Earlier this year: It was already an impossible week. After 60 hours at work and school, I needed to hop on a red-eye to attend another funeral.
To make matters worse, A*, my then girlfriend, and I had a stormy sort of love. Before leaving for the funeral, I made a reservation for us at a little Japanese place hidden away at the foot of the Rockies.
The pressure of it all overwhelmed me. I longed to connect with A* but knew we couldn’t always pull it off. I doubted my ability to continue meeting the demands of work, school, teacher training, and life. Quietly, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to offer my friend the love and support I wanted to at the funeral.
As A* waited outside to pick me up, I paused to try something a meditation teacher suggested. I was skeptical, but also desperate, so I took a slow, deep breath, placed my hands lightly over my heart, and whispered, “This is hard for you.” Without expecting it, some of the pressure, stress, and fear that seemed to define this chapter melted away. Moments later I realized something simple. This must be hard for A* too. And for my friend who lost his mother. Amidst the isolation of enduring more pressure than I’m cut out to handle, I quietly felt connected to myself and the people I loved.
It’s inevitable that every now and then, you’ll get torn apart by the world. For many, our natural reaction is to fight through the pain, grit our teeth, drown it out, or deny it. And while I understand the tendency, I fear that these approaches are little more than covert forms of self-denial.
Though it can be harder than running from the weight of the world, I suspect that the most skillful way to deal with being broken is to hold yourself with a sense of care and compassion. After all, this is almost certainly the way you would tend to a friend who’s feeling beaten down.
When you pause to acknowledge, “This is hard for me,” with sympathy and grace, two things seem to happen. First, you stop fighting against reality, and instead, embrace it. This is a position of true power and courage. Second, you seem to drift back to becoming a bit more whole and at ease.
I know that claiming that compassion and vulnerability is a truer path to strength, healing, and power sounds like a contradiction. I don’t want you to take my word for it. Instead, next time you notice that life is more difficult than it should be, pause, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, place your hands over your heart1, and allow a momentary sense of grace and compassion to wash over you. Perhaps whisper, “This is hard for you,” and see what happens. You might also spend time cuddling with your puppy, choosing to cancel a meeting, dedicating a few minutes to coloring, or whatever. The point is to extend a bit of gentleness and compassion to yourself amidst the storm. You may notice that you too deserve the same care that you so willingly give to others. You may sense that granting yourself a bit of affection restores your ability to face a world that refuses to let you live in peace.
“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid and outwit that guy.” – Anthony Bourdain
These days I’m constantly under the gun. I’m working six-day weeks, and at least once a week, my first meeting starts at 7:00am and my last wraps at 8:30pm. It’s nuts. And while I don’t love living this way, it makes sense for now. It allows me to efficiently get the credentials I need for my next project while also serving as a consultant. That said, I’ll shift down to a sustainable pace as soon as I can.
Recently, I’ve found myself leaning on one productivity trick more than any other. I ask myself, “What’s the kindest thing I can do for future Jason?” When I say future, I don’t mean the Jason of 2029, or even 2020. I mean the 20 minutes from now Jason, or tomorrow’s Jason, or maybe the two weeks from now Jason (at most).
It’s inevitable that we will deal with an endless amount of mid-level bullshit. Laundry, ironing, dishes, meaningless assignments, difficult conversations, other people’s stupidity/requests, stress from never having quite as much money as we want, etc. It’s seductive to ignore that stuff until it becomes urgent. While it sort of works, procrastination creates a crappy quality of life. The time you spend relaxing is ruined with guilt and the awareness of unfulfilled responsibility, while the time you spend working is defined by urgency and mild self-loathing.
So these days, when I’m tempted to leave the dishes in the sink, check reddit or facebook, or put grad school off until tomorrow, I pause and ask, “How would future Jason feel about that?”
The answer is always some version of, “Ya. He doesn’t love that. If I just get the work done now, future Jason can chill.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating giving up all of your free time in favor of deadening productivity. Just the opposite. Since dealing with bullshit is inevitable, it usually makes sense to just address it now, and in doing so, you’re investing in a better near-term future.
I’m also not suggesting that you never rest. Again, it’s the opposite. I’m suggesting that you learn to be kind to the person you’ll be five minutes or five days from now. Sometimes that means joyfully sleeping in, smoking a joint and watching cartoons, or going on a camping trip with your significant other. If it’s been a minute since you’ve actually enjoyed the moment, then you’re overdue. In many cases meaningful rest and play renders you more effective in the future.
As you start to invest in your future self, you’re likely to discover an obscure truth: the hard part of unpleasant work is rarely the work itself. It’s the anticipation and resistance that suck. It’s the transition from doing nothing to being productive that tends to be the hard part.
The end result is pretty cool. Without meaning to, you may find yourself ahead of even the most demanding schedules. This will leave you with time to sink into life without being plagued by guilt. Every now and then you may even find yourself skillfully reveling in the eye of the storm.
Earlier this month during a meditation class, the teacher asked, “What’s holding you back from living with a more open heart?”
The answer popped lucidly into my mind, as though it were sitting just beneath the surface waiting for someone to ask.
The unexpected answer was as clear as it was uncomfortable: anger.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I thought to myself, “I’m a sensitive dude. I meditate, journal, and try to do no harm. Anger? Really? WTF?”
