Do you ever feel stuck? Does it feel like your potential has hit a ceiling? Leveling up in life isn’t always easy. Even when we’re working harder in doing more, it can still feel like we’re trapped by our fear and that our dreams are always just out of reach. But Nikki Barua, author of Beyond Barriers, believes that no matter how lost you feel, no matter how painful failure might be, breaking barriers isn’t beyond your reach.

In this episode, Nikki gives you three simple steps to help you evolve and excel. By the end of this episode, you’ll know how to unlock potential within yourself.

Nikki Barua: My story begins as a young girl growing up in India. I grew up at a time where there wasn’t a lot of exposure to media or success stories around me, and my dad did something that was truly so impactful and special. He created this collage of inspiring women leaders, and in the center of the collage he took a white sheet of paper and sketched out my face. He put that up on the inside of my closet door and did not say a word about it to me.

He didn’t say “Hey, I want you to grow up to be like these amazing heroes.” He didn’t say, “Look what you can achieve” or “This is what I hope you grow up to be.” He did not say a thing about it, but every day that I would open my closet door, I would look at this collage and I would look at all these inspiring women and I’d see my face at the center of it.

I grew up believing that that’s where it belonged. That I was just like them, they were my friends, I was no different, I had limitless potential just like them and I was born to create impact, born to make a difference. That I was a hero just like all my friends were. That idea sort of captivated my imagination from a very young age. I grew up as this really good kid that did my homework and got good grades and all that good stuff, and you know, eventually I realized that I had big dreams and that America was a place where they would come true.

Crashing Facade

Nikki Barua: In 1997, I set off to come out to America with a one way plane ticket and not a whole lot else, and I worked really hard and built my career here, built my life here. No matter how hard I worked though, there was something that just felt like it was missing. I would keep thinking about this collage and I was like, why is it that no matter how hard I work, no matter what I keep trying to do, I just don’t feel like a hero?

But at the same time, I had built this picture perfect life. I had just this very polished professional façade, this image that I had and fairly successful career but not a whole lot of fulfillment. A life that I’d created that seemed perfect on the outside but just seemed like it was missing something.

I just could not put my finger on it and I didn’t know what was wrong with that because I had spent so much time trying to blend in. Then in 2008, the market crashed and with it so did my life. I lost everything I had, and most importantly, I lost my partner to suicide.

“It wasn’t just an emotional crashing of my life, but it was beyond that.”

Everything that I’d created, this house of cards had come crashing down all at once. I found myself completely without any life support. I had lost my love, my home, my money and my stability, everything. All sense of security just completely gone. In that moment, there was no place to hide. The perfect image that I crafted just came crashing down, and all I was left with was being vulnerable and being completely authentic because there was just no place to hide.

I spent the next two years after that just feeling completely depressed, barely able to go forward with my life. Frankly, I wanted to kill myself. I just did not want to go on. I had no idea what the reason for my being was, it just felt absolutely awful the whole time.

One fine day, I woke up in 2010 and I opened my eyes and I thought, “Gosh, today I could be just as miserable as every other day has been in the past two years, or today I can choose happiness.”

Realizing that happiness comes from hope but hope really comes from believing in something bigger than yourself. I started to think about what is it that’s bigger than myself that could propel me forward? I started to think about my purpose, what is my purpose, you know, starting to look for answers to those questions of who am I, you know?

Overcoming Grief

Charlie Hoehn: How did you get through the few years that you were grieving? What were you doing day to day to get through that?

Nikki Barua: The years after suffering my tremendous burst of tragedy, I felt completely numb because I went from shock, extreme grief and even anger and guilt and all kinds of feelings. I felt detached from everything. I realized that as much as people avoid emotions, especially the negative emotions like sadness or anger or misery, I found that not feeling anything is actually far more scary because I got to that point where I literally could not feel a thing.

