Stop sleepwalking through life

by Dan Cable and Mel Bradman
Most of us are familiar with the phrase “Life is not a dress rehearsal”. Many of us spend our time waiting in the wings until the right moment comes along to take the stage and play out our lives the way we really want to. Yet that moment never seems to come. It’s too easy to stick to our well-thumbed scripts, delaying the dream instead of living it.

Instead of being in a groove, you find yourself stuck in a rut. This could even be a “positive rut” – a lucrative job, nice home and possessions – but often these are the hardest ones to break out of. Why rock the boat when you can coast along... possibly all the way to retirement? The sobering truth is, treading the path of least resistance can come at a huge cost.

In my new book, Exceptional, I call this “sleepwalking through life”, and look at ways you can break free and change the habits of a lifetime. Sometimes, it will take a personal crisis or trauma to transform the path we’re on and help us become exceptional. This could be a serious illness, losing a close friend, or being made redundant. A growing body of science in clinical psychology calls this post-traumatic growth: when negative personal events lead to positive personal transformation.

Post-traumatic growth

When I was 36, I discovered a swollen node in my neck and was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma. At the time of my diagnosis, I had been living with my partner, Alison, in North Carolina for over 10 years; we had two young daughters. What hurt me most about my illness was the idea of not being able to watch them grow up. I was furious about that.

Up until then, I had felt stifled living in a small university town and felt like I was going through the motions. What I really wanted to do was live in another country – Alison and I loved the thrill of experiencing new cultures together. But rather than seek out the next adventure it seemed simpler and more efficient to stay put, for another year, then another.

My cancer trauma forced me to stop ignoring my transience. I realised that I didn’t have forever to get around to “being me”. I recognised that the things I possessed – like houses, cars, furniture and a well-paying job – had begun to possess me.

I was lucky enough to get a reprieve from cancer; six months into my chemo treatments, the tumour had melted away. I received a delicious new sense, a fantastic way of seeing. What I could see was that my life was an adventure that I had the fortunate chance to experience – it was not a chore to get through. So we reprioritised. We moved to London, first for three months, then a year, then indefinitely. Moving to a new country was an incredible shift. I started changing my work habits too – researching and teaching new topics. I was present and excited to be teaching again. I had been given a “bonus round” – a second life to appreciate being alive.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a hugely traumatic period, enforcing huge changes in our lives. But for many it has also provided a wake-up call; taking them out of their whirlwind existence and providing time to look at life from a different perspective. Take Ella, a hard-working but unconfident communications assistant in a London marketing firm. In the office she would frequently be “reassurance-seeking” – asking her colleagues their opinions before she felt she could move on with a project.

Now, working remotely and “going it alone” for the first time, those co-workers aren’t always on call. Forced to take the initiative, she has surprised herself at her own resourcefulness and how much she has raised her game. So much so that when the job market opens up again, she will be seeking a promotion or even looking for a change in direction.

Positive trauma

There’s no doubt that people can grow in the face of hardship. But not all trauma has to be negative to give you the push to rework your life. Life also serves up positive trauma. Research by Judith Mangelsdorf and colleagues has shown there is no general evidence that negative life events have a stronger effect than positive ones.

So what does “positive trauma” consist of? It could be a great new job or promotion, moving house, or falling “madly” in love. While a new romantic relationship can make us dizzy with excitement and send our endorphins dancing, it can also cause huge disruption. For example, the eternal bachelor or bachelorette will suddenly need to carve out time for their new love interest or may even be considering moving in with them. Their nice little life rut of thinking solely for themselves gets turned inside-out.

Research shows that these types of positive jolts that can reset our lives can lead to improved self-esteem, deeper relationships, enhanced spirituality and more meaning in life.

Highlight reels

Imagine waking up, switching on the television, and seeing your best contributions being aired. You’d watch the part of that meeting where you made an incredible point that inspired people to really listen. And that brief chat with your daughter that sent her off to school feeling ready to give her first big presentation. And when you decided to reinterpret your partner’s comment as helpful instead of critical, which led to a conversation instead of a fight. As you watched these moments, you’d relive the experiences where you were closest to your full potential and the positive emotions they provoked. You’d also learn how to repeat those moments of excellence. This is your own personal highlight reel.

This is what world-class athletes do all the time – watch tapes of themselves at peak performance and find ways to recreate or even better their finest moments. Your highlight reel will involve you making a list of your signature strengths and the exceptional moments of your life, large and small, combined with memories from people you love and trust the most. Reading these stories of your best possible self triggers post-traumatic growth as you relive those memories across the decades of your life.

Creating a personal highlight reel can give you that positive jolt. Take José Luis, a 59-year-old attendee of a two-week Executive Education programme at London Business School. José read his personal highlight reel for the first time just before he went for a run in Regent’s Park one morning. During this run, he had an epiphany: he noticed “everybody else moving in slow motion” as his own running quickened and felt more and more effortless. He later described it as “the strangest sensation of my life”.

It would seem that by reflecting on his highlight reel, José had a sudden jolt of energy, resembling a “runner’s high”. The result of this experience was palpable and powerful. José said it helped him take a huge step back from his normal life and think about what he could do with his strengths to improve it.

Louise, a high-powered partner in a global consulting firm in Chicago, is another example. As a woman in a masculine business environment, she wasn’t prone to sentimentality, but reading her highlight reel had a strong emotional effect on her: “I think, rationally, I knew everything people wrote about me, but the fact they are telling you, in their own words, what they’ve seen, how great you are, is very touching,” she said.

The key change she made from this appreciation jolt was not getting “super angry” at people for their errors, such as if they made a mistake during a presentation. Once she understood how much more powerful focusing on the positive could be, she started focusing on people’s strengths rather than their flaws.

A fresh narrative

Many of us are our own worst critics as we go through life – lamenting our failures instead of celebrating our successes. A highlight reel offers us a different narrative of ourselves. It can surprise and jolt us into the impact we are capable of making. When you tap into these strengths, you can finally wake up to the life you were meant to be living.

Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. His research and teaching focus is on employee engagement, change, organisational culture and leadership mindset. He teaches on Degree and Executive Education programmes including Becoming Exceptional – Online.

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