As much as I wanted to deny the existence of anger in my life, I could tell that I was onto something. Like it or not, it was time to face the anger I had been ignoring and carrying around for a while. I also had to figure out what the fuck to do with it.
Over the following days, I started addressing the repressed anger I noticed in myself. Though difficult, digging through my past few months, even years, was so valuable in identifying where it was coming from. Along the way, I became happier, lighter, more energetic, more playful, and more creative.
In this article, we’re going to talk about one of the trickiest topics in the emotional realm: anger. We’ll discuss why anger can be so difficult to identify and ways to work with it.
Doing so would have been impossible without the capacity for anger and violence. If we were content we would never bother changing the world. If we were discontent but had no ability to channel anger and violence, then we wouldn’t have succeeded in shaping it.
Anger, like any emotion, is a normal part of the human experience.
What’s abnormal about anger – and the reason it caught me off guard – is that it’s an emotion we tend to bury instead of deal with. We’re never taught how to work with it. And unlike joy, disgust, or a few other emotions, working with anger demands nuance and skill. Most people just ignore it until they can’t anymore, letting it build up until explosion. But of course, explosion is frowned upon, so for many of us, the anger gets redirected to random outlets, like bad drivers cutting us off, the people we love, or ourselves. To hedge against outbursts, many of us numb ourselves or disconnect. All of this creates the illusion of having no anger and encloses us with self-denial, preventing us from fully stepping into our lives, relationships, and power.
The nuance that makes the difference: no singular feeling owns you
In addition to the tendency to suppress anger, we avoid it because most of us hold incomplete understandings of how our emotions work.
We tend to believe that the borders that define our emotional lives are crisp and have straight edges. In reality, most of us experience a complicated array of emotions in any given moment.
Imagine that you’re on a diet and getting good results. You’re also kind of hungry. Then, a friend who doesn’t know you’re on a diet offers you a piece of chocolate cake. How do you feel? Virtually all of us will experience the following:
Desire for the cake
Desire to say no to the cake
Frustration with your friend for tempting you
Anger that you’re tempted – after all, you’ve been dieting awhile
Frustration with yourself for being frustrated with your friend who didn’t know any better
Understanding that your friend wasn’t trying to frustrate you
It’s important to understand that our emotional lives don’t always have clean edges. They’re swirling, variable, contradictory, complicated, and fleeting. Instead of avoiding anger, our best bet is to identify it without identifying with it. One of our biggest fears about acknowledging our anger is that the anger will define us. As long as we work with it skillfully, it won’t. In other words, it’s our job to understand that we have room to work with anger, without being controlled by it.
The first step is to learn to identify the anger seething within you. And I want to be clear about something: the question isn’t “Am I harboring anger?” but “What am I harboring anger about?” Trust me – it’s there.
To say you don’t have any anger is like saying that there’s nothing you love or nothing you’re afraid of – it’s absurd. But again, as a society, we’ve made embracing anger taboo, so many of us have become so disconnected from it that we deny its very existence.
When we picture anger, we often picture roaring fires. A driver cuts us off and we lean on the horn, and/or flip the bird. Someone jostles us on the street and we feel the heat and tension rising in our body. Someone betrays or pisses us off and we feel the urge to punch them in the face and verbally tear them to shreds.
This type of anger is obvious. It so thoroughly takes us over that we can’t help but lean into it. We physically shake ourselves off, punch the wall, scream, rant, or vent, and a little while later, it’s gone. Because we can’t help but deal with this type of anger, it’s often short lived.
What surprised me was that the anger I was feeling wasn’t the easily identified, roaring fire I’m used to. Instead, it was much closer to a bed of embers – hot, dangerous, quiet, easy to miss, and capable of burning for a surprisingly long time and starting a much larger fire.
So, how do you find the anger you’re unaware of?
First, you have to make a commitment to being honest with yourself. Because anger is so commonly suppressed, we often tell ourselves that it’s not really there and that we don’t deal with it. If you want to get further in touch with yourself, you’re going to have to strip away the lies, and shine a bright light on your life.
Sometimes, we don’t want to even touch our anger because it feels violent or dangerous. More often we’re ashamed of the things we’re angry about.
After you’ve decided to be uncomfortably honest with yourself, the next step is simple. Close your eyes, spend a few moments centering, and then ask, “What am I angry about that I haven’t let myself feel?”
Keep in mind that the answers may be deeply uncomfortable. A short and very incomplete list of examples:
You can secretly empathize with people and decisions you find morally repulsive
You dislike some of the people you’re tasked with loving
You hate or are disgusted with yourself
You’re mad at people for dying
You’re harboring intense amounts of fear and inadequacy
You’re incredibly frustrated with many of the ideas, people, values, and circumstances that define your life
You hate your job and hate yourself for working in it
Again, the trick is to acknowledge the source without falling into the trap of letting it define you.
You’ll notice that once you allow yourself to feel one or two things you’re mad about, many more will waterfall out. That’s good. We want that. We want to be as in touch with ourselves as we can.
Again, nuance matters. Just because these feelings are coming up, doesn’t mean that they own you or that they’re entirely true. You’re an adult. You can hold space for conflicting feelings. You can dislike your friends and family while also caring about them with enough warmth to melt the world. You can feel disgust at a rival’s morals and ethics while also empathizing with them. You can find parts of yourself that you’re totally ashamed of, and still feel love, compassion, and optimism about who you are.
