How can we be so “free,” and still feel so confined?
I sat with that question for nearly two years after the awful events of October 1, 2017 at the Route 91 concert massacre in Las Vegas. How could I be successful and accomplished, happily married, with a great family living in the sunny shores of Southern California … and still feel miserable, unfulfilled and dissatisfied?
At the time, the only thing I could be sure of was I wouldn’t find answers by going back to the office and working even harder. I wouldn’t find it in money – I was swimming in money! I couldn’t find it in any of the fake opportunities our culture puts forward for “happiness.” My goodness, I was in the middle of basking in one of them when the gunfire erupted!
That’s what made it so ironic. I had done “everything they told me to do,” as best as I knew how. And it appeared to be working! I had every accessory you were supposed to have to say to the world, “Hey, look how great my life is!” Nothing was missing … but somehow, the entire thing was a mockery of the first order.
As a pastor, I could hear some familiar words ring out: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you don’t realize you’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’” That’s what stung about my life after the Vegas shooting. I saw my “nice little life” for what it was … and something had to change.
Maybe you haven’t had a shake-up event like I did … but can you sense the dissatisfaction? Are you having a record year … while riddled with anxiety? Do you find yourself thinking, “I thought I’d be happy when I finally got what I was chasing”?
Why The “Sidewalk” Matters
My generation loved the book “Where The Sidewalk Ends.” The funny thing about that title, though, is that it’s borrowed from a 1950 movie of the same name – a movie that deals much more directly with what we’re talking about.
The hero of the movie is Mark Dixon, a police detective who wants to escape the legacy of his father, a criminal. To this end, he becomes a heavy-handed, abusive cop who enters the scene after recently being demoted for his excessive use of violence. This pattern continues, as the next suspect he questions turns into a fistfight, which ends in the suspect’s accidental death.
The incident forces Dixon to concoct a false story to cover his tracks, which leads him into a tangled web of dishonesty that nearly ruins him.
It reminds me of how we can lose sight of everything that’s important, in our quest to achieve and make names for ourselves. Dixon began with a noble idea – fighting crime. But he got misled by his own hatred, and soon found himself among the criminals, by resorting to their tactics. It backfired on him.
Like so many of us, Dixon “achieved” with his fists … but the results were the opposite of what he’d hoped for. He became the very thing he swore to fight. The reward for his effort was constant dissatisfaction. He grew more cynical, weary, angry and desperate … not less.
If I look back on my life before the Route 91 shooting, I can see the parallels. My financial success was fantastic … but my internal world was a mess. Like Mark Dixon, I hadn’t properly dealt with the legacy my father left me, and it fueled my anger and resentment toward my wife and daughters.
When pain drives you (instead of love), success is among the worst things that could happen. It’s more bitter than failure, because you actually have it in your hands … but you can’t enjoy it. It turns sour faster than you can celebrate it. I almost wish I could tell my younger self, “It’s not worth it to have goals until your internal issues are worked out.”
But there’s more than one force at work when we pursue dreams, so I’ll stop short of suggesting you do the same thing. It’s better to have something to shoot for, and amend it along the way, than to have no goals … maybe.
How To Build A Sidewalk For Achievement
I had a vision when I was young of what I wanted my life to look like. Most young dreamers do, but few understand the price paid by people they admire, who appear to have “achieved everything.” Did you ever want to be a Hollywood star or pro athlete? Did you want to become super-successful in business, or politics?
I’m not “against” achievement. It’s just that you also need to ask, “What kind of person do I want to be while I pursue that dream? How do I want to show up when I get there?” If you could look behind the curtains, you’d probably not like what you see among 95 percent of people who reach the peak of achievement in their fields. Many of them, to one degree or another, “leak” their inability to handle it by being part of some kind of public indiscretions with drugs, sex, alcohol or some other fetish. Others have personal or financial calamities.
So there are better ways to think about this, and I’d offer these to start.
- Your Most Important Goal
Write down your most important goal, and ask yourself, “What would life be like if I achieved it?”
Now, if the goal is “become a multimillionaire,” don’t immediately go to the material differences. Everybody knows what a few extra million in the bank can buy. We don’t imagine for one second you won’t take advantage of it.
But what personality, temperament, bad habits and unresolved emotional issues would money amplify? Can you tell, from the chaos and disaster of Britney Spears’ adult life, that she had some issues before she got signed as a recording artist? Do you think Bernie Madoff simply “developed” his greed and graft because he became wealthy … or was it there all along?
That’s the undercurrent of Mark Dixon’s character. It’s what spoiled my financial success, in my former life. I never took the time to spell out how I wanted to handle success … so by default, I handled it poorly.
- How Do You Handle Achieving Or Missing Goals?
Something else you should consider is how fixated we become on “mythic versus specific.” Mythic goals are my preferred mode these days, because I can remain flexible and adaptable to outcomes I don’t always anticipate.
Specific goals are dangerous. I could say, “I want to be the associate pastor of a church of 20,000 people, delivering sermons every week that turn into podcasts that get downloaded an average of 25,000 times per episode.” I shake my head wondering about people who set such goals … how much control do you have over that? How much pressure do you put on yourself?
So I use mythic goals. I do want to be “an influential person, who relays messages from God to as many people as I can reach, whether in person, or however they arrive.” But now, I’m aiming for something that’s both a stretch AND within my capacity to do. I can’t “force” myself into a position of leadership … but I can become a better leader.
- What Drives You To Set The Goals You Do?
The last part of this is awareness of how much we’re influenced by others around us, and the danger of getting in the comparison game. I’m a personal and professional development coach, if you want a straight-up description of my job. That puts me (loosely) in a category with names like Dan Sullivan, Tony Robbins and Jay Abaham.
But what business do I have comparing myself with them? Why should I waste a second trying to imitate them, or goals they set? We’re not even playing in the same sandbox … our backgrounds and stories are way too unique and complex to make an apples-to-apples comparison.
It’s the client who decides whether it makes more sense to hire me than anyone else. I can learn good habits or ideas from other coaches … but I can never become who they are. It’s important that each of us recognize our uniqueness, and operate from it rather than try to get rid of it by copycatting someone else.
At the core, that’s what Foundations is all about – finding out who you authentically are, and building a new sidewalk from it.