Welcome friends to Episode #138 of the Own Your Best Life Podcast. When we start thinking of making changes to our lives, it’s hard to know where to start. There seems to be so much going on with our lives right now that if we even had a bit of extra time, how do we think about utilizing it for change? What’s the importance of changing our lives for the future when things aren’t working today? Today’s podcast on Designing Your Life is going to help you figure out what you want to start with and where to go next.
Change in human behavior is driven by 3 things. Moving away from pain, moving towards pleasure and fulfilling your purpose.
I’ll tell you 3 stories that show each.
When I was thinking about what to focus on in undergrad, I remember my focus was on where I could find a job. Let me explain the context. My parents had grown up under some difficult circumstances, having gone to a top university in Taiwan and then moving to the US where they had to start all over again. Security was top of mind for them. I really loved writing and reading but didn’t see a path forward where I could actually have a job doing these things. I remember picking business as my degree because I had picked up one of those college books you get from the bookstore in the 90’s, read some descriptions about what business even was and the thing I was drawn towards was the cross-functional team aspect. It sounded like something I would like because I enjoyed team sports.
In my freshman year at college, I was getting involved in different programs and groups that would bolster my resume and help me land a job. Getting a job and creating options for myself was my focus, so I joined a business fraternity in my freshman year. While I was in the business fraternity I met other students who just returned from co-ops and getting offers at what seemed to me to be big companies at the time, like Johnson & Johnson.
I found out that they were part of a major called Logistics and Supply Chain Management – which seemed boring to me at the time, but I was sold because it seemed so stable and real. I double majored to make sure I could maximize my attractiveness in the job market and selected that as one of my majors including Information systems. Even though I didn’t love it, I loved the idea of knowing I could have a job. This choice was safe, I could provide for myself and I wouldn’t have to go home and live with my parents.
Avoiding pain was such a big motivator. I remember studying abroad in undergrad and being offered drugs on a trip but declined them. I knew that I was going to take a drug test before my summer internship. The pain of not getting a summer internship was bigger than the pleasure of trying something new. The pain of disappointing my parents and of not being responsible with the money they saved for my education was very present. Pain was my driver to make sure I studied, worked hard, networked and prepared for interviews. I was a “good kid” and moving away from pain was my major motivator for most of my young adult life and it served me well. I avoided the pain of not being able to provide for myself by getting a co-op at Johnson & Johnson, internships at other companies, and then recruiting for and accepting a job with Stanley Black & Decker. I remember even having an internship at Lehman Brothers and saw how much pain was in the culture there so when I received an offer there, I didn’t take it (much to my father’s dismay) and took Black & Decker instead. All to move away from pain.
If you’re worried about the future and sense that the day-to-day is driven by worry, you are likely moving away from pain. “I don’t like this so I’ll do something else.” “What if I don’t do this?” “What if this doesn’t go as planned?” “What if this industry or the job or the person changes?” Biologically, moving away from pain keeps us alive and from doing things like crossing the street in busy traffic. Pain in our bodies tells us to stop whatever we’re doing at the time. At a psychological level, we spend our time focusing on the variety of risks within our lives, accounting for risk and taking control. This changes our behavior. It’s what drives many of our decisions about how we want to design our life. Whether we want it to drive us or not, it does. This is also what drove my entrepreneurial work, because I wanted to be able to control whether or not I would have work outside of a corporate setting. Pain is a powerful motivator. When you understand where it exists in your life and what you are doing or not doing as a result, it shows you how to continue to leverage it for your good instead of in ways that don’t serve you. Find the pain you want to avoid that will serve you and you’re good. Find the pain that you want to avoid that doesn’t serve you and you’ll see why you’ve been suffering.
The second story is one about the pleasure of buying a home.
As Jay and I took on debt to pay for our MBA degrees, we realized that we’d have some choices to make as we thought about our future. Do we want to buy a house or not? Do we even know where we want to live long enough to buy a house? Why buy instead of rent?
When you actually run the numbers for buying a home, they’re not financially the most favorable. The most financially optimal thing to do is to live in the smallest box you can find for the least amount of money possible. You reduce costs of everything including furniture, maintenance, repairs and taxes if you happen to own this box.
Jay and I have these date nights we do each week, and before COVID hit we had the pleasure of doing one of these date nights at a local restaurant near us called Bread and Brine. We were sitting at the bar and talking about what we wanted next in our lives. This is normal if you’re married to me. The thing we both mentioned was that we wanted a feeling of stability and settling down. All the moving around and renting was starting to wear on us a bit and we wanted to make a decision. Are we just going to continue to rent or are we going to buy?
