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Listen to Your Body and Discover Your Zone of Genius

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Episode #48: Listen to Your Body and Discover Your Zone of Genius

Wow, it was 17 years ago, now that I’m counting, when I was a 25-year-old, very fit, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, world ahead of me, living with my new fiance, Ph.D. student in Berkeley. And if you looked at me on the outside, you’d think that I was really a model of health, and yet I couldn’t even walk down the street holding a single piece of paper in my hand, it would put me too off-balance to even hold something as light as a single piece of paper.

And when I got that off-balance and in a very slight way asymmetrical, I had excruciating pain. My back, all of my skin was inflamed, my nerves down my legs, couldn’t feel one foot. Every single thing I moved would make it hurt worse, and I got there because I wasn’t listening. I was listening, but I was listening to voices that were not my own. Actually, they were probably voices that I made up, and they were the voices of self-judgment, and this idea that I needed to be something that I wasn’t in order to be what I thought I wanted to be, in order to have what I thought I wanted and needed to have. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s go back to the beginning.

So, I really did not ever have big plans to go to grad school. Growing up, I didn’t even know that was a real thing that a person like me would do, not trying to be a doctor or anything like that, but later in life the economy was crashing, it was the year 2003, somehow I still miraculously had a job in Silicon Valley, but I could tell my company was holding on by a thread and that ship was going down, so shortly before it went down, my boyfriend at the time, now my husband, and I decided to move to Barcelona, and I gave notice, and off we went.

Grad school applications had already been filed at this point, because I realized that was kind of a really good place to hide out, and I was not at all satisfied with my career path, and I thought to myself, “Well, this is going to be great. I’m going to get to be this professor and get to lead a revolution,” it just ended up being not much like that. Being a professor, that is, at least when you’re first starting out and you’re trying to get tenure.

So anyway, fast-forward, I’m in grad school. I am really struggling to feel like I fit in. I’m studying my butt off. You guys, I would read about 500 pages of scientific journal articles a week per class, and I would be in three classes at the same time, and I had just piles and piles and piles of books around me, and I was deep, deep in it.

I was pushing through most of my body’s natural signals to get up and move around. I found that it was so hard for me to get myself to sit down and start working that by the time I was finally sitting down, I was scared that if I got up, I would never sit back down again. I felt a lot of resistance, and so I kind of established this pattern of procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate in the morning, walk around town looking for the perfect coffee shop, finally find it, get seated, and just work for hours on end.

I started feeling achy in my back, but that was pretty typical for me, and then over time it would just be much more of like a dull, constant pain. Then I remember one night I was lying in bed and my feet felt cold and I couldn’t warm them up, and then I realized, as I was trying to kind of massage my one foot that felt way colder than the other, that I couldn’t really feel myself touching it, I couldn’t feel my fingers touching my skin, and that’s when I started getting really concerned. I just couldn’t get that achiness to go away in the back of my leg, my hip, my back was really hurting, but then also now I couldn’t feel my foot.

So I found out that this is called sciatica, it’s a pretty common thing, and there’s actually two different kinds of sciatica. One sciatica’s caused when you have a genuine… Like a ruptured disc or something that’s pressing up against that nerve, or blocking the signal. Then there’s the other kind, which can be caused… This is probably what I actually had, which is caused by just such extreme tightness in your piriformis muscle and some of the muscles that run through your buttocks basically, and around your hips and through into your inner thighs, and kind of just holding your whole entire body altogether, and those can get so wound tight that they press on the nerve, and that’s called pseudo sciatica.

That is what I had, but getting it to unwind itself just felt impossible. Everyone would say, “Stretch, stretch,” but thing is, I’m a hyper-mobile person. If you’re watching this podcast right now on video, I’ll just show you, this is me at 42, and I’m a lot tighter than I used to be, I’m not even going to show you other weird things I can do, but I’m really flexible already, so it’s definitely not the issue that I needed to stretch more, and in fact the more I stretched, the worse it got, so it felt like this really infuriating, frustrating mystery that reinforced my Enneagram type four story that nobody really understands me.

