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Leaping before I look 2.0: finding faith and playing big

Friday, April 8, 2011 by Marianne Elliott

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(This is a revised version of a post I wrote a while ago. I’ve been playing big in new ways since then and – as you do – uncovered new nuances in my relationship with my fears. I’m posting this edited version in honour of the fabulous Tara Mohr and her Playing Big offering)

It is in my nature to leap before I look too hard.

I follow my enthusiasm without too many questions. If something fits well with my core values, excites me and seems generally in line with what matters most to me, then I’m in. Boots and all.

Later I’ll figure out the details.

Which is not to say that I don’t go in with a plan. If a plan is called for, I’ll put together a plan. But what I generally don’t do is worry about whether or not it will work. On the big things in life, I waste very little time worrying.

(I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about smaller things. Like what more I could have done to save the house plant that seems to have died in my care while house-sitting. That, I will worry about until my boyfriend gently suggests that I either do something about it or *ahem* shut up about it.)

Years ago I found out that my dream job was coming up at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. On paper, I was not qualified for this job. But I knew I could do it and I knew it was the only job worth staying in New Zealand for at the time. So I put together a plan of how I would tackle the role, applied and convinced the panel (some of whom were understandably skeptical) that I could do the job.

There were plenty of people who were worried I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Some of them were happy to share those doubts with me. I, however, refused to join their ranks.

I had faith that if I kept taking the next sensible step, which included taking advice from people who had more experience than me and getting people on my team who had the skills I lacked, I would get to the finish line on time (and under budget).

And I did. Though not without making many mistakes and learning many lessons along the way.

More on that in a minute.

When I took my job in the Gaza Strip I had two weeks to pack up my life and move to the other side of the world. To the middle of a conflict-zone. To do a job for which I had no experience.

I never doubted that I would figure out a way to do it.

I leap first. Not because I have no self-doubt, but because I like to move before my self-doubt keeps me stuck. Once the leap has been taken, and the path has been selected, momentum takes over and there is less time to indulge self-doubt or fear.

By then there is a job to be done. So you get on with it.

I did the same when I went to Afghanistan. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the airport in Dubai, about to board my flight to Kabul that I suddenly wondered whether I would actually be able to adjust to life in yet another war-torn country. Whether I would be able to do the job I’d signed on to do.

But even in that wobbly moment, I knew that I would find a way to manage.


Why was I so certain? Why the faith? Why the trust?

There are three main reasons. And none of them are because I’m braver, more talented, or smarter than you. Because I’m not.

But my life has equipped me with certain tools that help me make peace with my self-doubt monsters and have faith that everything will be okay. Or, more accurately, that even if everything is not okay, everything is actually okay.

I’ve been getting really curious lately about how I came to acquire those tools, because I want to share them with you. With anyone whose self-doubt is getting in the way of their good work in the world.

So this is not a finished, polished, wrapped-up-and-tied-with-a-bow “5 steps to beat self doubt” kind of a post. It’s more of an exploration. I’m mining my own history to see where the clues lie, and digging about a bit to see what can usefully be shared.

The first clue I came across is that I grew up in a very stable home.

Day-to-day marital disagreements and normal teen angst and rebellion aside, there was very little conflict and no violence in my home. Although my parents were by no means wealthy when I was a child, we always had enough to eat, a safe home and a warm, dry bed. My parents and sisters and I were spared any major illness or accident throughout my childhood. My parents are both alive, still together, and happy.

This is a huge part of my story, and of my experience of the world, and it has certainly played a big part in giving me a very solid ground from which to go out into the world.

I want to acknowledge this, and to acknowledge that this is not everyone’s experience. I believe that my experience of family as a child, and now as an adult, have made it easier for me to have faith that things are going to work out okay.

But things didn’t always work out okay. In one terrible three week period – the three weeks before my wedding – my best friend (and bridesmaid) lost her brother, another dear friend lost her husband, a third friend lost her baby and a fourth committed suicide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that inauspicious beginning, my marriage ended only four years later in heartbreak and divorce.

I abandoned the faith of my childhood, left my family and all my friends and spent eleven months traveling in Africa and the Middle East only to discover that my sense of failure and inadequacy came with me wherever I went. Back home, I spent six weeks in bed – getting up only long enough each morning and evening to hide my profound depression from my housemates.

I share that because I want you to know that I am familiar with grief, anxiety, self-doubt and despair. Very familiar.

My leaps of faith haven’t always worked out the way I expected them to either.

When I finally got my dream job, in Afghanistan, I spent the first six months on the job profoundly depressed. I went through a complete crisis of faith not only in my own ability to do the job but also in the job itself – I wondered whether there was any point at all to the humanitarian work we were purportedly there to do.

Things were not okay. And yet, when I finally stopped fighting the questions and the sadness and allowed myself to simply be sad and confused, I realised that actually everything was okay. Even when things are not at all okay in the way I wanted and expected them to be okay, they are still okay.

What does that mean ‘Things are still okay’? What can that possibly mean when people in Afghanistan are being killed by poverty, disease, narco-crime and war every day? It doesn’t mean that I accept suffering as unavoidable or acceptable. It doesn’t mean that I stop doing all that I can do to bring more justice, more kindness, more safety to the world.

What it means to me is that I can focus on what I am doing and – most importantly – how I am doing it, and then I can let go of needing to control or even worry about the outcome. The outcome is much bigger than me.

Which brings me to the third clue I came across in my excavations.

