Ellie Gordon, successful executive and personal advisor, tells us what we really need to be thinking about when we're looking for lasting, hard-to-make change.
1. Can I replace the word "afraid" with the word "alert"?
"An artist client recently introduced me to this question," says Ellie Gordon, "and it quickly proved effective at dealing with fear." Fear, as most of us know, is the biggest obstacle to change. Sometimes our fears are authentic ("My husband is going to leave me because he's having an affair!") and sometimes they are inauthentic ("My house is going to blow down even though it's made out of brick, I have a new roof, and the wind isn't blowing!"). Either way, we usually try to dismiss our exclamation-pointed feelings as silly, ignore them altogether or blow them up to such a hellacious magnitude that we can't move, breath, sleep or...well...live.
But what would happen if we eliminated the word "fear" from the English language? Let's pretend another deep recession began, says Gordon, and you were lying in bed. Instead of chanting, "I'm afraid about running out of money" over and over, you'd say, "I'm alert to the possibility of running out of money." In other words, you'd recognize that this event might happen. You'd pay attention to it, the way a rabbit does when a fox comes into a meadow. The rabbit watches the fox. It feels a shiver of awareness. The rabbit is not running, though. It is sitting still, being alert, saving its energy so that it will have strength to run if it needs to run. And if it doesn't need to run, which it very well may not, it can go on eating grass and dreaming of that cute little blue coat that Beatrix Potter gave Peter.
"Just about every single person who comes to see me," says Gordon, "has a long, ugly laundry list of all the things she's supposedly not successful at: her marriage, her driving skill, her failure to make homemade minestrone soup." Even Gordon does this, telling herself on occasion, "I'm not good enough at spreadsheets. I can't figure out numbers."
None of us, though, can build on weaknesses. Think, says Gordon, about what would happen if she decided to start a company built on spreadsheets. It's possible that if she dug deep, applied herself to math and mastered it, she might (sort of) make it. But why would she do that? Why would any of us spend our lives consciously choosing a struggle whose end reward was not joy? In other words: Why would we try to jumpstart our worst selves?
Instead—and this is what really happened—Gordon focused on design and founded a hosiery company called Hot Sox that went on to partner with Ralph Lauren. Why? Because she was talented at design and color and painting. She enjoyed it. It was a strength that supported her other strengths, a brick that held up other bricks. Her advice: It doesn't matter what you're actually or supposedly bad at. It matters what you're good at—and how much time you spend doing it.
3. What caused me to lose my aliveness?
Many clients, says Gordon, come into a session because they feel burned out. They can't get themselves excited enough to do even the basics, like exercising or sending out that resume. "They think they're tired. They think they're stressed. They think they haven't had enough juice or organic vitamins."
But almost always, there is another, less expected reason. They've lost a relative, or they're having a protracted fight with their sister, or they're thinking about a divorce. They understand that they have a big personal problem, but, surprisingly, they don't understand the connection between it and their lethargy. "Something bad happens," says Gordon, "and we don't want to feel sad or pain; we use all our energy suppressing it, we get exhausted from that exertion, and then we resign ourselves to a reality in which we can't change the bad thing—or anything at all." Resignation is lethal. There is no way over or around it. You will stand by that cement wall—without banging your head or screaming—until you fall down. Unless, that is, you figure out what caused you to erect it smack-dab in the middle of your life, and you remove it.
So many of us spend a lot of time wondering, "Who am I?" We're worried that we never really figured this out when we were younger, or that, as time passed, we got so busy with our jobs or our families or our addictions or that one truly horrible boyfriend who wouldn't go away that we lost ourselves without even knowing it.
Stop right there, says Gordon. Because that is a question about what's already happened to you. And when you're looking for change, you need to think about what might happen. People usually think they're doing just this, but they only go halfway. Say you're an architect. You might know you want a new job or you want to get out of your old one. You might even understand that you don't want to work at a large firm again. But have you considered whether you want to work at a small firm, a medium firm or your own firm? Do you want to build houses or bridges or stadiums or professional horse barns? Do you want to dump architecture and become a foot model or an orthodontist? What would you do if you could do anything—instead of just taking the next logical step in the small universe where you already live? There is a reason they call it leaping—and before you do it, imagining the landscape you'll hit when you land on the other side of the void in all its possibility and detail will determine how many roads and forests and cities the map of your future contains.