June 28, 2012

To Boldly (and Cautiously) Go Where No One Has Gone Before

I'm sometimes a little irked by articles about personal development in which the sentences all seem to end in exclamation points. Maybe I'm more sensitive to it because I write a lot about this topic. In fact, I started this blog in order to share my perspective as a midlife woman on the subject.

I welcome conversation about growth and transformation. I'm a convert to the benefits of gratitude over complaining, to living in the present instead of staying mired in the past, and to substituting compassion for self-recrimination.

I'm wildly supportive of dialogue that promotes taking personal responsibility, engaging in positive action, setting ambitious goals, and other such wholesome pursuits.

So it's not the concept of personal development that bugs me. And the profusion of exclamation points? Well, that's just a symptom of a deeper concern. What is it, then, that I find troubling?

It's a specific type of pronouncement about how to proceed on the path to self-fulfillment--specifically, the claim that there's only one way to get there. This singular way, we're told, is by jumping off a (metaphorical) cliff, preferably without looking over the edge. 

Overcoming fear and risk is a key theme in these articles; the word "fierce"--as in "facing fear fiercely!"--shows up often.  But whatever the actual words or the number of exclamation marks, the message is urgently clear: "Get over it and kick butt! Don't let anything stand in your way! Just do it! Jump!" 

There's nothing inherently wrong with this message (with the exception of the exasperating punctuation, mind you). There are times when direct, uncomplicated action is the best option. Eventually we need to stop ruminating, face our fears--maybe even "fiercely!"--and forge ahead.

Unfortunately, though, zealous declarations like this one tend to ignore context. The result is a one-size-fits-all prescription for whatever it is that ails you.

There's a phrase my wonderful yoga teacher, Cindy Dollar, sometimes uses as she leads us through a complex pose:

be bold; be cautious.*
The "be bold" part of the phrase is shorthand for moving into the pose with curiosity and interest rather than with pre-conceived assumptions about what our bodies can't or won't do. "Be cautious" suggests taking the pose thoughtfully, listening attentively to our bodies to learn what's available to us in that moment. We move both with resolve and with respect for what is possible right now.

Not everyone is ready to jump (or even "jump!") at this instant. Readiness depends on interrelated conditions that include our physical circumstances and our emotional and mental states. The same step that's easy for some can appear incredibly difficult to others, and the type and amount of preparation that we need is different for each person.

I'm convinced that we need both parts of the equation: boldness and caution. Yes, we need to be bold. Some of us, in fact, need to be pushed, gently, from "what is" to "what could be." Me, for one. I've been guilty of spending way too much time building a barricade made from every possible misfortune that might befall me if I dared to venture outside my comfort zone.

If this sounds like you, consider how you might test-drive the new environment--whether it's a different career, a location, or a behavior--in small, incremental ways. These "sneak peeks" can help you build the confidence to tackle the bigger moves. 

So be bold. Do more than you think you can; act as confidently as you'd like to feel; stretch the muscles you'll need for jumping. 
But don't fall into the trap of believing that there's something wrong with you because  you temper boldness with caution. Instead, congratulate yourself.  Boldness and caution complement each other; each brings out the other's best qualities.
Ultimately, you are the only one who knows when the time is right for you to take action. 

Throughout, pay close attention to what your body tells you and listen with compassion. Find a pace that feels right to you and stay the course. And remind yourself that every day is new; what may not have been available to you yesterday may be possible tomorrow. And watch out for those exclamation points!

* attributed to B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the style of yoga that I practice.
Image by R. Jay GaBany, on Wikimedia, under a Creative Commons License.


  1. I like your perspective to be bold and to be cautious. I am skeptical of transformation/action that occurs with a series of exclamation points.

    For some maybe that works. My own experience with taking bold action(!!!),instead of caution ended in a very large thud :(

  2. I'm with you on this one, Ross. These days I am for the middle path. Maybe I should add an exclamation point to that? ;=)

  3. Clara, how did I not know you are writing this blog. I'm following you now. :)

    1. Thanks, Ann. I'm glad you found it/me. Now, what I'd like to read is your BOOK!

  4. Glad to hear that the words that come out in class make it out into the world. Thanks, Clara, for listening - and for your exquisite writing.