Recently I came across the notes from an evaluation of that big project I took on at the Human Rights Commission. Even now I wince at some of the harshest criticism of my short-comings as a project manager. At the time I certainly went to bed crying some nights. But here’s where faith came in: I always woke up in the morning thinking about what I could learn from the criticism to make the project better. Faith, to me, meant nothing fancier than finding, and then taking, the next step that I could take.

The truth is, in some areas of that role I sucked. But what the project was about – setting a new strategic agenda for human rights in New Zealand, one that included issues like poverty and social and economic disparities – was so much bigger than me that I never wavered from my commitment to do my very best.

This is the third clue I’ve found about how I get past self-doubt: I remember that what is happening is bigger than me.

One of my teachers is Seane Corn, and Seane often says to us;

“There is so much work to be done right now and the question is not ‘Who am I to do this work?’, but ‘Who am I not to do this work?’ How dare I let my self-doubts and fears get in the way of the work that needs to be done.”

Recently I was listening to Jen Louden interview Christina Baldwin for The Teacher’s Path – and Christina talked about the same thing, getting out of our own way so that we can be a conduit for the bigger thing that is wanting to happen.

“We are up to something as a species that is profoundly important right now. We need to attend to this and … my life is part of a decision that’s going on in the human race. I know the kinds of values and contributions I want to make in that decision. And that’s where I have to stand. So, when I get dragged down, I just say to myself … ‘What are you up to? What are you born to be doing at this time?’ And then I get regrounded and that voice just shuts off because I’m not in the same room with it.”

When I heard Seane and Christina’s words I recognised something that I have often experienced in my own life: I can find the audacity to do work that seems far too big for me because I know that the work is bigger than me and because I know that I’m not doing it alone.

This is what faith looks like to me right now: I am not the whole story. I am only a very small part of the story. And I need only do the work that I was born to be doing right now – with integrity, with compassion, with courage.

As Karen Maezen Miller once said: Faith is taking the next step.

So – those are some initial thoughts on the clues I’m uncovering from my own life about how I get past self-doubt and find the audacity, trust and faith to do things I’m not sure I’m ‘big’ enough for.


These are the last days to sign up for Tara’s course Playing Big so if you think this is for you, now would be the time. The course is new, so I can’t tell you that I’ve done it. But I have worked with Tara and I’m deeply impressed by her rare combination of sharp intellect/business sense + poetic, soulful insight. I’m also one of the guest experts for the course, and will be sharing more about my experiences of playing big as part of the course.

I’m confident this course will be a life-changer for anyone who is ready for it. But don’t take my work for it. Sit with your own wise self for a while and you’ll know. Sometimes a course like this is just what you need. Other times you just need to carve out some time to get alone with yourself and your laptop and write that damn book. You know which time it is for you. Now get to it!

Love, Me.



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12 Responses to "Leaping before I look 2.0: finding faith and playing big"

  1. Emmanuelle says:

    Ha Marianne, I loved this post the first time around, I’m loving it even more now!
    Thank you.

  2. Marcela says:

    How interesting. It is always such a pleasure reading your posts. Thanks for sharing.

    I am like you: I take the leap without thinking too much. If I feel that something is right (in my stomach)then, I just do it and trust that, if it does happen, it was meant to be.

    But my courage comes from a different place. I did not have a happy family when I was growing up, and in many ways. But that troubled family life gave me resilience (after 9 months of psychoanalysis twice a week + yoga and meditation ;).

    Whenever I am in doubt, whenever I have fears, I think : ” What is the worse that can happen?” and once I figure it out I think “I have been through worse” or “Back then I thought X was the worst that could happen and then it did and it was ok. If Y happens, it shall be ok too”.

  3. Pat Leitzen Fye says:

    Very thoughtful post indeed. I aspire to your brand of faith and action ~

  4. Swirly says:

    Even though I am familiar with many of your stories, I still loved reading about your experiences and the wisdom and insights you have gleaned from them. Your example has always inspired me on many levels, and today, reading this, you have once again opened a new door for me, one that helps me make sense of my own journey.

  5. Susannah, Your writing is gentle and beautiful. I love your excavation, and the graceful acceptance you help me to see, in myself. Thank you for writing your story.

  6. … and oops, I’m brand new here, and saw Susannah under your photo … scrolled back up and see that I should watch for email updates from Marianne ~
    Take special good care ~

  7. Roxanne says:

    As many of the commenters above said, I loved this post the first time and I love it now. I quoted it in my blog the first time because your way of talking about leaps of faith resonated deeply and inspired me to the core. I love how you integrated the concept of “playing big” into the narrative.

  8. damn damn damn yes yes yes thank you thank you thank you – going to read your book in the ferry on my way to have dinner with Tara – it’s a great world!

  9. angelica says:

    “even if everything is not ok it is ok” or it will be ok, we make it ok….

    thanks for that

  10. pamela says:

    I LOVE your blog. Every single letter you write resonates with me.

    I found you on Lindsey’s site and am currently going through my own yoga teacher training and dealing with fear and self-doubt, blah, blah, blah.

    Your words are amazing comfort and strength. Thanks for your honestly and compassion.


  11. […] again, I have lept before I looked. Those of you who know me know that my heart tends to lead the way. I trust my heart when it tells […]

  12. […] again, I have leapt before I looked. Those of you who know me know that my heart tends to lead the way. I trust my heart when it tells […]

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