In the wake of the last week’s New York Times article detailing the Russian theft of our democratic sovereignty, the SEC’s lawsuit against Elon Musk, and Kavanaugh’s hearing, it’s hard not to be especially mordant about leadership of any kind.
The public, across the entire political spectrum, is beginning to question and argue about the qualities that equate to leadership. Should a person with a dubious moral compass be selected to lead? Scratch the surface of almost any heated headline, and it is leadership that is ultimately in question. What is leadership? What qualifies good leadership? How do we know? What postures as so-called leadership is often just what grabs media attention. Additionally, its overuse as a generic term in place of words like management or administration has rendered it impotent. Many are jaded about the very word itself, and for good reason.
‘Years ago, Mrs. Bartlett, my third grade teacher, put a moratorium on the word nice in her classroom,’ writes Nick Turner, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Distinguished Chair in Leadership at the University of Calgary. ‘Mrs. Bartlett’s lesson that day was the importance of clear and precise language to say what we mean and to take responsibility for the words we use,’ he continues. ‘Thirty-five years later, I would like to apply the same moratorium on the word leadership — at least until we are willing to say what we mean by leadership, and take responsibility for doing so.’
The decline of a society could be measured, perhaps, not only by the increasing number of animals of the endangered species list, or the melting of icebergs, but by the increasing number of words that have become meaningless. What makes a word meaningless? Overuse, inaccurate use, abuse, misuse. Words like democracy, sacred, love, friend, beautiful, and awesome are examples of words that have gone to seed.
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that the decline of a language has political and economic causes. “It is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer,” he says. “But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Meaningless words “do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader,” he continues. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”
The very mention of the word leadership can spike the nervous systems of many, and induce cynical eye rolling in others—symptoms of a word become meaningless. Following Orwell’s line of thought, this begs a question: what effect is the meaninglessness of leadership having on us as a society?
When I was a teenager, my stepfather had a book that he kept on the bookshelves of our family room. It was entitled Why Sons of Bitches Succeed and Nice Guys Fail in a Small Business. This is an example of the misuse of the definition of leadership pervasive in our culture. Many are taught that to lead you had to not care. Actually…to lead you had to be cold, hard, removed and calculating, dishonest…even a jerk.
Where did these twisted rules come from? Theories abound from military influences, to the patriarchy, to various social influences such as the Great Depression, both World Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Gen. George S. Patton became the first military leader officially tagged as being a jerk (and worse), by both his men and his superiors. By all accounts, this was well deserved. Patton was a brilliant tactician, but he could also be a prima donna, a martinet, and on occasion extremely abusive.
Does a leader have to be a jerk? If you just start checking off the leaders in the wake of Patton, one would think so. Steve Jobs, Michael Eisner, Larry Ellison, Martha Stewart, Meg Whitman, Sam Zell, Carly Fiorina, Bob Nardelli, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, Richard Fuld, Mark Hurd, Jeffrey Skilling. And in a class all his own is Donald Trump.
But maybe these folks merely reveal our collective confusion about leadership, and do not truly represent it.
“Most of the would-be masters of the universe who take Patton or Jobs as their personal models aren’t choosing assholism as a career expedient, they’re looking to justify their predilection for it,” aptly writes Geoffrey Nunberg in The Washington Post.
Yet we are fascinated by jerks. While lots of C-suites abound with good, kind, compassionate, dignified and masterful leaders, it’s the nasty ones we remember. “Year in and year out, candidates for the A-word made up about half of Barbara Walters’ list of Most Fascinating People,” continues Nunberg. “And the spectacle of people acting like jerks to one another has become a reliable business model for reality TV, talk radio and ‘news’.”
Given the allure and skew towards ‘not true leadership’, where do we go to find and learn real leadership? What oracle can save leadership from its extinction? How about nature…Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.
Toby Herzlich is the Founder of Biomimicry for Social Innovation. Her organization applies nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success to leadership, social change, and organizational innovation. According to Herzlich and her colleagues, nature gives powerful and practical insights into leading our organizations so that they operate more like ecosystems. And I agree.
It just so happens that the oldest, most successful leadership system today is the horse herd. Fifty-five-million years of remarkable leadership makes horses the most successful mammal on earth. Perhaps we can look towards their model, to learn how to retrieve leadership from the brink.
Why have they thrived? There are several evolutionary reasons, but for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on one of them—their leadership culture.
Besides the basic survival needs of food, shelter and water, the herd is organized around five core pillars: safety, connection, peace, joy, and freedom. The leader, therefore, is chosen based on his or her ability to maintain these five pillars within the herd system, in care of the whole.
