue, it can make you more fearful than ever to choose a new direction. And if you don't choose a new direction, you may find yourself by default stuck in the fear. Or as Roosevelt called it, the "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

We would-be heroes are often given the advice to "face our fears," but what does this really mean? If as Aquinas and Roosevelt suggest, paying attention to your fear can make you more fearful, what then? To me, the answer has always been not to ignore my fear, but rather to refuse to believe in its message. As when hearing a point of view I do not agree with, I try to listen politely, hear what it has to say, and then express my opposing opinion. Often I will try to reassure my fear, as if it were a frightened child. "Yes, I know you're scared," I might say, "but think of how much fun you'll miss out on if you don't try this."

A metaphor for working with fear that has helped me is to think of what I am about to do as a roller coaster ride. It's scary and fun at the same time. And part of the fun is that you are scared. What fun would a roller coaster be if it didn't frighten you with steep dips and rapid turns? So at the scariest moment of trying something new, perhaps the best approach is to put a grin on your face, hold on tight, and call out, "Wheeeeeee!"


A tale of two trees 

On a visit to Yosemite National Park last weekend, I went on a ranger walk with USPS Ranger Shelton Johnson. The topic was "Yosemite through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier," and for a 90-minute walk through the valley, Ranger Johnson, in period costume, played the part of Sgt. Elizy Bowman of the 9th Cavalry, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. These African American troops who fought for the U.S. in the Philippines and Mexico also served as park rangers in Yosemite in 1899, 1903, and 1904.

Ranger Johnson gave a thoughtful portrayal of his character's personal history. Sgt. Bowman grew up as a sharecropper's son in South Carolina, and joined the Army as a way of improving his situation. Johnson described what it must have been like for these "colored soldiers" to enforce the regulations protecting the park's resources against the mostly white settlers in the area, at a time when the very idea of a park to preserve nature was new and untested. And he shared with us a beautiful metaphor.

Growing throughout Yosemite Valley are a wide variety of trees, including ponderosa pines and black oaks. Ranger Johnson pointed them out to us, and showed how the pine bends under the snow, so that when the snow melts, the pine stands up straight once again. The oak, however, doesn't bend; it tries to hold its upright position as the snow piles higher. Eventually, the oak's branches break under the weight. When the snow melts, the oak is no longer the same proud tree. "Be supple like a pine tree," Ranger Johnson told us, "Don't be rigid and unbending like the oak." That's how to survive.

This is sage advice, I think, for any of us who wish to carry our causes forward in the world. Perhaps we are the ones in the right; maybe we do know the real truth; it could be that everyone around us is wrong or just mistaken. But if we try to stand our ground against an overwhelming force, it may break us. Sometimes we need to bend a bit to get through the winter of criticism or opposition, so that we will still be here in the spring to begin our task anew.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the post office 

A couple of weeks ago, on an ordinary afternoon, my day took an unexpected turn for the worse. Walking home from the post office, I was crossing a narrow residential street near my house. I was in the crosswalk when a small truck ran the stop sign and narrowly missed hitting me. Inches away from the driver with the truck still rolling by me, I yelled at her -- not an obscenity, but something along the lines of, "Hey!" What happened next was even more unexpected.

The driver stepped on the brake and leapt out, leaving her vehicle in the middle of the intersection. "Are you yelling at me?" she barked, and attacked me. She was a big woman, and I was taken completely off guard. She hit me full force with both hands and sent me flying through the air. I landed on the sidewalk, smacking my head against a brick wall.

When she saw my head bleeding, her face changed. "Oh my God," she said, "Did I do that?" She bent down. "Are you OK?... You're not OK, are you... Dammit, I have to take you to the hospital." And she helped me get up.

I wouldn't let her take me to the hospital -- I didn't want to know her that long. But another strange aspect of this already surreal incident was that no one else was around. In the middle of the afternoon in a busy neighborhood shopping district, no other cars or pedestrians came by the whole time. I had left the house with no wallet, no money, and no cell phone. I could tell I needed stitches in my head, but I wasn't critically injured. I couldn't picture walking into the vegetable market covered in blood and asking them to call me an ambulance. So instead I said, "No, but you can take me home."

It of course occurred to me later that getting into her car was perhaps not the smartest thing to do under the circumstances. But in that moment, she seemed to be once again rational, and genuinely concerned for my welfare. She was also mortified by what she had done. Driving the six blocks to my house, she poured out her heart to me. She was having the worst day of her life, she said. Something awful had just happened, and she was both in a rage and in a hurry, headed out of town. She never saw me crossing the street or the stop sign, and when she saw me outside her window yelling at her, she didn't know what had happened. She just snapped, and took out all her pent-up anger on the object in front of her -- me.

I had her let me out at the corner near my home, so she wouldn't know my address. "How will I know you're OK?" she asked. "Can I send you some flowers?" I promised to go straight to the emergency room, and declined the flowers. The last thing she said to me was, "Maybe there is a reason we met."

I'd like to think that there was a reason. Pondering it in the hospital waiting room, I realized that perhaps there was a positive net gain to the universe as a result of what had happened. An hour before, a woman was driving a powerful vehicle too fast through a residential neighborhood in a blind rage. She could have easily killed a pedestrian less alert than me, maybe one of the many schoolchildren who walk down that street at that time of day. Or gotten on the freeway in that state and caused an accident that seriously injured many people.

Instead, I had one bad cut and a few scrapes and bruises. And she was no longer angry, but ashamed of her behavior, driving carefully, and in a state of intense self-examination. I don't think she hurt anyone else that day. And just maybe, this was the catalyst for a lasting change -- perhaps she'll get help with her emotional problems, decide to quit drinking, end the dysfunctional relationship she's in, or otherwise choose a healthier, happier path than the one she is on.

Or maybe none of those things is true, and it was just a senseless incident. But I notice that believing that makes me feel like a helpless victim, while thinking that perhaps it was of some use makes me feel as if I made a contribution. Guess which belief I am choosing?


What if we were all heroes? 

Thanks to a tip from my friend and colleague Maggie Oman Shannon, I recently read the article Hero Worship by Marie Russell. Marie points out that there are two dictionary definitions for the word hero: 1) a person of great courage and nobility, or one admired for his exploits, and 2) the central character in a novel or play. By this second definition, Marie says, "...we are all heroes, or central figures in our own play" and "... if we are the hero, then we can take charge of the situation and plunge ahead and make changes."

What a sense of possibility this idea creates! Instead of living our lives as if they were dictated by someone else's master script, we can take matters into our own hands and change the plot. In my own experience, I have discovered that this often requires questioning all assumptions, especially those that begin with someone else saying, "You can't do that."

At a number of critical points in my life, I have been told that what I wanted to do was impossible. For example, "You can't get a good job without a college degree." This piece of supposedly common wisdom could have defeated me as it has a number of other people I know. The people who say this often have good intentions -- they are trying to convince you to get or complete your degree. I will admit that having one does make finding a well-paying professional job considerably easier. But not having one doesn't make that impossible... unless of course you believe that it is.

Once you have decided that a task or goal is impossible, it inevitably is so. But if you continue to believe in the possibility of it, there is always something else you can try. As Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're usually right."

Depending on your point of view, you might label the hero's persistence in trying to do the impossible as plucky and creative, or stubborn and misguided. And perhaps I am just ornery, but when someone tells me I can't do something, my natural reaction is to start figuring out how I can. My response to the "no degree no job" proclamation was to ignore the assumption, and instead ask, "How do people without college degrees get good jobs?"

For me, the answer was acquiring a technical skill. I learned to program computers, got a well-paying job, and as a result was able to eventually get a bachelor's degree because I was earning enough to support myself. But I couldn't have done it without believing in the possibility. In Marie's words, "...we must first accept the possibility that we too are a super hero... before being able to make it come true."

If you are already the hero in your own life, you have the power to change it. As Marie says, "If you are waiting for someone else to make a difference in your life (to rescue you, to save you, to make your life better, to make you whole), then you are wasting your time. No one but you can make your dreams come true."

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My summer vacation: three weddings and a book 

Six of my closest friends are getting married this summer -- to each other that is. Between the 4th of July and Labor Day, three couples who are part of my intimate circle of friends are all tying the knot. That means three weddings, three bridal showers, and three bachelor parties.

My sweetheart Dave is the best man in one wedding, he and I are groomsman and bridesmaid in a second, and I'm helping to organize the bridal showers for two of them. Add in fittings for our formal wear, two rehearsal dinners, and buying new shoes. Don't forget buying nine presents for the weddings, showers, and parties, plus cards, paper, and ribbon, and then there are party games and snacks. I took out half the clothes in my closet to see if I could actually assemble the seven party outfits I'll need without repeating myself (there will be photographs, of course), since I couldn't bear the thought of going shopping again. Oh, and I forgot to mention, two of the weddings are being held out of town, one of them in Ireland!

