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It's not the compass that finds your true north - you need to find the compass that points to your true north. Short of that, every other compass will send you in the wrong direction.
Life mentoring can bring some of life’s grandest adventures. The issues at stake are often monumental and, not infrequently, the results can be life changing. Many of my mentoring clients are some sort of crossroads when they first seek me outs. One such engagement began not long ago.
There Has to Be a Better Way!
I often receive requests for initial consultations from people who have recently found their current employment untenable. Sometimes they have simply decided that a change is required. Perhaps a yearning for greener pastures or a feeling that there has to be something more to life drives them to seek me out. Maybe they have followed a path to its end – or, at least, a plateau – and find that there is less to be enthusiastic about. Life has a way of bringing us all to those times and places. Others have had their place disturbed by economic developments or decisions by their superiors. Years of work and dedication may have gone into a position that was abruptly terminated.
Initial consultations tend to follow a pattern – and, if I am able, the person leaves with significantly more than anticipated. Let me tell you a story.
BI was recently approached by an executive who had spent a great deal of time, energy and personal resources working with a company that was, by all appearances, very poorly served by its founder. There is a lot of the going around – as there ever is. As a result, he had found his way to an ending that put financial pressure on him and his family. But the biggest blow was to his sense of self-esteem and confidence. He could not believe that he had allowed himself to be put in such a position.
Prior to our session, he had sought out friends and asked their assistance in re-launching his career. The advice he received was predictable. “Pull together a resume. Highlight your accomplishments. Focus on the impacts that you were able to contribute.” He had even gone so far as to draft a new resume plus a number of collateral documents. As our meeting began, he laid out his strengths and began to describe the kind of position he was seeking – his description went into great detail. I brought his ‘elevator speech’ to an abrupt halt with a simple question.
“If you could do anything that you wished, what would give you the greatest satisfaction?”
He was falling into the classical trap of seeing his next step along life’s journey as a minor variation on the ones that went before. More to the point, he was focusing on the skills that he had developed and was looking for a way to put them to work. That might sound logical and sensible to you but, based on a lot of experience, there is a sad trap in the approach and most people fall onto it.
In the past Frank had been an architect of sorts – designing and building solutions to hard problems. But here he was extolling his skill with a hammer.
What was missing – what made his presentation almost soulless – was a sense of joyous anticipation that would be a sign of pursuing something larger than himself. He had a compass but not a north star – not a sense of his own ‘true north’.
You see, a compass is worthless without such a thing. It is not that a compass has a purpose – it is what it proposes that is important. To quote Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” The very meaning of a compass requires such a thing as true north.
Finding True North
As we talked, I kept leading the conversation back to those times he felt he had found his true calling. Soon he was describing two times in his life that he had made important contributions through his understanding, insight, persistence and dedication. Neither of these were insignificant. As he talked, he began to get more and more enthusiastic – more and more excited as he described the work and the feelings that came with solving problems – meeting challenges – that others found too daunting.
The Past as Prelude - But to What? Now There is the Rub!
As we circled back to his current situation and mindset, several things began to come clear. The first was that he was too involved in the details of getting his next job to take the time to think about my question. To say it another way, he was too busy driving to have any time to stop for gas! As a result, he was thinking tactically about a strategic decision. The second was that he had allowed the pressure he was feeling to keep him from thinking about the alternatives which he clearly had. In fact, it is fair to say that he was too much about thinking and not enough about dreaming. The third was that his recent experience had tested his self-confidence to the point that he had forgotten those past successes. Finally, he had been seeking direction from his friends and business network when the real answer to my question was within himself.
The last half of our session was very different from the first. We talked about how he might free his mind from the tensions that were clouding his vision – small things that he could do for himself that would free up the dreaming and allow it to flower. It seemed to me that there was more opportunity before him than he was seeing – and, as we talked, he came to see that as true.
A Most Daunting Question
On the face of it, the core question seems relatively harmless. But most people spend a lot of time and energy avoiding it. “What is it that makes you happiest to do?” Early on, a friend told me, “Find out what you really enjoy doing and do it as much as possible. It is the only thing that you have any chance of being really good at.” But Franks's first attempts at answering such a question were very tentative – almost as if I was afraid of finding the answer. It seems silly that such a simple, but an important piece of self-knowledge, should be so off-putting. I suppose philosophers and psychiatrists would chalk it up
to a feeling of inadequacy. But the journey towards its answer is one of the most important ones that any human being makes – and it is a terrible shame to die before the answer is in hand.
The truly devilish part of all of this is that the answer – the definition of you own ‘true north’ - is within you right now. It is calloused over by all those things your parents, friends and teachers told you should be important. It is buried under years of noise and your indifference. It should be central to what you are and will become. It is not a matter of asking others – it is a matter of asking yourself. Maybe this will help:
Advice by Bill Holm
Someone dancing inside us
learned only a few steps:
the ‘Do your work' in 4/4 time
the ‘What do you expect’ waltz
He hasn’t noticed yet the woman
standing away from the lamp,
the one with black eyes
who knows the rumba,
and strange steps in jumpy rhythms
from the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
something unexpected will happen.
If they don’t, the next world
will be a lot like this one.
Find the Answer – Your Life Hangs in the Balance
It is so incredibly easy to let life flow away – not to wring the sweet marrow out of it – to find the true gift that it brings. Life can become that of an oxen – a domesticated animal condemned to pulling someone else’s wagon along a path that they have not chosen. But that's not life – that's an existence. It is surely a path from cradle to grave. But what a wasteful path it is.
Each of us has been granted a span of years. Each has a new chance every day we are alive to find our own personal true north. None of us is born with a map that shows us the way to those paths of fulfillment and joyous celebration of life. Without our own deliberate effort, it is much more likely that we will take the oxen’s path. The time for that effort is ever now – in the moment before you – not in the moment to come. You become because of what you decide – the moment to come is too late.
There is great joy in finding those paths – and in helping others find theirs. Nothing else that a human can accomplish comes close to that value – not wealth, health or salvation. Finding and following our paths that lead to our own ‘true north’ is what humans are made for – it is close to the very meaning of life.
So, like Frank, your questions are "What does your compass propose? Are you in the oxen harness because that is where your compass finds true north? Are you using the wrong compass? One made for somebody else by somebody else? How much of your life are you going to spend following the wrong north star?"
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, NPI Team Lead,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,