Strategies to process anger
The last step in working with anger is learning to process it in a way that’s healthy and constructive. I’m not talking about venting (that’s healthy but often not enough) or complaining (I’m not convinced there’s any benefit to complaining for its own sake). Instead, I’m talking about strategically letting the anger move through you so that you can release it.
Personally, I’ve started keeping a list of the different things that piss me off, and then, every few weeks, sitting down to process it. I call it the anger list. Here are four ways of processing it:
1) Journal like you’re channeling the devil himself. This is often my first move. Turn on some angry music (I like System of a Down’s album, “Toxicity”) and write about every little thing that pisses you off. Feel free to write things so cruel, vile, and nasty that you feel the need to text your friend saying, “Hey, if something happens to me, break into my apartment and destroy every journal and laptop I’ve ever used.”
Again, you don’t need to believe everything you write, and just because you write it doesn’t mean it’s true. Don’t worry about that stuff. Instead, just let it out.
2) Tell the world to fuck off. Another effective way of processing anger is to play what I call the “Fuck everything” game. The game is simple: you spend time simply saying aloud, “Fuck you,” to everything you need to. A good round should go on for a little while, and could start like this:
Fuck you J* for being way richer than I am.
Fuck you B* for dying. I can’t believe you left me like that. I miss you.
Fuck the Spring for being bright and beautiful when all I feel is darkness and gloom.
Fuck myself for waiting for so damn long to address my needs.
Fuck my friends for living all over the country instead of living here.
Fuck this stupid neighborhood for being filled with people who think it’s appropriate to stop me on the street and babble at me when I’d much rather be left alone.
Fuck K* for being such a stupid boss. I can’t believe how poorly you handle this stupid fucking team and all of the projets we have to work on. I can’t believe we have to report to you you stupid &^%$.
3) Rage. Like many emotions, anger can be held in the body.1 To fully process it, we need to get into our body and express it. There are a lot of ways of doing this. A few include:
Doing something physically demanding – a series of all out sprints, hitting the gym and lifting as heavy as you can, going on a long ass hike, etc.
Doing something that simulates violence – throwing big stones with all your force into a lake, axe throwing, pounding a punching bag, etc.
Throwing a controlled and passionate temper tantrum – punch your pillows, cry, tear at your hair, smash shit with a bat, jump, stomp, and scream, etc. This is especially fun if you blare fast angry music.
4) Chanel it into art. Take all the shit that you’re angry about, and then use that energy to draw, paint, sculpt or compose a piece of art that reflects how you feel – the more horrible the better. Or, alternatively create a beautiful depiction of the things that are pissing you off, and then destroy it. Or both.
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive nor do these exercises need to exist in isolation from one another. The goal, really, is to confront whatever you’re dealing with and let it out in a controlled and effective way. If you’re drawn to other strategies, use those.
After you’ve worked through some of your stored anger, give yourself a bit of space to let everything sink in and return to normal. Go for a walk by yourself without your phone for a bit. As time goes on, you’ll notice that you feel lighter and that life flows through you with a bit more joy and ease than it used to.
My most recent step has been learning to find meaningful direction with my career path. For most of my professional life, I’ve been modestly successful, but also sort of miserable.
2019 has been very, very different. As it turns out, finding your path is one of the ultimate life hacks for happiness and productivity. There’s still plenty of frustration – as a student and an intern, a huge amount of my time is dedicated to pedantic busy work. And since I’m still consulting and training to be a meditation teacher, my spare time and energy is truly scarce. Despite the demands, I’ve found myself waking up happy, playful, and with tons of energy and space.
I’m not sure that I believe that people have purposes, per se. What I do believe is that if we find something good enough, and dedicate ourselves to it, that we can create amazing lives for ourselves. What does this mean when it comes to finding your path? It means that you can take some of the pressure off of yourself. Instead of getting it exactly right, I suspect that all you need to do is come close enough.
Right now, it’s trendy to try to turn passions into jobs. In fact, it’s so trendy that I’ve met people who feel guilty for having a normal job, and not one that they’re disgustingly in love with.
Finding your path is an art, not a science. The following 7 questions helped me find my path, and I hope that a few of them help you too.
1) Do you secretly know what you want to do? In many cases, we know exactly what we want to do, but we hide it from ourselves because we’re afraid. If you’re in this position, for now, just work to own your dreams. We’ll talk about bringing them to life in the next article.
2) Did you used to know what you wanted to do? I know that sounds like a strange question, but it was a valuable one for me. As a teen I knew I wanted to be a psychologist. I was (and still am) amazed that some people understand the mind so well that they can help it heal. But then I got distracted. I quit my psych major in college because my peers were too crazy, then I traveled, then I got involved with international development, and then got sucked into the business world. For a decade or so, I lost myself.
As you find yourself searching it’s worth pausing every now and then to ask, “What did my teenage self want to do?” She may have been more on the mark than you ever imagined.
3) Is there space in your life for new possibilities and ideas to emerge? Trying to find the right path can be a deceptively difficult project. If you don’t dedicate time to reflection and experimentation, you may never succeed. Most of us stay pretty busy these days, and when we aren’t busy, we fill the space with distraction.
If you want to get clarity about yourself, one of the best moves is to spend time doing less. I wrote about my experience doing less last year. Not only did it lead to the happiest part of 2018, it also helped me get clear on what it is I want to do when I grow up.
