About seven weeks ago by the time you’re reading this, I stumbled upon some information that has changed my life forever. It has re-arranged the way I do business. It has, for all intents and purposes, ended my marriage. It has colored and re-colored the way I see everything that has taken place in my life in the past several years.
It has leveled me in the best and worst ways.
For privacy reasons, I cannot share any more than that right now, but I tell you that much because I know my experience is not unique.
I’m sure you can think of a time when you were lied to, or betrayed, or fired without explanation, or forced to let go of something you did not want to lose, or when someone you loved said goodbye to you without your permission. We don’t always get to choose our new beginnings. And because of that, we can understand how beautiful and also devastating a new beginning can be.
A new day, a new year, a new job, a new life, a new relationship, a new start—they all come to us without permission, in the best and worst way. They barge in our front doors with the beautiful promise of second chances and new potential and unexpected opportunity. And they also come with heartbreak, because new beginnings nearly always follow endings.
I love the way Billy Collins puts it in his poem called Aristotle. I could read and re-read these words a hundred times in a day:
This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
—Billy Collins (from Aristotle)
Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t it exciting to think about what can happen when you’re standing at the beginning of something brand new?
And yet, if new beginnings are so invigorating, why did I talk to more than one friend on the first day of the new year who discussed feeling overwhelmed, anxious, sad, or in some way depressed at the weight of what lay in front of them? The night before we’re lighting off fireworks and holding glasses of champagne and talking about how amazing the new year was going to be—and by the time we woke up in the morning, we sat in our beds, overwhelmed with what a new beginning really meant.
What makes a new beginning so difficult?
One thing that makes it so difficult to start something new is that we don’t really know where to start. Yes, of course the possibilities are endless. They are infinity, in fact. But that is part of what makes it so difficult to know exactly where to begin. Because where should you begin when you can begin anywhere? In the face of all that possibility, all that blank space, it is easy to feel a little intimidated, even a little lonely.
It makes me think of what it feels like to sit down and start working on a brand new writing project. I could stare at the blinking cursor for hours before a word I deem worthy of being recorded will finally come to me. It is not that I don’t have words. It’s just that none of the words feel as deep and meaningful as I need them to be.
None of them feel like the first line, the first sentence.
And in that space, that excruciating time before anything is on the page, what I feel is anticipation and dread and even worry. Will this be a story worth reading? Will it be “the first word of paradise lost on an empty page?” Or, will it be an extraordinary waste of time, a lousy attempt at expressing myself that never makes sense to anyone—including me?
And I suppose that’s the second reason new beginnings can be a little challenging, because in addition to the fact that there are a million ways we could begin, there are also a million ways the story could end. We do not always get to choose our endings. In fact, most of the time we don’t. We commit ourselves to the process without any guarantee of how things will turn out.
This is the great risk of living our lives: there are so many things we don’t get to choose.
And at the beginning of a new year, or a new relationship, or a new job, or a new season, I think we intuitively recognize this: that no matter how many good intentions we have to lose weight or eat better or be more vulnerable or change that bad habit or pattern, or re-write a part of our story we haven’t loved, that we ultimately are not in charge of every detail, and we are at the mercy of so many things over which we have no control.
It takes a great deal of faith to put in the effort in a world where there are no such thing as a guarantee.
And just like writing, I suppose, there’s a sort of comfort to that messy middle. It would be easier to edit something that was already there—because at least I have something to work with. At least I have something to go from. At least I can read a sentence and say, “no, no, that’s not quite right.” And then I can talk about why it’s not quite right and that helps me get to something that is right, or at least that is more right than the first one was.
In the beginning, it can feel a bit like you don’t have that, like you’re starting over.
A quick word about change.
Change can bring about a lot of anxiety—especially change that we didn’t initiate or ask for. And honestly, even when you’re the one who quit the job or chose to leave the relationship, or decided to go on the trip, when the pieces of your life are shifting around, it’s normal to feel at least a little out of control.
Here’s how Journalist Deborah Ward puts it in her Psychology Today article, Coping with Change.
But it’s not unusual to feel shocked, overwhelmed, anxious and depressed and even fearful [at the beginning]. Even when we know we are about to face something new, the change can be overwhelming and unpredictable. And it’s this sudden lack of control over our personal environment that can lead us to feeling anxious, while the thought that we won’t be able to handle the new situation can bring on feelings of depression.
I hope this brings great comfort to you, especially if you are feeling less than thrilled at the outset of this new year. You’re normal. It’s okay. If, amidst the poppers and the streamers and the confetti and the champagne, you’re feeling less than sure-of-yourself and about what comes next, you’re not alone.
Because the New Year came without your permission, and it will come again next year, regardless of what you do or don’t do. One of the very few things we can count on in this life is changing seasons.
Change is hard—even when it’s really good for us. (Tweet that)
And that’s the second thing that is really great to remember about change, especially when we’re in the middle of it, is that change is good. It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s part of life. It’s really good for us. Without change, we stagnate. We don’t grow. We become complacent. We get bored. We do not have the tension and conflict we need to become who we were always meant to be in this life.
