The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. – Marcus Aurelius

I’ve argued that who you’re becoming matters more than what you’re doing. But what does focusing on your inner game look like in real life? What does it look like in my life?

A while back, I was having one of those days. You know, a day when you feel stressed out about where your career is going, whether it will ever get there. I felt the familiar cold hand of doubt, fear, and sadness touching the back of my neck.

I know most consultants and bloggers don’t write about this sort of day because it shows vulnerability, the Kryptonite every consultant fears. There’s huge pressure to have it all together all of the time, to have all of the answers. But let’s be real. Most of us have those days.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone the day I was having my little crisis of confidence. My friend John was sitting with me in a Starbucks, listening with a silly grin on his face as I dumped my bucket.

“You know,” he said after a while, “you should listen to advice from a friend of mine.”

“I’m all ears,” I said, staring into my lousy Starbucks tea.

“He once told me, ‘It’s more important who you’re becoming than what you accomplish.’”

John paused, on the verge of a chuckle. I didn’t really see the humor.

“What’s so funny about that?” I asked.

You were that friend!” John exclaimed. “You need to listen to yourself.”

I hate being quoted to myself. It usually means I’ve been a dope.

But John had a point. It brought me back to what I’m most grateful for across my career. Not the recognition or the accomplishments. Not the amazing clients I’ve served or the experience I’ve accumulated. Not even the colleagues and mentors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.

Those have all been great benefits to my career. But the best part of my career has been how it is shaping my character, how it has become a laboratory for my soul.

I remember first noticing this very early in my career. I enjoyed a charmed era at my first job out of grad school. I had started in my chosen field as an unpaid sales intern, doing company research on target accounts in our region. This experience was comical because I grew up as a doctor’s kid, as far away from sales as you could get. I was fortunate enough to have a gifted mentor who coached me and breathed confidence into that particularly clueless version of myself.

A year after my 3-month internship was supposed to have ended, I was a rising star in the sales organization with a real sales job and the quota to match. One year later, I was named rookie of the year in a company where I was ten years younger than my peers. My journey as the Accidental Salesperson felt complete.

Then came my “sophomore year,” full of changes. My mentor left the company. A few of my clients changed direction. I walked into the fourth quarter feeling I would need a miracle to make quota, much less keep my perch as a rock star salesperson.

I had gone from being fearless to waking up sweating in the middle of the night. Even though my company didn’t fire people capriciously, I wondered if my job was at risk, my reputation would be fatally harmed. For the first time in my big-boy career, I had something to lose and I was afraid of losing it.

I stumbled onto the wise words of Jesus during that season. In essence, they say, “Stop worrying about tomorrow. Put your focus on seeing where God is at work today, and join in. While you’re at it, seek inner goodness, the kind that can’t be faked. The rest will work out.”

I knew this intellectually. But at 4 AM when the dogs were barking in my head, worry sounded like a pretty reasonable option.

Over that fourth quarter, I read those words every day. Better yet, I tried to live them by focusing just on the day at hand with its potential for inner and outer goodness. To my great surprise, I made quota on the last day of the fiscal year with 1% to spare. I entered the next year humbler and clearer on the big picture. The truth of those words had begun to soak into my soul.

I’d like to say that was the end of learning this lesson. It wasn’t. Over the years since, I have re-learned the lesson of trust and of putting your attention on the more lasting things over and over. It took more than ten years before I reflexively reacted to stress and uncertainty with peace. It’s something I’m still learning to this day.

But here’s the wonderful thing: because I was paying attention to what was happening in my inner game, I got to the point where I more often catch myself when I’m freaked out by a downturn or uncertainty. That’s productive at work because I spend less time useless to myself and others due to anxious paralysis. Or pressing clients and colleagues because I’m desperate. Or snapping at participants in a strategy session because I’m insecure.

It turns out that being different on the inside prevents a lot of messes on the outside.

Even better, this change is durable, transferable, and portable.

  • It’s durable, so I should be able to have more peace long after my career is over. It won’t expire when I start collecting Social Security. And the fact that Social Security may be defunct by the time I qualify stresses me out less:)
  • It’s portable, so I can take it with me between jobs and clients and colleague relationships. It won’t get left behind at a desk, on a plane, or on a hard drive. No contract can tell me it’s proprietary and owned by a client or employer.
  • It’s transferable. We’ve been sold a lie that life is divided up into segments – work, family, personal health – with impermeable firewalls between them.  In reality, we have one life and these arenas profoundly affect each other. So while this change in how I handle anxiety arose from my work, it can also transform how I handle changes and uncertainty in other arenas of my life. I can spend more time engaged and less time paralyzed in my family and my community and my neighborhood.

I’m grateful for that season early in my career. It allowed me to enroll in a masters level course in inner peace. That’s good news for me and for those around me.

Best of all, my soul experiments didn’t end when I was in my 20s. All of work – and all of life for that matter – can become a masterclass for the soul if we cooperate with it. I’m now 25+ years into my coursework. I’m not done yet. There are many things I still want to achieve with my remaining years of work. But more than ever, I’m convinced that who I’m becoming is more important than what I achieve.