Why Do Humans Need Totems?

In KindEdge.com I am working to document tools I built that enabled me to implement transformational change despite the many trains in my life that had left the stations and were well in motion. Decades of guru books had at once inspired and shamed me. Why could I not make the huge internal and external transformational leaps that these books prescribed? 

KindEdge | Unlock the Alternate Ending to Your Life | Let the Adventure Begin

The answer: I was belabored by empathy and entrapped by duty. You cannot birth children, sign for mortgages, agree to marriage, and commit to client projects only drop the resulting obligations because you got inspired by the dreamy advice of some guru author. 

Responsible, reasonable, long-game-minded people do not drop the ball on their commitments. However, they can make massive, sweeping transformational changes in their lives to redirect their remaining minutes toward a greater purpose. After decades testing the advice of hundreds of “inspo” content creators, I finally got down and dirty to figure out the answer to the real underlying question in any goal…

What works in real life?

Doing what works in real life is about getting deeply acquainted with your truth: your circadian rhythms, your triggers, your vulnerabilities to emotional control, your strengths, your weaknesses, your hidden fears, and all environmental influences from people, to places to things, each of which imposes a force that either buoys or blocks your progress.

Over twenty years, despite my proficiency at setting up ambitious plans in masterfully-detailed excel spreadsheets, tries at my big personal goals always failed. My expertise in project management was no match for the giant potholes that kept tripping me up. These potholes were not matters of complex financials or sophisticated strategies. The potholes that left me stuck for decades had to do with weak muscles. Though the path toward my goals was clear in my mind, I did not realize I had not built up the muscles for change required to pile-drive those goals through the muck of real life.

Building Up Your Muscle for Change

Building up our muscles for change includes optimizing practical parts of life such as getting things around us organized, decluttered and optimized for focused productivity. It also calls for foundational changes such as improving one’s health practices to ensure energy stores are sustainably high to enable us to take on big challenges.

But getting fit for change also requires that we patch up the less-visible Achilles heels that tend to trip us up in hard-to-decode ways. For example, we must decode and address childlike mindsets that leave us vulnerable to outside forces; our plans will fail if we continue to fall victim to others’ behaviors because we naively hold to the hope that all people will follow through on commitments and promises. We grow ready for big change when we swallow the mature “real world” wisdom that there are, in fact, good and bad people and that we own the right to label them as such. In fact, we must proactively diagnose the agendas and patterns of all the people in our lives in order to pre-plan solutions for the many ways people around us might knowingly or unknowingly sabotage our plans.

Example: A muscle for demanding evidence to back words

I was a professional and proficient change management project manager in the unwieldy world of corporate communications for large global multi-billion dollar organizations. There are no cats harder to herd than hundreds of thousands of leader perspectives, country matters, legal limits, cultural concerns, and functional realities. I drove results and met deadlines in the most complex of environments.

While I could wrangle chaos like a boss in business, in my personal life I repeated fell victim to it. Despite obvious patterns of sabotage over many years, I was always awash in surprise when yet another bad event would run my personal plans off the rails. I could not accept that the repeating patterns of chaos were to truth. I treated each hijacking event as an exception that required me to drop all my own goals to solve. Instead of saying “wait, that’s three strikes, four strikes, five strikes, a thousand strikes… this clearly isn’t working; it’s time to make a macro change” I instead thought “wow, thank goodness I was here to valiantly save the day on that unpredictable emergency… now I should be able to get back to my priority goals.” But that never happened; my battle with chaos just reset to the beginning like Bill Murray’s alarm clock in the film Groundhog Day. I could not see the hidden beliefs that continually kept me circling in the same loop.

