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Imagine setting a goal of seeing the world in all its splendor.  You decide to climb a really tall mountain to get the best view. You know it’s going to be an arduous journey, but hey, you only live life once.

But how to get to the top?  There’s a tangle of paths before you, and signs pointing every which way, including opposite directions.

You don’t have much to go on, so you choose a path that looks well trekked and offers a gentle slope.  You see some people up ahead of you, smile and wave.  How exciting to finally be under way!

The hike isn’t always so happy-go-lucky.  Sometimes you stumble, and there are times you have your doubts.  People on other paths occasionally whiz past or laugh uproariously and give you a wink.  You wonder if you should switch paths and join them.

But you stick to the path you’re on, because you’re loyal and you’re already invested so much time and sweat.

And then you reach a plateau.

It’s not unpleasant really, it’s just a dead end.  You try to focus on the warmth of the rock, the pretty lichen growing between the cracks.  The view is … nice.

Still, it’s not where you wanted to go.  It’s not what you wanted to experience.

As you look over your shoulder to the paths behind you, so much becomes clear.  You’ve come a long way, yes.  But it’s obvious a little more scouting at the base could have helped a lot.  You didn’t have to go far to see that many of the paths combine, and more than a few lead right off the edge of a cliff.

The peak is still somewhere above you, beyond a layer of fog. There’s no guarantee that any of the other paths will take you there.  There’s not even a guarantee of a better view if you arrive.

You have a choice.

You can either accept where you are as good enough or you can walk back down the mountain, pick another trail based on the new information you have, and try for the summit.

To go higher, try lighter

The trick is to not let your past decisions influence the one in front of you.

Seth Godin, that master of psychology and marketing, recently wrote about the distractions that keep people from following through on the things they want:

People are in pain. Often of their own making, they tell themselves a story that obsesses/distracts and compels them. “I’ll never get a movie gig again,” “I can’t believe they didn’t like what I offered,” [...]

If we go back to our mountain climbing analogy, it’s like berating yourself for picking the wrong path, degrading your confidence in your own navigation, while still being unsatisfied with your current location.

If you decide you’re truly happy with the plateau, then enjoy it.  Being wrong about your destination can sometimes be a happy accident.

But if you’re still yearning for what could be, then you have to be willing to let go of where you’ve been and how you got there.

All that hiking means you’ll be faster and more sure on your feet.  Now you have a map of the alternate routes, so you can make more informed decisions than you did before.  You might even convince someone to go along with you, providing companionship and fresh ideas.

Too many people get caught up in their past failures, whether it’s changing careers, losing weight, writing a book, or getting out of debt.  Without realizing it, they pace the same path over and over again, promising “this time things will be different,” and then are disappointed to circle back to the same, familiar plateau.

There’s nothing wrong with looking over your shoulder now and then.  In fact, in the Harvard Business Review, Art Markman suggests we view the past best from the future

Instead, base your [decisions] (at least in part) on what you hope to say when you look back on your life. You may not always succeed, but are unlikely to look back with regret on those decisions that gave you the opportunity to reach your aspirations. And statistically you are much more likely to look back with regret on the roads not taken.

The biggest challenge most face is lightening their pack.

Learn from your mistakes?  Absolutely.  But don’t dwell on them.

Toss out your assumptions about what you are or aren’t capable of.  Lose the weight of other’s expectations.  Untie yourself from the emotion of past events.

When you do that, you might just be surprised to discover what you’ve been carrying with you all along: a rope for scaling to new heights, a hang-glider that introduces you to challenges and vistas you couldn’t have imagined previously.

And if you do that, you won’t just be thankful for the crazy, winding journey you’ve taken to achieve your goals.  You’ll be proud.

After all, how else were you to discover what was hiding, unused, in your pack?

Editor’s note:  Want to take your career journey to new heights?  Let the No Regrets Career Academy help.  Hurry, enrollment ends soon!

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20 Responses to Want to Change Your Life? Let Go of Your Old One

  1. Love this metaphor, Jen. SO great to have you back! :)

    I’m someone who is in the process of changing my path, but – like you said – I’m using all the skills that have brought me this far to negotiate the new territory. My transition is not drastic. I’m not, for instance, a bookkeeper who is now going to be a ballet dancer. I’m staying on my mountain, but I’m going to explore a different valley, start up a different ridge trail, and set my sights on a nearby peak instead of the one I’d arrive at if I DIDN’T make a change.

    I think it’s fabulous that – like climbing a mountain – there are innumerable ways to reach the top. There are the paths that have already been carved into the mountainside, but no one says you have to use those. You can pick your own way up to the top, exploring different terrain as you go. You can meander from peak-to-peak – evolving as you go.

    The best part, though, is that each time you reach a plateau or a peak, you get a much wider view of the whole range. If you keep an open mind, it won’t take you long to realize that you can climb any one of those peaks … or as many of them as you like. Just remember, that in order to reach a new peak, you have to climb down from the one you’re on … but that’s half the fun – the challenge of getting there to see if you can do it and to enjoy the journey up each time.

    Love this. Off to share.
    :)

    • Jamie,
      That was my realization too, that each time you get to a plateau or smaller peak, you have wonderful clarity. It’s a gift really, if one “sees” it that way. Because sometimes there’s no other way to get that clarity, so it really isn’t a waste at all, is it?

      Thanks so much for your enthusiasm for my extended metaphor. The poet in me couldn’t help it! :)

    • On
    • September 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm
    • Portia
    • Said...