In the middle of all this hoopla, I'm revising the 250-page manuscript for Get Hired NOW!, due to the publisher before wedding number two. And serving my clients, teaching my students, arranging my fall calendar of workshops, speaking engagements, and interviews... and one last little project, trying to buy a house.

At one point, overwhelmed by piles of wrapping paper, manuscript pages, plane reservations, and real estate listings, I exclaimed, "Where did my life go?" forgetting for the moment that this is my life.

I could look at the overwhelm of this summer as an enormous burden. It's certainly tempting to complain about the constant whirlwind of activity and endless to-do lists. There's no question that my resources are being stretched to the limit. That's why it's so helpful to pause for a moment and count my blessings.

Isn't it amazing that I have so many friends that six of them are getting married at once? That these people love me enough to invite me to be a part of their special celebrations? That I will soon be seeing my third book in print? That I have so many clients and students and speaking engagements, and enough money to buy a house? What a great life!

In my steps for becoming a hero, the final step is "Staying the Course." At the moment, the key to this for me is gratitude. Baha'u'llah, who founded the Baha'i Faith, said, "A thankful person is thankful under all circumstances. A complaining soul complains even if he lives in paradise." It seems these days that I am living in paradise. But somehow I had pictured more time to play the harp.


Snorkeling to enlightenment 

You're standing there at the edge of the water, looking at the swell of the waves. All you can see clearly is the water's surface; there are some vague shapes underneath you can detect, but nothing is clear enough to make out. You put on your snorkel and mask, and dive under.

The instant you get your head underwater, you see a different universe. What appeared as a blur of movement from up above resolves into hundreds of multicolored fish, swimming and diving, feeding and playing. There's an entire world here that you would never know existed without diving into it head first.

It's like that when you set out on a new path for your life. Looking from the outside at a new career field, a new line of business, or a new avenue of learning, it seems vague and mysterious. But when you gather your courage and plunge in, suddenly it all starts to make sense. The scary part is taking the first step.

I've taken many first steps in my life -- moving to cities where I knew no one, changing careers seven or eight times (depending on how you count), starting several businesses, and becoming a personal coach when no one even knew what that was.

Each time, I notice the same transformative sequence. I think about making a change and feel scared. I start to gather information about the new direction I am considering, and notice the fear begin to lessen. Then I take a deep breath and take one small step toward my goal. But when I'm stepping off the edge of the pier into unknown waters, that first one can be a doozy!

All of a sudden, I'm on a different plane. Opportunities open up, contacts materialize, and connections occur. I'm no longer outside looking in. Instead of feeling like a fish out of water, I am a sea creature myself, swimming in an ocean of possibilities.

The trick is to dive in while I am still afraid. If I waited for the fear to be gone first, I would still be standing on the shore.


Waking up from Groundhog Day 

Every spring in my household comes a period we have come to call Groundhog Day. I've always loved the Bill Murray movie of the same name, a sweet fable about an egocentric, mean-spirited newscaster doomed to live the same day over and over until he learns to care about others and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

My sweetheart Dave moonlights as a tax preparer, and every year at the beginning of February, he begins his Groundhog Day schedule. He works a full day at his day job, evenings and Saturdays at a CPA's office, and sees his own clients late at night and on Sundays. Somehow, I always seem to have a major deadline during the same period. (This year it was completing the manuscript for Get Hired NOW!, which I thankfully completed last week.) With Dave not around to keep me company, I often work 12-hour days.

Somewhere around mid-March, we start saying to each other in the morning, "Is it Groundhog Day again?" As we feed the cats and brush our teeth and stumble off to work, it feels like we've already done this day a thousand times before.

For us, this phase only lasts the twelve weeks until April 15. Then we take our annual trip to Hawaii, and return home to a more normal existence that includes time for learning, play, contemplation, and rest. But I remember the days before I learned how to live a balanced life, when Groundhog Day was 365 days per year.

I see many of my clients now trapped in the same cycle of endless work and responsibility. Their day begins with making breakfast and lunch for the whole family, getting everyone dressed and off to where they need to be. Then they're off to work. If they commute, they're often checking voice mail and making calls on the way.

After a full day at the job, it's time to ferry the kids to or from their next activity. Eventually, everyone gets fed, then there is more work to do for the boss or their business, housecleaning or repairs to be done, volunteer work, or yet another activity for the kids. By the time they lie down at night, there's often six hours or less before it's time to get up and do it all again. Weekends get filled up with more of the same. It seems there's always something important scheduled and pressing errands to run. And there's never enough time to sleep.

What living like this does to you is not only exhaust your body, it hardens your heart. Even if you began with the best intentions -- to do a good job for your family, your employer, your clients, and your community -- when there is no time to breathe, you start to emotionally shut down. In addition to chronic illnesses caused by the physical strain, you develop a short temper, selfish attitude, and a world view that ends at the tip of your nose.

Selfish, you say? When you spend so much time doing things for others? But the question to ask yourself is, are they the right things?

Are you a real companion to your children or their grumpy chauffeur? Are you a true partner to your spouse or an exhausted cook? Are you really doing your best for your boss or your clients, or are you stretched so thin that your work is often barely adequate? How many of the activities in which you are engaged are really the best use of you? And how can you know if you never have the energy to look beyond the next five minutes?

If you're not happy with the answers these questions provoke, maybe it's time to wake up from Groundhog Day. In the movie, Bill Murray's character Phil finally wakes up to a new day when he starts making different choices. At first, Phil spends all his time trying to "get it right." He does the same things over and over, hoping that somehow he can produce different results. (Sound familiar?) When despite his efforts, he remains stuck in the same endless day, he becomes depressed and attempts suicide. But there is no escape; he simply wakes up right back where he started.

Finally, Phil takes two important steps: he tells the truth about what's happening to him, and he asks for help. And what is the advice he gets? Instead of struggling to get it right or fighting to escape, he is told to experience life at its fullest. Phil starts to really connect with the people around him, to listen to what's important to them, and to help with their problems instead of being focused on his own. He joins into the community around him and works to develop his talents and share them with others. He begins for the first time to live a balanced, compassionate life.

Real life answers aren't always as simple as the Hollywood version, but as fables go, this one holds some valuable lessons. At the end of the film, Phil says, "No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now." Sounds good, doesn't it?


Is there a heron in your pond? 

One of the things I love about living right next to Golden Gate Park is that minutes from my front door is another world. I walk past Kezar Stadium, the carousel at the Children's Playground, the lawn bowling greens, and the National AIDS Memorial Grove, and in ten minutes I can be at the Lily Pond. On weekdays before and after tourist season, the Lily Pond is a quiet place with few visitors. Turtles sun themselves on the far bank, and ducks swim close to the near shore looking for a handout of breadcrumbs.

On a recent afternoon when I was taking a much-needed break from finalizing the manuscript for my new book, I strolled to the Lily Pond. A middle school-aged group of boys were standing on the shore with their teacher. The full attention of the boys was on the ducks, swimming close to the near shore and quacking loudly. The teacher was focused only on the boys, trying to point out some of the natural wonders of the spot while preventing them from throwing rocks into the water.

None of them saw what I did. At the far edge of the pond, quietly standing in the lilies, was a great blue heron, serene and majestic. It was a magnificent sight here in the middle of the city and steps away from the heavy traffic on Lincoln Blvd. I spoke to a couple of the boys who were near me and pointed to the giant bird, wanting them to see it. But all the boys could see and hear were the ducks, quacking insistently at their feet. Finally, I got the teacher's attention, which was not an easy task, given the rambunctiousness of the boys.

When he at last saw the heron, his jaw dropped. He gathered the boys around and began telling them all about its feeding habits and what a special treat it was to see one here. The boys were fascinated; they stopped throwing rocks. Just then, the heron took off, spreading its huge wings and making its distinctive "kraak" cry. The teacher snapped a photo of the bird in flight.

Isn't it just like us humans to be completely focused on the quacking ducks at our feet? There they are, noisy and demanding -- tasks, responsibilities, deadlines, and obligations. They consume all our attention and keep our eyes and minds on what is immediately in front of us. But if we stop for a moment and lift our eyes, something we least expect may be right there waiting for us. It may be a learning opportunity, a moment of inspiration, or the exact thing we have been looking for all along.

But to see it, you have to ignore the quacking ducks.


Whatever it takes 

When I was going through coach training at The Coaches Training Institute, we learned a process of values clarification to use with our clients. We first had to try it on ourselves, of course, and it was the first time I had ever set down in writing what my personal values were.

In the process we learned, we were encouraged to give our values a unique name that captured our personal flavor of an otherwise generic value. (You can learn more about this process from the book Co-Active Coaching.) For example, I identified a key value of mine called "persistence" and connected it with ideas such as survival, resolve, fortitude, and determination. The name I coined for this value was "whatever-it-takes."

Picture the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones -- already battered and bruised enough to defeat any ordinary person -- learns that the Ark is leaving the area on a truck. "Truck?" he says, "What truck?" and struggles to his feet to continue the chase. That's the whatever-it-takes value in action.

