Happy New Year, Everybody!

Okay, folks, you know me too well to think I’d let New Year’s Eve pass without making a fuss over resolutions. I LOVE New Year’s resolutions! However, I do not love social-self rigidity, white-knuckle compliance, or devotion to things that fail to contribute to your absolute happiest existence. I’m here to challenge you to make resolutions that really will change your life in a very good way.

Here’s the recipe for a truly terrific New Year’s resolution:

1. Feel for your future happiness. Get still, clear out the din of other people’s voices in your mind, and let yourself know what your heart is doing. Find the things it yearns for. They might seem impossible, or silly, or ignoble, or presumptuous, or selfish, or wicked. I DON’T CARE. YOUR HEART’S YEARNING IS YOUR DESTINY!

2. Once you’ve identified what you yearn for, resolve to receive it. THIS IS THE ONLY RESOLUTION YOU NEED FOR 2008.

3. Every day, for at least 5 minutes, sit quietly and pretend that you already have whatever it is your heart is yearning for. Actually, I’d prefer it if you did this little visualization many many times every day. But 5 minutes is better than nothing.

4. After picturing your desire fulfilled, completely let go of the image and return to the absolute present—this moment, not next week or next day or next instant, but THIS MOMENT.

5. Whatever is happening in this moment, accept it completely. If you are grieving, grieve wholeheartedly, and accept the grieving. If you are enraged, be fully enraged, and okay with it. If you’re bored, accept the boredom. Say “Yes” to the mess, whatever the mess is in your life.

6. Feel as much gratitude as you can for this moment (even if it seems awful), and for the fulfillment of your heart’s desires (even if it seems impossible).

Those of you who’ve read Finding Your Own North Star may recognize this as similar to Wildly Improbable Goals. It is—but I’ve refined the technique as I’ve experimented and learned. This kind of resolution-making is like magic. Try it for a year, and see!

May joy, excitement, fulfillment, contentment, and adventure fill this year for each of you!

Martha

How to Be Wildly Successful

1446406_66287862It was a problem I’d never anticipated: My brainy daughter was having trouble in school. Katie began teaching herself to read at 15 months and tested at a “post–high school” level in almost every subject by fourth grade. Yet her middle-school grades were dropping like a lead balloon, and her morale along with them. I cared more about the morale than the grades. I knew Katie was quickly losing something educational psychologists call her sense of self-efficacy—her belief that she could succeed at specific tasks and life in general. People who lack this trait tend to stop trying because they expect to fail. Then, of course, they do fail, feel even worse, shut down even more, and carry on to catastrophe.

I couldn’t understand what put Katie on this slippery slope. True, some people seem genetically inclined to believe in themselves—or not—but experience powerfully influences our sense of self-efficacy. I knew Katie had been confident as a preschooler, but her current trouble at school was destroying her optimism. I tried to help in every way I could. I created homework-checking systems, communicated with teachers like bosom buddies, doled out penalties and rewards. Mostly, though, I just kept cheering Katie on. I was sure that if she would stop hesitating, believe in herself, and just throw herself into the task at hand, she’d get past the problem.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

It took years of confidence-battering struggle—for both Katie and me—before I finally got the information I needed. It came from a no-nonsense bundle of kindly energy named Kathy Kolbe, a specialist on the instinctive patterns that shape human action. Kathy’s father pioneered many standardized intelligence tests, but Kathy was born with severe dyslexia, which meant that this obviously bright little girl didn’t learn in a typical way. She grew up determined to understand and defend the different ways in which people go about solving problems.

The day Katie and I met her, Kathy was wearing a T-shirt that said “do nothing when nothing works,” a motto that typifies her approach. On her desk were the results from the tests (the Kolbe A and Y Indexes) that my daughter and I had just taken to evaluate our personal “conative styles,” or typical action patterns.

“Well,” said Kathy, glancing at a bar graph, “I see you both listen better when you’re drawing.”

Katie and I stared at each other, astonished. Bull’s-eye.

“And you’ve both had a zillion teachers tell you to stop drawing. They said you could do only one thing at a time, but that’s not true for you two, is it? You have a hard time focusing if there’s nothing to occupy your eyes and hands.”

Unexpectedly, I found myself tearing up with gratitude. I’d never realized how frustrated I’d been by the very situation Kathy was describing. Katie sat up a little straighter in her chair.

“But,” Kathy went on, “Martha, you go about problem-solving in a different way from Katie. There are four basic action modes, and you’re what I call a Quick Start. When you want to learn, you just jump in and start messing around.”

Another bull’s-eye. I cannot count the times I’ve been defeated, humiliated, or physically injured immediately after saying the words, “Hey, how hard can it be?” But that never seems to stop me from saying them again.

“Now,” Kathy went on, “Katie’s not a Quick Start. She’s a Fact Finder. Before she starts a task, she needs to know all about it. She needs to go through the instructions and analyze them for flaws, then get more information to fill in the gaps.”

