He sat at his desk in front of me, tapping his pen in frustration, ‘She’s affecting everybody. She’s just toxic.’ He was describing a dilemma he was facing at work. One of his employees, a woman who was contracted over several years, was proving to be a real hindrance to his team.

‘She finds a way to get everyone into dramas. She starts gossip and just creates a lot of conflict between people.’

Legally she couldn’t be fired. She could only be ‘encouraged’ to move on through a covert strategic means of making her work ‘less and less interesting’. ‘Well, that just feels totally unethical,’ said my client. ‘So, I’m just stuck with her I guess.’ He exhaled in defeat.

For months he’d tried all number of things to inspire her to do the things she enjoyed, in hopes that she’d become more engaged, and hence cause less trouble in the workplace. He and his team had bent like pretzels to ‘bring out the best’ in her. All to no avail. It seemed the more they contorted, the more toxic she became. The entire team was caught in an enabling pattern and it was beginning to cause stress.

‘What is it costing your team, your being ethical?’ I questioned with a wink.

He thought for a while, ‘Everything.’

Like most charismatic leaders, Richard was sensitive and hence had won the trust and support from his team through equal measure of intuition, finesse, heart, care and a natural gregariousness that inspired people to not only follow him, but love him. His team was powerfully engaged and effective.

But also like many sensitive people, he had one Achilles heel – the attachment to one’s values. DisclosureI have this heel. And I have noticed that this attachment manifests through a desire to ‘be good’ and not go ‘against’ anyone.

We tend to, in our desire to stick to certain values, either ignore a situation and go passive, or after bending for too long, explode in frustration. If it goes chronically unattended, the whole system will explode.

Richard’s team was about to detonate.  

‘Sometimes you have to drop your values,’ my friend said to me on the phone the other day. I was confused. I thought my friend might have lost their sanity for a moment. Sensing my worry, he proceeded to tell me a story. I love stories. So I curled up with my coffee mug clasped between both hands and listened intently. The story goes something like this:

Once upon a time, he began, a king named Agamemnon, and leader of the Greek coalition before and during the Trojan War, encountered a strange lack of wind to carry he and his boatloads of troops over the ocean to Troy. It was discovered that the goddess Artemis was angry with Agamemnon (as goddesses are want to do with kings), and put a curse on the wind. In order to set the winds towards Troy again, she demanded, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Well, Agamemnon was horrified, outraged, and cursed Artemis with fowl language (according to my friend).

He refused, his honor as a father at stake. But he was in a dilemma. Agamemnon was also risking the lives and honor of his army. Months, passed. Each time Artemis requested Iphigenia, the father refused. The troops starved and became ragged and ill. At some point, Agamemnon finally succumbed, and sent poor Iphigenia to the alter of Artemis. The winds blew and you know the rest of the story – at least on the Troy side of things.

Accounts of Iphigenia’s fate are blurry. Some say a deer took her place, other’s say that Artemis did not sacrifice her at all but welcomed her into her divine kingdom.

So, what’s the moral of (this version of) the story? ‘If you lead with your values, you’ll narrow your options,’ said my friend. ‘Rather you be open to all the options first, and then apply your values.’ Well I had to think about that. So I did.

I began to recount events where, in order to be ‘good’, I lead with certain values, rather than responding presently in the moment, appropriate to the circumstances.

That proverbial road to hell…

I wanted to be the ‘balanced one’, the ‘fair one’, the one who could be counted on for equanimity, loyalty and maturity. I respect myself that way of course, but there was a hidden agenda in there tooI wanted to be liked. I didn’t want to go ‘against’ anyone.  

Some circumstances require rigorous self-inquiry. Sometimes we have to pull back the veneer of what is parading around as virtue, morality or ethic and be willing to see the self-interest that is there. And here’s the key: when one is stuck in a pattern of holding on to values, other more creative options are eclipsed.

Back to my client Richard. After our conversation, Richard spent some time suspending his ideas, beliefs and values and allowing for something else to emerge. Suddenly a stroke of genius hit him. He called together his team, and outlined with them a ‘new interpersonal best-practices policy’ whereby certain behavior was not tolerated, among the list was gossip, innuendo, back-stabbing, and triangulating.

Each behavior had a constructive means to incapacitate it. For example, if someone heard gossip about themselves, they would immediately approach the party or parties concerned and engage in a constructive conversation to clear assumptions.

Within two weeks, the team was brighter, healthier and more trusting. And the toxic employee, starved of all the drama she was used to creating, quit. Apparently things were way too boring for her.

Sometimes, to serve the greater whole, the beloved daughter has to be sacrificed to the goddess. In my client’s case, the daughter was his precious identity as the ethical boss. When he let her go, his team could set sail. And the daughter didn’t end up being sacrificed after all. 

The other day I was driving home and a text chimed in on my phone. It was one of those really important texts that makes you do stupid things like respond while you are driving. Which I nearly did. Instead, I pulled over, and started letting my fingers fly on the tiny keyboard.

Texts have this way of making you feel like something is really urgent, an emergency of epic proportions. Maybe because of their brevity, combined with their symbolic shorthand, they kick in that genetic conditioning from the old telegraph days:  Your mother is dead [stop] Come home from the war immediately [stop].

Before I could finish the text, I realized something interesting. I was actually addicted to that brief moment of relief delivered by responding to that text right away. Like a rat with her proverbial lever, responding to texts and emails releases a tiny yet significant amount of pleasure hormonesemphasis on tiny. So minute after minute, we press that lever to get the pellet, responding to dozens of emails and texts that promise some eternal final resolutionSisyphus with an iPhone.

I imagined me in a 12-step meeting, all of us smartphone-less, writing appointments down in our Filofaxes, having actual face to face conversations, ‘Hi, I’m Kelly, I’m a text addict’.

But here’s something else I learned. I get a rush of adrenaline when I can respond to something quick and efficiently. For a moment I feel, just a little, in control of my destiny world dominance measured out in infinitesimal bits and bytes. I feel, yes (just a little bit) powerful.

But adrenaline is not power. It is, however, a cheap imitation.

I began to watch myself throughout each day, during those moments of choice between a quick-fix option (adrenaline), or a more considered, wisdom-informed alternative (power). I started slowing down, responding less immediately, choosing power over adrenaline. I made some people mad. ‘Where were you?’ They shouted, ‘I just texted you!’ Or, ‘Why didn’t you respond to my email yet?’

But in spite of their sense of abandonment or worry (‘I thought you were off in a ditch somewhere!’), I was giving them more of me. Responses that took time were more present, accurate and effective. Some things even resolved themselves without me getting in the middle and making a mess of them. I stuck my foot in it a lot less. I made less mistakes. And I was happier.

Something about our modern culture’s framing of time drives this artificial sense of urgency. It sets up the perfect neurochemical setting for the creation of a society of adrenaline addicts.  

As technology governs more of our lives, we find ourselves in a widening gap between chronos and kairosthe ancient Greeks’ two words for time. The former refers to chronological or sequential time, and the latter signifies a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature.

Chronos is a stopwatch. Kairos is a compass.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, Ecclesiastes assures us. In other words, relax, it’s taken care of. We don’t have to be the guy at the control panel every second of the day. We can pause, we can let the greater mechanism at work handle things.