Now values are a very personal thing, and just because I hold this particular one doesn't mean it's universal. But I believe that this is what heroes do -- whatever it takes to achieve their mission, accomplish their goal, complete the quest. There's no room for "I can't." The hero says instead, "How can I?" while resourcefully looking for another way. I have found that these three words can serve as a magic elixir for the disheartened hero.

The next time you find yourself frustrated, discouraged, or even without hope of carrying on, ask yourself, "How can I?" and just see what happens.

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No atheists in foxholes 

I've been absent from blogging for some time now due to the mysterious neurological disorder I mentioned in my last post. It became quite serious and incapacitating for a couple of weeks, and has now finally returned to the status of annoying-but-not-disabling. The various health professionals I've seen have still not been able to determine a cause for my symptoms, but have run enough tests to tell me it's neither fatal nor an indicator of any known major disease.

There was a period of about a week when the symptoms were quite severe and the neurologist I saw was suggesting several rather dire diagnoses, none of which turned out to be the case. I was unable to work or do much of anything other than lie on the couch and attempt to distract my anxious brain with old movies. Looking for a silver lining in this very dark cloud, I thought I would take this opportunity to examine my attitudes about prayer.

According to the Wikipedia, the first recorded claim that "there are no atheists in foxholes" has been attributed to Lt. Colonel William J. Clear, speaking on the radio about American and Filipino forces on Bataan being overwhelmed by the Japanese during World War II. Clear was suggesting that men under fire find religion in their most desperate hour, and since that time his words have been echoed from many pulpits. For the record, atheists strongly dispute this claim.

I've never been an atheist myself. At various times in my life, I would have identified my religion as Christian, pagan, agnostic, or deist. These days, I'm closer to being a Buddhist than anything else. Only during my Christian days did I spend any time in prayer. In other phases of my life, I haven't been opposed to praying; I just haven't done it... except in times of extremity.

Faced with an incapacitating illness with no prognosis for recovery available, I decided to pray. They were simple prayers, not for deliverance, really, but expressing gratitude for my life so far and asking for guidance on how to become well again. What I found was that praying made me feel better.

Even without the confidence that my prayers would be answered (or even heard), it simply felt better to pray. It gave me a sense of relief and a lessened burden. On one hand, there was the intellectual acknowledgement that now I had really done everything I could do to get well again. On a quite different level, I experienced the easing sensation of "turning it over" to a higher power that those with faith often describe. I've sometimes thought that turning it over implied being less responsible for the outcome. But I was not in any way abdicating my responsibility to care for my own illness. What I was doing was asking for help in managing it.

On the path I've described to becoming a hero, Step 7 is "Seeking Guidance." Up until now, I've been thinking of this primarily as a necessary step to choosing the right direction and staying on course. But what I now realize is that it can also be a way to lighten the burden of being a hero. Receiving guidance undoubtedly helps the hero do the right thing. But the simple act of asking for that guidance can also provide the hero with the added strength needed to sustain his quest.

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The waiting place 

I've never been very good at waiting. When faced with a challenge of any sort, my natural tendency is to take action. This heroic quality has served me well in many situations, but it has also gotten me into a lot of trouble. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to sit tight for a bit until you can calm down, gather more information, carefully contemplate options, or receive guidance from a mentor or higher power.

Taking action when you really should be waiting may give you momentary satisfaction, but can send you careening down the wrong path. You may find yourself making commitments you will later regret, upsetting people you would prefer to have on your side, or otherwise getting in way over your head. I speak from experience. I have often thought that the epitaph on my tombstone should read, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Since my first response is typically to act, I have never learned to wait well. When circumstances (or a wiser voice) force me to wait, I can find it excruciatingly uncomfortable. This is the case now. For the past six weeks, I've been suffering from an unexplained neurological condition. (If you have noticed fewer postings on the Hero site, that's why.) It's not disabling, but extremely distracting -- sort of like someone constantly poking you to get your attention. It's one of those symptoms that might go away all by itself and never recur. Or it might be a sign of something more serious. So far, all the tests ordered by various doctors and specialists have come up negative. But the process of diagnosis requires an incredible amount of anxious waiting -- first for the new test to be scheduled, then for the results to come in, then to hear from the doctor to interpret the results and suggest what the next test should be. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

So what can a person born without the waiting gene do? I've decided to take this opportunity to learn more about waiting. In my planned chapter in the Hero book on "Listening for the Call," I am now picturing a section on waiting skills. Surfing for resources on this subject, I uncovered
"In Just a Minute: Teaching Students the Skill of Waiting" by Terrance Kwame-Ross. Several other resources also suggested that waiting was a life skill that children should learn in school. But what about us adults who were playing hooky the day they taught this one?

Then I found this reference in, of all places, a guide to dancing the Argentine tango: "Only when one person has the discipline to wait (ie. to commit to stand to one side) are the two people able to pass." Waiting = committing to stand to one side. At last, a concrete action to take about waiting! I can commit to stand to one side and allow all of this to pass. Our tango expert Stephen T. Chin-Bow makes it clear that this is not simply passive participation, but an important skill for followers to learn in order to dance well with leaders. And with this one hint, I have suddenly realized why I find waiting so hard. Chin-Bow says: "Some... do not have personalities to make good followers. A close friend of mine... will never learn to be a good follower... because she admits she has difficulty surrendering control and letting herself be led." He's got my number... and that of quite a few other heroes I know.

So waiting has emerged as an important skill that leaders can learn from followers. If the hero wishes to follow the right path, make considered decisions, and take appropriate action, sometimes the best thing to do is to step aside and let the dragon pass.


Balancing or dancing? 

In the current issue of Shambhala Sun, Cyndi Lee reveals, "The word 'balance' comes from the Latin balare, meaning 'to dance.'" Lee is the author of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice and her article is ostensibly about yoga, but these words about physical balance could apply equally as well to life balance.

In trying to fit our myriad potential lives into just one time-limited human life, we struggle to achieve life balance. How can one be a hero, make a living, maintain a relationship, care for a family, stay healthy, and take time to smell the flowers all in one lifetime? Or worse, all in one week? We work at the balancing act, trying to craft the perfect schedule that makes room for everything, and hoping that some day it will all miraculously come together.

Perhaps we are going at this all wrong. What if instead of attempting to "achieve balance," as if it were some static state one could arrive at, we simply chose to dance with our crowded agenda? After all, even physical balance can't be maintained without constant movement. Try standing on one foot and you'll see.

Lee reminds us, "You know what happens to water if it stays still -- it either turns into ice or becomes brackish and unhealthy. The same thing happens when we try to latch on to a prescribed feeling or experience." Rather than working hard to get balanced, maybe we should just become better dancers. What would today look like if you chose to dance with your goals, plans, and calendar instead of striving to balance them?


Like minds at work 

In Maggie Oman Shannon's new blog, Living the New Story, she describes the process of "following the bread crumbs" to find one's calling. Maggie is the author of One God, Shared Hope: Twenty Threads Shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I think the following-the-bread-crumbs method of discovery is vastly underrated by our all-too-linear Western culture. A popular belief that can defeat the would-be hero is the idea that your calling is supposed to descend upon on you at an early age, and you should recognize it at once. In fact, it's probably much more common not to figure out what you're really here for until midlife (at least). And when you do, you will probably realize that you have been sniffing around the edges of whatever it is for quite some time without quite recognizing it.

Speaking of bread crumbs, Maggie's blog has also quite coincidentally reconnected me with someone I encountered while following my own crumb trail many years ago. Jamie Walters and I first met via the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Women in Business directory in 1993. Jamie is the founder of Ivy Sea, "fostering the spirit of conscious enterprise, big vision, inspired leadership, skillful communication, and more conscious ways of living, working, thinking, and being." She's also the author of Big Vision, Small Business: 4 Keys to Success Without Growing Big.

In her recent article, "Authentic Leadership or Mindless Mimicry," Jamie highlights the value of following your own visionary trail of bread crumbs vs. other more well-trodden paths: "What [visionaries] can teach... is the very power of choosing authenticity and following one's own vision versus falling in with the crowd that's mindlessly following some trend and then wondering why they find it lacking in truth and vibrance. Yet there is good reason why so many more follow trends than seek-and-do from their own authentic vision: to follow a fad is much easier; to fall in with the crowd seems less risky. To act from your authenticity requires that you know who you are, at your core, and then find the courage to be that — unmasked — in the world."

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En route, Costa Rica to Panama 

I'm back home in San Francisco now, but the following entry was written while still cruising last week. Getting online from the ship was possible but limited, hence this delayed posting.

The last few days, I've been thinking a lot about the role that choice plays in our lives. On our days at sea, there are important decisions to be made constantly: swim or take cha cha lessons; read or embroider; eat lunch in the dining room or the buffet. I've been able to settle such burning questions as whether I prefer English Breakfast or Earl Grey for my morning tea (English Breakfast wins), and whether Monopoly, Clue, or Yahtzee is my favorite (Monopoly rules).

