Find Your Purpose and Power: Rediscovering Your Superhero Self

1041406_30891902Several years ago, pretty much everyone I know became a huge fan of the television series Heroes. The show’s premise is that people all over the world begin discovering that they have superpowers—they can hear thoughts, manipulate the time-space continuum, become strong enough to break through steel bonds, etc. The kinds of things that couldn’t possibly happen on this planet. Except they do. I watch regular people make these kinds of discoveries just about every other Thursday. Here’s a metaphorical but only slightly exaggerated version of my typical coaching process. Some nice, ordinary-looking person comes to me and says, “I’m Clark Kent, I’m Diana Prince—and somehow my life got off course.” Sometimes they say that perhaps in childhood or perhaps at work they zigged when they should have zagged, sailed south when they should have sailed north. “One morning,” they say, “I woke up thinking, ‘Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?'” “The problem isn’t your situation,” I always tell them (because it’s always true). “The problem is your lenses.”

“My lenses?” the person says, looking at me as though the bloom is definitely leaving the rose.

“I mean the way you see,” I explain. “Your psychological perspective.” I don’t mention (yet) that I’m also alluding to Clark Kent’s eyeglasses, which disguised his real identity. I know that whenever I can help an “ordinary person” remove a set of distorting perceptual lenses—zap, pow, shazam!—I’ll see them levitate right off the floor, flexing steely muscles under neon-colored outfits. When this finally happens, it doesn’t surprise me. But it usually shocks the hell out of the client.

“Oh, my God!” says Superman or Wonder Woman. “Who am I? What am I doing? Holy transfiguration, Batman, what should I do next?”

“I have no idea,” I say.

And at that point, we’re finished.

Because I’m not Batman, or the Forecast Phenom, or the Psychedelic Psychic, or whatever. I was born with just one superpower: the ability to see other people’s superpowers. So I can tell you that pretty much everyone (including you) is a superhero, and that every superhero (including you) has an incredibly important life mission. Figuring out what that mission is? That’s up to every individual hero (including you).

I’m telling you all this because recently I coached three women who were unsure of where they were supposed to be in life. Their path forward looked fuzzy. They thought this was because they were in confusing situations. But I saw each woman looking through her own particular sort of distorting lenses; the fuzziness wasn’t in the surroundings but in the way they saw. At moments when your life appears bleak and the way forward indistinct, the same thing is almost certainly happening to you.

Most people try to think their way out of these kinds of problems. From my perspective, however, adding more ideas to these three women’s heads would be like forcing Clark Kent to add assorted sweaters, parkas, and goggles to his nerdy suit and specs. Finding your purpose and power requires stripping certain thoughts away like street clothes until you hit Lycra. My job with the three women I’d be coaching was to help them peel away illusions until their superhero identities emerged. While we’re following their stories, I’ll throw in some hints that may help you, too, take off your “normal” disguise and liberate your true, superhero self.

Ordinary Person #1: The Self-Deprecator

At 48, Jane had spent many years climbing the corporate ladder in a large metropolitan firm in the New York area. Now she was worried that she hadn’t climbed high enough. Her concerns, she wrote, clustered around “the loss of my own independent identity, lack of purpose, squandering valuable and irreplaceable relationships, having plateaued and/or not having accomplished what I believe I should have for my age.”

Jane’s self-description as a low achiever mystified me. Her résumé was impressive, her personality sterling. Right away, I asked her when she’d started feeling anxious about underperforming.

“It was when my friend Larry moved out of the country,” Jane said. “We weren’t a couple, but we were incredibly close. With Larry supporting me, I never doubted myself.”

Since Larry’s departure, Jane hadn’t stopped achieving—if anything, she’d become even more impressive. Yet she focused almost obsessively on her “underachievement.” Like Groucho Marx swearing he’d never join a club that would accept him as a member, Jane never counted as a real accomplishment anything she was able to accomplish. This thought pattern was the set of distorting lenses through which Jane saw herself.

