Here’s a mock conversation about getting started with a lifestyle transition, one that models many conversations I’ve had in the past.
Friend: I really don’t like my job.
Steve: Why not?
Friend: The environment sucks, I don’t feel like my work actually matters, and I don’t feel connected with my coworkers. I feel empty when I’m there… and often stressed.
Steve: Ok, so what would you rather create instead?
Friend: Create? Well… I guess I want more freedom. And it would be nice to hang out with cooler people more often. And do something that contributes.
Steve: That’s the same B.S. that everyone who’s stuck says. Vague, general nonsense.
Steve: More freedom, cooler people, and something that contributes? That’s like walking into a restaurant and saying to the server, I’ll have food. You won’t get served till you order something specific. You haven’t been served a solution yet, have you?
Friend: Well… no. But that’s because I can’t leave my job yet. I need the money.
Steve: For what?
Friend: To pay my bills. Rent and stuff.
Steve: So you can keep funding your lifestyle of stuckness?
Friend: Yeah, I guess so. But what else am I supposed to do?
Steve: That’s your question to answer. The world is waiting… and waiting… and waiting on your answer. Every day you’re giving your answer. How satisfied are you with your current answer?
Friend: Not very.
Steve: Do you remember when you were a little kid, and you told Santa what you wanted for Christmas? Did you ask for cool stuff or freedom or more contribution?
Friend: Ha… no.
Steve: You asked for specific or at least semi-specific things, didn’t you? You knew how to hold clear desires and ask for what you want.
Steve: And when you didn’t get what you want and cried, were you crying because you didn’t get one of those vague desires fulfilled? Or was it because you missed out on something specific, like ice cream or candy or a visit to a particular toy store?
Friend: I get what you’re saying, but how does that apply today?
Steve: When you hold vague and thereby unmotivating desires, you can’t get too excited about wanting them. There’s nothing clear to lock onto. There’s no compelling lust for them. There’s no impetus to action. And when you don’t get them, you can’t feel too disappointed because you’re not even sure what you’re missing. So ultimately you’re just keeping yourself numb.
Friend: That’s pretty much how each day at work feels.
Steve: How’s your relationship life?
Friend: Uhhh… What relationship life?
Steve: Are you happy in your current situation?
Friend: Well, I would like to be in a relationship.
Steve: What kind of partner?
Friend: Someone who’s nice, kind, and loving.
Steve: You want a doggie?
Friend: Too vague again?
Steve: How can you desire something so fuzzy? How can you feel disappointed if you don’t get it?
Friend: But isn’t it better to keep my options open and not be too specific, so I don’t set myself up for disappointment?
Steve: How’s that approach working for you so far?
Friend: Hmmm. I guess it’s not working at all.
Steve: Our brains are activated by clear goals and desires. A specific desire leads to action. A vague desire leads to endless delay because your brain can’t figure out the action steps, just like the confused waiter who doesn’t know how to bring you food, even though the restaurant may be full of food. By keeping your options open, you receive nothing.
Friend: But that’s what I need most – the action steps. If I knew the action steps, then I could make some progress.
Steve: Your thinking is backwards. Lots of people think their main issue is that they need to know the action steps before they can transition. But that’s rarely the issue. Action steps for lifestyle transitions are very personal, and your action steps will be uniquely your own. It’s not as simple as copying a recipe. It’s your own brain’s job to devise the action steps. Our brains are brilliant at devising action steps when we have a clear and committed desire. We’ve been doing that our whole lives. Every time you decide what to eat, your brain plots the action steps, and you make your desire a reality. The bigger issue is deciding what to eat.
Friend: But I know I don’t want to stay in my job forever.
Steve: Good for you. If you know what you don’t want to eat, does that help you make a meal?
Friend: I suppose not. But doesn’t it help a little?
Steve: Not really. Not wanting something doesn’t get you very far. If a kid tells Santa what s/he doesn’t want for Christmas, what are the elves to do? Telling your brain that you don’t want something doesn’t automatically give you a clear and compelling alternative, so by default your existing habits will keep you where you are. Your brain needs some specific targets to begin to override these old habits. People will even stay in abusive relationships for years until they begin targeting a new life outside the relationship. The brain needs a target, not an anti-target. Even an escape plan needs a destination.
Friend: How specific do I need to get?
Steve: Specific enough that you start feeling increasingly motivated, and you catch yourself moving into action to make your goal a reality. Specific enough that you can picture it like a photo or a movie.
Friend: Can you give me an example?
Steve: Do you like to travel?
Friend: Sure. I just don’t have much time for it.
