Creating success on and off the roller coaster

by | Mar 11, 2013

A few years back I had a recurring dream. I found myself on a long, high overpass, part of a complex system of roadways and bridges. As I drove, the pavement morphed into something like roller coaster tracks. The ups and downs became more and more pronounced, and the cross bars got further and further apart. I wondered how the road could possibly support the car in spite of the growing gaps. I kept expecting to fall, but I never did.

When I worked on this dream, I realized that the road represented the path into the future. The further I tried to see into the future, the more uncertain the road became. I realized that when I expected myself to see what could not be seen, the road appeared perilous, when in reality it was simply unknowable.

And that unknowable road provided unfailing support.

Go figure.

How can we figure out what to do?

The unknowable road brings to mind a problem my clients often bring to coaching. They report being stuck because they don’t know what to do next. Over the years I’ve noticed that there are two types of these “what to do” questions, and they require quite different responses.

The first kind of “what to do” question is technical. It’s actually more of a “how to” question. For example, what should you do to set up a blog, rent an office, or edit a video.

The answers to technical questions can be found by resorting to the vast store of human knowledge and expert help. You can find a tutorial on YouTube or hire someone to do the job.

Technical “what to do” questions can be be maddening, saddening, expensive, and complicated, but they can always be solved by the application of known techniques or skills. While they can be puzzling when they lie outside your area of expertise, they are not inherently mysterious.

The second kind of “what to do” question is inherently mysterious

Thomas Merton is reputed to have said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.”*

He was talking about the second kind of “what to do” question.

Whom should you marry?

What business should you be in?

Where should you live?

Answers to those “what to do” question cannot be found on YouTube.

We create our lives out of and into the unknown

As creative beings we continually project ourselves and our desires into an unknowable future. We use technical knowledge to figure our how to make those things happen, which is an amazing and wonderful human ability.

The application of technical knowledge to a dream or desire is how we create weddings, gardens, and businesses, among other things.

But all the technical knowledge in the world can’t guarantee that our creations will turn out the way we think we want them to. No matter how much technical knowledge we bring to bear, the future remains unknowable.

So how do you know what to do?

If your standard for creating success is that your creations turn out the way you plan, there’s just no way to know what you should do.

But what if there’s another standard?

What if the standard for success is not about the outcome but about your come-from?

When you come from a belief that your future happiness is dependent on a future outcome, you’re on pretty shaky ground. Life is risky.

But when you define success from the inside out, creating success becomes considerably less risky. Your happiness is not dependent on the vicissitudes of life, but flows naturally from a native state of wellbeing and peace.

When that’s your come from, what you should do is a function of your best understanding in the moment. Not of a perfect understanding (I, for one, could wait a very long time for that), but your best understanding.

Wisdom as it appears to you in the present.

Where do you go from here?

Think for a moment about the “what to do” questions in your life or business. Notice which ones are technical and which mysterious.

By all means put technical solutions to work where they fit. The successful solution of a technical problem is a thing of beauty.

As for the mysterious “what to do” questions, set aside technical standards for creating success. Be curious about the direction in which feelings of happiness, freedom, and peace seem to beckon–not in the form of a guaranteed outcome, but in the form of an ineluctable experience.

The choice will become apparent.

Then go ahead and commit. Put all of your heart and all of your technical knowledge behind your choice. Let go of second guessing and use all the resources at your command in the service of creating success.

Just remember that the success you’re creating exists on the ride, not at the end of the roller coaster.

*That isn’t exactly what Merton said, though it lines up well enough with much that he did say. For example:

The way to find the real ‘world’ is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.

But there I find the world to be quite different from the ‘obligatory answers.’ This ‘ground,’ this ‘world’ where I am mysteriously present at once t0o my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands.

It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door. When I find the world in my own ground, it is impossible for me to be alienated by it.

From American Prophecy.

Image from