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inciting incidents in life, traverse city, pruning things from life, asking for help, waking up to life's signals

Wake Up to the Life that Lives Inside of You

In screenplay and novel writing, the “inciting incident” is the event that gets the story rolling. It’s the action or decision that introduces the problem that the story’s main character must overcome. In Jerry Maguire, it’s the moment that Jerry writes his “mission statement” manifesto about the need to put people first in the sports agency business. It leads to his firing, and he walks away from his power job and starts over.

In movies and books, the inciting incident is unmistakable. It’s the moment that changes the main character’s life irrevocably. That’s the thing about fiction – almost every story follows the same arc. There’s background, struggle, and ultimately triumph, with twists and turns along the way. But the story almost always gets resolved, wrapped up in a pretty bow, and more often than not the protagonist lives happily ever after.

It’s said that art imitates life, but real life is, of course, far different. And messier (at least the ending). For almost all of us, potentially-inciting incidents happen frequently, but rarely do they lead to real change. Often we miss their meaning altogether. Other times we recognize their significance, but are unable or unwilling to leverage their transformational power. We have a health scare, but do little to improve our lifestyle. We get laid off from a job we hate, but instead of pursuing a vocation we are passionate about, we jump right back into the corporate grind.

One of the reasons that I think people miss these signals is that, consciously or not, they live two lives.

One life exists on the Outside, which is where our public persona exists. It’s the world in which others know us and judge us – good or bad – based on our achievements and failures. Another life resides on the Inside, which is the world that only we know. It’s a private place, intimate and raw. Rarely do we let anyone else in. It’s where our hopes and dreams live, too often stifled and repressed.

Because we fight so hard to maintain our Outside shell, we miss the moments – the inciting incidents – in our lives that call us to change. The lucky few come to the realization that what lives Inside must exist Outside on their own terms. They seek a higher calling. For the rest of us, this awakening comes – if at all – in the darkest of hours. Pain is a powerful catalyst.

I had a meaningful moment of realization almost four years ago. It was the painful variety.

In the movie The Hangover the inciting incident is the moment when the guys wake in their trashed hotel room with no recollection of what happened the night before. Doug was missing, and they had no idea where he was.

In my story, this was not the closing act of a rowdy night out with the guys. It was 9 p.m., at the Detroit Athletic Club, and I was hosting a holiday party for the employees (and their spouses) of our marketing agency and my law firm. It was a festive night meant to usher in the holiday season, and I over-indulged. In fact I didn’t even make it to the dessert course. Heather got me home safely. If I had a tail, it would have been between my legs.

I woke up the next day, pounding headache, cottonmouth, and the prior night’s events slowly came back to me. Textbook inciting incident. What made this one different is that this time I recognized it for what it was: a moment for serious and piercing self-analysis.

I spent the next few days reflecting, digging deep, and didn’t like what I found.

From the Outside, I understood that my adult life appeared to be an enviable one marked by success and achievement. Nothing in my public persona suggested that anything was wrong. By all accounts I had a good thing going.

But on the Inside, the story was different. The weight of trying to build a life that matched my definition of success was bearing down on me. My foundation began to crack. I was embroiled in a difficult litigation matter at work that consumed me. As a result, I was often not present (physically and emotionally) at home for my family or friends. And because my legal practice was so busy, Heather, who was pregnant with our twin girls, was left to run our marketing business largely on her own. At the same time, my father was quickly declining from the ravages of dementia. He passed away, and I grappled with the fact that I was not there for him like I should have been at the moment he needed me most. I achieved success (at least my notion of it at the time), but hated the means by which I acquired it. On the Inside I was lit up by the idea of creating and writing, but I ignored these signals as frivolous distractions on the path I was traveling.

I had relinquished control. The gap between the life that I was living and the life I wanted grew. I’m not sure why that embarrassing night at the holiday party led me to finally confront these issues. But it did. From this dark moment came a wake-up call; a shallow breath, a faint pulse, of a life unlived.

Change began, slowly, at a crossroads. For the first time in my adult life I faced the fact that while I was on the road to success, the farther I traveled down this road the unhappier I grew.

In the past, when grappling with uncertainty and insecurity, I attempted to correct course by adding more to my life. If life felt empty, I would tell myself, the best way to fill the void is to add another layer to it. Not feeling content at work? Start another business. What I came to realize is that by adding more I was not filling the void. I was just adding another layer of complexity to my life, further exacerbating the problem.

It was time to try something different

To dig out of the hole I found myself in, I decided to do two things that I had never really tried before.