Kairos, meaning the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment), begs the questionright for whom? Therein lies the key, for the ‘rightness’ is governed by something more universal than your idea of a deadline. As collateral damage in this age of adrenalin, its disappearance means we lose a kind of divine leverage. Kairos allows for something else to do the heavy lifting.

Chronos feeds adrenaline. Kairos feeds power.

One of the qualities of successful people is their trust in kairos. I have a friend who refuses to have a to-do list, nor practice any kind of time management strategy. I’ve watched him over the years with curiosity. Remarkably, his time is rarely wasted by email ping pong or phone tag.

Invariably if he needs to tell someone something, he bumps into them right at the perfect moment, or picks up the phone and they are there. He seldom lets artificial emergency govern his actions (much to my frustration at times!). If something is truly urgent, then yes, he responds. But otherwise, he moves more like his own river. He is calm and easy to be around.

Here’s a fun self test (I grabbed from the Internet) to see if you are an adrenalin addict:

1. I drink caffeinated beverages in order to get going and keep going.
2. I eat sugar to calm myself.
3. I over-promise and then rush to finish projects.
4. I arrive at work rushed and already “on”.
5. I feel an inner rush or lack of stillness most of the time.
6. I tend to be impatient.
7. I drive over the speed limit, tail gate and get angry in traffic.
8. I tend to run late or arrive just in time.
9. I often have to deal with a problem or hassle in my life.
10. I don’t allow reserves of time in the day for things that come up.
11. I love a challenge and pushing through it as hard as I can.
12. It takes me a few days to calm down from surprises or upsetting events.
13. I find it boring or difficult to just relax and hang out.
14. I am at my best when under pressure and deadlines.
15. Sometimes I deliberately set myself up to wait until the last minute.
16. I don’t arrive at the airport an hour before my flight.
17. I carry my cell phone even when I don’t need it.
18. I unconsciously try the hardest way to get something done.
19. People complain that I’m not there with them, even when I am.
20. I am a driven type person.

 Score Key:
15-20 — You are a certified adrenaline addict
11-14 — You probably have an unhealthy level of adrenaline in your body.
6-10 — You may have an adrenaline problem.
0-5 — Bravo! Adrenaline does not have a hold on you.

If, like me, you get high from adrenaline, don’t worry (it’s just another form of adrenaline). Just take tiny baby steps to befriend kairos again. She’s waiting patiently for you. Remember that every second on this earth is a gift, so what do you want to do, or not do, with it? Respond quickly to a text, or pause and exhale and let kairos have her way? Guaranteed, dear Sisyphus, she’ll help you keep that stone on the top of that hill.

Nothing reveals the maturity and wisdom of a relationship, and the two inside it, than a very difficult conversation. While sitting over coffee last week, a close friend and I found ourselves amidst the potentially thorny landscape of such a conversation. To our mutual relief we not only survived our talk, but emerged closer, wiser, and more open.

I reflected upon it later, remembering similarly scary conversations with others in the past, and how they either didn’t go well, or, out of fear, they didn’t happen at all. For a moment I entertained the idea that I was becoming more clear and courageous. I was just about to indulge in a short round of self-congratulatory back-patting, when a realization hit me: it wasn’t just me that brought me clarity and courage, it was our relationship, and it was her.

Forged through years of self-inquiry and mutual support, our relationship had become one of safety, contemplation, believing in one another, and the fierce uplifting of one another’s true expression. It was this ‘field’, that allowed our talk to happen. My friend’s openness, vulnerability and trust was as responsible for the outcome as my courage.

Through that exchange I realized the power of the company we keep. We are, in fact, an expression of those with whom we surround ourselves.

Systems theory reveals that a system (for example, a friendship, family or company) is influenced, either positively or negatively, by its parts. But there is a kind of irresistible gravitational pull towards lower performance. For example, take a small class of adults—if the instructor’s expectations are that each person do their projects, and he or she upholds that expectation, the class will for the most part fall in line with that expectation.

If, however, one person does not do their project, and the instructor gives no overt consequences, then the entire class will begin to slide into the vortex of that low performance, in spite of their individual high standards. Over a few days, most will not complete their projects, regardless of their intention to succeed. Systems are very powerful.

The same is true of the system of people with whom you surround yourself. If you surround yourself with lots of engaged, accountable, wise people, but also have a few hangers-on around you, your life will remain compromised. It’s just physics.

You know the ones I’m talking about. They constantly complain you are not there for them. They whine about how their life never changes. They find subtle ways to put you down. They criticize you when you take a risk. They don’t quite ‘get’ you. I have a word for these people—sandbags. And they hang over the edge of the basket of your hot air balloon, keeping you from flying into your adventurous life.

You know these people by how they make you feel about you when you are around them. Here’s a little experiment to try. Imagine someone with whom you feel completely at ease and content. It doesn’t even have to be a person. It could be pet. It could be a dead person. Hold them in your mind, close your eyes, and feel what it is like to be around them. There, that feeling you feel is your baseline, and that person or pet is your baseline reference. Use your reference person or pet as a metaphorical line in the sand. Anyone who consistently evokes less than that level of comfort and safety needs to go.

Sure, you are going to have challenging moments with people who are close to you that may make you feel unsafe or threatened. Or you may be a caregiver to someone challenging due to illness. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about examining your overall experience of being around certain chosen friends, partners and colleagues.

Now that you’ve drawn a little imaginary line in the sand, using your reference and baseline as your guide, next, make a list of all those around you who drop below that line. These are your sandbags and it’s time to snip the string to each and every one of them.

‘Oh, but a few sandbags are ok,’ you might say, ‘they keep us from flying off into the ethers; they keep things realistic and reasonable.’ Hmmmm. Well that depends. How limited do you want your adventure? How small you want your life?

Conversely, you know how beautiful someone is, by how beautiful you feel in their company. Time for a new list. A fun list. Write down the names of those who you feel not only beautiful with, but joyful, inspired, and positively challenged. These are people who believe in you, and who hold you marvelously accountable to your best dreams and values.

I suggest you even expand the list to those who you don’t know so well, but you sense this is possible with them, and that because they are at the edge of their game (whatever that is), they’ll inspire you to be at the edge of yours. They say ‘yes’ in face of obstacles, and strive to live outside boxes. You know who they are. You look at them and say, ‘wow’.

All these people are your ‘good company’. Cultivate your relationships with them. They’ll help you reach your dreams. David Whyte wrote an apropos poem about good company called Sweet Darkness, and the last part goes like this:

…Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

Good company sees you. And being seen is incredibly powerful. Keeping good company will create joy, levity, inspiration and creativity in your life. Are you ready for lift off?

 

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
– Bertrand Russell.

Two US sociologists, Jessica Collett and Jade Avelis, wanted to know why so many female academics opted for “downshifting”: setting out towards a high-status tenured post, then switching to something less ambitious. Contrary to popular belief, their survey of 460 doctoral students revealed that it wasn’t to do with wanting a “family-friendly” lifestyle. Instead, self deception was to blame — the idea that they were frauds, and didn’t belong in that high powered world. Apparently this phenomenon is much more widespread than surveys suggest which would make sense since, if one believes one is an imposter, one would want to keep that a secret.

