It was late that night as I sat on my friend’s porch and poured out my heart. My friend Ian is a priest and psychotherapist, so he has a way of pulling out your secrets. What I had to share, though, I hadn’t told anybody, and it had been eating me up for years. It was time somebody knew.
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“Nothing I’ve ever done has felt like a success,” I confessed.
As soon as the words escaped my lips, I knew they sounded absurd. How many people had told me they envied me? How many admired my many accomplishments? How many dreams and goals that I never thought possible had been crossed off my list? Practically all of them. And yet, there was still this gnawing sense that something was missing. After all that — millions of dollars, multiple bestselling books, hundreds of thousands of fans — and still, I felt incomplete.
“That’s weird,” I said. “Right?”
“That’s… something,” my friend replied in a very therapeutic voice.
“God,” I sighed. “What’s wrong with me? How do I fix this?”
I began to list out how I could completely change my vocation, how I could blow up my business and start all over again. I knew I could do it. I’d been thinking about it, and the prospect sounded exciting. Maybe what was needed was a fresh start, the simple thrill of starting over, to get me going in the right direction. Maybe it was time to pivot again into a new career, and maybe that was the answer to this ache I felt.
“That’s great,” Ian said. “You could pursue all those things, and I’m sure they would be fun for a while, but my guess is this feeling would come back again… eventually.”
“What do I do, then?”
My friend began to walk me through the realization that no external effort would give me something that was missing internally. I thanked him, as he offered a few practical recommendations, and left, letting Ian go to bed long past his bedtime. I was determined to find out what was wrong with me.
And so began the most personally transformative year of my life.
This was not a year of bucket list items completed, nor a year of unprecedented financial success. It was not a year of world travel to exotic sites or hot date nights with my wife. It was a lonely, soul-searching year, a year that I, in one way or another, lost almost everything I valued.
And yet, it was the best year of my life.
This tale is too long to tell in one sitting, so what I will share are three valuable lessons from the hardest year of my life. I share these because, in some ways, they are more important than what actually happened. My story is incidental; it’s what I needed to wake up to a deeper reality than the one in which I was living. Your story is obviously different, but the lessons you learn may be similar.
What I found at the end of this road was something I never could have anticipated: an unspeakable joy and happiness that transcended understanding. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. In the past when I’ve opened up about my personal struggles, such as being underwhelmed with my own success and choosing to not scale my business, people have told me those were some of the most impactful pieces I’ve ever written.
So, I submit to you these three lessons from an incredible year.
Where the wound began
The first thing that had to happen was to realize I was chasing was an illusion. For as long as I’ve lived, I have always been driven by the idea that there will never be enough. And I thought this was sane or even normal. It may have been the latter, but it certainly wasn’t the former.
One of my earliest memories is of my mom taking me through a McDonald’s drive-thru to get a Happy Meal. When my mom was ordering it at the window, and I, age six at the time, objected saying, “Mom, we can’t afford that.” Even to this day, I can recall her jaw dropping. She had no idea that I’d overheard her and my dad discussing bills that could not be paid, that I was aware of our financial state, that we did not have enough.
Since that moment, I’ve continued to carry that story around with me, for decades believing not only that there will never be enough but that I will never be enough. And so began my endless search for more, for better, for the thing that would make me complete.
As a teenage boy, I thought the missing link was girls, who were only too quick to reject me which only fed my obsession that this must be what was missing. This rejection forced me to turn my attention to art, in particular poetry and songwriting. With my garage sale guitar, I would stay up late at night and write sad songs about the girls who refused my affection. It was a way of comforting myself and communicating this sense of lack to others who might feel it too.
Eventually, though, I did get a girlfriend; and to my surprise, the longing remained.
Later in life, I thought the thing missing must be religion, so I became very religious. This worked for a while. But like any good drug, it kept demanding I increase the dosage to get the same effects. I had to keep going deeper, whether that meant mission trips or intense periods of fasting or long bouts of prayer.
It was never enough. I was never enough. There was always more to do.
The first lesson: Success is an illusion
This led to my becoming the marketing director at a Christian nonprofit, where we sent out thousands of missionaries every year all around the world. Each morning, I would get up and work long days, trying to achieve as much as I could. It was fun, fulfilling work; but at the end of the day, every day, I felt as if I had never done enough. There was always more to be done.
Several years into this career, writing came back into my life. I started a blog and began writing on it every day, which ultimately caused me to quit my job and become a full-time writer and online entrepreneur. For years, I would claim this as my calling. I even wrote a book about, claiming to be happier now that I was successful, doing the work I was meant to do.
But soon, that familiar emptiness crept back in. For a while, I kept doubling down, kept setting new goals after I’d accomplish one, but each time I checked one off my list, there would be about twenty seconds of satisfaction before that haunting feeling would revisit me once again.