To my amazement, my daughter nodded vigorously. I’ve never understood why some people hesitate before diving into unfamiliar tasks or activities. I couldn’t imagine wanting more instructions about anything.

“There are two other typical patterns,” Kathy explained. “The people I call Implementors—like Thomas Edison, for example—need physical objects to work with. They figure out things by building models or doing concrete tasks. Then there are the Follow Thrus. They set up orderly systems, like the Dewey decimal system or a school curriculum.

“And that, Katie,” she said, “is why you’re having trouble. The school system was created mainly by people who are natural Follow Thrus. It works best for students with the same profile. Your teachers want you to fit into the system, but you have a hard time seeing how it works. If you question the instructions—which you absolutely need to do—they think you’re being sassy.”

Katie nodded so hard I feared for her cervical vertebrae. I was stunned. I’d spent years trying to understand my daughter, and a veritable stranger had just nailed the problem in ways I’d never even conceptualized. Katie wanted more instructions? You could have knocked me down with a feather.

Basic Instinct

I’ve told this story in detail because since meeting Kathy, studying her work, and seeing how dramatically it affects people and their productivity, I’ve become convinced that many of us feel like failures because we don’t recognize (let alone accept) that our instinctive methods of acting are as varied as our eye color. Our modus operandi shapes the way we do everything: make breakfast, drive, learn math. Not recognizing natural differences in our conative styles—assuming instead that we’re idiots because we do things unconventionally—can destroy that precious sense of self-efficacy.

Imagine a race between four animals: an otter, a mole, a squirrel, and a mouse. They’re headed for a goal several feet away. Which animal will win? Well, it depends. If the goal is underground, my money’s on the mole. If it’s in a tree? Hello, Mr. Squirrel. Underwater, it’s the otter. And if the goal is hidden in tall grass, the mouse will walk away with it. Now, all these animals can swim, dig, climb, and find things in the grass. It’s just that each of them does one of these things better than the others. Putting all four animals in a swimming race, say, would lead to the conclusion that one was better than the others, when the truth is simply that their innate skills are different.

If we’re in an environment (such as school, a job, or a family tradition) that asks us to act against our natural style, we feel uncomfortable at best, tormented at worst. Even if we manage to conform, we don’t get a high sense of self-efficacy because although we’ve managed the efficacy part of the equation, we’ve lost the self. When we fail, we feel like losers; when we succeed, we feel like impostors.

Thanks to Kathy’s work (and centuries of psychological work on conation), I’ve stopped asking others to match my instinctive style. I no longer expect squirrels to swim and otters to climb trees. As a result, I’m better able to support myself, my children, and everyone else I know. Here’s a quick primer on how you can do the same:

Accept that you have an inborn, instinctive style of action

Just learning that there are four distinct patterns of action was a huge aha for me. When Katie and I accepted that we simply had different ways of doing things, our relationship and her confidence began to improve immediately. To identify your own action-mode profile, you can take a formal online test (the Kolbe Index at kolbe.com; there is a charge), or just observe your own approach to getting something done. To give you an example, people with different profiles might respond to a challenge—let’s say, learning to crochet—in the following ways:

  • Quick Start: If you’re a Quick Start who wants to crochet, you’ll probably buy some yarn and a hook, get a few tips from an experienced crochetmeister, and jump right into trial and error.
  • Fact Finder: You’ll spend hours reading, watching, asking questions, and learning about crocheting before actually beginning to use the tools.
  • Implementor: You pay less attention to words than to concrete objects, so you might draw a pattern of a crochet stitch or even create a large model using thick rope, before you go near a needle.
  • Follow Thru: You’ll likely schedule a lesson with a crochet teacher or buy a book that proceeds through a yarn curriculum, learning new stitches in order of difficulty.

None of these approaches is right or wrong. They can all succeed brilliantly. But someone who’s programmed to use one style will feel awkward and discouraged trying to follow another. We can all master each style if we have to, the way a mole can swim or an otter can climb trees, but it’s not a best-case scenario.

So I finally stopped pressuring Katie to act like her Follow Thru teachers or her Quick Start mother. Instead I helped her find detailed information and gave her time to absorb it. She recently devoured a 1,000-page book on Web site design that I would not read if the alternative were death on the rack. It took her a month to finish the book. The next day, she made a Web site. Spooky.

Play to your strengths

Once you know your instinctive style, brainstorm ways to make it work for you, not against you. For starters, choose fields of endeavor where you feel comfortable and competent. If you love systematic structure, don’t become a freelancer. If you are crazy about physical models, don’t force yourself to crunch financial statistics for a living.

To really boost your sense of self-efficacy, think of ways you could modify your usual tasks to suit your personal style. For example, Kathy suggested that Katie might ask for permission to do detailed research reports in place of other school assignments. I nearly threw up at the very thought, but to my astonishment Katie agreed enthusiastically.