I understand that some people feel trapped when traveling on a ship for days at a time, but I find that on an average day here on the Island Princess, I have more choices available than I ever do on a work day. There's no enforced routine aboard a big ship like this -- food is available 24/7, the pools, Jacuzzis, gyms, and public rooms are always open. If you didn't know which way the ship was facing, you couldn't even tell sunrise from sunset. With no structure at all, there is nothing left but a constant state of choice.

If you turn that idea around, what it tells you is that the more structure you impose in your life, the less choice you have. It sounds somewhat obvious when stated that bluntly, but I think we often forget this simple equation. We may think we are exercising our independence when we add things to our schedules -- our chosen work or school routine, time for meals, appointments with everyone from doctors to hairstylists, classes for exercise and recreation, dates with lovers and friends.

But every choice we make leaves us with... less choice, as our days and Palm Pilots become filled with where, when, and with whom we are supposed to be. So much supposed-to-be shuts out just being. There's no time to find out who you are when you are always having to be somewhere else.


Second day at sea, Baja California 

Yesterday was like a visit to Mount Olympus. I spent the day indulging in more self-care activities than I normally do in a month. I went to a talk on collaging to plan your future with peak performance coach Linda Mercier, ate three healthy gourmet meals, took a yoga/pilates fusion class, swam and soaked in the Jacuzzi in a Thai-themed atrium where a statue of the Buddha overlooks the pool, walked a couple of miles around the promenade while listening to the Dalai Lama on tape, sat on the balcony embroidering, had tea with three of the lecturers traveling with the ship, danced to a jazz band with my sweetheart, and watched a song and dance extravaganza from front-row center seats with Dave and four good friends.

What would it be like, I wonder, to live a life with that much relaxation in it all the time? Would it be so enriching it couldn't help but stimulate my creativity, or such a distraction that all productive work would halt? I do notice even in just one day of such an intense focus on myself, that it takes an enormous amount of time to pay so much attention to me. It's a bit of a relief to realize that if I actually did spend as much time as I sometimes think I should in exercise, meditation, learning, etc., that there would hardly be a moment for anything else. It lets me off the hook from trying to make all that fit into just one life, which I do want to be a productive one.

And that is one of the most important functions of vacations, isn't it -- to give you a new perspective on everyday things.


How high can you go? 

Another topic that arose in Timo Navsky's Hero discussion group pertained to my suggestion that the first step on the path to becoming a hero was to put yourself in situations that evoke your higher self rather than your lower. Someone asked, "But how do you know what is your higher self?" Hmmm.

I suppose the easy answer is to say "trust your intuition" or something of the sort. But personally, I get frustrated by recipes that say, "bake until done." If I'm using a recipe, I want it to offer a bit more guidance than that. So here are some suggestions on the recipe for heroes.

Ask yourself where you are suffering right now. What situation or conditions are a thorn in your side? If you're feeling a vague dissatisfaction but can't pinpoint it, try using the Wheel of Life coaching tool to locate its source. When you've identified a point of discomfort, ask yourself if doing something about that pain would free you from worrying about yourself and create more expansiveness to turn your thoughts to helping others. If so, you may have identified a situation that needs to be changed to allow your higher self to emerge.

Another idea is to ask what's pissing you off right now. What situations or conditions really make you angry? Now, what can you do about changing those? If you are trapped in anger, your lower self is running the show. This is true even if your anger seems to be about hardships which plague people other than yourself. Use your anger as a symptom to uncover what needs to be addressed, but don't allow it to dictate your actions. This is rarely a sustainable path for the enlightened hero.

Looking for where you are suffering or what makes you angry are ways to identify what you might need to move away from. But you can also focus on what it is you need to move toward. Susan Thesenga, author of The Undefended Self says, "The higher self is our personal embodiment of and connection to the universal spirit that moves through all things. Meeting the higher self... is an experience usually accompanied by relief, as we feel we are coming home to our true identity, remembering who we truly are... In this expanded identity we find our center and ground."

Thesenga suggests that to locate our higher selves, we, "...begin with claiming those positive aspects of our personality which are aligned with truth, love, serenity, or beauty." I would add to this list some additional qualities essential for heroes: compassion, generosity, openness, conscientiousness, and increased awareness. When in doubt about which is the right direction, move toward people and situations that will bring out or increase these qualities in yourself. By doing so, you are grooming yourself to become a hero.

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The source of happiness 

"If we really want happiness, we must acknowledge that it comes about by taking care of other people."
    -- The Dalai Lama

It often seems that all of Western culture is dedicated to the pursuit of happiness. In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, we claim it as an unalienable right. But for many, this pursuit seems to be about their own happiness, with little heed for the greater good. I'm not accusing an entire hemisphere of behaving selfishly (although perhaps I should), but rather of being self-absorbed. I see a difference.

If the happiness you pursue is limited to your own enjoyment of life, achieving your goals rarely produces lasting joy. When all of your needs and most of your wants are satisfied, then what? The result is the existential emptiness described by so many who have achieved material success, but are lacking a deeper meaning for their lives.

What if the answer were as simple as working for the happiness of others instead of your own? A simple beginning is devoting yourself to the happiness of those closest to you. By focusing on people you already know and love, you can develop your spirit of compassion. The stronger your compassion becomes, the further it can stretch. Ultimately, you will develop the capacity to work for the benefit of not only strangers, but even enemies.

The Dalai Lama says, "If each of us, from the depth of our hearts, were to cultivate a mind wishing to benefit other people... then we would gain a strong sense of confidence that would put our minds at ease. When we have that kind of calmness within our minds, even if the whole external environment appears to turn against us... it will not disturb our mental calm." Sounds like happiness to me.

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"Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another."
    -- Walter Elliott

The 7th and final step in my recipe for becoming a hero is Staying the Course. The least glamorous of the steps, I find it is also the most difficult. Having taken any number of transformational weekend workshops, I know all too well the hero's challenge of facing the ordinariness of Monday morning.

I have always considered perseverance to be one of my most valuable qualities. The strength of the personal value I call "whatever-it-takes" has enabled me to first survive and then succeed. But as I have made my way up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs through the course of my life, staying on task has actually become harder instead of easier.

When I was a teenage runaway, living on the street, my goals were simple. When I woke up in the morning, I was hungry. First I needed to find either free food or spare change to buy food, usually acquired by collecting bottles or panhandling. Then I had to figure out where I would sleep that night. The rest of my day was organized around being in the right place at the right time to get a free meal and a safe place to sleep, which often involved walking many miles. There was no room for self-pity; my continued existence depended on putting one foot in front of the other.

As my life improved and I moved up Maslow's pyramid from seeking food and shelter to looking for love, esteem, and ultimately, self-actualization, I found that, paradoxically, staying on track with my goals grew more difficult. Maslow said, "As one desire is satisfied, another pops up to take its place." But the desire for love and esteem is a craving rather than a compulsion; the pull toward self-actualization is a wish and not a necessity. Self-actualization -- in Maslow's words, "the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming" -- is rarely a comfortable process. Once achieving my goals began to lead in the direction of discomfort instead of toward more comfort, it became much more of a challenge to keep reaching for them.

"Bear in mind, if you are going to amount to anything, that your success does not depend upon the brilliance and the impetuosity with which you take hold, but upon the ever lasting and sanctified bull doggedness with which you hang on after you have taken hold."
    -- Dr. A. B. Meldrum

If you are having difficulty in staying the course today, try re-inspiring yourself with more pithy quotes about perseverance.

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The hero's journey redux 

I've reworked my steps for becoming a hero to include some new discoveries I've made, and incorporate some thoughts about presenting the material. Here is the up-to-the-minute version:

1. Develop your heroic qualities. The way to begin is by putting yourself in situations that evoke your higher self rather than your lower. Even if you do not yet know what your heroic quest will be, you can prepare yourself for it. And in preparing for the quest, you will develop those same faculties you need to hear the call to heroism that has not yet arrived. You are trying on the hero's mantle. Colloquially speaking, your task in this phase is to fake it 'til you make it.

2. Listen for the call. The call is the inspired message that describes your mission in life, vision for a better world, or heroic quest. You may experience it as a strong intuition, sudden realization, divine transmission, or just a subtle wondering. But to hear it, you must first listen for it. Many heroes-in-the-making find specific structures like meditation, prayer, journaling, or artistic endeavors helpful to open up their listening.

3. Take action. It's not enough to suspect or even know what your mission or quest might be. To become a hero, you must act on your heightened awareness. Even if you aren't sure you interpreted the call correctly, it is only by beginning to take action on your understanding that you will be sure. To move into action, you must get past the initial refusal of the call that every hero experiences.

4. Meet the dragon. Your worst enemy on the hero's journey is your own internal dragon of negativity, fear, and self-doubt. This piece of yourself tries to prevent you from fulfilling your heroic destiny. This dragon cannot be slain; you must meet it in its lair and develop strategies for continuing to take action. The dragon will continue to co-exist with the positive qualities that make it possible for you to be heroic.

