Taking action’ is probably the most hyped personal development term I’ve ever encountered. Every coach and guru tells us we’ve got to take action. But what does that mean?
Why You Don’t Take Action
In the summer of 1989 I remember looking around for something to replace the buzz I used to get from competitive athletics. Rather than commit to another sport or hobby right away, I booked a one-week course with the Outward Bound organization at their beautiful Ullswater site, in the English Lake District. I remember arriving at the hostel and feeling a little nervous about rooming with a group of strangers.
Outward Bound instructors know about most of the fears, trepidations and self-limiting beliefs that folks bring along as mental baggage. They are trained to lead programs where sedentary adults get to stretch themselves physically, mentally and emotionally in a safe and supportive environment – one in which it’s OK to be embarrassed, fall over, get wet and recapture the fun they once enjoyed so much as children.
I was one of the fitter participants in my group and felt confident about doing any physical activity they could dream up. Little did I know about my own limitations.
As the week progressed so did we, and our instructor soon had us climbing rock walls the height of a three story house – though they often seemed ten times higher than that to me!
Then one fateful afternoon we were taught the basics of how to abseil down the same rock face we had been climbing up a few days earlier.
“No problem,” I thought – while waiting my turn at the bottom and acting as the ‘brake’ for my partner’s descent. She was able to control her own speed but I was there as the fail-safe in case she made a mistake and lost control coming down.
I climbed to the top and was met by our smiling instructor. I was harnessed up and all set to go when, without warning, he asked me to turn around and stand at the edge of the cliff – with my back to it. Somewhat apprehensive, but trusting in the rope, equipment and his directions, I complied. Even so, I felt uneasy.
Picture the scene. I’m standing at the edge of the precipice, gripping my abseiling rope ever more tightly and anxiously waiting the signal to start an ‘action man’ descent.
What? I heard him but thought he was joking.
“Just lean back and trust the equipment,” he repeated.
It was at this point that my ‘disco shuffle’ began. My upper leg muscles started to twitch of their own accord (I prayed no one could see this) and then, to my utter embarrassment, my knees began to shake and knock together. The instructor remained nonplussed by this poor show of bravado.
After talking me through the incredible tensile strength of the ropes, how he’d slowly uncoiled and visibly checked them for faults on arriving at the climb site, then checked the harnesses and hard hats, and carefully trained the ‘fail-safe’ spotter waiting at the bottom of the cliff – his next instructions made my heart sink.
“Mark – now that you know how safe it is, I want you to do one final thing. You can check and check but to get anywhere sometimes you have to just trust your systems, trust yourself and then step out into the unknown.”
I remember thinking at the time how did I rope myself into being lectured by this grinning guy.
“Take your hands off the rope,” he said.
Gulp! I’m already leaning away from the cliff edge at some crazy angle, squeezing the wafer-thin rope ever more tightly, and he wants me to do what? My disco shuffle has turned into an extended remix and I feel like crying.
But I realize he knows I can do it; if I only trust.
So I remove my left hand for a second and hope my stronger right one can take the strain.
“You don’t get it, do you?” he said. “It’s got very little to do with how hard you hang on and everything to do with how much you let go. Just trust Mary down there not to take a smoking break.”
Yikes! Well, that really did it for me. I realized that if I took my hands off the rope, the only thing stopping me from plunging backwards was that waif of a girl I helped abseil down earlier in the day.
It took a few more minutes of wobbling legs before I decided to get it over and done with and finally let go of the rope. I had my arms in an outstretched crucifix shape for just a few seconds that felt much, much longer. My eyes were shut tight.
Exercise 12: Your Disco Shuffle
The psychological equivalent of that ‘disco shuffle’ is a feeling I now expect to experience before taking action on a big goal or project. If I am not nervous then there is probably something amiss.
Ready to shuffle? Write down what aspect of career change or transition is making you nervous. Try to sense how tense or fearful you are when you think of the goal. If nothing comes to mind, do something else and come back to this exercise later.
After that baptism of fire it was a piece of cake to abseil down and experience the tremendous thrill of achievement. Later that same day, I even walked down the cliff while looking at the ground.
Here is where the electromagnetic spectrum analogy, introduced as an exercise in chapter one, can be helpful. We see what we can already do. Yet in that very same space can also be found those invisible fields of (career) potential and energy just waiting to be acted on. If only we can trust they are there.
The Framework for Taking Action
Taking action is easier when there is a trusted framework around which to focus. Here are three essential elements to the framework I used with many of my coaching clients.
“It’s time to start living the life you imagined.”
Henry James, American Author.
