It was 2005, and life was bleak.
I was 20 (I’m 32 now) and working in a bank as a teller, going to school in the early mornings, at night, and online. My employer was fine, and the job was OK. I justified my dissatisfaction with my work because my employer reimbursed my tuition.
On the surface, I seemed to be doing everything I should be. I was a few years out from finishing my degree. I was working full time, living on my own, and responsibly paying my bills. I was on the Dean’s List with honors even though I was taking nearly double the full-time credit load.
But a more thoughtful look at my life would have revealed that everything was not OK. I was in an unhealthy relationship with someone who didn’t respect me. I had gained 20 pounds and wasn’t exercising. I was going to school for something that didn’t light me up, and while I was getting straight As, I wasn’t on fire for what I was doing. I had been recently yelled at by my boss for something that wasn’t my fault. My coworker was a constant complainer and oversharer who started to wear me down with negativity.
I would go home after work or school and, after homework was complete, lay on the couch. My cheek against the pillow, I would turn on the television and stare blankly until I either fell asleep or dragged myself to bed. Then, I would get up and do it all over again the next day. And the next.
While the promise of graduating college offered some hope, how could I be sure this life was ever going to be the one I had dreamed of when I was a little girl?
The truth was, it wouldn’t be, and I knew that. There were too many things in my personal and work life that, if I didn’t make changes, would keep me from the life I truly desired. It took me a full two years to make those changes—changes I’ll share in a moment. But first, indulge me in some joy.
It’s now 2018. I live and work with deep emotional satisfaction. Every day, I wake up and stay in bed for a few minutes setting intentions for my day, thinking of all the things that are going to go well and the people I hope to impact, even if it’s just the three people I have direct contact with: my husband and two kids. (Reality check: sometimes my son or daughter wakes up screaming, and those few minutes don’t happen.)
My life is so full. It’s bright and open and exciting and adventurous and none of the things it was in 2005. I chose to change my life; I chose to live a life of my desire and design—one connected to my heart and values. I chose to change the person I was spending my life with, and I later chose to marry a wonderful man who brings excitement to my everyday. I went to graduate school. I took on scary projects like running a national magazine (11 million readers is enough to frighten even the bravest soul).
This isn’t to say the life I’ve designed is perfect. Joy and adventure mean constant disruption. It means stepping out of comfort zones and making choices that seem crazy to everyone else, like, oh I don’t know, moving to Thailand. It means conflict will come up. It sometimes means loneliness because charting a unique life path—including my career—doesn’t come with a map and sidekick.
If you’re me circa 2005, or even relate to 10 percent of what I wrote above, here are a few things I did to change my life. And if you’ve been through a similar transition, I hope you’ll share your advice or experience in the comments below.
1. Imagine your new life.
Creating the life you want starts with visualizing what it can be. If you’re stuck in a rut or even moderately dissatisfied with your current life, start by dreaming forward. Every night before you go to bed, fall asleep dreaming of the life you want. Create a new script in your imagination—one that feels so real you can almost touch it. Write about your vision. Use specific details to make it feel real. Talk about your vision to others who also want to grow.
As I was going through some of the hardest parts of my life changes, I struggled to see beyond my current situation. When you’re depressed or unhappy, envisioning something different feels impossible. But let yourself imagine it into possibility, even if you’re just mentally tiptoeing in the direction of your dreams.
You deserve a happy and full life. You deserve to feel engaged and joyful.
For me, it took tapping into the vision I’d had as a child: becoming a writer. I could still feel that vision in my bones. It was easier to go back to something I’d already created in my mind and then dream forward. I had no idea writing would take me into the world of business, but as I started to see myself as an entrepreneur, I used the visioning skills I’d developed to reimagine the future.
2. Make drastic changes.
Change doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but it does start with the core. What’s driving your unhappiness? Really driving it. Look past the surface to get to the exact cause. Then, make a change. Then another one. Then another one. Keep going until you have shifted everything in your life to align with the vision you’ve created for yourself.
