It had been almost three weeks since his last call with Jonathan, and Dennis noticed he was once again coming up with excuses for why he should cancel the call. While the excuses had different reasons than the last time they’d had a call scheduled, the fact that he had excuses, and that the excuses felt very reasonable, felt very familiar to Dennis.
Dennis picked up the phone and gave Jonathan a call — if he kept hesitating, nothing was going to shift.
Jonathan answered promptly. “Hey Dennis! You made it!”
Dennis laughed in spite of himself. They started sharing pleasantries before slowly shifting into the topic at hand for their call today: getting clear on what Dennis wanted to create in his life.
Jonathan took the lead. “Okay, so, we’ve taken a look at your time stuff, and we’ve created a bit of an experience of coaching. What’s missing is really what you want to create over the course of the next year of your life. We could be taking a look at the next ten years, five years, the next century, or whatever time frame you like. I generally work with people for a year at a time, so that’s a good window for us to look in.”
“There’s two places we can look: the first is your own life. How things are going, how you want life to look, etc. The second is your business and your leadership team, since initially we got into this conversation because you were looking to create some shifts there. Where should we start?”
Dennis shrugged his shoulders, then realized Jonathan couldn’t see him, and he’d have to respond. “Well, where I’ve been looking over the last few weeks is individually — like, what I want in my own life. So that seems like a good place to start.”
“Okay great. Let’s start there, and we can grow it out as we see fit. It sounds like you’ve been spending some time thinking about the life you’d like, and the experience you want in it. How’s that going?”
Dennis had been waiting to share this and responded quickly, “It’s been really hard. I keep noticing all of the reasons I can’t have the life I want, and then I get caught. It’s like I’m either stuck designing a life that isn’t possible, and then what’s the point of that? Or I start planning how to shift the circumstances of my life so that they can allow me to live the way I want to live, but then I get overwhelmed with the enormity of that task, and now I’m not just redesigning my life — I’m redesigning the entire universe, including the cretinous way everyone around me thinks and operates.”
Jonathan laughed at Dennis referring to people around him as cretins. “Great! That’s what we’d expect to see. Let’s start by distinguishing what’s going on for you, then we can dive in to it.”
“Dennis, people often ask which came first, the chicken or the egg — but that question presents a false dichotomy. It suggests that one or the other came first. The truth is, they both came first. They came together. This is how the world around you came to exist too.”
“Here’s what I mean — first, growing up, you learned a set of beliefs about how to be in the world. You learned how you needed to show up, what provided value, the right ways to be, the wrong ways to be, etc. You learned this from your parents, teachers, and the world around you. We could spend time distinguishing all the reasons and ways you arrived at the set of beliefs you have, but that’s really more the domain of therapy, and we don’t need to worry about that — our concern is not why you are the way you are — we’re more interested with simply accepting that this is how you wound up, and addressing what we need to do to shift it. Is this making sense so far?”
Dennis nodded, “Sure, I was born, and then I learned a bunch of beliefs.”
Jonathan agreed, “Exactly. Next, from those beliefs, you learned to act in certain ways. The ways you acted were consistent with your beliefs. If you created a belief that it was weird to talk to strangers, then your actions would reflect that — you wouldn’t go up and talk to random strangers. When a stranger talks to you, you act (and in fact, genuinely are) annoyed. By the flip side, if you learned the belief that a stranger was just a friend you hadn’t met, you would probably be in the habit of going and talking to strangers.”
Dennis interrupted, “Definitely not talking to strangers. They’re weird and smell bad.”
Jonathan laughed, “Exactly. I wonder if we had the same parents and teachers growing up…”
Dennis laughed back.
Jonathan continued, “So, first, you are born, then you learn a series of beliefs. Next, you learn to act in ways that are consistent with your beliefs. How you act in the world is a function of what you believe about the world. With me so far?”
“Yes, this makes sense so far.” Dennis responded, slowly.
“Great. Third, the way you act in the world, creates an environment, or world, around you that is consistent with your beliefs and your actions. If you believe that it’s weird to talk to strangers, over time, you’re going to create friends, and gravitate towards environments, that conform with and confirm that belief. People in your group will likely share the same belief, because you would find it awkward to spend time with people that kept going and talking to strangers. That would be flying in the face of your belief and create cognitive dissonance. You’ll create spaces, join clubs, and naturally end up in places where talking to strangers is frowned upon, because that confirms what you already hold to be true, and also means you aren’t getting talked to by strangers (which is also wrong, according to your beliefs). Am I going too fast?”
Dennis sat for a minute and processed what Jonathan was saying. “No, I think I’m with you. So, I’m born. I learn some beliefs. Then I start acting consistent with those beliefs. And then as a result of my actions, I create a world around me that’s a reflection of my actions and my beliefs. Is that right?”
Jonathan jumped in, “That’s exactly right. One hundred percent! You’re doing great.”
“Here’s the final piece — the place where it all feeds back in on itself: the world you’ve created around you reinforces and confirms your beliefs. It provides ongoing evidence that your beliefs are not something you created. Take a look around you: your beliefs aren’t just beliefs, they’re the truth. You can see it everywhere you look. You’re surrounded by people that feel the same way you do about talking to strangers. The world around you, at large, agrees with the fact that talking to strangers is weird.”
Dennis sat for a while and let this sink in while Jonathan continued.
“Now I know we’re using this weird example about talking to strangers, but can you see that this applies to literally every belief you might hold in your head? That your beliefs are not just something you’ve created in your mind, but that they’re made whole and concrete in the world around you as a result of your actions?”
