Pursue your own dream

University of California-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner and his team conducted a study on awe. They had a group of people complete 20 sentences beginning with “I am…”

Half the group faced a full-sized replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Life Science building while completing the sentences. The other half-faced a hallway. The people facing the T. rex were three times as likely to describe themselves as part of something larger than those who completed the questions facing the hallway.

Many leaders today are living into the realization that they are “part of something bigger.” They have worked their entire careers in order to achieve; to move up the ladder of status and success. They have achieved what they thought was the “dream.” They want for nothing materially, and yet, they experience a level of emptiness, knowing what they have forfeited in the process.

Tom is 55 years old. He has successfully navigated a career that resulted in his becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He has three homes, belongs to a prestigious country club, sits on many corporate boards and enjoys summers in the Caribbean. He and his wife divorced two years ago. His children are grown and distant.

Tom has many acquaintances, but he has no true friends. With all that he has achieved, he is facing the second half of his life with the question: “Is this all there is?”

Tom isn’t alone. We are finding in our work with leaders a significant number who are facing the same question. It is as though they have been “sleep walking” in their lives and have now arrived midway on the journey only to wake up appreciating that what they thought was the “dream” does not fill them up.

Waking up is a courageous decision

For many of us, a crisis calls us into courageous action. John was the CEO of an organization for over 20 years. He led the company through the impossible years of the recession into a state of great success. For the first time in his life, John’s integrity was challenged by someone with influence and power in the organization. He was accused of lying; withholding information, etc.

Initially, John invited conversation. His accuser was not willing. Months went by with John experiencing levels of anxiety and fear with repeated attempts to understand what was driving his accuser’s behavior. He spent several months attempting to create a bridge of understanding which was repeatedly dismissed. His health was at risk; his spirit diminished. He finally said: “Enough.”

John courageously called the question. He refused to invest any more of his time and energy responding to someone who was not willing or capable of engaging in honest dialogue. It was a courageous decision and in doing so, John received the unexpected support from others in the organization. They stepped in and challenged the assertions made against John. They stood with him and demanded that the false accusations stop. John is no longer facing the limits of the “hallway.” He recognizes the T. rex. His focus is now on the life of the organization and his commitment to leaving it positioned for continued growth and success before he retires.

Who’s life are you living?

As the oldest of four, Kathleen spent her life living into the dream that her parents had for her. She is now in her mid-50s. She resigned last year from the position of leadership that she had strived to achieve her entire life. As a college dean in a prominent university, Kathleen worked hard to convince herself that she enjoyed the role. In our coaching relationship it was clear that what really filled her up was her experience in the classroom. She is now teaching in a rural community college, appreciating that for the first time in her life, she is doing what she loves. She recognizes that she is part of something “bigger,” making a difference in the lives of students who will continue her legacy long into the future.

Victor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” writes: “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself… Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run – in the long-run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”

Is it the hallway or the Tyrannosaurus rex?

At sometime in our lives, we each face this question. The hallway is never enough. As human beings, we long to be a part of something bigger. We long to make a difference, to know that our lives have had a purpose beyond fulfilling our own needs.

We have the ability to ask ourselves the questions: Am I facing the hallway or do I see myself as part of something bigger? What is it that “fills me up?” Do I have the courage to wake up? What will it take?

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

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