Finding Your Own North Star - Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live

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Aristotle believed that a physician had to experience a disease before trying to cure it. I’ve definitely been through the process of losing and regaining my own North Star, and without certain people as guides, I would never have found my way back.


"Right in the middle of my life, I realized that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I felt like I’d been sleepwalking". Dan, age 41.
the first twelve lines of The Divine Comedy, written in 1307.
Life design, is the process of helping people find what Dante called “la verace via,” the true path.
In The Divine Comedy, the poet Virgil shows up out of nowhere to guide Dante out of the Dark Wood of Error.

After reading thousands of helpful books, getting lost in my own Dark Wood of Error several million times, and helping hundreds of people create lives where their souls can thrive, I’ve developed concepts and tools for facilitating the process. This book contains the best advice I can give.
Though each person’s life path is different, I believe that the human journey, writ large, has some universal aspects.

Because of its location, the North Star doesn’t appear to move around in the sky as the other stars do; it is a “fixed point” that can always be used to figure out which way you’re headed. Explorers and mariners can depend on Polaris when there are no other landmarks in sight. The same relationship exists between you and your right life.
I believe that a knowledge of that perfect life sits inside you just as the North Star sits in its unalterable spot.
You may think you’re utterly lost, that you’re going to die a bewildered death in the Dark Wood of Error. But brush away the leaves, wait for the clouds to clear, and you’ll see your destiny shining as brightly as ever: the fixed point in the constantly changing constellations of your life.

I’ve been privileged to watch many people discover their own North Stars—and it always is a discovery, an “uncovering,” rather than a creation ex nihilo. Even people who have never experienced much happiness, who have been plagued since birth by confusion, injustice, and pain, know exactly what set of conditions will allow them to fulfill their potential while creating the greatest positive impact on the world. I guarantee that you have a similar image inside you.

This is what compasses are for. Whichever direction you turn, the needle of a compass remains pointed at Polaris.
it helps to know that you have several different “compasses” built into your brain and body.
By reading these compasses, you can continue the journey toward your own North Star even during the times (and there will be many) when you feel blind and lost.
Your energy, ingenuity, relationships, and resources are all vehicles that move you through your life.

Dante’s journey took him as low as a human being could sink, through his worst fears and most bitter truths, down to the very center of the earth. And then, by continuing straight “downward” through the center and beyond, he was suddenly headed up. Before him he could see “the beautiful things that Heaven bears,” things like purpose, fulfillment, excitement, compassion, and delight. He was still tired and scared, but he wasn’t sleepwalking, and he wasn’t lost. There was still a long road ahead of him, but it was the right road. And so, Dante wrote, “we came forth, and once more saw the stars.” Once you get that far, you’re on your way to Paradise.


The conversation I had was with Melvin’s “social self,” He couldn’t tell me what Melvin loved, enjoyed, or wanted, because it literally didn’t know.
It didn’t remember Melvin’s preferences or his childhood, because it had spent years telling him to ignore what he preferred and stop acting like a child.
There was, of course, a part of Melvin that knew the answer to every question I’d asked him. I call this the “essential self.” Melvin’s essential self was born a curious, fascinated, playful little creature, like every healthy baby. After forty-five years, it still contained powerful urges toward individuality, exploration, spontaneity, and joy. But by repressing these urges for years and years, Melvin’s social self had lost access to them.
while his social self was the vehicle carrying him through life, it was cut off from his essential self, which had all the navigational equipment that pointed toward his North Star.
Melvin was like a ship that had lost its compass or charts. It wasn’t just the wrong job that made him feel so aimless and uninspired; it was the loss of his life’s purpose.

I base all my counseling on the premise that each of us has these two sides.
The essential self contains several sophisticated compasses that continuously point toward your North Star.
The social self is the set of skills that actually carry you toward this goal.
Your essential self yearns for the freedom of nature; your social self buys the right backpacking equipment.

the vast majority of us put other people in charge of charting our course through life. We never even consult our own navigational equipment; instead, we steer our lives according to the instructions of people who have no idea how to find our North Stars.

Life design is the process of reconnecting your two selves.