Counter to conventional folklore about herd leadership, horse bands are governed by the opposite of what seems to intrigue Barbara Walters. This servant leadership position is usually assumed by a mare, or a team of mares. In domestic settings, where there may be herds with few to no mares, leadership is sometimes assumed by a gelding and / or mare.
Remember too that the females take care of the young…in this case, the foals. So if you think about this for a moment, it makes sense that the mares wield the scepter. Because they know how to not only take care of the adult members of the band, but the babies too. This isn’t sexism here, it’s just true. So of course nature would design it that the leader would be the one who could best ensure the survival of its young, its very legacy.
Like our colorfully jerk leaders in the public arena, gladiator stallions have received a lot of attention because they are flamboyant and dramatic. Leadership qualities have been attributed to their dominant and brutish ways. But they are not the leaders of the herd. They have a specific role to play in specific circumstances, however it’s not in overseeing the daily governance. In fact, the lead mare or mares will see to it that a badly behaving stallion is exiled from the herd until he can participate inside the clan with good manners.
A similar scenario played out in our initial encounters with First Nations Peoples. Often we assumed the war chiefs were the tribal chieftains of their associated tribe, and engaged with them politically accordingly. We were wrong. Interesting how we associate war with leadership.
How exactly does a lead horse govern, and keep those five pillars intact? Through two superpowers: care and presence. Care is that genuine desire to attend to the needs of others. Synonymous with love, care is unconditional love with responsibility. And presence, is the ability to be wholly here in this present moment, in this limitless sense of totality here and now. Presence enables care to be acutely responsive to the moment, in each moment. Without presence, care can be inaccurate, or ill-timed. Without care, presence can remain abstract.
Through this elegant ecosystem of safety, peace, connection, joy and freedom—maintained by care and presence—a natural and dynamic democracy ensues. The other herd members are constantly, moment by moment, testing their leader’s ability—does she still care? Is she still present? If for some reason, due to illness, wounding or age, she should show up less than present, or not able to care, a new leader would take her place. But not with a clashing of hooves and gnashing of teeth. Instead, with an acceptance of giving and receiving care. Out of care for the outgoing leadership (who now needs care), and care for the whole herd, a new horse assumes authority.
Let’s pause here. Imagine—just for a moment—if we were to select our leaders based on these principles. Imagine if our schools, our government, our financial institutions, our Fortune 500s, selected leaders based on their ability to be caring and profoundly present, to serve safety, connection, peace, joy and freedom – for the whole.
What a different world it might be.
It’s not such a far reach. Take for example New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who recently used her debut speech to the United Nations General Assembly to directly challenge the view of the world outlined by Trump in his speech there just a few days earlier in September. Accompanied by her three-month-old baby, she called for a different world order – one that puts “kindness” ahead of isolationism, rejection and racism. “We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless ‘other’, to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism. Or we can acknowledge the problems we have and seek to fix them,” she said.
A senior executive client of ours is currently amidst his own metamorphosis—transforming from a dominant, tough commander, to a powerfully present servant leader. Make no mistake…this is a journey that requires enormous integrity and courage. After one particularly poignant call, a penny dropped for him. ‘You know,’ he said in relief, ‘All these hard-nosed attributes I had…they were learned. I learned them from books, and other leaders, and business school. So I can unlearn it. But caring? Caring is something I’ve known how to do since I was just a small kid. Caring is something I just am!’
Yes, so this kind of caring leadership is not so elusive – endorsed by 55 million years of success. You don’t need to drag yourself through endless webinars or read a hundred best sellers on the subject (even if they existed). You need only, as poet Mary Oliver puts it, ‘let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ Care and presence is your intrinsic true nature. It’s simply just a matter of leaning in (to it).
It’s been two months since I’ve written an article, and the reason why begged to become a topic—overwhelm. It occurred to me one morning last week (while I was busy apologetically responding to several early July – yes, July – emails), that I had indeed succumb to the collective cultural cry of I’m really sorry; I’ve been slammed…
‘I’m so tired of apologizing,’ sighed a friend recently in her final defeat-by-inbox. I dramatically rolled my eyes in solidarity, while scrolling through all the text messages I had yet to respond to.
In 2015, the average American was receiving 88 business emails per day, according to the market research firm Radicati, and it shows no sign of slowing. In 2015, the number of worldwide email users will be nearly 2.6 billion. By the end of 2019, the number of worldwide email users will increase to over 2.9 billion.
