The right question can make all the difference.
When ‘How are you?’ becomes instead ‘What made you smile today?’, a completely new avenue of conversation unfolds. Asking something a different way is all that’s needed to shift our perspective, make us curious, draw our attention toward something new, or propel us to find answers that can change our life. Though finding answers can seem difficult in the face of tough questions, the real challenge is in finding the right questions. This flip in perspective comes from the field of Positive Psychology, and after completing that certification I see how the right questions and my search for answers positively influenced my life. Now, I want to share what I have learned. Even more, I feel called to empower others to find their own answers. Over time a vision of a better internet experience has taken shape in the back of my mind, a project called Everyone’s Wisdom. It’s the solution to a problem that others resign to live with, but for which I see an answer. But I’m getting ahead of myself. My journey to thrive starts with the person who imparted a gift of seeing solutions, my father.
It’s ironic that my father’s most profound lesson for me would come after his death. I was 20. A few months had passed in grief and I was trying to get through my senior year of college when, one night, I had a pivotal dream. My dad was there but unaware of me observing him. He was in a cloud-filled room of sorts, and I sensed he was in conversation with someone; someone I could not see. As I watched, he began to see different parts of his life as if on a movie screen, major life events and turning points, decisions he had made and where they had taken him, each passing by in a flash, these moments of joy and sorrow. He began to cry. I rarely ever saw my dad cry in life. He was an engineer by trade, a brilliant scientific mind that developed application systems theories in the early days of computers. And though he was nonjudgmental and unfailingly kind to others, he was also introverted, stoic and left no room for emotions himself. Yet, here he was in my dream, feeling every emotion of his life to the fullest, and openly sobbing. For the first time in my life, I could really feel my dad. He turned to me in that moment, with urgency in his eyes, and said, “I missed it all. It was all right there in front of me, and I missed it.” I woke from that dream, and knew my life perspective would be forever changed.
I woke with a question I’d never before considered: Why are emotions essential for a good life? While living, my dad had taught me that feelings could muddle thinking and get in the way of being a good person; but after his death, he implored me to learn that emotions are the gateway to every gift life has to offer. As Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” His lesson came just in time: my life was poised to take flight. I was beginning to break free from the myth that straight-A perfectionism was the path to success. I tested this freedom with small, low-risk choices - going out with friends over studying, rest over achievement, ease over pressure to excel. This quickly proved to be a new and better balance, and I was rewarded with more ease, less grief and higher grades! That was just the beginning.
At the same time, love was beckoning. I had met my soulmate that summer, presenting an unexpected challenge. The emotion was so visceral, the love so strong, that it actually left me breathless and scared at times. This was harder than the fairy tales made it seem, and though the relationship felt great, it also left me incredibly vulnerable. It would be so easy to play it cool, and stay safe behind a veil of indifference. Instead, I risked it all. I purposefully ignored the warning shots in my head and took the chance that my heart was right. My world shifted to focus on him, and he made me a better person. Together, we flew higher. Rewarded again, I brought those lessons learned to my next major life decision; what to do after graduation. I firmly decided to let my heart soar. I abruptly scrapped plans to pursue a doctorate knowing it would advance my career but wouldn’t make me happy, and I chose instead to find work near the people I loved most. Though it felt risky not knowing what I was going to do next, betting on a life of happy experiences over a prescriptive plan for success felt great. I realized the two feelings go hand-in-hand. There’s no flying without a little risk!
As my trust grew in using emotions as my guide, my perspective changed as well. Maybe emotions were not on a continuum of good to bad, but all had equal significance. The following years, life provided me with a lot of practice to test this theory. I loved fiercely and dealt with the challenges of marriage. I did the corporate thing in both good and toxic places. I had two difficult pregnancies that gave me two beautiful daughters. I adored being a mom even though motherhood was exhausting. I suffered chronic health issues and healed using alternative therapies. Emotions never happened in isolation. If I try to avoid sadness, I unintentionally cut off happiness as well. The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” In exploring this further with a friend, we came up with a great analogy: The swing of emotions are like the swing of a pendulum, forever moving. Sadness is up here, joy over there, frustration back on this side, pleasure on the other, swirling around. We don’t really have control over what life triggers in us, where the pendulum swings, but we do have control over what emotions we savor, which is how far out the pendulum swings. If we expand into “good” feelings like intimacy, grace and happiness, we also open to more sorrow, anger and loss. If in fear, desperation or crisis we choose to limit our emotions, thus bringing the pendulum to stillness, then the less we are living. Brene Brown says it well, “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Coming to rest in the center, we don’t find peace, we find numbness and a life devoid of meaning. And that was the essence of my father’s plea. All emotions are to be felt, and each is a source of wisdom, informing us so we can choose our next action in building a better life. After all, emotions were just energy in motion: e-motion.* When we love, we are connected and our life has greater meaning. When we feel excitement, we are driven and our life has purpose. I wanted these beautiful things from my heart, even if it meant heartache. “I missed it all,” my father had said to me. With that, my choice became obvious: I would let my emotions flow, no matter how uncomfortable, and let them be my guide.