This is where pleasure came into play. When we thought about buying, it was focused on the pleasure we would have that we didn’t experience before. Pleasure in knowing that we made a decision for the semi-long-term. Pleasure in having a space we could design as ours. Pleasure in imagining ourselves living in a place where our kids would grow up. There was pleasure in the stability and for two people who loved to travel and see new places, this was a real shift in what we found to be pleasurable.
When we thought about how we would pay or when we would buy, I remember saying to Jay that “I really would love to have zero debt when we buy the house.” That vision of what it would feel like to take on an additional liability when we had no other financial liabilities was very appealing. It was attractive to feel like we were making a smart decision. We went ahead and focused on paying down any remaining debt on car loans or school loans. We continued renting until those were all cleared. We waited for what felt like an uncomfortably long time to buy. When you’re surrounded by people who have already bought homes, it often feels like you’re the last one to the market.
I could sense a recession coming and we waited. COVID hit, there was a month or two of confusion where people didn’t know what to do, and we leaned in to buy. Timing was everything and we bought the perfect house for us. It was so pleasurable to be debt free for a period of time and know we were making the right decision for us. Pleasure moved us to hold discomfort longer, and it worked.
When we move towards pleasure, this can look like doing something because it will bring you something you truly desire. At the most basic level, this is fulfilling biological needs like hunger or shelter, or psychological needs like safety. As we mature, we learn how to delay gratification, so we work hard for something we want in the future like a certain amount of money, a degree, a job, health or even a relationship. When we don’t delay gratification, we don’t get the pleasure of tomorrow and instead we seek the pleasure of today. This is where we get into habits driven by dopamine hits like over-working, over-eating, overspending, over-drinking and extreme reactions to control how much pleasure we get to feel right now versus tomorrow. Pleasure is extremely powerful so you have to know how to use it wisely.
The third story is about finding one’s calling.
After my work at McKinsey, I moved into a role at Danone – a socially conscious consumer goods company. This was all part of my 5 year plan and at the time, my first daughter was 14 months old and one of the biggest drivers was that change was my daughter. I could feel myself struggling with asking for local assignments and to leave at a certain time in the evening. Even though I would log back in, there was a sense of not fully fulfilling the high standard of commitment that was part of working at McKinsey. I wanted to be able to be home at night instead of traveling every week. I didn’t want to sacrifice the ability to pick the type of work that I did and the people who I would work with – yet, if I was prioritizing a specific location, this can limit your options.
Both Jay and I were consultants so traveling was the norm and so was putting work at the top of the list. But when you have a child, things change. You realize how much time and energy it actually takes to physically raise this little human and I knew that I didn’t want to miss these years. Suddenly, you have to make time for something else and if we thought we had full lives before, our lives became even more full.
I thought I would have time to figure out what I wanted to do next with my life after I landed at Danone. A year went by as I learned the ropes and I took on a challenging role that stretched me where I had to help bring a new trade system on board. A field I knew very little about but was entrusted with – it was exciting and daunting at the same time. I also got a chance to work with some really amazing people. One of them was of the people on my team. One day, during our daily huddle, this team member received a call. The kind of call that you are always fearful of getting. Her husband had a heart attack and was being rushed to the hospital.
She knew she had to go there but she also knew she wasn’t ok to drive. I remember telling her I would take her there and as we were driving the FDR heading into Manhattan, I thought to myself, this is what I’ve been training my mind for. This is what my spiritual practices were for. This is the reason behind meditating each day. To be fully present so you can address the true needs of the moment. There comes a time when suddenly you feel so much clarity what matters most – a feeling of true presence – and this was one of those moments. I was so focused. There was nowhere else to be but here, navigating the unfolding of life changing before my eyes. Her husband passed that day and it is a day that forever changed many people’s lives, including my own.
I remember calling Jay that day, dazed after I left the hospital and asking him to meet me. We met at Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side and I remember sitting across the table from him telling him what transpired and just feeling the heaviness of what had occurred. It was the third death that occurred and it killed the thought that had kept me in a holding pattern… “life is just so busy right now.” Of course it was. I purposely kept choosing jobs that were intense and required more of me. I purposely kept filling our time. I purposely made moves to have more time but filled it with day-to-day tasks, not life-changing decisions.
In change management, you learn that nothing happens without a sense of urgency. A sense of a breaking point (pain) or inspiration (pleasure) or need to be aligned to a purpose, which many don’t even know. If I hadn’t experienced this firsthand that day, I don’t know how long it would have taken for me to change my life. Nothing was so broken yet. I was the frog boiling in water slowly.
