In 2004 I was enjoying the highest-paying, most respectable job I had ever worked. Everything from the title on my business card to the location of the building fed my notion of success.
Then a Cadillac Escalade sideswiped me on my way home one evening. After an ambulance ride and an MRI, I was told there was a problem with my spine. Over the course of the next few months, I waited to find out if I needed surgery. And everything changed.
“If you had asked me a week before that accident if I was happy, I would’ve said yes,” I told life coach Martha Beck over the phone. “I had this dream job, a nice car, and everybody thought I was hot stuff. But a week after the accident, I found myself saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m scared to death. I don’t belong at that job. I don’t think I like myself anymore. I’m not following my purpose, and I feel like I’m suffocating something inside of me.’ ”
Beck laughed. Not a malicious laugh, but a knowing one. She told me the car accident tore my blinders off so I could see the unhappiness I had been denying in favor of a shiny, socially acceptable image of a successful life.
Since then I’ve followed my purpose in a much more meaningful way, writing to help others while pursuing my dream of becoming a (one-day) published novelist.
But I asked her, “What about people like me who are still living in a state of denial, who are doing everything right on the outside, but somewhere, deep down, aren’t really happy? People can’t just wait to have a car wreck.”
“Oh, sure they can,” Beck said, laughing again. “That’s the thing about planet Earth. It’s just full of car wrecks.”
Beyond Mental Models
Martha Beck was once called “the best-known life coach in the country,” by USA Today. She didn’t start with that moniker in mind, but there was a part of her that always knew she was supposed to help others find their purpose. In her book Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny, she recalls writing a mission statement for a scholarship application when she was 16 years old. It read: “My mission in life is to help people bridge the gaps that separate them from their true selves, from one another, and from their destiny.” She took a few detours after earning her sociology doctorate from Harvard, but over the last 25 years, as a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine, an advocate for indigenous communities in Africa, and author of the New York Times best-sellers Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, Steering by Starlight and Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want, she has followed that mission.
She says that people come to her all the time after experiencing their own version of a car wreck.
“There are three ways to be jolted or moved out of the life that’s not working for you,” Beck says. “One is shock, which would be your car accident or losing your job or whatever it is. The next one is opportunity. Say, you fall in love and you get a chance to marry your soul mate, but it means changing everything.
“And the third is growth; you simply wake up one morning and what satisfied you yesterday is starting to feel empty. And as you grow more and more as a being, you fit less and less into a life that isn’t right for you. You’ll outgrow it like your baby clothes, and then you have a choice to either try to contort yourself back into it or to leave.”
Beck says this kind of growth spurt happens to a lot of people at midlife. Prior to the growth—or the car accident or the life-changing relationship—we become fixated on what she calls “mental models” of what we’re supposed to be. We get these mental models from our families, friends, institutions like universities, and society.
“The nice thing about this point in history,” she says, “is that it really has boiled down to compass versus culture. Your inner compass is now more important than ever because the culture that tells us what we’re supposed to be is fragmenting.”
Beck believes the jobs that once gave us prestige and opportunities to rise through a hierarchy are much rarer, thanks to a culture that is placing increasing value on flexibility and self-expression. “It gives you an opportunity to stop following the culture and start following your inner compass,” she says. “The car crash did that to you, but for a lot of people it’s just a dissolution of other things in the social universe. Industry, jobs, even families are less cohesive than they used to be. And all those are sort of little car wrecks for the mind.”