Without the possibility of change, even the greatest gifts in our lives lose their luster, because we can take them for granted, knowing they could never go away.
Rebirth and change are necessary to our lives. The clinical definition of death is cessation of change. If one is not changing, one is dying. Any practice or framework that is not curious and novel stands with its feet in concrete, which may be the definition of any form of fundamentalism —Pittman McGehey, The Spiritual Journey from Biography to Autobiography
If you’re in a really hard season right now, the good news is: change is coming. And when change does come, you will leave this hard season with who you’ve become in the midst of it. So do everything you can right now to become the person you want to be when your circumstances get a little better.
And if you’re in a really good season right now, enjoy every minute. Soak it up. Because no season lasts forever.
This is the teetering, delicate beauty of life.
Three things to remember about new beginnings.
There are a few things I think we can remember about new beginnings that can help us manage at least a little of the anxiety.
First remember the feeling you are “starting with nothing” is simply not true. I mentioned at the beginning of this article the idea of staring at a blank page with a blinking cursor, and the truth is, even when I begin to write a new book I do not begin with nothing. I come to the page with invisible libraries of knowledge, experience, research, understanding, essence, personality, and voice.
You are not starting with nothing in this new year. You are starting with YOU—the very most important thing you could have, and all you need to begin.
Remind yourself: I have everything I need to begin. (Tweet that)
And second, while you can acknowledge the feeling like you don’t know where to begin, it might help to remind yourself that nobody knows exactly where to begin when they’re starting somewhere new. It might seem like everyone else in your life has incredible clarity about their purpose and their plan and their intended outcome in this new season, meanwhile you’re floundering around just trying to get off your couch—but that simply is not the case.
I know because I talk to people all the time who are the most confident, accomplished, organized, efficient, productive, happy people I know who admit, when they get really honest, that they do not know for sure exactly where they are going or what they are trying to do. NOBDOY DOES! We are all just doing our best, feeling around in the dark.
Of course, there are ways to gain more clarity. I’ll provide some resources to that effect in the end of this article. But the point is nobody just gets clarity or direction without really fighting for it. Nobody out there magically has more than you have.
You have EVERYTHING you need to begin.
When I start to get myself worked into the “I don’t know where to start” frenzy, I remind myself of a phrase a friend repeated to me at a conference this past year. It has become a mantra for me. It’s technically three phrases linked together, and while it’s been attributed to several different people, as best as I can tell it was first said by a man named Arthur Ashe.
It goes like this:
Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Do what you can.
This is my life plan. I’m not joking. There might be moments when I have a more elaborate life plan than this, but really, this is the most elaborate life plan I will ever need—and here’s why:
- Start where you are. You can’t start anywhere else but where you are. You can try, but you won’t be very successful. You can spend a lot of time wishing you were someone else, so that you could start from where they are starting, but that will just make you feel badly about yourself and will just become time you later regret wasting. The only place to start is where you are. It makes beginning really easy!
- Use what you have. You have resources at your fingertips. We all do. And we could spend a long time dwelling on the fact that somebody else has more resources than we do, or better resources, or that our resources are not what we wish they were, but I’ll be honest: the most truly successful people I have known in this life do not waste time complaining that they don’t have more. They simply use what they DO have and get going.
- Do what you can. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons we experience so much disappointment in our lives and burn out before we reach our goals is because we expect way too much our ourselves. We have these crazy ideas about what we can accomplish and then we wonder why we feel like such losers when we can’t do it all. Perfect house, killer career, obedient children, loving marriage, fulfilling sex life. Who has that? Anyone you know? I didn’t think so. All you can do is all you can do. Stop beating yourself up for being human. You are not a superhero. Sadly, neither am I.
And finally, one thing I am learning about making progress in life is that there really is no huge rush. Anyone who makes you feel like “time is running out” is trying to get you to do something that benefits them—and that you might not agree to do if you have too much time to think about it. There is no need to be frantic. There’s also is no need to sit around twiddling our thumbs, but life is not a race.
Anytime you feel like you are “running out of time” remind yourself there is no such thing. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Nothing more can be asked of you.
A final word about new beginnings.
There’s a phrase that goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” And in a seasons where there is so much newness for me that it can be a little unsettling, I try to remind myself of that phrase for two reasons.
First of all, because it is a comforting reminder that no matter what happens to me, no matter what I lose or what I gain, what I have left at the end of the day is the person I am becoming. Change is not easy. It is slow and steady and arduous and painful most of the time, but real change—inside change—is lasting.
No matter where you go in life, no matter what you have or don’t have, what can never be taken from you is who you are becoming.
And the second reason I try to keep this close at heart is because it is a reminder not to numb the pain away, or to make decisions outside of my conscience or character, because at the end of the day, while my circumstances are always changing, what stays the same is ME—the version of myself that I get to carry into the newness of tomorrow.
And that one small reminder helps me, even in the unpredictability of life, even in a season of newness and change.
I hope it helps you, too.
I honestly can’t think of anyone better to help you clarify what you want and take the steps to get there. I don’t get paid anything for sharing this with you. It’s just a product I really believe can help you.
- Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud
- Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath
- And an extra resource from my team: Writing to Clarify What You Need