It was only when I began treating myself as my own change management consulting client that I got down to the nitty gritty of the barriers to change in my life. I ran myself through a series of exercises that delivered visible, documented, objective diagnostic data that showed me exactly where the problems lay. By documenting my planned actions and then tracking the actual outcomes I was able to analyze the repeated points of failure. I discovered a behavior that caused me to live in an optimistic and self-defeating fiction: I’d rescue folk around me from the chaos they’d create, and to make that OK, I’d return to my little excel spreadsheet a simple edit the to-do dates on all my high priority plans. The task planned for completion this Monday would be moved to two Mondays from now. The major milestone set for this year would be moved forward to next year, allowing a little extra time which most certainly would be filled by other people’s chaos and me continuing to tolerate it.

That old behavior of politely and reasonably editing the dates on my own priorities never enabled the two opposing forces to collide. Being reasonable and absorbing the issues was a red carpet invitation for chaos to squeeze its way further into my life and crowd out all my goals.    

When I visually tracked progress–or lack thereof–on my goals and then forced myself to document in writing, on real paper, in a real notebook the root root root causes of each point of failure, the truth came into focus. The data revealed something to which I’d been blind. I had been trying to drive a car with only three operative wheels. One wheel was flat, wobbly and dangerous. However, because this wheel was a human and was able to use words to disguise real intentions, I had believed the words and kept trying to drive with that non-functional wheel.

My KindEdge self-change-management exercises enabled me let go of the misguided hope that people who wield good-sounding words will always follow through on their oft-empty promises. Even if someone professes to be supportive, or loyal, or dependable, or important, or powerfully able to help you, if their actual patterns in real life undercut one’s goals and efforts with contradictory behaviors, absences, unnecessary emergencies, and chaotic life hijackings, they are none of the good things they profess to be. 

Objective data helped me kill the good little girl mindset that was suffocating me and forced me to put on my big girl pants. Mature women and men can accept the reality that past performance is a far more reliably indicator of future behavior and that it is ok to ration the amount of trust we give based on that data. Accepting this truth was hard; I not only wanted to believe in the possibility of growth and change and improvement in all humans, but I also did not want to face the ruthless battles and the loss of stability that would come with making tough macro choices in order to rebuild an environment that was free from chaos.

Meeting with the objective truth is a critical step in building your muscle for change. We often stay in a toxic job, or business deal, or relationship, or other agreement because we know we are able to handle the chaos that pops up, and we imagine that known chaos is better than an unknown future. My new data-driven KindEdge re-evaluation of absolutely every part of my life revealed something to the contrary; the risks of change are often far less dangerous than the costs of remaining in chaos.

The risks of change are often far less dangerous than the costs of remaining in chaos.

It is hard to let go of all the pure concepts we learned as children wherein we assume equally good things about all people. But we can only do good work in the world if we know how to use each tool in our toolbox. You are not doing any good trying to smack a screwdriver at a nail. With humans we must accept that some are good for parties, some are good for creative experiences, some are good front-men for fighting legal battles, some are to be trusted within your inner circle to support your most important endeavors. And some are to be avoided at all costs. This is the truth.

My diagnostic tools made visible that years of detailed plans had been continually hijacked by daily surprises, mistruths, and chaos bombs. I’d accepted each one as an unpredictable exception, halting my own plans to handle those issues. I did not see that the long-term outcome of me responsibly and reasonably responding to chaos was, the death of my greater purpose. I saw that if I edited the dates on my plans just one more time, I was placing the nail in my own coffin. I would eventually die with nothing of importance left behind for my sons. No longer could I allow my time and my mindshare to be siphoned away to handle others’ chaos. 

Making it Real, Today, Right Now

Along my path toward change, airport bookstore inspiration did, from time to time, energize me to envision the distant future. But with a life already in motion, there was no freeze frame moment wherein I could stop everything and make a directional change. I remained stuck with an idea in my head. When I turned to therapists and coaches, the only muscles I strengthened were those that enabled me to endure more toxic stuckness.

I finally learned that I did not need more skills to mindfully, peacefully absorb the pain of my stuck state. I needed tools to f’n pile drive real change through a brick wall. Once I realized this truth, all it took was my first KindEdge “change management” exercise, and I annihilated 20 years of stuck. Boom. Bring. On. The. Change.

