It’s Never Too Late (Parashat Lech Lecha)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

It’s Never Too Late to Change

It may be surprising to some, but the vast majority of coaching clients I’ve worked with are in their sixties or seventies. Sometimes their life has taken an unexpected and dramatic turn. They come to me more or less in free-fall through economic or health related struggles. In other situations, they are facing down a more existential crisis–a realization that their life has stalled, and that they want to be doing something else, something more.

These folks and others like them share something in common with the central figure in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham. Now, reflecting back at what we know about the world’s major religions, Abraham’s importance cannot be understated. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism alike all trace their lineage to this figure.

Yet, Abraham doesn’t make his appearance in the Torah until he is 75 years old!

If ever there was an example of the axiom “it’s never too late to start!” this is it. Abraham embodies that truth. His covenant with G-d, one of–if not the–central themes to the remainder of the Torah, isn’t even formulated until he is 99.

But sure, this is the stuff of legend, right? In scripture, people live well past several centuries, women (including Abraham’s wife, Sarah) give birth very late in life, snakes talk, people get turned into pillars of salt, and all sorts of extraordinary things happen. How’s that supposed to help a modern day American already living beyond his life expectancy?

Fair enough.

This week’s Torah portion doesn’t just say “it’s never too late” and leave it at that though. No, the passage actually opens by describing some rough terrain ahead. Abraham is commanded to go from his land, his birthplace, and from his father’s house, to somewhere he has not even been shown yet.

Let’s sit with the weight of that challenge for a moment. Abraham is being called to a life that is beyond everything familiar to him in the seven and a half decades prior to our story–and there is no guarantee of a future for him if he answers that call.

Like lifelong workers replaced by automation, outsourcing, or new technical skills difficult to acquire, Abraham is being called into a future where the skills he has mastered may no longer be relevant. Like those of us whose hearts long for adventure, Abraham is being called to a place where he will be the stranger. Like those of us realizing the diets and lifestyle choices we were raised on will not support a healthy life for us, Abraham is being called to step out from the patterns and traditions that previously guided him.

And all along the way there are conflicts, plagues, deception, and drama. “It’s never too late to change your life” might as well mean “it’s never too late to willfully pursue stressful and potentially life-threatening situations.”

Despite both those apparent and unanticipated obstacles though, Abraham goes forward. Perhaps that foolhardiness informs why some Kabbalists and Chassids consider the intellect the father of man; Abraham literally goes forth from his intellect.

For Abraham, this decision has little to do with recklessness or even having a clear destination in mind. Recall, at the start of the passage, G-d has not even revealed where Abraham is to go, only that he is to go. In Abraham’s heart, this is a choice that he must make–consequences, potential death, hardship, and failure be damned! He must leave the familiar behind and answer the call within him.

In coaching, we understand that this is the crucial component to anyone’s attempts at changing the course of their lives. There has to be that internal necessity for change. Otherwise, why bother? Isn’t the familiar much more comfortable? 

Whether our journeys are incited by messages from G-d, pink slips from our employer, or test results ordered by a doctor, it’s up to us as individuals to choose whether and how we will answer their call.

Perhaps then there is another “go forth from” Abraham is challenged by in this passage–himself. Where are we in life? Are we happy there? Are we content? What needs to change? And, most importantly, how far are we willing to go to change it?

If Abraham’s journey is any indicator of what we might expect, the path ahead is dangerous. Yet there’s something rewarding at a soul level when we say yes, when we refuse to accept complacency, and when we choose to go forth anyway.

That kind of journey, that kind of reward, that kind of positive consequence–it’s never too late for us to pursue.

You’ve Come So Far (And You’re Not Done Yet)

Coaching high achievers involves a lot of realizing late into your introductory sessions that this person coming to you with low energy, low motivation, and a directionless quality to life is actually fresh off an extreme sports competition or quitting a ten-year drug habit cold turkey.

You know, the stuff that the rest of us only joke about.

But to these folks, it’s real. It’s actually so real and their lives are so intense that the ambient norm of everyday living feels like depression for some of them.

More to the point, high achievers can struggle with the lows and bounce-back periods of their lives between major achievements. In particular, this struggle is amplified for high achievers (of any age) whose earlier direction and pursuits were strongly influenced by another person.

We’ve all heard that before. Behind every great person is a great spouse, great parents, or a great community. While it’s important to emphasize that most high achievers are people with very strong willpower (potentially despite their present mood), it’s these great influences in their lives that first activate them.

