When I hear about wondrous changes that people have undertaken there has always been a pivotal moment for them when it became clear that what had taken the individual thus far in life was not going to take her or him the whole way, while allowing their potential to be fully realized. Each of us can likely recall an “epiphany”, a “call to action” or a “life changing event” that was at the center of one of these stories - you may have experienced one yourself. They all sound inspirational and they are built on truth, but what the telling of these moments creates is a mythology around change, happiness and success that goes a little something like this:
You may be thinking you are more realistic then those three bullet points imply, but this kind of mythology sneaks up on us in many different ways. In her book “Daring Greatly” Bréné Brown recounts a strategy employed by one of her children’s teachers who used a marble jar to help her students better understand when they were collectively making the right choices. Good decisions merited marbles put in the jar; poor decisions and marbles came out of the jar. There was no discussion, just an acknowledgement that what went on for the class either added to, was neutral or took away from their shared experience and helped the students to see that everyone was accountable for that experience. It is a great anecdote, but the power in it was more in the exploration of the existence of a marble jar in the first place, because we each have a similar system; in life the marbles can be anything representing our emotions, actions or a more formal mental “points” system we keep. There are things that make us feel positive, neutral or negative but we never question the fact that the “jar” is there filling up or emptying. In her book Ms. Brown highlights how many of us (mistakenly) expect that if there were a disruptive force that really merited our attention, the jar would smash to pieces. This is the clear signal many of us are waiting for to tell us when we need to invest in a change. Yet, if you think about it, that is the worst possible time to do anything other than cope. A smashed jar exemplifies the things in life that are so disruptive they change almost everything; a cancer diagnosis, heart attack, divorce, death of a loved one, bankruptcy, the list goes on. These are examples of ”moments” and should you experience one you will know when it happens, in fact you’ll likely never forget it. It is about the number of marbles in the jar, not the jar itself. We do not fully control the jar itself - we can only influence it.
Another way to look at this is through the lens Malcolm Gladwell presents in his books, particularly in “Tipping Point”. This is a man who knows about marbles; in fact he keenly observes their movement right up to the point when the jar ceases to be functional. His examination has lead to the theory that when things go vastly wrong it is not one major event that causes the cataclysm, it is a series of things, seemingly innocent and unconnected, that creates an environment where chaos comes to play. He uses the example of a airliner going down and points to the fact that in almost all cases of airline disasters there are a series of three things that go wrong, creating the catastrophic failure of a flight (despite safety regulations, back-up systems and rigorous training). A rush to de-ice the wings, a very passive comment from the co-pilot concerned about the effectiveness of that process and current weather conditions, a pre-existing work culture where the pilot makes the final flight decisions without collaboration or being questioned by his flight crew. Catastrophe. Three things, none of them related to each other in any real way until it ends in disaster. There were no marbles left in that jar.
When it comes to our own lives we have choices we make every day, and one of them is to listen to what is happening both to others and ourselves. Some things are obvious; looking after our loved ones, driving safely, etc., all of these things keep marbles in the jar. But what about the seemingly unconnected events that can happen to everyone? The intermittent low energy that seems persistently to keep coming back; suddenly realizing your children are no longer concerned that you are not a part of their daily routines; distance from family and friends that grows unnoticed. That pain you feel in your wrist when you type for long periods of time or the loss of that “loving feeling” in a job you once would have sacrificed anything to get. We conveniently tell ourselves that it is “just until this project is over” or “just until I have my degree”; “once I am established at this job”, “once the children are a bit older” etc. The lies we tell ourselves are around how maintaining what we experience today keeps marbles in the jar; coping with the circumstance rather than looking at whether or not it is adding or taking away potential. Status quo does not keep marbles in the jar. Just like the example from Mr. Gladwell, it is listening to the little things that cry out for our attention that keeps our marble jars full; those things we take for granted, or find hard, nagging, inconvenient, unimportant or “put-off-able”. Going to the Doctor, working a consistently healthy number of hours in the week, giving ourselves the time to have interesting life experiences, letting the everyday constancy of the people we love be present in small but meaningful ways, eating right and exercising to name but a few.
We hear the success stories of others, and there is always a moment that helped them to realize what they needed to do next, and it is built on their truth. As you collect these stories, keep in mind that hindsight is always 20/20 and as a society we’ve learned to emphasize the good things we experience when speaking to others. No one is going to tell you a story that starts out with “I was ignoring how many ‘marbles were leaving my jar’ because it was inconvenient to me at the time…”. Take a look at your marble jar and think about what you need to do to keep it’s level constant, then start thinking about how you can fill it to the brim.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.