"My lenses?" the person says, looking at me as though the bloom is definitely leaving the rose.
"I mean the way you see," I explain. "Your psychological perspective." I don't mention (yet) that I'm also alluding to Clark Kent's eyeglasses, which disguised his real identity. I know that whenever I can help an "ordinary person" remove a set of distorting perceptual lenses—zap, pow, shazam!—I'll see them levitate right off the floor, flexing steely muscles under neon-colored outfits. When this finally happens, it doesn't surprise me. But it usually shocks the hell out of the client.
"Oh, my God!" says Superman or Wonder Woman. "Who am I? What am I doing? Holy transfiguration, Batman, what should I do next?"
"I have no idea," I say.
And at that point, we're finished.
Because I'm not Batman, or the Forecast Phenom, or the Psychedelic Psychic, or whatever. I was born with just one superpower: the ability to see other people's superpowers. So I can tell you that pretty much everyone (including you) is a superhero, and that every superhero (including you) has an incredibly important life mission. Figuring out what that mission is? That's up to every individual hero (including you).
I'm telling you all this because my assignment for this month was to life-coach three women who were unsure where they were supposed to be in life. Their path forward looked fuzzy. They thought this was because they were in confusing situations. But I saw each woman looking through her own particular sort of distorting lenses; the fuzziness wasn't in the surroundings but in the way they saw. At moments when your life appears bleak and the way forward indistinct, the same thing is almost certainly happening to you.
Most people try to think their way out of these kinds of problems. From my perspective, however, adding more ideas to these three women's heads would be like forcing Clark Kent to add assorted sweaters, parkas, and goggles to his nerdy suit and specs. Finding your purpose and power requires stripping certain thoughts away like street clothes until you hit Lycra. My job with the three women I'd be coaching was to help them peel away illusions until their superhero identities emerged. While we're following their stories, I'll throw in some hints that may help you, too, take off your "normal" disguise and liberate your true, superhero self.
Ordinary Person #1: The Self-Deprecator
Ordinary Person #2: Stymied
Ordinary Person #3: Thinking Small...Too Small
Jane Kropiewnicki, 48, from Elmwood Park, New Jersey
Jane's self-description as a low achiever mystified me. Her résumé was impressive, her personality sterling. Right away, I asked her when she'd started feeling anxious about underperforming.
"It was when my friend Larry moved out of the country," Jane said. "We weren't a couple, but we were incredibly close. With Larry supporting me, I never doubted myself."
Since Larry's departure, Jane hadn't stopped achieving—if anything, she'd become even more impressive. Yet she focused almost obsessively on her "underachievement." Like Groucho Marx swearing he'd never join a club that would accept him as a member, Jane never counted as a real accomplishment anything she was able to accomplish. This thought pattern was the set of distorting lenses through which Jane saw herself.
"Jane," I said, "I'd like to hear the other side of your story. Haven't there been times you've done well at something important?"
"Oh, of course," said Jane. "Lots of times."
"Such as..." Jane stopped.
Very long pause.
Jane laughed again, this time sounding embarrassed. "This is so weird! Why can't I think of anything?"
"Because you've never practiced. You're so used to downplaying your accomplishments that being proud of yourself is like remembering calculus."
Then I took a deep breath because I had an Important Concept to convey. "We all have unconscious assumptions about how other people judge us," I told Jane. "Psychologists call it the 'generalized other.' Larry used to dominate your generalized other; when he approved of you, that allowed you to believe you'd done well. Your problem isn't lack of achievement. It's waiting for someone else to convince you that your achievements are worthwhile."
"Huh." Jane sounded startled.
"Here's your homework," I told her. "List 100 things you've accomplished that are clearly valuable to you. Not Larry, not anyone else. Just Jane."
"A hundred things?" Jane repeated, as though I'd asked her to locate a new planet.
"For starters," I said.
The next time we spoke, Jane had come up with a list of times she'd been praised by others in her company—a small step toward removing her mental distortions, but not enough to reveal Jane's superhero. Then we had a breakthrough.
"I do stuff outside of work, but it's strange," Jane said. "Like skating."
"Yeah, a few years ago I decided to start taking skating lessons. I know it's crazy, and a waste of time, but—"
"Wait a minute. You took up figure skating, and you have no idea why?"
"I know, it makes no sense...."
"Are you kidding?" I cried. "Jane, this is fabulous!"
Try making a list of times you had the R2-D2 impulses. (My list includes majoring in Chinese, writing my first book, and beginning to coach.) Focusing on such events will help trigger your superpowers. That's what happened to Jane.
"So," I said, "how does skating make you feel?"
"Well, sometimes awful—it's really hard. But sometimes I get into this zone.... It's like my mind disappears, and I can fly."
At this point, I was done discussing Jane's aspirations for "achievement." She was achieving beautifully at work and in her relationships, but they weren't the crucial elements of her life right now. Skating, which liberated her body and soul, was.