My real world tools enabled me to get clear on all the actual barriers to progress. I got clear on how my habit of kindly and respectfully absorbing outside threats was keeping me trapped. I got clear on my hidden fears and grew new muscles, including one that could transform fear into power. I created many more practical KindEdge exercises to continue opening doors to real change.

Each succinct, doable, workable exercise served as plank in what became a bridge toward transformational change. No entrepreneurial inspiration nor productivity expert nor divergent thinking promoter had really gotten down to connecting the dots of what works in real life. I needed these bite-sized worksheets to guide my muddles mind toward progress even if I was inevitably stuck in the emergency room with my child on a Sunday night. I needed small tasks that would draw out of me the one next decision and the one next action that would keep me moving forward, even if my child’s ankle is being wrapped up after a tough soccer game. With every new KindEdge exercise, I nailed down the details of my goals, my plan, my choices, and how every minute in my day needed to be invested in order to make real progress.

Totems Keep You Connected to Your Wiser Mind

As we build momentum toward change, we will at times get busy and distracted, until suddenly we find ourselves pulled off our paths by an old habit, an old mindset, an old social pressure, or an old assumption. We can get talked into commitments by wolves in sheep’s clothing who don’t support our new goals. We can get pulled toward old distractions byKindEdge Totems Scottish Clans people around us who are still moving in that direction. And we can be tempted to give up when mishaps or disappointments block our way. When things get hard, our tired bodies and reactive minds are not our best advisors. 

When things get hard, our tired bodies and reactive minds are not our best advisors. 

The clarity and energetic resolve you enjoyed on that bright sunny morning wherein you first defined your vision for the future tends to fade and become clouded by the jagged edges of the every day. We need to embed totems in our daily lives to reconnect to our wiser minds and our higher intentions. We have opportunities throughout the day to redirect our movement toward our priorities. It just takes the right words or symbols to remind us that the way we invest every minute and every dollar is a choice, and every choice points us in a given direction, for better or worse. 

In my travels I’ve been stricken by how universally important totems prove to be. Every society in every part of history has relied upon totems to continually reconnect distractable humans to the higher meaning and long-termKindEdge Totems intentions of a group, society, or community. Castles, churches, governments, cities, families, clans and more all invested in expensive and lasting tokens to display symbols of a certain meaning everywhere a human eye might see them. As you walk through any ancient city you will see phrases and images embedded in walls, ceilings, chairs, and floors, and in any physical object imaginable, from robes, to headdresses, to canes, to candle snuffers, to swords, to glasses, to furniture and fabrics. Society’s reliance on totems is about inserting triggers into real life that awaken otherwise robotic humans into a state of consciousness that makes them aware of their self-agency to make immediate choices and of the connection between those choices and a distant, albeit heretofore imaginary, future reward. Objects we see, touch and use throughout the day can connect us to higher intentions and influence our habits and behaviors. 


Example: Choose Amazing 

When we set our sights on big goals or a change for the future, we are essentially believing in something that does not yet exist. The future is an invisible concept. Dreams, ideas and even well-defined goals are too easily obfuscated by the dominate presence of noise and stuff and people that pre-fill our days. Totems help you make your intentions for the future more real and present, transforming every daily act into a more binary choice that either continues moving toward the status quo, or takes a turn in the direction of desired change… today, in real life

Here is one example of how this played recently in my life. I’ve been through a decade of massive, sweeping transformational change. I’ve recovered from years of life hijackings and many more very recent and acute challenges and threats. I’ve scraped through every default mindset and behavior and I modified every pixel of my life, from how I eat, to how I interact, to how I commit or decline, to how interact with the world at large. I’ve done all the hard work to change from the bottom up and I feel I’ve reached a new plateau wherein I still continually optimize my ways of operating, but I’m in a good spot. 

As I shifted to a form of business as usual, I documented all the mindsets I would need to continue to be brave and innovative and self-reliant in how I carried my purposeful plan forward. I had many words and many mantras to help me refocus each morning: words that reminded me to push, to stay open, to inquire, to solve for me, to follow my rhythms, to nourish body mind and soul, to value experimentation, and to use my own strengths as tools for pushing through my areas of weakness, and more. 