It’s the parents who take us to soccer practice, run drills with us on their own time, and show up with enthusiasm at every scrimmage who activate us as athletes. It’s the English literature teacher who comments on our work, recommends extracurricular reading, and encourages us to keep writing after graduation who activates us as writers.

We might follow the footsteps of a musician or artist from our hometown, someone we relate to in another way or share something extraordinary in common with. Every high achiever I’ve worked with has one of these influences in their lives. And they set us on the path of our first major achievements.

High Achievers Need to Connect to Their Own Power

Where high achievers get derailed is in individuating themselves from these early influences. When someone guides you into something you’re passionate about, it can be a challenge to realize these passions as your own too. And in that sense, it can be difficult to differentiate your own approach from theirs, particularly if they exerted a strong influence on your start.

The high achievers I’ve coached are people who reached spectacular heights early in life when these influences were still present. As soon as their late teens or early twenties, their achievement level suddenly took a nosedive, and that’s where they got stuck. Some became too focused on following the precise footsteps of their influences, and neglected their selves in the process. Others acclimated to being directed and told what to do–they show up for coaching in hopes that I can tell them what’s next for them.

Spoiler alert: it’s not my choice to make.

The truth for every high achiever is that you’ve already come so far. You’ve already proven to yourself and to the world that you have the willpower, discipline, and personal fortitude to take on tremendous tasks, and to accomplish them. Getting that high again is never going to be your problem. That’s your norm.

What you’re learning is that what’s next is not decided already. In fact, the older and more independent you get, the less direction you’ll receive from others about what comes next. The future is truly up to you to decide.

Sometimes you’re going to fail, and fail spectacularly. In every direction you choose, you will struggle and encounter obstacles that challenge you. It’s your turn now to be the influence that guided you earlier in your life. Only this time, it’s your own success story you can go back to whenever and as often as you need it.

You’ve come so far already. But you’re nowhere near finished yet.

Just Because It’s Difficult Doesn’t Mean You Ought Not Do It.

Losing weight. Changing careers at fifty-five. Changing careers at any point in your life. Starting a business. Beating diabetes. Beating addiction.

I’ve worked with clients tackling all of these things. And there’s one obvious commonality they all share. They’re all incredibly difficult things to accomplish.

If losing weight were simple, there’d be no multi-billion dollar diet and fitness industries. If changing careers or starting a business were easy, people wouldn’t reach eighty and regret not taking more chances earlier in their life. 

Diabetes and addiction, while different beasts to each other, are most often daily battles. Rarely is there a moment where one is restored to their original health. Our bodies don’t come with reset buttons. The impact of dis-ease lasts a lifetime. And every morning, peace must be re-negotiated. 

Each of these struggles challenge us to push the limits of what is possible for the individual human being. Certainly they challenge the expectations of us. 

A common refrain I’ve heard from clients changing careers is that their bosses don’t expect them to actually quit and succeed. To be fair, these guys are financially invested in us showing up to work again on Monday.

Most doctors likewise don’t expect either diabetics or addicts to ever change. Of course, if you did, they’d lose a patient, a source of income, and a source of validity in their own work. 

This was the fact that surprised me most during an international health coach call I participated in a couple years ago. Colleague after colleague of mine from the medical field lamented the fact that none of their diabetic patients were interested in adopting any sort of lifestyle change. 

While they came at health coaching from the direction of wanting to motivate these patients, I come to this field from the perspective of someone who is managing their blood glucose levels without pharmaceutical intervention through holistic nutrition, fitness, and other lifestyle-based strategies. 

I surprised the room when my own experience was the exact opposite of theirs. I’ve seen countless diabetics already implementing lifestyle changes with success. These same clients reported that it was their doctors, not themselves who were strongly against exploring lifestyle changes for beating diabetes. 

Could both be true?

What I took away from that call at first was a hot-headed reaction to the typical medical establishment. Of course doctors don’t want their patients to change, I reassured myself. That would defeat their whole business model.

The truth though is that I do the exact same thing. I want my clients to be successful because that’s my model. 

Ethics and philosophy aside for a moment, where myself and my colleagues in medicine share common ground is in creating a framework of expectations for the people we work with. It’s in everything we do, from the way we discuss diagnoses and terms to the strategies we share with our clients; it’s the entire vibe of our work. 

Doctors tend to catch people at the end of the line whose bodies have broken down in one emergency or another, or over the slow course of a thousand different not-so-great choices. Their go-to strategy is the prescription pad because most people don’t have the time or willpower to change their lives and experiment with eating better or getting outside and running everyday. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I also pick up folks on the other side of emergencies and slow breakdowns. But the folks I get are the ones who at least in part, generally want to change. I can create space for them to explore what change will look like for them, what obstacles they anticipate facing, and how they will overcome them because that’s the path they have the interest and willpower in taking.