While women are much more prone to it than men, men are certainly not excluded. A recent panicked call from my son’s friend after his first week of a prestigious college shed light on how talented intelligent people can be susceptible. “I just feel I don’t belong here,” he said. When I questioned him more about it he confessed, “Everyone here is amazing. I won’t measure up; I just know it. I’m a fake and I must have gotten here by mistake.”

Yet a ‘confidence gap’ definitely exists between men and women. Here’s the crazy thing, the higher women climb up the professional ladder, the more self-doubt they experience. According to journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code, this gap in confidence plays a huge role in the professional glass ceiling women experience today. And it is real. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Yet their performances do not differ in quality. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. This is true for men and women. People mistakenly believe that competence creates confidence. However, the reverse is just as true: the more confident you are, the more competent you become. The good news is that confidence can be unconditionally gained, and easily.

But let’s deal with a couple of red herrings first, shall we?

First, people think that you have to ‘build confidence’. This implies that you do something, succeed at it, this proves you are good at it, which in turn gives you the ‘right’ to feel confident. But if you are a life long learner, and always pushing your edges, you’re often going to experience way more failures than successes. So this little myth creates a negative Sisyphus-like feedback loop, where you’ll never ‘feel’ confident. When I say confidence can be unconditionally gained, I mean that it can be created without the condition of having competence first. So stay tuned below…

And the second red herring is the way confidence lurks so scarily close to qualities like cockiness, pride, recklessness, presumptuousness, impudence, pushiness, and arrogance. These are what the Buddhists call ‘near enemies’ (for a better description of near enemies see my previous blog post). Women, and men in tune with their sensitivity, are wary to cross that line between confidence and superiority. But they hesitate at their peril. Remember that only accountable people worry about those things. Arrogant people do not.

So now that we have those two smelly fish out of the way, let’s talk about how to really, truly, easily rewire your body for confidence, right now. And the answer is deceptively easy and simple: body language. In a nutshell, how you posture your body, not only impacts how others perceive you, but also rewires your own brain towards not only feeling confident, but doing confident and therefore competent things.

I first stumbled into this awareness when I began working with people and horses years ago. I noticed that the horses responded to clarity and confidence reflected in a person’s body language (since horse’s don’t know English, body language was the only way in). I also noticed that people themselves changed because of their body language. They indeed became more confident, and became more successful in any given task with the horse. Their success wasn’t because they learned a skill and did it well, it was because they changed their body language first. But then I noticed something really amazing. Over time they became not only more confident and skilled with the horses, but in their life. Hence the birth of the EQUUS Experience as an astonishingly effective life-mentoring approach.

Body language is the singularly most influential aspect of all communication — verbal and non-verbal. According to studies, words, tone of voice and body language account differently when it comes to how it affects others. Words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38% and body language accounts for a gargantuan 55% of the influence on others. And yet startlingly we have very little awareness of our body, and our posture. But lucky for you, you’re reading this blog and so that is going to change.

The lovely Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and Associate Professor at Harvard Business School did a really wonderful, and touching, TED Talk revealing her research into body language and the transformative practice of embodying what she calls ‘power poses’. According to her research, when participants held any particular power pose — ie, chest up, chin slightly elevated, feet slightly apart and hands on hips — for just two minutes, their brains reflected the hormonal levels indicative of confidence. Similarly, when they held collapsed poses for the same length of time, the brains reflected stress, anxiety and a diminished state. Literally, how you position your body, shapes who you are!

So she coaches people to adopt the practice of standing in a two-minute power pose before entering into any situation that is going to require strength, clarity and confidence. Her favorite is the ‘Wonder Woman’ stance. As she triumphantly says, ‘Don’t fake it until you make it, fake it until you become it!’

Are you a fake? I certainly hope so. I hope you fake it ever day. Fake it and fake it until you become it. So here’s what you are going to do: each time you are about to enter into any kind of situation that requires the best of yourself to show up, you are going to grab your smart phone, set the timer to two minutes and strike the pose. Do Wonder Woman, do Superman, do Chariots of Fire across-the-finish-line and play the theme song if you have to.

Confidence is yours right now and is your unconditional birthright. It lives latent inside your body as a gift waiting to be opened, and waiting to change your life into the adventure you know it can be.

“The ‘Sacred Warrior’ is the personification of Courage within a man and a woman that allows them to keep their heart open in hell; the hell of their own frustration, confusion, fear, discouragement, anger, resentment….”
— Chogyam Trungpa, The Sacred Path of the Warrior

It was India 1996. Lucknow (yes, that is the actual name of the city) was only a shadow of its former self. Once the proudly decorated British ‘administrative’ capital of India, abundant with lush English gardens and grand estates, now it stood reclaimed by her gritty and humble Indian origins, her streets populated with pigs, goats and cattle, auto rickshaws peppering the busy thoroughfares. I was a young mother to a 13-month-old then and lived amongst a small community of expatriates in a quiet suburban community on the outskirts of town.

As was the custom of our little community, many of us often gathered at my home for lunch each day. Our living room was a veritable United Nations, with people from New Zealand, Israel, Germany, Palestine, Austria, America, Holland and Mexico. Life was simple as we sat eating rice and dal on stainless steel plates, sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor. It was, for us, a time of reflection, introspection and curiosity. And time stretched out eternal, allowing us the rare privilege of ease inside which we could take sanctuary from the world.

My son Dakota was playing quietly nearby. At one point, one of the friends, whom Dakota was particularly fond of, began to leave. She picked up all her things, bid us goodbye, kissed Dakota on his curly blond head, and walked out the door. At once he dropped his toys and crawled towards the door frantically crying for her. In response, I jumped up to comfort him, but felt a firm grasp upon my arm.

“Wait,” my friend said. “Let him feel it; it’s ok.”

A New Zealander who had spend his whole life keeping bees, he had a quiet, unassuming yet deep presence, and a profound understanding of the inner workings of nature, plus a trust of the simple mechanics of ‘how things work’.

I looked at him, a little taken aback by his intervention. Quiet and reserved, he seldom spoke, and almost never inserted his opinions in conversations. I must have looked confused because he then told me something I will never forget.

“We were raised to be emotional cowards,” he said. “Out of good intentions, and social norm, people who cared about us rushed to rescue us from difficult feelings. Or worse, they forbade us to feel them. We grew up not knowing how to deal with them, how to cope with them. And then we spend our lives running from them or denying they are there and getting sick from it.”

I knew he was right. I remembered as a child being told not to cry, to be a brave girl. I remembered being given three sugar-glazed donuts to keep me quiet when I wiped out on my bicycle, shredding my shins and knees beyond recognition. I remembered how I was not allowed to get angry.

“You don’t do Dakota any favors distracting him from his feelings. Instead, why don’t you show him, by just being present, that there is nothing to fear from painful experiences.”

I had always been, and remain, a very responsive mother. If there was a need, I met it. My children were breastfed, worn in slings and backpacks, loved, cuddled, slept with, played with and nurtured. But sometimes a mother can’t meet a need. And this was one of those moments. I couldn’t make the friend magically reappear.

It was an essential developmental lesson: life is sometimes painful.