Of course, you’ll inevitably interact with people whose instinctive patterns are different from yours. Otter, Mole, Squirrel, and Mouse may all show up in the same family, workplace, or book club. Occasionally, it’s fine to conform, using styles of action that don’t come naturally—but do it consciously and for a limited time, or your sense of self-efficacy will suffer. And finally…

Team up with unlike others

As long as Otter, Mole, Squirrel, and Mouse are forced to race in the same terrain, at least three of them will be out of their element, looking and feeling like failures. But think what they could do if they pooled their skills. They could access resources from the water, earth, trees, and fields, combining them in ways none of the animals could achieve alone. They could rule the world! (Or at least the backyard.)

This is the very best way to leverage an understanding of conative style—to create useful, complementary strategies instead of disheartening, competitive ones. Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to be what we’re not, feeling lousy about ourselves when we fail and sometimes even when we succeed. We hide our differences when, by accepting and celebrating them, we could collaborate to make every effort more exciting, productive, enjoyable, and powerful. Personally, I think we should start right now. I mean, hey, how hard can it be?

The Joy Diet: A Brief Guide to Feasting on Life

985571_59850291I had just traveled home from Singapore to attend my sister’s wedding. Now, a week later, I was back in Asia. My circadian rhythm was bewildered by two massive time-zone changes, so I was pleased to stumble across a magazine article about overcoming jet lag. The key, it said, was scheduling food intake. Travelers are supposed to eat at certain times and strictly abstain from food the remainder of the day. The article listed “feast/fast” schedules for several travel itineraries. I eagerly looked up mine. The chart said something like “feast, fast, feast, fast, fast, feast,” as if the author were sending a message in some kind of dietetic Morse code. But in my bleary-eyed incoherence, I misread the words. I thought the prescription said “feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast.” 

I felt a spontaneous smile ripple through my whole body. I was authorized for constant feasting! As an American female, I was accustomed to thinking that the occasional ounce of chopped celery was a righteous and appropriate diet. The word feast brought back memories of childhood Thanksgivings, when I was too young to be diet conscious; the lovely chaos of sounds, sights, and aromas that swirled around me as my enormous family sat down at a heavily laden table. Those feasts had been loud and obstreperous and wonderful, and I had given them up for lost. 

Within a few seconds, I realized that I’d misread the jet lag article. No, I did not have permission to indulge myself in nonstop feasts. I remember sighing with disappointment, but even so, something had changed. For the first time in years, I’d allowed myself to picture life full of feasts, and that glimpse was so seductive that it never completely faded. It took another decade or so, but I finally decided that I not only could but should “feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast.” 

Now I live that way all the time. I don’t mean that I never stop eating. I mean that every day I remind myself to return to the spirit of feasting. This is part of a program I call the Joy Diet, a regimen designed not for the body but for the inner self (the word diet originally didn’t mean an eating program; it was a way of living). To go on the Joy Diet, you add certain simple behaviors to your daily routine, practices that will improve your life whether you’re feeling just a bit dreary or utterly confined to the pits. Feasting (Joy Diet–style) means adding an element of attention and structure to events that otherwise might slip by as too ordinary for comment. Doing this can turn the most ordinary situations into celebrations. 

How to Throw a Feast

The most common definition of the word feast, of course, is a large meal. Most Joy Diet feasts, however, don’t involve food, and a big bunch o’ food won’t always qualify as a Joy Diet feast. A compulsive eating binge, for example, is the opposite of feasting. It is isolating and tasteless and sickening; it robs delight from both the senses and the soul. On the other hand, hearing a symphony or touching the curve of your lover’s elbow could definitely count as a feast, provided that you pay the right kind of attention. 

It helps to perform some kind of ritual that will direct your attention to the symbolic significance of your actions. A ritual, however simple, creates a border around an activity the way a frame does around a picture. It sets this activity apart from regular life in a way that emphasizes beauty and uniqueness, ensuring that those who participate in it become more aware of its meaning. 

I’ve watched my own children, who grew up with very little ritual, develop their own ways of formalizing celebration, as though the need to do this came precoded in their brains. One year, while learning the distinction between Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, the kids asked me about their own ethnic heritage. I explained that their ancestors were Celtic and Scandinavian, so we should probably observe the winter solstice, maybe by—I dunno—wearing Viking helmets, painting our faces blue, and eating venison. I was joking, but my children were so entranced by this idea that we actually started doing it (though we substitute steaks for wild game). This is now one of our family’s cherished yearly rituals, one that strengthens our bonds to one another by reinforcing other people’s belief that we are insane. 

You probably perform dozens of small rituals already, whether you realize it or not. For example, you may follow the same pattern of actions every night before you go to sleep, when you drink a cup of coffee, or when you exercise. 

If the most meaningful rituals you already observe involve preparing the washer for the addition of fabric softener, you might want to add some with a bit more psychological oomph. Here are some suggestions for ritualizing, and thereby feast-ifying, some ordinary events that can and should be extraordinary.

