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Are you wilfully blind to your own life?

In her fabulous book, Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan says “we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.”

My own wilful blindness showed up in my late 40’s when, on the receiving end of coaching questions, I realised I had been overly investing time, energy and attention in my business at the expense of the other aspects of my life.

Avoiding wilful blindness is not for the faint hearted.  The busyness of everyday life with widely dispersed families, financial pressures, and ever-present technology means that few of us have the time or courage to shine a light into the blind-spots of our lives by reflecting on questions such as “who am I?”, “why do I do what I do?” and “what do I want to achieve in this world?”

Why do we avoid exploring these questions?

From my experience, the potential for discomfort and disruption prompted by these questions is significant.  I feared opening ‘Pandora’s box’ might knock me off my ladder, and as a result trigger uncertainty and self-doubt.

Reflecting on my own career, the career’s of my coaching clients and amongst the choices we have made, I noticed that it’s easy to continue with what we have always done – and thus remain wilfully blind.  Most of us get through each day overly reliant on habitual thinking.  And yet the more we focus on what we already know, the more we leave out of our lives.  In a world of uncertainty and ambiguity, it’s far more comfortable to seek solace in things that feel familiar and safe – maybe that’s one reason why it’s so challenging to move outside the echo chambers of affirming views that we often inhabit in our organisational life.

Each life stage makes different demands of us

When I embarked on my career, I thought life would ‘unfold’ for me as it was for others.  I had placed my career ladder firmly against the wall nearest to me and had begun climbing – looking up, but not to the left or right, or indeed where I had come from.  Looking back, I was most definitely wilfully blind by choosing not to see the consequences of the climb for other areas of my life.

As we move through life, the available choices and the significance of the decisions we have to make constantly change.  Most of us have to confront different demands, pressures and expectations at various life stages and, because life never unfolds quite as we hope or expect, we find ourselves living with the unintended consequences of the past.  The advances of technology have enabled a greater degree of flexibility in how we work and a flip side view is that the 17:30 ‘clocking-off’ no longer exists, fostering further a narrowing of our perspective.

For me, over time, I felt as if I was wearing a straight jacket of my old decisions that I ought to just accept and live with.  With coaching and the value of hindsight I have been able to see how, at major life stages, I was unconsciously wrestling with big and different questions; Am I the only one who has chosen to remain wilfully blind?

It took a mid-life confluence of unforeseen circumstances to break me out of my habitual thinking, and it was that, which forced me to ask and answer a set of questions which led with ‘why’.  That process of introspection, aided by coaching, albeit challenging, woke me up to the reality that there were other paths available to me.

Every day we hear our clients talk about how they expect their leaders to demonstrate both personal and professional growth, at speed.  This ‘need for speed’ can cause some of the big questions to surface at multiple points in our life leading us to feel overwhelmed and under resourced to explore them.  For some of us, the big questions that might bubble up at different stages are reflected below.

You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it

What I know now is that there is no way I could have re-imagined a different life with the same thinking that had created my old one.  Only through a series of powerful and quite different conversations with coaches and mentors was I able to change the path of my life and my career forever.

My sense of purpose is now clear (albeit ever evolving) and my daily, monthly and yearly focus is on doing what makes my heart sing.  Navigating the choices in my life using this very personal sense of meaning is when I do my greatest work in the world; I believe makes me a better human being which in turn enables me to be there for my clients which is what coaching is all about.

The magic of coaching is that it can offer an intimate form of thought partnership which is in scarce supply in our busy lives.  When done well, coaching is a safe space where we can unpack and explore the fundamental ‘why’ questions and be honest with ourselves without judgement or fear.

So how do we create the right conditions to go beyond our blindness and get underneath what drives our choices and behaviours?

Choosing to get behind the blindness does require the courage to hold up a reflective mirror, see our own blind-spots, our habitual patterns and engage with the feelings this process generates.  However, the root of the word courage is ‘cor’—the Latin word for heart.  In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart” which I suspect is how most of us wish to live our lives.

I wonder if choosing to remain wilfully blind to our lives, means that the inevitable outcome of climbing the corporate ladder is to end up with a realisation that our ladder has been leant up against the wrong wall and we missed the opportunity to diversify and enrich our lives.

Coaching and being coached has illuminated much about who I am and my life, but mostly to appreciate that just working harder simply doesn’t do it.  The insights I’ve gained have helped me to prioritise what is most important and explore innovative strategies to enable me to bring my whole self into all aspects of my life.  Ultimately, I have learnt to let go of ‘over doing’ in favour of seeing more clearly where I can make a difference and the things that really matter to me.

Author: Lynn White, WDI Consulting Limited

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