5. Commit to the quest. It's entirely possible for you to get this far in the hero's journey without yet having made a commitment to your mission. You may be unsure of the authenticity of the call, lack confidence in your abilities, or be surrounded by unfavorable conditions. Regardless, without commitment, your mission will ultimately fail. This is the point when you must declare yourself a hero, ready or not.

6. Seek guidance. The hero's life can be lonely and difficult without the aid of human and spirit guides. Finding sources of ongoing guidance to support your mission can be critical to its success. Books, films, music, and art can all provide guidance, but the best guides are real people and a connection with the divine.

7. Stay the course. In my initial formula, I left this stage out. But yet, it is the most difficult one of all. The hero must keep going despite opposition, catastrophe, and the small, distracting details of everyday life. It's just as hard to be a hero while taking out the trash as it is to be one while your marriage is falling apart. To remain on the heroic path, you must be vigilant and develop perseverance.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of Heroes-R-Us.

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Spirituality at the supermarket checkstand 

I just finished reading James Redfield's The Secret of Shambhala, third in his series of spiritual parables that began with The Celestine Prophecy. Redfield's books remind me of the "young readers" editions of timeless classics that I sometimes read as a child -- the plots are oversimplified, the language too plain, and the exposition heavy-handed. Real classics have some subtlety; they require pondering and interpretation. But regardless of my literary criticism, I read Redfield's books because they have captured popular attention in a way that other wiser and better-written books have not.

To me, it shows how widespread the hunger for finding a higher purpose and deeper meaning in everyday life has become. Instead of being a pursuit limited to philosophers, clerics, and intellectuals, the quest for a spiritual life is attracting people who might otherwise be reading Danielle Steele novels. This has to be a good thing.


Ready or not 

According to Joseph Campbell, "the hero is ready for the adventure he gets." When the adventure arrives, it is often not what we expected. We've waited for it, looked for it, hoped for it; suddenly it is here... and it's not quite how we pictured it.

Perhaps we thought we would be excited and energized, and instead we feel apprehensive and overwhelmed. Maybe it's not exactly the best time for an adventure. Just when we thought we had our lives under control, here comes this big messy interruption.

Our readiness for whatever has arrived for us in this moment is a matter of perception. If we believe we are ready, we will enter into the adventure wholeheartedly. If we believe we aren't ready, the adventure will simply carry us along. Either way, the adventure will proceed. Wouldn't it be better to have faith in our readiness and fully take part in what is already here?

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Keeping it simple 

Indigo Ocean's weblog recently echoed some of my thoughts from yesterday. Indigo says, "We have been taught to equate having 'more' with being more happy, yet we actually feel less happy when we take the attitude that we need more." She cites the article A Declaration of Independence from Overconsumption by Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life. Robin declares, "Our habit of overconsumption enslaves many of us to longer hours at tedious or morally questionable jobs... Once we have enough for survival and comforts, quality of life suffers when we continue to focus on quantity of stuff. Studies show that good relationships, meaningful work and restorative leisure are core components of quality of life."


Not just waiting 

In my current formulation of the steps for becoming a hero, number two is "hearing the call." I'm planning to talk to people about their experience of hearing the call to a new vision, purpose, or mission in life -- what was it like, when did it happen, etc. But I'm also interested in what they did before hearing the call that created the conditions allowing them to hear it, recognize it, and let it in.

For example, here are some of the things that my clients and I have done in our own lives to open that kind of listening space:

writing poetry
taking improv classes
martial arts
working with a coach
drawing, painting or sculpture
inspirational reading
personal growth workshops
shamanic journeying
pastoral counseling
personality assessment
leadership training
career counseling
ropes courses

All of these practices and strategies give you something to do. An important element of the hero's makeup is taking action somehow, not just waiting and hoping that inspiration will occur. But I also notice two prevailing themes throughout these activities: discovering who you are, and learning to express yourself authentically. In the waiting place, before you even know what direction your heroic journey will take, perhaps these are the hero's tasks.

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Is it transformation yet? 

It seems everywhere I go this week, people are talking about transformative moments in the middle of daily life. In James Redfield's Secret of Shambhala, I ran across this passage describing how to achieve enlightenment: "The legends say that first you calm yourself and look out on your surroundings. Most of us seldom look closely at the things around us. It's just stuff that takes a backseat to whatever is on our minds to get done. But we must remember that everything in the universe is alive with spiritual energy... All we do, when we open up to the divine, is raise our energy vibration and thus our perceptual ability so we can view the world the way it already is."

The September issue of Shambhala Sun magazine arrived in my mailbox and I opened it to an article by Aram Saroyan on the topic of "the ordinary experience that changes our lives -- if only we notice it." In the article, he mentions the Alan Watts book This Is It.

That title sort of says it all, if you allow "it" in. This is it -- not some other reality, or fantasy, or hoped-for future world. This is it -- really it is; enlightenment is right here and now; this is what it looks, feels, and tastes like. This is it -- what you've been looking for, the truth, the light, the answer.

Can the answer really be that simple? To deeply notice in all its complexity exactly what is already in front of you, and allow the experience of truly noticing to transform you?


In black and white 

I was with a group of people conversing on the topic of faith the other night, and my friend Jamie shared his perspective on a transformative moment in his life. Like many of us, he had been waiting for guidance from the white light of a spiritual experience. But when his guidance finally came, it was what he called a "black light experience."

Remember the posters those of us who are old enough all had on our walls in the 70's? Printed in neon colors on furry black, they depicted the emblem of our favorite band, counter culture hero, drug of choice, or beloved fantasy world. Under ordinary light, they were simply colorful. But turn on a black light, and the colors radiated and pulsed.

Jamie said his experience was just like that. "You've been sitting there surrounded by these things the whole time, then someone hands you a black light bulb. You screw it in and suddenly what's been right in front of you all along looks entirely different."


Trumpets and whispers 

In every hero's journey there is a transformative moment -- that instant where the hero hears, learns, or realizes the essential truth that changes him forever. Sometimes this moment of enlightenment and clear seeing arrives at the same instant when you first hear the call of what is to become your mission. This is perhaps the experience we most often recall from the great heroic stories. The way we remember it is that Joan of Arc saw a vision, heard the voice of God, and instantly knew what she must do. So we wait for the trumpets to sound and the wave of inspiration to sweep over us, thinking that these are the necessary signals of a truly transformative moment.

But in fact, young Joan had been having visions of the saints for years before she finally did what the voices asked of her. In 1424, at age 12 or 13, Joan began to have visions of Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael the Archangel. In the beginning, the saints simply told her to be good and go to church. But then they began to ask her to go to the Dauphin Charles and offer to help him claim the throne of France. It wasn't until 1428 that she acted on the voices she had been hearing for so long.

We don't know much about Joan's actual transformative moment, when she decided to finally do what the voices asked. It has been suggested that it ultimately came about because she knew how desperate the Dauphin's situation had become. In other words, divine inspiration intersected with political and social reality and a growing awareness of what her world needed in that moment. But even for this classic heroine, she first heard the call as a whisper and not a sounding of trumpets, she listened in partial disbelief for years before taking action, and when she finally did act she was still not convinced that her actions would do any good.

What is it that is whispering to you right now?

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Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose 

I spent last weekend in a meditation and study retreat led by Pema Chodron with the intriguing title "Doorway to Freedom." The full content of this retreat is probably worthy of a month's blogging, but the essence was captured in Pema's opening remarks: "The only path is to be in the immediacy of what is happening right now. But what do you do when now is uncomfortable? If you are present for it, everything is a doorway to freedom -- from fear, defensiveness, anger, addiction, ignorance. Never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort. All difficulty comes from our tendency to move away... Buddha's first teaching was that everyone feels underlying dissatisfaction. We think there must be some way to avoid it, but there is not. We must learn to be with it. If you live in avoidance, you must be on the defensive all the time."

One of the gifts that makes Pema a powerful teacher is her willingness to share her personal experience with finding a way to live with suffering. She speaks directly from the heart, making an empathic connection with her listeners. "We start looking for spiritual answers when none of the usual exits take us out of the pain," she said. "We rarely look until there is pain. We want a life where we always feel our best and when we can't find it, we look to spiritual answers for comfort."

Always seeking comfort, though, can be our downfall. The urge to move away from discomfort is so strong, Pema told us, that just like an annoying rash, we feel we must scratch it -- by turning on the TV, taking a drink, eating the chocolate -- whatever our favorite avoidance behavior is. But scratching only makes the rash spread. We must learn not to equate scratching with comfort and the cure. "Stay present with the discomfort," Pema suggests, "and have compassion with yourself for wanting to scratch."