So, instead, as an experiment, I sat near to him, but didn’t rush to fix him. I let him cry. His wails ripped at me, and every muscle in my body wanted to scoop him up and comfort him. And then I felt it—it was my cries I didn’t want to hear, not his. It was my pain I didn’t want to feel.

Dakota’s sobs were merely protests against his friend walking out the door, but they triggered feelings in me that were out of proportion to this current event. I saw how my desire to reach for him and comfort him was, in part, an attempt to comfort myself and alleviate my own discomfort with his cries. And suddenly I saw how emotional cowardice was handed down, generation upon generation. It stopped me in my tracks, and I was able to just sit inside the discomfort, and be present, as my friend had invited.

Within moments, Dakota stopped crying. And turned, happily, towards his toys, reengaging in his previous interest as if nothing at all had happened. The despair had simply washed through him like a brief weather pattern. Dakota took his first step towards emotional courage, and I along with him.

Teaching moments like these are so humbling because we then spend our entire lives trying to re-orient ourselves towards that compass setting on which it points. And from that afternoon, I’ve since spent years cultivating that emotional courage with varying degrees of success.

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog entitled Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail, Peter Bregman writes, “What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it.”

“In other words,” he continues, “the critical challenge of leadership is, mostly, the challenge of emotional courage.”

I would agree that this is true in all sectors of leadership, be it organizational, parental, marital (yes, we ‘lead’ in marriage – at it’s best, its collaborative), personal, and communal. Much of our reactions to situations, that lead to poor outcomes, are because we are simply not willing, or too afraid, to feel.

There are several reasons for this. But one influential reason is due to our social, cultural, religious and /or spiritual orientation that cannot help but interpret emotions through a right/wrong, good/bad lens. Add to it the uniquely American approach to having a pill for every discomfort, advertisements for which saturate our television.

Developmentally, this lens is the perspective of about a 16-year-old. Hence the reason Hitler enlisted so many adolescents into his Youth Army, because their developing mind, perfectly poised to see only black and white, could easily be indoctrinated into racism. So polarized have we become against our own internal landscape, that we end up at war with ourselves constantly strategizing our relief through over-doing, over-committing, numbing out, distraction and blame.

Another reason, related to the first, is that we have a very limited relationship to our bodies. A body is something we use rather than a dynamic intelligent system to abide inside, and from which to seek wisdom. The body is a place of sin, we have been told, and therefore we should separate from it. Our society is a bunch of heads riding around on legs. In my work people at first often report having no sense of their bodies or what they are feeling.

So, how to be a superpower? The paradoxical answer is — be vulnerable. Feel everything. Be willing to feel your feelings, and the feelings of others. Be willing to listen to the morning news and let it rip you apart. Be willing to break open and experience it all. Be willing to be utterly, mercilessly at the hands of every sensation, every experience.

Dakota is now 18. Yesterday afternoon, we were sitting outside on the back porch, shooting tin cans with his BB gun (you take time with your son any way you can get it). “You know, the more I think about it,” he said, as he narrowed his eye down the sight, “the more I realize that life is only lived completely, if you completely let your heart break.”

Yes, let your heart break.

And when you let your heart break, then you feel it all. So just let it be what it is. You’ll discover that all it is, is sensation. Nothing more; nothing less. Some sensations are unpleasant. Some are pleasant. None of them are dangerous. It’s only our mind that comes in with unhelpful commentary and labels. But if you’re just present with your body’s experience, you’ll discover simply sensation. A veritable circus. And you’ll welcome it all. This is emotional courage.

What begins to happen when you cultivate emotional courage? You become brave—you take risks; you become accountable; you hold others accountable; you become more compassionate; you create trust; you become creative, spacious, easy and inspired.

One of my favorite bloggers, James Altucher writes “When you can get rid of the buffers against pain and change, life becomes more insecure, but we become FREE. We live in a bigger world, a world where risk and beauty go hand in hand and we are no longer afraid of the underlying pains.
A leader is always prepared for change. And realizes that pain is just opportunities to live in a bigger and more abundant world. This is the secret that most people forget when they build their brick houses and hide inside from the outside world so pain doesn’t seek them out.”

Here are your five superhero tips:

1. Tell yourself the truth — Take on, as a practice, to simply tell yourself the truth about what you are feeling in any given moment. Sounds simple, but when you experiment with this practice, you just might discover how often you habitually disregard, cover up, deny or project what you are feeling. This doesn’t mean you have to tell anyone else about it; that’s too much pressure.

2. Check in with your agenda — are you reacting because you don’t want to feel your or another’s feelings, or are you responding. They are different.

3. When you are feeling a strong emotion — take a breath, slow down, and just allow your body to feel it. Open yourself to welcome it, like a houseguest.
Resist the urge to label it, or go down any mind chatter rabbit holes.

4. Let yourself be porous — welcome the sensations of the entire world. Feel everything as you walk through the grocery store, the mall, at your in-laws. Now that you are a superhero, you can be brave on behalf of everyone.

5. Be grateful — being alive, feeling all that there is, as an amazing expression of life, is awesome.

We need superheroes. We need them now. Your cape awaits.

‘I hate journaling,’ said one client to me recently. ‘It’s just never made sense to me to keep any kind of diary. Ew. How…adolescent.’ For weeks I just kept quiet about it. I knew journaling had been very helpful and important to me over the years. But I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. So every time I told a client that they should keep a journal, I’d watch their eyes glaze over, ‘Ohhhh, yes, hmmmm, journal,’ they would repeat oddly like a stepford wife, ‘Yes, I should.’ And I knew they wouldn’t. And yet I could not tell them all of the amazing reasons why they should. I didn’t even attempt to suggest it to my male clients.

Yes, on the surface journaling does seem a little adolescent, conjuring images of a hot pink faux leather book, fur fringe and gold filigree, complete with a little locket and key. Within its pages might be my first name along with the last name of some school boy I had a crush on, signed over and over again, Mrs. Kelly Summers, Mrs. Kelly Summers, Mrs. Kelly Summers… Or perhaps a lot of j’s and i’s dotted with little circles.

But journaling is, without a doubt, one of the deepest, most profound, most powerful practices you can do — both personally and professionally.

I recently stumbled upon one of my journals from 2010. I spent some time re-reading it. It was at that moment I could understand the amazing power of keeping a journal. Before then, this practice was just too close for me to see. But this gave me a perspective, and now I’m going to share it with you.

Journaling works the soul. Over the arc of time, it has the potential to accompany you in a way that, while subtle or hard to see in the moment, somehow tethers you to essential and fundamental questions, commitments, and yearnings. It is this tethering to things deeply existential that is the secret to why it is so powerful. The best way I can say it, is that in journaling you are intentionally putting something ‘into form’ that springs from something more ethereal, mystical and wisdom-informed. And it happens without even realizing it. Your only job is to sit down, be open, write.

It’s not about how much you write, or what you write. It’s about sitting down each day, setting your intention to be open, and just being present to what wants to flow through your pen. It’s more about the ‘tethering’ than the actual content, or amount of content.

