I am what I say I am

Way back in my college days, I had a desire to be a full-time writer. I didn't want to be a novelist or even a journalist, though that was my major in school. I was taking a class in creative non-fiction and was obsessing over books of literary journalism from authors like Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer.

If he was popular in 1990, I would have aspired to be the next Malcolm Gladwell.

One of my English professors recommended to me the seminal classic for writers, "Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" by Natalie Goldberg. I pulled this book off my shelf recently when looking for exercises to combat writer's block.

As is so often the case, the book happened to open to the exact page I needed to see. I remember reading this in 1990 and being completely flummoxed by the notion.

Every morning as soon as you wake up and each night before you go to sleep, say to yourself, simply and clearly, "I am a writer." It doesn't matter if you believe it. Just plant that seed. We work in big and unfathomable ways. We work on different levels. When we actually write and lift that heavy pen to the vast page, beings seen and unseen help us. Saying, "I am a writer" calls up the unseen beings. Soon what we want to be and who we are meet and we are one.

Go ahead. Say it: "I am a writer." Practice saying it when people ask you what you do. You might feel like a complete fool. That is okay. Step forward and say it anyway.
| Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

What the what?! I thought that was the weirdest thing I ever read. The thing is, I didn't feel like a writer. What I really felt like was a fraud. In fact, I kept telling myself, "You're not a writer, You're not a writer." I had well-meaning parents pushing me into journalism because at least I'd have a chance to make money as a writer. When I talked about my true ambitions, my deepest dreams, I'd hear, "There's no money in that. You'd never make it as a writer."

Photo of man writing in a notebook

So I hopped on the career path of corporate communications, writing press releases, speeches and employee newsletter articles. Eventually, I moved into marketing and advertising, and there I stayed until I became a coach in 2012.

And I never called myself a writer.

Fast forward to today. I work with mid-career professionals who seek out coaching for a variety of reasons. I take a lot of people through my career change program. Before I developed this program, I'd get people who at the end of our coaching were still questioning if the choice was really truly right for them. I heard a lot of "What if?" questions. "What if I make the wrong decision again? What if this isn't what I am supposed to do? What if I hate it?" I believe the process I use now for career exploration lessens the chance of this happening. That's been my experience at least. Clients feel much more confident in their decision and feel good about moving forward.

Recently, I have been noticing something new: clients who are having difficulty assimilating their new identity as a [FILL IN THE BLANK]. Listening to their concerns, it dawned on me that they were expressing the same feelings I did about calling myself a writer.  They just couldn't believe it was possible for them to be what they wanted to be, as though they didn't have the right to a career of passion and deep fulfillment.

Coaches have a sneaky trick in their toolkit.  We ask clients to act "as if."  Act as if you are already a writer, or a nurse, or an accountant, or an artist or firefighter.  Whatever it is you seek to do next.

Brain scans showing neuroplasticity uploaded by Drew Carey career coach in Indianapolis IndianaThe brain is an amazing organ.  We understand it so much better than we did even 10 years ago. We know that our brains are oriented to the present tense, the immediate, what's right in front of us in the moment.  So if we tell ourselves we are a [FILL IN THE BLANK] and act as if we already are, then our brain assumes that is what we are and accommodates for this reality. It's this ability that helps us change much easier than we realize.

Similarly, the brain doesn't process negative statements, you know the ones that start with "Don't" or "I can't" or "I won't" To illustrate this point, an instructor at my coaching school told the class, "Don't think of a pink elephant." As far as our brains are concerned, all it heard was, "Think of a pink elephant." And we all thought of our version of a pink elephant.

A personal example:  I went through a spell when I lost my wallet every few months.  It was extraordinarily frustrating to me, as I would have to get a new driver's license, cancel my credit cards and invariably, I always had cash in it. I was so angry with myself.  I'd berate myself, saying, "Dummy! Don't lose your wallet!  You can't lose your wallet again!" You can imagine what happened - I always lost my wallet again. Without meaning to, whenever I said, "Don't lose your wallet" I was instantly bringing up thoughts about how I'd feel if I lost my wallet again, about telling my spouse about losing another wallet.  I was thinking about everything I wanted to avoid.

Man riding bicycle in suitI recently had my mind blown about this very topic.  One of my clients rides his bike to most of his coaching appointments with me.  I told him I'd be nervous about traveling down city streets on a bike.  He said, "You just have to focus on where you want to go and not where you don't want go." I could feel my mind blowing up in that moment and asked him to explain that more.

"Well, if I am riding down the street and I see a pothole, the worst thing I can do is look at the pothole.  Because that is exactly where I'll end up. I'll hit it and crash.  What you should do instead is look beyond the pothole to where you do want to go."

Is it just me or did other people get chills when they read that?  No? I guess it must be a coach thing.

This is exactly how our brains work!  We have to concentrate on what we DO want and not on what we DON'T want.  If I want to be a writer, I have to concentrate on being a writer, even if I have to fake it at first. The alternative is to say, "I'm not a writer, I can't be a writer." Yes, I realize by the logic I proposed above that our brains would not hear the "not" or the "can't." So what's the big deal? I don't think I can explain that one.  I'd just posit that one way of thinking is vastly more powerful and can help us change so much faster, if we think about already being what we want to be.

So back to last night.  That's when I pulled the book off my bookshelf, and it opened right to this page.  "[S]ay to yourself, simply and clearly, "I am a writer." It doesn't matter if you believe it. Just plant that seed."

Are you willing to be a scientist for a bit and just experiment with this notion?  If you were to act "as if" you are already what you seek to be, what might that look like?  What would be different in your life? How could you prove this to yourself?  In my example, if I was a full-time writer, how would I know this to be true? How could I invest in proving this to be true to myself?  Maybe I could buy a Mont Blanc pen and a notebook because, in my mind, that is what a writer always has nearby. Heck, it could be a Bic and a piece of scrap paper.

What do you want to become? How could you act "as if" it was already true? How could you invest in yourself to prove it to be true? What makes sense for you and your particular goal? I'd love to hear your ideas.