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The 3 Phrases of Making a Major (or Minor) Life Change

skull patiently waiting

This title has been borrowed and altered slightly from Harvard Business Review‘s The 3 Phases of Making a Major Life Change.

I’m in awe of the sheer number of people thinking at this exact moment about changing their lives. From this stranger near me spending her Saturday morning alone in a coffee shop, taking notes and smiling as she watches something on her laptop—I’ve made up my mind that she’s listening to Marie Forleo—to my friends and colleagues and family members. One of them is thinking of starting a blog, the other one wants to become a DJ, and one of them is thinking of embracing the cottage-core lifestyle by getting 8 chickens. One of them wants to improve her relationship with her sister, the other one is thinking about quitting, the other one quit and is moving to a village (not the 8 chickens person, surprisingly).

Whether it includes birds or DJ-ing or relationships, I encounter more and more people who are thinking of restarting or reinventing themselves. I absolutely love it!

But how do you start? Where do you start?!

In no particular order, here’s a list of things I’ve learned/reflected on recently on how to change our lives in small or big ways.

  1. Enough (aka questioning what you want and what’s next)
  2. Radical self-inquiry
  3. MGI

If you’re my friend or we’ve worked together or you’ve been at The Inner Dolphin for a while, you’ve heard me talk about Enough.

Enough doesn’t get talked about enough in our growth-focused culture.

Everything directs us towards more.

Most actions, conversations, and decisions are made or seen as a means to an end that provides growth.

As we grow up and there’s always more and more at stake, relationships or careers wise, our enough turns into the hazy mirage you see in the desert when you’re dehydrated, the friend you always promise to invite out next weekend but always forget to. 

Enough turns into that fine bottle of wine you’re planning to open for the right occasion, but never do.

How many celebrations and occasions do we miss on the road to Enough? Most of them if we’re not paying attention.

You know when you’re on a road trip, and an uncomfortable piece of clothing you’re wearing, or your car sickness, or a burning desire to pee is keeping you from enjoying the conversation, the view, the journey, but you think to yourself, “we’re almost there, I might as well wait”?

That’s us on our quest for more, more, more, but the car never stops, and we remain in the seat, feeling uncomfortable, waiting to arrive at our destination any moment now, as the wheels roll and as we pass all the beautiful sceneries and milestones, waiting for it to feel suddenly enough.

Unless we clearly define what enough looks like for us, we’ll never get out of the car and we’ll never crack open that bottle of wine because nothing will ever be enough to rise to the occasion. Unless we make it a point to question what enough truly is for us.

I strongly believe in this which is why I bring it up often. This isn’t a dream or The Truman Show or a videogame we’ll be able to start over. (Though, I’ve talked openly about my depersonalization episodes or how “when I was younger, back when everyone was lost and confused, I used to tell myself during the day: Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. I used to say it silently and out loud and write it in my journals and school books and hands.”) This is real life!!! Why did we ever think a one size fits all approach would work? Make it a point to question often what enough truly is for you.

2. Radical Self-inquiry

Sometimes, I listen to podcasts when I exercise. That’s what I was doing when I first heard this string of words in The Joy of Surrender – with Simon Cant and Jerry Colonna, an episode of The Reboot Podcast.

It deeply resonated with me even though it was mentioned in passing and not defined or expanded on in any way. Yes, I thought, radical self-inquiry. I hear that, I receive it, I love it.

Below, I’ll explain what I thought it meant vs the author’s definition of it. 

At first, I thought of radical candor. Radical Candor is a book written by Kim Scott. It’s been a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller for multiple years running.

It’s “a management philosophy based on Caring Personally while Challenging Directly.”

radical candor quadrant

I’d suggest reading more about radical candor, starting with the article linked below.

Scott has created an acronym to help people remember:

HHIPP: “Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” That last P makes a key distinction: “My boss didn’t say, ‘You’re stupid.’ She said, ‘You sounded stupid when you said um.’ There’s a big difference between the two.”

Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss

However, I’ve always thought of radical candor in the interpersonal and professional sense.

Radical self-inquiry expanded past that. I could radically inquire within when I had a fallout with a friend or when things didn’t go as planned or when I got in a fight with a family member. If I was radically 100% honest with myself, where did I fail? What could I have done better or differently?

Here’s the author’s beautiful explanation.

