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The more you struggle, the more you imagine a big change is just around the corner.

We tell ourselves that change is hard, that it only comes from effort and discipline and resolve. We worry and plan and steel ourselves for the long haul.

It’s exhausting, but necessary.

Or is it?

As Chip and Dan Heath say in their book, Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard, you need to deal with three things when you want to make a change: your emotions, your rational decision-making, and the situation you operate in.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

And because it sounds complicated, we often make it complicated. We try to solve the problem by staging a dramatic struggle (and make no mistake, it is largely an act, though an unconscious one).

We announce flashy resolutions, we have long internal arguments about the importance of willpower, then sink into pitiful despair when we fail to make sustained progress.

What if there was a single exercise that could help you make a big change in just a few hours?

Let me introduce you to Steve, who went from flirting with a mid-life crisis to getting those butterfly feelings of excitement in his stomach for the first time in years–all in just one week. And then I’ll introduce you to Jennie, who transformed herself from welfare mom to CEO.

The power of clarity

Steve is a recent enrollee in my No Regrets Career Academy. He just turned 40. Obviously, Steve joined my course because he really wanted to make a change in his career.

But within the first week, he made a major change in a different part of his life, one that he’d been struggling with for over a year.

Steve wanted to get rid of the clutter in his house. He knew he had too much stuff and it was weighing him down: literally and figuratively. But every time he had tried to make progress in the past, he came up with some excuse: either it wasn’t the right time, he was too busy, or he didn’t want to waste the money of a previous purchase by throwing something away.

One of the most undervalued commodities in our society is clarity.

We think we know what we want. We think what’s holding us back is circumstance.

We’re wrong.

In the first week of my course, I lead my clients through an exercise to determine their core values. If you’ve never taken the time to define, in detail, what your values are, it’s easy to think this is a waste of time.

Nearly all of my clients come out of this exercise saying, “Wow, I had no idea! Now I see where I was going wrong.”

Which is great, but that little insight alone won’t change your life.

Steve took things one step further. One of his values that emerged was “simplicity.” And maybe it sounds silly, but at that moment, he realized his clutter wasn’t just an unfinished exercise. He realized he wasn’t living up to his own values.

It was a little like getting slapped in the face with your own hand.

The next day, he vowed to reduce his belongings by 50%. He sent out a note to everyone he knew, offering up a list of items. Anything unclaimed would go to charity or ebay.

And for the first time in years, he felt butterflies of excitement instead of fear. He was doing something that moved him closer to his values, and it was really freaking exciting.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t setbacks. Many people told him he was crazy. They were sure he was closer to a mid-life crisis, not further. Steve started to doubt himself.

And then he got an email from someone who’d taken him up on his offer for a rather unusual item: a clarinet. The recipient had given the clarinet to her granddaughter, a gift that had made a big difference in the child’s interest and desire to pursue music.

And THIS was the key moment. Because not only was Steve living up to his value of simplicity, but he unexpectedly lived up to another value he’d uncovered: enable others to express themselves creatively.

The power of Steve’s story is two-fold:

  1. He had to get clear on his values, on what he really wanted and was willing to commit to
  2. Then he had to act, and act quickly before his doubts took over, in line with those values

There’s a lot of advice out there on action and taking advantage of momentum. I don’t disagree with it, unless you lack clarity. Which, unfortunately, is true for most of us.

Clarity allowed Steve to tap into both his intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, and that was enough to keep him emotionally committed, not just rationally interested, in the effort.

How to lift off

One of the biggest stumbling blocks people tell me about is lack of money. Maybe they’re in debt or maybe they’ve never found a way to sock away some savings, and the lack of a safety net eats at them.

I can almost hear them shrugging their shoulders, saying, “I made some bad decisions. What can I do about it now? I’m trapped.”

They haven’t met Jennie Hernandez Hanks.

I interview a lot of career changers, and Jennie was telling me about how hard her life was after her divorce. She had no savings, no degree, no house, no job, and 7 kids. Her Mexican mother advised her to start cleaning houses.  Someone of her background, her mother said, wasn’t suitable for much else.

Her problem seemed insurmountable.

But armed with a clear vision of the life she wanted for her children and the dedication to keep taking small steps, she got a business degree and eventually became the CEO of a Native American tribe. She was responsible for managing hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, she used her business principles inside the home, helping her kids go from D’s and F’s to college graduates (one recently graduated from Princeton).

I told her it reminded me of the unbelievable stories of a parents lifting a car off of a trapped infant underneath. She told me, “Anyone can tap into that kind of strength. They just have to have a good enough reason to lift car.”

In other words, if you can’t see your dream trapped under the obstacle, you’ll never lift it off. It will seem impossible.

The trick to doing something that seems extraordinary is clarity. You have to see what you want and what’s really standing in the way.

Which, as Steve might say, sounds a lot like simplicity.

So go ahead: change your life. Change the world. Or change the way you think about your problems.

Either way, change doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it.

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17 Responses to The Truth About What’s Holding You Back from Real Change

  1. Powerful stories. Steve’s decluttering was a long time in coming yet, it seems like the change came overnight with clarity of values and purpose.

    I just wrote a post on how difficult it can be to dream big because of the naysayers. I’m so glad Jennie kept to her course anyway. It couldn’t have been easy.

    • Yes, I think this is part of the “overnight success” story phenomena. We work a long time to get clarity and courage, but once we get it, the rest falls relatively easily into place.