That’s a lot more potential emails in your inbox that you get to handle. Not to mention mushrooming use of texting, posting, iMessaging, Facetiming, Skyping, pinning, WhatsApp-ing, and Zooming. My heart rate goes up just writing about it.
The hydra of overwhelm has become a constant in 21st century life. No matter how many life hacks one implements to chop off its head, another hundred emerge.
We are all trying to beat time. Jam more into less. In 2012 Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the cover story in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The most disturbing account was the one about an overworked mother of three who ‘organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.’
Perhaps the most startling statistics come from the front lines of the frenzy – the upper class C-suite white males. Hand delivered to the top of society by their privilege, they have become the veritable canaries in the coal mine. In 2015, the age adjusted suicide rate in white men was almost four times as high as that of white women. And the suicide rate for white males aged 40 to 65 was more than twice the rate of suicide in the general American population.
Depression in the C-suite has gained attention in Silicon Valley lately, where ever-growing expectations and capital for promising startups can overwhelm anyone. One study found nearly 50% of entrepreneurs reported having a mental health condition.
Recently, the almighty outspoken and brash Elon Musk broke down, confessing exhaustion and the ‘most difficult and painful year of his career’. Inside an hour long interview with the New York Times, he ‘choked up multiple times, noting that he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices as the company raced to meet elusive production targets on a crucial new model’.
Even young children are overwhelmed. Overscheduled and seldom unplugged, the average American grade-schooler spends seven hours a day in class, often without any recess, and over two hours a day on smartphones or tablets on social media. Suicide deaths among people age 10 to 19 have also risen sharply, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Theories about this vary, but overwhelm is a constant in the narratives.
What is overwhelm exactly? It’s when a finite resource – time – collides with an infinite demand – things to do. When you think of it that way, it’s quite simple. We have a limited number of hours in each of our lifetimes. But we have an infinite number of things, and possibilities of things, to do. So to strive for the end of the abrasive rub between the finite and the infinite, is futile. You may as well try to stop the sun from coming up.
This is why trying to hack your overwhelm mostly misses the mark. These life hacks imply that you have more power over the physics of time, space, and the collective consciousness than you actually do. While I geek out as much as anyone on some of the really good books on innovative time and project management (David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and The Power of Full Engagement by Loehr and Schwartz being two of my personal favorites), it’s important to understand what’s really going on here.
“The problem of overwhelm is much bigger than you,” writes Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time. The problem is systemic, and cultural. For example, while time saving innovations have emerged such as flexible work schedules and virtual workspaces, they are overlapped with longstanding outmoded expectations such as ‘face-to-face’ meetings and the idea that longer work hours equate to excellence. This creates the perfect conditions for overload at an organizational level.
Schulte continues, “It all comes down to systems change: What if instead of expecting workers to ‘fix’ themselves on their own, we designed work environments that led everyone to make better choices?” Pointing out that humans are very influenced by social norms, she suggests organizations take responsibility for overwhelm by making it uncool to be overworked.
“How do you shift social norms, so that overwork goes from being virtuous to being shameful?” she quotes Dan Connolly, a senior associate with ideas42. “Can management, at a senior level, begin to treat long work hours as a sign of failure—the result of poor planning, or poor management—rather than a necessary or toughening experience?”
Mandatory vacation days, technology that bans work after 5 pm, and required hobbies are all part of this new thinking.
So, on one level it may seem like a relief to know that your overwhelm is not proof that you are broken in some way. In fact, overwhelm is a natural response to unnatural circumstances. But on another level, you may be asking, ‘there must be something I can do?’
Go ahead and enjoy any of the time saving, chaos diminishing life hacks that you may have. But here’s another idea. And it’s not a hack.
The anecdote to overwhelm is not more done, or less to do, or more time (there is only so much of that, remember?). And it’s not Adderall or caffine, or Zoloft. The anecdote is trust.
The other day I was in a conversation with my son. He’s an actor, living in L.A., doing the real work of acting. If anyone understands overwhelm it’s Dakota. Just imagine it…every audition has the potential to give him work. And every missed audition could mean the difference between success or failure. Rational thinking would suggest that the more auditions he does, the more potential he creates for himself. It’s a perfect overwhelm generator. Do more. Do more. Do more. Or else.
We were talking about the effects of overwork, and how corrosive it was to creativity. Caught inside the headlock of not wanting to miss out on anything, lest it risk our very survival, and needing to nourish a different rhythm in our lives, we were brought to the threshold of a simple truth. So, in his characteristically direct way of speaking he said, “You know mom, at some point, you just have to trust.”
