On Valuing Your Unique Life Path

I did an inven­to­ry the oth­er day of the kinds of issues clients have brought me over time. Here are some of them:

      • Sur­vival in the role of leader
      • Effec­tive­ness in work­ing with oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly trou­ble­some per­son­al­i­ties, oth­er peo­ple who are in denial, and those who have more power
      • Liv­ing in high con­trol, high risk cultures
      • Try­ing to shift these cul­tures through per­son­al actions and mod­el­ing; being a change agent
      • Feel­ing good about one­self in a role and job, whether it involves lead­ing or not
      • Get­ting things done against the tide of oth­er­s’ agen­das and lack of resources
      • Liv­ing out per­son­al poten­tials in a par­tic­u­lar way (becom­ing an entre­pre­neur, a man­ag­er, a writer or artist, a social activist, etc…)
      • Over­com­ing self-esteem or self-con­fi­dence barriers
      • Rebuild­ing dam­aged or chal­lenged credibility
      • Get­ting through the life ‘funnels” (big deci­sions), wake-up calls and life shocks
      • Address­ing shad­ow issues such as neg­a­tive feed­back, mys­te­ri­ous rela­tion­ships, dis­con­nec­tions, lack of atten­tion, being treat­ed imper­son­al­ly, not hav­ing per­son­al pow­er; mis­use of per­son­al power

What struck me as I looked back over the list was this: they are all issues of a per­son, a leader in dis­tress — issues relat­ed to the ego we are all giv­en, issues of the hubris and self-doubt or self-crit­i­cism that attends the ego — and the need to move out­side that ego com­plete­ly. Essen­tial­ly these are the issues giv­en to us so that we can learn how to ful­ly take on the emo­tion­al chal­lenges of liv­ing who we are, of liv­ing our­selves well, and of find­ing out in a very per­son­al way what it means to lead toward a vision for a bet­ter world.

In this work, although we often wish it were not so, there are few real guides. We most­ly learn from expe­ri­ence, and from com­ing to trust in our own unique paths as indi­vid­u­als, espe­cial­ly as indi­vid­u­als who have assumed a man­tle of respon­si­bil­i­ty. “Our own unique paths as indi­vid­u­als” is an impor­tant phrase because it tes­ti­fies to the need for deep dili­gence and aware­ness in spite of the dif­fi­cul­ties that might come our way. The nat­ur­al thing is to run and hide, for exam­ple through denial or pro­jec­tion of our dilem­mas and prob­lems onto oth­ers, but hon­or­ing a unique life path demands some­thing more.

I was speak­ing with a friend a few days ago, and I asked her, “Where do you see your path tak­ing you? In the end, what do you think is your des­tiny?” She was thought­ful for a moment with this big ques­tion, while I sipped my cof­fee. “I don’t know exact­ly,” she said, “but it is some­place spir­i­tu­al. And it is some­thing I can­not not do. I am on that path, and no mat­ter what I do, it seems to fur­ther it.” This reminds me so much of William Stafford’s poem, The Way It Is, and how he says that we real­ly can­not let go of our indi­vid­ual threads as we get old­er and pass through expe­ri­ence after expe­ri­ence. With­out know­ing too much about Bud­dhism, I might say that this is the actu­al Zen of lead­ing — being a fol­low­er along the path right in front of us.

This is no new thought. Peo­ple have known it for­ev­er. But it bears repeat­ing, does­n’t it, espe­cial­ly when that path is dif­fi­cult or scary, when we find our­selves fac­ing some­thing very chal­leng­ing in our lives and our work? We have to remem­ber how to come down to the ground of being, of mere being, in order to keep going. We have to remem­ber that this is exact­ly what is meant by lead­er­ship, this will­ing­ness to fol­low the path, to go around or through the obsta­cles as we must, to learn from them as we go, and to approach it all with­out pre­tense, with an open mind and heart, even when the path seems to end in a rock wall, or we must ford a treach­er­ous riv­er, or it turns side­ways and goes beyond the edge of the cliff. That makes every chal­lenge essen­tial and the most cre­ative edge of our work.

