I Think the Best Antidote to a Rut Is Action

Portrait of Laura Gassner Otting

Laura Gassner Otting founded the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, and has been involved in many nonprofit boards around the country. She writes and speaks frequently about the world of mission-driven work and getting “unstuck” in our lives. As she describes herself: “I help people discover how they align what they do with who they are, to achieve limitless potential.

As if that’s not enough to keep her busy, she has also just published a new book: Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Laura about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Laura: I hang out with “framily,” those people who aren’t the family I was born to—they are lovely but geographically distant—but the friends I have made as an adult who have become my close knit kibbutz. These are the people who know my hopes and dreams, who see my stress and anxiety, who cheer me on during my successes and pick me up during my failures. They don’t keep score, they don’t play the comparison gave, they know we are all on our own path. They bathe in emotional abundance, rather than scarcity. I am better for the fact that they are in my life, and I work hard every day to make sure that I uplift them in return.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Ever the gold star chaser, I was entirely certain that if I just collected all the right degrees and titles, I’d be happy. But it wasn’t until I was much older, fueled by my own journey and also twenty years of studying, recruiting, and stewarding leaders through massive career shifts, that I realized that success as externally (and often myopically) defined, didn’t equal happiness. It wasn’t until I realized that we need to create our own definition of success, and lean into that specifically, that the success we achieve will truly bring us the happiness we seek.

In your new book, Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Life Your Best Life, you have a different take on success, and its role in bringing happiness. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Over the course of my research, what I’ve learned is that success doesn’t bring happiness when it’s merely us following someone else’s path to someone else’s definition of success. It’s why Lean In didn’t ring true for so many; some were angry about the privilege that Sheryl Sandberg used to achieve her success. I didn’t blame her for that; frankly it would’ve been folly not to use it. My issue wasn’t how she achieved success, but how she defined it, as this one unflinching, myopic view of the fastest and most expedient path to the corner office.

What I now know is that happiness through work comes from consonance, from when the “what you do” matches the “who you are.” Each of our true definitions of success will be a personalized rubric of calling, connection, contribution, and control.

  • Calling is a gravitational pull towards a goal larger than yourself—a business you want to build, a leader who inspires you, a societal ill you wish to remedy, a cause you wish to serve.
  • Connection gives you sightlines into how your everyday work serves that calling by solving the problem at hand, growing the company’s bottom line, or reaching that goal.
  • Contribution is an understanding of how this job, this brand, this paycheck contributes to the community you want to belong, the person you want to be, or the lifestyle you’d like to live.
  • Control reflects how you are able to influence your connection to that calling in order to have some say in the assignment of projects, deadlines, colleagues, and clients; offer input into shared goals; and do work that contributes to your career trajectory and earnings.

We will all want and need these in different amounts at different ages and stages throughout our lives. I’ve set up a quiz that people can take to understand how much of each of these elements they want in their lives, and how much of each they’d like to have. And, of course, it gives some immediately actionable tips on changes to make right here, right now to get unstuck and become limitless. That quiz is at www.LimitlessAssessment.com.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
When I turned 39 years old, I walked into my kids’ elementary school and saw the principal, whom I hadn’t seen in a few months. “Ellen,” I said, “You look amazing. Either you’ve been really sick, or there’s a new man in your life, and you look too good to have been really sick!” And she replied, “There is a new man in my life, and his name is Mike. Coach Mike.”

And she dragged me to a boot camp where I spent six weeks trying to run the first mile of my life. (Seriously, I’d had 634,598 excuses to get out of P.E. throughout my childhood and the only reason I was picked last for every team was because there wasn’t a position after last.) But then I did it. I ran my first mile without stopping.