“Jane,” I said, “I’d like to hear the other side of your story. Haven’t there been times you’ve done well at something important?”

“Oh, of course,” said Jane. “Lots of times.”

“Such as?”

“Such as…” Jane stopped.

Long pause.

“Um…”

Very long pause.

Jane laughed again, this time sounding embarrassed. “This is so weird! Why can’t I think of anything?”

“Because you’ve never practiced. You’re so used to downplaying your accomplishments that being proud of yourself is like remembering calculus.”

Then I took a deep breath because I had an Important Concept to convey. “We all have unconscious assumptions about how other people judge us,” I told Jane. “Psychologists call it the ‘generalized other.’ Larry used to dominate your generalized other; when he approved of you, that allowed you to believe you’d done well. Your problem isn’t lack of achievement. It’s waiting for someone else to convince you that your achievements are worthwhile.”

“Huh.” Jane sounded startled.

“Here’s your homework,” I told her. “List 100 things you’ve accomplished that are clearly valuable to you. Not Larry, not anyone else. Just Jane.”

“A hundred things?” Jane repeated, as though I’d asked her to locate a new planet.

“For starters,” I said.

The next time we spoke, Jane had come up with a list of times she’d been praised by others in her company—a small step toward removing her mental distortions, but not enough to reveal Jane’s superhero. Then we had a breakthrough.

“I do stuff outside of work, but it’s strange,” Jane said. “Like skating.”

“Skating?”

“Yeah, a few years ago I decided to start taking skating lessons. I know it’s crazy, and a waste of time, but—”

“Wait a minute. You took up figure skating, and you have no idea why?”

“I know, it makes no sense….”

“Are you kidding?” I cried. “Jane, this is fabulous!”

I should explain why I was so excited, because articulating it might help you discover your own superpowers. Jane’s skating was a perfect example of something I call the R2-D2 effect. R2-D2 was the normally obedient little robot in Star Wars who suddenly “malfunctioned” to deliver a secret message. This is how our superpowers often show up. It may happen to you in large ways or small; you’re just puttering along, then unexpectedly find yourself studying Turkish or buying jodhpurs or moving onto a houseboat. It just seems to happen, the way your heart beats and later your mind notices.

Try making a list of times you had the R2-D2 impulses. (My list includes majoring in Chinese, writing my first book, and beginning to coach.) Focusing on such events will help trigger your superpowers. That’s what happened to Jane.

“So,” I said, “how does skating make you feel?”

“Well, sometimes awful—it’s really hard. But sometimes I get into this zone…. It’s like my mind disappears, and I can fly.”

At this point, I was done discussing Jane’s aspirations for “achievement.” She was achieving beautifully at work and in her relationships, but they weren’t the crucial elements of her life right now. Skating, which liberated her body and soul, was.

“This is wonderful!” I exulted.

“Really?” Jane sounded confused. “But I’m no good, I’m too old. It’s ridiculous.”

“What could be more important than learning to fly?”

I’m continually amazed by the fact that people trash their treasures this way. Our minds fix on socially defined “achievements,” but our real triumphs often happen when an R2-D2 impulse yanks us right off our rails and into rapture.

I don’t know exactly what role skating will play in Jane’s life. Sure, it’ll keep her fit and produce neurochemicals that will continue to make her happy. But more important, skating happens to be the trigger that sets Jane’s superself loose. When she skates, she becomes a conduit from the realm of pure joy into the realm of human experience. That’s why it’s so valuable—not to land Jane a part in the Ice Capades but to open the door to rapture, which she’ll then learn to find in many other ways.

If you, like Jane, feel you haven’t done enough, achieved enough, become enough, you won’t fix the problem by doing more. You’ll need to drop the perceptual lens that says, “Impressing others will make me happy.” A joyful life isn’t about others; it’s about the brightness that is associated with being alive. Your path to it is through anything that replaces thinking with pure flight, pure joy. True, following the R2-D2 response will put you into position to do mighty deeds. But that’s a by-product of embracing joy, whether it comes from skating, quilting, or pickle-making.

