From time to time I come across this advice for uncovering What You Were Meant To Do With Your Life: Ask yourself, If I knew I could not fail, what would I do?
I have to admit to you, I hate this question. More accurately, I dread it.
You see, I can’t seem to play this game with out waking up the sleeping giant – my inner critic.
The more I dream, the louder she gets: Be a professional dancer – you’re too old to start that now. End world hunger, or violence against children – you’re too introverted to fly around the world making speeches. Start a retreat center – yeah, maybe when your son starts college. Who has the time?
Pretty soon, I feel anxious and overwhelmed, and I’ve convinced myself that I’ll never amount to anything.
I need a trick for bypassing the inner critic.
But first, it helps to understand what this inner critic really is:
We humans have a built-in survival system, designed to bring us back to our safety (comfort) zone. This comfort zone is what we know. We know how to function in this zone. Even if this place is not completely satisfying – in fact, even if it’s lousy – it’s familiar, and we know how to survive here. The comfort zone includes our physical environment, our social network, even our identity.
When we leave our comfort zone – and even when we think about leaving it – the survival part of our brain says, “Hey, that’s potentially dangerous out there. Better return to the place we know.” Unfortunately, this happens even when contemplating a change that we KNOW would make life better, like applying for a better-paying job.
Moreover, our survival systems don’t distinguish very well between physical threats, social threats, and threats to our identity. Those negative messages are like cattle herders, trying to drive the cattle back into the fenced area of our comfort zones. Get back! Hee-ya!
The inner critic the most cautious part of our brains.
Many times, it’s incredibly helpful that we have this automatic threat-assessment system. Dark, unfamiliar alley? Maybe not! Fresh coffee at the drive-thru? Better make sure it’s not too hot before gulping it down!
Trouble is, it is hard to just “turn it off.” Maybe even impossible. And, since it’s mostly helpful, we wouldn’t want to turn it off completely and forever anyway.
So, how to selectively bypass this critic and get clear on your dreams?
Try any or all of the techniques that follow. Some are geared specifically towards careers, others for your big exciting life goals in general.
Technique #1: Recognize the inner critic for what it is
Make a list of the objections your inner critic tends to throw at you. To get at these think about big decisions you considered in the past or ones you are considering now. See which objections are most common, and most likely to stop you in your tracks.
Then, notice whenever they arise, and see them for what they are: your automatic survival system, your internal cattle herders. Then choose to ignore them – or see them as problems to be solved rather than walls blocking your path.
Technique #2: Make the other voices louder
Interview 6-10 people in your life; have them reflect back to you what you’re good at, and what they appreciate about you. Sometimes others close to us can see it better than we can.
Prepare 4-6 questions that you’ll ask each person. Ask these people to reflect back what you’ve been saying you want for your life…what are you excited about…what dreams you have articulated…what you’re naturally good at doing. Compile the list and see what patterns emerge.
Technique #3: Create an envy list
Make a list of people who’s careers you envy. They can be people you know personally or famous people you know of. Then next to each one list what it is about those careers you desire most – the freedom? The income? The kind of work they do? The travel? The kind of impact they have in the world? Often, this list will help us recognize the things we want for ourselves, but believe are out of reach.
Technique #4: Bypass the critic with pictures
Create a vision board for your ideal life. Include as many aspects as you can: career, health, relationships, living environment, financial wellbeing, etc. For best results, draw MOST of it yourself rather than cutting out images from magazines; this will help (1) keep your vision from being tainted by the limitations imposed by the advertising industry (such as gender or racial stereotyping), and (2) make the symbolic meaning of the drawing as personal and tailored to you as possible.
There are only two rules – no words, and no numbers – but as a guideline I also recommend using as much detail (and color!) as possible.
While this may seem similar to the dreaded “If-you-know-you-could-not-fail-what-would-you-do?” question, it actually works differently. By drawing symbolically, you make it easier to feel and intuit rather than (over) think your way through the exercise. Your results are more likely to be what you actually crave than what you’ve convinced yourself is important. And, finally, this symbolic image of your ideal life will leave open multiple options for achieving it, which allows you to fold in, rather than be sidetracked by, the unexpected opportunities that come your way.
Learning to quiet your inner critic is certainly a process.
Remember to be patient and kind with yourself. Just learning to recognize this voice, and engage with it, is a big step all by itself. As you learn to discern between your inner critic and your inner voice (which might also be called your dreams, your “heart,” or your intuition), it will get easier to “go for it” and create the life you desire and deserve.