Here’s why it will help you, as an individual and as a leader (and we are all leaders in all kinds of ways):

1. Journaling forces you to stop, pause, and listen. This in itself is a necessary spiritual practice.

2. Journaling makes you accountable to yourself. People don’t know how to tell the truth anymore. Not because they are dishonest, but because society pressures them to be different that what they are. The first step to freedom, is to begin telling yourself the truth. And guess what? You don’t have to tell anyone else. Just yourself. Sometimes people resist being honest with themselves because they then think they are obliged to tell others, or to do something they are not ready to do. This is a trick of the mind. No…just tell yourself the truth. Do you really like that friend? Is your work really inspiring you? Are you really that into him?

3. Keeping a journal restores the sacred to your life. You can’t be an inspired leader without some sense of sacred calling, or service. You just can’t.

4. Journaling provokes outside of the box thinking. When you find yourself writing the same old thing, you are challenged to color outside of your own lines.

5. Journaling supports solitude. We need solitude like we need oxygen. And the more you serve, the more solitude you need.

6. Journaling evokes introspection.

7. Keeping a journal gives you a sense of sovereignty. It’s your private life. It’s your private world. And only you have dominion over it. This is especially important in the age of electronic 24/7 tyrannical access.

8. Journaling bestows dignity. You are the hero of your life. Only you can be the person you were meant to be. Only you can meet the challenges you were meant to meet, and give the gifts you were meant to give.

9. Journaling gives you perspective. There’s a higher ‘you’ waiting in its pages, just waiting to be with you.

10. Journaling gives you direction and clarity. When I read my 2010 journal last week, I gained a very essential piece of wisdom that is now assisting me with a challenge now.

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you. Dang! I’ve even convinced myself! And the fun thing is, there are all kinds of ways to journal. You can write, make collages, draw, paint, glue images, make lists, write letters, or all of the above. I keep two journals. One I write in, the other I collage in. In fact, just to get your creative juices flowing, check out this link here to feast your eyes on all the amazing things you can do with journals.

And now do this: go buy yourself a really beautiful journal – one that just invites you to open it’s pages. While you are at it, get yourself a nice pen. Actually, let’s go whole-hog here — imagine you were asked to be some kind of sacred scribe. Now, with all of that sense of honoring, devotion and veneration, take yourself to a beautiful stationery store. Browse the store with indulgence. Find the journal and pen and buy it.

Whenever people used to tell me not to take something personally, I would look at them quizzically, head tilted to one side like a dog hearing a strange note. ‘What, exactly, is that supposed to even mean?!’ I would exclaim in exasperation, arms flailing about dramatically. ‘They are saying mean things to me, wanting me to feel bad, attacking me, how can this not be about me?’ I would whine. ‘How can I not take this personally? It certainly feelspersonal! It is personal!’

So if you were just a wee bit annoyed in reading the title of this blog post, I don’t blame you. Or maybe you were hopeful. Or downright confused. Or maybe you are one of the lucky ones and wondered why the heck anyone would post about such an easy topic. But in my work, I encounter way more sensitive leaders than non-sensitive ones. And we sensitive’s tend to take things personally. Like really.

To me, the ability to not take things personally was something available only to sociopaths, wax figures, and Mr. Spock. So I resigned myself to the refuge of Rescue Remedy and, when things felt really personal, perhaps a glass of red or two. In my darker moments, I would just get downright revengeful (in my very colorful imagination). That is, until recently, really recently. Ok, I’m a slow learner.

Sometimes life hands you plenty of opportunities to learn very specific things, and lately life was giving me a crash course in The Art of Not Taking it Personally 101 at the University of CEO. For a while, I was flunking the course, but the other day I had a breakthrough. A client called me, upset about a series of events of which I was involved. She started by telling me things I had said (I hadn’t), and by insisting I should have done something that I didn’t (I shouldn’t have), and implied that I was obtuse (I’m not). Her tone was scolding and patronizing—a recipe for me to take things personally.

And during the call, the epiphany struck: In situations where one is being attacked or criticized it’s important to first and foremost be present with oneself, and check in with one’s own experience and what is true for oneself. Now, that may seem simple to some of you, but under stress my particular neurobiology—thanks to my family of origin—is wired to jump outside of myself and rescue others. Because of this, I have a pathologically heroic ability to throw myself under buses. I’ll either do it internally, by feeling really really bad. Or, I’ll just downright take the blame, regardless of what is true, because all I want is relief. Sound familiar?

So, during the call, I paused. What was true in my experience? Most of the things she was expressing simply did not resonate with me. So, I listened with respect, and understood where she was coming from, but not at the expense of my own self-respect and dignity. In the past, I was great at the listening, validating part. I could actually feel myself inside their experience (and still do), and be able to know what things were like in their world. My empathy was real. But I sucked at the self-advocacy part.

So by first pausing and checking in internally, I avoided throwing myself into some limbic reaction, and was able to remain in equanimity, for myself as much as for her. In the end, she felt heard, but we came to a better, and more truthful and honest, understanding. I hung up the phone, waiting for the post-evisceration fallout, where I feel icky and terrible. But it never happened. I just felt good. ‘Oh my gosh!’ I thought. ‘This is what it feels like to not take things personally!’ I was so excited I danced around my kitchen. It was not just a mental stance, but a visceral ‘non-stick’ experience.

I used to think that not taking things personally meant having some kind of tough wall around oneself, a thick reptilian skin that allowed other’s words and opinions just bounce right off you. I thought it meant I had to ‘take things like a man.’ Even my favorite gal in the world, Eve Ensler, takes issue with the idea that one should not take things personally, because, as she so rightly says, the whole world has been taught not to be a girl, ie, not to feel, not to take things in, not to feel vulnerable — all this of course at the expense of women and men and the planet. But I was wrong. It’s remaining porous and sensitive, and widening that sensitivity to include one’s own self and one’s own truth. Let your sensitivity reach deep down into you like a tap root to your soul. It’s my own job to be sensitive to me, and not anyone else’s.

Another one of my favorite gals, Byron Katie, says this, ‘No one will ever understand you—not once, not ever. Even at our most understanding, we can only understand our own story of who you are.’ I find that liberating. It allows me to hold others and their opinions a whole lot lighter. When I no longer hold myself responsible for making you understand me, then I have a lot more energy and productivity for the rest of my life, and all the things I want to do and create. It helps me to love and respect myself more. And when I do that, I just naturally love and respect others more. That’s how it works.

So next time someone wants to sit down and ‘share some feedback’, or ‘just needs to get something off their chest’, or decides to vent their liver via email, try this trick—pause, breathe, forget all the chatter your mind is saying about ‘not taking it personally’ (your mind can really be ridiculously unhelpful). Take a moment to be really truly sensitive to your self. And ask yourself: is what they are saying true for you in your experience? If not, then deeply trust yourself. If parts of what they are saying resonate, then accept those parts and learn from them.

I used to worry that if I didn’t take things personally, then I would end up like one of those arrogant jerks who never self-reflected. And I’d be the last to know what a jerk I was. But that worry made a martyr out of me. And the joke was on me because, of course, jerks don’t worry about being a jerk. So now I’m in the free fall of the ultimate self reflection: what’s true for me? It confronts me with my own existential aloneness. But it unites me with exceptional courage and clarity.

So, go ahead, take a risk, I dare you—don’t take it personally.

