Slaying the Dragons of Chaos

Dragons of Chaos

I’ve been listening lately to lectures by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson,  a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, whose complex thoughts attract me with their depth and insight.  When you listen to him, you need to stop doing anything else and truly listen.  He speaks quickly and packs each sentence with layers of meaning.  But listening thoughtfully is worth the effort it requires of you.

One of the ideas he conveyed in the lectures I heard this week is that dragons, in mythology, represented (among other things) chaos.  And that slaying them makes you a hero.

Our own lives are a constant battle between chaos and order, and to be a hero in your own life means you slay the dragons that are bringing chaos to it so that you can have less confusion and greater clarity and competence in your life.

The first step in battling your dragons is the toughest.  You have to face the fact that they’re there.  You know that they are, and that they’re keeping you from being all that you can be.

Dr. Peterson says that the secret of overcoming your dragons is to take responsibility for them.   Taking responsibility builds you character and gives your life meaning.  It allows you to aim for a living on a higher level than you are now.

Here’s how he says to do it.  You know there are things in your life that aren’t in order, where you’re not together, and they’re causing you some discomfort or suffering.   Every morning, or every night, ask yourself what those things are.

Ask as if you’re asking someone you really want the answer from, not telling yourself or preaching, but sincerely asking what need to be put in order.  You can easily name five of them he says, “Bang. Bang. Bang.”  These are the little dragons of chaos.  “And they’re just little, but that’s good, because you’re not much of a hero warrior, so maybe little dragons are all you can put up with right now.”  So you name them and the begin sorting them out.

You ask yourself which one you’ll put some work into, even if the work is tedious or boring, or whatever it is that’s been allowing you to put it off.  And you do the work.  You sort those things out.

And what happens is it will bring more order into your life and when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be just a little more focused and together.  Then you ask the same question, and the next problems will be a little more complex and challenging, and you sort those out.  And you keep going with this, and you become stronger and more clear-headed for the next set of dragons you take on.

If you continue to do that, you’ll find that your room gets cleaned, your health improves, and your house gets put in order, and then maybe you can stick a finger out and begin looking at the dragons in your community.  By that time, you’ll have some real personal power and self-confidence, and some practice at identifying dragons and taking them on.

Now that, he says, is an interesting and exciting game.  “If you started doing the things that you know you should do and you did that diligently, what the hell would you be like in ten years?”  You might not reach the very pinnacle, but you’ll be a lot better off than you are now, a lot less self-pitying and resentful, with a lot less suffering in your life, a lot less cruel to yourself and other people.  “And that’s a pretty good start.”

So here’s to slaying dragons.  Which ones will you start with today?

Wishing you a sharp sword and hearty determination!


8 Powerful Questions for Discovering What You Really Want

Discovering What You Really WantThe key to living a life that’s brimming with satisfaction, happiness and meaning is discovering what you really want.

And yet few of us know how to get to our core desires.  We end up letting life live us instead of living according to our own intentions and designs.

I’m writing this article in December, and every year at this time, I watch people grapple with the New Year’s Resolution dilemma: To resolve or not to resolve?  And if so, what?

Most of us have learned from experience that making resolutions doesn’t change our lives.  If we decide to make one anyway, thinking this year we mean it, we pick something we think we should do to be a better person:  Lose weight, quit smoking, find a better job.  But in the end our resolution turns out to be just so much wishful thinking.

Deciding to enhance your life is a noble act.  But will power burns up quickly.  Temptations and distractions loom large.  And setbacks can send your  whole effort  crashing to the ground.

To create a life that excites you and lets you unfold your true potential, you need to begin with identifying what you really want in your life.

When you know, deep in your heart, what you want to have, and do, and be, you have authentic guidelines for living.  You wake up in the morning with a sense of direction and purpose.  

When you know what truly matters to you, you’re alert for opportunities; you know when to say yes and when to say no to things; you’re not pulled by momentary distractions, temptations, or setbacks. You’re living intentionally, in alignment with your own purposes.  And that’s a powerful way to live.

Ask Yourself These Questions

To get started on discovering what it is that you really want in life, take time to consider the following questions and to answer them for yourself.

