Declare What You Want

Yes, you have to do good work and build a reputation that precedes you.

Yes, you have to build a strong, vibrant network of people who want you to succeed and for whom you pay it forward.

Yes, you have to stay humble, keenly self-aware and dedicated to continuous learning.

All of those things, yes!

And I will never succeed at defining which matters most or which, among the many things I haven’t mentioned, should also be considered just as important but here’s the thing that stands out to me as central to deeply meaningful professional success:

You have to declare what you want.

You have to stop saying YES to everything in hopes that you catch something that satisfies your heart’s desire and you have to start saying NO to everything that most certainly does not.

This is especially hard early in a career. This is especially scary when launching your firm. “Sure, I can do that!” I’ve said more times than I care to admit, so often to discover that I had agreed to work that I simply did not want to do.

What if we say instead, “This is who I am at my best. This is how I can provide you with the most value while also bringing me the most satisfaction (and, as a pretty great bonus, the money that I am worth).”

I believe to the depths of both my heart and soul that when a person declares who they are and what they want, the universe gets in motion to help make that possible. I have no other way to explain what has come to me when I have had that conviction and what has eluded me when I have not.

I believe that other people are deeply attracted to that clarity and want to help it become, not only real, but also wildly successful. I believe that when we have the courage to say, “This is it!” we shouldn’t sheepishly prepare for nothing to happen but instead, strap ourselves in for the trip of a lifetime.

At the beginning of this year, I made two clear declarations. Relying on the power of those declarations to say no to some other commitments, I had space for some new, very specific things to show up. In only a couple of months, that’s exactly what happened.

I will share more detail in the coming weeks but the wheels are in motion for an exciting new professional endeavor largely because I cleared the way for it to find me.

It is frightening to claim what we want. How terrible to do so and risk the possibility of failure. On the other hand, in the face of that fear, how wonderful to do so and discover something greater than we had dared to dream.


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Saturday Morning

Sunday: “They preferred the name of the tree
to the taste of the apple.” (from Among the Intellectuals, Tony Hoagland)

Monday: Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water, a revelation of who you are.

Tuesday: Whole people with whole lives are here today, including myself.

Wednesday: …a reminder of the ways I allow myself to stay stuck in “good enough” when just one small action would open the door to an even better way to live.

Thursday: “The concept of praxis . . . refers to our participation in the shaping of the world in which we live.” (Denis Edwards)

Friday: It is imperative that we acknowledge, finally, that the prison cell we have created is not locked, and it never was.


It is both a pleasure and gift to sit in the cool, quiet air of a September Saturday morning and reflect on the week that was.

I celebrated this week, taught this week, traveled this week, coached this week, consulted and conversed. I had full days of comings and goings and quieter days of reflection and planning.

The week began with the celebration of a wedding anniversary and ended with the celebration of the life of a friend’s mother.

This week I experienced the universal in the particular, the bumpy and uncertain ways each of us is navigating our experience, imperfectly attempting to reconcile ourselves to the unknown by holding on to what we know.

The current of life flows and flows and flows. It is always happening. It is always happening right now, another chance in an unknown number of chances to choose the deeper water or the safety of the shore.


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Stuck

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t find the dog.

Rita usually sleeps in our room, upstairs, but will just as likely be found on the landing or, given the warmer summer evenings, downstairs by the couch.

This morning, she was in none of her usual spots, which is when I remembered something that happened earlier this summer.

My son, home from college, works an evening shift most nights and gets home after 11:00. Rita is not one to miss the chance to hang out with a non-sleeping person so she keeps him company until his much later bedtime, sometimes in the family room and sometimes in his bedroom. One night, forgetting she was in there, or perhaps thinking she wanted to stay, he shut his door and went to sleep. When I couldn’t find her the next morning I finally popped his door open to find her sitting there quietly, both hopeful and resigned.

Again, this morning, there she sat. And once released from the confines of Duncan’s bedroom, she headed straight outside for a much-needed breath of fresh air, among other needs.

Hopeful and resigned, she didn’t whine or bark. She made the best of it, sitting and waiting for her chance to get out, dependent on someone else to take action to change her circumstances.

I admire her patience, but it’s her resignation that makes me uncomfortable, a reminder of the ways I allow myself to stay stuck in “good enough” when just one small action would open the door to an even better way to live.


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Looking Back to Look Ahead

My writing this past week began with a reflection on my path – my long and uncertain path – to vocation.

With that groundwork laid on Labor Day, I moved into a variety of explorations of the inner life: the leader’s commitment to continuous learning; the freedom that that kind of deep personal awareness creates to liberate others to their full potential; the painful truth that we too easily and too often hide the very best of ourselves from the vulnerability of exposure; and the deep and very challenging necessity to confront our pain and transform it into possibility.

With the benefit of hindsight and reflection, I see now that this week has been an exploration of my most important value: freedom.

And by freedom I mean, the earned right to be my own authority, to be released from the tyranny of the unexamined life, one that operates reactively instead of purposefully. Freedom is the transformation of pain into possibility. Freedom is equanimity under stress, where the old triggers – though always present – will not be squeezed.

As I enter into a period of profound change in my professional life, while continuing to navigate the sacred responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood and friendship, it is no wonder that this theme is surfacing so strongly. It is a time for reflection because it is a time of change.

Writing is good therapy, a form of self-coaching, that helps me to understand where I am, while casting a faint but persistent light on the path ahead.

Thank you for reading.


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Gold Inside

Do you know the story of the Buddhist monks who, in an effort to preserve a revered clay Buddha statue, accidentally broke it open and discovered it was made of gold?