First, I asked for help. I had always believed – and still do – in the supremacy of stoic and rugged self-reliance; that men don’t make their problems someone else’s. It’s a belief and practice has served me well in my career. Face a difficulty, figure it out. That’s what professionals do.

So when I walked into my law firm partner’s office one morning during the week following our holiday party, I did so feeling a healthy dose of shame and trepidation. I was there to ask for help. I explained what I’m sure he already knew – that I was not in a great place and was having trouble keeping up with the rigors of my caseload. I needed his help to lighten my load.

The reason it was so hard to ask for his help was that he was in no position to provide it. He was equally busy, had young kids, and a life full of activities and responsibilities. I would not have faulted him for an instant if he had said no. But he didn’t. He said yes, enthusiastically; not because it was easy, but rather because that’s what friends do. I asked, and he answered the call. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him, but not once did he complain or express any hint of resentment. He just helped at a time when I needed it.

I felt a bit of the weight lift immediately. It was like the scene in Good Will Hunting where Professor Lambeau first comes to Will’s aid when he was in a tight spot. A sense of relief washed over me.

Fresh off the revelation that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it most, I decided to try something else. I started subtracting, rather than adding, things in my life.

Things felt so full and busy at the time that there was little space for any light to shine in. It was as if an overgrown bush was blocking the sun from the window of my life. Heather, pregnant and overwhelmed, felt the same way. So we started to prune.

We got rid of a bunch of physical possessions that were cluttering our closets and office space. We took a close look at our finances, and realized that as we got busier and busier over the years, we became less and less conscious and careful about our budget. We found a number of painless ways to reduce our spending.

Having achieved some small, easy wins, we applied the same reductionist philosophy to our businesses. I decided that, with the twins on the way, I could no longer operate two busy businesses, so I started the transition out of my law firm. We also began to streamline the service offerings of our marketing agency, and prune clients who were no longer a good fit. We shed almost half of our client base, which created space for us to partner with new, better aligned clients. We ditched our physical office altogether and started working virtually.

Three years later, and we still have not lost sight of the importance of pruning. Just two weeks ago we made the difficult, but necessary decision to part ways with our largest client. It has been a great relationship over the years, but at this point they’ve grown so large that we’ve been having trouble keeping up. It came to the point that we either had to grow with them or move in a different direction. We decided that growth, at least the type required to service this account, was not consistent with our priorities and values during this season in our lives. We have other goals, and other dreams, that would be crowded out if we took on more work, more employees and more responsibilities. At this moment in our story, we prioritized space and freedom over revenue and busyness, in order to pursue those goals and chase those dreams.

There’s nothing magical about our story. If it was made into a movie, it would go straight to DVD. It’s certainly not in the right genre for everyone. I have no doubt that, for many who read this, it won’t resonate. I’m glad that’s the case; that many people, content with their lives, don’t identify with the whispers, however meek, urging them toward something different. That’s a great place to be. As a result of many of the changes we’ve made, we’re getting there ourselves.

If you’re feeling restless, you’re not alone

It’s easy to assume that everyone else has it figured out, and that you’re the only one struggling, grasping, trying to figure out who you are and what you should be doing with your life. It’s okay if today you feel like a bystander in your own life, with someone else setting the agenda. What’s not okay is if you never retake control of your circumstances.

Life moves quickly, and risk lurks around every corner. There are tons of valid excuses to not take bold action, to not rewrite your story. So it’s easy to wait. The problem is the excuses don’t go away until you start taking action.

So be courageous, because no one is going to grant you permission to live boldly.

And remember this: Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s doing what needs to be done despite the fear. {tweet that} So when you’re struggling, and someone or something reaches out to you (no matter how painful the circumstances) recognize the moment for what it is: a wake-up call.

As Confucius explained over 2,500 years ago: “We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize that we only have one.” That gnawing feeling inside of you? That’s the real you waiting to come out. When you’re ready – and hopefully you’re ready now – grab the pen and start writing the First Act of the rest of your life.


  • Holly

    Wonderful post, Jay. Thanks for being open and an inspiration to others, myself included.

    • Heather Harrington

      Thanks so much for reading the blog and for your nice comments, Holly!

  • Jessica Rickard

    Words of wisdom indeed! Just wish I knew how to take the first steps. Fear is my biggest enemy.

    • Heather Harrington

      Hi Jessica. The first step is always the hardest, but once you take it things get easier!

  • Nancy

    Love your posts! Such great advice and so very well-written.

    • Heather Harrington

      Thanks for reading Nancy!

  • SW

    Loved this post. I remember that time period. I’ve grappled with a lot over the past 3 years and It’s empowering to get a glimpse into how you felt and the steps you took to really look in the mirror and take inventory of your life. Thanks for this.