You may want to print them out to keep them where you can see them.  Then set aside some regular time for working out your answers – even if it’s only for 15 minutes a day.  Pay attention to the thoughts and signals that come to you during your day that give you clues.  You have all the answers inside you.  And the process of discovering them can be life-changing—and great fun.

1. Which parts of your life interest you the most? What are your priorities?  Rate each of the following areas on a 1-10 scale, where 1 means you don’t really care about that aspect of life very much at all, and 10 means it’s one of the most important parts of your life.  Then decide, if you could focus on only 3 – 4 areas this year, which would you choose?

  • Health
  • Job/Career
  • Finances
  • Significant Other/Romance/Family
  • Friends/Social Life/Community
  • Personal Growth/Spirituality
  • Fun/Recreation/Hobbies
  • Physical Environment

2. How would the key areas of your life look if they were ideal?  How would an ideal day unfold if you were giving this aspect of your life your best?   Take time to imagine it.  Who kinds of things would you be doing? How would you feel?  Who would be with you?  What would people be saying about it?  A clear vision of what you’re aiming for is a dynamite motivator.

3. In what ways do you want to develop more mastery or competence?  What are you curious about learning in each of the priority aspects of your life in order to make it better?  What new behaviors would you like to begin practicing?  How might you go about it?

4. What stops you?  What barriers stop you from being more?  In what ways, or in what activities or environments, do you feel insecure?  How might you begin to practice more courage in this area?  How can you take more risks?  In what new ways can you respond when you feel fear?

5. What resources do you need?  What information, materials, time or support might you need in order to develop priority areas of your life?  Where might you get them?  Who can help you?  What are you willing to trade or give up in order to get them?

6. Do you know  your personal character strengths? (Learn more here.) How might you use them with greater focus and intention in your daily life?  How can you apply them to move you toward your ideals?

7. What tools do you have for reducing the stress in your life?  How regularly do your practice them?  Would it benefit you to add a favorite or two to your daily routine?  Would you like to learn new techniques?  How might you go about it?

8. How can add more happiness into your day?  What pleasurable activities might you do more often?  Happiness comes in different flavors.  Which of the following positive emotions most mean “happiness” to you?  How might you choose to experience them more often during your day?

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest/Engagement
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

Set aside time during the next two weeks or so to play with these questions and see the new sense of direction that develops.   Then work out a plan for applying the ideas you generate into your real life.

Yes, it takes some concentrated attention.  We’re not used to doing the kind of digging-for-inner-gold that these questions require.  But the reward is living a rich, satisfying, self-directed life and worth every second that you spend on it. Why not get started today?

If it feels like it’s more than you can do alone, shoot me an email and I’ll give you a call. We can talk about what you want to achieve and the ways that personal coaching might offer you the clarity, confidence and support to move ahead.

Illustration by svilen001


The Practical Wisdom of Prudence

PrudenceSome time back, I decided to give all my inner voices names.  I thought that would make my dialogues with them more intimate.  There’s the brave one, Sally Forth, for instance, who encourages me when my confidence is drooping or I’m feeling shy.  And there’s May Bull with her soft, deep drawl, who coaxes me on when I’m tired or the going gets rough.  “Come on, honey,” she’ll say.  “Just a little more.  You can do it.”

For the most part, they’re a good bunch, valued players on my team.

The only spoilsport in the bunch was Prudence.  She’s the strict one who’s always pulling back the reins on my free spirit.

For a long time, I thought of Prudence as “the nag.”  She watches my spending like some green-shaded accountant.  If I reach for a second piece of chocolate cake, she’ll cluck.  She believes in regular bedtimes and exercise, and being prompt.  And any time I’m facing some moral dilemma or mulling some point of etiquette, she’s right there with her two cents in hand.

It took me a long time to appreciate her worth.  It’s something you have to grow into.  But now that I see the genuine value and practical wisdom of Prudence, I’ve crowned her Chief of Staff.

Let me tell you why – because you have an inner Prudence, too, whether you’ve named her or not.

What Prudence Does

Prudence brings with her quite a heritage.  Her name, according to Wikipedia, “comes from Old French prudence (14th century), from Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity). “    Prudence is considered one of the four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity.   The other three are Justice,  Temperance (or Self-Control),  and Fortitude (or Courage).   Among them, she is foremost, because her knowledge is necessary to direct the remaining three.