Many people who work with me want to gain more confidence in themselves. Especially if they’re facing a transition in their life, and what they used to know, no longer serves them. “I’m excellent in the boardroom when it comes to crunching the numbers,” despaired one client who was changing her profession, “but when it comes to consulting people, I feel out of my depth.”

The trouble is, we’ve been told a lie about confidence. We’re told that confidence is when we see ourselves mastering skills and achieving goals that matter in those skill areas. When we think of confidence, or confident people, we think Superman, or Wonder Woman. We think bold. We think brazen. We think strong. We think capes and gold wristbands.

What a trap. It’s a trap because it makes confidence conditional—conditional on education, on mastery and on achievement. So what the heck do you do when you aren’t feelin’ that superpower feeling? What do you do when you’re starting something new? Or presented with a completely foreign situation? When faced with kryptonite?

I often see clients hit this vicious cycle of losing confidence, especially when they are growing and changing. They strike out into unknown territory, then without the usual props of knowledge, skill or external validation, they begin to falter and either lean back into the ‘known’, or berate themselves for being so stupid. All of this reinforces playing it safe, or the usual self-criticism—hardly the stuff of transformation.

Or I’ll see the opposite, where clients might lean into what they think confidence looks like or feels like. They rely on their head instead of their heart and body, and push themselves to live inside the realm of constant achievement and intellectual understanding.

Either way, it perpetuates unnecessary suffering, stress, and blocks access to real wisdom.

Maggie is a highly respected GP. Recently she encountered a new patient who presented with some serious symptoms. After running tests, Maggie told the patient to come back in at the earliest available appointment the following week. The patient never returned. When the results came in, Maggie knew she needed to find the patient urgently—her diagnosis was serious and needed immediate attention. It was over six weeks before the patient finally returned Maggie’s calls, and came back in to the office. By then her situation had progressed severely.

“It ruined me,” Maggie shared later. “I second-guessed myself with everything at work. And I flogged myself endlessly for not doing better with this patient. I should have emphasized to her how important it was to come immediately back, but I didn’t. I should have been more clear. I should have…”

Maggie lost confidence.

And her mind found endless reasons to justify her loss of confidence. If she had been allowed to continue down this self-destructive road, there’s no telling what some of the consequences may have been for her. Fortunately she had a wise (and very cool) group of professional women around her to stop the train, and reflect something more accurate.

I was lucky enough to be a part of that conversation where we explored confidence, and here are some of the highlights:

Part of understanding true confidence, is recognizing our dominion. What I mean by that is knowing what, exactly, is our sphere of influence and responsibility. As Wayne says often, we can do the right thing, but we cannot make the right thing happen. Maggie’s patient’s willingness to take care of her health is completely outside of Maggie’s dominion. If Maggie loses sense of this, and tries to over-reach into territory that does not belong to her, she’ll set her self up for losing confidence.

Dominion is not a black and white understanding. What-is-mine is not so much a mental understanding as it is a visceral one. I notice that my anxiety levels build when I am reaching outside my dominion. Like, for example, when leading a workshop: my facilitation is my dominion; what people do with it, is not.

But when I forget that, and take responsibility for people’s experience in the workshop, I get anxious. Anxiety has become my friend. It tells me when I’m overstepping my boundaries (or having them stepped over).

Like, for another example, when running this company: my drive to learn how to do it well, is my dominion; whether it survives or not, is not. Make its survival entirely my domain, and I’m a wreck. Wrecks can’t run companies.

So, what’s the ‘secret’ of real confidence?

Vulnerability.

Confidence, real confidence, is vulnerable. It’s standing in the firm presence of the unknown, and knowing you must stand there. Accepting what I cannot control, feels vulnerable. Maggie watching her patient make bad choices in spite of her warnings, is vulnerable. Letting this company have its own destiny, but running it anyway, feels excruciatingly vulnerable. Knowing nothing about consulting people because you used to be an accountant, and doing it anyway, is vulnerable.

Vulnerability scares people. They parade around with mock confidence to mask how terrified it makes them feel. We’re not allowed to be vulnerable. We’re meant to have it all together. We’re meant to have all the answers. We’re meant to control all the outcomes. We’re meant to leap over buildings in a single bound.

But this is humanly impossible. So if we accept that we only have limited dominion over what is really and truly ‘ours’, then vulnerability is a very honest response inside true confidence.

Here’s another secret to confidence. Being open, and being willing to make mistakes (and a lot of them). It’s being receptive, and being curious. Which brings us back to being vulnerable.

And here’s the last secret to confidence. Faith. Confidence comes from the Latin root confidere—‘with faith’ or ‘with trust’. Notice that it does not mean trust ‘in something’ as in ‘trust in your capacities’, or ‘faith in your hot looks’, or ‘trust in your brain power’. Just plain old ‘with faith’, and nothing else added. No cape, no gold wristbands. Just you, standing there, with trust.

I have a dear friend and mentor who has been successfully consulting Fortune 500 companies for decades. I asked him how he does his work, and how he manages to feel so confident in such unpredictable high stakes circumstances. A bigger than life Italian from Boston, his Catholic roots support him. “Before every workshop, or before any big meeting, I say a prayer.” he replied. “I ask only that I be of service to the greater good. And when I’ve done that, I know everything will work out just as it is supposed to.” Looking at me with a sparkle in his eye, he finished, “I just trust.”

Confidence is a way of being invites you to tap into a much more feminine sense of power, one that leans into the unknown. It’s more about presence than about prowess. And it’s more about befriending the free-fall, not having a net.

In fact, if you take just a moment right now you can even get a visceral sense of confidence. Just be present, still and quiet. Imagine you standing inside your domain, or your dominion. Just imagine it circling around you like a sense of all that you are. Then, lean into some sense of trust…and let go. That feeling you get in your body when you do all that…is confidence.

My father was quite a famous academic and public speaker. I asked him many years ago how he became so confident up there at the podium.

“I’m not confident,” he exclaimed, “I’m terrified! I never know what I’m going to say, or even if it will come out right.”

“But,” said I, “You don’t look terrified; you give terrific talks. How do you do that?”

“I just know,” he said, after a long quiet pause, “ that for reasons I’ll never understand, I’m supposed to be up there.”

That’s confidence.

Last week I was taking a road trip with my mother. Hitting our sixth hour in the car, deep into the empty desert, she began speaking to me about a book she was reading called Never Cry Wolf – The Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves.

Naturalist Farley Mowat’s account of wolf culture was eye opening. His assignment to investigate why wolves were killing Arctic caribou led to him spend months in the frozen tundra studying the wolf population and their habits.

We are told that wolves are vicious predators who eat all kinds of big game and livestock, who hunt little children (and Liam Neeson). Indeed, writes Mowat, we can thank the tale of little red riding hood for this unfortunate distorted lens through which we see these elegant creatures.

Mowat discovered that it had not been the wolves who were devouring the caribou, but the native hunters. In fact, wolves are of no threat to caribou or even man. What is the main food source for wolves? Mice.

Only occasionally, when the family of wolves needs to feast on something bigger, will they work to hunt a singular caribou, and only a weak, old or sick one at that, thereby assisting the health of the caribou herds. So through the culling of weak caribou and keeping the mice populations down, among a vast number of additional skills, wolves are an important part of the ecosystem.

