When I turned 40 the thought in my mind was, “Is this all there is?”
When I turned 50 it was a sense that all the best was behind me, and my life was now heading to a period of decline into irrelevance. I’m not exaggerating.
Two years later, I feel the most expansive, inspired, driven, and most awake I have been since my youth.
It has taken time, and it has been a journey I didn’t quite realize I was on, but there are two tenets I want to share today that I have come to learn and live by, on my way to creating a life that really works for me. I call these “Say yes and worry about it later” and, “You cannot say yes unless you can say no.”
SAY YES AND WORRY ABOUT IT LATER
Without going into the reasons why, there are many of us who circle the periphery of things we want to do or become, telling ourselves we don’t know enough, or we are not ready and need to research more, or that we need one more course or the next certification before we can start. Imposter syndrome is alive and well and can be a chronic state for many of us that linger on that edge of our lives until we hit 40 or 50 and start to question whether, as per Glennon Doyle, “wasn’t life meant to be more beautiful than this?”
My husband on the other hand, had accomplished what should have been impossible, or at least improbable, and his way of doing life was… well, to just do it. “Sometimes you have to just jump,” he would say. Try getting a perfectionist to do that, and you are either going to be attacked, claws out, or cause a grand internal panic; I think I responded in both ways.
If I am to be real, I have to recognize that up until that point I had many opportunities come my way, but I mostly said “no.” This is not the kind of “no” I will talk about later, it is the “no” borne of fear; fear of failure, fear of exposure, fear of criticism or disapproval, fear of disappointment, fear of loss of love. I kept myself safe by becoming really, really, small. No wonder I thought, “is this all there is,” because I had allowed fear to stand between me and the life that was meant for me. I had stepped so far back from my life, I became, essentially, invisible.
How did I get over it? First, I talked to many people I admired, people who seemed to do incredible things or things I wanted to do but didn’t dare, and I got curious. I asked how they did it, I asked about their journeys, and I discovered there wasn’t something magical about these magical people; they had also had imposter syndrome, but they didn’t let it stop them, they just jumped into doing without a full plan, they risked, they failed, they iterated, they kept moving forward, learning, building, and adjusting as they went.
According to Jen Sincero (2013) in her book You Are a Badass:
"Most answers reveal themselves through doing, not thinking.”
She further suggests:
“Pay attention to suggestions and opportunities that suddenly present themselves. And notice how you feel – is there something for you that, for whatever reasons, feels like it might be good to check out? What have you been saying forever that you’d love to do? Has somebody mentioned a course or a teacher or book that keeps stinking in your mind? Take the first step in the direction toward something that feels right and see where it leads you. And do it NOW.”
It wasn’t until I was 40, desperate and willing to risk anything, that I finally decided I needed to get over my own crap and, yes, take that leap.
As I started to take accountability for my own life, I began to say yes to things before fear had a say. I told myself “Say yes and worry about it later”. Once I had laid in front of me the commitment of saying yes, I knew I would have to follow through. I took on things I had a passion for but did not necessarily know how to do, but because I had said yes, I worked hard to figure it out. Saying yes opened up my life. I became a Zumba instructor, I presented for Zumba nationally and internationally, I ended up on a Zumba DVD and video game, and followed opportunities all the way to co-owning a fitness & wellness studio. Those experiences opened me up to being more visible publicly despite my continued insecurities and fears; I started accepting invitations to speak, I spoke at high schools and universities and was a keynote speaker for graduation at a nearby college (I was shaking like a leaf in a storm as I spoke). Not un-scared, but no longer invisible.
YOU CANNOT TRULY SAY YES UNTIL YOU CAN SAY NO
Saying yes worked out incredibly for a while, it opened my life in a way I had never even known to imagine, but there comes a tipping point. The problem with saying yes to everything is you end up constantly doing and working, and things begin to feel more like chaos than a movement toward something. Collins (2003) described a crucial observation an old teacher of his, Rochelle Myers of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, made of his work process. She noted to him, “instead of leading a disciplined life, you lead a busy life.” She went on to give him the 20-10 assignment:
“Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?”
She made him see that he had been expending a lot of energy, but on the wrong things. Collins explained that this lesson became a turning point in his life:
“the “stop doing” list became an enduring cornerstone of my annual New Year resolutions – a mechanism for disciplined thought about how to allocate the most precious of all resources: time”
Time (and energy) is not only our most precious, but it is a highly limited, resource. We only have a set amount of it. What you decide to NOT DO becomes as important to your success as what you decide TO DO. More importantly, saying “no” to something allows you to say “yes” to the things that truly further your goals (Dani DiPirro, 2015). Yet, saying “no” is difficult because we have been raised to please and to be nice, because we suffer from FOMO, or worry about missing a personal or professional opportunity, or losing a friendship, or a connection. But saying “no” not only allows you to focus on those things that further your life purpose, it is also an important form of self-care; according to DiPirro, it frees up you time, energy, and emotional bandwidth to “fill your life with activities and people who bring you true happiness.”