Despite her grand history, her name has gone out of fashion these days.  Mostly we refer to her now as “Practical Wisdom.”   But personally, I don’t think that has the same ring.

If you took the VIA Character Strength Survey,  you would see Prudence defined as “caution, prudence, and discretion,” and if you have this personal strength in good supply, the Survey report would tell you that “You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.”

But while that’s a neat little overview, it doesn’t really tell you about Prudence’s worth.  She does so much more for you than that.

Prudence upholds your true values.  She’s your inner moral compass, “that still, small voice” that urges you to seek for and choose the higher path.

Prudence believes in goodness, both as a means and an end.  She asks you to imagine the best possible outcome in every situation and then to move toward it in the most effective way for the benefit of all concerned.

She challenges you to listen both to your heart and to your head.  She asks you to look at both the big picture and at the details involved.

In other words, Prudence requires you to be mindful, to thoughtfully consider both your actions and their potential consequences in terms of what you genuinely value.  Then she expects you to implement them with courage, and strength, and efficiency.  She helps you live from a place of true authenticity.

“Are you doing your best?” she asks.  “Is this who you want to be?”

It takes learning and experience for her voice to mature.  You can cultivate it by paying attention to the wisdom and errors that you see others using in the world around you, and in movies and literature.  She takes on more authority as you go through your own life experiences and learn from your own triumphs and mistakes.

In time, you learn to listen to her counsel a kind of reverence.  Instead of seeing her as a nagging shrew, you learn to turn to her and trust her when you need to be wise.  And in the end you come to appreciate why, since time immemorial, Prudence is considered the mother from which all the other virtues spring.

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

If you found this article of value, passing it on would be a prudent thing to do.  Just click a button.

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Putting Justice and Fairness to Work in the World

Justice Fairness Equality“Daddy,” my friend’s daughter asked him as he drove her home from school, “what is justice?”

It was a pretty big question to come from a ten-year-old, and it caught him totally off-guard.  Images of courtrooms and congressional chambers swirled through his mind as he tried to drill down to the essence of the word.  He thought of crowds of protestors shouting for justice and fairness on both sides of all kinds of issues.

He finally gave up and said that it was too complicated for him to explain right now.  He wasn’t, he told her, even sure that there was such a thing.  But the question kept rolling through his mind.

Defining Justice, Fairness and Equity

Justice.  Fairness.  Equity.  We think we understand what they mean.  But these intertwining concepts are both complex and profound.

In common language, we tend to use the words interchangeably.  Plug in “equity” at, for instance, and you’ll see it defined as “something that is fair and just.”   But if you do a Google search on “difference between justice and fairness,” you’ll run into a quagmire of arguments and discussions stretching back to the beginnings of Western civilization that attempt to get to the heart of both.

“From the Republic, written by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, to A Theory of Justice, written by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, every major work on ethics has held that justice is a part of the central core of morality,” one essay from Santa Clara University says.

No wonder my friend had a hard time coming up with a simple answer for his daughter!

It’s worthwhile to read the discussions on the topic, and if you’re interested in an in-depth understanding of the questions and issues involved, I heartily encourage you to start with the above referenced essay, or with the essay “What is the difference between justice and fairness?  Which is more important?” by Chris Cooke from the University of Oxford’s Oriel College.

A Working Definition

For our purposes, learning to live with fairness and equity in our day to day lives, let’s consider a simple, working definition—one that even a ten year old could probably understand.

When people who rank high for the personal strength of fairness, equity and justice on the  VIA (Values in Action) Character Strengths  Profile, they are told, “Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles.  You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people.  You give everyone a chance.”

That’s clear enough.  You do your best to set your own prejudices and preferences aside when you make decisions about others, and you give everyone a chance.

If you’re tasked for hiring the best person for a job, for example, you choose the guy with the most expertise and experience, even if the runner-up is your nephew.

Putting Fairness and Justice to Work in the World

It looks simple enough on the surface.  But what if your nephew is a close runner-up and you happen to know that his toddler has just been diagnosed with a difficult medical problem and his wife is six months pregnant?  What if, in addition, the most experienced guy has told you that he is also considering offers from two other firms?  Both candidates are qualified and will serve the company well.  What’s fair then?  What takes precedence—deservedness or need?