Your essential self formed before you were born. your characteristic desires, preferences, emotional reactions, and involuntary physiological responses, bound together by an overall sense of identity.
It’s the basic you, stripped of options and special features.

The social self, on the other hand, is the part of you that developed in response to pressures from the people around you.
Your essential self was the part of you that cracked your first baby smile; your social self noticed how much Mommy loved that smile, and later reproduced it at exactly the right moment.
your smiles are based purely on social convention.

your social self has learned to talk, read, dress, dance, drive, juggle, merge, acquire, cook, yodel, wait in line, share bananas, restrain the urge to bite.
your social self was shaped by cultural norms and expectations.

Behaviors of the Social Self:

Behaviors of the Essential Self:

As you can see, you are definitely an odd couple.
Only in very lucky or wise people do the social and essential selves always agree that they’re playing for the same team. For the rest of us, internal conflict is a way of life.


Most of my clients are like Melvin: responsible citizens who have muzzled their essential selves in order to do what they believe is the “right thing.”
if you were totally dominated by your essential self, you wouldn’t be reading this. You’d avoid taking advice from any book.

Having a strong social self is a terrific asset. It’s allowed you to sustain relationships, finish school, hold down jobs.
But you’re feeling like Melvin—discontented and unfulfilled.
you’re going to have to stop thinking about doing a really good job. To find your North Star, you must teach your social self to relax and back off.


I was so over-identified with my social self that I had to be practically beaten to death before I’d let it relax.
He and my mother raised their eight children without access to television, popular music, or any of the other brain candy of modern culture.

In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Way,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

The first time I read these lines, from the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, they hit me like an explosion.

They come dressed for success, sit at attention, and write down everything I say. When I tell them to put away their notebooks, take off their shoes, and stop doing anything, they look as though they’ve just discovered I’m on the wrong medication entirely. Whether they say it out loud or not, I know what they’re thinking: You don’t get ahead in this life by “non-action.” You get ahead working, by pushing, by making a gosh-darned effort.

What these people haven’t yet experienced—what I had not yet experienced during my college years—is the feeling of “doing without doing.”

“How did you do that?” they demand. “No one could swim in that water without being killed.”
“Oh, no, it’s really very easy,” the old man tells them. “You just go up when the water goes up, and down when the water goes down.”
The idea here is that when you relax the thinking mind…
there is an immense benevolent force flowing through all reality, and that each of us—at least our essences—are a part of that force. Once you’re aligned with this force (the Tao, or “Way”), you’re like a surfer on the perfect wave; you move forward with tremendous power, but the only thing you have to do is go up when the water goes up, and down when the water goes down.
The way to do this is to turn off the rules you’ve learned from culture, and allow your essential self to come out and run the show. While the social self is rigid and fixed, the essential self is relaxed and responsive. In any situation, it can give you instructions about how to “not-do” in a way that carries you closer to your North Star.

while recovering from minor surgery: “you’re supposed to avoid stress and get lots of rest. But if your soul wants to dance, staying in bed is stressful, and dancing is restful.”

Why not? Because, although Chinese is a great and majestic language, being a Chinese scholar is not part of my North Star. I truly believe that if it were, I’d have picked up the writing system without much effort. That’s the wonderful thing about heading toward your North Star—compared to a strictly social-self existence, it’s fun and easy. It’s like falling in love or breathing. Not-doing can involve intense activity, but that activity will feel better by far than doing nothing.


"This is all very sweet, but I have to pay my rent. I have a cat to feed."
in today’s economic climate, your essential self is a much more reliable moneymaker than your social self.
the obedient, conformist behavior of the social self is no longer the key to high income and job security. The best way to make your fortune in today’s economic climate is to master the spontaneous, creative “not-doing” of the essential self.

The generations that preceded us learned path to financial security was to do what Melvin did: earn a business degree, put on a gray wool suit, get a job with a big firm. The better you followed the social rules, the greater your success.
Thoreau: “The majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

“everybody lives by selling something,” we are all businesspeople.
There are thousands of books about this change, which I encourage you to read only if your essential self finds them interesting. Mine does, so I’ll tell you what they say.

What Used to Succeed in Business:

What Succeeds in Business These Days:

we are in the process of moving from a social-self environment to one where the essential self is much better equipped to succeed.