Excerpt: 'Steering by Starlight'

Life coach Martha Beck guides people to the life they were meant to live.

April 11, 2008 — -- So have you given up on your New Year's resolution again this year? Life coach Martha Beck says that doesn't make you lazy, it just means you're just not picking the right resolutions.

Beck's new book, "Steering by Starlight: Find Your Right Life, No Matter What," is all about finding your true goals in life and acheiving them.

Three simple steps to start with:

Stay quiet for 15 minutes each day.

Tell yourself the absolute truth.

Always do what brings you the most joy.

Read an excerpt of "Steering by Starlight" below.

You can visit Martha Beck's Web site at www.marthabeck.com.


I know a man — let's call him Gus — whose nose is continuously attempting to turn itself into an ear. Gus's original nose was crushed in a car accident, and plastic surgeons rebuilt it by taking cartilage from one of his ears, sculpting it into the shape they needed, and grafting it to his nasal bridge. Their skill was amazing; you'd never notice anything unusual about Gus's remodeled schnozz.

However, that little bit of cartilage never forgot what it started out to be. Ever since the surgery, it's been trying to re-create the ear from which it was harvested. Gradually, as the years go by, it morphs into a delicate aural whorl, and Gus's doctors have to go back in and whittle it down again. But the cartilage is not discouraged. Before the procedure is over, it's already continuing its humble, inexorable ambition to regenerate its original form.

I can empathize with Gus's nose. I suspect you can, too. The fact that you're reading these words suggests that you're looking to find and follow the life you were meant to have: your highest and happiest possible destiny. This wouldn't be an issue if you already felt fully "on purpose" or if you lacked any sense of destiny at all.

I'm betting you're like many clients I've coached, people who feel that they aren't quite themselves, who continuously sense that they are trying to regain their true form but who have only the faintest inkling of what that might be. My goal in writing this book is to help you find your deepest sense of purpose — to give you back to yourself, since you are the ultimate arbiter of your own fate. You don't need a book to do this. Whether or not you're consciously following your destiny, your destiny is always following you. But this book may well make the process quicker, cleaner, and easier.

Why This Book May Help You Fulfill Your Destiny

Let me explain a little about why I venture to offer you advice about your life, which you know far better than I ever can. I'm a "life coach," part of a profession that popped up like a mushroom in the last few years of the 20th century. There's no standardization or regulation for life coaching. I have no idea what most people who go by that title actually do. I think of myself as the behavioral equivalent of a personal trainer. A therapist, like a physician, works with unwell people to restore them to health. I work with healthy people to help them achieve maximum "fitness" — that is, well-being and quality of life.

Oddly enough, I knew my life-coaching destiny subconsciously even when I was young and life coaching hadn't been invented. At age 16, I filled out a scholarship application that asked me for a single-sentence summation of my mission in life. My younger sister suggested that I write, "My mission in life is to learn how to say, 'Hey, sailor, want to get lucky?' in every living language." But we lived in Utah, and I feared this would not be well received. So instead, I tossed out a random thought: "My mission in life is to help people bridge the gaps that separate them from their true selves, from one another, and from their destiny." Today, approximately 400 years later, I don't think I'd change that description. Our right lives ride in our cells, in our DNA, and they pop up to speak to us in idle moments, when we think we're just shooting the breeze.

My Adventures in Life Design

A year after filling out that scholarship application, I took a big old detour from the clear self-perception of innocent adolescence. I went off to Harvard and got sucked into the culture of the Ivy League (unofficial motto: "If you aren't incredibly smart, just kill yourself."). I stuck around Harvard long enough to earn three degrees: a bachelor's in East Asian languages and civilizations and my master's and Ph.D. in sociology. I spent time in Asia, learning some Chinese and Japanese and absorbing a philosophical tradition that would profoundly influence all my future thinking.

I also got married and had myself three rug rats, demonstrating the sound life-planning skills of a meth addict who goes bungee jumping without a cord. My middle child, Adam, was diagnosed with Down syndrome two months before he was born. This forced me to face a few little questions, like "What makes a human life worth living?" and "What is the reason for our existence?" and "How do you use American Sign Language to tell a baby, 'I'm changing your diaper,' while simultaneously changing the diaper?" In other words, real life invaded my ivory-tower education and smacked me around, hard, until I had to admit my own total ignorance about everything that really matters. And this, as Plato says, is the beginning of wisdom. Not wisdom (I don't claim that), but its beginning.

After that, I steered my whole education toward understanding how to build a life that would be worth living. I worked on a 20-year study of career patterns at Harvard Business School, wrote a dissertation on role conflict among working women, and spent hundreds of hours doing interviews in which I asked people to describe their lives. My "researcher" status was really just a duck blind I used to coax the truth into the open. What I really wanted were ideas about how to cope, how to be happy, how to find and fulfill my own purpose.

