There is an old Irish blessing: “As you slide down the bannister of life, may the splinters never point in the wrong direction”
I would like to add to that. Choose your bannister carefully and if you don’t like the one you are sliding down, get off and pick another one.
Our modern lives are full of options and opportunities. Yet how many of them do we seriously consider? This is a mere illusion of choice, which is never exercised. Sometimes having too many choices stuns us into complete inaction. And sometimes we can end up sliding down bannisters which were chosen for us, not by us; or which stopped being right for us a long time ago. Most of us stumble through life achieving far less than we believe we are capable of.
Recently, a new client lamented to me that she has “absolutely everything”: supportive partner, nice car, spacious apartment, group of trusted friends, highflying executive job in the City; and yet she is bored and unfulfilled. Every day she goes through the same routine of answering emails on the way to work, attending team meetings, leading projects and writing proposals. She could do her job with her eyes shut. In fact, her most satisfying days are when things go wrong, which she can fix. She is so bored and uninspired that she welcomes the proverbial splinters. So why does she stay in that position or even that career? Because she slid a long way down that particular bannister, everyone else thinks it’s a highly desirable bannister and anyway better the devil you know – she might be rubbish at something else.
The need for security and sameness grips like a python, stifling even much needed changes. The result is feelings of listlessness, boredom, unfulfilled potential and life passing by. Sounds familiar?
This phenomenon is not limited to our professional lives. Staying in a spent relationship, maintaining a heavy friendship, giving to causes you no longer believe in, carrying on with habits that no longer serve you, and harbouring draining emotions.
So here are some pointers on choosing and changing your bannister:
- “What a man can be, he must be” (Abraham Maslow). Self-actualisation or fully realising one’s capabilities and potential is a human need. Put simply, it is striving to be one’s best and not settling for just plodding along with life. This is not a new idea – you get out of life what you put in. More recently, Sheryl Sandberg (COO at Facebook) encouraged us to “lean in” and ambitiously pursue our goals – in both our professional and personal lives. Make a list of what you would like to achieve, make a plan, take action.
- Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Not every decision needs substantial research. Often inaction is caused by trying to tie all the loose ends and finding more loose ends in the process. Stop sharpening the pencil and make your mark. Start before you think you are ready.
- Get out of your comfort zone. In The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks describes the Upper Limit Problem – how humans seem to have limited tolerance for life going well and sabotage their own success when they feel they are pushing above themselves (both in professional and personal lives). Have you experienced this? How are you sabotaging yourself? Working on our internal obstacles takes courage, self-awareness and time. Extending our comfort zone and stretching our abilities builds confidence and competence. Focus on your strengths and opportunities, work on your weaknesses and limitations. Aim high and choose the bigger life.
- Fed up of juggling? It’s time to look inside yourself. What is important to you right now? What are your deep held values? Ask yourself: Is this my bannister? Is it still working for me? Could there be a better bannister for me at this time? Do I need to drop or rethink a commitment? Don’t sweep the issue under the carpet. Lack of congruency in different aspects of our lives saps energy and stalls positive change, forcing you to continuously compromise. Compromise is rarely a win-win position. Lay out the options and make a decision based on what is important to you right now.
- Be proactive. No one is coming. No one will make the change for you. In fact, no one even knows what is right for you (even though they like to claim they do). You have to make the first move towards what you want out of your career, relationships, wellbeing…life. So take initiative. In Stephen Covey’s words: “We are responsible for our own effectiveness, for our own happiness and ultimately, I would say, for most of our circumstances”. Make life work for you.
- Learn realistic optimism. Being optimistic is not about wearing pink-tinted sunglasses. It is about reacting to adversity (splinters) in an effective and positive way, and changing your “explanatory style” of difficulties (Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism). Regarding all setbacks as pervasive, personal and permanent makes your helpless in the face of circumstances. Ask yourself: Where am I giving away my power and influence? Become aware of how you speak to yourself and challenge any negative self-talk (from “I never interview well” to “With some advice and practice, I will be able to present myself in the best possible way”).
- Actively choose your response. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning). Do not fetter your freedom by letting someone else choose your response for you.
- Make fear useful and do not catastrophise. Fear is a good thing. It means that you are focused, aware and ready. Ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? Realistically what is the worst that can happen if I make that change? And what is the best situation that can come out of it? Take the Rocking Chair Test: Imagine yourself sitting in a rocking chair at the age of 85 thinking back over your life. What are the highlights? What do you regret not doing or being? What would you tell yourself?
- Pick your time. Ironically, big changes are easier to make during times of turmoil. Refocus, regroup and start again.
- Reframe splinters. Something not worked out the way you hoped? Reframe it: What other opportunities are open? How can you use this to your advantage? Is this the time to persevere on the current bannister or take a different path?
- Stuck at crossroads? Pick the one that leads you to a “bigger life”, even if there are more challenges and splinters along the way. Why? See self-actualisation in point 1. You can either retreat into safety or advance to growth and fulfilment.
- Create motivation. Motivation is a curious beast. Sometimes it disappears when it’s most needed. In reality, it is simply hibernating inside you testing your commitment to the project, and the moment you begin to take action it snaps awake and joins you in your endeavour. So begin. Still no motivation? Ask yourself: What are the benefits of pursuing this goal? Is it even your goal? What would happen if you drop it?
- Small steps. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao Tzu). And then one more, and another one, and one more after that, and so on. Break down your project into manageable chunks, set achievable deadlines, ensure you celebrate each success – however small. Have your final vision in sight at all times, so all the steps you take are in the right direction.
- Get out of your own way and take action. Answer this: What do you want to achieve, and how will you stop yourself?
If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
For help choosing or changing your bannister contact Natalia.
Be Do Have Coaching offers one-to-one coaching for individuals and tailored programmes for organisations, covering all aspects of change realisation and management.