Fast forward nine years, and I’ve run three marathons and row on a competitive team. Whenever the coach calls out, “OK, athletes, next we’re going to…” I get giddy. Still can’t believe anyone would think of me as an athlete, and loving the multitudes within myself that I am discovering as a result of letting myself be (very) uncomfortable in the middle of my otherwise comfortable life.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am an Upholder. The last thing I do before I go to bed is check my schedule for the next day, and mentally walk through and schedule in time to complete my tasks, be present for others, and take steps towards my personal and professional goals. My husband likes to joke that “If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist.” To wit, I schedule in shower time after a workout, picking up my kids, and answering email, all things which (eek, the kids!) would either be forgotten or expand across the day (gah, email!) if unchecked.

And, really, there’s nothing like clear expectations and a full set of data when it comes to making plans and dreaming big dreams, right?

Oh, and yeah, I’m that person who puts the thing on my to-do list that I have done, even if it wasn’t on there before. Nothing is more beautiful than an organized day and a clean slate morning.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I am the human embodiment of Newton’s First Law of Physics: a body in motion stays in motion. So when I’m in a groove, I’m golden. But when travel, bad eating, sickness, injury waylay me, I’m at risk of falling off the path. That said, I think the best antidote to rut is action, so I try to remind myself that anything beats nothing, and then I call a friend and ask them to join me the next day in The Thing I Need to Do. Accountability always gets me back on track, even when everything in my core is clinging to malaise.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Show up. Shut up. Do the work. (Pretty Upholder of me, huh?)

For me, it’s about being fully present, getting better by listening and learning, and doing the hard yards in the dark that nobody sees (or cares about) so that I can show up in a way for my message, my family, my community, and my causes.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
At the risk of being so cheesy and fangirly: The Happiness Project. [Awwww thanks!]

When The Happiness Project first came out, I scoffed and thought, “What does this woman of privilege know about being happy? Her life must be really happy already.” But then I thought, “Well, I’m pretty privileged and I’m not happy.” So I bought the book.

And then, on pretty much the first page, you called yourself out about the privilege, and from that moment on, you had my heart.

I made my husband read it the second I finished it, and even though this would normally not be his thing, he dutifully read it for me—perhaps because he’d not seen me so animated about a book in quite some time—and we began to immediately implement the changes you outlined. This book changed our lives because it changed the way we looked at our lives, and what they could be, and how we use our privilege and the choices we made every day to be happy.

So, I’ve been waiting a long time to say this, but: thank you.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
I’m on a crusade to get us to stop listening to the messengers riding in on the Four Horsemen of the Success Apocalypse: balance, purpose, happiness, and passion.

Purpose! This idea that the only careers that matter are ones that fix the world, the one that demand the shirt off our backs, the ones where service is only service if it also means sacrifice.

Balance! This fleeting, ephemeral, impossible to reach idea that work and life must be perfectly separate and always equal to one another, as if work and life should have nothing to do with one another.

Happiness! That terrible phrase that kills our dreams before they even leave our mouths, “I’ll be happy when…” I’ll be happy when I go on vacation. I’ll be happy when I pay off my debt. I’ll be happy when I get married. I’ll be happy when I find a new job. Why can’t we be happy now?

Passion! We’ve all seen her. That beautiful, perfectly beach waved flaxen haired beauty, staring off into the sunset over the dunes or, um, Coachella. “Follow Your Dreams!” It’s the spoken word illegitimate sister of the Live Love Laugh tattoo!

The four horsemen set up a false choice. A binary choice between whether or not we have purpose or are pushing paper, whether or not we have perfect balance or the edges of our lives bleed together, whether we are happy by these false standards, or whether we have passion or are miserable sell-outs. I’m calling bull on all of it. The four horsemen build a create a false foundation on which we build a life, and then we realize that that life was meant for someone else. It’s no wonder we can’t live boldly into that life.

You can’t be insatiably hungry for other people’s goals, for other people’s definitions of success. So, what does success look like for me? What would make me truly happy? If we could all, collectively, say, “Screw the Joneses!” and fail at living into everyone else’s expectations, so that we can make room for our own.

Besides, why are we taking advice from girls in flower crowns, anyway?!?

limitless book



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