4) What are some weird paths that you could fall in love with? It’s tempting to try to get your life to fit neatly within the lines. For some, it’s totally possible. Others, like me, need to go way outside the lines in order to find something that feels meaningful and worth doing.
Are there seemingly disparate skill sets that you can combine to create something unique? Or can you wrestle with something and get it to serve you? I know this sounds a bit abstract, so I’ll explain how it played out in my career.
I love writing, psychology, speaking, business, working for myself, and serving the least fortunate. If my work didn’t include most of those attributes, I would feel like I was leaving valuable parts of myself behind.
So my plan is to open a high-end mental health spa that includes psychology, meditation, and cutting-edge interventions. Then I’ll use the profits to fund a mental health center for those who can’t afford services. Along the way, I’ll continue to blog and give the occasional speech. Does this fit neatly inside the lines? Not at all. Will it work? I’m not sure. Does it feel right? Absolutely.
5) What do the people in your life think you should do? Sometimes, other people have good insight into what might make you happy. My dad was the first to point out that I would likely be unhappy if I were a full time executive (a path I seriously considered). My guy friends from college and high school encouraged me to become a therapist. In both instances, people close to me had a clearer idea of what might make me happy than I did. Asking people for suggestions can prove fruitful.
But this is not a fool proof strategy and can potentially cloud your vision. The trick is to ask for other people’s opinions, but not take them too seriously. When someone makes a recommendation, spend a bit of time considering it and trying it on for size, but don’t take it as gospel.
6) What do fortune tellers and personality tests suggest you do? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in fortune tellers or personality assessments (and yes, that includes the MBTI, Strengths Finder, Enneagram, and whatever other silly assessment is currently en vogue). I mean, it would be lovely if figuring ourselves out were as simple as taking a multiple choice test, but of course, little in life is truly so simple.
That said, you can use career and personality inventories as well as fortune tellers to get the creative juices flowing. Maybe you’ve only been thinking about white-collar jobs when a fortune teller (or whatever) suggests that you’re destined to work as a police officer. Suddenly, you start imagining yourself as a cop. While that isn’t quite right, it opens a whole new realm of possibilities including: firefighter, barber, construction manager, bike mechanic, etc. Doing this can shine light in unsearched corners of possibility.
7) Have you actually tried your dreams on for size? Big decisions often feel like an all or nothing proposition. We either stay in our dead end jobs, or we burn it all to the ground to become a tortured writer.
While this approach can work, it’s needlessly reckless. Instead, try your dreams out before you commit to them. If you want to be a writer, force yourself to write for an hour or two every evening to see what it’s like. If you want to start some sort of business, work on it during the nights and weekends until it’s generating enough income to support you before you quit your job. If you’re thinking of becoming a hospital chaplain (which I was) take a few days off to shadow one and see if you like it.
Note: It’s possible that your job is taking up so much space in your life that you can’t dream while you’re still in it. In that case, consider building an off ramp. Spend time saving money and then quit, or get a job that doesn’t demand as much of you. Yes, this requires making sacrifices and can take a lot of time. But doing this will give you the platform you need to really dream and pursue something that is a better fit.
It took me several years and about a dozen false starts to find my path (seriously). I think the important part is finding work that is an honest reflection of how you want to live and what you value. That includes working at Burger King or some other place that you’re apathetic about in order to support the rest of your life. I hope that the strategies above help you find the next few steps on your path. They’ve been invaluable to me.
PS: One thing to keep in mind while you’re searching
There are literally billions of people out there who don’t have the luxury of considering how they want to spend their time. Any job that helps avoid hunger and exposure to the elements feels like a gift from God. I think this is worth considering for two reasons. First, it gives some perspective to our own struggles. Yes, the problem of existential and professional unrest is a problem, but it’s an amazing one. Second, I think it offers a bit of insight into finding a path that you’ll love. My experience is that we all tend to be a bit happier when we use at least a small part of our lives, to improve those of others.
My inner circle isn’t huge – a dozen people give or take. They all seem smarter and more put together than I am. They found careers, got married, bought houses, etc. Me? I returned to school in my 30’s, still rent an apartment, and seem to have a restless soul.
There are periods of my life defined by pain, fear, disappointment, confusion, isolation, and feeling lost at sea. When I look at my friends, I sometimes mistake their lives as being devoid of those particular demons. It makes me feel like there’s a chasm between us. Their lives seem perfect. Mine, on a good day, is a work in progress.
Though hard to see, the truth is far from my surface-level perceptions. All of us go through dark and difficult periods. When I think carefully about my inner circle, I am reminded that in the past few months:
One lost his mother in a freak accident. A few years prior he lost his Dad.
Another friend’s mother was just moved into hospice.
Two suffered miscarriages.
One built a business only to watch it crumble. Now he’s struggling to support his family.
Another told me that he’s in the grips of addiction and may lose his marriage and family.
Personally, I just lost a mentor. Years before I became a speaker he asked me to give a speech. Years before I started meditating he talked to me about spirituality. He constantly saw a better version of me and helped me grow into it. When I found out he was on his deathbed, I sent a letter, but I’ll never know if he read it.
All of this reminds me of one of the most isolating and deceptive aspects of being a human: we notice how nice other people’s lives are while failing to notice their pain. Through omission, misperception, and failed communication, the pain of existence gets hidden away. It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us, like we’re somehow doomed to struggle while everyone else flourishes. On bad days, it prevents us from showing up when we’re most needed.