Trust is a complete sentence. But for anyone wanting longhand, here it is: trust that which is orchestrating this entire machine. Whatever force – call it God, call it consciousness, call it whatever—that life energy that is conspiring events, moving the tides, animating all the hands that send you emails—is in charge. Let it handle the events. You do not have to toil behind the curtain, trying to make all the magic happen. And trust that if you relinquish some control, you will not get lost. You will not starve. You will not end up adorning rags on Hollywood Boulevard pushing a shopping cart talking to yourself.
Dakota’s words dropped into my heart with such gravity. The next day I discovered myself to be less rushed, less determined to make it to the end of my to-do list. If the behemoth of modern life really is much bigger than me and my insignificant strategies, then I can hand it over to a life-force much bigger than me too. I can surrender. I can push all my emails aside to write this blog. I can delay that important proposal to follow a quieter, yet truer calling.
Curiously I began to notice something positive. I was more present on phone calls to clients; I prioritized better; I became more efficient; I followed more leads, and the big surprise? The following week became our best financially in the history of EQUUS.
Perhaps overwhelm is here to cook us, to crush us in its relentless crucible that keeps us up at night, and set us free. “Surrender!” she screams with her foot on our neck, while we carry on pretending we are beyond mortal. For me, I’ve decided to kneel at her feet. To stop. To leave my desk on a Wednesday morning, grab one of my horses from the paddock and take a wild gallop down the arroyo. To flip the proverbial bird at my to-do list.
When I was in my early forties, I had the good fortune of participating in a women’s intensive retreat with one of the world’s renowned women’s empowerment leaders. Her approach was intense, radical and unconventional, and not intended for the masses. Some of the most powerful moments of my life were inside that small circle of women who came together to dive deeply into the multi-layers of womanhood – physical, emotional and spiritual. And I can tell you that the places our venerable facilitator invited us to go, took way more than just courage to enter.
But go we did, and to this day I remain astonished that she was able to take us there. Due to the confidentiality of the work, and the participants involved, I cannot share the details. Suffice to say it made Burning Man look like Sesame Street.
In later years she and I became friends, and we spoke a lot about her work, and what physics were at play in order to create a safe enough space for us all to have such a definitive encounter with our highest feminine selves. She was adamant that the work itself was only as good as the container that is was held in. ‘Everything must be absolutely and completely perfect,’ she would insist to her, often frazzled, retreat assistants, pointing out a fork left askew, or a tissue left on the floor.
In my return to her retreats, I became not only a student of her work, but more importantly a keen observer of the skill of creating an impeccable container so the impossible could be made possible.
The mastery of container creation is not purely for the domain of intensive retreats and workshops. Though sadly, so many of them neglect this aspect. It is also for leaders and family members, couples, friends, volunteer groups and anyone who is in a position to shape outcomes of something they deem important. For whatever it is that wants to be done, learned or achieved, it is best supported by creating an intentional container for it.
What is a container exactly? I define it as the purposeful and skillful creation of an environment, through agreements, communication, structure (physical and organizational), physical beauty, order and safety (emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical) that holds a body of work.
A container is based on the concepts of Systems Theory, which basically states that anything we do as individuals impacts others around us. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And more interestingly, the parts are profoundly affected by the whole.
W. Clement Stone said, “You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Are the things around you helping you toward success — or are they holding you back?”
In the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms at an East Coast college and recorded how many lost letters found their way to the right mailbox.
The researchers discovered that students in some of the dorms were more considerate than others, and noticed a marked trend towards the students’ environment that shaped such thoughtfulness.
Nearly all of the letters dropped near less crowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.
Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college companions and this apparently dampened their benevolence.
Since then, many other experiments have illuminated the same phenomenon. Neighborhoods with broken windows attracted more vandalism, and litter attracts the habit to toss more trash on the ground.
In one study, social psychologists placed paper fliers on over 100 cars in a large parking lot and watched to see what the car owners would do with them.
Again, the environment appeared to shape the response.
When drivers discovered a parking lot littered with scattered fliers, candy wrappers and coffee cups (arranged by the researchers, of course), nearly half of them removed the fliers from their cars and tossed them on the ground.
In contrast, when the researchers swept the same parking lot clean before the drivers returned, only 1 in 10 tossed the flier. Unwittingly, the drivers adopted the behavior of the area’s apparent prevailing norms.
Put succinctly, ‘You get the vibes of your surroundings and it rubs off on you,’ wrote Gordon Lightfoot.