Ordinary Person 2: Stymied

You don’t need X-ray vision to see that Maida is brilliant. Articulate, perceptive, and hilarious, she’s the kind of person you’d imagine would have an Oscar® stuffed somewhere in an artfully cluttered home office. Maida’s sister wrote that when she was younger, “sometimes Maida scared me. She’d speak so confidently about her aesthetic vision and philosophy…how she’d take on the world.”

But something went awry. She’d spent the past few years in Austin, Texas, limping along from job to job—office manager at an IT firm, organizer of fairs for inventors—trying to find one that felt right. As Maida wrote: “I’m 41, and I still haven’t figured out what I’m meant to be. I spent parts of the past 20 years working in film because it seemed like the richest, most creative field possible. But I never really found my niche. … I want to make a living doing a job that fits me, but I don’t even know what my job title is, let alone what credentials to get.”

I recognized Maida’s combination of giftedness and aimlessness; some of my favorite people wear similar disguises. I also noticed that, while I loved Maida’s witty, acerbic description of her own career struggles, she tended to talk in circles.

“If you’re going to be creative, you need to do something unprecedented,” Maida said. “But of course, if there’s no precedence for your work, no one accepts it.”

This self-defeating logic is typical of an alter ego I call the Clever Critic. Creative work can be incredibly hard, the odds of failure astronomical. To avoid this grueling, scary road, many geniuses think themselves into paralysis, finding reasons to abort their ideas almost before conceiving them. Maida’s Clark Kent specs were wraparound sunglasses that looked oh so hip but kept her groping around in a very dark world. When I presented this theory, she agreed with me.

“So what should I do?” she said.

“Start working. Immediately. Daily. Religiously.”

“I guess I could write a book,” she said. “I have some ideas.”

“Brilliant! Grab a pen. Start now.”

“But I don’t have the right credentials…,” mumbled Maida, going into her Clever Critic.

“My dear,” I said, “if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone claim to need credentials that definitely aren’t necessary and probably don’t even exist, I could afford enough gum to last me a month.”

That’s a really lame image,” said Maida.

“I know,” I growled. “And do you see that stopping me?”

For the rest of that hour, we discussed several sophisticated, ingenious ideas for Maida’s future books.

“Fabulous,” I told her. “Start writing three pages a day. No excuses.”

The next time we talked, she sounded different: wearier, warier, slightly on edge, like a Chihuahua in cold weather. The voice of a working artist.

“I’m writing,” she said, “but it’s all garbage.”

“Stop criticizing. Keep working.” I knew that the longer Maida focused on her creative vision, instead of her visions of failure, the sooner she’d drop those ridiculous sunglasses and free her superpowers.

Two weeks into her daily writing regimen, Maida’s Clever Critic glasses suddenly cracked. “This would be a lot easier if I hadn’t just quit smoking,” she said. “All I want to do is write is a love letter to cigarettes.”

The hair stood up on my neck. For the first time, Maida’s voice didn’t sound clever; it sounded real. Raw, alive, filled with emotional energy.

“Maida, this is it,” I crowed. “Do you know how many people are trying to quit smoking? Do you know how much they need someone who’s been there to talk them through it? Forget your other books! Write your love letter to cigarettes!”

When an e-mail arrived that very day, I thought Maida’s superhero was unleashed. But no, her message came from the paralyzing Clever Critic. Another author, it appeared, had a new book about quitting cigarettes. “This announcement,” Maida wrote, “has stymied my enthusiasm.” The e-mail I sent back wasn’t gentle: “As your coach (and I mean this lovingly), I am ordering you to cut the crap, cork the dithering in your brain, and write what you were planning to write. Now, soldier!”

And by golly, it worked.

I wish I could include the full text of Maida’s “No Smoking” essay, which explained the difficulty of quitting in terms more vivid than I’d ever heard. Whether or not she knew it, she’d written not only about smoking but about hiding her creative superpowers behind infinite distractions: “All those times we don’t know what to do, all those moments in every day when we need a moment of clarity or meditation, all those times we need so desperately just to fill, are all now as empty and open as promise itself. … Hooray.”

