The Purposeful Leader

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Exception to the Rule

Leadership, Motivation, Values

The very first skill of thought work is separating facts from thoughts.

If that sounds simple, or if you think you’re already a pro, don’t stop reading.

Facts, or circumstances, are neutral, often mathematical, and have not even a hint of interpretation. Everything else is thought. How we describe things, how we tell stories, most of what we mull over in our minds and share with others is thought.

This is the first skill — the foundation of thought work — because it’s the way we gain visibility into our heads. It’s the way the lens through which we look at the world is revealed to us.

It’s the way we learn exactly how much of our experience of reality is created in our minds.

This idea is central to what I teach, and I’ve talked about it many times. I’m writing about circumstances again, on their own, because when people are just starting out, they need practice separating truly neutral facts from their thoughts about them. And because no matter how much thought work we do, no matter how much we’ve practiced, we will continue to find thoughts that we want to report as circumstances.

When we start out, our practice might look like:

Fact: I have a colleague named Brenda.

Thought: Brenda is such a gem.

Fact: I have a husband.

Thought: My husband doesn’t do as much around the house as I do.

Fact: I have a job at [company].

Thought: The culture here is toxic.

Fact: I have two kids, ages 5 and 7.

Thought: They are the lights of my life.

And after getting this down, we’ll eventually find or bump into something that challenges emotionally what we understand intellectually.

For some people, it’s when they finally decide to work on their relationship with their mother.

For some, it’s when they attempt to apply thought work to politics.

And for others, it’s after a natural disaster. Or a mass shooting.

I call this breaking the model: finding the thing that we think doesn’t fit. We believe our thoughts about it so much that they feel like circumstances. We can’t see how the tools apply.

The bad news in moments like this: the tools always apply. Everything fits into the model. Your mom, the president, hurricanes. Everything.

The good news in moments like this: the tools always apply. If you have thought work, you have everything you need to determine how you want to think, feel and act in the face of those circumstances. You have everything you need to allow the feelings caused by your thoughts about them. And you have everything you need to evaluate what gives you the most peace, or drives the most impact, or serves the world in the way you want to.

There is no endpoint, no place where we “should” have it figured out and have nothing to work on anymore.

There is no “right” way to think about things. There are only the awareness, curiosity, and compassion for ourselves that allow us to choose.

The beauty is in having tools that will serve our lives, not in striving for a point at which we don’t need them.

As long as we are alive there will be ways to look at our thinking, layers to peel back, patterns to discover.

“My mother has been critical of me my whole life” is a great example — a thought that feels like a circumstance. It feels so true. There’s lots of evidence.

The thought isn’t good or bad, and having it is neutral. But you can’t assess whether or not it’s helping you, serving you, inspiring you to take action in the way you want, until you see it as thought, not as reality.

It’s so important to recognize it as a thought, not a fact, because thinking it gives all emotional power to another person. In order for the thinker to feel better, Mom has to be different. And that’s a lose-lose. Try as we might, we can’t change anyone else. And when we try, we behave strangely and feel terrible.

But we can identify where we’d like to go from here . . . maybe it’s to let Mom be critical and not make it mean anything about us or her . . . maybe it’s to recognize that we’re not ready to change the way we think about this yet . . . maybe it’s to draw a boundary . . . maybe it’s to find her thoughts about us hilarious and endearing.

We can’t change what’s hers, but we can change everything and anything that’s ours.

And when we find what we think are exceptions to the rule (that other people and provable facts of reality are neutral), we have found our greatest opportunities for growth. Because we’ve found the things we’re giving our emotional power to, the areas where we can take even more responsibility for our lives and feel more freedom.

And that is the whole point of doing thought work: to fully recognize what is in our control + choose consciously and deliberately.

So I say lean in. The people and circumstances that trigger you, that make you want to believe they can cause the way you feel . . . explore them hard. They’ll teach you so much, and you’ll emerge from that work a different person. A lighter person. A person with more agency, more control. A more effective leader.


We wait for the world to change so we can feel better. We think that once our circumstances improve our feelings will improve. But the truth is that we create our emotional experience in our mind. And so we don’t have to wait for anyone or anything to change in order to change how we feel. Sign up for a free consultation with me. Start feeling better now.