Feasting On Food

Though the Joy Diet isn’t a typical food regimen, it does have two strict rules about eating. They are: 

1. You must eat only what you really enjoy. 
2. You must really enjoy everything you eat. 

This means that if you want a fudge sundae and you substitute raw broccoli, you’re totally blowing your diet. On the other hand, if you’re happily inhaling your sundae and you start to feel uncomfortably full, the Joy Diet requires that you stop eating immediately. 

I settled on these two rules to normalize my own eating, which, believe me, was no easy task. Having danced a few youthful numbers with an eating disorder, I’ve done plenty of fasting, as well as my share of uncontrollable bingeing. When I first considered obeying my natural appetite, it sounded like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse. I expected to stuff myself so unstintingly that I’d end up the size of a municipal library. But after years of apprehensive experimentation, I realized that my body just wanted to establish its ideal weight and eating patterns. 

True, for a while I ate enough chocolate to cause a price spike in the world cocoa market, but this was not so much my body’s wish as a psychological reaction to denying myself yummy things for years. I believe that our psychology—and also our body chemistry—wants us to hoard whatever pleasures seem to be in short supply. Starve yourself, and your body will want to binge. Then it will store every calorie as fat, bracing itself for the next period of famine. On the other hand, if you give yourself permission to eat whatever truly makes you feel good, you may be surprised by how dietetically correct your body wants to be. Pediatricians tell us that left to their own devices, children will choose a balanced, healthy diet. Adults will do the same—unless they are eating for reasons other than physical hunger. 

If you are using food to soothe feelings other than hunger, you won’t be able to tell what your body really wants, or to really enjoy what you eat. The rest of the Joy Diet will help you address the psychological issues that may result in this kind of emotional eating. Once you’ve resolved those issues, eating what you enjoy and enjoying what you eat can turn the simplest meal into a festive event. At each meal, feed your body what it requests, without judgment or stinginess. Spend an extra buck on a really satisfying snack, rather than a cheaper but less tasty substitute. Get the original-recipe treat instead of the gritty, boring, low-fat foodlike product sitting next to it. Keep asking your body—it will tell you exactly what it prefers. 

Feasting On Beauty

Food-feasts are particularly gratifying to the senses of taste and smell. However, the Joy Diet encourages you to indulge in feasts for the other senses as well. We usually apply the term beautiful to things that appeal either to our eyes or our ears. Seeking these kinds of delights is what I call a beauty-feast. 

I had a beauty-feast right after my first book tour, a grueling affair that involved discussing the book I’d written until I hated to talk about it. By the tour’s end, the thought of saying another word made me want to hurl myself into a volcano. I retreated home with just one thought in my head: orange. I don’t mean the fruit, or even the word orange. I was obsessed with the color. I was entranced by sunsets and poppies, but also by traffic cones and bags of Chee-tos. I bought a canvas and spent several days painting it with orange of every tone and hue, parking myself in the visual right side of my brain while my verbal left side recharged its batteries. It was one long, delicious feast for my eyes, and a much-needed rest for what little was left of my mind. 

A visual beauty-feast can be even more enthralling if you add auditory pleasures, such as music, the thunder of waves, or crickets’ song. 

It’s amazing how long we may go without feasting on things we find beautiful. We may own dozens of CDs and a great sound system but virtually never listen to our favorite music. We hate the mustard color of the bathroom but never get around to painting it our favorite shade of periwinkle. I often force clients—not at gunpoint, but almost—to revisit and reclaim the things they find most beautiful. When they seek out beauty for their daily feast requirement, the world abruptly becomes more vivid, often breath-snatchingly lovely.

Feasting On Feeling

So far we’ve covered four senses: taste, smell, sight, and hearing. The remaining sense, touch, can provide the most amazing feasts yet. Leading the list of tactile feasts is good sex—need I say more? A luxurious massage can be added to or substituted for this kind of pleasure, depending on your state of mind and social calendar. Then there are other spa-type activities: facials, manicures, elaborate baths. Just making sure you have appealing textures next to your skin can make the day feel festive. Flannel pajamas are a feast for a tired hide. So are fuzzy slippers or your favorite old T-shirt. 

There’s a sort of feeling called proprioception, the sensitivity that tells you how your body is positioned and how it’s moving. Just lying down and relaxing can be a feast for the body, especially if you can get away with doing it for a few minutes in the middle of the day. Stretching, scratching, skipping, dancing—anything that moves your body in a pleasurable way can be a feast. 

Another entry I’d put in this feasting category is that sublime nourishment, sleep. Our economy loses billions every year because of problems caused by widespread, chronic sleep deprivation. I myself slept for approximately 15 minutes between 1986 (when I started graduate school and had my first baby) and 1993 (when I finished my degree and sent my youngest child to preschool). Since then I’ve slept pretty much continuously. If your lifestyle doesn’t permit you to sleep until you feel rested, commit to changing it. If you have insomnia, see a doctor. Reclaim naps not as the refuge of the lazy but as the birthright of every creature able to snooze. There may still be times when you won’t be able to have as many sleep-feasts as you want, but these should be rare. 

