‘Achieving an extraordinary life means kicking avoidance’

24 January 2020

How do you define an extraordinary life? Is it one that is happy and fulfilling or is there something more to it?

We tend to see people as extraordinary when they achieve success despite traumatic circumstances or despite an ordinary past linked to little opportunity. Leading an extraordinary life for one person may be starting a charity to help disadvantaged children. For another person, being extraordinary may be applying their best efforts to a monotonous job to give their children a top education or pursuing a passion in teaching despite feeling crippling self-doubt. For someone else, being extraordinary may be overcoming trauma and helping other people to flourish.

However we define an extraordinary life, it requires the capacity to think bigger than one’s perceived limitations, as well as the grit or determination to keep going when the going gets tough, the capacity to update painful memories to strengthen self-esteem and drive, the capacity to focus, to choose happiness rather than despair, the capacity to create a vision and stick to it, and the capacity to draw on behaviours that support health and success. Each chapter in Be Extraordinary covers one of these skills.

There are seven key skills in the book that you say can take us from ordinary to extraordinary. The first of those key skills is ‘vision’ – having a picture of how we want ourselves and our lives to be. How do we go about finding that vision if we don’t know what our ideal future is?

One of the ways to kick start a frame of mind that could create compelling possibilities for your future is to first make a list of moments that knocked your socks off – moments when you remember feeling full of energy and buzzing with excitement. This gives clues about your passions in life.

People tend to buzz with greater energy when they are being spontaneous, creative, exercising vigorously, learning something new, achieving something they didn’t think possible and connecting with others. In imagining our dream work day and our dream day off, we’ll need to include activities or tasks that can unlock the likelihood of feeling this way. 

Our bigger vision is about realising more rather than fewer of our dream days, which connect us to our passions, and this is likely to include meaningful work. The chapter on vision guides readers to think big about what an extraordinary life could look like for them in 8 areas of life, ranging from creativity to relationships. By the end of the chapter, readers will have a much clearer idea of their vision for an extraordinary life, steps to achieve it and how to keep going with it when the going gets tough. 

You say that part of the path of transition to an extraordinary life involves cleaning up messy memories. What do you mean by that?

People who transition from ordinary to extraordinary clean up their memories. They scoop up their difficult times, dust off the dirt, and change their painful meanings. No matter what they live through, they create a meaningful relationship to their past that ensures an extraordinary future. They re-create their memories, re-write the bad times, not by changing the facts of what happened, but by changing the meaning of their challenging times. 

Do you think there’s only so far resilience can take us? There has been a bit of a backlash in some quarters recently over the ‘brave fight’ / war against cancer metaphors. Can there be too much pressure to be extraordinary, in some circumstances?

If we can weave a compassionate mindset into our path to success, we approach our future with kindness rather than criticism, which reduces pressure linked to expectations. 

What struck me as I was writing Be Extraordinary was discovering that some tools support many of the 7 skills within the Be Extraordinary framework. A compassionate mindset was one of them, lowering stress hormones and improving problem-solving. Approaching our own expectations for an extraordinary life with compassion will make our next steps manageable rather than overwhelming. 

You acknowledge your mentors and colleagues Anke Ehlers and David Clark. Can you summarise the influence they’ve had? 

Anke and David have had a huge influence on my work. They take a systematic approach to developing psychological treatments that work, an approach that is like none other. They first develop psychological models to explain why anxiety persists and then test and refine the models on the basis of experiments, prospective research and pilot studies. The results lead to the development of disorder-specific treatments, which they evaluate with rigor in randomised controlled trials. My skill as a clinical researcher has evolved through their mentorship. I apply my curiosity to solve clinical problems with science. I test ideas, develop models, and systematically create then evaluate interventions to build resilience to disorders I’d like to prevent: PTSD and depression in emergency workers, people who risk their lives to improve ours.

What’s extraordinary about you? 

I work hard. I focus. I apply the tools in the chapters Vision and Determination to achieve my goals. I’m passionate about helping my clients and my team to see an extraordinary future for themselves and to take steps to create it.  

If you could recommend one action that we should all take right now to be a little more extraordinary, what would that be?

Get out of your head. Immediately! Chewing over the past or solving unrealised hiccups in the future fuels over-thinking, which delays decision-making and taking action. It’s a form of avoidance. Achieving an extraordinary life means kicking avoidance. It means choosing what is best for you rather than what is easiest. 

Spot when your thoughts have turned to ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ and instead of spending energy trying to answer unanswerable questions, ask yourself ‘How can I feel better now?’ ‘How can I refocus on the task at hand?’ Then use the 3 minute carrot. Give yourself permission to try a new behaviour (which could even be focusing on the task at hand) for just three minutes then re-assess how you are feeling, giving yourself permission to carry on for another three minutes if you choose to or to stop.

Be Extraordinary: 7 Key Skills to Transform Your Life from Ordinary to Extraordinary (Little, Brown) by Dr Jennifer Wild is out on 30 January.