What holds you back?

Paul Heagen Purposeful Leadership & Living Leave a Comment

What holds you back?

It’s a deceptively common question, but it only gets provocative (and useful) when we decline to accept the first answer. Especially from ourselves.

I remember the first time I really heard it myself. It was 20 years ago this month at a major business conference where I ventured into a conversation with a person sitting next to me about starting my own coaching practice at some point. I was pretty miserable in my corporate job at the time, and a close friend had suggested I would be great as a coach. I had made a great case to this stranger at the table as to why that was the right path, but still…

“So what holds you back?” he asked, perhaps innocently, more likely with some needed provocation.

I dredged up some reasons in the moment, all of which on the flight home slumped back into what sounded more like excuses. I started my practice four months later.

I still ask that question today of anyone who ventures a dream or aspiration or even faces the flashing yellow lights of a hard decision ahead that needs to be made.

What holds us back is hardly ever something or somebody else, like that bird in the picture clinging to the one seeking to escape. It’s us. We hold ourselves back.

In my 20 years of asking that question, the patterns seem to be:

  1. It’s not the right time. Sure, get your ducks in order, but problems rarely dissolve by themselves, and opportunities don’t keep knocking. It’s easy to seek to tame impulse as a companion of recklessness, but there is something to be said for acting in that moment when vision and confidence converge. That moment may never come again.
  2. We accept the Bell Curve of Mediocrity  No matter what Garrison Keillor says, most people are average (after all, that’s what average means). You can hit that fat part of the curve and decide that the remaining 20 percent is just too hard. What we miss is that the last “push” not only unearths our true capability, but also can be the most rewarding, the most purposeful. Few get to that distant slope of the curve. It’s more of a choice than we want to admit.
  3. Wanting approval more than adventure. Sure, the counsel of many is wise, and in an organizational setting, achieving consensus has its virtues. However, have you considered that you just might be the person to bring clarity and focus to a vision or a tough decision? If you wait until the decision is obvious, you are not leading.
  4. We play the short game. Most of the really great gains in life come at a price. One of the tenets of human maturity is the discipline to delay gratification, and with that comes the grit to endure some nearer-term pain. I’ve always said it’s important to separate the decision from the difficulty of making it. When we get a clear view of what it looks and feels like on the other side of a tough call, it propels us.
  5. We’re too logical. We have been schooled to list the “pros” and “cons” before making that big decision, but the joke is that that it will always come out the way you want it to come out. I’m at a loss to recall a really bold idea or tough call that came out of an intellectual exercise. You don’t need permission to hurl the full weight of your talent and determination at whatever you truly want to do. Peter Drucker mused that people who eat risk for breakfast make two big mistakes a year. Those who seek to avoid risk? The same number.
  6. We confuse “life” with “living.” We can target-fixate on outcomes, or we can trust that doing the right things with passion and purpose will get us to an ever better place. Adventure is the only path to discovery. Miles Davis, a master at jazz improvisation, has said, “I’ll play it first, and tell you what it is later.” Doggedly exercising your talent in the right direction will almost always get you a good place, likely better than one you imagined.

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