06/06/2011 07:53 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2011

Personal Transformation: How to Overcome What Holds You Back

Last week's article on what holds you you back in life generated quite a few personal emails to me, with most people sharing their own experiences of self-imposed limitations. Many asked for additional thoughts on how to move forward in life. This week's post will cover a handful of thoughts I have found useful in my own life in overcoming various setbacks and challenges.

Life is full of challenges, and the current combination of economic problems and social tension affects just about everyone; however, the reality of life is that people respond differently to similar circumstances, with widely disparate results. As my friend W Mitchell reminds us, it's not what happens to you; it's what you do about it.

You need to be clear about where you are heading.

As I have noted many times in these articles, if you don't know where you are going, any road will do. This is often known as having a positive intention. Many people simply wind up at the fork in the road and choose by default; they let circumstances or other people choose for them rather than having a destination in mind and choosing accordingly. If this sounds familiar, and you allow it to go on, sooner or later you may wind up complaining about where you are in life without ever realizing you let others choose for you. So, how do you create a positive intention?

You need to know the difference between what you want and why you want it.

In my very first article on these pages, I outlined symbols vs. experience -- understanding the underlying experience you are seeking in life rather than the placeholders you may be pursuing. Take a moment to review this piece; it may turn out to be critical for you. Here is a simple yet common example: all kinds of people equate money with security ("If only I had enough money, then I would be secure"). And yet most of us know someone with money who is far from secure. Have you had the experience of achieving something you thought you wanted, only to wonder why you ever wanted it in the first place? If you're not careful, you may wind up settling for what I call the "weevily peanuts of life" rather than creating the experience you would prefer.

You need to be clear about multiple areas of your life.

Take stock of those areas in life that are important to you, ranging from career and money to family and relationships. A follow-up article to my piece about weevily peanuts focuses on "the wheel of life," providing some insights into how to assess where you are in life against multiple areas of personal importance. Most people find in this simple assessment that they have been sacrificing important aspects of their life while pursuing others, with a resulting imbalance and less-than-desirable consequences. The challenge lies in the fact that most of us have multiple areas of importance to us, each requiring focus and attention, and yet we often seem to sacrifice some of our most important areas while pursuing the apparently more tangible but often less satisfying ones.

You need to actually do something about what you want.

While positive thinking is an important part of the equation, it is way short of being sufficient. I know full well that in order to achieve a positive outcome, you need to a) hold a positive focus on where you want to go, and b) do the work necessary to get you there. This one gets really sticky when you start considering the difference between what you want and the likelihood of achieving it. On the one hand, something may seem out of reach, so you give up before you even try, and on the other hand, some things truly are not possible. This can be quite a bumpy learning process, and yet if you give up before you even start, it is pretty much guaranteed that you won't get there. However, if you know difference between what you want (symbols) and why you want it (experience), you may be able to wind up with the positive experience, even if you come up short on the tangible goal.

Two paradoxical and yet complimentary principles come together here: energy follows thought, and life rewards action, not thought. The paradox here is that first, you need to have some clearly thought-out goals in life, assessed against some measure of reality, and keep a positive focus on getting there. Then you need to get busy and do the work necessary.

You need to let go of excuses.

The problem with excuses is that you just might be right; you may have a perfectly reasonable excuse for not moving forward. As Mitchell told me one day over lunch, had he succumbed to his disfiguring burns and subsequent paralysis, he would be nothing more than a prisoner in his wheelchair, confined by his own rational excuses. Why is it that some people seem to overcome adversity while others seem to succumb to it? Part of the secret lies in the positive intention or positive focus they hold, and a whole lot lies in the positive action they take toward the goal.

So, what do you want out of life, and why? What stories do you tell yourself that wind up holding you back? What small step could you take today to begin turning things around?

I'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment here or drop me an email at

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life, and on how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

You can buy "Workarounds That Work" here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at You can contact him by email at