It’s thorny decisions like these that trigger the ethics discussions I mentioned above.   In the real world, few of us have the time or inclination for sorting out the philosophical nuances, as ideal and helpful as that might be.  We have to depend on our best, most honest, judgment and let the pieces fall where they may.  And that willingness to accept the consequences of our choices is, in itself, a hallmark of the value we place on justice.

If you’re looking for a standard to guide you, all the world’s major religions tell us, each in its own words, to treat others as we would like to be treated, to refrain from doing to others what we wouldn’t want done to us.

Trust that.  And heed this good advice from H. Jackson Brown, Jr., author of Life’s Little Instruction Book.  “Live,” he says, “so that when your children think of fairness and integrity, they think of you.”

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index  and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

If you found this article of value, please do pass it on.

You may also enjoy: What Ever happened to Open-Mindedness?


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The Liberating Power of Honesty

Power of Honesty“Honesty is the best policy,” Shakespeare said.  We’ve heard that quote a thousand times.

But it’s his next sentence that cuts to heart of things:  “If I lose my honor,” he said, “I lose myself. ”

With those two simple lines, the old bard told the whole story.   Evade the truth and you lose not only your honor, but your undermine your own reality.

Positive psychologists recognize the association of honesty with integrity and genuineness, too.  In fact, when Martin Seligman  and Chris Peterson  first identified the character strengths, “honesty” was listed as “honesty/genuineness/integrity.”   In the VIA Character Strength Survey report, you’ll find this description of the strength of honesty:  “You are an honest person,” it says, “not only by speaking the truth, but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way.  You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a ‘real’ person.”

Setting an Absolute Standard

We all like to think of ourselves as basically honest.  But, as I said in an article about authenticity“We all have areas of our lives where we’re pretending to be something that we’re not.  We pretend we’re on a diet, but the truth is we’re sneaking Twinkies when nobody’s watching.  We pretend we’re hard workers when we’re mainly goofing off.  We pretend we’re being faithful.  We’re pretending to be happy.  We’re pretending we’re in favor of an idea that we don’t find appealing at all.”

If you’re seeking to be a whole, happy and flourishing, being “basically honest” isn’t good enough.   Every time you do a little end-run around the truth, you lose a part of the truth of who you are.  Every time.  Even when you tell yourself that you’re being kind.  You can be compassionate and honest at the same time.

When you pretend to yourself, you cheat yourself of the opportunity to look squarely at the things that you wish were different and to take measures to change them.

When you are dishonest with others, you sabotage the trust that’s the bedrock condition for any relationship to thrive.  In addition, your own sense of trust gets shaken.  How can you believe what anyone else says if you are dishonest yourself?

Setting a standard of absolutely honesty for yourself prepares you for moments of temptation.   Because you begin with self-honesty, when you look within, you see an honest human being.  And that gives you the strength to put the truth first—even when it may mean humiliation, or that someone may think less of you, or that you may look ill-informed.

Every lie you tell out of fear strengthens the fear.  Every truth you tell strengthens your courage and confirms your integrity.  And, as Marianne Williamson says, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”   Our own truth emboldens others to tell theirs.

Truth is Freeing

Practicing absolutely honesty is incredibly liberating.  You find the power of living according to your own beliefs, preferences and desires instead of trying to mold your behavior according to others’ expectations.  You learn to trust yourself completely and to take full ownership for your decisions.  Your relationships get cleaner and clearer and deeper.  Your stress decreases, and life becomes both more interesting and more fun.

If you would like to put it to the test for yourself, take The 24-Hour Truth Challenge® and see how it feels.  If your experience is like that of others, you’ll discover honesty’s power in a vibrant, new, liberating way.

To learn more about authenticity and honesty, see: Authenticity: The Hero’s Journey and Want Happiness? Be Truthful.

This article is one of a series on the 24 Character Strengths.  You can find the others by clicking on the “Article Index” tab above and scrolling down to “Strengths, Individual.”

If you enjoyed this article, please do pass it on.

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