Coming to trust the wisdom of my heart was the preparation I needed for my next question: What happens when we die? After my father’s passing made death very real, the answer to this question became more important. With the passing years and lack of an answer, my primal fear creeped further into my silent moments. My own brush with death made my need for an answer urgent, and I could ignore the question no longer. It was the Spring of 2000. I was pregnant with my first daughter. In a luxuriously long hot shower, I suddenly felt a strange sensation. I knew something was very wrong and I immediately called out to my husband. He later reported that just the weird sound of my voice was enough to send him bolting up the stairs. He found me on the floor, wet, eyes rolling in the back of my head. I have no memory of this. Not of turning around, or taking a step, or falling through the door, or hitting the tile floor. I wasn’t there. Instead, I was in a dark tunnel with light at the end. I felt calm, at peace, loved. It was enveloping, a place of pause and of healing, such as I’d never known. I started to move towards the light, and a figure stepped into the doorway at the end. I recognized the silhouette as my father. The energy shifted and I received a message - felt it more than heard it - Oh no, no, no! It’s not your time. And my father began to close the door at the end of the tunnel. The next instant, I heard my husband’s voice, saying my name. But it sounded strange to my ears. I felt my cheek cupped in his hand. But I couldn’t remember where I was. And for a split second that stretched across time, I wondered how I got here, when I was just there. It was so comfortable there. So loving. And this hurt! Here in my body. Pregnant. On the floor. Why am I on the floor? “Wendy!” Oh, right! I’m Wendy. I was in the shower. I felt really strange. I must have collapsed! Oh no! Is the baby OK?
Miraculously, I was physically fine and so was my baby, yet emotionally that cross-over experience was the blessing that replaced my fear of death with awe and curiosity. I had felt a bit of it; dying. It actually felt fantastic on the other side, a merging with wholeness and peace! In the weeks that followed, the only fear was the alarm at my wishing for another opportunity to be in that place again. Before too long and as if by design, a deadly serious health crisis gave me a healthy dose of realism. Of course I didn’t want to die! Life is precious. To satisfy my need for an answer, I learned all I could about near-death experiences and reincarnation. Reading about others’ tunnel experiences gave my memories greater significance and I found I could savor my own encounter, recalling the feelings without any wish to be there. Others’ stories also shed new light on what I had witnessed 16 years earlier in the dream with my father - it was a life-review! After death, I learned the spirit is held with love even continues to learn, as my dad had done. I was lucky enough to understand his lesson during my life! The journey is all the more sacred. No longer afraid of death, my heart opened even further, yearning to savor as much as possible, as often as possible, without drowning so much in the worries that typically cause needless suffering. And this great feeling came from just a change in perspective; not a single thing had fundamentally changed in my life.
From this new perspective emerged the greatest question so far: Why aren’t we all thriving? It would take me a decade for that question to fully form in my mind, and another decade to try to understand the complexities of the answer. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to pay whatever wisdom I had gained forward if I could. The impetus for this only grew with becoming a mom of two girls and wanting to give to them the best life I could. Then in 2008, I began to figure out how. I read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausche, about a professor who, when faced with a terminal illness, asks himself what he wants to leave behind for others. Similar to my want to pay-it-forward, I was intrigued how he would do it. His answer was a last lecture, of course. But the best part was his reveal: His intended audience was not the hall of people hearing him speak, but rather his baby daughter who he would soon have to leave behind. Through tears of awareness in our shared intention, I realized that I wanted the same: I wanted to leave my girls the wisdom I’d gained in hopes that it would create greater ease, meaning and purpose in their lives. But they were still too young for the wisdom I wanted to share. With that, my idea for a web site was born, one that could give them what I’d learned and also provide wisdom from its source - the sages of old, the yogic gurus from the East, the science of the west, the academics in the ivory towers and the average person on main street. It would be for my girls, and yet it was for everyone. A place to use the best of technology to share the best of humanity, by everyone and for every one - a platform called Everyone’s Wisdom.