Having Willpower Isn’t Enough Though

The harsh reality is that entertaining our desire to tackle a big life change like beating diabetes is itself not enough to push us through. As I said before, all big life changes are extraordinarily difficult tasks to accomplish. 

In my own journey, I have faced numerous setbacks including relapse into needing medication after a period of remission. No health journey I have witnessed yet as a coach is as straightforward as choosing a direction and simply realizing it.

If I may be permitted one last barb directed at the medical industry, it is exactly the over-reliance on medication my colleagues complained about seeing in their patients that exemplifies the misconception that health struggles will be simple. When our dominant idea of healing is that it is as easy as taking a pill, we are thoroughly unprepared for the reality of a more difficult journey replete with setbacks, utter failure, periods of cluelessness, and disappointment.

Big life changes like beating diabetes are difficult. But that does not mean we ought not attempt them anyway.

On the other side of difficulty is not just the goal we set our sights on, but a new version of ourselves made capable of achieving at that level. Beating diabetes is undeniably a remarkable feat. Becoming the kind of person who gets to ask themselves “what next?” after doing so is a change in self-image we’ve likely never even imagined possible.

Changing Your Life Will Destroy Everything

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” (Winston Churchill)

The popular quote misattributed to Churchill, seems to actually derive from Victor Hugo who gave it a bit more of a poetic handling:

“You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Do not bother yourself about it; disdain. Keep your mind serene as you keep your life clear.”

Both quotations presume a dynamic about enemies wherein they are attracted, like gnats according to Hugo, towards those who stand up for something or have “done a great deed or created a new idea.”

Perhaps it is the evolution of the era, but I perceive a great deal more enemies relative to great deeds being done in the world. And I know I’m not alone in this assessment. Even within my own lifetime so far, the degree of divisiveness, pettiness, and unnecessary urgency and politicization of even the most mundane differences of perspective has created a social crisis spectacular in the frustrated inertia it foments between us.

Today we no longer need a great idea nor to perform a great deed to attract enemies, like gnats, to the light of our perspective. No. We simply need to read a different book or article, arrive at a different conclusion, or even just decline the urgency of broadcasting our ignorance when it is demanded.

Gone perhaps are the days of great men doing great things for a country greater than its constituent ideas and movements. Here are the days where greatness is simply a product of not being the other, where positions and values change in the blink of an eye, and only those who keep up, unswayed by sentimental values or attachments, will be deemed — if only for a passing moment — great.

Chasing this sort of popular greatness chips away at us. First of course it warns us against thinking for ourselves. Second it instills within us a sense of paranoia. We are all each just one unpopular thought, unpopular word, or unpopular deed away from social exile.

To be truly great in the vein of men described by Hugo and Churchill, is to free-fall into this anti-popularity. It is to find the courage and sense of place in the world to take up the defense of those people and places one loves.

No part of this spectacularly divided society prepares one for this kind of greatness. And certainly no part of this society prepares one to become this kind of great man later in life. Indeed, the very idea of changing one’s mind, that is, exhibiting personal growth as an individual and the capacity to process new information, is a faux pas.

Popular greatness fears this kind of change because to acknowledge it may lead to recognition of its own amorphous nature, which unlike the great man, lacks the battle-earned discernment of a moral compass. Popularity is based in currency, social or otherwise. Greatness is a matter of moral discipline.

To change our lives in any sense, whether to become the progenitor of great deeds and ideas or to simply become a greater man within ourselves, is necessarily in this era an act of destruction.

It is both our own old self who must be destroyed and re-made, and also our relationships to the people and places who bind us to that old self which must be severed and re-grown.

As a coach, I have observed this dynamic countless times in clients who are becoming great men in their own right. The vision we hold of our greatest selves is rarely the vision held by our friends, our bosses, our religious communities, or our social networks. Those forces, where they exist, will often seek to shame and tame us back into the self we are leaving behind.

More than physical addictions or economic challenges, this kind of social brutality is what I see triggering clients to backslide and relapse. Changing your life will destroy everything.

Without courage, without commitment and discipline to achieving the final vision, the fire will only scald, it will not forge. That is, it is easy to simply become a man with enemies. In today’s world, one hardly even needs to try.

But to become a man of great deeds and new ideas, the man of petty deeds and popular opinion must be left behind. Everything about him must be thrown to the fires and permitted to change. Only then can the great man emerge.