You may be like Maida—who didn’t feel as if she’d gone off course so much as missed finding a course at all. Maybe you feel as if you’ve been wandering in circles forever. As Maida wrote in her smoking piece, you can open to a promising future by dropping all excuses and putting your hopes and talents on the line.

If you wear a Clever Critic outfit over your spandex capes and bulletproof sequins, if you bubble with great ideas that never quite solidify—and always find a good reason they can’t happen—you’re probably wearing blindingly dark lenses. To remove them, stop thinking and start creating. Every day, starting today, write the music, paint the picture, choreograph the dance. I’ll cut you no slack, because I’m one of you. I’m writing this, dizzy with jet lag, between a late-night book signing and an early morning workshop in a foreign country. It’s a hellish schedule—and it’s heaven. Some days the work will go well, other days badly. No matter. You will find your heroic mission eventually, if you Do. The. Work.

Ordinary Person #3: Thinking Small…Too Small

Susan Greenwood’s superpower was evident to me within minutes of calling her at home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her daughter had described Susan, 56, as “a spunky lady—really smart, optimistic, powerful” but drowning in the demands of overly dependent relatives and a work situation that had become problematic. So I expected Susan to sound frazzled, unhappy. Instead, she was so calm that my breathing relaxed at the sound of her voice.

So I knew that Susan’s superhero was a Soother. Susan knew it too. She said so as we discussed the problem that had thrown her career off track. “It’s upsetting,” Susan said, “and I’m so disappointed. I’ve always been able to solve differences peacefully. It’s kind of, you know, my thing.”

As I got to know Susan better and heard more of her life story, I agreed emphatically that calming troubled waters was, indeed, her thing. A lawyer, she’d brought peace to warlike situations all her life, whether dealing with family conflicts or the adversarial legal system. As an African-American, she’d also found herself in countless situations where racial conflict seemed inevitable. Always, she’d handled herself with such grace that the fight went out of everyone, and harmony ruled.

“Once, when I was expecting my daughter, I met a white woman who was dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. I’m fair-skinned, and she obviously didn’t know my ethnic background, because she used the n-word. I told her very politely that she was lucky to be talking to me, and not another person of color, or she might’ve run into a buzz saw.”

That was Susan, communicating kindly, clearly, and drolly about something that would have made anyone else’s blood boil. And yet she still felt stuck. Her distorted lenses were similar to Jane’s, minimizing an awesome superself. Her glasses, however, were like backward binoculars: She saw things accurately but thought they were much smaller than they actually were.

I don’t remember exactly what caused Susan to take off her metaphorical eyeglasses; I was so relaxed I’d stopped taking notes. I recall her saying, “My whole life, my ability to ease people past racial conflict has felt almost like a calling.” Suddenly, I experienced a strange sense of déjà vu. I could hear Susan’s rich, warm voice coming not only through the phone but through microphones, televisions, radios. It was like remembering dozens of inspiring speeches I’d already heard.

“Susan,” I said, “say more about that. Say a lot more.”

As she did, her prim normal-persona glasses, with their shrinking effect, slipped off, and her superhero self began stretching its powerful limbs. Susan’s problems with work or relatives faded from our conversation—these were flyspeck issues compared with the Super Susan’s future adventures. Instead, we explored her lifelong suspicion—no, make that knowledge—that she was meant to be a participant in the healing of what she called “America’s great birth defect,” the legacy of racism. She’d known this for a while, had imagined becoming a social activist, a speaker, a changer of lives and groups. But she’d been imagining it as a small thing, when her heart knew it was meant to be large.

I read Susan one of my all-time favorite quotations, from Marianne Williamson, the one that begins, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” and adds, “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” Susan taped this quotation above her desk. She’s using it as the basis for a new life plan—a plan that will require all Susan’s skill as an attorney, bureaucrat, and superhero healer of conflicts.

