Issue 03 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 03 is available to buy now

With Crisis Comes Clarity
Life

With Crisis Comes Clarity

Pivotal moments can be painful. But they can also be transformative.
By Louise Le Gat
6th Feb 2024

“We can’t do anything more for you. It’s unlikely you will walk again or make a full recovery.” The doctors looked at me, genuinely sorry. As my 26-year-old self lay there in her big, white hospital bed, it felt like life had come to an end.

Just one week earlier, I had been riding the red double-decker bus into work. I should have felt happy and fulfilled. I was a successful lawyer in the City of London. I had ticked all the right boxes of success – the great career, the comfortable salary, the nice apartment, the perfect boyfriend. But my dirty secret was that every day going into work, I would sit on the top deck of that bus and dig my nails into my hand to stop myself from sobbing. I would want to cry and I wouldn’t even know why.

Underneath the seemingly perfect setup of my life, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing. I just couldn’t work out what.

Everything came crashing down on 10 December 1999. As a result of a massive internal infection, I was left in constant pain – only able to stay awake three hours a day and hardly able to walk. As I stared down the abyss of my shattered life, little did I know that it would take me years to fully understand that I was on the cusp of a paradigm shift: I was undergoing a ‘pivotal moment’: a critical point in time offering the potential for personal redefinition and growth.

Decoding the signs

Moments like these call us back to our selves – to who we are as a human and to our purpose on this planet. They come in different shapes and forms: whatever snaps us out of our everyday autopilot and has us ask deeper questions about our life and how we are living it.

In these moments, we tend to be on a particular road that feels safe or even successful, but we can’t help feeling that something is missing on the inside. We aren’t inspired by the things that used to motivate us. Whatever we do, it all feels meaningless. We keep thinking that we should be happy with the life that we are building, but we aren’t and can’t quite put our finger on why.

Deep down we know that something needs to change. We can sense the niggle and the increasing unease, but we resist. Over time these acute moments in our lives can intensify into deeper anxiety, disillusionment, frustration or anger – where we feel more and more hopeless, lost and alone. If we keep ignoring the signs and messages, a deeper crisis often emerges. Eventually, we reach a state where we simply can’t go on. It can manifest as a physical challenge, where the body says, ‘enough, you will listen’. Or it can reveal itself as burnout, depression or illness of some kind – things that force us to press that pause button.

For one person, it was finally sitting in his top-of-the-range company car and realising that the increased external status could never fill the empty void he felt inside.

The final straw often comes when that feeling inside is coupled with some kind of intense, external event. For many, it is a difficult situation at work – a failed promotion, a conflict with their management or a restructuring in their organisation – that causes them to fundamentally question what they are doing it all for. Ironically, it can also be reaching your goals and realising that you don’t feel the level of fulfilment you expected. For one person, it was finally sitting in his top-of-the-range company car and realising that the increased external status could never fill the empty void he felt inside. For others, it can be an affair, divorce or a breakdown at home. In more extreme cases, it is an accident or even a near-death experience.

In short, such moments can manifest as anything that shakes us to our core, stops us in our tracks and has us reconsider what we are doing and why.

In recent years, these moments of profound potential change seem not only to be activated by personal experiences, but also increasingly triggered by world events that impact us all: Covid-19, the climate and ecosystem breakdown, the increase in wars, the cost of living crisis and systemic inequalities.

The younger generations appear particularly burdened by these external factors, as seen by the rise in mental health issues. According to the World Health Organization’s 2022 World Mental Health Report, depression is now one of the leading causes of disability. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. ‘Ecoanxiety’ is on the rise, and young people seem to be some of the worst-affected. Research published in December 2021 by The Lancet Planetary Health, which surveyed 10,000 children and young people aged 16 to 25 in ten countries, found that 59% of respondents were very or extremely worried about climate change and 84% were at least moderately worried. More than half of respondents reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty. And just under half said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. This is leading a whole generation of emerging young leaders to question the very foundations of how we are living on this planet and their place in it all.

These moments can feel like personal crossroads. A classic outcome is that you start to rethink your career. You wonder what your purpose is, what you actually want to do in your work at a deeper level, and what the right path is for you next. The usual approach is to look for the next perfect box to fit into – be it getting a green job, working in a different company, joining an NGO, or setting up your own business.

The problem is that this approach fails to take into account that such moments are no ordinary crossroads.

59%
of young people surveyed were very worried about climate change.
84%
were at least moderately worried.

Climbing the right mountain

Lying in that big, white hospital bed, my core realisation came when I asked myself what I would regret. Initially, I expected it to be not becoming a partner in the law firm I was working day and night in. What emerged instead, however, was not doing the Inca Trail in Peru. Until that moment, I didn’t even know I wanted to do that trek. All I could think was that I was so off course that my only regret would be not doing a trek in a country I couldn’t even locate on a map.

We experience these moments because we lose ourselves in the chase for the wrong kind of success. And we end up missing in action from our own life. We are trained from a young age to perform. We are told that if we tick a set of external boxes, we will be happy. We are sold the belief that climbing the traditional ladder and getting the next promotion, the next client or pay rise will solve all our problems.

But as Bessel van der Kolk explains in his book The Body Keeps the Score: “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.” And so in our quest to fit into society’s map of success, we get fundamentally disconnected from ourselves. We end up not knowing who we are or what we really want, let alone what our greater purpose on this planet might be. Our whole life becomes a lie.

This is the time when we feel the need to break free from the existing boxes we have created for ourselves; to leave the safe harbour of our nicely ordered life and do something drastically different.