My daily mindset refresh list was a very useful tool for re-anchoring my fuzzy 5:30am brain to my wiser mind. However, I also saw the need for a quick and simple quip that represented the overall ethos all these things collectively. I pondered this for a while and played with words that might convey the umbrella theme. Eventually I came to the phrase: “CHOOSE AMAZING.” This phrase, I felt, would always help me see the binary choice in any moment between doing that which aligns with my wiser mind and my higher intentions vs doing that which is a reaction to outside expectations or events. I saved this phrase as the image on my iphone’s lock screen, and just kind of forgot about it.

KindEdge | Unlock the Alternate Ending to Your Life | Choose Amazing

At one point late last fall I was rolling along in the day, juggling all the complex pieces of my life to ensure purpose and duty were prioritized with the right counterbalance each day. I was carefully ensuring I handled the right mix of personally-important priorities, emotionally-important priorities, financially-important priorities, and unplanned emergencies. So I was max’d out but operating in alignment with my values.

I parked my car outside my home and began opening some of the mail I’d just picked up. The first item was a letter announcing an unfortunate out-of-my-control mandate whose outcome was that I was going to be forced to lose over two weeks of time, to waste thousands of dollars, and to endure great stress because the issue at hand carried risks to my already-at-risk health as well as to the health of my son and my dog. I was given no choice; this was thrown at me and was happening. 

My reactive muddled mind went in this direction: “Oh great, what a waste of time and money, neither of which I have much to spare. I’ve done everything I possibly can to do the right things and yet my productivity and other priorities will be halted for weeks. I cannot believe I’ve worked so hard to wrap up so much of other people’s messes and get all my affairs in order and yet now I’m hijacked by this. This is just one more event that is happening to me that I did not choose.”

By default, my reactive mind triggered me to grab my phone. As I went to unlock the phone I was suddenly rescued by my wiser mind; there on the lock screen I saw the totem I’d embedded long ago, because I knew I would need it, here, today. 

I was awash with a sense of my truer inner spirit as I looked at the words “CHOOSE AMAZING.” I felt the impish spark I needed in that moment. CHOOSE AMAZING. This was my own self-imposed double-dog-dare. It resurrected my deeper awareness of the hero’s tale I’m writing. There are no good stories without a few dragons and sword fights now, are there?

The totem that was my lock screen reconnected me to powerful truths: Yes, life will throw lemons, but also, if I am paying for all those lemons, then I own the right and the opportunity to make choices that are amazing for me. Before I reactively began making phone calls, I resolved to maximize the value of this otherwise-wasted time and make it inspiring and productive in a different way. I chose to invest this otherwise-wasted money to leap frog to some on-hold plans that would end up improving my space and my work environment.

I also chose to plan realistically in order to avoid victim-driven regrets. I built in time for emotionally-important priorities and used the experience as yet another piece of evidence of the power we have to choose, even when life attempts to make us victims. Totems are positive landmines you plant to ignite an empowering fire in the unpredictable future.

KindEdge is about Change Today

Totems are just one tool in the KindEdge toolbox. We need these sorts of devices to help us bring our intentions for the future into today. As I shared in my personal example above, IKindEdge Totems Royal Yacht imagined a different future, but by not forcing that future into “today” I remained reasonable, responsible, polite, and blind to the truth. When you commit to making a change today, you are forced to have the fierce conversations needed to address the hidden barriers. Many people will politely agree, yet hijack your plans. Many environments will seem supportive, yet will distract you from your goals and siphon your energies. If in this moment you connect with your higher intentions and address the truth of what, or who, is standing in the way, you begin to make transformational change happen, today.

This process is tough, as it pushes you to your uncomfortable edge. That’s the essence of the term “KindEdge.” It is, however, the only path to real change.