Perhaps you, like Susan, feel in your bones that you have a big role to play in the world. But humility or worry may cause you to push the truth away. Your superhero self will feel confined and restless, and this may come out in dozens of small complaints or repeated dissatisfaction. Where Jane had to accept that something unorthodox, like midlife figure skating, could be more powerful than capturing lots of attention at work, Susan had to admit that her destiny will necessitate standing in the spotlight. She’s not doing this for the social cachet; it’s her own R2-D2 effect, an impulse that comes from every cell of her body—and always has—when she drops her “humble” lenses and sees things as they are.

Freeing Your Inner Superhero

So there you have it: My actual life-coaching process, which fits better on the pages of a comic book than a self-help treatise. I worked with Jane, Maida, and Susan for only a month—just enough time to adjust their focus. All three started with firm objectives, which, as I hoped, they almost immediately abandoned. Although these were very different people, with dissimilar superpowers, I did the same thing with all of them, something you can easily do for yourself. Find the places where your beliefs are distorting your vision, and peel away those thoughts like the ill-fitting Clark Kent eyewear they are. Then you’ll be free to embrace the rapture, do the work, accept the hero’s quest.

You and I might not have met, but because of my own superpower, I can tell you this: Your life is not little, and your playing small doesn’t serve the world. Your living large, on the other hand—your being your true self despite fear, fatigue, doubt, and opposition—will serve the world more than you can imagine. In fact, it may help save it. And saving the world, after all, is what all heroes (including you) are here to do.

27 replies
  1. C Eliot
    C Eliot says:

    Yikes! I commit to doing 3 pages daily of my real work for the next 2 weeks. Never managed to take it seriously, though I won scholarships and awards for it.

    Thanks for caring enough to break through.

    Reply
  2. Paula
    Paula says:

    Thanks. I woke up thinking I needed to regroup again with making my transition into writing and this is exactly what I needed to read!!

    Reply
  3. Jeannine
    Jeannine says:

    This definitely speaks to my life story, being female and elderly and perhaps a bit lazy are such good excuses for not living up to my potential now. The decision is made daily to not do what is required for my mission which is shown daily in quite clear ways. Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply
  4. Renee
    Renee says:

    Hi Martha. Thanks for a great article. I am retired and felt lost and confused when I first retired. I finally heard this voice in my head that said just do it. This was after following the suggestions of well meaning relatives for months.
    Well, I finally did it and life does nothing but continue to get better. For some reason others have seen what I missed about myself. First, I am multi talented but always thought I just couldn’t make up my mind. Last night I finally reorganized my life and home so I have rooms to do the crafts and art I planned for years. I have two looms in my living room (39 year/ of weaving) but I never took it seriously because I was never perfect. I now sell my weavings ! I have started making jewelry which I sell successfully and I now practice my flamenco guitar playing twice a day. I feel like I finally accept these quirks for who I am. Yes, the glasses came off and I value what I can do! Your article was so helpful in identifying what I did and discovered. Thank you so much and please, keep writing to us. You are right as we do need help in uncovering the obvious.

    Reply
    • Eliza
      Eliza says:

      Thank you Martha for giving giving me the key….I have been thinking too hard! And thank you Renee for forging the way. (I am in a similar situation.) Have to go…am on my way to wordlessness.

      Reply
  5. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    Good Morning from Canada,
    What a treat to open my email today! Funny thing is last night I dreamed we met in person …(you looked exausted by the way) ….perhaps we saw each other in the Everywhen. Anyhoo what a great Blog! Thoroughly enjoyed it and am now inspired to stop talking in circles and post a sign in my writing room that says “DO THE DAMN WORK.” It continues to amaze me how you manage to describe us wandering souls back to ourselves perfectly….I swear you are talking about me. You really must be a super hero. Thanks, you help me keep my chin up more than you could ever know. Now go take a nap.

