When you’re on the precipice of growth in your personal life or your business, it’s exciting. But then, a voice pops into your head. Am I really on the right path? Is that a voice worth paying attention to, or are you just getting in your own way?
If you’re asking, “Am I on the right path?” then you’re looking to an external authority to make decisions about your life. That autonomy belongs to you, and you get to make decisions that are in line with your values.
Your Framework of the World
Am I on the right path? is a question that carries preloaded assumptions about how the world works.
With this question, you’re stepping into a logical level in which you’re assuming there is one and only one right path. You’re looking for an authority outside of yourself to tell you what it is.
You are operating as if you believe that you’re an archaeologist who’s going to dig up ancient tablets. The truth or the rightness of your life will be inscribed on them.
You are assuming that there’s an answer “out there.” If you look hard enough or get quiet enough, you’ll find the answer from that external authority.
Am I on the right path? presumes that the answer to that question comes from anywhere else other than inside of yourself and a choice that you make about your own path.
External Authorities vs Autonomy
And what might that authority be? It may not be obvious at first. There might not be anyone coming to you and specifically saying, “This is what you should do.”
Rather, you might be picking up subtle clues from the world around you and turning your authority over to them.
Perhaps you’re delegating your authority to:
- A higher power
- What society says
- Internalized messages from movies
- Internalized messages from your friends or parents
Any — or all! — of these can wind up acting as an authority figure in your life.
But what happens one day if you lose access to that thing? If, one day, you can’t get it to speak through you? You’ll be totally disempowered!
Looking to authority figures externalizes your sense of autonomy.
What an oxymoron that is. The word “autonomy” comes from Greek. It’s a compound word made up of auto, meaning “self,” and nomos, meaning “law.” This word encompasses the idea of self-law and self-rule.
If we’re not able to rule ourselves, then we don’t have freedom.
Alarm Bells and Outside Authorities
But when the alarm bells are going off in your head as you’re about to move forward in life, is that a sign to stop and listen?
Let’s talk about where the alarm bell mechanism comes from.
Visual Cliffs and Maternal Emotional Signaling
In the 1980s, researchers did an experiment to see how babies responded to their mothers’ emotional expressions.
The experimenters set 12-month-olds in an environment with a “visual cliff.” The surface was covered with a smooth sheet of clear plexiglass. Underneath the plexiglass, the scientists created what looked like a steep dropoff. They wanted to know whether the babies would venture across the plexiglass or be deterred by a fear of falling.
The babies were placed on one side of the environment, and their mothers were positioned on the other side of the cliff. The mothers were instructed to convey various emotions to their children. They called this “maternal emotional signaling.”
When the mothers displayed happy looks, the babies were usually willing to go across the full surface. If their mothers showed fear or anger, the babies typically stayed away from the cliff.
What does this tell us about our internal alarm bells?
For a long time in your life, you were defenseless in the world. Back then, it made sense to trust your caregivers to confirm that you were taking safe actions.
That behavior became ingrained. You’ve learned to look for an authority to keep you safe.
Learning to Ride a Bike
Do you remember learning to ride a bike? If your experience was like mine, there was an adult pushing you along. The grown-up was running alongside the bike as you were pedaling. That person was keeping you safe by preventing you from falling over.
You started to power that bike with your own two legs, though, so the adult let go. You were doing it yourself, but you were thinking that there was still a caretaker there doing it for you.
Eventually, you probably realized that you were on your own. “Hey, I’m doing it!” But you had to pause and look around before you became aware that your grown-up was no longer right there with you.
This is the sort of thing that happens as people build their operating system patterns. We look to an authority to keep us safe.
Am I on the right path? comes up because we haven’t quite realized that we are already riding the bike on our own.
We’ve already learned what we need from our caretakers. Now, we have intrinsic autonomy, but we still believe that someone is right there holding on to us and keeping us safe.
In truth, we’re riding on our own. We have been for a long time.
Autonomy Through Self-trust
Self-trust is the answer to empowering ourselves to operate according to our autonomy.
The babies in the visual cliff experiment were looking for trusted individuals to help them make a decision in the world. But you can trust yourself to make your decisions.
It boils down to your ability to accept the consequences of your actions, no matter what they end up being.
Ever After Effect vs. Video Game Failure
In so much of life, it’s tempting to avoid potential consequences. You know that it’s gonna hurt if you fall off the cliff, so you avoid going in that direction.
I call this the Ever After Effect. It’s the belief that failure is forever. The curtains will close; the story will be over. Our conviction that failure is the end shapes our relationship with this word and this idea.
A stage play is a faulty metaphor for failure, though. It’s actually more like a video game.
Someone recently recommended a video game to me. I love video games, so I was all about trying it out. But the person hadn’t mentioned what a challenging game it was going to be!
The boss fight required me to react quickly in real time. The objective was for me to hit the boss more than the boss could hit me. If I could do that, I would stay alive.
I don’t know how many times I replayed that one fight. It was at least 50 times. Sometimes I died as soon as I walked into the room. Other times, I’d last for half of his life bar.
But as I went through the process again and again, I got better and better at it. I just had to be willing to fail a whole bunch of times. That’s what the process of success often looks like.
Values and Decisions
The thing I was really fighting against wasn’t the boss. It was my own willingness to continue learning and developing my skill set.
I could have gotten to a point of saying, “It isn’t worth it to me to keep sitting here fighting this boss for hours.” Whether I continued to play or decided to stop, I was making a values assessment.
Am I on the right path? When that question comes up, shift its wording: Is this thing in alignment for me? You are the only one who knows whether something is in line with your values.
Your willingness to accept the consequences of that thing may not be there yet. In that case, you might get stuck and want someone else to decide for you so that you don’t have to assume the risk.
But you can take control and authority over those decisions for yourself.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Can I find joy in the attempts? When you’re facing a challenge, you may go through multiple rounds of attempting it, just like I did with the video game. Ask yourself whether you can find joy in that process.
- Is the outcome meaningful to me? You may be tempted to leave the path because you’re afraid of failure. But if the path is going to lead to an outcome that holds value for you, then it’s worth pushing through the fear.
- Am I committed to figuring it out? Don’t confuse your means with your ends. Repeated failures might be the means to getting where you want to go, but figuring the damn thing out is the end. That’s what you’ll want to commit yourself to.
You’re on a journey, and there’s not one singular “right” path for it. So decide what’s important to you, choose to believe that that thing is possible for you, and then commit yourself to figuring out how to get there.
I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg here. My friend Sophie Weill and I went into a lot more depth on this topic in Episode 7 of The Shift to Freedom podcast, so I encourage you to check that out.