Muriel’s voice chirped briskly into the phone, confident and convincing and – maybe just a wee bit tight? “I had a rough month, but I’m okay now. I felt so frustrated that everything wasn’t working out but I forced myself up to my office loft every day to continue making progress on my brochure. It’s at the printer now and I’ll have copies ready by Thursday that I can start mailing out.”
Muriel is a coaching client of mine who lives on the west coast, and she had unwittingly raised a few red flags that waved frantically to me across the miles. Words like “frustrated” and “forced,” and her absolute refusal to tolerate frustration. She was demanding of herself that she be “okay.” Muriel had drifted from the brave new world of Creating Work She Loves into the seductive land of Making It All Make Sense.
She forgot to check in with her passion and instead consulted her analytical mind to help her figure out how to fix things. And then she forgot that relying solely on her analytical mind in the past was how she ended up doing lifeless work that was devoid of passion and purpose. Work she’d walked away from so she could create work she loved.
And here she was, working really hard to create work she loved. Like so many of us on this path, she’d stumbled into some things that felt like obstacles and frustration mounted. So she decided to power right through the frustration and stay focused on getting things done. She needed to make progress, to prove to herself that she has what it takes. She gritted her teeth and marched herself into her home office every day. She wasn’t having fun, but of course the fun would come later.
Let me rewind a bit here. At that time, Muriel was committed to her plan of building an international consulting practice. She acknowledged that creating and growing a business was a venture that needed loving attention, lots of space, and infinite patience. In the meantime, of course, she needed money to pay her bills. We talked a lot about what I refer to as “energy neutral work,” about the need to find streams of income that didn’t demand from her gobs of energy in return. She had already pared her expenses down and didn’t require a lot of money. She was also blessed with a mother who was willing to offer financial support during the start-up phase of her business. She just needed extra income to put some more flesh on her financial bones, giving her the cushion of time and space for the incubation of her dreams. Maybe she could find work as a waitress, or a tutor, or a bookstore clerk?
But Muriel is a Ph.D. chemist. She didn’t think it made sense to squander her intellect and education on that kind of work. And how could work that was so utterly unrelated to her field fit into the consulting practice she was seeking to create? No, it didn’t make sense at all. So she figured out something else. She would resurrect a very specific type of water analysis she had developed in her previous life as a research scientist, and offer that to water utility companies across the country. She ran the numbers and they looked quite good. She could generate revenues in the six figures, which was more than enough to fund the ongoing creation of her larger vision of international consulting. And it all made sense: she’d be using her scientific background and staying connected, in a small way, to her larger purpose of helping to clean watersheds across the globe. Yes, it was a very smart plan.
Except for two things: it consumed lots of her creative energy, and – this is the kicker – she hated that particular kind of work. So in the process of creating work she loved, Muriel had figured her way into a life she didn’t even like. The effort required to get this seemingly smaller, easier venture up and running was substantial; and if successful, she’d be performing mind-numbing work and having to keep up with marketing the service and negotiating legal contracts and billing customers – none of which she enjoyed. And that didn’t make any sense at all.
Muriel had forgotten the basics. In order to create work – or a life - we love, we have to let love lead. It’s that simple. Feelings of frustration and impotence are not signals to power up our will and push through them. They are invitations to stop, look and listen. Where are we finding joy? What is energizing us and what is depleting us? What are we longing for? What do we need, right now? What is our heart of hearts whispering to us from deep inside?
When Muriel paused to examine those questions, she was humbled and amazed at the answers waiting quietly in the stillness of her heart. She found that she had no real willingness or desire to take on this “easy” consulting work that was supposed to bring in seed money for the larger practice. In truth, she didn’t want to be a consultant at all. She did not want to be an entrepreneur.
That initial vision, too, had come from a place of wanting things to make sense, mostly to her ego. Yes, the idea of being an international consultant mirrored some of her true longings – to travel and to make a deep and meaningful contribution to cleaning up our environment – but it also included quite a few leftovers from her previous life. Leftovers such as, “You mustn’t waste your education!” and “Working for yourself is the only way to get a boss you like!” and the more hidden but equally powerful, “You need to prove your worth by doing this on your own.” Muriel didn’t realize that these leftovers had gone bad. Assumptions and admonitions arising from fear, guilt or the mindless repetition of past experience can never nurture us to greatness.
Creating work or a life we love is not about fitting our known experiences, talents, education and beliefs into a form that is recognized in the external world as being valid and real. That’s sort of like rearranging the furniture we have in our overstuffed living room. We distract ourselves for a while figuring out how all the pieces might fit differently, and after we’ve shifted things into new places we have the satisfaction of having solved a particularly vexing puzzle. And it still looks like a living room, so we don’t have to explain or defend any weird decorating choices. But what if we’re really longing to pack up and move into a windswept bungalow at the beach? The initial satisfaction we got from shifting things around now seems weak and puny, a flimsy imposter standing in for our real passion. And the truth is, we won’t need even half of this furniture when we move to the beach.
Muriel thought she had figured out how to rearrange the furniture of her education, experience, future plans and beliefs about work into a new configuration that fit neatly into the life she already had. It made sense to her and she could explain it logically to others. Whew! So what if she felt a little frustration in executing her plan? At least the plan itself made sense and that was a relief. But she made the mistake we often make of confusing relief with release. It was only in diving headlong into her frustration that she could see what lay beneath it: what she really wanted. She could acknowledge her true longings and release them, finally, to be realized.
I’m not suggesting that we need to throw away our old lives in order to create shiny new ones; in fact, what’s often needed is a newfound sense of appreciation and gratitude for the many blessings we already have. What I am suggesting is that we make our choices not from the rigid structure of our past conditioning, but from the fully alive presence of our inner knowing. We can allow our intuitive, heartfelt sense of what is right to weigh in and confirm our choices. We can ask ourselves what it is we truly want, and become willing to let love be the answer.