Dennis was nodding slowly to himself. “Yes. I think this is making sense. So even though, on the one hand, they’re a story I created, they’re also my reality.”
“Exactly! So, now that we’ve got the underlying truth of life out of the way, let’s just make sure we have a concrete belief of yours on the table, so we can see this isn’t just about talking to strangers. What’s a belief you have about time?”
Dennis thought. “Well, basically that time is valuable, and you better not waste it.”
“Perfect, that’s a great one. Super common for people in executive leadership. You know the value of time, and you know how precious it is. What are some of the ways you act, as a result of this belief?”
Dennis looked down at the notes he’d taken over the last three weeks and laughed. “Well, I’ve got a whole bunch of them here it seems. One of them is that I’ve always got my eye on the clock. Also, I’m always scheduling as much as possible in. I’m basically cramming my schedule full of things so that I don’t waste a minute of time. I’m constantly trying to maximize my schedule.”
“Perfect, so we’ve got the belief, and we’ve got some actions you take from that belief. And to be clear, we could probably keep distinguishing actions that you take from this belief — but let’s work with this for now. From these actions, I’m guessing you end up with a calendar that’s pretty packed, are always multi-tasking through your meetings, and tend to not spend much time, if any at all, sitting still. In fact, your world probably doesn’t allow for much space to just sit and do nothing. Is that about accurate?” Jonathan asked.
Dennis nodded so hard he almost hurt his neck, “Uhhhhh, a-yeah. Six billion percent. That’s absolutely what it’s like.”
“Great. And because there’s absolutely no space or free time in your world, can you see how that confirms your belief that time is scarce?”
Dennis was slowly getting this. It was making eerie sense. “Of course. Yah, I have to cram more things in, because there’s never any space.”
Jonathan responded enthusiastically, “Yes! So this is what we’re up against. This is why, when people — coaches, leaders, internet memes, pictures of people in a rowboat rowing up a mountain with an inspiring quote under them, whatever — this is why being told ‘It’s just your story’ never actually helps. Because this isn’t just your story. It is a story you’ve created, but it’s also the world around you. You have created all of the evidence you’d ever need to validate this story.”
As this dawned on Dennis, his enthusiasm started to diminish, “Okay, great. So… I created this, but then, it sounds like I’m basically screwed. I kind of liked it when it was just a story and I just needed to blink my eyes hard and it could all change.”
Jonathan laughed, “Yah, me too. That seems way easier. But, you’ve probably noticed that trying that doesn’t seem to work. You may even have noticed that those most adamant about things ‘just being a story’ don’t tend to be creating a lot of change in their lives. So the truth of this is that, ultimately, this is just a belief you made up. But if you want to change that belief, you’re going to need to operate in the face of the world you’ve created around you.”
Jonathan slowed down and spoke very deliberately, “This is the most important part here. If you want to create a different life, this is what you’re up against. While we support you in creating a new belief, and then acting from that new belief, and then creating a world that is aligned with that new belief, the old world you’ve created is going to be in active opposition to your transformation.”
Dennis was digging this. This spoke to how he’d felt over the last three weeks, trying to figure out how he wanted life to look like.
Jonathan broke back in to his thoughts, “This is why it’s a challenge to think of the life you really want — you’ve got a world around you screaming at you, ‘You can’t have this! Look at me! I’m as real as concrete!’. It’s very distracting and disheartening.”
“Right, that is how it felt,” Dennis said, “But what do I do about that then? How do I even get started?”
“What we do is we begin by designing the life you want, regardless of your circumstances. The world around you will almost certainly be in opposition to what we’re designing. For now, we simply accept that as the way it will be, and don’t let it stop us. Are you up for that?”
Dennis was a little reticent and wary at this point, but was also resonating with everything Jonathan had said. If this was true, his experience really made sense.
“Yah, I’m down, let’s do this.”
Jonathan continued, “Okay, perfect. So, let’s start by looking at how you’d like life to look in a few areas. To keep it simple, let’s look in the areas of work, your relationship with your wife, your relationship with your self, and your friends. If you like, we can choose any other areas you’d rather focus in — these just tend to give us some simple categories to play in.”
“No, those sound fine. Let’s start with work.”
Over the course of the next hour, Dennis and Jonathan worked to get clear on how Dennis would really like his life to look, if he got to design it from scratch and he knew he could create it, no matter how outlandish. As they reached the top of the hour, Dennis looked down to see what they’d created and was surprised to see how much he had written.
Jonathan spoke, “You’ve done a great job here Dennis. Let’s hear a few of them out loud.”
Dennis read off his list, “Okay, for work, I’ve got ‘Work between twenty-five and forty hours a week’, basically variable depending on what we’re up to, but definitely no more than forty hours. Then I’ve also got ‘My experience of work is that I feel sourced and excited about my time spent there’.” Dennis paused, and then interjected, “That one currently seems pretty far off.”
Jonathan understood, but didn’t add anything, waiting for Dennis to continue. By the time Dennis was done, they had the following rough list:
* Work between twenty-five and forty hours a week
* Have an experience of work that it sources me and I’m excited to be there
* The majority of my time is spent developing the leadership of my teams, and I work minimally on the things that are more hands-on
* Spend time with Claire every night where I’m not thinking about work
* Go on at least two vacations a year, one somewhere in Europe that lasts at least three weeks
* Join a sports league of some sort, and play a game every week
* Have an experience of life where I’m neither bored nor frantic — life feels peaceful, rich, and filled with love