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Freedom, choice & responsibility 

I've been listening to a wonderful lecture series on existentialism by Robert Solomon of the University of Texas at Austin. The writings of the existentialists have much to offer on the topic of becoming a hero. In Professor Solomon's lectures on the books and essays of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre, what emerges is the theme of "no excuses." Says Solomon, "Life may be difficult; circumstances may be impossible. There may be obstacles, not least of which are our own personalities, characters, emotions, and limited means or intelligence. But, nevertheless, we are responsible... responsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world is."

Jean-Paul Sartre, who named the existentialist movement and popularized it, argued that we are all "absolutely free" to change the world around us. This doesn't mean that we can succeed in anything we choose to, but rather that choices are always available. Even a person condemned to die can still choose. Will he die railing against his fate and hating those who condemned him? Will he have remorse for the crime that put him in prison and ask forgiveness? Will he become a model prisoner and try to serve as an example to those around him until the moment of his death?

Whatever the situation, Sartre declared, we have the choice to make of it what we can, and whatever we choose to do excludes all other choices. It seems, then, that we had better learn to make these choices consciously, or else we are destined to continually live in a world created by the choices others make without our contribution.


Bake in a hot oven for 45 years 

Is there a recipe for becoming a hero? Can one follow a series of steps to travel from self-centered to selfless, from survival to triumph, from lost and wandering to enlightened? There are no guarantees in the making of heroes. The process is more like alchemy than cooking dinner.

But I believe there are steps one can take to move in a heroic direction. In my first formulation of this, I have named five:

1. Evoking your higher self - This was Joseph Campbell's advice about the path to becoming a hero: "Put yourself in situations where your higher self is evoked rather than your lower."

2. Hearing the call - Listening for, and allowing yourself to believe in, the voice that outlines your true path to greatness.

3. Taking action - Getting past the initial refusal that all heroes experience, and taking concrete steps in the direction of your quest.

4. Slaying the dragon - Overcoming the inner demons of fear, self-doubt, and negativity that prevent you from owning the hero's mantle.

5. Seeking guidance - Finding people, places and precepts that support your heroism and inspire it to greater heights.

There will be more about these principles in weeks to come, but this is a beginning. I welcome your thoughts on this topic as it evolves.

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Slaying the dragon within 

I wrote last month about the internal dragon every hero must slay. The dragon comes in many shapes and sizes, but it seems that there are three dominant forms. The first is, "I'm not ready," of which I wrote on Friday. The second is, "I'm not enough." You can take that phrase as it stands, or add your favorite word in the middle: "I'm not smart enough," "brave enough," "talented enough," etc.

The third dragon is, "What will people think?" This can be a tough one to slay, because more than either of the others, it reflects an external truth. Our readiness to set out on the hero's journey, and whether we are enough for the task at hand, are areas where we can hopefully change our thinking. We can come to believe that we are as ready as we're going to get, or that we do have enough intelligence, talent, and courage to begin. But we cannot alter the opinions of others.

We can try to influence what others think, but the fact is that if we are truly to become heroes, there will be those who disapprove. What we are doing may scare them; they may disagree with our course; they may fear losing us from their lives. When they express their disapproval, it will be real, outside of us, an unalterable fact.

The only element truly under our control is how we react to their disapproval. Will we allow it to stop us, or accept it and continue on? And will we allow our apprehension of some future disapproving voice to stop us even before we begin? The trick to slaying the "What will people think?" dragon is remembering that it is still an internal one. Even though it seems to be about the opinions of others, it is really about our own reaction to those opinions. We get to choose whether we will stay home until everyone around us agrees where we are going and how to get there, or we can begin the quest as best we know how, and trust that it is our own right choice.

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Are you ready yet? 

A common misconception held by would-be heroes is the belief that you must be "ready" before beginning your heroic journey. Thinking that you must have your life more together before starting your big adventure, you find yourself waiting to begin, often for years. You may never get started at all, because you never feel ready. When feeling stuck in this place, it can be helpful to remember that the great ones became heroes because they went on the quest. They didn't wait to turn into heroes first and then set out.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the first stage of the hero's journey as beginning with the call to adventure -- Luke Skywalker sees the recorded message from the desperate Princess Leia -- followed by the refusal of the call -- Luke is duty-bound to stay home and help with the harvest. It seems that the place we modern heroes frequently stop is with the refusal. We convince ourselves that bringing in the harvest is the sensible thing to do. But the harvest must be brought in every year, and when we are not reaping, we must be sowing, and cultivating, and threshing, and hauling the grain to market... When will there ever be time to save the world?

The answer, of course, is now. Now, when the call comes. The harvest will always be there, with you or without you. But the call, ah, that is special. It doesn't come every day or even every year. When you hear it, there is no way to know if you will ever hear it again. So if today is the day you hear it, today is the day you should act on it. Ready or not.

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I'm a Buddha; you're a Buddha 

One of the many elements I find useful in the Mahayana teachings of Buddhism is the basic principle that we are all already Buddhas. According to Tibetan lama Tulku Thubten Rinpoche: "We are already endowed with Buddha qualities, or Buddha perfections, the moment we are born... The only problem is that somehow we are trapped in samsara... all our internal obscurations... which prevent us from actualizing and manifesting this internal perfection..."

As a Co-Active Coach, I was trained to hold my clients as naturally creative, resourceful and whole. By holding on to that perspective, my clients and I together attempt to view anything that prevents them from being magnificent as illusory. Their natural state is perfection, so self-perceived limitations and the voice of the inner critic are simply distracting chatter -- the background noise in the restaurant that makes it hard to hear the important conversation you are wanting to have with your dining companion.

But since we exist in the state of samsara, holding on to this perspective can be quite difficult. I spotted a marvelous commentary on this in the movie Shallow Hal. (You're kidding, right? Buddhist philosophy in a Farrelly Brothers movie?) Our hero Hal -- a formerly shallow guy -- has been hypnotized by Tony Robbins (playing himself) to see the inner beauty in every woman he meets, causing him to fall in love with the charming 300-pound Rosemary. In a scene where Hal's best friend begs Robbins to break the spell, Robbins says, "What spell? He was hypnotized before when he thought women like Rosemary were ugly." This is samsara, our conditioned existence under the control of delusions that prevent us from seeing the beauty and perfection in everyone, including ourselves.

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Courage to change... or not 

If there is a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for despondency?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being sad?
-- Shantideva

This 8th century version of the Serenity Prayer is my study verse this week for my Way of the Bodhisattva class with Pema Chodron. Heroes are well known for taking action, finding a remedy when trouble strikes, but this verse reminds us that another heroic quality is cheerfulness in the face of danger and difficulty. Sometimes there is no solution, or at least not an immediate one, and if that's the case, well, is there a use in being sad?

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Insects and angels 

Walking in Golden Gate Park with my sweetheart Dave yesterday, we spotted a water strider scooting across the surface of the wildfowl pond. These amazing insects are able to literally walk on water by balancing their featherweight bodies on long legs supported by the water's surface tension. They can do this because they are so light. But you know what they say about angels -- that they can fly because they take themselves lightly.

We think of walking on water and flying as being the result of miracles, but what if Tinker Bell was right? What if the truth is that miracles exist as long as you believe in them? (Do you believe in fairies? Clap your hands, everyone!)

Once upon a time, I wanted to get a federal job as a planetary geologist in the unit that was studying the Viking mission imagery of the surface of Mars. (You know this must be a true story -- it's too goofy to have made it up.) There were less than a dozen jobs like this in the country and the competition for them was fierce. I was lacking a few basic requirements. For example, I had no experience whatsoever, and didn't even hold a bachelor's degree at the time. Oh, and there were no open positions, either.

Disregarding all this, I asked one of my college professors to have a word with someone he knew at the Geological Survey. (Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.) Somehow, I got an interview with the senior scientist on the Mars project in Menlo Park, commuting distance from my home. In the interview, I desperately trotted out the only item I could think of that might make a difference -- I held an associate degree in computer science and had some programming experience. Lo and behold, the scientist, nearing retirement age, was computer illiterate, and needed some simple programs that would analyze crater densities for his research. He wrote a position description that matched exactly my sketchy background, and posted it as required so I could apply for the job.

The miracle didn't end there. In the few days the position was required to be posted before I could be hired, another woman applied for it. She had a master's degree and years of experience. I thought I was sunk. But the senior scientist declared her "overqualified" and hired me instead. When I asked him why, he said, "You really wanted the job."

You'll notice this took a little more than positive thinking. I didn't just sit on the steps and wish I could get a job as a planetary geologist. I took the risk of being thought a fool, and asked for help from people who had the power to give it. But underneath all that, the "surface tension" that held me up was my belief that it was possible, despite the many people who told me it wasn't.

Are you clapping yet?



A UK colleague of mine named Mark Forster wrote a marvelous book, Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. What I like most about Mark's book is his holistic perspective: "...the phrase 'time-management' is really a completely inadequate description -- what we are in fact dealing with is how we manage our lives. If we were to rename it 'life-management' it might throw a new and clearer perspective on the issue. We are dealing with the surface manifestation of the very roots of our existence and what is important to us."

