The Art and Science of Making a Change

6 Minutes Read

stepping-stonesI’ve made some big changes in my life. I’ve switched careers, changed life contexts, and generally shaken things up in ways that some people might consider to be a bit extreme.

For instance, I went from being a well-employed musician (literally, my only job was playing the trumpet, plus I had remarkable colleagues and extremely reasonable hours) to being a broke tech entrepreneur working all hours of the day and night for next to nothing.

I went from living with my wife in our cozy suburban Washington, DC home to being a celibate quasi-monk living in a spiritual community in the mountains of western Massachusetts.

Now I find myself back in a well-paying job, with a company I truly believe in, and deeply in love with one of the boldest/sweetest people I know. I’m still making music, and I’m sharing all the principles I learned from my time in the ashram to enrich other people’s lives.

About Commitment 

I want to share with you my approach to making life changes. And before you say, “Why should I listen to someone who has hopped around as much as this guy? He seems like a flighty dude who clearly doesn’t understand commitment.” Let me point out that to land my job as a full-time musician:

  • I practiced an average of 2-3 hours a day from age 16 to age 25, when I finally won my job with the Navy Band.
  • I spent 7 years doing my undergrad, advanced study, and masters degrees.
  • I left the Chicago home of my youth and moved to the less-than-booming metropolis of Rochester, NY because that’s where I could study with the best trumpet teachers I knew.
  • I faced down inner demons that constantly told me I’d never make it.
  • I saw doctors for prescription performance-anxiety medication so I could take auditions without physically shaking from my nerves.
  • I heard, “Thank you, next.” at more auditions than I can remember.
  • And the list goes on. 

I could make a similar list about what life at the EnlightenNext ashram was like. So I do know a few things about commitment.

And from having made these big changes, I have gained firsthand experience in the process of making major life choices. I’ve also learned how to minimize your risk and maximize your gain when doing so, which is no small thing in a world where, as we all know, there are no guarantees that things will work out as planned.

If you’re thinking about making a change so that you can live your life on a grander scale, I have three insights that will help you succeed more often than you fail (which is really the best any of us can ever hope for). They are:

  • Be tenacious
  • Know when it’s time to change
  • Don’t look back 

This is a longer post than usual (about 6 minutes of reading), but if you’ve been thinking about making a change in your life, it will be time well spent.

Tenacity = Can’t Lose

We’re going out of order by starting with this one, because you only have to practice tenacity after you’ve already made a choice and started down your chosen path. But it is so crucial to your success—in fact, it’s the most crucial component of your success—that I had to start with it. 

Making a big change is just that, a big change. You have to be willing to spend your time differently and spend your money differently. You have to be okay with leaving certain relationships and friendships behind to focus on other things. Not that you won’t have any friends in your new pursuit, just that those friends will likely be different.

I once heard someone say, “The smartest people in this room are not the ones who know what to say ‘Yes’ to, they’re the ones who know what to say ‘No’ to.” So true. 

And saying "no" applies to more than just our external circumstances. You must have the presence of mind to disregard your inner voices and critics.

For instance, when you first make that change, whatever it might be, you will be thrilled. It will feel like the most exciting thing in the whole world. “I’m finally doing it,” you’ll say, “Living my dream!” And then reality will hit you like Clubber Lang in Rocky III.

You might fail miserably for the first time. You might find that your progress slows and the excitement wears off. The bright sunny day that used to be your life now feels like a cold and rainy storm. “How did this happen?” you’ll say. You might even start doubting your capacity to follow through, thinking that making such a big decision was foolish and that you don’t have what it takes. 

This is by far the most critical moment on your path to success. If you give up, then it’s game over. You’ve failed.

But it you have tenacity, and you keep moving forward despite all the opposition, you’re one step closer to success. And in the end, success is the journey of getting there, and actually never has a final destination. So by moving forward, you’ve succeeded. And by moving forward in the face of opposition, you’ve gained strength that will help you weather the storms even better next time.

When You Should Change

Okay, you know you’ve got what it takes to follow through. How do you know you should actually do it? 

Here’s the clue: you'll know it’s time to change when the playing field you want to move to has far greater potential than your current one.

There’s a lot in that statement, so let’s break it down:

The possibilities that are available to you in life have a lot to do with “the game you’re playing.” For instance, if you’re working as a nanny, your opportunities lie within the general field of being a nanny: which families you work for, what hours and what kind of pay you receive, etc. Chances are you won’t suddenly get an offer to be a manager of major gifts at a large non-profit. You have to be a tenacious player in the fundraising game in the first place to get that offer (congrats Laura!).

And to open this up further, your desired outcomes for the game you’re playing do not have to be strictly financial. Not by a long shot. Perhaps you want to move into something that is more spiritually fulfilling, something that provides you with more time for your family, something that gives you more leverage in the marketplace of ideas, etc. 

The point is that if you are aware of a life context that has far more potential to cultivate that thing that will make all the difference for you—again, whether it’s spiritual, financial, personal, or cultural—then you’re on to something good and you should pursue it. Making a big change comes with upheaval and you need to balance that upheaval against the increased potential of the new context.

In my own case, I left my life as a musician in part because I wanted to work in a field that I could do from anywhere. I also wanted to be in a field that was growing rapidly, since rapid growth means high demand and plenty of opportunity, not to mention all the room for discovery and innovation. Online marketing and business fit this bill perfectly. And even though my first few years were among the rockiest of my entire life, I’m now in a completely different context than I was when I was a musician first and foremost. The opportunities that I have, both financially and professionally, are worth the pain of making the switch.

So ask yourself: what new potentials will open up once you’re in the new context you’re considering. How many years of struggle, sacrifice, and frustration are those potentials worth to you? If the answer is, “not very much,” then it’s not a good move. But if the possibilities of the new game are so inspiring that you can’t sleep at night, if the potential is consuming your attention and interest night and day for months on end, then it’s time to plan your move.

Don’t Look Back

The second most harmful emotion to indulge in if you want to make progress in your new life (doubt is the first), is nostalgia.

We all feel it. That pleasurable thought and sensation—perhaps when you visit your old high school or college campus, maybe when you think about a previous relationship or neighborhood—that says, “Oh my god. Things were perfect back then.” No they weren’t. That’s why you left and moved on.

Something funny happens in the mind when a certain amount of time passes: we look back on places and situations and somehow manage to completely forget the pain and discontent we experienced when we actually lived them in the moment. If you pay close attention, you'll realize that life was never as good as we remember it.

That’s not to say that we should feel bad about our lives in the past. Just don’t let your current situation, and any struggles or hardships you may be facing, be swayed by your thoughts of how great things used to be.

On the flip side, don’t use past failures (which we also happen to be great at remembering) influence your belief in your present ability to succeed. An enormous amount of pain and self-sabotage can be avoided by not dwelling on past failures. Let them be learning experiences and be thankful for them. Your mistakes do not define your future.

The advice I've offered may sound simple, and it is, but to actually practice it you must be disciplined and be able to see through your own thoughts to a large degree (hint, meditation is amazing for this). And if you do, the payoff from having tenacity, making a smart move into a bigger context, and continually moving forward will be worth it. In fact, as I see it, this kind of growth and development is the point of life itself.

What changes have you made (or are thinking of making), and how did you go about them? Share your experience in the comments.

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