I mentioned that my major shifts didn’t happen until 2007. What I didn’t mention is that by that point, I’d been miserable for five and a half long years. I was an old 22. I lacked joy and a lust for life. I felt hopeless. Stagnant.
One day, through a series of unfortunate events I won’t detail here, I decided everything needed to change. It didn’t all happen at once, but slowly over time I made drastic changes. I changed jobs. I ended the relationship that was the largest source of my dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I put my house on the market. I changed my major. I made new friends.
Eventually, great things started to happen. I met my husband (though we wouldn’t marry until 2011). I landed a good job at the height of the poor economy and left everything behind to move to the Dominican Republic. I started my business that same year and found immediate clients (even if some of them weren’t ideal).
The first change you make is the hardest, but it gets easier. I promise.
3. Eat better and exercise.
One of the biggest shifts I made in 2007 was the way I treated my body. My weight gain was just a symptom of the fact that I was physically and emotionally unhealthy.
If you aren’t feeling your best, here’s a promise I’ll make to you: whatever time you invest in your health will be returned ten fold in productivity and happiness. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s true. Your investment in you equals real returns in achieving your vision and living a life of fullness. Crafting your life means taking care of yourself, and that starts with eating, exercise, and emotional care.
I still remember where I started in my attempts at healthfulness: Lean Cuisine microwave meals. In hindsight, they weren’t exactly healthy, but replacing one meal a day with a Lean Cuisine was a first step for me in changing terrible eating habits. I saw a therapist consistently. I started running. I began eating actual healthy food like green smoothies and simple, clean meals. Losing weight in 2007 was a great boost but it was just a bonus because I felt so much better. My mental energy skyrocketed and I was able to engage more fully in my life and work.
If you’ve been neglecting your health, start today. Today. Not tomorrow. Today. It’s the best investment you can make in your future.
4. Change your people.
Whether we like to admit it, we become who we surround ourselves with. If you’re hanging out with negative, unhappy, dissatisfied people, well then guess what? Ding ding ding! Yep, you’ll probably be miserable too.
I made a choice to keep joyful, loving, supportive people in my life and shed the rest. Removing those individuals saved me from the emotional rainclouds they carried around like Eeyore.
Ain’t nobody got time for drama, am I right?
If someone is coming to mind as you read this, it might be worth evaluating whether you can continue that relationship. For me, the answer was a definite no. You have to decide for yourself, and then act.
Less drastically, seek to grow your social network. I sought out friends who have the same drive and zest for life that I do. A few years later, I joined a social group that meets monthly—we focus on growth and career. I can honestly say I love the people in my life wholly, and they bring goodness to my world. How about you?
5. Take on a new challenge.
One of the greatest spurs toward change is making a commitment. Anytime I’m feeling the edges of dissatisfaction creeping in, I know it’s time to challenge myself in a new way.
Stuckness can be combatted with forced movement. Schedule a trip—not a luxury beach vacation, a real trip where you actually do and see things. Sign up for a class or even apply to a degree program. Volunteer with a local organization. If you’re staying home with kids, find a part time job that lets you stretch your mind a bit during the week. Whatever it is, it needs to be a real thing that shakes things up in your life. It can’t be something so easy you can do it without much else changing. You’ve got to make a commitment and then act.
For me, that big challenge came in 2009 when I became an expatriate in the Dominican Republic. Little else shakes up your world like living in a new country, and that was certainly the case for me. Later, it was graduate school, and after that, really jumping into the business I had been building part time to give it 100 percent focus. Then parenthood and exciting career endeavors. Now, Thailand.
What will your next challenge be? Make a commitment. Then act.
We all have the right to complete, wonderful lives. It doesn’t mean they’re free from pain or that relationships are all rosy all the time. But it does mean that we should be choosing choice. We should be allowing ourselves to create lives we love because we have that right. No, we have that obligation.
What about you? Do you feel stuck? Do you feel free? What have been your biggest wins and what challenges are ahead of you? What will you commit to right now? Share in the comments or send me a note. I’d love to hear from you.