As my commitment to this project grew, so did my need to answer the question of what makes people thrive. I began to gather site content and mine my life for examples along the way. My first great lesson would be learned with my dear friend Ellie, a spiritual teacher and Reiki Master. In 2010 we discovered we shared a similar and rather unique approach toward raising kids; we both focused on listening, separating each person’s stories, and celebrating even the smallest successes. Together we created Conscious Parenting and for four years, we launched classes, seminars and even created a parenting section for a future Everyone’s Wisdom site. The best part though was how much fun we had working together. Our detailed discussions about curriculum and workshopping felt like play. Giving presentations was energizing. We were a meeting of two minds and souls, with intuition infused into our process. We were genuine and fully supportive of each other. And so my first answer to what makes people thrive is that collaborating with the right person makes hard work so much more fun. It was an especially poignant lesson for me, an introvert. I concluded that energy is gained when we love what we do and the result is better when two minds come together.
This decade of my life also gave me answers harvested from a cascade of crises. Severe storms and 11-day power outages that left us cold and cutoff made it abundantly clear to me just how frozen my mind could get when stressed. At a moment when everything was different and required new answers, the simplest task of making food for my kids became a struggle; a problem I couldn’t seem to solve. It gave me an appreciation for how debilitating anxiety can be. My understanding increased while supporting multiple family members who went through anxiety and depression. I observed that it’s often not one big thing, rather the struggle is in the many little things that pile up, overwhelm and trap us. So to flip that around, to thrive, it’s not one big thing that can provide it, but many little things.
Health is another issue that I’ve seen follow this pattern of complexity. I advocated for my mom through chronic illness and numerous sequential surgeries which all took a mounting toll on her body, mind and spirit. I witnessed first-hand her struggle to uncover what caused her many symptoms, make sense of side-effects from numerous medications, and heal. Watching her also taught me that simple things matter. She always greeted others with kindness, a joke and a laugh if she could. Joy can be found in a simple moment. I started to understand, thriving isn’t a destination any more than success is. It’s meant to be infused into life’s journey as one of the tools we find to support us, provide resilience, and connect us to something bigger. Being a caregiver wife, mother and daughter at the same time, I learned valuable lessons about my own thriving. A cherished moment can last forever if I choose to savor it. Quiet moments melt my stress. Dance is my spiritual practice. Healthy anger is a necessary sign that new boundaries are required. Giving my everything ceases being useful if there’s nothing left of me. I learned hard lessons about how best to spend my energy, what was within my control, and what was worth letting go. In moments that feel out-of-control, I do have control in knowing what matters most to me. “We are not victims of our genes, but masters of our fates, able to create lives overflowing with peace, happiness, and love.” writes Bruce H. Lipton, in The Biology of Belief. Mastering our fates and thriving is about knowing and creating what we want. The crises were my master-class. Circumstances had stripped away everything extraneous and forced upon me the gift of knowing what held me together and lifted me up the most.
Concurrently, I brought Positive Psychology into my life, drew strength from being in the company of great minds and open hearts, and learned what makes the human mind, heart and spirit thrive. I had stumbled across the field while searching for content to augment a Conscious Parenting class on childrens’ gifts. Character Strengths was the first tool I found; their scientifically-based survey was the perfect marriage with our class content. I was pleasantly surprised that values like creativity, kindness and appreciation of beauty were scientifically categorized, measurable and actionable! It was a completely new way to describe people, and I immediately loved it as the first clear path towards greater flourishing that I’d ever seen. Within weeks, I had signed up for the first-of-its-kind certification course given by Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. It was a blend of two of my top strengths that were rarely provided in the same situation - intellectual curiosity and spirituality. I couldn’t sign up fast enough! The course was everything I had been thinking and wanting to learn. Instead of looking at what’s wrong with people to diagnose and fix them, Positive Psychology looks at what’s already working and how to maximize it. Tal Ben-Shahar writes in his book Happier: “Happy people live secure in the knowledge that the activities that bring them enjoyment in the present will also lead to a fulfilling future.” The science he presented was so solid in showing how humans are capable of great things when we focus our attention on positivity and strengths. It’s the science of flourishing, of thriving, and everyone can benefit from this knowledge.