Feasting On Love

In the end, there is one sort of feast that eclipses all the other kinds put together, and that is a feast of love. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, keep searching until you do. There are as many different love-feasts as there are moments when one person reaches out to another, and all of them are wonderful. 

To me a feast of love is any instant (or hour or lifetime) when human beings exchange affection. I see my 14-year-old son and his friends giving each other gentle punches on the arm; that’s a love-feast. A client tells me that I actually helped, and I tell him it was his doing, not mine; that’s a love-feast, too. A crowd shows up to cheer for the runners in a marathon, and the runners wave back. Massive love-feast. It’s true that sometimes we head hopefully toward what we think will be a love-feast, offer our hearts, and meet rejection. It’s true that this hurts. But you’ll find that love-feasts are so incredibly nourishing to your soul that it’s worth the risk of heartbreak to attend even the smallest or most crowded one around. 

Here are some ways to make sure you never miss a love-feast you could have attended. (1) In Benjamin Franklin’s words, “If you would be loved, love and be lovable.” Love-feasts are always potlucks: Each person must bring the ability to love, somehow, some way. If you’re waiting for someone else to supply 100 percent of the love you need, find a therapist who’s willing to accept reciprocation in the form of cash. (2) Don’t hide love. If you feel it, express it—not to demand that others love you back, but simply to live outwardly the best of what you feel inwardly. The worst that can happen to your heart is not rejection by another person but failure to act on the love you feel. (3) If you have a choice between a feast of love and any other option, go with love. 

Compared to other activities, love-feasts will mess up your life, complicate your career, wear you out, make you crazy. But I guarantee that when you look back over the time you’ve spent on earth, the feasts of love will be the events you’ll remember most joyfully, the experiences that will make you glad you have lived. 

Consciously choosing to have at least three square feasts a day may simply cause you to notice the sacred and wonderful ceremonies that already fill your life. Or it may remind you to discover and enjoy things you would otherwise never experience. Either way, it will ensure that you have a more joyful, balanced life, a life lived in the conscious pursuit of your dearest longings and grandest hopes. Now, that’s what I call a healthy diet. 

Growing Wings: The Power of Change

I used to think I knew how some caterpillars become butterflies. I assumed they weave cocoons, then sit inside growing six long legs, four wings, and so on. I figured if I were to cut open a cocoon, I’d find a butterfly-ish caterpillar, or a caterpillar-ish butterfly, depending on how far things had progressed. I was wrong. In fact, the first thing caterpillars do in their cocoons is shed their skin, leaving a soft, rubbery chrysalis. If you were to look inside the cocoon early on, you’d find nothing but a puddle of glop. But in that glop are certain cells, called imago cells, that contain the DNA-coded instructions for turning bug soup into a delicate, winged creature—the angel of the dead caterpillar.

If you’ve ever been through a major life transition, this may sound familiar. Humans do it, too—not physically but psychologically. All of us will experience metamorphosis several times during our lives, exchanging one identity for another. You’ve probably already changed from baby to child to adolescent to adult—these are obvious, well-recognized stages in the life cycle. But even after you’re all grown up, your identity isn’t fixed. You may change marital status, become a parent, switch careers, get sick, win the lottery.

Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self will require not just small adjustments in your way of living and thinking but a full-on metamorphosis. I don’t know if this is emotionally stressful for caterpillars, but for humans it can be hell on wheels. The best way to minimize trauma is to understand the process.

The Phases of Human Metamorphosis

Psychological metamorphosis has four phases. You’ll go through these phases, more or less in order, after any major change catalyst (falling in love or breaking up, getting or losing a job, having children or emptying the nest, etc.). The strategies for dealing with change depend on the phase you’re experiencing. 

Phase 1: Dissolving (aka Death & Rebirth)

Here’s the Deal
The first phase of change is the scariest, especially because we aren’t taught to expect it. It’s the time when we lose our identity and are left temporarily formless: person soup. Most people fight like crazy to keep their identities from dissolving. “This is just a blip,” we tell ourselves when circumstances rock our world. “I’m the same person, and my life will go back to being the way it was.”

Sometimes this is true. But in other cases, when real metamorphosis has begun, we run into a welter of “dissolving” experiences. We may feel that everything is falling apart, that we’re losing everyone and everything. Dissolving feels like death, because it is—it’s the demise of the person you’ve been.

What to Do
When we’re dissolving we may get hysterical, fight our feelings, try to recapture our former lives, or jump immediately toward some new status quo (“rebound romance” is a classic example). All these measures actually slow down Phase One and make it more painful. The following strategies work better:

In Phase 1, Live One Day (or 10 minutes) at a Time 
Instead of dwelling on hopes and fears about an unknowable future, focus your attention on whatever is happening right now. 