And it was frustrating, and I was going to doctor after doctor and getting a lot of advice, and none of it was working, and I was doing everything, I was taking 16 Advil a day, and it didn’t even make a dent in my pain, and it just kept getting worse and worse, and I couldn’t tell if it was better for me to lay down and lay on ice, which gave me some temporary relief, or lay on heat, which gave temporary relief, or alternate between both, or not lay down at all, or never stop moving, because standing up and moving around definitely felt a lot better than sitting down, but yet I needed to sit down to complete my work, and so it just…

Over the course of years, it just got terrible, until I was at this point of I literally now can’t do anything that I used to be able to do. I mean, even just sitting down to pee was a project, it was a tricky act of figuring out how I was going to get from upright to sitting down, and involved a lot of holding onto walls and crazy things, and I’m… You guys, I’m super young when this is happening. And I know I’m not alone. It’s not like my pain was so bad, I didn’t have any actual injury, I didn’t have any crippling illness. Now I’ve recovered, I just want to put that in perspective.

The reason I’m sharing all this with you is because I’m just so grateful for what it taught me, and I think it’s important for you to understand how the things that might be showing up in your body may in fact be your body’s wisdom trying to guide you in a direction, if you will allow it.

So once I was at the point of needing to completely cancel my life, cancel my trip to Hawaii to present my research, cancel going to a bunch of my classes, not accept the very few paying jobs I was able to get as a grad student, literally my husband and I ended up selling most of our furniture because none of it was comfortable, and we were constantly on Craigslist on the hunt for a couch that I could actually sit on. Remember one night, he was… We’d bought this super cheap couch on Craigslist, and we brought it into the apartment, and then it just reeked of dog, and so he kept steam cleaning it and steam cleaning it, he rented a steam cleaner down at Safeway and wheeled it the many blocks down the bumpy road to get it to our house, and just was working his butt off, and then finally once it was clean enough that we could tolerate being anywhere near it, I sat on it, and it was again excruciating.

So at this point, I was no longer exercising or driving, a lot of my kind of household… My share of the household duties, my roommate duties, couldn’t do, and I even needed to get wheeled through the airport in a wheelchair to get to my airplane on time, and I put on really big, dark sunglasses, but that was a pretty scary moment. So I tried all the traditional routes, a lot of them didn’t work. I kept trying. I would give up, I kept trying, kept trying, would give up occasionally.

And then I’m now, let’s say, two years into this really bad pain. My husband and I move to Amsterdam, where it’s extremely cold. It was one of the longest, coldest winters that Amsterdam has ever had in history, and it actually snowed all the way up until May 2nd, and Amsterdam doesn’t even necessarily get snow some years, but it was… It was cold. I, at this point, was not a super fun person to be… At this point, we’re engaged, I was not a super fun person to be engaged to, I was in too much pain to really… Yeah, it was… My poor husband, it was bad.

We were fighting, we were fighting a lot, it was depressing. We felt like we were kind of stuck indoors all the time, not wanting to be around each other, thank God for the show Lost, because it was aired at that time and it was… Kept us distracted and great. But that’s where I found Pilates. There was a little dance studio across the street from our super old apartment in Amsterdam, and it was a real dance studio, it was a dance studio that actual dancers go to, and I was looking for something I could do just to get my body moving and to… I was used to doing yoga, but I was going to find something that I could do there, and I met the Pilates instructor.

I signed up for an intro trial class, it was maybe me and one other person. You guys, guess who the instructor was? He was the original Bowflex model. Do you remember Bowflex? Was that workout machine, and there used to be commercials on TV, maybe in the ’90s, of this extremely well-built male specimen, and… Blond, and like tanned, and just perfectly smooth skin, and it was this machine that had all these things sticking off of it, and it… They kind of flexed and he flexed, and that was my Pilates instructor. Eric, you are amazing. He and I are still in touch, and he changed my life.

