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What would it take to make you really happy?
Would you have to be a huge financial success? Have the biggest house in town? Own your own helicopter? That's what advertisers tell us is the key to happiness.
Well, I think they're totally wrong.
Unless you have some innate, personal love of big houses or helicopters, don't let yourself buy into someone else's idea of the good life. If you do, you're in for a big letdown. Because no one but you has any idea what will make you happy.
What you love is as unique to you as your fingerprints. You need to know that because nothing will make you really happy but doing what you love. Just look at people who are actually living their dreams. You can see a calm focus in their eyes and patience in their actions. They know they're in the right place, doing the right thing.
I know a man who loves getting up in the morning, going out into his kennel and checking on his Jack Russell terriers. "I can't wait to get out there and say hello, see if they're okay, have them say hello to me."
I know a fourth grade art teacher who says, "I love to create an atmosphere that makes the children open up. You should see what they paint. I think they're the greatest artists in the world!"
And I know the owner of a cafe who loves to go to work every day. "There's nothing like having your own place. I like everything about it, grinding the coffee, talking to customers, even wiping the counter."
Somewhere inside yourself you know what you love, too. You dream of starting your own business, or traveling the world, or finding the right mate; you wish you could ride the horses on your own ranch, or lead your party to victory as a senator; or go diving off the Great Barrier Reef with a fabulous underwater camera.
Or maybe you don't know exactly what your dreams are, but you can sense them somewhere deep within you. Even when they're not clearly defined, they're never far away. As a matter of fact, dreams are almost impossible to get rid of. They trouble and tempt you. They keep reminding you that you're not satisfied with your life, that something crucial is missing.
And that's very lucky for you. If your dreams didn't trouble you, you'd forget them entirely. That's what you were trained to do. Most of us were told that we'd have to make daunting sacrifices to go after what we love: we'd have to abandon our lives and live in garrets or on mountaintops and we'd have to have talent a thousand times greater than anyone else, because only special people make it. Whenever we dream out loud, we're criticized for being foolish by people who really have no idea how special we are. As a result, we crush our dreams without giving them half a chance. Whenever we begin thinking, "I'd love to travel," or "I'd love to paint," we quickly rattle off all the reasons why we can't: "I don't have the money, I don't have the time, I might not be good enough..."
How do I know all this? Because I'm just like you. In the middle of trying to survive as a single working parent with two jobs, I too watched my birthdays come and go. When my life would get quiet for a moment, I could hear the nagging voice of unfinished dreams. What were they? I didn't really know. But sometimes in the evenings after I'd put the children to bed, I'd have thoughts I never would have admitted to anyone: maybe I was special. Maybe I was supposed to be doing something remarkable Maybe one day I'd be respected for doing what I loved.
Sometimes I'd even take a tentative step. I'd convince myself that I should be able to make something of myself, no matter what the odds. After all, we create our own reality, don't we? All I had to do was believe in myself and I could do anything, right? At least, that's what it said in every self-improvement book I'd ever readand I had read them all. Just think positive, tough it out, never quit. If you can't follow through on a dream, the problem is all in your head. Change your thinking.
Pardon me, but when I write those words I start getting all steamed up because believing them made me feel like a complete failure. If those phrases work for you, more power to you, but they have never worked for me. I can't tell myself how to think. I can't do just anything I set my mind to (trust me on that oneI've been trying to learn Latin for years). As for quitting, I'm famous for it. I still fall off diets with stunning regularity.
I say this now almost proudly, but back then I was certain that I was doomed to failure. I'd watch those TV commercials that show people with perfect bodies happily exercising on machines, and I'd listen to the promises that I could look perfect too if I'd only buy that machine and use it. But I didn't fall for the ads because I had tried a dozen times to exercise and by now I knew persistence wasn't my long suit. I'd lose motivation, or I'd get lonely; I was often in a lousy mood, I'd look for a million things to do besides exercise. Maybe someone out there could follow the instructions they give but not me. I knew myself too well to even try.
Anyway, maybe what I loved wasn't so important after all. Maybe my dreams wouldn't really make me happy. Maybe this feeling that I'm special and that my dreams should matter was foolish, even neurotic. Maybe dreams are just thatdreams and nothing more.
So I sighed and decided to give up. Obviously, I didn't have the right stuff in me. If I couldn't even stick with exercise, what was the point in trying for anything really big? When you don't have what it takes, you just settle for less.
Oh, was I wrong. It takes my breath away to think about how close I came to closing the door on all my cherished dreams. But one day a question lodged itself in my mind and refused to go away.
If I was such a failure, how had I managed to finish school and hold jobs and raise kids? Those were all hard to do. They required continued persistence over many years! And I had done them! How? Not with positive thinking or believing in myself, or improving my attitude one bit, that's for sure. I must have accomplished those feats some other way.
I felt on the verge of a very big discovery. I was so excited that day I called all my startled friends and shouted into the phone, "We can all have what we want and we don't have to change at all, and we don't have to have the right attitude or anything! Isn't that astounding? We've all been sold a bill of goods! I'll get back to you on this!"
Obviously I had my own way of accomplishing hard things. Determined to design a program that would suit me, I sat down and carefully took apart every belief I ever had about what it takes to achieve a dream. So I wasn't perfect. So what? I wanted a life I would love anyway, and I wanted it as soon as possible.
And I was willing to rethink every assumption I'd ever had to get that life.
What I learned changed my course forever.