Thought + Word + Action = Results. This is the creative process.

If we fail to remember the power of our creative potential, “We live by default, experiencing the results of what we think but dare not say, of what we say mindlessly that in turn evokes a fearful or unloving response from others, and of what we do in response to what we think someone else is doing or saying.” – Iyanla Vanzant, One Day My Soul Just Opened Up

I’d like to know what makes certain people so hell-bent on staying in miserable situations, and others (the few, the brave) willing and able to rise out of much worse conditions to become blindingly bright sources of light and joy.

I had lunch with a friend of mine whose recent story I’ve been following for about a year now. The real beginnings of our stories share some similarities. She is the second daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Her father, a PhD scientist, dutifully toiled away in the cubicles of big pharma companies in New Jersey, providing a stable suburban lifestyle for his family, but always held the belief that he had been limited by his role on the science side of the business. It was the marketing people, or the physicians, he told his attentively listening daughters, who really made it to the top. Don’t follow in my footsteps, he said.

My friend’s older sister went to Princeton, met a math major whom she later married, and then went on to become an OB/GYN. Her math major husband came close to getting tenure at a major university, but then quit. It wasn’t what he wanted. By this time they had two kids, the second with a developmental delay. This really wasn’t what he wanted. So he quit his job, and sat on the couch for about a year.

Fast forward to now – my friend’s sister and her two kids have moved in with her parents as their divorce gets finalized. Not exactly the Asian American Dream.

But back to my friend. She went to Harvard with me, slugged it out as a Biochemical Sciences major, and was another familiar face on the “M2” shuttle bus that would take all of us undergraduate “gunners” or “why am I trying to be a gunner but I’m too afraid of the alternatives” from the main campus to the medical school, about 30 minutes away in Boston. I ran into her about three years ago at Stanford, surprised to see her in such a different setting and phase of our lives. She didn’t go to medical school. She had gotten an MBA at Wharton. Her business card said, “Marketing Manager”, at a major pharmaceutical company. I didn’t get the irony of that until I got to know her more.

We had each been too busy to see each other in those three years until just this past spring. I was in the midst of rehabilitating my body through Pilates and a return to regular yoga practice, which had been another one of the things I was “too busy” to do until this year. She was “taking the day off” so we met for lunch. Never mind that she couldn’t stay because she “had to” talk to her boss about something urgent related to work. He was going out of town and this was his only availability. Never mind it was supposed to be her day off! Our entire lunch conversation was about how she hated her job, longed for space to consider what she really wanted in life, and needed to take a vacation. She called me “her hero” for doing Pilates and yoga, since she knew her body was calling out for more care. She told me about how she once took three months off from her consulting job to go to New Mexico to study flamenco dancing. She came home (to her parents’ house) after four weeks, overcome by guilt, shame, and fear. I’m not sure what she learned from this adventure, but I see it as the seed of her creative potential.

Fast forward to this summer. We had several long dinner conversations in which she opened up to me about her increasing longing to do something about her job situation, meanwhile feeling “trapped” by a long list of circumstances, reasons, explanations, and people who were keeping her in the status quo. Being a very intelligent, rational-minded person, all of these reasons seemed perfectly…reasonable.

Whenever we talked, I kept having the distinct feeling that we were going in circles. I got what she was feeling, it was clear to me that she needed to take some risks and let some things go and see what happened. This seemed to be very clear to her too, except equally clear in her mind were all the reasons she “could not” or “should not” do what needed to be done. Late one night, sitting on a concrete bench on the sidewalk in front of Books Inc. in Mountain View, we got down to it. She was agonizing over what she felt were her “only” options – either stay in her current job and continue to suffer, or accept a promotion to go to Japan to work for two years (for the same company). But she had real misgivings about picking up and moving her life to a foreign country at this stage of her life (when she “should” be thinking about “settling down”). She also really had no desire to keep working in corporate America. She was done with the politics, the idiots with no work ethic trying to collect paychecks while she did all the real work, the gender discrimination, everything. On the other hand, she said, it was a promotion, a better title (Marketing Director), and something she could “leverage” to her benefit after she came back from the assignment. “But wait,” I stopped her mid-sentence. “Leverage for what? You don’t even want another corporate job, so what do you care about the title?”

I really pressed her on this, and she finally came up with this: “My dad retired without ever reaching the level of Vice President. He told me that Directors have a really good chance at getting to VP, and since I had the chance, I should really go for it. After all, marketing is where all the people are who really make it.”

That was a JEWEL, a GOLD MINE, a TREASURE CHEST of information if she were willing to examine it, break it apart, and really do The Work on it. But I, not being a coach (and not even knowing The Work at the time), just being a friend, just listened to it. I watched her compassionately from the outside of her own mental prison cell.

And yesterday I had lunch with my friend for the last time before she moves to Japan this weekend. Not surprisingly, the conversation began with her own eyes rolling as she told me that her boss BEGGED her to finish a Board presentation and fly to Philadelphia to present it the week before Thanksgiving. This was supposed to be her week to pack her apartment and office, sell her things, have a goodbye party, go to the dentist, all the things you do before you LEAVE THE COUNTRY FOR A FEW YEARS. But every time she tried to press him and say that this was no longer her project and she was not going to do the presentation, he would “get really pissed”. After a few conversations like this, she was worn down and just gave in.

“After all, he’s been good to me,” she said. “I’m grateful.” And when you’re grateful to someone, you do whatever they ask, I echoed in my head. Only this time I heard her words for what they meant for her actions and the results in her life. She allowed this person to manipulate her into doing the work she didn’t need or want to do, because it was something he didn’t want to do himself, and he knew she would do it out of the weakness (some would say kindness) of her own heart. Her willingness to do violence toward herself was the only asset she brought to the table here.

I said, “You are such a GEM of an employee for them, you know? They’ve got you exactly where they want you, and you’ll do exactly what they need you to do!”

The rest of our conversation was about her interpretations of all the conversations and emails she has been having with the new team that will be reporting to her in Japan. No more talk of dreams and desires and longings. Everything was figured out for her. Already her mind is being wrapped up in who sent what memo to whom, who was copied on this email, who was invited to this meeting, and the like. She was gushing about her posh high-rise apartment building with a doorman, room service, and guest quarters for visitors. She was looking forward to her short commute to work, only three subway stops away. She would need to start wearing suits to work again in her new job. She would be running meetings. She would be the boss.

I sat there and I realized that I am free. And it’s not because my life looks neat and perfect and orderly. I don’t have a lot of things “figured out” about my life. But I’m free because I’m no longer trying to “figure them out”. I realize that the power of my intellect will not bring me peace, fulfillment, or happiness. The power of my intellect is a gift that I must use wisely. I realize that I need to surrender myself to stillness, and allow myself to observe the nature of my mind. I am free because I recognize the difference between my thoughts and the experiences that result from my thoughts. I no longer judge myself for judging. I simply notice and say, “Haha, I am judging! That’s interesting…” I don’t make it who I am. I am not a “judgmental” person. Like every human being, I have the ability to judge. I have a tendency to listen to my judgments and believe them. If I let go of my need to believe these judgments, I can be free of them, whether they are present or not.

As I think about my friend, I trust in the path of her life. Perhaps this move to Japan is exactly the space and time she needs away from the habits and patterns of life here. She may finally feel free to find out who she really is, underneath all of the conditioning of her family, her education, and corporate culture. Maybe attaining this title will give her the peace of mind she needs to one day explore what she really wants to do. Maybe she will discover that the thrill of the corporate climb is too intoxicating to let go.

Maybe. But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the view from here, and keep on watching my freedom unfold.