“To be honest, it’s a blur,” Jeff told me.
We were trying to discern the vision he might have had for his life before it ran amok.
I had asked him to tell me what he could remember as the highlights of his life from the past year off the top of his head (without looking at his calendar). It took the better part of an hour for him to recall even a few big moments, let alone any fine details.
He was finally able to recall his birthday, a trip he had taken out west, two deals he had closed and being sidelined from his exercise routine from a fractured foot (that still wasn’t healed).
Because I’ve been at this for many years, I know it makes most sense to begin right where my client is. So, we began with the elements of the past year that he COULD recall, instead of trying to dig up more details. I asked him to answer these questions for each of the highlights he was able to recall:
Was it fun, exciting, exhilarating? Or was it exhausting, difficult, depressing?
What made it so?
Who else was there?
Why did you do it? What did you do that was just for you?
For the most part, his memory remained sketchy. Jeff was 54, not a geriatric patient. In retrospect, he said, many of the experiences just seemed downright exhausting.
Jeff told me, “That’s kind of pathetic, to only have a handful of things I can recall from the past year of my life. It’s like I haven’t even been IN my life.” He was most distressed to recognize that none of the things he could recall were things that were just for him, it was as if his life was being directed by everyone else but him.
What had started out as a little exercise turned into a major eye-opener for Jeff. He realized that he had become an unwitting victim of his own obsessive focus on the future and on meeting everyone else’s expectations for his life.
The saddest example of all was his daughter’s wedding. This memory hadn’t even surfaced during the initial recall exercise. In fact, this memory only came up when we were talking about frustration and he told me he was suing the photographer whose camera had been stolen, leaving them with only blurry photos some of the guests had taken with their iPhones. Talk about a metaphor. He and his wife had been so focused on making it the perfect day for everyone else that they simply didn’t remember a thing. It was one of the reasons he was so wrapped up in the litigation over the photos. Without quality photos, it was as if Jeff had missed his daughter’s wedding completely.
Bringing Your Life Into Focus
I’ve come to the conclusion that it takes time and stillness to ask yourself during and after both major and minor events how you actually felt about them. So often, we simply leap from one event to another without ever taking in the experiences of our life and using that information to guide our next steps. It makes life a blur.
I asked Jeff to tell me about the celebratory closing dinner for the biggest deal he closed last year. He was certain there had been one; but, not surprisingly, it took him some time to recall the actual event.
Specifically, I asked him, “How did you feel about the celebration?”
Notice, I didn’t ask him about the deal itself. I asked about the celebratory closing dinner. I didn’t ask him: “How did the dinner turn out? Did the guests have a good time? Did your client seem pleased? Was it better than other closing dinners you’ve attended?” Those are all questions focused externally on others’ perceptions of the experience. I wanted to hear what Jeff had experienced himself and what stuck with him from a celebration meant to mark a momentous experience in his career just a few months prior.
I drilled down with him:
“How did you feel during the dinner?”
“Did you enjoy doing it?” “What did you enjoy most?”
“Was the celebration experience exhausting or exhilarating?”
“If you had it to do over again, would you even have had the closing dinner?”
“What did you want for yourself going into that dinner, and did you get it?”
These are not questions we ask ourselves when we are busy playing the roles others have chosen for us or when we are focused on “the next thing.”
When we neglect our own relationship to our life, we forget about how it, like any instrument of value, needs care. Otherwise, like a neglected car, the relationship to our life sludges up, causing us to use up enormous energy for the simplest tasks, and finally breaks down, out on a desolate ridge, far from the nearest town and telephone. Then we discover it is a long, long walk back home to ourselves.
This is why, after decades of ignoring our own lives, the subtle ache for a life that matters grows into a roar we can no longer ignore. It comes from realizing we are missing our own lives. Deep inside we know that our own voice is going unheard while we pander to the demands of others, forgetting that we are the only audience our life really needs.
I have coached more than 900 professionals who have finally decided not to leave themselves out of their own lives anymore.
Sometimes they come because a huge event has nearly toppled their life … an unexpected career transition or looming retirement, the sudden death of a parent or good friend, a divorce. But most often it is simply a simmering feeling of discontent. They tell me they have no idea how they got to this point, how they forgot to dream anymore, when they stopped being present in their own lives. Some of them just want to escape the tedious routine of a life imposed by others, to break out of their ruts, to have fun again.
Perhaps you, like Jeff, realize that behind your ache for something more is a lost self.
Confronting Your Calendar
What would YOUR calendar look like? Do you have startlingly vivid memories to tap into or, like so many, would your mind simply draw a blank?
Spend the next thirty minutes recalling last year. Start anywhere. Pick a month and, without looking at your calendar, try to remember the activities, events and happenings that involved you, your career and your family. How much detail springs forth?
The purpose of this exercise is to see just how much you do not recall (which is the same as not being present in your life), as well as how little you actually do just for yourself.
The goal is to be part of a life that is not driven simply by the roles that you play and the things that you do, but also by the pleasure you actually experience and retain. Eventually, you will have to ask yourself some tough questions about goals, needs, damage done and ways to make it different. But, for the moment, set aside one block of time next week just for you. (Ideally, it would be an entire day, but even one hour will be a beginning.) Really, block it out in your calendar right now and refuse to let anything else bump that block from your schedule.
A full life worth remembering requires cultivation and some fallow time devoted just to ourselves – to restore our spirit, body and mind. Whether you are thirty, forty, fifty or sixty, the time is now. Take one single step by opening the lens to see where your life is focused right now.