It was around this time that I hired a business coach. My friend Casey Graham had recently sold his third business for millions of dollars, and he told me that it only took a week before he was unhappy, before the loneliness and emptiness set in once again. I kept meeting people like this, people who had achieved what I thought I wanted and told me life on the other side looked a lot like it did over here: a little unfulfilling.
These people were reflections of my own ambitions and longings, and they were all here to guide to an important truth: What I was chasing was not real. This all came to a head on a trip to New York City, where I met a series of men and women I had admired from afar for a long time — heroes of mine — and almost every one of these incredibly successful and wealthy people admitted that they weren’t happy with their successes. They wanted more. Only one person actually seemed content, and it had nothing to do with his accomplishments.
After that trip, I shared with a friend, “Successful people aren’t happy.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I know plenty of successful people who are happy. But what I can tell you for sure is that their happiness has nothing to do with their success.”
Well then, I wondered, where does happiness come from? I was about to find out.
Waking up to reality
It was around this time, based on the recommendation of Tim Grahl, that I started to listen to the teachings of Anthony de Mello. Anthony de Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist (sensing a theme yet?) who taught on happiness and spirituality.
In his eight-hour program called “Awareness” (which he later turned into a book of the same name), de Mello argues that happiness is the natural state of human beings. Look at any child and you will see their default position is happiness; it is only we adults with our so-called wisdom who have to work for happiness.
Moreover, he said that anything you seek outside of yourself to bring you happiness is an illusion and will eventually result in unhappiness. With each word he shared, I nodded, even laughed sometimes. He talked of men and women aspiring to “make it” and how all they were really doing was “making asses of themselves.”
I knew this to be true. I’d experienced it myself.
One night while eating tacos with some friends, someone asked me about being a public figure and asking if I felt like I could be honest with what I said on Twitter. “Because,” my friend said, “those people might judge you.”
I laughed and said, “Judge who? Jeff Goins? You mean that character I created so that people would love me?”
I began to see my modicum of success for what it was: just a thing that I had accomplished. It hadn’t made me any different than I already was. As Michelle Obama said of her husband once before he was re-elected President of the United States: “Success doesn’t change your character. It reveals it.”
And for me, all success had done was reveal a lost teenage boy who was still looking for love.
The second lesson: Nothing can make you happy
As I recognized the illusory nature of my achievements, this realization made it difficult to set new goals, to want to go to the “next level,” because there was no level. There was nothing to achieve but adding more layers to the Self I was still trying to find, buried underneath all those achievements.
I ended up leaving my mastermind of six years, because it felt like it was time for something else, something new, and I wasn’t even sure what. All I knew was that success had not made me any happier. Money had made it possible for me to buy new things and provide a certain level of security for my family, but with that come heightened levels of anxiety about what I might lose and now had to hold onto.
With each realization, the illusions began to drop. I was seeing the code behind the Matrix, and with each unhappy successful person I met, the awareness only heightened. None of this was real. It was all just an idea we had agreed upon. Soon it became clear that happiness would not be found outside of me. It was hiding somewhere else.
Around this time, I confessed to my therapist that I had all these questions: about life and God and the universe and happiness. I was feeling angsty about my involvement in the community I was part of and felt that every one of my questions was met with a superficial, sometimes fearful, response.
He said, “Hey, that’s fine to have questions. But you know, even if you got all those questions answered, you wouldn’t be satisfied. It’s not answers you’re looking for.”
“Oh, no?” I said. “What, then, am I looking for?”
That night, after a long day of frustrating work, I stood at the counter to do the dishes while our kids were screaming in the background and my wife was losing patience with me. My anxiety was unbearable. I felt trapped. This was the life I’d signed up for? This was my calling? My dream? The thing I’m supposed to sell on webinars and in Facebook videos? Then I recalled my therapist’s words and stepped outside for a moment.
With a drink in my hand, staring up at the stars from a patio chair, I thought, “Is this all there is?” I couldn’t even pray. I just sat there, wondering what all of this meant because it was starting to feel pretty meaningless. Then, only a moment later, came a calming presence, this sense that all was well and I was going to be okay.
I just sat there, gazing into the void of space, experiencing the vastness of it under the glow of the moon, thinking, “Wow.” Anne Lamott says that there are three great prayers–help, thanks, and wow. So that was my prayer that night. Wow.
Thirty minutes later, I returned to the chaos of the home. The dishes were still dirty. My wife was still mad. The kids were still screaming. But I was different. The anxiety was gone. The dishes didn’t matter, but I would do them, anyway. My wife would forgive me, so I would love her, anyway. Our kids would go to bed, eventually.
