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Yolanda, chief executive officer of a mid-size software company selling into small businesses, was chatting over lunch with Tom, chief technology officer at a startup building applications for influencers. They had met years ago at a leadership development conference and stayed in touch as their careers took similar paths.

“I’m finding it pretty tough to focus,” Yolanda told Tom. “So much is changing. I used to know what my goals for my company were. Now, though, I feel like I’ve lost my north star.”

“I went through that a few years before I met you,” Tom replied. “It was pretty rough. Almost overnight, I went from knowing exactly what to do to not having a clue.”

“You’ve had a clear direction and focus since I’ve known you. How did you get there?”

“I puzzled out my base beliefs.”

First, find the factors that signal you are aligned

“What sent me into cluelessness,” Tom explained, “was realizing that everything I believed was a sham. I had drunk the Kool-Aid that profits were more important than people, that I had to put my company before myself, and that I had to leave my emotions behind when I came to work. But, deep down, I knew that none of this was right. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance grew too large. I couldn’t work that way anymore.”

“You discovered your power suits were really shackles, and cast them off?”

“Something like that,” Tom chuckled.

“So, you no longer had any guiding principles. What did you do next?”

“I went back over my entire career, reflecting. When did I feel most aligned? What was present then? When did I feel least aligned? What seemed to be missing at those times? Then, I searched for counterexamples. Times when I felt aligned, yet the critical factors I thought were necessary were missing. And, times when those factors were present, yet I didn’t feel aligned at all. Ditto for the factors I felt were missing when I felt unaligned.”

“How long did that take you?”

“A long time. Eighteen months, probably, before I had something that felt solid.”

“That’s a long time to go without having direction.”

“I wasn’t very comfortable during that time. That first pass at the factors that keep me aligned gave me something to start with, which helped. Then, as I refined their definitions, I refined my direction.”

Second, find the beliefs that bring about those factors

“So, you gradually identified the factors critical to your alignment. Those are what you called your ‘base beliefs’?”

“Those critical factors were the start. They’re not my base beliefs, though.”

“What’s the difference?”

“If life is a bowling alley, the factors I identified were bumpers that keep me on the lane and out of the gutter. My base beliefs extend those factors into the principles I use to send my ball directly at the pin I want to hit.”

“Okay, that makes sense. What was that next step? How did you extract your base beliefs from those initial factors?”

“I realized that, while I knew these factors were necessary to feel aligned, I didn’t know why they were necessary. They must be signals that something else was present, I decided. I puzzled over what that something else was for months. Then, I woke up one morning knowing those factors were outcomes of my beliefs. So, I just needed to describe what I believe.”

“How did you put together that puzzle?”

“I started a list of everything I believed to be true. Every rule, guideline, process I used to guide my life. I left it one big list until I hadn’t added to it for a week or two. Then, I started grouping items that seemed to go together. Sometimes, I didn’t understand the connection. I trusted my intuition, though.”

“How many groups did you have?”

“I started with over twenty. Those became thirteen, and then eight, five, and now I’m down to two.”

“Two beliefs keep you aligned in every situation?”

“I didn’t believe it at first, either. But, when I applied them to all of those examples I used back at the beginning, they always gave me the right answer. So, I decided they were pretty close. They’ve held up pretty well. Just a few refinements in the time since.”

Your base beliefs help you stay aligned

“This is a pretty simple system you came up with. I’m going to give it a try. First, identify all the times in my life when I’ve felt aligned, and all the times I’ve felt the reverse. Second, note what was present when I felt aligned, and what seems to have been missing when I felt unaligned. Third, find all the counterexamples. This gives me the factors that must be present to feel aligned.

“Next, list out everything I believe. Sort that list into groups until I’m down to my base beliefs. Then, apply those base beliefs against the situations I identified back at the beginning. If I had applied those base beliefs to those situations, would my alignment factors have been produced?”

“That doesn’t seem so simple, when you lay it out like that. But, you’ve accurately summarized the process I went through.”

“Yes, I guess I did say a lot of words there. Still, it seems simple to me.”

“And that’s what counts. I’m curious to hear what you find!”

“Me, too,” Mary said with a grin.

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