My learning and curiosity about what makes people thrive continued after getting my certification. From perspectives in business, innovation, physics, economics, biology and neurology, I’ve been soaking up anything that seemed remotely connected to human flourishing and infused what I’ve learned into my Everyone’s Wisdom project. My own call to thrive has manifested as my opportunity to pay-it-forward. Still in development, here are some of the questions and answers I’m currently contemplating:
How can we get at positive answers faster and get them to the people who need them most? We build a new way for people to engage with the internet, to empower them with the freedom to seek answers, to explore shared knowledge, and to take their own steps toward a better life.
What do humans look like when they are at their best? Humanity thrives on connections, we have a great capacity for change, and at our best we are creative and innovative.
How can we use technology to enable the best in humanity? We already have the majority of the answers we need to solve any problem; technology can get them to the right people at the right time.
What encourages humans to be altruistic or to persist with innovative breakthroughs? Humans naturally want to share and help others. We need a worldwide web experience with the express purpose of allowing people to collaborate and connect across places and disciplines to more frequently create cutting-edge and life changing solutions. Barbara Marx Hubbard adds, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; All people are born creative; Endowed by our Creator with the inalienable right and responsibility to express our creativity for the sake of ourselves and our world.”
I hope my story has inspired you on your path toward your best. Paulo Coelho writes in The Alchemist, “No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn't know it.” Now you know. We were all meant to flourish. The fact that we are not all thriving isn’t a universal truth we must resign ourselves to, but rather a call to action of the role we each have to play. By asking, ‘What will help me thrive more often?’ we start the journey toward the answers and the wisdom that will improve our lives, and that of our families and communities too. This journey is worth every effort because you matter. Your best in the world matters. Your wisdom is the new revolution. Only you have the emotional compass, direction, strengths, and vision to know what works best for you. Only your story can resonate and lift up others who share your perspective. Now more than ever, we certainly need our best solutions working for us. It is imperative if we are going to rise together, flourish together, and have a future together. It’s a call to thrive.
Ultimately, I envision a platform that stores our collective wisdom so we may share what’s already working well with those who need it most, break down the gatekeepers and silos that stifle our creativity and strengths, and work collaboratively to discover new innovations that meet the world’s greatest needs.
Admittedly, it’s a huge idea that’s incredibly overwhelming at times; and though I’ve tried to give it away to others I’ve come to realize that I’m the only person who sees the completed puzzle. So, I’ve chosen to nurture it. I have allowed the concept to grow in my mind and after a decade the creative process has a will of its own. I can feel its constant need to expand. To ensure I can wrangle it to the ground and condense it into something achievable, I reached out to family and dear friends. Mom, Avis, Ellie, Barb, Lynn, Tom, Russ, Becca, Roseanne, Cristina, Julie, Abby, Anna Maria, Tricia, Lisa, Tim, Rebecca and many others have all listened to me, enriched the vision and kept things on track. I'm grateful for their helping me place many of the pieces with greater ease and grace.
Now it’s time to co-create Everyone’s Wisdom! I cannot do this alone. I need you! Your involvement, your passion and your curiosity. Everyone has wisdom to share. Paulo Coelho encourages all of us in his story, The Alchemist, “No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn't know it.” Now you know. So together, let’s use technology for our benefit. Let’s free ourselves a bit more from our mental mind by storing and organizing our knowledge in one place. Let’s feel the freedom to share solutions and collaborate for the benefit of all. Let’s discover our passions and have the tools we need to make our dreams come true. Let’s see ourselves as connected to everything else and learn what we can do to be better stewards of our planet. Let’s lift those most in need of basic safety and shelter, by providing solutions we already have. And with just a smidge of extra energy to spare, let’s choose to create a bit more love, light and joy in our lives and in the world. And then maybe, in our moments of silence and within the connections that matter the most, we might just feel a little more Heaven on Earth. That will be the moment we come full circle, when we will realize that with everyone’s wisdom, we rise and we thrive together.
If you want to be part of this project, I’d love to hear from you about your interests! Very soon, I will need testers for the first beta version, content managers with expertise in your favorite topics and anyone with business acumen to be part of my team. And maybe there's someone you know who'd love to get involved. If so, feel free to forward this to them! We are co-creating a quiet revolution of the mind. You are needed! Please, reach out and tell me how you’d like to be involved.