“I realized that as much as people avoid emotions, especially the negative emotions like sadness or anger or misery, I found that not feeling anything is actually far more scary because I got to that point where I literally could not feel a thing.”

I took a lot for me to just keep going and I remember spending a lot of time in bed, barely being able to connect with anyone else. I became very isolated and the isolation just makes it worse and that’s why I got to a point where I realized, I was passed the point of anyone else being able to help me. That no one else could reach me. That’s when the collage frankly saved my life because I recall that collage and thought, “How did my life go awry?”. You cannot help anyone else if you’re in a state of fear. But if you’re not helping anyone else and you don’t have a bigger purpose, it also doesn’t give you much hope.

It’s not necessarily about just saving the world, you know, purpose could be as simple as providing for your family or taking care of your loved ones but when you give to other people, you feel like a hero. That’s what unlocks your super powers, when you give to other people and that’s what creates hope and when you feel hope, you feel happy.

Beyond Barriers

Charlie Hoehn: What’s the idea you want listeners to take away from your book, Beyond Barriers?

Nikki Barua: I think the big idea of Beyond Barriers is that we are all limitless. We are all heroes and we have these limitless super powers within us and when we recognize that, when we accept that about ourselves and we tap into those super powers to go beyond barriers, that’s when our life opens up.

The way I think about it is life is like a video game, we all start off at level one and we have a set of tools and super powers at that state. Then, we go through our lives and we face these obstacles and barriers and sometimes we overcome them and sometimes we don’t. If we don’t overcome all of those barriers at level one, we remain stuck at that level. We just never kept get passed that.

The only way to get passed every single barrier is simply to tap into your own potential, where you develop the competencies and the confidence to face that obstacle and turn it into an opportunity.

When you finally do that, when you overcome those barriers at level one, that’s when you get to level two. Life gives us limitless levels. Instead of seeing every barrier, something that holds us back, we just have to recognize that it’s actually the pathway to getting to the next level and it’s really the obstacle is the opportunity because that’s what unlocks that super power within us. If the obstacle weren’t there, we would not know our super power.

“If the obstacle weren’t there, we would not know our super power.”

Charlie Hoehn: How do we get to know ourselves and what we want and why we want it?

Nikki Barua: I think I’d refer back to the collage idea, that it all begins with understanding what is it about ourselves that is our greatest strength or our greatest gift. There are many exercises in the book that will help the reader learn more about themselves but one great way to do that is to create your own collage and who are the heroes that you admire because it’s not the individuals that you admire but it’s the attributes that they have that you most value in yourself.

Now, you may not fully live that, you may not have tapped into it fully, but there’s something about them that you admire that is reflective of who you are on the inside. When you identify that, and then you connect that to your big dream of what you really want, suddenly you’re able to create your own hero’s journey because now you know what your super power is. You know what your big dream is, and the most important thing at that point is really understanding why that’s important to you.

Helping Others See Their Gifts

Charlie Hoehn: When did you feel like you’d made the greatest contribution?

Nikki Barua: I have often thought that my greatest gift is seeing the gift in other people, being that catalyst and a change agent that helps to bring out the best in other people. That’s why across the board, I looked at ways I can catalyze change- whether it’s writing a book or speaking or influencing public policy or building an education platform.

Even my business Beyond Curious is really a catalyst for change for big companies because change is incredibly painful. It takes us into uncomfortable places, but without change there is no growth, and growth is what leads us to greater outcomes and more successes, whether as an individual or as an organization. But when you catalyze change, that’s when it creates a lot of awareness of where it interrupts the pattern of where people tend to be.

As far as feeling a sense of contribution, I’ve build my business and my entire life around this idea of helping other people see their gift so that they are able to tap into that super power and become the best version of themselves. The work that Beyond Curious, my company, does for its clients is not that different either because our tagline is “We make elephants run” and we work with these very large companies.

Charlie Hoehn: How did you decide on that?