"This is wonderful!" I exulted.
"Really?" Jane sounded confused. "But I'm no good, I'm too old. It's ridiculous."
"What could be more important than learning to fly?"
I'm continually amazed by the fact that people trash their treasures this way. Our minds fix on socially defined "achievements," but our real triumphs often happen when an R2-D2 impulse yanks us right off our rails and into rapture.
I don't know exactly what role skating will play in Jane's life. Sure, it'll keep her fit and produce neurochemicals that will continue to make her happy. But more important, skating happens to be the trigger that sets Jane's superself loose. When she skates, she becomes a conduit from the realm of pure joy into the realm of human experience. That's why it's so valuable—not to land Jane a part in the Ice Capades but to open the door to rapture, which she'll then learn to find in many other ways.
If you, like Jane, feel you haven't done enough, achieved enough, become enough, you won't fix the problem by doing more. You'll need to drop the perceptual lens that says, "Impressing others will make me happy." A joyful life isn't about others; it's about the brightness that is associated with being alive. Your path to it is through anything that replaces thinking with pure flight, pure joy. True, following the R2-D2 response will put you into position to do mighty deeds. But that's a by-product of embracing joy, whether it comes from skating, quilting, or pickle-making.
Maida Barbour, 41, from Austin, Texas
You don't need X-ray vision to see that Maida Barbour is brilliant. Articulate, perceptive, and hilarious, she's the kind of person you'd imagine would have an Oscar® stuffed somewhere in an artfully cluttered home office. Maida's sister wrote that when she was younger, "sometimes Maida scared me. She'd speak so confidently about her aesthetic vision and philosophy...how she'd take on the world."
But something went awry. She'd spent the past few years in Austin, Texas, limping along from job to job—office manager at an IT firm, organizer of fairs for inventors—trying to find one that felt right. As Maida wrote: "I'm 41, and I still haven't figured out what I'm meant to be. I spent parts of the past 20 years working in film because it seemed like the richest, most creative field possible. But I never really found my niche. ... I want to make a living doing a job that fits me, but I don't even know what my job title is, let alone what credentials to get."
I recognized Maida's combination of giftedness and aimlessness; some of my favorite people wear similar disguises. I also noticed that, while I loved Maida's witty, acerbic description of her own career struggles, she tended to talk in circles.
"If you're going to be creative, you need to do something unprecedented," Maida said. "But of course, if there's no precedence for your work, no one accepts it."
This self-defeating logic is typical of an alter ego I call the Clever Critic. Creative work can be incredibly hard, the odds of failure astronomical. To avoid this grueling, scary road, many geniuses think themselves into paralysis, finding reasons to abort their ideas almost before conceiving them. Maida's Clark Kent specs were wraparound sunglasses that looked oh so hip but kept her groping around in a very dark world. When I presented this theory, she agreed with me.
"So what should I do?" she said.
"Start working. Immediately. Daily. Religiously."
"I guess I could write a book," she said. "I have some ideas."
"Brilliant! Grab a pen. Start now."
"But I don't have the right credentials...," mumbled Maida, going into her Clever Critic.
"My dear," I said, "if I had a dime for every time I've heard someone claim to need credentials that definitely aren't necessary and probably don't even exist, I could afford enough gum to last me a month."
"That's a really lame image," said Maida.
"I know," I growled. "And do you see that stopping me?"
For the rest of that hour, we discussed several sophisticated, ingenious ideas for Maida's future books.
"Fabulous," I told her. "Start writing three pages a day. No excuses."
The next time we talked, she sounded different: wearier, warier, slightly on edge, like a Chihuahua in cold weather. The voice of a working artist.
"I'm writing," she said, "but it's all garbage."
Two weeks into her daily writing regimen, Maida's Clever Critic glasses suddenly cracked. "This would be a lot easier if I hadn't just quit smoking," she said. "All I want to do is write is a love letter to cigarettes."
The hair stood up on my neck. For the first time, Maida's voice didn't sound clever; it sounded real. Raw, alive, filled with emotional energy.
"Maida, this is it," I crowed. "Do you know how many people are trying to quit smoking? Do you know how much they need someone who's been there to talk them through it? Forget your other books! Write your love letter to cigarettes!"
When an e-mail arrived that very day, I thought Maida's superhero was unleashed. But no, her message came from the paralyzing Clever Critic. Another author, it appeared, had a new book about quitting cigarettes. "This announcement," Maida wrote, "has stymied my enthusiasm." The e-mail I sent back wasn't gentle: "As your coach (and I mean this lovingly), I am ordering you to cut the crap, cork the dithering in your brain, and write what you were planning to write. Now, soldier!"
And by golly, it worked.
I wish I could include the full text of Maida's "No Smoking" essay, which explained the difficulty of quitting in terms more vivid than I'd ever heard. Whether or not she knew it, she'd written not only about smoking but about hiding her creative superpowers behind infinite distractions: "All those times we don't know what to do, all those moments in every day when we need a moment of clarity or meditation, all those times we need so desperately just to fill, are all now as empty and open as promise itself. ... Hooray."