But the most challenging piece of the formula—indeed, the most important—is the notion of radically inquiring within. I define it as the process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that no mask can hide us anymore. The notion is to recognize that, if things are not okay, if you’re struggling, you stop pretending and allow yourself to get help. Even more, it’s the process by which you work hard to know yourself—your strengths, your struggles, your true intentions, your true motivations, the characteristics of the character known as “you.” The you behind the masks, the stories, the protective but no longer useful belief systems that have been presented for so long as the “you” that you would like everyone to see.

– Jerry Colonna, The most important leadership skill is radical self-inquiry

I receive that!

3. MGI (Most Generous Interpretation)

In my last article/the first article of 2023, I briefly mentioned my acronym of the year: MGI.

Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist, founder of Good Inside, and #1 New York Times bestselling author of the book with the same name, coined the term MGI. She believes parents and kids are—and always have been—good inside.

I follow Dr. Becky on Instagram where she shares practical parenting strategies that I find super valuable even as a childless person. One of these strategies that deeply resonated with me was MGI.

The idea is simple. When a stranger or your friend or boss or partner is being unreasonable or hostile or bitter, come up with the Most Generous Interpretation for their behavior.

CNN: How can parents and caregivers balance rule enforcement with nurturing?

Kennedy: I apply the “two things can be true” approach, which highlights both firm boundaries and warm connection. This model of parenting is as much about self-development for the parent as it is about child development — becoming what I call a “sturdy leader” who can stay regulated and calm even when their child becomes dysregulated requires rewiring ourselves.

If we want our children to have self-confidence instead of shame and self-blame, they need to see us recognize them as good kids having a hard time. It helps to choose the most generous interpretation of your child’s behavior. If your child calls you the worst mom in the world, stop, take a breath and get curious about what need your child is actually trying to express.

Psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy offers new hope for parents of kids who ‘just won’t listen’ by Jessica DuLong, CNN

Some personal stories: Readers, ghosting, and parties

Years ago, one of you (aka my readers) reached out with a request. They’d been a reader for a while and really appreciated my point of view. They were applying to grad school and would like me to provide feedback on their application cover letter and some other literary documents.

I was honored!

However, I was also busy, and I had realized early on that if I wanted to do this (aka The Inner Dolphin) and build a successful career and have a social life and prioritize my health by sleeping 8 hours every day and working out and all that, I would have to set some strong boundaries along the way and say NO often.

I told them I was honored and I’d love to help, but I could only commit to reading and providing feedback on one document (instead of 4, let’s say) and I’d respond at the earliest a week from now.

That was fine with them, and so they emailed me the document. I read it a few times, then sat down to write to them, sharing my opinions candidly on what I liked, what I found unexpected or exhilarating, what I thought could be improved, and of course, I wished them the best of luck.

I never heard back from them.

You may see where I’m going with this. While it’s easy to assume negative things about this person, I went the MGI route. What was the Most Generous Interpretation I could come up with to explain their behavior?

Once I asked myself this question, a stream of consciousness gently appeared and pointed me to various scenarios.

For starters, I never reached out to ask if they received my email. I use, not a Gmail or Yahoo domain, so my email may have ended up in their Spam folder. They may have waited and waited, then figured I forgot or was a flake.

Then, I walked down memory lane to my university days. I was confused, lost, and often said I would do something and didn’t do it. I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted to do something. I really, really wanted to, but then found myself unable to do it. A mix of depersonalization episodes, alcohol, all-nighters, procrastination, and bad decisions. I wanted to appeal an incredibly unfair grade I got. Never did. I graduated, but didn’t get my college diploma. It stayed at the school for years because I couldn’t just go get it. I’ve heard similar things from friends who have just 1 or 2 courses left to graduate, but find themselves physically unable to just do it.

I don’t know if this experience applies to the person who wrote to me. Maybe they were always driven, reliable, and clear on what they wanted and what was next. But maybe, just maybe, they were like my friends and me: lost, overwhelmed, confused. They may have really, really wanted to respond to my email, but couldn’t. Who am I to judge?

Why, yes, I do have 2 other plausible Most Generous Interpretations!