I also did a lot of teaching, in a weird variety of subjects: social psychology, Caribbean culture, studio art. Eventually, I found myself teaching business at the American Graduate School of International Management, which goes by the nickname Thunderbird. My T-bird students weren't like the MBAs I'd known at Harvard. They wanted adventures, not just money. They wanted to matter. Some of them asked me to talk to them about their lives outside of class — and they offered to pay me for it. "What the hell," I thought, "it beats working."

And so I began teaching what I'd learned from all those endless hours of thinking, hurting, reading, hoping, interviewing, longing, teaching, and gradually discovering how humans can follow their bliss. I'd begun life coaching, though I wouldn't call it that until I read an article in USA Today that called me "the best-known life coach in the country." I was thrilled to learn that there was a name for what I do. I felt stunned with gratitude to be doing it. I still feel that way.

How to Use This Book

So, as you read this book, I want to be your life coach. I'll tell you everything I've learned about finding and fulfilling your destiny, in the briefest, simplest possible way. An ancient Chinese text says, "The way to simplicity lies through complexity." I've learned that fulfilling your best destiny is a startlingly simple process — but that doesn't mean it's easy. You may have to go through some complex thoughts and experiences in order to absorb and utilize the surprisingly straightforward methods that can liberate us from everything that doesn't serve our right lives.

You don't have to be smart to do this — in fact, book-smarts may actually hinder your progress. Another Asian saying is "The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master." Your mind can understand parts of your search for destiny, but it can't grasp some of the most powerful truths. These must be experienced to be understood. If something you read in the upcoming chapters sounds so simple you figure you don't have to bother with the accompanying exercises, think again. Don't dismiss any of the ideas until you have actually done the exercises. Not every exercise will work for you, and that's okay. But if you think reading is enough and doing isn't required, none of them can work.

This is because the knowledge of your destiny isn't in your mind. It's in a deeper part of you: the awareness of the true self, the soul — call it whatever you want. This deep part of you is like Gus's nose/ear. It always remembers what it is meant to be and never stops trying to be what it is, no matter what happens to it. Trying to force the mind to do the soul's job is like trying to whittle your ear into a nose--it can work, sort of, but you'll find yourself continuously yearning away from what you've forced yourself to become. Your true self is vastly more intelligent than your mind; in fact, it is limitless. The exercises I'll suggest will help you tap that infinite intelligence.

A Word about Examples

I'll tell a lot of true stories to show you how I arrived at my theories and methods. In the 10 years I've been coaching, I've focused intensely and intimately on the lives of literally thousands of people. I've heard stories that would startle you, amaze you, make your hair stand on end. I'll use some of the most extreme of these stories as I talk about destiny. You probably haven't experienced such extremity. I'm assuming you fall somewhere in the middle of life's big bell curves — that you aren't, for instance, as wealthy as the rich people I've coached (who own things like the copyright to the law of gravity) nor as poor as my poorest clients (like the homeless heroin addicts at the methadone clinic where I sometimes do volunteer coaching).

The way to benefit from these extreme examples is to contrast them with your own (probably less dramatic) experiences. "Wow," you might think, "if the homeless person in that example can start living her destiny, then maybe I can, too, even though I'm barely making rent." Or "Huh. If a world-famous millionaire is still afraid of going broke, maybe getting a million dollars isn't all I need to feel secure."

That said, I want to assure you that all the stories in this book are true. Aside from changing names and surface details that might identify my clients, I'll give you the facts as I know them, without distortion. There may be unwitting errors in some of the tales, but there are no deliberate falsifications or exaggerations of factual reality. As you read, I encourage you to use a social science method called "bracketing." Anthropologists might use it to study, say, an obscure jungle-dwelling tribe that believes God speaks to them through frog droppings. The scientists would imagine putting up a mental bracket like this: { and willingly suspend their disbelief in the tribe's religion. When the period of study was over, they'd close the bracket: } and analyze events from a logical perspective.

You might need to keep up mental brackets throughout this book because much of what I'll describe may sound incredible. Every so often, when I introduce a theory to consider rather than a simple fact, I'll warn you to "bracket up." I won't ever tell you to put your brackets down — you can do that when you're finished reading. Then you can decide which of my ideas seem most true to you. I urge you — I beg you — to discard all those that don't.

In one of my previous books, I used the phrase "your own North Star" as a metaphor for your right life, in order to avoid using the word destiny and its mystical nuances. But since writing that book, I've worked with well over a thousand clients, and I've seen that once they commit to following their own North Stars, the word mystical is a tame description of what actually unfolds. I'm skeptical of religion and superstition, and I believe there's a scientific explanation for everything. But I also know from much experience that current science can't begin to explain the things that will happen to you if you begin steering your life by starlight.