This guy was so good, he could tell if the smallest little part of my stomach muscles were not engaged in exactly the right way, even through a baggy sweatshirt. I don’t know how he could tell, but he could, and he taught me… He taught me again how to feel my own body, and there were so many parts of my body that I had not been aware of, there were so many parts that had…

What happens actually with a lot of pain is the signals actually get turned off to your muscles, and then your muscles don’t fire anymore, and so I would be trying to engage certain muscles and I just couldn’t get them to engage, it was like I had to build back, muscle by muscle, not just the strength, but even the ability to activate them at all, or to feel them, and that was the only thing that I’d ever found that made an immediate difference, and that difference, it would last for a little while after I left the class. It wasn’t just during the class I felt better, I would actually feel better for a couple hours after I left the class.

So I started going every single time they had a lesson that I could go, and it was gradually giving me this sense of, “Here’s my core, this is my center,” and what’s neat about Pilates as a metaphor for getting into integrity in your own life, is they actually use this word “Integrity,” and integrity means that you have… Your ribs, the muscles around your ribs are kind of knit in so that your ribs are not flared out and splayed, which is what gets your back into all sorts of weird positions, but they’re tightly knit in around your spine, holding your whole entire body tall and long and in place.

That is what integrity is in Pilates, and what’s crazy is as I became more centered and strong in my integrity in Pilates, I became more centered and strong in my integrity in my own life. I began recognizing what was working and what was not working in my own life, in a way that was not at all crisp or clear before. If you’ve ever had chronic pain before, one of the most tricky pieces of it is it takes so long to ever figure out what makes it worse or better, because there are so many variables involved, and you have so much residual inflammation that making any one change, you might not feel it, even if it is the right change for you. So it’s kind of like you need to get your body to calm down enough to even be able to tell a difference if you make any kind of lifestyle change.

But Pilates gave me that, it gave me that little window, a little more space, a little more breath for those couple of hours, where I was able to feel the difference of, “Oh, this chair, not that chair, and here’s maybe why,” or riding a bike, “Oh, that actually isn’t working for me when I wear a one-inch heel on my boot, but it’s fine if I wear a two-inch heel,” whatever it is. In Amsterdam, by the way, people ride bikes while they carry babies and wearing four-inch heels, in the ice and snow. It’s amazing.

So that was kind of the first step, that was the first major progression, and I remember telling my mother-in-law on the phone that my goal was I wanted to be able to skip through the tulip fields. That was my goal for the entire year, to get my back to that place where I could skip again, and she came and visited in May, and I did it, and I have a photo of me skipping through the tulip fields, and I was so far away from that before.

So this was the start of me really waking up and being like, “Oh, okay, there’s this thing called integrity, and it involves me holding myself together and staying tall, it’s not about me stretching or loosening up,” I didn’t need any more of that, I needed to hold it… Need to hold myself together, I needed to stay in my center and not be leaning and stretching out into all these directions, which are really just me contorting myself into a shape that I thought the world wanted me to be, and all of these things that I said “Yes” to where I didn’t have a whole-body “Yes,” those were all “Noes”, and I started to be able to realize that.

When I got back to California after that six or so months, we went to go pick up our car at a friend’s house who’d been keeping it for us, and we had a… Like a station wagon, one of those sports wagons, and it was a stick shift. Went to go pick it up, drove it home from her house, which was about a 10 or 15-minute drive. By the time I was back home from that very short drive, I was about four months back in terms of my recovery. Again, sciatica, pain, like pins and needles, burning, shooting down my leg, coldness.

So now whoa, I didn’t even know it, but the car has been a big problem. It took me weeks to recover from that little teeny drive. God bless my husband again, we immediately sold the car. It was just a, “Okay, that car’s done, we’ll find a different car, no more stick shift for you.” And I remember before when I had pain upon pain upon pain, driving through downtown San Francisco, crying as I tried to drive back to Berkeley. Crying, and I literally rolled down my window in the traffic in South of Market, waiting to get on the Bay Bridge, I rolled down my window, yelled to the person in the car next to me to roll down their window, and I said, “Do you have any Advil?” That’s how bad it had been before, but I never knew it was the car, because I couldn’t disentangle it all.

