Just Dead Inside

True happiness involves the full use of one’s powers and talents—striving towards meaningful goals, not necessarily the attaining of those goals.

John W. Gardner in Self-Renewal


At my going away coffee party at the Star Tribune newspaper (1994), I said to my friends and colleagues: “I don’t know what I’ll be doing two years from now but I do know that I’ll be feeling alive.”

With that I set out on a new journey using myself as my own learning laboratory. What did I want to learn? I wanted to learn how to live. My journey took me out of the corporate world and into a Ph.D. program then a new career as a consultant, a life of writing and photography, a year on the side of a mountain in southwest Colorado, marriage to Melanie, the slow creation of a community of people I care about and the challenging journey into retirement and powerful new awareness and learning.

My odyssey continues today, 22 years after I began.

I recently read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger.

In the postscript of his book he told the story of anthropologist Eleanor Leacock, who had spent much time with the Cree Indians of northern Canada.

Junger wrote:

“Leacock went on a hunting trip with a Cree named Thomas. Deep in the bush they encountered two men, strangers, who had run out of food and were extremely hungry. Thomas gave them all his flour and lard, despite the fact that he would have to cut his own trip short as a result. Leacock probed Thomas as to why he did this, and he finally lost patience with her. “Suppose, now, not to give them flour, lard,” he explained. “Just dead inside.’”

Feeling alive inside requires noble goals that we strive for but may never attain. And feeling alive requires that we develop empathy, caring, connection, generosity and compassion for other people. We are not just economic units. More importantly, we are human beings interconnected with all that is alive.

We live in a time in America where millions are afraid of our new president. We can feel alive by offering our support to those with the least power and greatest vulnerability. They need our presence.

Create to Feel Alive

Frederick Terral founder of RightBrainTerrain.com:

You may not be a Picasso or Mozart but you don’t have to be. Just create to create. Create to remind yourself you’re still alive. Make stuff to inspire others to make something too. Create to learn a bit more about yourself.

Life as Art: Feeling Alive

Feeling alive came natural as a kid — a time when we live a life of learning and adventure as we explore and master our worlds. We venture out bravely, don’t know the rules, adapt as we go, and have fun living out our fantasies of being courageous heroes and heroines who do good for others.

Somewhere along the way conformity and compliance become the rule — about the time we go to school, I imagine. I believe from then on many of us sacrifice much of our courage and authenticity as we try to fit in to be accepted by others in order to “succeed.”

Perhaps like you, I’ve always chafed against the rules of conformity and compliance even as I’ve tried to find a place for myself in this world. I’ve taken a long journey to regain my natural and authentic sense of purpose.

In the middle of my life, I left the pseudo-safety of the paternalistic corporate world that demanded more dumbing down than I could stand and set out to create a new life for myself. I was not a wealthy man and my choice to venture out alone was not without risk. I realized that if I failed financially no one would remember in a few short years. But if I did not take the journey into the unknown, I would live with my cowardice and the disappointment of my own unfulfilled potential for eternity (See my post Life as Art: What Do I Want?).

Today, almost 20 years after I began my adventure filled journey, I am grateful for good health; a happy marriage; children and grandchildren I love; two great dogs; financial security; and time to do the things I love. And yet, I still pay attention to my inner stirrings and live my life in such a way as to renew myself often and naturally.

Such a journey of self-discovery beckons many today-not necessarily the external changes that I made but the inner growth of awareness and consciousness. The world struggles in the midst of many transformations with outcomes unknown. Seemingly unsolvable problems threaten our way of life. Regressive politicians try to return us to a world that no longer exists. Technology threatens our humanity. Our previous life paths exist no more. We cannot go back. We must seek out new journeys for ourselves.

The details of each person’s journey are exclusive to them but each of us shares the goals of deeper authenticity, a noble life of integrity, and the expression of our unique contribution to life. We want to feel alive. The inner work is hard. Perhaps as difficult as anything a human being will do in life — as a person, leader, or follower. This personal development requires the courage of a pioneer, the honesty of a child, the imagination of an artist, and the confidence of the naïve, and often begins from deep despair, disillusionment, and a fundamental change of mind. The journey gives one a special energy and changes the traveler forever.