“Cocoon” by Caring For Yourself in Physical, Immediate Ways 
Wrap yourself in a blanket, make yourself a cup of hot tea, attend an exercise class, whatever feels comforting. 

Talk to Others Who Have Gone Through a Metamorphosis 
If you don’t have a wise relative or friend, a therapist can be a source of reassurance. 

Let Yourself Grieve 
Even if you are leaving an unpleasant situation (a bad marriage, a job you didn’t like), you’ll probably go through the normal human response to any loss: the emotional roller coaster called the grieving process. You’ll cycle through denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance many times. Just experiencing these feelings will help them pass more quickly. 

If you think this sounds frustratingly passive, you’re right. Dissolving isn’t something you do; it’s something that happens to you. The closest you’ll come to controlling it is relaxing and trusting the process.

Phase I Mantra

“I don’t know what the hell is going on… and that’s okay.”

Phase 2: Imagining (aka Dreaming and Scheming)

Here’s the Deal
For those of us who have just a few tiny control issues, Phase 2 is as welcome as rain after drought. This is when the part of you that knows your destiny, the imago in your psyche, will begin giving you instructions about how to reorganize the remnants of your old identity into something altogether different.

The word imago is the root of the word image. You’ll know you’re beginning Phase 2 when your mind’s eye starts seeing images of the life you are about to create. These can’t be forced—like dissolving, they happen to you—and they are never what you expected. You’re becoming a new person, and you’ll develop traits and interests your old self didn’t have. You may feel compelled to change your hairstyle or wardrobe, or redecorate your living space. The old order simply seems wrong, and you’ll begin reordering your outer situation to reflect your inner rebirth.

What to Do
Here are some ways you may want to respond when you begin spontaneously imagining the future: 

Create a “Vision Board” 
Cut Out Magazine Pictures You Find Appealing or Interesting. Glue them onto a piece of butcher paper. The resulting collage will be an illustration of the life you’re trying to create. Look at the images and “feel them” or imagine yourself experiencing them for up to 10 minutes everyday. 

Let Yourself Daydream 
Your job is to try out imaginary scenarios until you have a clear picture of your goals and desires. You’ll save a lot of time, effort, and grief by giving yourself time to do this in your head before you attempt it in the real world. 

Phase 2 is all about images: making them up, making them clear, making them possible. Moving through this stage, you’ll start to feel an impulse to go from dreaming (imagining possibilities) to scheming (planning to bring your vision to fruition). Write down both dreams and schemes, then gather information about how you might create them. 

Phase 2 Mantra

“There are no rules… and that’s okay.”

Phase 3: Re-forming (aka The Hero’s Saga)

Here’s the Deal
As your dreams become schemes, you’ll begin itching to make them come true. This signals Phase 3, the implementation stage of the change process. Phase 3is when you stop fantasizing about selling your art and start submitting work to galleries, or go beyond ogling a friend’s brother to having her set you up on a date. You’ll feel motivated to do real, physical things to build a new life. And then…(drum roll, please)…you’ll fail. Repeatedly.

I’ve gone through Phase 3many times and watched hundreds of clients do the same. I’ve never seen a significant scheme succeed on the first try. Re-forming your life, like anything new, complex, and important, inevitably brings up problems you didn’t expect. That’s why, in contrast to the starry eyes that are so useful in Phase 2, Phase 3 demands the ingenuity of Thomas Edison and the tenacity of a pit bull.

What to Do
Expect Things To Go Wrong 
Many of my clients have an early failure and consider this a sign that “it just wasn’t meant to be.” This is a useful philosophy if you want to spend your life as person soup. To become all that you can be, you must keep working toward your dreams even when your initial efforts are unsuccessful. 

Be Willing to Start Over 
Every time your plans fail, you’ll briefly return to Phase 1, feeling lost and confused. This is an opportunity to release some of the illusions that created hitches in your plan. 

Revisit Phase 2 
Adjusting your dreams and schemes to include the truths you’ve learned from your experimentation. 

Persist 
Keep debugging and reimplementing your new-and-improved plans until they work. If you’ve followed all the steps above, they eventually will.

What goes on in the cocoon of change isn’t always pretty, but the results can be beautiful. Martha Beck talks you through the four phases of human metamorphosis. Get ready to fly!

Phase 3 Mantra

“This is much worse than I expected… and that’s okay.”

Phase 4: Full Flight (aka The Promised Land)

Here’s the Deal
Phase 3 is like crawling out of your cocoon and waiting for your crumpled, soggy wings to dry and expand. Phase 4 is the payoff, the time when your new identity is fully formed and able to fly.

What to Do
The following strategies—which can help you optimize this delightful situation—are about fine-tuning, not drastic transformation. 

Enjoy! 
You’ve just negotiated a scary and dramatic transformation, and you deserve to savor your new identity. Spend time every day focusing on gratitude for your success. 

Make Small Improvements 
Find little ways to make your new life a bit less stressful, a bit more pleasurable. 

