We continuously seek answers outside of ourselves. We look for them in self-help books, podcasts, seminars, mentors, and spiritual teachers. But continually looking outside ourselves for answers isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in the expression of our soul’s calling. Eventually, to find our answers, we must turn inward. But going inward requires us to brave the wilderness, explore uncharted territory, and in the words of my friend AJ Leon, not follow well-lit paths, but grab a machete and hack our own.
When we go inward, we can no longer avoid our pain. We have to confront it. But there’s a strange paradox to pain. The more we fight it, the more we empower it.
Everything you fight has power over you. Everything you accept loses its power over you. Have you ever noticed that when you’re obsessing over some problem it never gets solved? But when you finally let it go, somehow it gets sorted out. A perfect example is dating. In his course on relationships, Mark Manson says one of the best ways to meet somebody is to find something better to do than trying to meet somebody.
When the longing, striving and pushing to get what you so desperately want finally come to an end you’re free. It’s only from that place of freedom and unapologetic, no-bullshit, self-expression that you can create what Jennifer Boykin calls your beautiful immortal work and live a meaningful life.
When we surrender to the circumstances we’ve been fighting, they lose all of their power over us. But we have to be careful not to confuse surrender with resignation or apathy. When we surrender, all of our actions come from a place of peace and abundance. When desperately we fight a circumstance, we do so with the frenetic energy of chaos and scarcity.
A few days ago I was in a meeting with my content strategist. We were looking at book sales for An Audience of One, and I saw that we’d sold roughly 50 copies over the course of the week. That wasn’t going to put me on any bestseller list, or make my publisher salivate. But it made me recognize the importance of playing the long game. It was my moment of surrender. With surrender, I found clarity. I asked him what small things we could do to move the needle, and all of the following ideas came to surface:
- Change the copy on the home page and feature someone’s Amazon review
- Create a new graphic with all the pictures readers had posted on Instagram and use it in our newsletter.
A focus on progress gives you power. A focus on perfection disempowers you. When we’re obsessed with perfection, we overlook progress and fail to appreciate our accomplishments.
If I were only satisfied when I sold 10,000 copies of my book, I would have completely disregarded and not appreciated the fact that I had crossed the threshold of my first 1000 copies.
It’s likely we can find everything we crave from some external source within ourselves. However, it requires inner work. We can’t order it on Amazon Prime and have it show up at our doorstep the day after tomorrow. The hedonic treadmill is necessary for economic sustainability. If everybody woke up one day and decided they were enough, had enough, and didn’t need to buy anything else, the economy would collapse.
When Things Don’t Go Your Way
Surrender doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be disappointed and that everything will go your way:
- Somebody will break your heart when you put it on the line . My sister had probably the most wise perspective on relationships I’d heard in ages. “Everybody is going to break up with you eventually until you meet the person you marry.”
- You might get fired from a job, but it could end up being the best thing that ever happened to you.
- A creative project might fail to live up to your expectations, but what you learn from it could be a profound personal growth experience.
If you choose to live a full-color, full contact, and fully self-expressed life, you’re going to have setbacks and disappointments. The only way to avoid disappointments is not to take any chances at all. That’s an incredibly limited way to live your life. As I said in An Audience of One, “Your circumstances can give you colors to paint with.” It’s all material.
Honor the Past
For most of us, when we think of a challenging experience from our past, whether it’s a relationship that didn’t work or a job that we got fired from, we focus on the negative and overlook the positive. We carry that energy with us into the future, and the future ends up looking like the past. But when we honor the past and take the most valuable lessons from it, and the power it has over us dissolves.
One of the exercises in a book I was reading was to write something great about every person who broke up with you. But you don’t just have to apply this to intimate relationships. It can be applied to just about anything. When you do that you see that often people give you many amazing gifts despite the pain they might have caused you. As Dani Shapiro wrote in Still Writing, the blessing is next to the wound.
- If weren’t for the bosses who fired me, I might not be an author today
- One girl I dated taught me how to cook, another to dress better, and so on. It didn’t work out. But it didn’t mean there wasn’t a positive gain from it either.
- A few weeks ago my business partner Brian Koehn and I decided it was time for us to part ways. But we both agreed ending our friendship would be a much higher cost than ending our partnership. He kept us from going out of business in 2014, helped turn our business around, and because he’s left it’s forced me to step into the role of CEO finally.
When you let go of the resentment you feel towards a person who hurt you and forgive them or make peace with a difficult experience from your past, it loses its power over your and more importantly over your future. When you accept your setbacks, they become an opportunity to turn endings into new beginnings.