All of this points to a simple truth about the human experience: even the best lives will be dealt seemingly inordinate amounts of pain and injustice.
I sometimes find myself asking, “What the fuck do I do with this information? How do I deal with the fact that to be alive guarantees more pain than we think we can handle? How do we make any of this shit worth it?”
While I don’t have a complete answer, I do know where to begin:
Hold the people you love just a bit tighter
Be kind and gentle to yourself
Call just to say hi (it’s been many years since M* took his life and I still wish I called him more)
Relish the good times when you can
Notice the striving humanity in other’s eyes
Reach out when the world breaks you
Let others lean on you when the world breaks them
Open your heart just a bit more
Sleep in every now and then
When you meet your edge, soften
Through it all try to remember a simple lesson from my late mentor: we belong to one another. Keeping that in soft focus makes this all a bit better.
I’ve struggled to find my path in life. Prior to starting this blog, I moved from Washington, DC, to Colorado. I also stopped touring as a speaker, despite unexpected success and a 13 year career in the field. While writing this blog, I opened and quickly closed a leadership coaching practice, opened and continue to run a consultancy for speakers, raised capital for a business I decided not to pursue, took on a bunch of side projects, and finally, returned to school.
It’s been a long, strange, and difficult ride, and for the first time ever I feel like I’m on a true path as I work to become a therapist and meditation teacher. It’s reasonable for readers to ask, “Well, how does Jason know that? He’s had a decent number of false starts.” On one hand, I know that I’m on the right path – I haven’t felt this way before. But a far better answer is that as a writer and sometimes speaker, I work in public. I’ll prove it to you as you watch from afar.
This article is the first in a two part series. In it, we’ll discuss a phenomena that a lot of people fall victim to, including myself: being successful, but off your path. We’ll also talk about how to identify some of the subtle signs of missing the mark. In the next article, we’ll discuss practical steps that you can take to help find your path and start moving down it.
Two friends who got it right
Though many of my friends are successful, it’s C* and W* whose work I admire the most.1 Despite not knowing one another well, their paths are shockingly similar. Both became elementary school teachers after finishing undergrad in 2008.
After a few years in the classroom, C* was promoted to Vice Principal of his school. The following year he accepted a Principal position at a struggling school in his community. C* was tasked with turning the school around while concurrently completing his doctorate. He improved the school so dramatically that other districts routinely contact him for advice.
W*, after a few years in the classroom, co-founded one of the nation’s leading public charter schools. He was recently promoted to CEO where he is tasked with overseeing the school’s effectiveness and expansion.
Three signs you may be missing the mark
For years, C* and W* were complete enigmas to me. Like many people, I was obsessed with efficiency, success, status, leadership, influence, etc. C* and W* barely paid attention to that stuff, yet they were happier, more successful, more effective, and much less burnt out than I was. This of course, is the difference between being on your path and missing the mark.
Looking back, I realize that I missed a few critical warning signs that should have let me know I was on the wrong path. Unfortunately, catching these signs is trickier than it seems. In many success-oriented communities, they’re par for the course. If you’re in one of those communities, you kinda have to become a fish out of water, and it’s hard to understand what’s going on. A few of the most glaring signs that your heart is no longer in it:
1) You’re always on the precipice of being burnt out. Even when I had plenty of time to myself, I felt exhausted. This was in part because of the subtle but omnipresent sense of dread resting just below the surface. The truth is, I didn’t want to go through the falderal of doing the work I was doing. This is in sharp contrast to C* and W* who, despite working harder than I ever did, rarely burnt themselves out. To them, work was enlivening.
2) You’re spending a lot of time with self-help, personal/professional development, self-care or motivation. C* and W* didn’t waste time with self-help, personal/professional development, or motivation because they didn’t need to. Since I was out of integrity, I needed a ton of resources just to keep myself going. In many cases, an obsession with motivation, efficiency, self-help, personal development, acknowledgement, self-care, etc. is an artifact of being on the wrong path. Of course, there’s a time and place for all of these things, particularly when you’re going against the grain to better the quality of your life. But if personal development and its satellites are dominating large parts of your time and attention for extended periods, it’s a pretty clear sign that something is wrong.
A related indicator is being deeply driven by money, status, fame, and other forms of accolades. If you’re routinely seeking or in need of external validation, then there’s a very good chance that something has gone awry. One of my close friends is a book marketing consultant. When clients tell him that they want their book to become a best seller featured on Oprah, he responds by saying, “Ok, we can try to make that happen, but therapy is going to be a lot cheaper.”
3) In theory, you should be happy, but you’re not. While it seems like my success should have made me happy (and I certainly expected it to), it didn’t. Instead it inspired something a bit closer to self-loathing. Yes, I could find happiness elsewhere (and I often did), but doing so required work. C* and W* were entirely different. Though their success wasn’t nearly as flashy as mine and though they worked harder than I did, they were much, much happier.
Note: feeling like you should be happy, but not being happy, or enduring prolonged periods of apathy, ennui, or unhappiness can be symptoms of depression and other forms of inner unrest. As always, if you feel like you’ve been struggling with your mental health, I urge you to turn to a qualified mental health provider.
What do C* and W* understand that the rest of us don’t?
