Deb Sofield

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Living a shadow life

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I just finished reading a book called “Turning Pro” by one of my favorite writers, Steven Pressfield. His other book, “The War of Art,” is a classic, and I can tell you it changed my business life when I read it years ago, so when a friend mentioned that he had read another good Pressfield book, I had to pick it up. And there’s an idea in the book that is so simple, yet so true, that I couldn’t get away from it; I have been thinking about it for days, and I wanted to share it with you.

It’s the idea that so many people live a shadow life. Let me explain, and here I am taking Pressfield’s words from the book “Turning Pro” (page 13).

“Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar; its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us. 

Are you pursuing a shadow career? Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you? Are you living the drug-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk becoming an innovator yourself? If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will point you towards your true calling.”

He goes on to write about the different shadow careers that he had. I liked his stories from his truck driving days. Now, driving a truck is an honorable business, but it was not his calling, and he says as much. As he liked the freedom of the road, he realized every road was going nowhere, and every mile he traveled only carried him farther away from where he needed to go and from who he needed to be.

So let me distill this down and bring some ideas to the forefront. Many people I meet are living a shadow life–it’s not that they are doing anything wrong or bad; it simply means that they are spending a lifetime doing something similar to their true calling, but without the real work, or risk or reward of the calling they know they should be following.

In a sense, you are denying what you are really called to do or want to do, or you’re holding back out of fear.

Before I go on, I am fully aware that many who are reading this today deep down know what I am talking about, but now your life is so far down a path that you see no way to turn around.

I get it. You’re locked in with golden handcuffs–that’s the life you fell into–and for many it is good enough. It pays the bills, and you’ll retire and then maybe you can do what you wanted to do, but for now, you’re sitting still because you bought into the shadow life many years ago. You have a family now and responsibilities and it is what it is.

If that is where you are today, please hang in there with me and maybe we can find a way–when the time is right–for you to get back on your path…your calling…your true destination.

So please hear me in our time today. I am not going to encourage you to stop what you’re doing; what I would like to encourage you to do is to be a voice of support for others who are standing at the crossroads of life or who are living a shadow life. You be the voice to others, guiding them away from making the same mistakes you’ve made, because you are the best example to help guide them in the direction that they need to go.

I am fascinated with the idea that so many people are doing something similar to their calling–something honorable and something they’re probably pretty good at. I was in the same place at one time in my life. Let me tell you a personal story.

Many years ago I was speaking at a women’s legislative conference in California, and I was training on how to run for public office and transform your message into something your community would understand and believe in enough to go to the voting booth and pull the lever to vote for you. My training sessions are usually an overflow crowd, and this event was no different. I was happy with my presentation, feeling pretty good about myself, until a lady who had been in my session came to me afterwards and said, “I really like your ideas of how to win…but I would be more impressed if you had won your election.”

Wow! Talk about a hit between the eyes! A year earlier I had run for office and just barely lost, but I did lose, and at that moment I saw very clearly that, yes, I was doing the shadow life– teaching others to do what I wanted to do. Yes, an honorable job, but not my true calling. I had always seen myself in elected office due to my love for my community and my desire to help people and fix things.

In my case, I did the hard work and tried, but the numbers didn’t come out in my favor in my first race. The reality was that, if I was going to be a rock star speaker on how to win elections, I had to go back and do the hard work again and this time get my message right, understand my district better and work harder to be elected and not just talk about it. (Just a quick aside: I have won and been elected many times since and am grateful to serve in public office today.) Frankly, now there is nothing more irritating to me than to have to listen to someone speak at campaign school on how to run for office events…. when they have never run for office. While they may have book smarts, many times they don’t have street smarts. So, in hindsight, back when I was called out, I now know the feeling.

How about you? What you are doing in your shadow life? Sidestepping, so to speak, instead of actually doing the hard work to find your true calling?

Are you living a shadow life, doing something similar to the dream to which you are called, but not going all the way to make your calling a reality?

Steven Pressfield would say that you are living in denial, and “…the longer we cleave to this life, the farther we will drift from our true purpose, and the harder it becomes for us to rally the courage to get back.”

That’s why, today, I am careful to say to you that, if you can’t get out of the shadow life that you’re in, then be a voice for those who are searching and are hesitant to do the work to reach their true calling.

Many of you have good people working for you, but you know that they have a higher calling and are afraid to step out of the shadow of a good paying job to pursue their heart’s desire and their true calling. If you can, why not help them? Those of you who have children and you know what they would be good at, even though it might not be the profession you’d like for them to pursue, can you at least let them try to find their place and space? And if you’re married and your spouse has a dream, can you–together–figure something out to help them find their calling?

Living a shadow life, for so many, is what they have settled for. SETTLED. Wow! That is not a word that I use often, because I am not one to settle, and I have the good fortune to live my life by a quote I read years ago.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines – sail away from the safe harbor – catch the trade winds in your sails – explore, dream, discover…if you really want it bad enough you will make the time.–Mark Twain.

People who live a shadow life never sail away from the safe harbor, they never catch the trade winds in their sails and they have given up on their wish to explore, dream and discover.

I fully understand that many people still do some things that are similar–things that are safe and honorable and good and kind, and for some listening today that is fine if that is all you want out of the gray twilight of life, but for those of you who see the shadow and understand that behind the veil is the sunlight of the life you desire, stop denying the truth that you have some work to do, and then put your shoulder to the plow and start walking.

Don’t live another day in the shadow life. Beat back resistance, set aside your fear and step into the light.

Thoreau said… Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the Life you’ve imagined.

I honestly don’t think anyone imagines living a shadow life; it just seems to happen for most people, so my thought for today is, don’t be like most people. Be the person you dreamed you would be, and you’ll make strides in the right direction, away from the shadows and into the light.

Deb Sofield

Deb Sofield is a Keynote Speaker, Author of the book, Speak without Fear – Rock Star Presentation Skills to get People to Hear What You Say and Encouragement For Your Life ~ Tough Love Memos to Help You Fight Your Battles and Change the World, Radio Talk Show Host in the Salem Network, Podcaster and President of her own Executive Speech Coaching Co., which trains women and men for success in speaking, crisis communications, presentation skills, media and message development in the U.S. and abroad.

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