That is where our moments of pivotal transformation come in. They wake us up to the fact that we are climbing the wrong mountain. They jolt us back onto the right track by bringing us back to our selves and to who we were always meant to be. As one of my clients put it several years ago: “They are the times where you work out what you are going to do with the rest of your life.”

Even though worthwhile, these moments are not for the faint hearted. At their core they are about the death of an old way of being. As such, they feel bleak: the light at the end of the tunnel seems to have been switched off indefinitely and we don’t know how to switch it back on again. On our knees, stuck in that darkness, it can take time to realise that this is in fact a potent, creative space waiting to be filled with the next chapter of our lives.

In stories they are known as ‘inciting incidents’: the start of the hero or heroine’s journey. They are the call to adventure, the invitation to go beyond the path of conformity. In the words of American writer Joseph Campbell: “The hero journey is a symbol that binds, in the original sense of the word, two distant ideas, the spiritual quest of the ancients with the modern search for identity.” Ultimately, inciting incidents, or pivotal moments, are the whisper of a possible greater new beginning. But first we have to surrender to the crumbling of the life we have known and embrace their initiatory alchemy.

We yearn to embrace the wide, new vistas of our very own imaginings and to take the inspirational path – the road that only we can travel.

This is the time when we feel the need to break free from the existing boxes we have created for ourselves; to leave the safe harbour of our nicely ordered life and do something drastically different. We yearn to embrace the wide, new vistas of our very own imaginings and to take the inspirational path – the road that only we can travel.

And that is what so many of us do in these moments of opportunity and change. We try all the different ways to find our selves. Personally, I dived head first into the world of personal growth, improved, retrained, changed careers, took a sabbatical, did the Inca Trail, got married, got divorced, learned to meditate, back packed around India, did a retreat in a sweat lodge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a Native American tribe, lived out of a ski resort, set up my own company, did the whole lifestyle business thing, relocated to the Swiss mountains, created a sustainable brand, and worked on a startup for renewable energy.

What I came to learn, however, is that doing the work that these transformational moments ask of us is not just a question of rearranging the furniture. We have to dig deeper than that.

Confronting the self

Fourteen years after my first such ‘moment’, I found myself in a hospital bed for a second time – this time with a suspected stroke. A bookend of sorts. As I said goodbye to my partner in case it was the end, a trapdoor opened in my brain. From it emerged a checklist of three internal questions by which to measure my life:

  • Have you experienced enough joy by doing enough of what your heart truly wanted to do?
  • Are you at peace in that you have contributed enough of your true self?
  • Have you loved enough through valuing yourself and others deeply?

What I understood in that moment is that the work wasn’t an outside-in but an inside-out process. All those things I had done were great. But ultimately it wasn’t about the destination. It wasn’t even about failing or succeeding. It was about the one-of-a-kind adventure of showing up as the unique beings that we are.

In journalist and author Elizabeth Gilbert’s insightful words: “We search for happiness everywhere, but we are like Tolstoy’s fabled beggar who spent his life sitting on a pot of gold, under him the whole time. Your treasure – your perfection – is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the busy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter the silence of the heart.”

In other words, the exploration journey I had been on was the end in itself – the perfect vehicle to reclaim and experiment with who I was beneath the layers of conditioning I had built up over time. It was the courageous means to venture into the uncharted lands of my very own becoming.

Ultimately, the real lesson of our pivotal moments is to remember what we were made for before we allowed the world to define who we should be. In practice, that means going back to what we knew as children, and that our true purpose lives in expressing, contributing and creating from our own unique weirdness. It involves retrieving the parts of our selves we disowned as we encountered the world – on a desperate quest to fit in.

“Your treasure – your perfection – is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the busy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter the silence of the heart.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything,” muses novelist Paulo Coelho. “Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that really isn’t you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.” This interpretation invites us to harness our own innate flow as a tuning fork, map and compass. It demands that we trust in the places that light us up and make us feel truly alive. It means we must reintegrate the gold that we find there into our lives, work and leadership. Through this, our unique essence can lovingly evolve the very world that scarred us into a more beautiful place in which we can thrive.

A turning point for our world

As humanity faces its very own crucible, we are seeing a whole generation of leaders who feel increasingly out of sync with the existing system, and who are asking deeper questions about what we do next.

In younger leaders, it is manifesting as an epidemic of what they are terming a ‘quarterly crisis’ – a period of intense soul searching in their mid-twenties and early thirties. Following close behind is gen Z, who are questioning the very foundations of the world we have built, as exemplified by the success of the FridaysForFuture youth-led and global climate strike movement. “Young people are experiencing an epidemic of climate anxiety,” confirms Woodland Trust Chief Executive Darren Moorcroft. “Climate change is jeopardising more than just the environment, with people’s mental wellbeing and future life plans also affected.”

“Ultimately, the real lesson of our pivotal moments is to remember what we were made for before we allowed the world to define who we should be.”

Increasingly, I can’t help but wonder whether we are undergoing a collective transformational moment? If so, how do we navigate it?

What these moments teach us is that if our boat is sinking, we can’t just keep moving the chairs from one deck to another. We have to fix the hole in the hull.

In a world that is deepening into its very own existential crisis, we are called to make a choice: either vainly try to hold on to the status quo, or accept that the old ways must fall away and support the rise of the new chapter that wants to be birthed. Just like individual moments of change, clinging to the comfort zone of how things are will only serve to painfully delay the inevitable.

Ultimately, as the world faces its systemic pivotal moment, answering the call of our individual moments can be the catalyst for new hope. By each one of us coming to understand what our purpose is, we can provide our own essential piece of the jigsaw.

Louise Le Gat is Founder of The Purpose-Led School and The Purpose-Led Method. Find out more at louiselegat.com.