Steve: Where would you like to go?
Friend: Lots of places… Europe, China, Australia, India, South America.
Steve: Are those specific destinations?
Friend: I would say so… aren’t they?
Steve: Ok, let’s go pick a flight to India on Expedia right now.
Friend: Oh, I think I see what you’re saying. I can’t actually just go to India. I have to pick a city (or cities), don’t I?
Steve: Traveling to India is a vague fantasy, not a real desire or goal. But if you pick a city like Mumbai, you can start making the trip a reality. You can begin looking into flights and places to stay and researching what to do there. I wanted to go to Europe for many years, and nothing happened until I finally picked a city. Six days after choosing a city, I was in Paris. My brain didn’t understand how to travel to Europe, but it could easily serve up the action steps for a more specific destination.
Friend: But what if I don’t have a specific destination in mind yet?
Steve: It’s okay if your desire starts out very general – many desires start out that way – but don’t let it remain stuck there, or you’ll remain motionless. You may have to do a little research to turn a vague desire into a goal, but try to get through that phase quickly. It’s better to spend more time setting and achieving goals and gaining real experience, even if you make some mistakes along the way, than to stay stuck in fuzzy thinking… or worse, dwelling on what you don’t want.
Friend: So how do I transition out of my job?
Steve: That depends. What do you want to transition to?
Friend: I guess I don’t really know. Is that why I’m stuck?
Steve: Yup. What is your brain supposed to do with no clear target in mind? It’s awaiting some decisions.
Friend: What should I transition to then?
Steve: Answering that question is your responsibility, not mine. If you ask me what you should do, I’ll tell you that you should become my full-time slave since that sounds like a cool deal to me. No one cares about your life as much as you do, and no one is as invested in the outcome as you are. Don’t give your power away to others to make that decision for you, including me. In truth there is no should. You’re free to choose whatever you like.
Friend: But what if I don’t know what I like?
Steve: Then you’re choosing to maintain the status quo. That’s your default outcome.
Friend: That kinda sucks.
Steve: You chose that job, and you got it. That’s a success, not a failure. If you’re no longer satisfied with the results of that decision, then you can choose something else. And if you don’t know what to choose, then you can explore.
Steve: That’s what I do when I’m not sure which direction to try next. It works beautifully, and it’s a lot of fun too. You see… we can’t really know what a decision will be like until we try it. I’m a big believer in try before you buy. It’s how I used to sell computer games. Let people play a free demo version, and if they like the game, they can buy the full version. That way there’s no risk. It’s the same with lifestyle transitions. We can dip our toes into new experiences to see how they feel. Then commit for the long haul when we find something that’s a good fit.
Friend: Can you give me an example?
Steve: Suppose someone offers you a meal you’ve never tried before. How will you know if you like it? The only way to know is to taste it. Take a bite and see how your body reacts. Then you’ll know. How can you possibly know if you would like being vegan, an entrepreneur, a digital nomad, and so on if you never try these experiences? You can try these noncommittally to see how they feel, such as by doing a 30-day trial to start. You can also immerse yourself in other ways like by joining a club or meetup group, and see if the experience turns you off or makes you crave more.
Friend: So then what?
Steve: When you taste something new and discover that you like it, this helps you form clearer, crisper desires and start setting mini-goals. Suppose you join Toastmasters, and you kinda like it, so you decide to do your first icebreaker speech. You do that, and you still like it, so you decide to complete the first speech manual and do nine more speeches. Then you might try a speech contest. It’s especially helpful if you can connect with people who’ve gone through similar transitions or who are going through them now since they’ll help you see that your problems are all solvable. When you see people setting specific goals and making good progress, and you see other people with fuzzy notions getting nowhere, the contrast is undeniable, and it will be obvious which group you’d like to join. Clarity is very motivating, and when you have enough of it, you’ll often find yourself sprinting into action without feeling like you have to push yourself.
Friend: But what if I’m stuck thinking about what I don’t want because I’ve been doing that for so long?
Steve: Start by acknowledging that this is unintelligent behavior. To be blunt it’s idiotic to keep doing that. It won’t do you any good, and it doesn’t help others. So give your mind a better alternative to focus on. It’s usually too hard to catch yourself in negative self-talk and change course – for most people that takes way too much vigilance – so instead I recommend frequent doses of positive thinking every day, which will eventually drown out the negative patterns. Just ignore the negative patterns entirely.
Friend: Yeah, but how?