This momentary madness did not matter. Everything was still as it was before, but I saw it almost as if through a haze. None of it affected me like before. In the midst of it all, I felt a strange sense of peace.
This cloud of contentment lasted for days before I was back to same old me who was perturbed by every little thing in my life. The next week, I reported this back to my therapist, and he said, “That’s great. Now, what if you developed a daily habit of doing this so that the haze never goes away?”
So that’s what I did.
Learning to be alone
I began going for daily walks, sometimes for hours at a time. There were many nights when I would leave the house and not return until midnight or even after. Silence and solitude, the two things I feared the most, had become my closest friends.
Sometimes, I listened to audiobooks or music; eventually, though, I started to enjoy the natural sounds of nature or that of my own feet passing over the pavement. The more I did this, the more unaffected I became by the things that used to drive me crazy.
One month, my business made over $100,000, which it hadn’t done in a while. It didn’t affect me. The next month, we lost $20,000. Still, it didn’t affect me.
I was yelling at my kids a lot less; in fact, I’d go weeks without raising my voice at them at all. This was because I wasn’t angry with them. And I wasn’t angry, because I wasn’t trying to control them anymore. I was accepting everything for what it was–a gift.
My default emotion at this time was pure, unadulterated happiness. None of my problems had gone, and yet most of the time, I had a smile on my face. What problems did I really have? Sure, there were issues to address, things to deal with. But me? I didn’t have a worry in the world. In fact, it was becoming difficult to even remember the last time I felt unhappy.
I had searched for happiness in every place I could think of and come up completely empty. Finally, I found it in the least likely of places — myself.
Letting go of fear
As I began the daily walking ritual, I felt the need for more space in my life. The first thing I did was leave my mastermind group, which had been my closest group of friends for the past six years.
These were my peers who had challenged me to quit my job and go all in on my business in the first place. And now, I was leaving? It didn’t make sense, but something inside me told me it was the right move. There were no reasons, nothing had gone wrong; it was just time to move on. I wanted to create room in other areas of my life as well, including work, but was scared to do it.
Could I really trust myself?
My fear was I might be going too far, that this was a temporary thrill that would eventually go away. After all, I’d shared some of this with friends and confidantes only to be told I was wrong, that my intuition could not be trusted and it would lead me astray, that I needed accountability, to be grounded in something more reliable than my own desires. And yet, there was this other voice, one inside of me that said it was time to listen to my Self, that deeper part of me that just knew things without having to think about or analyze them.
One night, after an evening run, I stopped to buy a chocolate bar (because I believe in balance). In the checkout aisle of Whole Foods, I ran into Ian, that same friend on whose porch I’d made my confessions only months before, and he asked me what was up. Right there in the grocery store, I told him everything, concluding with: “I feel like I’m swimming on the surface of the water, talking about what lies at the bottom of the ocean floor. And I guess I’m just curious what’s down there.”
“You know what’s down there?” he said, his intense with passion.
“I have no idea,” I said.
He stared at me straight in the eyes and said: “Everything.”
As soon as he said that, my arms filled with goosebumps, and my body tingled with excitement. That, for me, was the final cord to be cut. I knew it was true, and after that, I let go of fear to trust whatever life would bring my way. What was found on the other side was a deep sense of peace and satisfaction that I am still trying to understand.
I was now free to love my work because I no longer needed success to feel worthy of love.
I was free to love my life as it was because it didn’t need to change for me to be happy.
I was free to love my family because I didn’t need them to act a certain way for me to feel okay with myself.
I was fine; in fact, I was more than fine. I was complete.
The third lesson: You can trust yourself
Shortly after that evening run-in with Ian, I was driving home from dropping off my son at school. I didn’t have any appointments for a couple of hours and felt the sudden need to go for a run. And yet, as soon as I had this urge, a voice in my head said, “You can’t do that. You have to go to work. You have to be responsible.”
I decided to trust myself and not listen to the guilty voice in my head that had driven me with fear and shame, telling me that there was never enough time to do the things I wanted to do.
Pulling into a nearby park, I put on my running shoes and grabbed my phone. Instinctively, I pulled up my running app, thinking I should track this run; otherwise, it wouldn’t count. But as soon as the thought appeared in my mind, I knew it was absurd. I deleted the app.
Then, I thought, I should at least track my steps, which I had been doing all summer. But why? I had always measured myself as a way of motivating me to do more. Could I really trust myself to run hard and fast if there was no measuring stick telling me I wasn’t good enough? Could I achieve without fear and shame? I decided to give it a try.
That morning, I ran harder and faster and longer than I had in a very long time. By the end of it, I had run nearly two hours. I had no idea how many steps or miles I’d gone nor how many calories I’d burned.
I didn’t care. I was free, and I wanted to stay this way forever.