Manifest Destiny

Here's an example of what I mean. I was in Washington, D.C., serving on an advisory committee to the makers of the children's TV show Sesame Street. Another committee member was an absolutely delightful woman named Rosario Marin (she isn't a client, so I'm using her real name). Rosario was one of those people with so much charisma they practically glow in the dark. We were both on Pacific Coast time, which meant that the meeting started when our body clocks said 5:00 a.m. By midmorning, we were both staring at our agenda sheets, slumped and slack-jawed and too sleepy to blink. So we sneaked off to find a Starbucks and bathe ourselves in caffeine. Once we'd absorbed enough coffee to regain the power of speech, we began to chat.

"You know," said Rosario, "I've always thought I'd live here in Washington someday."

I felt something like a mild electric shock. Every hair on my body bristled. This is always my own true self's reaction when someone is nearing the truth about their destiny.

"Rosario," I said, "I think you're right."

Rosario didn't strike me as a weepy person, but suddenly her eyes filled with tears. "I can't figure out why I feel this way," she whispered. "Sleep deprivation, right?" She belted back half a triple-shot latte, fighting to control her emotions.

"No, Rosario," I shook my head. "It's not sleep deprivation. It's whatever you're supposed to do. You're not letting it be big enough. It's big. Very big." Pulses of electricity kept sweeping over me like waves on a beach.

With obvious difficulty, Rosario fought back her tears and regained her usual jovial composure. "Oh, well," she said. "I guess time will tell."

"I guess so," I said.

I didn't see Rosario again for a couple of years. The next time we met was in London, at a meeting for the board of Special Olympics International. Rosario gave me a huge hug. I asked how her family was doing.

"We're great," she said. "The move to D.C. wasn't easy, but we're settling in now."

"You moved to Washington?" I asked.

She gave me an odd smile. "Oh. I guess you haven't heard."

"Heard what?"

Rosario said, "I'm the Treasurer of the United States."

Later that day, she gave me a $1 bill that bears her signature. If you're carrying American currency right now, you probably have a few such bills in your wallet or purse. Any time you need to be reminded that intimations of destiny can be real, pull out some paper money and look for the name Rosario Marin in tidy handwriting next to the portrait of the dead president. I call these bills my North Star Bucks (get it?). Every time I use a Rosario Marin-approved bill to buy a cup of coffee, I'm reminded that the magic of destiny, though still a mystery to me, is real. We align ourselves with it every time we find ourselves in darkness. All we have to do to get magic on our side is to look up at the stars.

Becoming the Stargazer

I used to think of the human psyche as having two sides: the "essential" (or genetic) self, which determines our talents and preferences, and the "social" self, which predisposes us to respond to other people's influence. Over the past few years, I've also come to believe there is a third self, one that goes beyond the boundaries of both the genetic and social selves. Buddhists call this "no-self," a confusing term meant to focus our attention on something the intellect can't grasp. Other traditions call it the great Self, an identity that is shared by everything that exists. I'm going to call it the Stargazer because it never loses sight of your own North Star, your destiny.

I used to help people dig through their social roles (for example, "I'm a mother, a firefighter, a good Christian, an intellectual") to their inborn personalities or essential selves ("I'm talented, sensitive, loving, tough"). Nowadays, that's not enough for me. Your genetically determined essential self is closer to your destiny than your social self, but as we'll see, even your genetic self is highly vulnerable to things that knock it off the path of your right life. The genetic self is subject to mental illness, dementia, and death. Above all, it is afflicted by fear, in all that emotion's manifold guises. The Stargazer within you is unaffected by any of these problems. It extends beyond your brain, beyond your personality. It's so deep and vast that nothing can ever disturb it.

I'm going to give you fair warning: Learning to live as the Stargazer can be a wild ride. If you don't want to have any strange and possibly mystical experiences, turn back now. Find another self-help book. There's no guarantee that magical things will start happening to you if you do all the exercises necessary to become the Stargazer, but I'd say the likelihood is around 90 percent. You'll have premonitions, unaccountable knowledge, experiences that go so far beyond statistical likelihood that to call them "coincidence" would be irrational. The very fabric of reality will seem compelled to help you when you set out toward your North Star, and the more time you spend Stargazing, the more magic you'll experience.

This is not any sort of tribute to my methods, only to the fact that mystical experiences are an innate part of being human. We tend to deny this because modern cultures repress magic in much the same way Freud's culture repressed sex — with similar results. When they're denied or repressed, our mystical drives get warped and misguided, turning us neurotic or overly gullible. This may lead to bizarre religious fundamentalism and various forms of magical thinking (which doesn't work) as opposed to actual magic (which does).

You are a natural mystic. All humans are. But given our culture, it's likely that every time your being starts to assume the gentle curve of the mystic's soul, something else — your peers, your parents, your own rational mind — slices into you like the scalpel slicing into Gus's cartilage, forcing you back to the rational shape you're "supposed" to have. The exercises in this book are meant to set you free from all forms that are not your deepest nature. As this occurs, you may become unrecognizable to many people who are important to you, including your present ego. You will become the person your best destiny calls you to be.

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