“Did you know,” she continued in between bites of seasoned gourmet popcorn, our road trip culinary fare, “that these wolves live in tribal clans, each clan has a large specific territory. And these clans communicate to one another through various calls, to warn one another about either danger or food that might be travelling from one territory to another.”

“These clans actually,” she said, with amazement in her voice, “cooperate across borders to help one another.”

“Think,” she said emphatically, “if we all had been told a different fairy tale about a wolf; think, if we had known all these actual facts about wolves, how we might have learned something different from them about how to survive, and what a different world it might be.”

We drove silently for a while, each pondering the possibilities.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has always enlightened me in this way. She’s always cracked open the conventional cultural view, and revealed another option—one that was more whole, more kind, and more magical than the one everyone else was agreeing to.

My mother was my first spiritual teacher. In fact, my primary understanding of my relationship to the world was shaped by her maternal care. When I was an infant, she held me close, and responded to my cries. Rejecting the mothering fashion of the times, she breastfed. I learned early in those formative months, that the universe is a benevolent, caring, abundant place.

Later, she cultivated the soil of a meaningful life. When I was a graduating teen, she gave me my first ‘spiritual book’…The Prophet, of course. And later peppered my shelves with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Alice Walker, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Mary Oliver, and other contemporary wise women.

When I was doubting myself, she lifted up what was certain about me. When I was feeling broken, she lifted up what was whole and unbroken. When I was failing, she leaned into what was succeeding. And when I was feeling alone, she revealed what was always near. It’s not that she treated me with a Pollyanna approach, it’s that she really saw  the ‘whole’ qualities about me, and simply chose to lean into those, rather than focus so much on the other things.

You could say that through her, I learned to see wholeness, that which cannot be broken, that which remains, regardless of what appears as flawed and dysfunctional.

But we live in a world that looks through another lens. A diagnostic, pathology-seeking culture, that sees what is broken, and attempts to make it whole by fixing it.

A college student feels fear and labels herself anxious. Then she seeks to repair the anxiety, rather than lifting up the new and bold steps she taking each day and understanding that fear is a natural response when one is being courageous.

A healthcare worker is becoming burnt out by experiencing all the illness and pain around him, but does not recognize that what is also happening is connection, love, tenderness and vulnerability.

I’m suggesting that there actually is wholeness inside every person, every moment, every situation, regardless of appearances.

Ironically, I’ve spent my life running from, and arguing with, this understanding. I’ve tried to convince most everyone I know how broken I am, how much farther I have to go, how much more I could do. I guess even though wholeness is our birthright, the ability to embrace it does not come for free.

Fast forward from those early years with my mother, I now spend my days lifting up what is already whole in others, and allowing that wholeness to have its proper dominion over their lives. The transformations in people’s lives we witness are astonishing.

So, speaking of wolves, there’s this well known Cherokee legend—you probably heard it—about the grandfather teaching his grandson a life lesson. It goes something like this:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed”.

What if focusing on all the ways we are broken, or damaged, or not enough, actually perpetuates it? My guess is that it does. In the name of healing, what if what we are doing is actually feeding that other wolf? My guess is that we are. In the name of creating good, we are actually ignoring what is already good, and perpetrating violence upon ourselves.

So, here’s my suggestion—a bold experiment, but what have we got to lose?

1. See what is whole and good in yourself— Spend some time in a quiet place where you can reflect upon and perhaps journal about your gifts. What is it that you offer the world and to your friends and beloveds? What are some of your amazing qualities? Allow yourself to just embrace them and have them, without the added mind-chatter about how it is not enough, or how the gifts still don’t outweigh all those other faults of yours. Give them the keys to the car. Forget the rest.

2. See what is whole and good in another— When you encounter someone, whether you know them well or not, pay attention to those things that rise to your awareness that you can appreciate. Do they move with grace? Do you see a twinkle behind their eyes? Do you feel safe and seen in their company?

3. See what is whole and good in your community and / or your business— One of my business mentors called me out on my own pathology-thinking the other day. I told her that the roles within our organization were ‘messy’. “Why would you call it ‘messy’?” she asked. “Instead try saying that your organization is ‘in its nascent stages and that each of you within in it are seeking clarity.’ This slight ‘quarter turn’ of the heart gave me a different appreciation of our challenges, and the nobility and dignity with which we were actually facing them.

When we put less weight and meaning on the things that seem not right, and lean into that ‘quarter turn’ of our heart that sees what is whole, beneath those appearances, a magical thing happens:

We become what we see.

I had dinner with a good friend the other day—a highly respected professional who is outstanding in her field. Over chips and salsa, she confided that after 25 years of living hand to mouth she finally enlisted the help of a business coach who helped her to organize a budget and review her cash flow. ‘As it turns out,’ she exclaimed in between bites, ‘I’ve been subsidizing my clients to the tune of about $23K a year, for years!’

Now, her clients do not need subsidizing. Most of them earn six to seven digit salaries, and besides, she is not running a non-profit (not deliberately anyway). And in addition, Maureen* is one of the finest mentors in her field that I know. When she works with someone for 60 minutes, they receive not time, but the culmination of all of her wisdom, experience and creativity that took her 35 years to accumulate.

Maureen’s situation is sadly common, especially among professional women who are freelancers or self-employed, and especially among those who are in the caring, mentoring or teaching field. The more I listen to people, the more I see some very uninformed relationships to money that undermine success. Not only that, it contributes to lack of abundance for everyone, not just the professionals, but their clients as well.

Let me confess here that I am only just learning better financial management, through the road of some very hard knocks. But I believe that my glacially slow awakening puts me in the unique position of being very close to appreciating how easy it is to remain inside unsustainable practices without realizing it.

First of all, we are not taught about money as kids. We are not taught about it at school, unless in college we take economics, which bypasses just every-day finance, or we entered business school. But most of us who are now self-employed professionals did not go to business school. Most of us were guided by our passions and created a business to serve that passion. And girls, more than boys, were denied conversations about finance even more, unless we had very enlightened parents.

Second of all, money is harder to talk about than sex. Our human relationship to money can be rational and logical, and it can also be complex and rife with symbolism and meaning, bringing up issues of guilt, hostility, terror, burden, resentment, abandonment, sadness and immense denial. It confronts our sense of self and others, and provokes confrontations internally and externally around power and worth. As author Kate Levinson writes, money is not only legal tender, it is emotional currency. Phew! No wonder we treat it like a hot potato!

We were not warned about how money represents value and self-worth and that the two often effect one another. If I don’t value what I do, then I won’t charge what I am worth, and people won’t value my work or my time, and I’ll consider that a justification of my lack of value. Round it goes.

In our ignorance we also tend to stay very in the ‘now’ about our finances. As long as ‘enough’ is coming in, we don’t feel the need to know anything else. It usually takes some kind of crisis to push us into financial wisdom—a health issue, an accident, a sudden economic downturn—something that pulls the rug out from underneath our usual stability.

And lastly, if we love what we do, and we are really passionate about our craft or service, then some of us unconsciously charge less than what we are worth, because we feel we gain so much just by doing it! We feel grateful nearly every day and it can be that some small part of us decides that we need to ‘pay back’ for the privilege of loving our work.