    Reply
  6. Mary
    Mary says:

    Renee,

    I have been trying to take myself seriously as a weaver for years. I was on fire during college and decided that was what my life work was going to be. Family, career, life happened and the loom sits. I started workshops so I could teach people how to weave, but there wasn’t time for me to sit and weave. Thanks for posting this as I have been (weaving around) doing all sorts of other things to fill that gap, when I know that I need to throw a shuttle.
    Thanks,
    Mary

    Reply
  7. Alessandra
    Alessandra says:

    Martha! I loved this. Thank you. I absolutely believe we each have our own superpowers and that there’s a lot of negative cultural conditioning that we’ve internalized which we can shed to set ourselves free. So great to think that we can adjust our lens, or our perspective, and bring into focus different things – it’s very empowering. Also, that Marianne Williamson quote is equal parts terrifying and thrilling. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Lorraine Joyce
    Lorraine Joyce says:

    I’m so glad I subscribe to your newsletter. I also read your Facebook page, and never come away without a new insight. Your books are funny, which makes the information slide down easily. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  9. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    I’ve been in hiding so long that I haven’t even wanted to pick up my Oprah magazine for fear of…what? Finding some article – usually yours – that will point out what Marianne says is our greatest fear? Yeah, probably. Luckily you reside somewhere along the path to my Northstar and once again I followed you and I saw it again. EVER so glad you’ve found your true calling because there would be a whole lot of us still dithering around, trying to make the rest of the world happy. With MUCH appreciation, thank you!

    Reply
  10. Tam Raynor
    Tam Raynor says:

    I’m glad I received this in the mail today. I read your book “Finding Your North Star” and it’s helped me tremendously (I think) in pursuing what makes me fly (see my new website). I’m still looking at myself with distorted lenses, though, still holding back like crazy, and this article woke me up again. Thanks for posting your thoughts, I so appreciate it.

    Reply
  11. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    Although I’ve never met you, I really love you Martha! You got some serious style that resonates with me. I’d love for you to help me find my superhero, sounds like we can do it over the phone. Can you send me some details?

    Reply
  12. Angela South
    Angela South says:

    The under achiever scenario has rung so true with me and there were times when I thought that what I was doing was nothing special and anyone could do it.

    It took me a while to realise that it is ok to take a compliment and to acknowledge my achievements no matter how small or insignificant because they are mine and I need to own them and to know what it is that you are good at and most of all what is important and what you want to share with the world as your unique gifts and talents.

    Reply
  13. Usha
    Usha says:

    Grateful hugs for writing this dear beautiful Martha! It is one of my favorite pieces of yours. Thank you for finding and unleashing your superpowers. Amazing writing and powerful insights.

    Reply
  14. Caren
    Caren says:

    Thanks for writing this. As I read I saw some of myself in each clouded lens telling myself that’s why I couldn’t find my cape…then I quickly realized and applauded the skill of my “clever critic!” Looking back the “clever critic” made me the most uncomfortable. Clue #1. Thanks again. Wow, a life free of excuses WHEEE! This is gonna be fun!

    Reply
  15. Sharon Latour STAR 2013
    Sharon Latour STAR 2013 says:

    This is a great gift for
    Christmas 2014!! Big gift! Not a little stocking stuffer.
    Soldier on, dear Martha, Karen and Adam!

    Reply
  16. Therasa
    Therasa says:

    Thank you, Martha and crew for sharing this… truth and magic came at a time when I need it the most. You are deeply appreciated and loved.

    Reply
  17. Kimberly Paul
    Kimberly Paul says:

    Lovely Lady…

    “Because I’m not Batman, or the Forecast Phenom, or the Psychedelic Psychic, or whatever. I was born with just one superpower: the ability to see other people’s superpowers.”

    Loved, Loved. Loved your words today especially the above sentences. Wow.. you moved my soul with these words. Thank you.

    Reply
  18. LynndaMe
    LynndaMe says:

    Thank you Martha! I wanted to cry after reading this because I realized I am the clever critic that kept going around and around in circles chasing its own damn tale. I finally accepted that the distractions were just my way of stopping myself short of all these ideas and half-assed attempts at doing anything I truly in my heart cared about!

    Reply

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