Know That Another Change is Just Around the Bend 
There’s no way to predict how long you’ll stay in Phase 4; maybe days, maybe decades. Don’t attribute your happiness to your new identity; security lies in knowing how to deal with metamorphosis, whenever it occurs.

Phase 4 Mantra

“Everything is changing… and that’s okay.” 


This is a foundational concept to my life coach training program.  All of my life coaches are trained to understand and coach their clients through the change cycle. You can read more about it in my book, Finding Your Own North Star, or understand it and work through it with one of my Martha Beck Life Coaches.

Big Dreams: Setting & Achieving Wildly Improbably Goals

Woman ClimbingI was 13, doing my homework in front of my family’s broken-down television, when I felt strangely compelled to look up at the screen. It showed an athlete running around an indoor track. I heard myself say out loud, “That’s where I’m going to college.” A split second later the TV narrator’s voice came on: “Here at Harvard University’s athletic center…” My heart stopped. Not in my most fevered dreams had I ever considered applying to an Ivy League school. Such behavior would be unusual, if not downright bizarre, for a girl from my deeply conservative Utah town. Besides, going to Harvard required several thousand times more brains, talent, and money than I would ever have. On the other hand, I felt the truth of my own strange words in the marrow of my bones. Okay, I thought nervously, maybe going to Harvard isn’t utterly unthinkable. Maybe it’s just barely, barely possible. Right there, in front of the TV, I surrendered to the first of what I would one day call my Wildly Improbable Goals (WIGs, for short). 

Decades later I have a couple of Harvard diplomas stuck in a closet, and a happy expectation that sometime soon another WIG is going to pop, unbidden, into my consciousness. I’ve watched this happen repeatedly, not only to me but to loved ones and clients. I suspect it may have happened to you, too. Perhaps it was just a flicker of thought that transported you for a moment, before you dismissed it as nonsense. Maybe it’s a dream that simply will not let go of you, no matter how often you tell yourself not to hope for anything so big, so unlikely. Or it may be an ambition you’ve already embraced, even though everyone else thinks you need serious medication. In any case, learning to invite and accept your own WIG can awaken you to a kind of ubiquitous, benevolent magic, a river of enchantment that perpetually flows toward your destiny.

Time travel 
I might as well admit what I believe about these minor prophecies I call WIGs. I suspect they’re not so much mental constructs as literal glimpses of the future. I stand behind Albert Einstein’s comment that “people like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Physics tells us that time can be stretched or compressed like Silly Putty, and I am just woo-woo enough to believe that we humans might sometimes sense truths that are ordinarily veiled by our assumptions or self-imposed rules.

Prescience—knowing about events that haven’t yet occurred—is not altogether foreign to behavioral science. In one study, experimenters showed test subjects a series of images, including both pleasant pictures and violent or otherwise emotional ones. The researchers were not surprised to find that the subjects’ blood pressure and heart rate increased in response to the upsetting images. They had not anticipated, however, that this reaction would occur seconds before the subjects saw the violent pictures—a result that has been replicated in other studies but never satisfactorily explained.

What occurs infinitesimally in laboratory experiments takes on huge dimensions in the lives of some extraordinary people. Joan of Arc had goals so wildly improbable that she was burned as a witch for achieving them. A young Winston Churchill once said to a friend, “I tell you I shall be in command of the defenses of London… In the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.” Do such people accomplish great things because they dreamed near impossible dreams, or were their dreams previews of what they were destined to achieve? I’m open to either explanation. To me, one seems as mysterious as the other. Whether our WIGs are the cause or effect of our actions, they have a peculiar power to lift us beyond what we thought to be our limitations.

Wild Kingdom 
At this point, I hope you’re wondering how you can set your own Wildly Improbable Goals. The problem is, you can’t. WIGs are to normal thoughts what Siberian tigers are to house cats, and your “right mind” doesn’t have the hunting skills to find them. Fortunately, your WIGs can find you. The knowledge of your destiny may stalk you for years, undetected except for occasional moments of longing or hope that glint like eyeshine in your darkest hours. Then when you least expect it, a WIG will leap out of nowhere and overwhelm you in one breathtaking burst. I’ve had the privilege of watching many clients recognize WIGs. It’s thrilling to see people who thought they were directionless realize they’re about to run for office or buy a house or publish a novel or have a baby. If these moments were broadcast on cable—the Wildly Improbable Discovery Channel—I’d watch it all day long.

Speaking of having babies, that process is somewhat similar to the procedure for inviting WIGs into your life. You can’t force a WIG to happen, but you can create conditions that will either prevent it or invite it. One precondition is absolutely necessary: You must befriend, protect, and nurture your own spirit. This means paying attention to your real needs, treating yourself not just fairly but kindly, and standing up for yourself even if that displeases people around you. Just as a run-down body may be unable to conceive a healthy new life, a run-down soul can’t support the healthy development of the life you were meant to have. 