People immersed in entrepreneurship, leadership, thought leadership, sales, social media, and personal development, tend to believe that success is something that must be aimed for in order to achieve. This makes sense. The process of making sales calls, building funnels, cranking out content, split testing, engaging in humiliating levels of self-promotion, failure, rejection, chasing money and status, writing copy, covertly trying to impress your peers, etc. is so inherently meaningless that we need external motivation just to get out of bed. And again, I get it. I spent most of my professional life with these burdens.
To further complicate the matter, whenever we’re motivated by external validation, enough is never enough. At the beginning you’ll be excited just to have a client. Then you’ll be excited when a client pays for your flights. Then you’ll want first class flights. Then you’ll feel inferior for not flying private. I know that sounds crazy, but trust me.
C* and W* understand something that is lost on many people. They have figured out that if you take the time to do good work that you care about, especially in service of others, all that’s left is to consistently show up and do your best. For them, their stunning success and influence was never a target they cared much about; instead it’s an artifact of doing work that they find intrinsically meaningful. As far as I can tell, true success always works like that.
I recently began a two-year course with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach to become a meditation teacher. During a retreat last month, Jack encouraged participants to practice “the stealth technique” while we were together.
The stealth technique is simple: you look at someone – either a stranger or person you know – and silently wish something kind for them. Traditional examples include, “May you be well,” “May you be happy” or “May you be free from suffering.”
I tried it during the retreat and was surprised by how much joy it brought me. It was nice to send positive vibes to complete strangers. It got me out of my head and reminded me of the subtle connections that bind us to one another.
When I got home, I started modifying the exercise. Instead just making broad stroke wishes for people, I started getting playful and specific:
To a puppy, “May your life be filled with treats, infinite cuddles, and long walks”
To an old couple, “May the two of you have wild sex tonight”
To a guy at the gym, “May you be proud of your physique “
To a beggar, “May you have somewhere warm to sleep, a fresh pair of socks, and a delicious meal”
To a business partner, “May you close a big fucking deal and crush your competition”
To a woman on the phone, “May you indulge in some guilt-free fro-yo after work”
To a long-haired teen, “May you host a legendary party this weekend and kiss your crush”
To a random woman, “May you find $5 in your jeans tomorrow”
To a middle school student, “May you be blessed with countless snow days this winter”
To a guy about my age, “May you have the best dump of your life this week (and tell a few of your friends about it)”
Stuff like that.
This silly little practice continues to bring me more joy and happiness than any other five second exercise I’ve done.
So wait, what’s the technique here?
Simple: as you move through your day, train your attention on a random person. Silently wish something nice for them. It can be generic like happiness, or specific like winning the next carnival game you play. You can set an alarm on your phone or watch to remind you to use the stealth technique once or twice a day.
Of course, you don’t have to reserve this for strangers. You can aim your well wishes at people you know, public figures, animals, or whatever. If you’re feeling really ambitious you can even use it for all life.
But also, remember to make some wishes for yourself too. You deserve it. Wish that you have mind blowing sex, that you find five dollars, and that your life is filled with treats, long walks, and infinite cuddles.
But what does this actually do?
The mystic in me is convinced that the stealth technique makes a meaningful – if also subtle – difference in other people’s lives. The reductionist in me is confident that my unspoken thoughts have no effect on the world, no matter how eccentric they are.
I’m not really sure if sending energy (or prayers, if you will) to other people makes a meaningful difference in their lives. What I do know is that it makes a difference in mine. It snaps me out of the trance of self-obsession, reminds me that we are all in this together, offers a bit of usable hope, and candidly, amuses the hell out of me. It makes me a bit kinder to myself and the people I collide with. It slows me down and reminds me that though it feels like we are separate and autonomous, we are all deeply, deeply connected.
Of course, there’s no reason to take my word for any of this. Instead, give it a try. If you’re in public now, glance at a stranger and make a wish for him or her. If you’re on your own, go for a walk and make a wish for the first three people you see. Or just remind yourself of someone who could use a win, and make a wish for her. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Note 1: Given some of my previous work this article is deeply hypocritical. I get that. But then, if we don’t periodically reevaluate our ideas and values we will forever be held captive by our past.
A little more personally: this article is hard for me to publish. It also feels right.
Note 2: For our purposes, the term “life coach” will act as an umbrella term that broadly encompasses people offering mental health services without academic training, qualified supervision, or licensure. This also includes spiritual guides and meditation teachers who do not come from an established lineage with supervision (including self-proclaimed shamans and plant medicine practitioners).
Ok, let’s begin…
Autumn 2016: To my surprise, my coaching practice is filling up. Not only that, but I’m making way more money than I expected.
And yet, something feels off. My clients are turning to me for advice about sexual abuse, addiction, childhood trauma, their relationships with their children, infidelity, divorce, breakups, and decisions that will impact their lives for years to come.
Though it’s easy to get caught up in the success and the ego of it all, the reality is clear: I’m not qualified to do this type of work. If a friend wanted to discuss something over beers that would be one thing, but these people are paying me for advice on their inner wellness and life strategy. An innocent mistake or two and I can seriously fuck someone up. I need to quit.
