Jim was raw, I could tell. He spoke with hesitation, as if he might cry if he wasn’t careful. Something big was up. He had my full attention.
“You know I’ve been a rebel for a long time,” he said, “You used to coach me about it. It’s changed a little, but apparently not enough.”
“Uh oh. What’s happened, Jim?” I asked, sensing what was coming.
The more Jim held back tears, the more slowly he spoke. “Well… to make a long story short… the unconventional investing I’ve done may result… in the loss of $350k.. and I may be losing… my marriage as well.”
I worked with Jim on and off for years, and in one way I was surprised. But the more I thought about it later, I wasn’t. I’ve seen that sometimes life holds us accountable even when it seems like we deserve a pass. It’s a sobering thought.
Jim closed his business around age sixty-five, and while it never became the success he said he wanted to create, it was a secure and stable income for over thirty years.
Good People Still Need to Change
He is a kind man of high-integrity and standards. He cares deeply about people, and he never stopped learning. But when it came to actually changing, Jim ran into trouble. A great deal of fear ran his life, but he didn’t experience that. He was so much in his head that he didn’t feel how deep that fear went.
He didn’t track the anxiety of asking deep, demanding questions of his managers. He just procrastinated and gave himself reasons not to. He didn’t track the anxiety of engaging the self-interest of his employees. He just conveniently forgot to do it. Things that could be done in days took months (if he did them at all), and so we never got to the deeper work.
When we investigated the cause, we ran into his rebel many times: the part of him that didn’t want to be told what to do, or follow any conventional anything. He loved the idea of what he was learning, but putting into action was an uphill battle. It was really about his unwillingness to be uncomfortable.
The Embodiment Gap
Eventually, Jim saw this himself and gave up gracefully. Rather than push to grow his business 2-3x, he shut it down and downsized it to a hobby. I thought sometimes he was avoiding his inner work, but I respect the decisions of my clients. Maybe he’d gone as far as he could. Such decisions are between my clients and life itself. Who am I to say?
Jim learned a lot over the years, but the gap between what he knew and who he was grew. That’s what I call the “embodiment gap.” What he learned didn’t make him a greater leader; it made him a righteous debater, and he pushed the people he loved away from him. A self-confessed “contrarian,” he stubbornly went his own way, even when it hurt himself and others to do so. He’d been in trouble for not paying taxes before, but still took unconventional risks with his money. From life’s perspective, Jim hadn’t learned his lesson.
Growth Isn’t Optional
Personal growth is perhaps more popular today than in the history of the world. It’s funny how we still see it as some kind of elective privilege. It doesn’t look that way to me. We all have lessons life wants us to learn. They’re easy to see if you know how to look, and they’re not negotiable. We can delay them the same way we can delay paying back a loan—at a cost. Sometimes they act like balloon loans.
I’ve helped many leaders discover and face the issues holding them back. Unfortunately, only the minority rises to meet those challenges unless life spurs them on with a significant amount of motivational pain. My philosophy? Don’t wait for the spurs. Listen to the whisperings of life so it won’t have to kick.
Bring Forth What Is within You
In the lesser-known Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Life dares us to bring forth what is in us. It gives us challenges that require us to dig deep. It doesn’t give us things we’re not ready for, though it often feels like it. If we rise to the occasion, we’re rewarded with natural consequences of our actions. If we dig in our heels in fear and choose comfort over growth, we suffer.
Life Is Your Mentor
Life doesn’t care about your comfort level. Have you noticed? That’s what you care about.
Life, on the other hand, wants all of what’s inside you to come out and see the light of day, and it will use any means necessary to do so. If you understand this, you won’t wonder why bad things happen to good people. You’ll see those “bad” things as brilliant challenges, perfectly designed to elicit and heal the fears of those good people, rather than as some kind of arbitrary punishment.
Life is the best mentor around. Try that perspective on and see what you see. When you can clearly see how life does it, it puts you in a better position to help yourself and others.
The article above was originally posted on Forbes.