ACTION TODAY: Embed Totems throughout Your Day

Your task today is to make a list of everything you see, hear, and touch during your day and consider how you might embed messages or symbols onto those surfaces. I offer many on KindEdge.com but many custom-printing websites enable you to personalize objects. And hand-written messages can always be displayed in photo frames, notebook pages, and bathroom mirrors. You will feel a new energy the minute you take action on this. 

As you further clarify your vision for the future and practical KindEdge path for getting there, you’ll develop more anchor phrases that you can embed in more objects. Here are a few starter ideas for displaying symbols and messages in every day objects: 

♦ A glass you keep by your bedstand and alarm clock ♦ Your coffee mug ♦ The windshield of your car ♦ A tag on your keychain ♦ Anywhere on your laptop ♦ Your phone case ♦ Your phone’s lock screen ♦ A playlist in your music or podcast app ♦ Underwear (me: Wonder Woman undies… yup) ♦ Pajamas or t-shirts ♦ Hat ♦ Dry-erase marker notes on your bathroom mirror ♦ Bracelet or beads ♦ Necklace pendant ♦ Car or home floor mat ♦ Pen ♦ Umbrella ♦ Shoelaces ♦ Socks ♦ Pad of paper ♦ Frame at desk ♦ Pen box ♦ Customized leather journal cover and anything else your fingers touch or your eyes behold throughout your day…

What objects would you choose to be sure that you will see, touch and be uplifted by your wiser mind’s words and intentions? Would you embed a symbol, a phrase, a word, or a photo? Do you find strength in complex designs that assemble many meanings, such as in a family crest, or do you need one simply catch phrase to slap you in the face when you are repeating an old habit, attitude or mindset? Do you prefer something you have hand-drawn or sewn into an object, or do you like fun, useful tools that you know you’ll use at the gym or during your daily commute? One of the core KindEdge hacks is “DO WHAT WORKS, IN REAL LIFE.” Experiment, play and take notes on what totems actually drive change by catching with the right words, in the right place, at the right time. 

Help me Help More

If you wish to support my goals of publishing every tool and guide in order to amass a suite of simple, achievable bite-sized steps that result in big, transformational change, I’d love your help: 

  • Share www.kindedge.com in your social media pages
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I’ve drafted several books but I’ve completed 58,000 words on the book that tells the umbrella story of KindEdge’s value to you at any stage in life. I’ve had a publisher review it and I’m balancing this blog work with the goal of getting edits completed on the book in order to hand it to the professional editors and the related better-than-me professionals to see the book to publication I hope by December 2024. I’ve been advised there is no profit and mostly loss in me doing this. But my KindEdge self work has me really clear on one thing: I’m dying and so are you… 

KindEdge Totems

KindEdge.com MarySueIRL

Mary Sue IRL

Please stay in touch…

I’m committed to sharing this series of action and decision guides; they daisy chain into a bridge to real change. When all the guru inspo and self-help books failed, I created these to guide myself like I guide my change management clients and it finally worked.

Author Bio

KindEdge.com is a collection of bite-sized action steps that help people make transformational changes in their lives, even when there seems to be no time in the day to get such grand endeavors in motion.

I built this suite of guides for myself. They enabled me to pile-drive my dreams through the chaos that was my life. After decades of consuming self-help and guru content I remained stuck and running in circles. I only saw true progress when I applied my consulting “change management” approach to my own life. I developed short, well-defined decision and action tools that enabled me to see progress every day, even if life landed me in the emergency room lobby at midnight to tend to a child’s sports injury.

I now live a fundamentally different and better life that I designed for myself. I wake up every day energized to live out my purpose and enjoy a daily arc that fits me. I’m a mom of two incredible young men and one beloved black lab. I’ve lived in many cities within the US and abroad and I call St Pete home. Read more at: https://kindedge.com/about-mary/.

Now here’s to you pushing to your edge… to make real change and arrive at the most fulfilling part of this journey.

Cheers, cin-cin and hugs.

~ @MarySueIRL