You may be like Maida—who didn't feel as if she'd gone off course so much as missed finding a course at all. Maybe you feel as if you've been wandering in circles forever. As Maida wrote in her smoking piece, you can open to a promising future by dropping all excuses and putting your hopes and talents on the line.
If you wear a Clever Critic outfit over your spandex capes and bulletproof sequins, if you bubble with great ideas that never quite solidify—and always find a good reason they can't happen—you're probably wearing blindingly dark lenses. To remove them, stop thinking and start creating. Every day, starting today, write the music, paint the picture, choreograph the dance. I'll cut you no slack, because I'm one of you. I'm writing this, dizzy with jet lag, between a late-night book signing and an early morning workshop in a foreign country. It's a hellish schedule—and it's heaven. Some days the work will go well, other days badly. No matter. You will find your heroic mission eventually, if you Do. The. Work.
Susan Greenwood, 56, from Silver Spring, Maryland
So I knew that Susan's superhero was a Soother. Susan knew it too. She said so as we discussed the problem that had thrown her career off track. "It's upsetting," Susan said, "and I'm so disappointed. I've always been able to solve differences peacefully. It's kind of, you know, my thing."
As I got to know Susan better and heard more of her life story, I agreed emphatically that calming troubled waters was, indeed, her thing. A lawyer, she'd brought peace to warlike situations all her life, whether dealing with family conflicts or the adversarial legal system. As an African-American, she'd also found herself in countless situations where racial conflict seemed inevitable. Always, she'd handled herself with such grace that the fight went out of everyone, and harmony ruled.
"Once, when I was expecting my daughter, I met a white woman who was dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. I'm fair-skinned, and she obviously didn't know my ethnic background, because she used the n-word. I told her very politely that she was lucky to be talking to me, and not another person of color, or she might've run into a buzz saw."
That was Susan, communicating kindly, clearly, and drolly about something that would have made anyone else's blood boil. And yet she still felt stuck. Her distorted lenses were similar to Jane's, minimizing an awesome superself. Her glasses, however, were like backward binoculars: She saw things accurately but thought they were much smaller than they actually were.
I don't remember exactly what caused Susan to take off her metaphorical eyeglasses; I was so relaxed I'd stopped taking notes. I recall her saying, "My whole life, my ability to ease people past racial conflict has felt almost like a calling." Suddenly, I experienced a strange sense of déjà vu. I could hear Susan's rich, warm voice coming not only through the phone but through microphones, televisions, radios. It was like remembering dozens of inspiring speeches I'd already heard.
"Susan," I said, "say more about that. Say a lot more."
As she did, her prim normal-persona glasses, with their shrinking effect, slipped off, and her superhero self began stretching its powerful limbs. Susan's problems with work or relatives faded from our conversation—these were flyspeck issues compared with the Super Susan's future adventures. Instead, we explored her lifelong suspicion—no, make that knowledge—that she was meant to be a participant in the healing of what she called "America's great birth defect," the legacy of racism. She'd known this for a while, had imagined becoming a social activist, a speaker, a changer of lives and groups. But she'd been imagining it as a small thing, when her heart knew it was meant to be large.
Perhaps you, like Susan, feel in your bones that you have a big role to play in the world. But humility or worry may cause you to push the truth away. Your superhero self will feel confined and restless, and this may come out in dozens of small complaints or repeated dissatisfaction. Where Jane had to accept that something unorthodox, like midlife figure skating, could be more powerful than capturing lots of attention at work, Susan had to admit that her destiny will necessitate standing in the spotlight. She's not doing this for the social cachet; it's her own R2-D2 effect, an impulse that comes from every cell of her body—and always has—when she drops her "humble" lenses and sees things as they are.
Freeing Your Inner Superhero
So there you have it: My actual life-coaching process, which fits better on the pages of a comic book than a self-help treatise. I worked with Jane, Maida, and Susan for only a month—just enough time to adjust their focus. All three started with firm objectives, which, as I hoped, they almost immediately abandoned. Although these were very different people, with dissimilar superpowers, I did the same thing with all of them, something you can easily do for yourself. Find the places where your beliefs are distorting your vision, and peel away those thoughts like the ill-fitting Clark Kent eyewear they are. Then you'll be free to embrace the rapture, do the work, accept the hero's quest.
You and I might not have met, but because of my own superpower, I can tell you this: Your life is not little, and your playing small doesn't serve the world. Your living large, on the other hand—your being your true self despite fear, fatigue, doubt, and opposition—will serve the world more than you can imagine. In fact, it may help save it. And saving the world, after all, is what all heroes (including you) are here to do.
Martha Beck is the author of The Joy Diet (Crown). Her most recent book is Steering by Starlight (Rodale).
From the September 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.