So it’s this process, right? And I think it’s like this in our lives too, of we can feel really stuck and we feel like we want to solve it all, but we often don’t really even know which direction to go in, and we can’t anticipate all of the different steps involved in any kind of healing process, so you do the one thing that makes a little difference, and then you can recognize what else can make a difference, and slowly, little by little, things start getting cleared up and cleaned up.

When I went back to the school year, it was time for me to begin again my studies, and it was time for me to begin my teaching again and my research, but this time I was super clear that if I didn’t make my own body wellness come first, then everything else was going to fail, there was no other way to operate anymore. So this was this many year period where I was letting my body guide my career decisions, and what I discovered was on the days where I had say some meetings, and I was walking from classroom to classroom, I was walking around campus, maybe I had a meeting that was far on the other end of campus, those days, my back felt a lot better than the days where say I was home studying, and I got to do a bunch of exercises at home, that didn’t feel as good. Or let’s say that I was in my office chair, that certainly didn’t feel as good.

So I was like, “All right, the moving days are better than the studying days, so I’m going to need to figure out a way to use this PhD without sitting in a chair and studying,” which is mostly what you’re doing as a professor. Like yeah, on a rare occasion when students are seeing you, you are rushing from classroom to classroom, but if you’re working at a research university, which the whole entire UC system is built of, then you are doing research for a lot of the time, unless you’re like an adjunct professor, something like that, but if you’re on the tenure track, you’re sitting.

So I knew that that probably wasn’t going to be great for me, unless I found a school that had a really different balance, which is what ended up being the case when I took my first position at the London School of Economics, which is a much more balanced… Teaching and research, much more balanced. Actually, there’s a lot of support for your teaching time, and I really, really liked that about it. But those decisions, I would not have made decisions the same way before, it was really because of the consequences of ignoring and overriding my body for so long.

Now, it turned out even that was too much sitting for me, and grading especially, too much sitting for me. So it sounds like a strange way to find your way into coaching as a profession, but over time, even… Even being a startup executive was too much sitting for me, I really… I like to move around all day long, my body likes me to do that, and eventually what that meant was I found myself in this career that I’m in now, and here’s what’s so crazy, you guys. I’m in my zone of genius now.

Everything I was doing before, like me needing to override all those signals is a pretty good sign that I was not in my zone of genius. Because in my zone of genius, my whole entire presence is available, I have a whole-body “Yes” to what I’m doing, I don’t have a whole-head “Yes,” and yet my body is saying “No.” No, it’s my whole being, and I trust the intelligence and the wisdom of all of those pieces working together. Whether or not I thought it was super important before I had a lot of back pain to move around, it turns out for me it is, and now here I am.

So it’s listening to these little signals, it will get you there, you don’t need to solve it all right now, but if you stick with your whole-body yeses, and you stay on that path and you are devoted to it, and there’s nothing more important than, “I’m not going to break that anymore, I’m not going to have low integrity and keep saying ‘yes’ when I really mean ‘no,'” you will find yourself gradually, slowly, and maybe by surprise, moving toward your zone of genius.

The quarter-life crisis is a really well-documented phenomenon at this point, and I can imagine that this year, 2020 in particular, those of you who are in that phase are feeling it pretty intensely. So I wanted to share this story with you to let you know that if you’re feeling the suffering, and you’re not even sure where it’s coming from, maybe you’re on the right path, maybe you’re not, maybe you think you’re trying to get on the right path, but if something is really not fitting, it’s going to show up for you somewhere.

For me, it took two years of being in that program for my body to really start fighting back. And this is a pretty common experience for those who are pushing themselves too hard, and often the reason we do that is because we’re living outside of what’s called your zone of genius. When we’re living outside of our zone of genius and we’re trying to live in the zones below it, the zones of being called the zone of excellence, the zone of competence, and the zone of incompetence, when we’re in those zones, the energy it takes to perform is magnificently heavy, and it can be life-draining, can lead to burnout, and also, success is just not as easy or fun.

