Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck

Read this book. I’ve mentioned Martha Beck several times over the years, she’s a career development specialist and a columnist in O Magazine. I’ve reread this book twice over the last few years, and it introduced me to a couple of concepts that come up a lot when I’m considering what I want to do next.

First, the Generalized Other, which is the people we’re actually referring to when we say “Everyone will think I’m dumb.” Ms. Beck posits that we often pull a handful of terrible people together to make up our “Everybodies,” because of the natural instinct to avoid danger and preserve social access. She has a whole chapter on how to replace your Generalized Other with people who support you. Useful.

Second, the idea that we’re perpetually cycling through four general life phases: 1. Death and Rebirth, where we lose our identity to a catalytic event like a death or, on the converse, winning the lottery. 2. Dreaming and Scheming, where we try on new plans for ourselves. 3. The Promised Land, where we work hard toward our goals. 3. The Hero’s Saga, where we achieve our aims and work on a daily basis to maintain our life until another catalytic event knocks us back to a new identity shift. She offers strategies for tackling each phase, because her theory is that all of us have trouble getting through at least one of the phases.

More best parts of Finding Your Own North Star, by Martha Beck:

“Keeping your body still when it wants to recoil or rejoice creates the physical tension that locks sensation away from consciousness.”

“Even if you achieve things that seem outwardly fabulous, an unhealed emotional injury will make you experience them as empty and unappealing.”

“If you begin to face your fears, something bittersweet is going to happen to you: You’ll grow up. You’ll lose your dependency on the grownups of the world, because you’ll realize that there is no time, no age, at which fear suddenly fades and you become one of these impervious beings.”

“Describing what you want is probably the most important step in any confrontation.”

“I don’t believe in suffering for its own sake. Enduring a thankless, painful life doesn’t mean that you deserve happiness as a kind of recompense; it just means you’re enduring a thankless, painful life. If I’m going to suffer, it better be for a damn good reason. It better yield me more joy than it costs. If not, I will do anything I can to avoid it, and advise all my clients to do the same.”

4 thoughts on “Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck

  1. I love this book! I just re-bought it after reading it years ago so I could reassess things in my life. Great read. Also recently available is “The Martha Beck Collection, Volume 1” – 25 of her best articles from Oprah Magazine.


  2. Hi Maggie. I always like hearing about what you’re reading. I hope you won’t mind my thoughts on this one.

    The last excerpt about suffering, as I’m not familiar with the larger context, sounds frighteningly entitled and short-sighted.

    I wonder what she considers a “damn good reason”- for those of us who can pick and choose the sources of our misery.


  3. Oh, gosh, this is full of useful reminders right now.

    And yes! This was the idea behind my dancing goal:

    “Keeping your body still when it wants to recoil or rejoice creates the physical tension that locks sensation away from consciousness.”


  4. Kara, I’d say it’s things that have a high cost, but high pay-off. Training for a marathon, say. Or for me, writing…it’s SO hard but I’m SO happy and proud when it’s done. But working 100 hours a week at a high-stress job I hated? No pay off. Not worth it.


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