That Henry James quote is a big clue to the magic of living a creative and enjoyable life. First comes the use of your imagination. Or, as I like to call it, your ‘directed imagination.’ Like a searchlight, you point this beam in the direction of your intention. What’s illuminated then becomes a vision of how things might be in your chosen life category e.g. careers or relationships or wealth.
And then you start living it as best you can, with whatever options you have, right where you are. Some people are good at the imagination part but then fail to take action. You can avoid that fate by slicing and dicing every tough action step into smaller tasks. Write these down, complete them, and then cross them off your list. Rinse and repeat.
Imagine you are a famous stage actor, and you are playing a number of leading roles in a long-running theatrical production. This production is all about your life and career path to date. Some roles appear to suit you well – perhaps you are an excellent parent – and you have few problems in performing them. Others might not be so easy for you. For example, you might be a poor custodian of your own finances, and you worry that people are beginning to notice your flaws and mistakes.
What you must first do is to identify all of the roles you are currently playing. If you struggle with this task, ask a trusted friend or mentor to help you. Write these roles down.
Then commit to taking 100% responsibility for improving at the roles you will need to live the life you imagined in the ‘Vision’ section.
What about those roles that are not serving the journey into your imagined life? Well, just as they probably took some time to acquire, it will take time to jettison them and undo whatever poor habits came along for the ride.
Be patient with that unwinding process and remember to also be compassionate with yourself and with others around you. Changing the status quo of your life is not guaranteed to be easy and you would be wise to prepare for some resistance from those close to you. But try not to worry too much. A well-designed ship can ride out stormy seas. In a similar way, so can you navigate the emotional eddies and whirlpools of your own life. If I might be permitted a pun at this point: ‘you can learn to role with the punches.’
Setting appropriate goals often falls nicely into place once some progress toward your visionary life is underway. That’s why it’s useful to start with a vision and helpful supporting roles.
What about the mechanics of how to set and achieve these goals? There is much more to say about goals but that is beyond the scope of this book. However, I created a free online video course on goal creation and mind maps. You can find it at goalcreationmaps.com.
Ten Strengths of Goal Achievers
‘Top 10’ lists have their uses. This section is adapted from a list I wrote many years ago.
Goal achievers play to their strengths and minimize, or even ignore, their weaknesses. When I think about identifying and then working hard to improve specific strengths, I am reminded of what Louis Pasteur, the renowned scientist, is reported to have said:
“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
1- Be Specific
This strength is helpful when setting ‘smart’ goals because many of them will require detailed planning. The more specific you can be on the next step or action required, the more likely you are to take that step and get closer to the goal.
2- Be Tenacious
‘Never giving up’ does not mean continuing to bang your head against a proverbial wall of frustration and failure. Think of it as showing tenacity. Tenacity implies an aptitude for finding another way around, over or under whatever barrier is blocking your progress. Be tenacious.
3- Be Results Driven
Many people take this idea for granted but then sell themselves short by settling for limited results. Challenge yourself to look on results as if they are a form of positive feedback in which success fuels further success.
4- Be Enthusiastic
From the root meaning of the word, ‘entheos’ the god within, this is one of the most important inner strengths to draw on. It is a wonderful thing to feel the power of enthusiasm at work on a desired change or goal. Enthusiasm is one way in which your ‘inner sensei’ will alert you to something important that needs attention.
5- Be Noble
Perhaps this translates best as civility or politeness. Being noble will also do wonders for your stress levels! It is not about haughtiness or disdain for the perceived limitations of others. Humility walks alongside nobleness.
6- Be Grateful
You can exercise this strength by simply being grateful for your family and friends, for the opportunities that come your way and for the breath that keeps showing up every day of your life.
7- Be Trusting
It is possible to trust the best intentions of yourself and others without being gullible or naive. By expecting the best of yourself and others, you may also learn to trust your intuition when something doesn’t seem quite right.
8- Be Happy
This refers to the predominant feeling you wish to experience while achieving a goal. Happiness is an ongoing experience from a place within you. See strength number four for a useful ally!
9- Be Serious
“You cannot be serious!” – as I heard the former tennis star, John McEnroe, often yell on TV. Oh, but I am! You can become serious when you need to apply focus and attention, yet also remain happy inside.
10- Be Curious
This is an inner strength many of us let lapse from early adulthood. More’s the pity because a curiosity for what you are capable of in the world can help with the other nine strengths.
Exercise 13: The Strength Game
You can have a lot of fun with these ten strengths by focusing on a different one every waking hour. For example, at 1 pm you will ‘be specific.’ At 2 pm, you will ‘be tenacious.’ And so on. Do this exercise at work and it might give your colleagues some pleasant and unexpected surprises!
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