Can Defining Moments be Self-Generated?

A couple years ago, I made a significant change in my professional life, a change that I had been dreaming of for more than a decade. I have never felt happier nor more fulfilled and I am grateful every day for my new career and life. It is deeply ironic, however, that I owe my new life to having gone through a scary, completely unforeseen, cancer experienceMy example is of course not unique and we all know people who have been able to  turn an unexpected, difficult life event into a positive outcome. They describe the job loss, health issue or other serious personal challenge as having been a defining moment for them. That defining moment changed their perspective on risk-taking and life in general and ended up equipping them with the courage to move past known or perceived obstacles, towards an important goal that until then looked more like a dream or a fantasy. While their experiences and dreams vastly differ, they all share resiliency as a common trait.

Not surprisingly, defining moments have been on my mind for sometime now. How long would it have taken me to leave the corporate world and embrace my new career if cancer had not knocked on my door? Why are we overwhelmingly dependent on these brutal wake up calls to get moving? Is it possible to create our defining moments and if the answer is yes, what learning process and self-discovery journey would it require from us?

I do not pretend to know the answer nor do I believe that there is a single magic recipe that could be applied universally. I feel however compelled to share what I learned on this key topic, from my own and my clients’ experience, and the empirical research I conducted over the last two years. Here what I know:

Getting in touch with our true desires is the cornerstone.  It is crucial to become crystal clear on what we really want. Only when we become aware of this secret or unfulfilled dream, sometimes buried deep inside, that we can start moving. Getting this clarity is often a journey in itself. A very personal one, as each one of us is unique and our experiences are equally unique. Some people achieve this clarity through writing and journaling, others hire a coach. I work on a regular basis with leaders who are looking to answer “what’s next” and I find this work tremendously valuable and rewarding for both parties.  Practicing mindfulness or meditation is of course a powerful way to quiet the ambient noise in order to get in touch with our true-self.

– Picturing them within reach is the next step toward achieving them. I knew that I wanted to be a coach for a long time but until this desire emerged from being a fantasy that I entertained in a corner of my heart and became a possible reality I could see myself creating, it was impossible for me to start moving. In the real world, I was a senior leader in the High Tech Industry, while being a coach belonged to the dream realm. These two worlds did not seem to connect. With my coach’s help, I finally could visualize in a tangible way what this new life would look like. Only then was I able to take the first step, which was to identify the right coaching training and certification. Within the next twelve months, I had left the corporate world and begun to build my practice.

 Taking that first step is key.  Every journey starts with a single step, so simple yet so true. I did a fireside chat about Defining Moments at the International Learning Association Leadership Conference, last June in Monterey, California. One audience member asked me at the end of my presentation “What if we knew what we wanted but were too afraid to take the risk?” She was dreaming about starting this new venture but was paralyzed by the fear of failing. I asked her whether she could start her project part-time, take a sabbatical to test her project or whether her current job offered learning opportunities related to her project. In other words, what was this first step she could take? Her face literally lit up as she realized that she actually had options. A few weeks later, she sent me an email confirming that she “was in movement” and, to her surprise, she had found support for her next steps. It might take her months or years to reach her dream, but she managed to get herself unstuck. And that is what mattered.

 What is the ONE thing you would do if you knew you would succeed?

 What is the first step that would get you started?

 What do you need to take this first step?

I left my audience with these three questions,  printed on a small bookmark. It seemed only right to end this article with these same questions.


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