Why it’s surprisingly hard to work with good mental health professionals
Let’s start with something simple: it’s wrong to treat people’s health problems without extensive training, supervision, and licensure. The risk of unintentionally doing harm is just too high. In the realm of physical health, most providers and patients seem to understand the risk of inexperience. If you have an infectious disease, you would turn to an MD, not someone that learned medicine from a YouTube channel or by reading a few articles.
But with mental health, things start to get blurry. Often instead of turning to licensed providers, we either deny the reality of our problems or turn to life coaches and self-help. These coaches claim to be able to help with eating disorders, self-acceptance, self-esteem, transitions, anxiety, depression, grieving, addiction, a wide variety of inner turmoil, and a million other mental ailments. Of course, coaches can’t provide these services any better than the YouTube dude can cure infectious disease. But still, we turn to life coaches and similar providers for mental health issues all the time. This happens for reasons that are as numerous as they are complicated:
From a legal perspective, training, supervision, and licensure isn’t really required to provide mental health services.
Many coaches don’t fully understand that they are providing mental health services. They tell themselves that therapy focuses on the past and coaching focuses on the future so consequently coaching doesn’t have much to do with mental health. Of course, neither claim is true. This is further complicated by the reality that many people who turn to life coaches (and the coaches themselves) don’t understand that their dissatisfaction in life likely stems from untreated mental illness.
Mental health is a relatively new and evolving field filled with misconceptions coming from both providers and clients.
Insurance companies make getting effective treatment complicated and push accelerated and ineffective regiments.
Mental health issues are plagued by stigma, which makes us more likely to feel shame and deny their existence.
Some mental health professionals are abusive and take advantage of their clients (this happened to me).
Some mental health professionals are idiots.
Many mental health professionals have terrible websites and marketing.
Many people have sought mental health services from licensed providers, only to never have their calls or emails returned.
In contrast, many life coaches have beautiful marketing and smooth on-boarding procedures, which makes working with them much easier than working with many licensed providers.
Many coaches frame their services as “an investment in yourself” and lie about the results they can produce which makes it more seductive to work with them. A complicated note here: many coaches aren’t fully aware of their own deceit. More on that in a moment.
The end result? Life coaches and self-help gurus can edge out mental health professionals. They’re easier to work with, more seductive, less stigmatized, and have better marketing.
In almost all cases life coaches are a risky waste of time and money
Keep in mind that I write from the perspective of an industry insider. Not only did I own a thriving coaching practice, as a speaker I attended – and often spoke at – many of the elite industry conferences. I consulted for some of big names and managed to almost get sued for publicly discussing myshifting views of the community.
Coaches tend to believe that they’re qualified to help others since they’ve done a bit of reading, allegedly healed their own ailments, or got their lives on track. Many simply believe that they have a gift for understanding people. While I think their intent is benign, it’s also misguided.
Again, this is not a mistake that we would ever make in the realm of physical health. You would never believe that getting your kidney stones pulverized by a doctor and reading the accompanying literature would qualify you to treat other people’s kidney stones, even if you’re a fast learner. And yet, coaches routinely couple this logic with their desire to help people. Part of the reason this happens is that many of the things that seem to be productive for people aren’t. A few examples:
Many coaches (and, unfortunately, therapists) will urge their clients to have difficult conversations with triggering people in their lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of hard conversations, but not categorically. In some instances they can be counterproductive, retraumatizing, or both. I once met a woman who, at the direction of her coach, reconnected with a man who raped her several years prior. She was instructed to let him know that she forgave him for raping her. The coach figured this would help complete her past. It didn’t. Instead it triggered her, riddled her with regret and shame, and derailed her self-esteem.
Along similar lines, coaches will often encourage their clients to share deeply vulnerable parts of themselves before they’re ready. Several years ago I was at a conference in Napa when a coach made an audience member stand up and admit some of his deepest insecurities to the audience. When the audience member was reluctant, the coach bullied him until he tearily opened up. The coach believed that admitting insecurities to strangers was the path to liberation from them. This is not only wrong, it’s reckless.
Due to a lack of grounding in scientific research and evidence-based practices, coaches will often give guidance that seems like it should work, but doesn’t. I recently met a man who was routinely sexually abused as a child. Understandably, his self-esteem was in the gutter well into his 30’s. He turned to a coach to help develop his sense of worth. The coach assigned the man a series of complicated affirmations that took 10-15 minutes to recite each day. This did little beyond waste his time, temporarily deflate his hope for a better life, and criminally oversimplify the complexity and pain of trauma.
Unlike therapists, coaches will often tell their clients what to do in any given situation. While many clients like this, it tends to be counterproductive. It gives the coach way too much power and creates a level of co-dependency that prevents the client from becoming confident, self-aware, and autonomous.
Coaches will often push their clients to “take massive action” in their lives. The idea is that if you make all the changes you want to make right now you’ll suddenly step into a new – better – era. While this has the potential to be seductive, it’s unnecessarily violent and unsustainable. A far better approach is to make gradual changes and allow them to compound over time. Not only is this smoother, but the net impact tends to be far greater.
Some of the most effective mental health interventions are extremely counterintuitive. For example, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is weird as shit. It involves bilateral stimulation while recalling difficult memories and experiences. It’s also an effective form of trauma treatment. No coach would ever stumble upon this technique on their own. The more intuitive techniques, like talking about trauma or reframing it, tend to be less effective.