Oh. Is that all? No wonder getting a handle on our time can be so difficult. Mark describes one of the factors in using time wisely -- the difference between being decisive and impulsive. "Because good time-managers are clear about what their intentions are, they are able to move purposefully towards fulfilling them. Poor time-managers have seldom worked out their intentions clearly and therefore find it very difficult to act purposefully. Without having a big picture to keep their eyes on, they are prey to every kind of trivia... 'Wouldn't it be a good idea to learn French/surf the net/go shopping/rearrange the pencils on my desk/take up yoga?'"

Having been guilty of a vast number of impulsive acts in my own life, this distinction struck home. It always surprises people to learn that I have suffered from a tendency to procrastinate since I was old enough to have a to-do list. I seem to have a reputation for getting things done. Ah, but are they the right things? Do they occur because of intentional decisions on my part, or are they simply impulses that due to my other inborn traits -- dogged persistence, for example -- I feel obligated to carry out once they have been launched?

The "big picture" Mark mentions seems to be the key. How else can one get through the day without being pulled in a million different directions? I know for myself that the clearer that picture becomes, the easier it is to say one of the most important words in the English language: "No. "


Midlife metamorphosis 

Halfway through the journey of our life
I found that I was wandering in a dark wood
And realised that I'd lost the straight way.
-- Dante's Inferno

On the web site of Daniel Johnston, author of Lessons for Living, he mentions that in the Chinese language the ideogram for "crisis" is made up of two separate characters. One of these characters represents "danger" and the other represents "opportunity." Thus the proper translation of crisis from the Chinese is a "dangerous opportunity." He goes on to state, "The danger of midlife is very real. Successful transition to the next life stage is not guaranteed."

Dr. Johnston is not suggesting that midlife will kill us, but rather that we are in danger of not progressing beyond where we have been. The opportunity, however, is tremendous.

Says Johnston, "The midlife experience provides an opening to psychological and spiritual growth that allows and empowers a giving back to others and the community. This is the good news. The bad news is that you cannot take this journey without a certain amount of suffering... you must give up who you think you are so you can become who you were meant to be."

Giving up who we think we are can be painful indeed. It also requires giving up who others think we are. The people around us often have a very fixed image of us. By the time we reach midlife, those who have known us for many years may be holding a picture of who we are that is decades outdated. It may be quite a shock to them to discover that not only are we no longer that person they used to know, but now we are becoming someone else again right under their noses.

It takes a great deal of courage to become who you are, and even more to actually tell anyone about the new you. But to quote Johnston once again, "To become a whole person the journey must be taken."


Making it up as you go 

Speaking today at the San Francisco Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, I was struck once again by the awesome inventiveness of entrepreneurs. Fully half the audience was made up of people who owned businesses that were totally unique. That's one of the greatest things about starting a business -- you can just make it up.

When you are on the outside of entrepreneurship looking in, you may think that to be a successful business owner, you must be a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. There is much in the business literature to support the idea that you should choose a business with a recognized label, e.g. graphic designer, bookkeeper, or executive recruiter. Or one where you can follow a manual someone will be happy to sell you -- for medical transcription, gift baskets, or home inspection -- and perhaps even buy into a brand name through a franchise or direct selling company. But it doesn't have to look this way at all.

One of the people I met today was Roger Kalhoefer, founder of Holy Legends Ltd. His violence-free board and video games promote cross-cultural understanding by featuring the heroic story of Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

Also in the audience was Myra Alcaide, managing partner of Prime Image. Her company helps to celebrate and unite Asian communities by providing entertainers and event production services. Their mission is to give the Asian community a voice in mainstream entertainment. Try finding either of those enterprises in a how-to-start-a-business guide.

It's my belief that whatever your mission in life is, you can find a way to make a living at it, and therefore be able to work at your mission full time. But to do this, you often must be willing "to boldly go where no one has gone before."

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Good, bad & different 

One of my favorite quotes from Thoreau's Walden is the following: "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life..."

Caught by the enthusiasm of our desire to be of service, sometimes we forget that the path we have chosen is uniquely ours, and may not be right for everyone. I find that most true callings are a strong reflection of our personal values -- those beliefs that we hold so strongly they seem absolute. Coaches Training Institute founder Laura Whitworth compares them to "the freckles on your face," invisible to you because they have always been there, but to others, part of what makes you distinctive.

When we attempt to serve others according to our own values, even with the best intentions in mind, we can become overbearing proselytizers who insist that only we know the right way to live. Think of the devastation that Christian missionaries caused to Native American cultures, and yet many of them truly believed they had the best interests of those civilizations in mind.

Perhaps it is my years of training and experience as a coach that make me ask first about the other person's agenda when I want to help. (And this is of course my own bias, ultimately stemming from my own values.) What I find is that help offered in an unwanted direction rarely has a positive effect. How well do we listen to even our closest friends when they offer us advice we didn't ask for?

If we want our service to have the greatest possible impact, perhaps the best place to begin is simply asking, "What do you need?"

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Taking out the hook 

In a discussion group with Pema Chodron last night, our topic was getting hooked by strong negative emotions such as anger or fear. Pema told us that while these emotions -- and the experience of being powerless in their grip -- are universal, there was an aspect of the experience that was unique to the West.

It seems we Westerners, when we notice that we have once again been waylaid by our own negativity, blame ourselves for it. We actually compound the problem by layering guilt on top of the original sabotaging emotion. Pema described the process as trying to put out a fire with kerosene.

According to Pema's teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who taught all over the world about training the mind, in Eastern cultures this isn't so. The negative emotions, or kleshas, are seen more as influences from outside that impose their will on you, almost like being possessed by a demon. If a demon possesses you, it certainly isn't your fault!

Detaching from the source of the negativity in this way seems almost certain to make it easier to unhook from it once you realize it is there. You can bypass completely the phase so familiar to us Westerners of thinking, "What's wrong with me? I've done it again. I should have been stronger. I should have known better."

Pema pointed out that when seeing yourself as you really are hurts, when you are stung by not living up to your own expectations, it's an insult to your ego. And this perhaps is the real source of this difference between West and East. We Westerners are well known for being overly dependent on individual ego strength, for isolating ourselves and shunning collective thought. So, naturally, when we find ourselves doing something we had sworn we would no longer do -- getting angry or being afraid -- we believe it is our ego that has failed us. We believe we have failed, and another round of self-loathing and blame begins.

If instead we can separate from the sabotaging emotion, reject the emotion but love ourselves, we can take the hook out with much less struggle. Instead of pouring kerosene on the fire, we can remove its source of fuel.

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Up, down, over & through 

I'm continuing with my study of Shantideva's instructions for becoming an enlightened hero in The Way of the Bodhisattva. The verse posted on my bathroom mirror this week is:

"When something has been planned and started on,
Attention should not drift to other things.
With thoughts fixed on the chosen target,
That and that alone should be pursued."

This is from the chapter on Vigilance, which describes how once you have found your true path, the real trick is staying on it. I've found it helpful to contemplate this verse many times this week as what seems like a million distractions have pulled at me. I am attempting to diligently write my next book, Get Hired NOW!, while running my business, serving my clients, studying with Pema Chodron, and generally living my life.

Adding one extra unwanted task -- my 17th phone call to Comcast attempting to get my cable service restored following their system upgrade -- pushed me over the edge two days ago. "Who am I to be writing a book?" I fumed, forgetting I had already written several. "I can't even get my cable service fixed."

I sulked for a bit, went for a walk in Golden Gate Park, and while scowling at a spectacularly beautiful flower bed, remembered something Pema said in a recent class. "Some days you just can't manage to be a hero. Some days even tying your shoes is too hard. So do what small thing you can manage. And remember that other people feel this way too."

I started back home, trying to turn my thoughts to the people I wanted to serve by writing the book. When I got back, I re-read the verse above. And then I sat down at the keyboard.

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Listening like a hero 

On a 1-to-10 scale from whitebread to woo-woo, I'm probably about an 8. I speak fluently the language of business and am well known for my practical, down-to-earth, step-by-step writing and teaching. I operate my day-to-day life and work on a fairly pragmatic basis. But I also believe strongly in the world of spirit. At crossroads, turning points, and crises, I'm much more likely to rely on intuition, inspiration, and divine guidance than on logical analysis and flowcharts.

On the whitebread to woo-woo scale, my mother was an 11. In the 60's, she served on the board of the Parastudy institute for the study of the paranormal, practiced the spiritual discipline of Subud, and at one point placed me in the home school of the Temple for Spiritual Learning, where we worshipped the Egyptian gods. A typical Saturday night for me as a 10-year-old was to sit in the Parastudy library, reading Edgar Cayce, Joan Grant, instructions for reading auras, and accounts of alien abductions.

I became fascinated early on with stories of divinely-guided heroes. Joan of Arc is the one I recall affecting me most strongly, probably because she was also a young girl. I wished that the spirits would come and speak to me, to tell me what I was supposed to do with my life, to give me a mission. Standing in holy places, like circles of trees and rays of sunlight, I would listen for a message. But I wonder...