We become the artists of our own lives. We plan as best we can, take bold action, reflect on what happens, and adapt our next steps. Our creative process is messy, inefficient, and non-linear and it redefines us. We stay true to our values and our purpose in life and expand our vision for life as we move toward it. We become artists in redefinition. We create, and we feel alive.

Feeling alive isn’t just about feeling good. Feeling alive is about feeling all of the life around us.


LIfe as Art: What Do I Want?

I’ve coached many unfulfilled people over the years.

I always asked, “What do you want?”

They often responded, “I don’t know what I want.”

We then began a journey for them to discover what they wanted for their lives, to create a vision of their future, and to develop a plan to move from the life they had to the life they wanted.

I’m not surprised that people don’t know what they want in their lives. Asking ourselves what we want is a creative act. But we live in a reactive culture; we solve problems: we fix broken stuff, make things that hurt go away, and we want the remedy to be fast, cheap, and painless. We don’t create our lives from scratch; we try to fix the lives we often stumbled mindlessly into. We follow the paths of least resistance. But creating a life requires us to walk into resistance.  And when we do know what we want, we often give up our pursuit of it quickly because we feel stressed by the gap between the life we have and the life we want. Instead of learning to manage the tension we feel, we lower the vision–wrong thing to do. We should learn to deal with our inner tension and rarely, if ever, lower our goals.

I wanted to leave the corporate world at age 47 and go back to school and get a Ph.D. I was afraid to quit my job. I was good at the work, and I made a good living. But my spirit wanted something different and something more. I worked with two consultants and spent two years thinking about my purpose in life, my core values, and creating a vision for my life for the next few years. I set four goals: 1) Get a Ph.D., 2) Begin to write, 3) Try out consulting, and 4) go to Africa to photograph wildlife. I could not have imagined those goals six months earlier: we must go through the struggle of our own unique creative process.

I completed the Ph.D. 3 1/2 years later. I’ve been writing ever since. I made a living consulting for 13 years, and I went to Africa and took more than 4,000 wildlife photos. And along the way, unexpectedly, I got divorced, lived on the side of a mountain in Colorado for 14 months, moved to Fargo, North Dakota, and married Melanie. I lived in Moorhead, Minnesota for seven years and when a record flood of the Red River forced us from our home, we renewed our lives and ended up in Plymouth, Minnesota with a new job for Melanie and new adventures for me.

Sound easy?

Well, let me tell you: I was scared stiff more times than I can remember. I did battle with my internal resistance and the opposition of others. I suffered the anxiety of possibility along the way. I had little idea of what I was getting into or how hard it would be.  How could I have known? I had stepped into the unknown. I adapted as I went. I suffered the “humiliations of the novice” as I learned. Life was messy and inefficient. I never lowered my goals. I stayed true to the values and the purpose I had defined for myself. I battled the forces of conformity. I learned to manage the difficult growing pains. Only charlatans tell you that deep personal change is easy.  I’ve renewed my vision for my life many times since then, and I’ve learned how to manage feeling inadequate much of the time. I live by a simple model: plan what I can, take action, reflect on what happens, and adapt accordingly. I feel alive.

What do you want?

Making a Person

In his June 3, 2013  NY Times column, The Way to Produce a Person, David Brooks wrote:

But a human life is not just a means to produce outcomes, it is an end in itself. When we evaluate our friends, we don’t just measure the consequences of their lives. We measure who they intrinsically are. We don’t merely want to know if they have done good. We want to know if they are good.

That’s why when most people pick a vocation, they don’t only want one that will be externally useful. They want one that they will enjoy, and that will make them a better person. They want to find that place, as the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

If you are smart, hard-working, careful and lucky you might even be able to find a job that is both productive and internally ennobling. Taking a job just to make money, on the other hand, is probably going to be corrosive, even if you use the money for charity rather than sports cars.

We live in a relentlessly commercial culture, so it’s natural that many people would organize their lives in utilitarian and consequentialist terms. But it’s possible to get carried away with this kind of thinking — to have logic but no wisdom, to become a specialist without spirit.

Making yourself is different than producing a product or an external outcome, requiring different logic and different means. I’d think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously.

My advice over the years to people young and old:  Find what makes you feel most alive and then figure out a way to make a living doing it.

Composing a life is serious work.