There is a popular question I received about my TEDx talk “Do your goals prevent your success?”
In the talk, I explain why ego-driven goals don’t work and why you should follow your inner wisdom, joy and inspiration instead.
The question is:
“What about when you have to do unpleasant things to achieve what you want?” Or a variant:
“What about when the path to your success is a path of nails?”
Well, what would you do if, in nature, you saw a path of nails leading towards, let’s say, a fountain of water? Would you blindly walk through the path of nails?
No, you wouldn’t unless you like walking on nails. You would research an alternative path or a different fountain.
And if there weren’t one, you would use your ingenuity to go through the path of nails without any suffering. You would maybe find a few logs to put on top.
Why, then, in our professional lives, do we inflict so much suffering to ourselves? Is it even worth building a successful business or career if you sacrifice your health and relationships in the process? I do not think it is.
There is a distinction between doing things that take you out of your comfort zone but feel right and things that feel wrong, but somehow you have convinced yourself you need to do them to achieve success.
When you are inspired to stretch your comfort zone, you will feel “uncomfortably excited” or at least “purposefully motivated.” A good challenge feels good, like an interesting hike by the mountains.
But, if it feels awful, like a big sacrifice or yucky in your body, it is time to ask yourself whether you are on the right path.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, but who you are when you do it.” Melanie Ann Layer
We hear stories of success from people who did a lot. What they did felt like flow and fun to them, and that’s why they were successful.
But, instead of looking at how we can be in flow as well, we try to imitate the actions they took.
Someone else’s walk in the park can feel like a path of nails to us.
We push through because we think it is normal to feel horrible when we are up to big things.
And that is precisely what keeps us from succeeding.
To succeed, you need to have consistency, longevity, do great work and be in a magnetic, charismatic energy. The only way to have those is to enjoy what you are doing.
Stop ignoring the way you feel
Imagine you have food that has gone bad in your fridge and smells terrible. You saw on the internet many “fit” people eat food that has gone bad and claim it is the secret to their fit bodies.
Imagine you keep eating spoiled food, getting yourself sick and blaming yourself for not having results.
Nature designed it so that spoiled food feels unpleasant to eat.
It is the same with the stuff we do for work. Learn to trust your intuition.
I have found that when I ignored my internal alarm about certain projects, strategies or collaborators, I have regretted it.
We need to learn to trust our inner guidance system.
If a work strategy feels wrong and makes you miserable, don’t do it. Choose an alternative strategy. Change the goal. If it must be done, see if you can delegate it.
But, please, don’t harm your mental and physical health by choosing to walk on a path of nails when there are other options. It will suck and it will not get you where you want to be.
But what about if we are motivated by a higher purpose, you say?
Well, what if your objective is a higher purpose? Let’s say you want to fundraise one million dollars to give to children in need.
Would it then be worth it to suffer and walk that path of nails? Do work you do not enjoy, damage your health and your relationships from the stress, constantly be in a foul mood and bring everyone around you down?
Compare this to a supermarket cashier or a waiter who did not give anything to charity in their lives. But, they were happy, brightened the day of the thousands of people they came in contact with, and created a haven of love for their family and friends.
What life was better lived?
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman
What if the path of nails is unavoidable?
There are moments when things go wrong. And then you do what you need to do to serve the situation you have at hand.
You accept reality, and you do it with as little resistance and as much grace as possible.
You change the flat tire. You clean up the wet sheets after your child has had an accident. You write the report again after you lose the backup. You take care of your sick parent.
When you decide to take the path of nails because your wisdom tells you it is the best path, you become the best nail-walker the world has ever seen.
You change your thinking, and you actually begin to have fun walking on the nails, the fire or the broken glass.
I should know; I have a firewalker certificate:
“If the path before you is clear, it is probably someone else’s,” said Carl Young.
“As you start to walk on the way, the way appears,” said Rumi.
Learn to listen to your experience more than what the experts say. What worked for others was their path. You will find your path by following what feels right and aligned with you.
Not everything will be easy. Things do go wrong. But you can respond in the best way in the here and now.
You will embrace the normal discomfort of stretching your comfort zone. Or the purposeful determination of going through an unavoidable difficult situation.
And you will learn to listen to the signals your body will give you when you are on the wrong path.
Asking whether the goal is worth it, is rarely the right question. We want to follow a path that is worth it irrespective of the outcome.
I will leave you with an extract from the poem “Ithaka” by Cavafy.
“As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you…
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”