Nikki Barua: We work with large Fortune 500 companies that are in legacy businesses. They are the ones that have massive scale but very little speed, but that’s no longer enough. We are living in a world where the pace of disruption is so high that you have to be able to adapt very quickly to all of that change but most big companies are like these lumbering slow moving elephants.

In the meantime, emerging tech startups and other companies are like gazelles that are running past them and taking up the opportunity and frankly threatening their life. So what Beyond Curious does is we’re a transformation consultancy.

“We’re like a change agent, we’re like that catalyst that comes in and helps that elephant remove the barriers in its way.”

And typically the barriers are that they have outdated business strategies, so we help them define new business strategies, and sometimes they have outdated capabilities. They’re not digital business, so how does a legacy business become a digital business? So building the systems, technologies and tools that allow them to reach the customers in a different way or empower the employees differently and then finally, we also catalyze the culture.

How do you go from a risk avoiding bureaucratic culture to a risk taking entrepreneurial culture? We help them collaborate and execute their work differently. So as a result of all the things we do across strategy and digital solutions and culture transformation, we are essentially removing the barriers for these big elephants and that’s what makes the elephants run.

When you think about the list of memorable brands, from Kodak and Blockbuster and Toys “R” Us and all of these, they’re not failing because they don’t have the resources or they don’t have the intellectual capital or the distribution channel.

“They are really failing because they are not adapting to change. They are not moving fast enough. They’re not taking the risk.”

In fact it is a pretty scary stat that in the next decade, 75% of the SMP 500 are expected to go out of business. When you think about it, these are the companies that really make up the global economy and they define our way of life because of the products and services that we consume. We’d be losing a lot more of these companies and imagine the jobs that get lost. Imagine the lives that are ruined.

For me, even my business and what we do comes as deeply connected to my own sense of purpose. Of creating impact in the world. By being a catalyst for change for these big companies, it gives me leverage to impact a lot of lives. When we save these dying elephants, we save a lot of jobs, we make those companies healthier, we give them clear purpose, we help them go from risk avoiding and old school methods to bold courageous action and we help them constantly learn and adapt in a way that allows them to succeed more effectively in a very fast paced world.

Connect with Nikki Barua

Charlie Hoehn: The last part of your book is about celebrating. How do you celebrate?

Nikki Barua: That chapter and that perspective is really about fueling ourselves again. Much like a marathon, you can’t run an entire marathon if you don’t refuel. Celebration gives us a sense of achievement that we’ve made progress, it fuels our confidence that we are moving forward. For me, celebration has really been key in my journey over the past eight years of going from being completely broken and broke to the life I’ve created today.

There’s a weekly ritual that I practice. Every Sunday I spend 30 minutes taking stock of my week before and thinking about my week ahead. The most important practice that I have within that is expressing gratitude for the fact that I am alive, that I have been able to tap into my super powers and that I was able to not only create impact in the past week but also know that I will be able to do so in the week ahead.

Charlie Hoehn: Could you leave our listeners with a challenge? What’s the one thing they ought to do from your book this week that could change their life?

Nikki Barua: I would encourage everyone to work through the exercises at your own pace because at the end of it, you will have the clarity, you will find the path to take courageous action, and you will find a way that keeps you learning and adapting and celebrating yourself. But the one thing that in my mind is where it all begins, just like in my life story, is with a collage.

I would challenge everyone to create their own collage and put your picture in the center and then figure out who are the heroes that you would surround yourself with and then when you look at that collage, think of one word that comes to mind that best embodies that entire picture. Once you realize that you are limitless then it’s simply a matter of taking one step after the other and becoming the hero that you were born to be.

Charlie Hoehn: What’s the best way our listeners can connect with you?

The best way to connect with me is to find me on nikkibarua.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @nikkibarua.

I would invite the readers and the audience to connect and join my mailing list and more importantly be a part of the community that is really all about ordinary people creating extraordinary impact.