“I’m feeling at a crossroads,” Jane* explained to me. “Some big decisions are coming up involving graduate school and my overall career direction. I need help figuring out how to evaluate all my choices so that I can make a decision and begin moving in that direction.”
I could hear elements of indecision and confusion in Jane’s voice. Which of her many options would be best for her? To assist Jane I first wanted to help her step out of her mindset of uncertainty by talking with her about things she was very clear about.
“Sure,” I replied. “Let’s start with the notes you wrote to me about the experiences that you have particularly enjoyed in the past. We’ll go through them, and I’d like you to tell me more about each one.”
I think Jane may have been expecting an in-depth discussion about the pros and cons of each of her graduate school and career options, but she humored me.
“Well, there was the volunteer work I did with Habitat for Humanity while I was in college. I really enjoyed seeing tangible progress, being outside, and having a defined task to complete each week,” she offered.
“Excellent. Now you also wrote about the time you helped a friend plan her trip to India. What did you enjoy about that?” I asked. By talking about these experiences Jane was reminded of a couple tangible data points of what it felt like to be engaged in pursuits that were intrinsically interesting to her. Also, I love talking to people about things that they love.
Once we’d gone through most of Jane’s interests I entered teaching mode.
“There’s a concept from Martha Beck’s book, Steering by Starlight, called ‘shackles on/ shackles off’ that we’re going to work with now. Shackles on simply means a feeling of being trapped, constricted, and uncomfortable, like being shackled to a dungeon cell. Shackles off means a feeling of freedom and expansiveness. They’re both more of a physical or gut feeling rather than an analytical explanation. As you think about the experiences we just discussed, how do they feel? More shackles on, chained down, or shackles off, free and open?”
“Definitely shackles off,” Jane quickly answered.
“Can you think of a time in your life that felt shackles on?” I questioned.
“Yes, I know that feeling too,” Jane replied after a brief pause.
Now that Jane had her benchmarks we were ready to tackle her big questions.
“Great, so, how does graduate school feel?” I asked.
Without hesitation Jane said, “Shackles on.”
“Interesting,” I said with a hint of amusement in my voice. “How about staying in the DC area?”
“Mmhmm, now how does being a writer feel?”
Jane took a quick gulp of air. “Shackles off,” she said with a hint of astonishment in her voice. By this point we were both laughing at how easily her answers were coming.
I paused to let her response sink in.
Could we have done a cost benefit analysis for attending graduate school? Sure. Could we have laid out the pros and cons of staying in her current job? Of course.
But we would have missed out on one critical factor involved in making any life changing decision: what was it that Jane actually wanted?
By taking Jane out of her logical mind and into her physical being we were able to quickly pin down her answers to this question.
Life does not offer us a one size fits all solution. The life that works for you will look different from the life that works for someone else. To live a life that you love begin with the blueprint that resides in your heart. Connect to the life you most want, and go for it.
As you consider your next big move give this simple exercise a try. Which choice feels shackles on and which choice feels shackles off?
*Name and identifying details have been changed. Case study printed with the permission of the participant.