Next to my desk lives Lao Tzu's wisdom: At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want.

Okay, yes, Lao. I worship you and if we lived at the same time, we might be soul mates. But, wouldn't you agree that it is maybe a little easier to know who you are and what you want when you're not trying to drag a work project across the finish line and figure out the logarithmic math the spring carpool schedule requires, while simultaneously managing the daily "helpful" email briefings from your mother about what your former classmates are "up to"?

It can be challenging to hear the answers at the center of our beings amid the noise of the modern world. Advertising, social media and a host of other influencers in our lives—parents, bosses, friends, ancestors, children, teachers and partners—are intimately intertwined in our ideas of what we think we want (both subliminally and overtly). Untangling what we're told to want from what we actually want can be, um... tricky.These external wants are better known as "shoulds," but here's the thing: Although they've gotten a bad rap as of late from self-help experts (e.g., "Don't should on yourself!") I'd argue that a should is simply a desire based on someone else's value system.

In other words, a dream that does not belong to you.

To find out what dream actually does belong to you, you'll first need to identify those kudzu-like shoulds—which can be difficult because they may sound practical, virtuous or seemingly impressive to someone else. When first asked to name them, my clients will often draw a blank or feel overwhelmed, so I ask them to complete these prompts without thinking too hard:

  • I should ____________________________today because____________________________.
  • I should ____________________________ this month because____________________________.
  • I should ____________________________this year because____________________________.

    Many of us have been carrying around these 'shoulds disguised as wants' for a good portion of our lives, and I've found that the time increments in this exercise help you develop awareness around what they feel and look like—the first step in shifting to operating under your own idea of a life well-lived instead of someone else's.

    Of course, some shoulds are obligations we can't ignore or walk away from. For example, when someone says to me, "I should cook dinner tonight because my family needs to eat," I say, "Okay, but I notice that even talking about making dinner seems to overwhelm you. Is there a way to honor your family's need without compromising your own? Can you order takeout? Can someone else cook?" Usually, after a bit of protesting, the person admits that yes, in fact, it would be possible to make a different plan for dinner.

    The point is not to eliminate all shoulds. Considering other people's desires and needs is one (but not the only!) element of being a good partner, parent and friend. But when someone's voice deadens and they tell me that they need to stay at their company for a least five more years, save the world (and the children and the bugs) or collaborate with the fanciest person they know because they feel like they should, I know that I am having a conversation with a person whose shoulds have drowned out the voice of their own soul.

    And that soul voice is the one in which I'm most rigorously interested, because it contains directions for how you are meant to evolve. Which leads me to the next journal prompt. It's inspired by a quote from Howard Thurman, author and civil rights leader who once said, "There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have." So take a moment and ask yourself:

  • Today, the genuine sounds like____________________________.
  • This month, the genuine sounds like____________________________.
  • This year, the genuine sounds like____________________________.

    These prompts are meant to unearth what I call Soul Directions. Unlike shoulds, which usually make us feel physical contraction, or like wearing another person's shoes and carrying all of their bags, exhausting ourselves, Soul Directions can give us the sensations of lightness, excitement, expansion, tingles and, sometimes, a rumbling in the stomach. They will keep nudging us until we allow them to surface, and if we're not skilled at identifying and listening to them, they remain trapped inside of us and can atrophy our cells, depress our spirits and profoundly drain our energy.

    Yet I've seen the grace that unfolds when Soul Directions are given the freedom to emerge. There is usually a moment of truth about 45 minutes (or three weeks or maybe 10 years) into coaching a person, when their voice breaks open, morphing into a strange combination of shaky and strong (like a calf who has just learned to walk) and they say: "I guess if I were honest, the thing I REALLY want to do is... [Put an artist residency in a retirement home, make people laugh in every country around the world, invent a reusable cupcake]." It's usually followed by—"Oh my goodness, that's soooooooo crazy" [or "stupid" or "weird" or, "you probably hear about people wanting to start quilting circles for recovering investment bankers all the time"].

    But it's not crazy.

    Aligning our lives with Soul Directions increases the likelihood of our getting what we want. Social Psychology researchers and developers of the Self-Concordance Model of achievement Dr. Kennon M. Sheldon and Dr. Andrew J. Elliott found not only that we are more likely to put sustained effort into self-concordant goals (goals that are aligned with who we are and that make our hearts sing) and therefore are more likely to attain them, but we also gain deeper well-being when we actually accomplish them.

    Your soul knows exactly how to place you at the intersection between success and fulfillment.

    If only you'd listen.

    If you uncover some Soul Directions, first, say a prayer of thanks—as you have received grace—and then please exhale and realize that the point here is not to overhaul your entire life.

    And if your Soul Directions feel a little muddy or unclear, I've got one more prompt that may help you come at it from a different angle: If you are a frequent journaler, I suggest you switch up your output mode—if you normally type, try writing, or recording your voice talking about each answer. If you write with your right hand, try writing with your left hand. You might ask a trusted friend to share in the exercise with you, and ask her to pay close attention to your eyes (specifically when they light up). Or you could paint, draw or (obviously the best option) dance it out.

    What secret dream am I keeping close to my heart? Your soul is oriented by evolution—not targets—and cares much less about the particulars of what you do and much more about fulfilling what in you is wanting to grow. If your Direction is to start writing a book, but you can't imagine that happening in the current makeup of your life, you might realize that you are longing to use words in an interesting way, or to create something of your own. Your next step would be to figure out one small, actionable way you can respond to this call for growth. (Now is always a great time).

    And one more thing: Soul Directions, though exhilarating, are often accompanied by fear and discomfort. Most of us interpret this fear as a sign that we must be in the wrong place, but I encourage you to look at it as a cairn on the path, signaling you to go in that direction. If you can summon the courage to walk alongside fear in the direction of your authentic life, there is great joy and mystery and potential waiting.

    Liz Kimball is a New York-based coach for creatives, multi-faceted artist, and speaker. She is the founder of The Artist Mastermind, and she writes about creativity, purpose, and presence at Follow her on Instagram.


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