Often, many of these coaches aren’t just lying to their clients: they’re lying to themselves too. Instead of addressing their own issues, they claim to be able to help others with the exact problems that define the coach’s own life. Doing so allows them to enter a fantasy land where they can conceive of themselves as healed instead of doing the hard work of facing their demons.
Earlier this week I had dinner with a young attractive couple. There was a weird vibe between them. Their communication was strained and they didn’t seem to like each other all that much. Later on, the friend who organized the dinner told me that the couple intended to start a relationship coaching business. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. This type of thing – though insane – is common.
What does this have to do with Jason going to graduate school again?
All of this is top of mind for a simple reason: I am dying to become a mental health professional, but also, I really dislike higher education and am extremely reluctant to go back to school. In fact, I so dislike school that I nearly dropped out two weeks before finishing my undergraduate degree. The only reason I didn’t is because a mentor heard about my plans, called me, and yelled at me until I promised to finish.
This leaves me with three options:
1) Ignore my dream of becoming a mental health provider or work adjacent to it (like running the business operations of a counseling practice)
2) Work as a life coach and deal with the ethical issues
3) Bite the bullet and go back to school
Though written out like this it seems easy, the decision was deceptively difficult. When I floated the idea of going back to school I got countless texts and emails from people I trust telling me that it would be a huge mistake especially given my previous success as a coach.1 This, coupled with my own disdain for higher education made it difficult for me to determine my next step.
Eventually the right decision became clear and three weeks ago, I entered a Masters of Social Work program at Fordham University to pursue licensure as a psychotherapist. In addition to the academic work, I’ll receive 1,100+ hours of supervised fieldwork. To help round out my understanding of the mind and spirit, I’ve also begun a meditation teacher training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Yeah. 2019 is going to be a busy year.
When I finish my education in mid-2020, I’ll open an untraditional private practice. In fact, I’ve already begun working on it. I’ll aim to use psychology and evidence based practices to help people flourish personally and professionally. The space itself will be something akin to a spa for people’s inner wellness. To say I’m excited is an understatement.
PS: A call to arms for coaches and therapists alike
I totally understand that life-coaching isn’t going away. Heck, it was one of the paths I considered. I realize that some people’s lives have been dramatically improved by the work of good coaches. I also understand that not everyone who works in the industry will (or can) go back to school. With that in mind, here are my best suggestions for life coaches who want to stay in the industry and be as fully in integrity – and responsible – as possible.
1) Hire a licensed mental health professional to supervise your work and inform your decisions. Check in with her at least once a week to ensure that you’re not doing harm to your clients. Again, just because you have ostensibly solved the issue for yourself and have a thriving business does not qualify you to do mental health work. It also fails to protect your clients from accidental harm. Supervision will help mitigate the risk and improve your success rate.
2) Better yet, work to ensure that the field of coaching becomes one with licensure, accountability, grounding in evidence based practices, and meaningful accreditation. Doing this would solve many of the industry’s problems. It may also lead to coaching overtaking psychotherapy as the preferred line of intervention for some mental health challenges.
3) Eliminate the lies, half truths, and deceptive statements from your marketing and sales. Keep in mind that this likely begins by having a difficult conversation with yourself (that’s where I had to start).
4) Be upfront with your clients and yourself about the limits of your ability. If these are not immediately obvious to you, then you are probably unqualified to do this type of work. When I worked as a coach, I wrote, “RYL” in sharpie on my wrist everyday. “RYL” was short for “Respect Your Limits”
5) Consider pursuing formal education and licensure (unfortunately those coaching certifications don’t count). I know, going back to school is a bitch, but if you’re not willing to get the proper credentials to do this type of work, is it really reasonable for you to get involved with people’s inner wellness? Is it ethical?
Therapists have a few things to learn from coaches too…
Going back to school while I was at the top of my industry was a difficult decision. To help ensure I wasn’t making a mistake, I partnered with a few therapists in 2018 to help them with their businesses. As I begin to work on my practice, there are a few questions I continuously come back to again and again that I think many therapists should consider.
1) How is your marketing? What can you do to modernize your website and signal that mental health is a problem with effective solutions and a misplaced stigma?
2) How easy is it for prospective clients to book their first appointment with you? When I sought therapy, scheduling my first appointment was shockingly hard. For the most part, the therapists I called never returned my calls. My friends struggled with that too. It’s important to make it easy for people to schedule their first appointment or get referrals to available providers.
3) Am I consistently helping my clients achieve their goals? Remember to periodically ask clients, “Hey, how’s this going for you? Are we making meaningful progress together?” Remember that for most consumers, psychology exists in a black box. This makes it extremely difficult for patients to evaluate the quality of their providers. Push to provide the best service possible. Don’t be the reason that people perceive psychotherapy as a waste of time. Even if you think you’re good at what you do you should always be striving to improve.
4) Be creative. How can you integrate the good parts of life coaching into your practice to create the best overall consumer experience? Add creativity, boldness, and experimentation to your work. While nothing will replace the standard 50-minute session on the couch, to only offer that is to deprive your clients.
PPS: What about this blog?
Don’t worry the blog isn’t going anywhere while I’m in school. If anything, it will get better because I’ll be working in the trenches and keeping up to date with the latest methodology and research.
One heads up though: the program I’ve enrolled in is one of the most intense and comprehensive in the country. Though I will 100% continue to write here, it may take a minute for me to get used to the new pace of life and figure out what a realistic publishing schedule looks like.