Flip the Script

By Marshall Goldsmith

The first obstacle to earning your life is deciding what that life should be. If you don’t have your own ideas on the subject, you’re relying on luck or the assistance and insight of others. 

But how can you tell when a life-changing idea has been dropped into your lap? 

How do you prevent inertia, or your comfort with the status quo, or a failure of imagination, or any other impediment from obscuring the chance of a lifetime that’s been handed to you — how do you end up with a turning-point epiphany, not a missed opportunity? 

It’s up to you to answer that big question. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

Although I can’t command you to be more creative or to recognize the luck that’s staring you in the face, what I can offer is a two-step exercise to help you get there on your own: 


1. Do for yourself what you have done for others. 

Can you recall the times you’ve given someone else a piece of life-altering advice? 

Maybe you set up two people on a blind date, and they ended up getting happily married. Maybe you alerted a friend to a job opening that was perfect for her. Maybe you’ve been reminded by a grateful friend of an offhand remark you made years earlier to her that she regards as a turning point in her life. 

Maybe you fired an employee, convinced you were doing him a favor, and later on the employee thanked you, admitting you were right, that getting sacked was the best thing that ever happened to him. Maybe you recognized something special (rather than deficient) in another person and told them they were capable of so much more. 

In each case, you recognized something in others that they couldn’t see for themselves. That should put to rest the issue of whether you’re capable of imagining a new path — you’ve done it for others, so you can do it for yourself, too. 

2. Begin with a basic question. 

“What do I want to do for the rest of my life?” 

“What can I do that’s meaningful?” 

“What would make me happy?” 

These are not basic. They are deep, multifaceted questions that should be asked throughout your life (but don’t expect an easy or quick answer). 

Basic questions address one factor only—because for nearly all of our major life decisions we don’t require four or five strong supporting reasons. One reason will do. 

For example, we marry people because we love them—and that explanation alone is enough to overwhelm any other reason, for or against. 

“Do you love him?” is a basic question. 

So is “Who’s your customer?” 

And “Will this work?” And “Can we afford this?” 

And “Where did we go wrong?” And “Are you serious?” 

And “What are you running away from?” 

So is, “What are you running toward?” 

A basic question is any question simply phrased that demands a deep, soulful examination of the facts and your abilities and intentions, one that elicits the deep, solid, hard-core truth. 

The most common question I pose when I’m advising people on their next big life move is as basic as it gets: “Where do you want to live?” (I ask this from personal experience: After thirty-five years of living in San Diego, my wife, Lyda, and I moved to Nashville for one reason alone: Our grandkids live there. But the fact that Nashville turned out to be a great place to live is a bonus. A better quality of life or any other reason never factored into our decision.)

It’s so basic that people rarely ask it of themselves. But since we all hold an image in our mind of the ideal place for us, we answer with little hesitation. 

Then the real thinking begins about our future: What do we imagine doing all day in this ideal place? Can we find meaningful work there? How would the people we love feel about this move? If we have children or grandchildren, could we tolerate living far apart from them? 

The specific choice of place also speaks volume about our ideal lifestyle. People who answer “Hawaii” or “the Swiss Alps” are not envisioning the same life as people who answer “New York” or “Berlin.” 

You can’t see a Broadway show in the Swiss Alps, and you can’t hike up a mountain in Berlin. 

This inspires the next basic question: 

“What will I do there every day?” 

That’s the value of a basic question: It forces us to come up with very basic answers, which in turn inspire more questions that need to be answered. This is how we discover how we truly feel about our life now and what we want it to look like. 

Sometimes we discover that we’re happy with the status quo. Other times we realize we’re not satisfied at all. 

That’s when the creativity begins. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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