      • On
      • January 26, 2012 at 3:58 pm
      • Martin
      • Said...

      Dream big because of the naysayers? That sounds great to me

  2. Hi Jen,

    Clarity – yes! It doesn’t matter what area of your life you want to change – relationships, career or self – if you don’t know what it is that you WANT to change, then you don’t know where to begin.

    Clarity doesn’t mean that you have to know every single step you need and will take to reach that finish line, it’s simply knowing the general direction you are walking, and focusing on the first step.

    And I agree – we often (me as well) make change much harder than it needs to be, but I think that stems from our belief that we need to do and control everything. When we learn to let go and relax, then we begin to see the natural evolution that takes place. Like in Steve’s story – he knew what he wanted, took an action to set everything in motion, and then life (someone) responded to assist him.

    And that’s just inspiring :-)

    Thanks for this post!

    • That’s a good clarification on clarity Kathryn. Knowing what you want is different than knowing all the steps you need to get there. A lot of that comes into focus as you get moving. As someone said, you don’t have to see all the way to Chicago in order to drive there. You just focus on the big picture and the small slice of road in front of you, and it usually works out.

  3. Jen, I love these stories, and the take-away, too – your posts make me look forward to Tuesdays!

    To share another small story, I had a recent moment of clarity in terms of what I wanted for my relationship with my husband. What it came down to was simply, “More time to live our life together.” There are several roadblocks to this desire in our current life, but getting clear on what I/we needed helped make those roadblocks seem less insurmountable.

    And the clarity was strong enough to make me want to make changes to make this happen (and, fortunately, he had a similar epiphany!). As such, we’ve been making decisions to support that mutual desire in the coming months. Having that moment of clarity made all the difference in the world, because it frees us up when it comes to planning. Fears, changes, what other people might think…all that fades away when I remember that we’re clear on what we want and need.

    • Yes, it’s so powerful to just say what you want, isn’t it? I love that you’re making that an established goal. Then all sorts of opportunities to make it happen will present itself. I know when I committed to spending more time with my daughter, I was amazed at the time I had been unconsciously giving up without realizing it. I didn’t have to change, I just had to notice!

      Excited to hear all the details of your plan in the next week!

  4. Thanks for these inspiring stories, Jen. What I particularly like about Steve’s example is that he set a specific goal: to get rid of 50 percent of his stuff. So his goal was not only clear but measurable. And to paraphrase executive coach Marshall Goldsmith – if you can measure it, you can achieve it. I spent the first 10 years out of college dreaming vaguely about writing essays and other pieces, but never got started because my full-time journalism job seemed too demanding. Or at least that’s what I told myself. Finally, when my life was actually way busier with a different job and a young family, I realized, “If I don’t start doing the kind of writing I want to do right now, I never will. So this year I’m going to write six essays and not even worry about whether they get published.” That year, I wrote exactly six essays. The next year I did six more. Gradually, some of them got published and a whole new window of opportunity began opening that continues seven years later. It all started with clarity and measurement. Glad you’re calling out its importance!

    • Great point, Stephen! Being specific is so important. That’s something I really focus on with my clients. Of course, being in the government, I’ve seen this measurement philosophy go awry too. Very common for companies to measure what’s easy and thus drive the wrong behavior. But that’s another post! :)

      LOVE your story on the essays. Very inspiring as well!

  5. Change does not have to be as hard as we make it, that’s for sure. It took me a very long time to figure this out. The funny thing is, the process of blogging has not only helped me gain clarity, it’s a catalyst for other things I now want to do. That’s right, because if my social media experiment I’ve gained clarity and am doing things more inline with my true values. It helped me figure out what that IT is.

    It’s inspiring to read about these two. Jennie really pushed through and Steve’s change was like a revelation. Must have been a huge relief for him to not only figure this out, but let everything go.

    Thanks, Jen

    • Craig,
      I love your social media experiment, as I’ve told you. And I agree, writing regularly on topics of interest just clears the mind’s cobwebs and helps you understand those pesky “passions” a little better. I’ve been thinking a long time about how to help people “engineer epiphany.” Still working on that–maybe blogging is a piece of it.

  6. Great stories indeed. Clarity is at the core of Coaching (be it Financial, Life or Career Coaching). It is easy to get stuck in the fear, but reality is you can’t be creative if you are in fear mode. “And for the first time in years, he felt butterflies of excitement instead of fear.” that is why with Steve he could actually start moving forward

    • On
    • January 25, 2012 at 4:16 am
    • VeehCirra
    • Said...

    I especially like how the lives of Steve and Jennie changed once they got a clear vision of how they wanted their lives to be. Fear is what holds us back most times. It’s really inspiring to read about people who dug deep in themselves and found the courage to actually live their dreams. Just fantastic.

    • Yes, it’s nearly always fear. Amazing how persistent and tricky fear can be. It’s our best opponent!

    • On
    • January 26, 2012 at 4:00 pm
    • Martin
    • Said...

    Hi Jen, the reason why I think change is so difficult for some of us is because of core change. Our core being needs to be changed if a change is to last. If we can’t master that, then I think the change will always be difficult.

    Thanks for the great post.

  7. I often wonder why people think change has to be so hard. Instead of looking at it like some insurmountable mountain, it would help to look at it as a choice – making a new choice and taking baby steps from there. It really is that easy – once you have the clarity of where you’re going. Thanks for bringing this to light!