Do you know that the clay was meant to discourage an invading army from stealing the statue but that centuries later this information was lost and, upon rediscovery it was assumed that it was always and only made of clay?

Do you know that most people, most of the time do an excellent impression of that clay Buddha, keeping the best of themselves protected against being seen and being known?

If you’re not ok with this, and I hope that you are not, then I encourage you to remember that everyone’s clay facade has a crack somewhere. If you are truly curious and determined you will find it and, peering within, see that there is gold inside.

This discovery must, of course, start with you.

Go ahead. Have a look.

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This is the World

Welcome to the world of reality — there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested… True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.

David Foster WallaceThe Pale King


It’s Saturday morning. You’re resting up from a long week of work, getting the kids back to school (maybe getting yourself back to school). You might even be getting ready for work right now, to finish up what the work week was too short to contain, or maybe a second job so you can pay for school.

It’s Saturday morning and you’re feeling, in some way, the painful truth that David Foster Wallace articulates with such heartbreaking accuracy: no one is interested. No one, that is, but you.

And also everyone who loves you, those who are cheering for you, and those who want nothing less for you than all that you have earned and deserve.

The problem, the very serious problem, is that it just doesn’t feel that way so much of the time. The problem is that it is so, so hard to remember that, so much of the time.

Because of that, this Saturday morning, I simply want to say,

You’ve got this.

Keep going.


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Soft Focus

When you hold a “soft focus” you trust what is in front of you to be as it is while leaving plenty of space for it to be otherwise.

My work affords me the opportunity to be a mentor and coach to business professionals across the wonderfully wide spectrum of “just starting out” to “seasoned executive.”

One of the privileges of this work is that I am invited “behind the curtain” of my client’s experience into their spaces of vulnerability and unknowing. This is holy ground. And to inhabit this holy ground in a way that honors both where they are and what they aspire to become, requires a soft focus.

As strong as the impulse can be to make assumptions about them based on their years of experience, role, education, family status and the like, I must hold what is presented to me as “true” while leaving room for anything else to emerge as also true.

In my practice of “knowing and not knowing” I recognize that I have also made it a priority to encourage my clients to develop their own capacity in this regard. As a practical matter, this often includes the “homework” assignment to seek out other professional mentors – perhaps a more senior leader within their company whom they admire – as a means to stretch the limits of their perspective.

Again and again, what happens in these encounters is that my clients go in with a hard focus, holding an assumption that because of this person’s status they have it “all figured out.”

Again and again, they return from these conversations with evidence that the person they see as “so accomplished” and “so impressive” is exactly that while also being someone who makes mistakes, has doubts and endures the struggle of insufficiency. This realization is a powerful one as it normalizes the other person as a human being, first of all. It can also be unsettling because it “proves” something to my client’s that they may not want to have proven to them at all: that you can achieve or become what you want to achieve or become even with or perhaps because of your vulnerability.

It’s easy to say, “be gentle with everyone you meet because they are fighting a great battle,” but to live that awareness every day requires rigorous practice, just like anything else we aspire to do well.

The implications for us go well beyond the confines of our professional lives, of course. Imagine holding a soft focus for your best friend, your partner, your children, and your neighbor. Imagine holding a soft focus for the person in front of you at the grocery store, the ticket window, and the on ramp. How might that shift your perspective? How might that open you up?

There is a space between what is and what else there is. To remain curious and aware about what is happening in that space is to offer a gift to everyone you meet.


{Thank you, Alia}

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I Can’t Do It Without You

I will always think too small about my own potential.

Left to my own impulses, I will always make the canvas of my possibility too small, and paint myself, with big, bright strokes, right into the corner.

Since I am both the painter and the canvas, I will think it a sufficient representation, even a bold one, but I cannot see it, so I do not know.

When I invite you into the gallery, you look upon the work I have created, you tilt your head, you take a step closer and immediately I know that you see it. You see that something is not quite right.

I ask, “What is it?”

And you say, “Well, it’s lovely, but it’s just so much smaller than I thought it would be.”

“What do you mean?” I protest. “It’s just how I imagined it!”

“Exactly!” you say, as my trusted colleague and friend. “That’s exactly the problem! You think you’ve stretched yourself to a new limit but you’ve only painted yourself into a corner. It’s too small a space for you!”

“No, no…,” I begin to protest further, but then I step back to look at my creation and I see, right away I see that you are right.

I had the choice of any canvas I wanted. The small ones were much too small and I am far beyond their limitations. But the large ones, the truly expansive ones, those are for the real painters, the ones who merit the largest possible expression of themselves.

And I chose the one in between, the one that would allow me to satisfy my too small definition of self.

You saw what I could not see. You helped me know what I could not know. That is why my development, my learning, is impossible without you.

Today, I buy a new canvas. “Will you come with me, please?”

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Help is on the way

Not only is help on the way, but it’s also surrounding us all the time.

In my experience, to find out for sure, you just have to ask for it.

Years ago, I longed to attend a leadership conference but the tuition was far greater than I could afford. I asked the organizers for a reduced fee and they said, “yes.”

Recently, one of my students cold-called a contact on LinkedIn and asked for an informational interview. The response was, “Sure, how about right now?”

I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to line up a speaker for one of my classes. She referred me to a colleague who, on short notice, said “Yes!” right away.

Maybe these are exceptions, anomalies in a cynical and selfish world.

Maybe not.

I believe that they are accurate representations of the truth that most people, most of the time will be of help if they are able.

Our job is to ask for it. And our job, when we’re on the other side of the equation is to be the ones who say “yes!”


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.