As somebody who has dealt with cycles of depression, I’m hyper-aware of the fact that this is easier said than done, particularly when you’ve just come out the other side or are still braving the wilderness. Here are some things that I’ve found to be helpful to both honor and let go of the past.
- Gratitude: While gratitude doesn’t magically solve problems, it is a subtle energetic shift that can also begin to shift your mood. When you practice gratitude, you become aware of all the great things in your life you usually take for granted.
- Upgrade Your Environment: Nothing has a more profound impact on your behavior and your emotions than your environments. While you don’t have to burn everything from your past in a blazing inferno (although that can be fun), you want the environment to be representative of who you’re becoming, your next chapter, not your previous one. This alone can have a dramatic impact in making you feel better. My conversation with Jim Bunch goes into extensive detail about the role of environments.
- Go to Therapy: I think everyone should see a therapist at least once. A therapist is like a trainer, but for your brain instead of your body. They raise your awareness of patterns in your life. And they’re objective. You can tell them anything without any shame or fear of how you’ll be judged.
- Self Care: Do something nice for yourself to close a chapter of your life and start a new one. Upgrading your environment is a form of self-care. Exercise, travel and new hobbies can all be forms of self-care.
- Perspective: The other night I took a Lyft from Denver to Boulder. My driver was from Congo. He told me about the civil war, corruption, and poverty in Congo. Then I asked him about his work schedule. He drove for 10 hours each day or until he earned $200.00. It was 1 am when he dropped me off, and I asked him if I was his last ride of the day. He said that he planned to keep driving. When I heard his story, suddenly all the things I was feeling stressed about didn’t seem to matter all that much. Who would have guessed that my Lyft driver would become a spiritual teacher?
When we honor the past, we create an open space for the future. When we cling to the past, we’re likely to repeat it.
Honor What Could Be and Embrace Uncertainty
There are many things I thought would have happened in my life by the time I turned 40: marriage, family, etc. And they haven’t. For the first time in my life, I’m being forced to accept that kids might not be in my future. There are three potential scenarios for every life circumstance:
- The way we thought it would be
- The way it currently is
- The way it could be
When the way it currently is isn’t the way we thought it would be, we’re shut off to the possibility how it could be. We are effectively trying to turn the past into the present.
Honoring what could be means honoring uncertainty. And for most of us, uncertainty causes fear, anxiety, and a projection of worst case scenarios. But as Michelle Florendo said on a recent episode of Unmistakable Creative, what we overlook when it comes to uncertainty is the amazing things that could also happen.
The Divine Order of the Universe
If you’re feeling behind the eight ball and you’re thinking you should have the bestseller or the marriage, or why did that happen, or why’d you get fired, if you’re in a dark place, just take one grain of what I’m saying now. Just believe me for a nanosecond, that really, there is a divine order to things. Every single disappointment and I’ve had some significant ones. Every failure, every heartbreak, everything that I went after so, you know, vigorously that didn’t turn out, thank God. I was spared some kinds of destiny. I just have a deeper level of trust now. Doesn’t mean it’s easy all the time. Doesn’t mean I don’t want what I want.” – Danielle Laporte
There seems to be divine order to the events of the universe:
- Every loss becomes an opening for a gain
- Every setback becomes an opportunity for a comeback
But embracing the divine order of the Universe requires faith in forces beyond our control. It’s difficult to see the good that will come from something terrible in the moment that it happens. It’s often something that we only recognize in retrospect :
- I thought not getting a job offer from Intuit after my summer internship and graduating into the great recession was the worst thing that could happen to me career-wise. But it turned out to be the catalyst for starting what eventually became the Unmistakable Creative Podcast.
- In 2013, I was laid off from a freelance writing gig. The woman I reported to said I was outgrowing the role. Shortly after that, I self-published The Art of Being Unmistakable, which became a Wall-Street Journal best-seller, and eventually led to a book deal to write An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake, and Unmistakable: Why Only is Better than Best.
Thanks to the divine order of the Universe, I was spared working at a job I probably would have hated, and spared writing about subjects I didn’t care
Surrender goes counter to nearly every one of our cultural instincts, in which we’re taught to, strive, hustle, grind, kick ass and take names. But when you surrender, the result is inspired action. It has a different kind of energy to it. What we know about energy is that like attracts like. Acting out of desperation results in more desperation. Acting out of inspiration results in more inspiration. The paradox of surrender is that it puts you in a position of power.