Steve: A simple way to do this is to use the same approach that worked wonders for Scott Adams. He’s the creator of the world famous Dilbert comics. While working at a job he disliked, he began writing 15x per day on a piece of paper, “I, Scott Adams, will become a syndicated cartoonist.” Soon he found himself getting up early and working on cartoons a few hours before work each day. Now Dilbert is syndicated in about 2000 media outlets worldwide. He found the process of getting there quite remarkable once he began this simple habit. I’ve been using this method too. Every hour or so, I rewrite my top goal on a piece of paper on my desk. It only takes seconds, and the frequent repetition throughout the day keeps me focused and makes the goal increasingly believable. I find myself automatically taking extra actions to make progress, even when it feels like I should stop for the day or take a break. It’s a simple but highly effective technique, and it’s easy to do.
Friend: I like that idea. Can I type it instead?
Steve: Personally I like to write it on paper. It’s slower and makes me take a little longer to think about the goal. I suppose you could type it, but I think writing it could be more effective. For instance, if you’re affirming a financial goal, it feels different to draw a dollar sign and a number than it does to type them. The extra tactile sensation engages more of the brain.
Friend: So what should I start affirming?
Steve: “I am Steve’s full-time slave.”
Friend: D’oh! You got me… no shoulds.
Steve: You get to decide. Make it something positive and binary. Don’t affirm some vague nonsense like living an independent lifestyle. Binary means that there’s a clear border between having it and not having it. If you write, “I am earning $10,000 per month,” that’s pretty binary. Your income is either $10K+, or it isn’t. And if your income varies by month, you can take a yearly average to see if you hit the mark. Create a statement with a sharp line between achieved and not achieved, not a fuzzy borderland. Use this rule of thumb: If you showed 10 objective and logically minded observers your situation, all 10 should unanimously agree as to whether you’ve achieved the goal or not.
Friend: Okay, that makes sense.
Steve: Today there are so many influences to distract us and knock us off course. When we start regularly enforcing our goals to our brains, it really helps us stay focused and make forward progress. Big goals take time to achieve, and for many people the biggest risk is losing sight of a goal and falling off track. So we need some kind of daily refocusing to ensure that we stay on target for as long as it takes. Taking a few seconds to reinforce your top goal every hour is a good way to do that.
Friend: Okay, but I need some time to think about what I want.
Steve: For most people that’s a delay tactic. You’ll get distracted and forget. I suggest that you take a few minutes to pick a goal to affirm and start doing the exercise today, and do it every day. If you made a poor choice with your goal, you’ll feel it after a while as you keep writing out the goal. Then you can revise the goal and keep going. It’s better to give your brain something clear to focus on and let it react than to stay stuck in nowhereland while you think about it indefinitely.
Friend: That’s a different mindset than I’m used to.
Steve: It takes practice, but it’s far more effective than constantly thinking about ideas generally. Pick a direction and go. See what the results are. Learn and grow from the experience. Use that experience to set more intelligent and aligned goals. Take more action. Accumulate more results and experience. And keep repeating. This will help you grow much faster than spinning your wheels with endless thought. Imagine a toddler trying to analyze the mechanics of walking or speech before giving either a try. That would be ridiculous. And that’s just how ridiculous people look when they overanalyze instead of gaining experience.
Friend: But doesn’t careful analysis help us avoid many problems?
Steve: Yes, when done correctly. If you’re launching a spaceship or planning a battle, then careful planning is helpful. But even in those situations, we still learn a great deal from experience. And there must be a drive towards some kind of launch or engagement, or nothing meaningful happens. The best analysis is still done with clear goals in mind, like getting a ship to deliver a satellite into orbit. Much of the time when people say they’re being analytical about their lives, they’re engaging in circular thinking with no drive towards a clear goal. They’re trying to figure out what to do by thinking about what to do. That’s a mistake. You figure out what to do by doing. You need to explore. You need to gain experience since experience bestows tremendous clarity. How do you know which foods you like? By tasting lots of different foods. How will you know what kind of lifestyle you’ll enjoy and can maintain? Same way… by exploring and experiencing different possibilities. Even when you don’t know how you want to live, then pick something you’d like to taste.
Friend: This will take time to get my mind around.
Steve: Your mind will catch up. Your brain is naturally good at this – it’s wired to achieve clear objectives like finding food and water. When you start giving it clear objectives, life can take on a seemingly miraculous flow. Your brain will kick into high gear and begin flooding you with ideas, actions, and motivation. You’ll notice that you automatically start exhibiting new behaviors to move you towards your target.
Friend: I’d like that. I’ll start doing the writing exercise today. I think I have some idea of what to start with, so I should just start, right?
Steve: Yup, you should.