I am sure we have all had that experience with people who make it very difficult for you to stand your ground and say “no”; they push and cajole, they make you feel guilty, they ask again and again so you are put in a position of rejecting again and again, hoping you will feel bad and give in at some point. In those situations, remember this: unless someone gives you a real option to say no, saying yes is not a real choice. Then think about whether or not you want to give away that freedom of truly saying “yes”. It is a valued freedom not just to do what we want, but to not do want we don’t want. (Of course, there are things in life we should do even if we don’t want to (going to the dentist is one for me), so we may choose to do things we do not enjoy because they fit with other values and goals, but this is still a choice).
BUT, WHAT DO YOU SAY YES TO AND WHAT DO YOU SAY NO TO?
If what you are looking for is “your purpose”, the thing you are meant to do in life, and perhaps make some "mullah" or have a social impact doing it, there is a useful concept I recently came across called the Hedgehog Concept by Jim Collins (Author, “from Good to Great”). The Hedgehog Concept was culled from a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin called “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”
Summarizing, a fox knows many things and tries many strategies, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. He knows just one strategy but executes it to perfection. In each face-off, the fox tries a new strategy to get the hedgehog, but the hedgehog always wins, relying on doing what he is best at (rolling up into a ball and exposing his spikes).
In investigating companies that moved from being mediocre to becoming excellent, Collins (2001) found they functioned more as hedgehogs. The comparison companies who did not grow to greatness functioned more as foxes, they were “scattered, diffused, inconsistent.” Great companies moved toward a Hedgehog strategy which is, “a simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of three circles”:
What are you deeply passionate about? (that you love to do, and that absolutely reflects your values)
What can you be the best in the world at? (and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at)
What drives your economic engine?
The place of intersection of these 3 circles is a company’s hedgehog. What’s critical here is:
“The Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.”
It is knowing that just because you are good at something, doesn’t mean you can become the best at it. Further, and just as critically, it is understanding what you cannot be best at and therefore what you should say no to doing. Collins suggests we can also apply this company model to our individual lives. It this case, the circles change only slightly.
To find our personal hedgehogs, we must ask ourselves these three questions:
In the first circle, you look for things you are passionate about; things you love, that you stop noticing time when you do them. In the critical next step, the second question, Collins suggests discovering what we are wired for, genetically encoded for, something you feel like you were made to do. He gave an example of deciding early in his career that he would become a mathematician, and all agreed, because he did well in math. But in college, he met students who were genetically encoded for math, wired for it, and it would take them 20 minutes to finish what took him 3 hours. So even though he was good at it and enjoyed it, Collins was not made for math, so he changed his path. We must be able to let go of what we were not made for. Finally, the third circle focuses on what can drive economic value, or alternately perhaps, impact the world in an important and meaningful way.
Using this 3 circle Venn Diagram provides a useful strategy to find both what you should say yes to, but also more importantly, what you should say no to. The intersection of the 3 circles can act as a compass directing how to use your limited time and energy wisely.
If this Hedgehog Concept seems overly complex, intimidating, or not your thing, I would suggest something much simpler; Listen to your inner voice. Give yourself some quiet time everyday so you can hear where your intuition is telling you to go (Badass author Sincero agrees).
Whatever way you choose to go about finding your purpose, or hedgehog, or the thing you are supposed to do, DO NOT BUY INTO THE FALLACY that it is supposed to come to you in some lightning bolt kind of revelation. That does happen to some, and I am happy for them...really, but others of us may spend many years listening, moving one step left, right, or forward, saying yes and saying no, iterating, building, shaping, and gradually becoming who we are meant to be. That ain't bad either.
Hope you found this helpful,
Collins, James C. (2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. Harper Collins.
Collins, James C. The Hedgehog Concept. https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/the-hedgehog-concept.html
Collins, James C. (2003) Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing List.” https://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/best-new-years.html
DiPirro, Dani (2015). 5 Positive Reasons For Saying No. https://www.livehappy.com/self/5-positive-reasons-saying-no?nopaging=1
Kowalski, Kyle (2019) What is the Hedgehog Concept by Jim Collins? (& How Does it Compare to Ikigai?) https://www.sloww.co/hedgehog-concept-jim-collins/
Sincero, Jen (2013) You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Grateness and Start Living an Awesome Life.” Running Press, Philadelphia, PA.