It can take years of doing business as usual before one begins to experience the consequences of poor money management. It can look like the balance sheet is working short term. But it isn’t. And often we don’t discover it until too late. Like water over stone, poor management gradually erodes sustainability.

So, I thought I would share some things I’ve recently learned, and with them wondered, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?’

How to charge for your services
If you are self-employed, a freelancer, and charge by the hour, it’s vital you know how to charge for your services. Once I learned this little formula, I understood why I too was subsidizing my clients, and why profit margins were eluding me. Here’s how it goes (with much thanks to one of my mentors, Gordon Hawthorne):

These are the things you want to include in your ‘hourly’ price:

• The coaching/professional fee on an hourly, session and daily basis—this is your actual hands-on time. Say you are $75 an hour.
• The facility fee – ie, a percentage of your actual operating costs, to be able to turn on the lights, walk into an office, studio or other work space, turn on your computer, answer the phone, etc. To do this, come up with a monthly ‘operational’ cost for yourself and then divide it by the number of hours you work each week. You’ll see how much it costs you per hour to operate. That cost should be passed on to your client.
• A prep fee is usually a percentage of your original hourly. It accounts for any kind of thought process or planning you may have done in preparation for your ‘hands on’ time. You might think of something between 10-20%, which is the time you spend preparing for the session or call and processing and documenting your work after.  In other words a 1.5hr session may actually be a 2hr session of your time in reality.
• Administrative fee is 5-9% of your hourly and goes to cover the cost of the back office such as a working student, your accountant, bookkeeper, assistant etc.
• Credit card fee – if clients pay with credit card / am ex is expensive – those percentages cost you and should be handed off to the client.
• The other aspect you need to build in is a ‘content’ fee.  This is where you begin to recoup the sweat equity and thought leadership you have put into developing and designing the core program or your ‘core’ work you’ve put into being able to do what you do (ie, all of your training, professional development, experience).  Again, just add a percentage, say 5 – 10 % of your hourly.

So, with this example, your hands-on hourly is $75.00. Lets say you work 30 hours a week and your operational costs are $1000 a week, divided by 30 is $33.00. I add that to my original hourly and get $108.00. Add prep fee of 10% is $7.50, now we are at $115.00, an administrative fee of 5% is $3.75, bringing us up to $118.75 and a content fee is another 5% ($3.75) totaling $122.50. $122.50 is my REAL hourly rate.

Don’t freak at the new number and tell yourself that you’ll now lower your original hands on hourly! Take a look at the market out there for others who are providing similar services. You can nudge your numbers a little to fit the market, but remember it’s not a problem that you are among the top 25% price-wise. People appreciate that kind of confidence, especially if the service you are providing is valuable. I’ve even had clients tell me that if I were in the lower 25%, they would not have even considered me.

For example, in Maureen’s case, one hour with her is the equivalent to two hours with another instructor, because of the depth of her knowledge. Find a way to position your service as different and know that taking care of yourself financially allows for the quality of your work to continue to improve and sustain.

I’m not suggesting you gouge your customers. Make sure you are worth your price by providing excellent customer service, being ahead of deadlines, and staying on the front lines of your craft. I’ve never had a legitimate client complain about my prices, because they know I’m worth it.

I am also not saying to offer services outside of your scope of excellence. Know yourself, know your work, and know where you have your gifts. This takes time, and honesty. But with women in particular, I find they more likely to underestimate their gifts, rather than over-estimate.

A freelance friend of mine once confided that he discovered he unconsciously kept his prices low so that ‘he wouldn’t be accountable for poor quality’. He wanted the right to be late, to not be present, to provide less-than-quality work—just in case. As it turns out, it was just a self-esteem issue for him. His work was in fact visionary, professional and consistent. But he was scared he couldn’t measure up, and keeping his prices low would hopefully prevent him from crashing against the rocks of others’ expectations.

The problem was that this set up a vicious cycle. His prices prevented him from being seen, and his clients were lazy and unaccountable, which kept his work at a certain mediocre level. When he turned it around, everyone stepped up to the plate and in turn everyone received more.

I hear many professional colleagues tell me that the reason they keep their prices low is ‘because they do not want to wear the expectations of others’. But over time I’ve decided that as a professional, I want those expectations! Those expectations put me on the edge of my game. And while it can be scary to say, ‘I can do this, and do it excellently’, it is much worse for everyone (you and your clients) to say subconsciously ‘I can’t.’

Boundaries around your time
If you charge by the hour then boundaries around that are important. Late cancellations, no shows, late payment and client tardiness require specific, clear policy. If your time is wasted because of a client’s choices or circumstances and there are no financial consequences, you are subsidizing their time with yours. There are some pretty standard practices out there you can find within client agreements in your field. Look around and steal their words if you like them and create a Letter of Agreement for your clients that clearly outline your policies. Then, stick with them. In spite of people not particularly feeling comfortable with such boundaries, especially if they have to wear the consequences, they feel safer and trust more those who are clear, consistent and not a push-over. They would after all require and expect that you are that way on their behalf as their hired professional.

But charging by the hour is just the tip of the iceberg.

You may soon discover that charging by the hour, over time, creates a financial glass ceiling for yourself. Because it does. The solution? Charge by the project. Mike McDerment, founder of Freshbooks writes, ‘I (used to run) a small design agency. I felt like I was on a treadmill, billing by the hour, and not earning as much as I thought I was worth.’ Read his great blog post about how he moved from an hourly price structure to a ‘value based’ one, billed by the project. I highly suggest you read his great easy-read (and free) book Breaking the Time Barrier here. It’ll take you about an hour to read, max.

Essentially, it works like this: first find out what the client actually needs, rather than starting with what you offer. Then create a proposal for the project based on those needs. When you charge by the project, rather than the hour, you are shifting your emphasis from selling your time, to selling your value to the client, and positioning your service as an investment rather than an expense.

This changes the way people value your work because you are working together to meet their specific needs. You stop seeing yourself as a punch card.

You are not a collection of hours, available for sale. You are a unique culmination of wisdom, creativity and skill. In this way, you no longer compete with other service providers on hourly price. Clients will stop seeing you as a commodity, someone with an hourly rate that they could compare to somebody else’s.

Getting help
If you are self-employed or a freelancer, the best thing you can do to support your success is to find a mentor. I have two! And they help me in very essential ways. Look around for somebody who is successfully working outside the box, whose values you respect, and from whom you really want to learn. Sometimes these angels are generous enough to give of their time because they are in a stage in their lives where they want to start passing on wisdom. Sometimes they are happy to work out some kind of a trade.

Check out your local SCORE (Service Core of Retired Executives), an organization that provides free confidential mentoring.
When you value your work by supporting yourself with wise, sustainable financial practices, you create a virtuous circle that in turn encourages you to offer more value to your clients. You cultivate your knowledge to meet their expectations and needs, you rise up to expectations, and develop your work so that you are worth more. You attract clients that are willing to pay you for the value you deliver. The whole game then changes to a win-win model that perpetuates financial levity and success for both you and your clients.

I imagine a world where we can all be abundant, not just a few of us. Where what we offer our clients serves them to also have a more abundant life, and those they serve receive in kind, and that a new model of value, abundance and doing our best for each other is created.

*names have been changed