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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.