I had already prolonged the change for so long already, and that day I couldn’t ignore it any longer. It ignited a sense of urgency within me that time was of the essence and that something had to change. I knew that I wasn’t using my gifts and having the impact on the world that I desired. I didn’t even know what my gifts were. As we sat surrounded by the drawings of Madeline – which was the book that inspired the theme of my baby shower – on the wall, it was as if the Universe was sending me a direct message that this life was not a trial run. Do not waste this precious life. Figuring out what I wanted to do and how to spend my time mattered not just to me, but my family. Death comes to all of us and I didn’t feel like I could answer my own questions, “Could I die today, fulfilled? Did I live a life that mattered?”
Lila, my first daughter, was the impetus of change for me in my career more than just then. As I was figuring out what I wanted to do next, I also took some big detours into burnout. This is why I advocate having a coach in these transitions. It took me years to figure out not just what I wanted to do but how to make it real by actually living and working while not sacrificing my health or personal lives. I remember how easily irritated I was when I was tired yet it felt like I was always tired trying to do work in the early mornings and late nights thinking that would solve all the work issues. Years and decades thinking only more work and more diligence would make life better. But it wasn’t until I saw her little 3 year old self asking me, “Mama, why are you so tired?” that I broke down and realized I needed to change something more than just a job. Life wasn’t getting better and my low-energy was impacting others. She gave me the reason to do the hard thing like become the person that asked for what I needed and stop people-pleasing. To not just change jobs but change careers to a vocation and do it in a way that made sense for me and my family. It took something bigger than pain and pleasure to exert my muscles of change and do the work I’m doing now, which is improving lives while also being there for my family.
When you are driven by purpose, this is the strongest factor. It compels you to do things that you may fear and overcome challenges. It is driven by contribution towards others and how you can have an impact on the world. You start to realize you can go beyond reacting to pain and pleasure and you are driven by something way bigger than you and your ego. You realize that the truest safety you can find is in the freedom you have when you are filling your time with what matters.
Purpose drives the act of designing your life. When you design your life to fulfill your purpose, it cuts through the uncertainty by saying, “Yes, there are many things that could happen, but what would you like to happen? What is needed? What do you think makes the most sense right now? What must you do next instead of what should you do next?” Instead of letting our brains go undirected, we direct our attention to what we want. We finally do what we know to do. The procrastination ends.
I do not wish for you to experience heartbreak or tragedies or poor health before you get to the point of making changes. Yet, it is possible to go years and decades without ever doing what we know. I knew I was feeling like I didn’t know what was next and that I wasn’t living up to my potential but I didn’t know what my potential even was and also thinking I should be happy with what I’ve got. If you imagine yourself 20 years down the line working and living the same way with the same feelings of unease or unrest, likely something has to change.
These are the sliding door moments. Not just having this realization and going back to your old life, but having this realization and moving forward towards a life lived in a parallel universe. One where you do something with what you know. Where you can actually close the gap between what is available to you in life and what you get to experience.
This is what I teach and coach Spiritual Achieves to do. To notice their levels of self-mastery and understanding of ourselves so that they can create new pathways and programming to utilize our creativity and genius. If you want to join and take this journey, and consciously access these altered states of consciousness where you aren’t sleepwalking through your life but creating and designing your life, you can. I’m opening up enrollment for Spiritual Achiever coaching in February 2023. While you can join any time, you don’t want to miss the February live retreat. We will show you how to conquer stress, learn how to tap into intuition and strategically plan your future to achieve your top goals in the next year. Imagine achieving your most important professional and personal goals across this 12 month journey. You will have monthly group coaching, on-demand access to the Spiritual Achiever process and live trainings and coachings every month on clean decision-making, values and strengths branding, communication and decision-making styles, time management and how to design your days, creating from sufficiency with money scripts, mind/body practices to improve energy, mindfulness and physical health, how to transition careers, habit changing, developing spiritual practices and create fulfilling relationships. These are the skills and processes to increase wealth, manifest your dream life and overcome self-doubt.
I often think of how much more of life I am experiencing – both the joy and the pain. How much more awake I feel, consciously aware of my choices for better or worse. It was like I was driving with a dirty windshield and it is now getting more clear and my vision as a result.
I found this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald when I was purchasing a gift for one of my clients who is about to have a baby – a baby girl. As I looked up where it came from and watched the scene from the movie based on the book – it was more of a reminder to me why it resonated so deeply with me having lost my father unexpectedly. This was a letter to his daughter while he was traveling in India:
“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald from the Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I’ve included the movie clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Az9hckMi6KI
If you want to be whoever you want to be and make the best of it, reach out to www.mayempson.com/contact and I’ll share with you more details about Spiritual Achiever coaching.
Have an amazing week friends.
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