Helping it Happen 
Once you’ve met the basic condition of self-care, there are several strategies you might use to lure your WIGs out of hiding. One is to take a pencil in your dominant hand (right for right- handers, left for lefties) and write down a few pointed questions, such as “What are you feeling?” “What do you need?” and “What do you want?” As soon as you’ve finished writing a question, switch the pencil to your other hand and write whatever words bubble up. You may be surprised. When your problem-solving mind is fully engaged, trying to master the task of writing with the “wrong” hand, hidden aspects of the self often surface. I’ve seen people encounter full-fledged WIGs in the shaky words written by their own nondominant hand. 

If you think more visually than verbally, you may want to try another exercise: time travel. Take a few quiet minutes, relax in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and imagine that the date has changed. It’s the same day of the same month, but the year is 2005, 2012, or 2020. Figure out how old you are in the year you’ve chosen. How old is your best friend? Your children? Your spouse? Let yourself inhabit this time. Now with your eyes still closed, simply describe your circumstances. Where are you? What are you wearing? What is the weather like? Now describe your life. What is most important to you on this date? What projects occupy you? Who hangs out with you? Try to simply observe rather than make things up. If no images appear, don’t worry. Your WIGs are still hiding, but you’ve called them and they are listening. They may show up after you’ve finished the exercise, when you’re brushing your teeth or making your bed. 

A third WIG-baiting exercise also involves time travel, but for this one you don’t project yourself into the future. Instead your future self comes back to visit you. Imagine meeting a wise, happy person who just happens to be your best self ten years from now. Ask this person for advice. If you’re facing a problem, ask your mentor how she got through it ten years back. Ask her what mistakes you’re making and how you might correct them. As with the previous exercise, you may initially get no answer. Nevertheless, your true self, that wise being who exists outside of time, has registered the questions. The answers will come.

When it Hits 
Being struck by a WIG is nothing like setting an ordinary goal. First of all, you’ll notice that it is not something you thought up; it seems to come from somewhere beyond thought. Second, you’ll feel an almost physical jolt of yearning, as though your heart is straining toward its destiny. Third, you’ll have the vertiginous sensation of your mind boggling. If you haven’t experienced this before, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed, the way I felt at 13, watching that runner circle the Harvard track. You won’t even be able to imagine the mess of work and luck necessary to make it happen. The very idea will seem impossible…almost. That “almost” will tickle the edges of your consciousness, tempting you to believe that somehow, someway, your dream may fall just inside the realm of probability. How can you be sure? You can’t. Fortunately, your first step is simple: Write down your WIG. In detail. Immediately, before you regain your sanity and lose your nerve. 

Experts say that simply writing down goals greatly increases your chance of actually achieving them. Perhaps it’s because the act of writing primes your brain to scan the environment, looking for opportunities that will take you toward your objectives. Many choices you make en route to realizing your WIG will be so inconspicuous that you won’t even notice them, but over time they’ll add up to huge changes in direction.

Once you’ve written your WIG, the real work begins. I’ve had many clients who, impressed by the strange electricity of their WIGs, assume that this intense feeling alone will magically create the desired reward. Yeah, right. I think the reason WIGs have so much mojo is that we need a huge reservoir of desire to keep us slogging through the hard work needed to realize them. Almost invariably, the effort necessary to achieve a WIG is not less than we expect but more. That said, the process of working toward a WIG does seem to land us in extraordinary territory. Creativity coach Julia Cameron comments that her clients reap the fruit of their labors only if they are willing to go out and “shake the trees,” but weirdly, the fruit that falls almost never comes from the tree the person is shaking.

This has been my experience as well. By the time I was 15, I’d developed a shortlist of WIGs that included three rather childish goals: I wanted to learn to ski, own a ten-speed bicycle, and visit Europe. Once programmed, my brain began noticing job opportunities and sporting-goods sales, and I slowly earned enough money to buy a bike and some used ski equipment. I was also working on selling enough French-club perfume to win a trip to Europe. I’d sold three whole ounces and had only a couple of gallons to go, when a Yugoslavian friend sent my family two round-trip tickets to Europe that he was too busy to use. Days later I was standing on European soil, dizzy with jet lag and euphoria.

That pattern—the recognition of a WIG, followed by enormous amounts of work, followed by a miracle—has happened to me so many times that it’s almost stopped surprising me. I see it strike my clients as well, when they prepare a safe space for their true selves, ask a few questions, and accept the answers. You already know your own WIGs, though you may not yet realize it. The part of you that is unhampered by illusion—the illusion of time, the illusion of powerlessness, the illusion of impossibility—is waiting for you to slow down and open up so that it can speak to your consciousness. In some unguarded moment, you will hear its wildly improbable words and know that they are guiding you home. 


Wildly Improbable Goals – WIGs – are a foundational concept for my life coach training program. First introduced in my book “Finding Your Own North Star”, all of my coaches are trained to help you set – and achieve – your own WIGs.