If the spirits had spoken to me, would I have had Joan's courage? To not only tell the world what I had heard, but to act on it? This is what I mean when I speak of stepping into your greatness -- once you have had the vision, to be brave enough to share it, and committed enough to act upon it.

Actually, I think I heard many divinely-inspired messages -- at age 10 and 20 and 30 -- that I ignored. I think we all do. Whether you interpret that message as coming from the world of spirit, from inside yourself, or from the person on the other end of the phone line doesn't matter. The way to become a hero is to recognize the importance of these messages, share them with others, and take action to bring them into the world.

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Business or pleasure? 

I'm a strong advocate for pursuing one's avocation as a vocation. The reason is simple -- it makes it possible for you to do what you love full time instead of relegating it to your spare time. If your desire is to be of service, you can make a much greater contribution if you are able to serve while making a living.

This crucial area is one where stepping into your greatness becomes essential. You must have the courage to Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow. It is possible to follow the path of right livelihood as an employee -- challenging enough in itself, when you must break away from a more comfortable career. But I find that for many seekers, their true vocation requires some form of self-employment.

This becomes a triple challenge. First, you must leave your former occupation and learn a new one. Second, you must remain steady on the course of pursuing your dream in the face of numerous outside influences that oppose you. And third, you must rely on your own resources instead of a paycheck to earn your way. It's truly a feat worthy of a hero, and one which requires the use of all your heroic qualities to accomplish.

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Changing the world a step at a time 

In my Way of the Bodhisattva class this summer, one of the weekly homework assignments is to memorize and contemplate a verse from Shantideva's text. Here is the verse I chose for this week:

"To cover all the earth with sheets of hide --
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But simply wrap some leather round your feet,
And it's as if the whole earth had been covered!"

The hero's journey must begin with changing himself, but also, changing oneself may be a much simpler task than taking on the changing of the whole world. Shantideva implies that by changing yourself you do change the world. At the personal level, the world seems to change when your perspective of it does, but in fact, a change to your own being can have an observable effect on everyone who comes in contact with you. So, before you start slaughtering cattle, put your sandals on.

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Heroism in Marin County 

I have been invited to give my first talk on the topic of becoming a hero at a meeting of the Marin Coaches Alliance on August 4. This is exactly what I hoped would begin to occur when I began writing about this subject less than a month ago. The talk came about due to a chain of events I couldn't duplicate if I tried.

I am thrilled by this example of what I call the "Persistence Effect" in action. Whenever you get serious about a goal and begin to act in a focused, consistent way, results occur in unexpected places. It's almost as if the universe notices how hard you are working and decides to reward you. But these opportunities are not accidents. There is a direct connection between the level of effort you put into achieving your goal and the results you get out of it, even when it seems as if the results are completely unrelated to your efforts.

I could say that I did nothing to make that talk in Marin occur, because I didn't solicit it, or even intend for it to happen. But in fact, I did many things. I have spent ten plus years building a reputation in the coaching profession that results in groups seeking me out to speak. I launched this weblog to discuss the topic of becoming a hero, and have been posting here consistently. I mentioned my weblog to the organizer of the Marin group (in a conversation that had nothing to do with my speaking there) as an example of how people were exploring new topics on the web. And, abracadabra, an invitation to speak materialized.

The next time you read a hero's story where events seem to happen by accident, look below the surface. When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became the hero of PT109, he said, "It was involuntary; they sank my boat." But what were all the deliberate actions leading up to that moment that made it possible for heroism to "suddenly" occur?

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Not found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles 

Pursuing the path of heroism is intertwined with discovering one's right livelihood. The term right livelihood has Buddhist origins, and has been described by writers such as Marsha Sinetar as "work consciously chosen, done with full awareness and care, and leading to enlightenment." Such work must also be "ethical," a tricky term for which I found a helpful definition in Natural Life Magazine: "...consistent with the principles of honest living, treating with respect other people and the natural world... being responsible for the consequences of one's actions."

To become a hero, one must find one's true calling. Some find it before walking the hero's road and that is what points their faces in that direction; others simply begin down the path and discover it on the journey. But regardless of when it occurs, uncovering your right livelihood is what makes is possible to be a hero every day of your life. Without that key element, you may still have a grand adventure and hopefully make an impact, but then your story ends.

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Send in the kleshas 

In my Way of the Bodhisattva class last night, Pema talked about kleshas. She described these as negative emotions that block us from developing ourselves and helping others. The five kleshas usually named are ignorance, self-absorption, craving, aggression, and possessiveness.

These are the flaws of the hero I spoke of yesterday, when I mentioned that the hero could use his flaws to good purpose. Pema suggests that it is sometimes possible to use the energy of a klesha to overcome the klesha itself. For example, if you are plagued by anger, get angry at the anger. The trick is not to let your anger "hook" you in doing so. It is the clear seeing of the true nature of your kleshas that eventually disspells them.

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Heroic guides 

On the path to becoming a hero, the hero-in-training often benefits from having a guide. These guides take many forms -- mentors who the hero knows personally, and who give the hero advice; role models the hero tries to emulate, teachers who give the hero instruction in how to develop his skill; spirit guides, real or ethereal, who deliver guidance from the other world; healers who provide tools for the hero to improve his ability to function; coaches who encourage the hero to perservere and help the hero effectively channel his efforts.

I most often look at developing heroes through the lens of coaching, because it is the paradigm I know best. And certainly the umbrella of coaching can include many elements of the other forms of guidance. But the key to effectively guiding heroes is to provide guidance in a form that they respond to.

The pragmatic hero may not listen to words from a spirit guide; the loner may not accept guidance from a mentor. Each hero is unique and must find the sources of guidance that will penetrate his natural defenses against dramatic change and therefore serve his ongoing development.

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Everyday heroes 

In the class I am taking with Pema Chodron on Way of the Bodhisattva, we are focusing this year on discipline and patience. These two qualities are the 2nd and 3rd of the six paramitas -- principles of enlightened living as taught in Tibetan Buddhism.

The entry point on the path of becoming a bodhisattva -- an "enlightened hero" -- is developing generosity, the 1st paramita. But once generosity has awakened in you, you must practice discipline and patience to keep it alive. It's where the rubber meets the road.

Many of us have experienced achieving some level of enlightenment in a weekend workshop or transformative life event. But then you return to your daily life, and it gradually drains away. Heroism requires the discipline and patience to practice, and to fail, over and over again. "Any fool can be brilliant in a crisis. It's the everyday living that wears you down." (Who said that?)

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Channel-surfing to enlightenment 

I use my television these days mostly for watching movies on digital cable, but I haven't had my usual 50+ movie channels the last couple of weeks due to a cable system snafu. So in searching for other video entertainment, I discovered it was PBS pledge time again, which means Joseph Campbell is back on the air.

One click later, I found myself watching the first episode of The Power of Myth, titled "The Hero's Adventure." (There are no accidents, right?) I've probably watched this series a zillion times, but each viewing I find something new. This time, I was struck by Campbell's advice about how to become a hero: "Put yourself in situations where your higher self is evoked rather than your lower."

In the last couple of years before I became a coach, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. First I quit my job to become a consultant. I didn't think that was what I really wanted, but the job was definitely evoking my lower self, i.e., making me frustrated and angry. By leaving it, I was released from an overwhelming negative influence. Next, I opened an office. I didn't know what I was going to do there -- my consulting gigs were all on site -- but I felt strongly that I needed that space to do whatever would come next. What I found was that the office evoked my higher self. When I went there, I became focused and creative, even visionary. Getting that office led directly to my discovery of the path of coaching and everything that followed.

It seems that Campbell's words can be a guide when you don't know what else to do. If you simply remove yourself from situations that evoke your lower self and put yourself where your higher self is encouraged, you begin to step into greatness without even knowing what it looks like.

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Service vs. servitude 

The second of what I see as the three main themes of this blog is service. Being of service to others, to me, is one of the main reasons for being alive. Perhaps it is the reason for being here -- to care for each other.

I think service is sometimes confused with servitude. The latter I might define as involuntary service, stemming from duty and obligation. Voluntary service, on the other hand, can be a calling, based in empathy, compassion, and a desire to contribute. Where servitude often leads to suffering, service can lead to satisfaction, a sense of belonging, even joy.

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Around and around we go 

Having begun my blog in the middle, I feel I should circle back to the beginning and say something about the purpose of these reflections. In the 10+ years since I began working as a career and business coach, I have made a number of (to me) remarkable discoveries. One that stands out is that I find -- over and over again -- that people who first appear to be lost, confused, or stuck often know exactly what they want to do. They just think that for some reason they can't do it.

We, myself included, are stopped at every turn by ourselves. We think we can't, we shouldn't, we're not good enough, we don't know how. And the power of those beliefs is so strong that it drowns out our inner knowing of the right path for us. It seems that if only we could step into our own greatness, our questions of right livelihood would disappear.


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