I think back to when I started sharing my work with the world. That was absolutely nerve-wracking. I thought people would hate what I wrote or, worse, never actually care enough to read it in the first place. What if they start, I don’t know, throwing tomatoes at me? (Why are tomatoes the most threatening vegetable/fruit I could think of?) What if my best friends have to do an intervention like in the movies and tell me this is not for me and I should stop? Sooo many fears.

This person may have been in a similar conundrum. For all I know, this might’ve been their first time sharing their work with someone. Years ago, someone who meant well sent me a Loom, aka a video review of my work and what they liked and disliked. I’m not proud to say I never watched it. I was scared. David, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

Maybe my grad school applicant reader never read my feedback either.

Maybe they did read it and realized they weren’t yet at the point to accept anything but 100% positive feedback (which isn’t really feedback as I’ve come to learn). While I now crave and truly HONOR all types of feedback, I can’t say that has always been the case. I’ve been there. I was not ready.

Oh, another thing might’ve happened, though this isn’t really the Most Generous Interpretation. They may have sent this request to 50 people and only thanked/acknowledged those who sent feedback they “agreed” with (agreeing or disagreeing with feedback isn’t—or rather, shouldn’t be—a thing as I’ve come to learn).

Finally, and I hope this is not what actually happened, my grad school applicant reader may have read my feedback, appreciated it, and implemented it. Then, they might’ve decided to reply to me once they received that “Congratulations! I am delighted to inform you that you have been admitted to X University’s Y program for the fall 2021 semester.” message from the school. However, that might not have happened. Maybe they weren’t accepted and that broke their heart and they forgot about my response altogether. Can you blame them?

We’ll never know what really happened, but I love this MGI exercise and how it bridges the gap between what someone disagreeable does and what I would do (or have done). If you try earnestly, you can find many commonalities between you and that person you’re beefing with.

MGI helps us see others in the unmistakable real and messy, but Human™️ and good inside way. In theory, I’m against verbing nouns; in practice, I just said beefing.

MGI also teaches us to extend this same kindness to ourselves.

For example, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with my partner and friends at this lovely bar in Tirana. A reader approached me to tell me she loved my work. She was incredibly kind. I was overwhelmed. I thanked her and also said something like, “I wish all your realistic dreams come true this year.”

That night, I was too intoxicated to think about my choice of words, but I did remember and cringe at the realistic bit the next day. It sounded like I had told her to lower her expectations, to keep in mind that life’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I didn’t wish all her dreams came true, no, no, only her reasonable, down-to-earth ones. Ugh.

But, hey, if we don’t extend compassion and come up with the MGI for ourselves, then what’s the point?! I figured someone who read my stuff and liked it enough to enthusiastically tell me so in person could also give me the benefit of the doubt and make some positive assumptions about what I had meant when I said, “I wish all your realistic dreams come true this year.”

This was my list of things I’ve learned/reflected on recently on how to change our lives in small or big ways. Did you find these helpful? Do you do any of these already? Any recent stories you feel like sharing here? I told you mine, now you have to tell me yours.

4 thoughts on “The 3 Phrases of Making a Major (or Minor) Life Change”

  1. As always, it is a pleasure to read your articles!
    To be honest, I feel like I have always practiced MGI, which I’ve always understood within me as empathy, and I also think, goes a bit in the direction of trying to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. However, I’ve felt in my experience that while I can see all the benefits of practicing MGI and I will continue to do so, one should also be careful. It is a tricky slope between trying to find common ground between you and the person you’re beefing with, while at the same time validating your feelings. But I guess, it goes a bit in the direction of “two things can be true at the same time”, in which you can have a situation where you can extend the MGI to others (or yourself) while also validating your feelings of being hurt, or frustrated, etc by the actions of the other person.

    1. Absolutely loving this reflection! I usually start with an acknowledgment that while two things can be true at the same time, feelings per se are never wrong. This has helped me maintain a filled-up empathy tank where I’m able to come up with the MGI for other people’s behavior (and understand their why-s) while never “debating” my feelings’ validity and whether I’m being overly sensitive or overreacting.

      Thank you for bringing this up, it’s an important part of the conversation!

  2. Thanks. I always enjoy reading your articles with a cup of coffee in the morning. It stimulates my brain in a positive and intellectual manner.(Your article not the coffee :)). The MGI exercise really satisfies what the mind “needs to know”. Or as you said bridges the gap between yourself and others.

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