But we have such a big story that success needs to include suffering, that it needs to be hard, that if it came easy to us, it must not be that worthwhile or valuable to begin with, “Who would want to be good at this? Everybody’s good at this, aren’t they?” No. In your zone of genius, this is a zone that is uniquely true about you. And for me in my PhD program, I was pretty far from my zone of genius until I figured out the elements of it I didn’t care about anymore. Was I going to perform as well in that kind of traditional academic career path? No, but do I feel I came out of that a massive success? Yes, and it took me deciding that I can’t let these expectations I’m putting on myself continue to be the thing that erodes my body such that I feel like an 85-year-old, and I’m only 25 years old.

This kind of back pain, hip pain, sciatica that I had, I really believe it was my higher self, my wisdom, saying, “I’ve been knocking for a few years and trying to convince you that you need to listen to your gut, Caneel, and it’s time to get on the right path, and it’s time to get on a path that’s more flowy and easy for you.” Now, I don’t have any crystal ball, I don’t know that it would’ve been better had I done that. Honestly, no, probably not, probably that was just the path I wanted to go through, and I needed to go through in order to experience what I experience now, which is pretty good.

But if you’re there and if you’re suffering, I want to invite you into an experience, a learning experience that I have created as sort of a bonus for you. It’s an entire workshop, I have some hand-outs, I have some exercises, I’m going to guide you through each and every bit of it. It’s about 75 minutes long-ish, and I’m going to be sharing this workshop with you on how to discover your zone of genius. I’ll share this with you next week. In lieu of a typical episode, this is going to be the full and complete workshop.

I want you to go to and make sure that you sign up on the mailing list so that you can be notified when that episode airs, and if you are just champing at the bit and you want to get going right away, you can actually sign up to be able to access that workshop right away, right now.

There’s never been a bigger opportunity, a more important time, for so many people to hit the reset button, and I know that that’s what is on most of our minds right now, how can we use this global pandemic, this global awakening of consciousness, this global climate crisis, as that pivot point in our lives that we’ve been waiting for for so long? At the same time as there’s so much pressure and stress and challenge in this moment, there’s also this space, this opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to get rid of what’s not working, and to step into something that we don’t even know what it looks like, because guess what? None of us knows what the future’s going to look like at this point.

That’s the coolest thing about it. It’s almost as if we are forced into presence, and we have to make decisions based on what’s true right now, we don’t know where it’s going to go. And actually, that’s always the case, but we want to hold on so tightly to control most of the time that we like to tell ourselves stories that actually, somehow we are in charge. We’re not, but we do have choices.

So if you have no idea of what your zone of genius is, this episode that I’m going to be sharing with you next week here on the podcast is going to really, I think, inspire, enlighten and energize you, that’s the feedback I’ve received from those of you who’ve written me so far, the ones who attended the original version of this workshop.

So please, thank you for doing this kind of work, thank you for listening to this brief story today. I’m happy to share more about that journey that I went on if that’s interesting to you, please drop me a note and a review on one of the platforms, iTunes, Spotify, wherever you like to leave it, I will see it, and I always want to give you guys what you’re asking for.

This resource and tons more are available for you at, and I’m really excited to see where you go with this. Please get in touch with me after you complete the workshop as well, give a shout-out on social media, please tag this work, this work is… If all of us step into our zones of genius, we can collectively solve the problems that we face as a global society right now that are unprecedented in scale and scope, and we need each of us to be living in ease and flow, and making a contribution that is naturally our own unique contribution to give. Should we each perish, our gifts will perish along with us, and we need to get them out, so please join me in this mission, and I will look forward to seeing you next week.


Discover experiences that give your life purpose in your Zone of Genius

Executive Coach Dr. Caneel Joyce reveals a life-changing framework that can help you overcome self-doubt, uncover your hidden talents, and radiate with confidence, one small step at a time.