I’ve been struggling to make a decision about a rather significant home remodeling project. Should I do it, or not do it – that kind of thing. After weeks of going back and forth and seeking advice from both my personal hive and from internet strangers faced with the same choice, I remain deadlocked. I’ve even dreamt of my decision with both positive and regrettable dreamed outcomes.
I’m perplexed: I make big decisions day in and day out. Why is this particular decision so hard for me to make? I think I might know why: my parents would probably not approve of this decision. They would say what I have is beautiful. That there is no need to change it. That what I’m considering wouldn’t be nicer than what I already have. And they would probably say that I don’t need to spend money on something when there is really no need to.
My parents have been gone from this earth for 23 years now. Twenty-three. And I have lived in this house for 19 years – they never even saw it. Yet their opinion still matters to me even though I know it’s my (very adult) life. Let’s be real here: I don’t really know what their opinion would be because I’m not a medium to speaks to the departed, but I imagine that I know, and it holds me back after all these years.
How often do we make decisions, or fail to make them, because of what someone else thinks? Or even what we imagine that they would? I would guess quite a bit more than most of us would like to admit.
It’s a joy to be surrounded with a loving family and a privilege to enjoy a caring network of friends, neighbors and colleagues who are there for us in good times and tough ones. But its so critically important to know what YOU want, what YOU believe it, what is important to YOU. The opinions of others can hold us back from realizing our dreams, moving forward, feeling lightness and happiness, from fully giving ourselves to what we’re doing now. And who we’re doing it with. This is true at work and in life.
In my work as a business advisor and coach, I sometimes ask people a question that helps me to understand them on a deeper level: “Tell me something about yourself as a child that will help me understand you as an adult now.” I give them no advanced warning on this exercise, so they are reacting in the moment that they are sharing their stories. And the stories are stunning and revealing about the people they have become today and what influenced it:
- One person was only five when she lost her father to suicide and she had to make her own breakfast and dinner every day for years while the rest of the family fell apart. She became self-caring before she even started school.
- One person was an “whoops!” baby at the end of his young parents’ short marriage and spent most of his childhood nights sleeping in the nurse’s breakroom at the hospital where his mom worked third shift. Today he is a CFO, choosing accounting as a major that was most likely to land him his first job and be able to buy a house.
- One person was told by a teacher that he had better avoid a career in science or engineering because he was too dumb for the math requirements. Today he is head of engineering at the company he works for – he really showed him!
- And on and on and on
Though each one of these people is quite obviously accomplished and good at what they do, they are products of so many influences in the lives, as we all are. They used their life’s experiences to motivate and inspire them to be, by all appearances, successful. These influences, the good ones and people who parented and mentored us, but also the tragedies, disappointments and criticism, all helped make us who we are today. I would venture most of us are grateful for all of it because it makes us who we are. But we must also ask ourselves why we are doing, or not doing, things: is it because we have a fundamental belief or knowledge about our decision? Or is it because an outdated belief is holding us back from what would truly make us happy or move us forward?
The next time someone walks into a conference room, think about what her story might be, his trauma, psychological wound, belief about self-worth, or view about what is good and a bias about what isn’t. Leadership, like life, becomes a grand experiment about balancing our own complex mind with the complexities of all those around us. At work, people are so much more than their job descriptions vs ours. In life, people are so much more than a pronoun.
The truth is, we only have one life. They say: this isn’t a dress rehearsal. So from here out, consider saying, “Thank You. I can take it from here” to any influences that don’t, or can’t, serve you well anymore. As for me, I haven’t embarked on that home remodeling project, but it’s because I’m not ready, rather than listening to the cassette tape in my head telling me not to.