    Yes. Yes. And Yes! My boss likes to say “sunk costs are sunk costs.” You aren’t getting them back. To use another analogy, how many of us stand in the same line even though we see another one getting shorter because we’ve been standing in the one we are in so long that we can’t abandon it? Sunk costs. I think this also connects nicely with your other writings on fear. Fear holds so many of us back in one way or another that it can be a strange sense of comfort because then we don’t have to take responsibility for changing. Love the hiking analogy. A had a wonderful yoga teacher who would always say “We bow to the past, but we don’t let it hold us back.” I’ve always taken that with me.

    • Portia,
      That’s so funny you bring up standing in line. I am ALWAYS in the slowest line, carefully watching the others but usually staying put. I figure the moment I change lanes, my old one will pick up again!

      Love the quote from your yoga teacher. Nice!

    • On
    • September 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm
    • Barbara
    • Said...

    This is so true Jen. I’ve done it more times than I can count due to lack of faith in myself. Those days are over now and I’m trying to not fall into the ‘what ifs’, like “What if I’d done what I’m doing now sooner?”

    I wasn’t prepared to do what I’m doing now until now. So wondering what if is pointless. Honoring what I’ve learned over time is a much more productive thought process.

    So nice to have you back!
    b

    • You know, I was thinking of you as I wrote this. One, because I wanted a post that was less career change centric, and two, because I think of you as wise in this way. :)

        • On
        • September 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm
        • barbara
        • Said...

        Oh Jen, you flatter me! I wish I was so wise. Thanks though!
        b

  2. How true this is! Too often, we let our past mistakes keep us from moving forward. Instead of dwelling on the past, we should learn the lesson and move on.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, there’s a wonderful song by Ray LaMontagne where he talks about “I choose instead to dwell in my disasters.” And I thought how many of us do that, sometimes without realizing it. It’s okay if we don’t achieve our dreams, as long as we never keep dreaming. Thanks for the note, Grady. So glad we connected!

    • On
    • September 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm
    • MARIE-NOELLE
    • Said...

    A resounding YES on all of the above, comments included! Fear is my number one obstacle, always looking for excuses to hold back fulfilling my dream. The abysmal economy, not the right place, not the right time, and the list goes on. I so enjoy reading you/listening to you, Jen. You tackle the wide spectrum of issues one confronts when crossing that threshold of seeking professional fulfillment. Some later than others, which would be my case. But never too late, nevertheless. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and savoir-faire.

    • That’s right–it’s never too late to seek fulfillment. Or too early.

      Keep seeking. We’re right there with you!

  3. This line resonated with me: “You can walk back down the mountain, pick another trail based on the new information you have, and try for the summit.” It’s okay to take a step back, lighten the pack, and try again. I recently had to do this in my life. My husband and I both quit our jobs which meant selling one of our vehicles (sharing the other), finding renters for our house, and crashing at my parents’ vacation home as freeloaders until we figure out our next move. When I told a friend our plans, she commented how it was “funny we were moving backwards.” Maybe it looks like backwards from the outside, but to me, I feel like the future has never looked brighter. Definitely foggier and less defined, but more exciting too.

    • Shawndra,

      How awesome! I didn’t realize both you and your husband were making this change simultaneously. Talk about courage and love and commitment! It’s definitely not a step backwards, my friend. So proud and inspired by you!

  4. I don’t really need to leave a comment, the previous commenters, particularly Jamie, covered my thoughts and where I am on my mountain climbing journey.

    I particularly liked and espouse this:
    “Toss out your assumptions about what you are or aren’t capable of. Lose the weight of other’s expectations. Untie yourself from the emotion of past events.

    When you do that, you might just be surprised to discover what you’ve been carrying with you all along: a rope for scaling to new heights, a hang-glider that introduces you to challenges and vistas you couldn’t have imagined previously.”

    Great post Jen. Cherry

    • But Cherry, it brightens my day so much to read your comments! Never feel one of your thoughts isn’t worthy or appreciated!

    • On
    • September 21, 2011 at 10:31 am
    • Cat Alford
    • Said...

    Jen, this is an incredible metaphor and describes the problem of getting “too comfortable” quite well. How many of us have stayed in a job because it offered amazing benefits and was safe, like you with the air force? Or like I did also working for the fed gov in a job hundreds and hundreds of people wanted. It’s excruciatingly difficult to budge when things are so cushy and nice. I love the quote about thinking what you hope to say when you look back on your life. Every day I am reminded of how short life is. The time is now. And, your post emphasizes that perfectly.
    Best,
    Cat Alford

    • I know, Cat. I think it was John Steinbeck who said, “We spend our time searching for security, then hate it when we get it.” So true!

        • On
        • September 22, 2011 at 10:20 am
        • Cat Alford
        • Said...

        Oooh love that quote! Thanks for sharing.
        Best,
        Cat

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 4:26 pm
    • Jane
    • Said...

    Very helpful article, Jen. I especially like the bit about trying lighter to go higher. I am taking your No Regrets Course and all this is grist for my mill. I see myself having to dispense with past emotional and spiritual baggage in order to go where I might want to go. I also see this literally, in financial , material terms- what can I materially shed, and how can I simplify my needs, so that I am freer and more flexible? I just listened to your webinar with Leo Babauta and I really like how he talks about these things. I am seeing it’s not about deprivation but sizing up what really matters, and not being hung up on the things, ideas etc. one doesn’t really need. Travelling light, in short!

    • I have a whole post lined up on the topic of minimalism, Jane. When we moved to London, it took two months for our household goods to arrive. No furniture except a small, dirty outside table. Just a handful of clothes and kitchen items. That was all we had. I came to dread the arrival of our stuff (though I did appreciate the couch again once we had it!). We only moved 2500 pounds of stuff, and now we know even that is too much. So yes, traveling light is good in many ways, mentally and emotionally for sure!