Five years ago in a post I concluded:

What is the prob­lem? self.

What is the answer? Self.

Today, going back to read these words (which also show up on my lead­er­ship poster), the mean­ing keeps reveal­ing itself. (Was I so smart? No. The words appeared — they were giv­en to me — and I wrote them down. I’ll prob­a­bly be try­ing to under­stand them for the rest of my life.)

And although we will always want to know what the steps are — as if a num­bered list of tips and tech­niques would do — the real les­son, hear­ing those words again, is in accep­tance of the path and lis­ten­ing for the wis­dom that comes from a place well beyond ego. For what­ev­er rea­sons the path I have fol­lowed has asked me and allowed me to help peo­ple by facil­i­tat­ing a small part of their jour­neys, and I’ll tell you some­thing, I feel quite hum­bled by this charge. And if I feel chal­lenged in my own path from time to time, well, what they say is that you can’t help any­one else with a dis­ease you haven’t already been ill with yourself.

And, oh boy, look­ing back over the inven­to­ry list I start­ed from today, do I know what that means!

Technorati Tag: , , and Reflective Leadership. Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • This post, Dan, is a much-need­ed coun­ter­bal­ance to all the “Top 10 How To’s” out there. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for the “how to’s.” But “how to’s” don’t equip us with the courage to fol­low what’s under­neath … in that place that makes sense from the heart, if not always from the head. Fol­low­ing that inner sense may find us buck­ing the “traf­fic” of the world around us. 

    Your post beau­ti­ful­ly artic­u­lates the essen­tial place allow­ing and accept­ing require in our lives if we are to stay the path successfully. 

    Thanks for being the cheer­leader so many of us need!

  • Thank you, Deb. As always, your words and sup­port are so wel­com­ing. It is impor­tant to know there are kin­dred spir­its, and that “stay­ing the path” is some­thing that many under­stand. I’ve been deeply influ­enc­ing by that lan­guage over time, and have a spe­cial con­nec­tion to it here.

  • Dan: I’ve final­ly set aside some qui­et, reflec­tive time … the only kind of time in which I can real­ly appre­ci­ate, apply and respond to your inspir­ing blog posts.

    Reflect­ing on my career(s), I can relate to all of the items in the bul­let list you lead off with above.

    Your invi­ta­tion to deep dili­gence and aware­ness is well put, if not always well received (by me). I was recent­ly offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect on my unique life path, through a recent exchange of com­ments on my 2006 blog post on Dan Gilbert’s book, Stum­bling on Hap­pi­ness.

    The com­menter, who is going through a career tran­si­tion, had stum­bled upon my review after read­ing the book her­self. In reflect­ing and respond­ing to her queries, I went back fur­ther into ear­li­er posts on my own career tran­si­tions, dur­ing which I stayed true to my path, but sought out dif­fer­ent chan­nels (orga­ni­za­tions to sup­port my work) through which to fol­low it.

    Dur­ing a sec­ond exchange on true paths and career tran­si­tions, I acknowl­edged that I was also in a career tran­si­tion at the moment. After­ward, I had an awk­ward sense that I am not cur­rent­ly being true to the wis­dom I had ear­li­er con­nect­ed with. Read­ing your post helps me recon­nect with that wis­dom, and real­ize that I have recent­ly been engaged in what I might [now] call shal­low dili­gence and aware­ness (and per­haps even shad­ow dili­gence) … and that my ego attach­ments — to titles and oth­er forms of exter­nal val­i­da­tion — may well be inter­fer­ing with a recon­nec­tion with my path.

    Thanks for facil­i­tat­ing part of my journey.

  • You have giv­en some of the very nice ideas to increase con­fi­dence and self-esteem. Things which are very impor­tant in every­one’s life, in fact peo­ple are noth­ing with­out these qualities.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.