This is why creating a deliberate environment is such an essential part of leadership in an organization. I would argue that it is important in all settings where more than one person is included—families, couples, volunteer groups, church circles. Because when ‘two or more are gathered’, there is a system. And systems need to be shaped. And they need to be shaped with both the ‘care of the whole, and the individual’ as the intention.
Often leaders (and parents, group coordinators, partners in relationship) conceptualize leadership as a set of strategies, skills and directives to create an outcome. But this is linear, and therefore limited, thinking. It fails to recognize the collective soup within which the leadership is foisted.
The best strategies fall over at worst, and limp along at best, when implemented within a toxic or unconscious environment. Exceptional leadership includes the creation and maintenance of a correct environment in order for the outcomes to manifest.
Look inside any system, let’s take for example a family, and notice the impact that system has on each individual. Often parents will send a child to therapy imagining the child’s issues to be independent of the family system, unique and personal to that child. The best therapy in that scenario is one that takes the entire family into account, and treats the system as a whole.
Dutch motivational speaker Alexander den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”
Recently I participated in a retreat that I had felt I had searched for my whole life. It took an enormous about of resources to attend. And I was open, excited and vulnerable in that way that all steep learning curves evoke.
Sadly the experience was mis-held. There was no container. Some common symptoms of a group absent any intentional container are: drama, negativity, gossip, creating ‘proxies’ for projecting stress, vying for position, silo-ing and anxiety. Additionally, people are denied their ability to show up as their truest and best selves.
The impact on me—regardless of clear my intention, enthusiasm and desire—was that my learning was compromised, my attention distracted, and my ability to show up as a fully contributing participant was reduced.
Event organizers do participants a huge disservice when containers are ill-made and poorly maintained. It is nothing less than an imperative to create a container of safety for all participants. Without such a container, people are subjected to uncertainty, stress, isolation and it compromises their ability to be vulnerable, to connect to one another in any capacity, let alone deeply, and to truly learn.
In our work at EQUUS we have a mantra —everything matters. Scott Strachan, CVO of EQUUS, states, ‘We know that everything we do has impact, and we take that responsibility very, very seriously. We create space filled with trust that allows for people to reflect on the environment that may have sent them to us in the first place and to view from the balcony the influence it has on them.’
Through careful container creation, we endeavor to give our clients permission to show up as their best, empowered selves, to acknowledge their courageousness so they are confident in showing up differently, in ways more true to wholeheartedness.
How do you create a good container? The details vary depending upon the context. But here are just a few broad pointers:
Physical space – the physical space in which work is done shapes a sense of belonging, respect and ease. Attend to elements of order, structure to support efficiencies, and beauty. Natural light, flowers, symmetry in a circle of chairs, enough boxes of tissues, the feng-shui of how a room flows, can all be considerations.
The emerging field of innovative office space creation is very exciting. And you’ll find and abundance of resources out there on how to create great workshop / retreat / meeting spaces, and great family spaces too.
Agreements – agreements outlined to all group members helps everyone to feel safe, heard, and accountable. They form the backbone of creating a positive atmosphere and alleviating drama. Here are some of ours:
- Treat everyone with respect
- Cell phones off – your presence matters, for yourself and others.
- Please arrive on time
- No putdowns even the joking kind – we differentiate between humor (which is essential) and joking at someone’s expense.
- Share group space – This largely related to how much people speak – some can tend to take up too much space, and others not enough.
- No FRAPP-ing (Fixing, Rescuing, Advising or Protecting, or Polling) – polling is when you illicit agreements from others to support a story you are holding.
- No cross-talking – let everyone speak without interruption or commentary.
- Share only your own story – Share using the word ‘I’ rather than a generalized ‘you’ or ‘we’. For example, ‘I often forget how privileged I am,’ instead of “We often forget how privileged we are.”
- Observe confidentiality
- You have the right to pass – It’s not ashare or die circle.
- No triangulation or gossip
- Expect a lack of closure – there’s a lot to cover in any workshop / meeting / retreat and consequently there may be some things left to resolve over the arc of time.
Similar agreements can be crafted for family environments (ie, no cell phones at the dinner table, no name calling, etc) and office environments and meetings.
Upholding Agreements – it’s not enough to just proclaim them. The real work is in upholding them in real time.Particularly early on in the workshop we remind people quite frequently about the agreements in a light-hearted non-threatening manner. We revisit the group agreements at the start of each day.
My kids had a swearing jar, not for them, but for me! Whenever they heard me swear, I had to put a dollar in the jar. After the jar was full, I would take them out for a treat. It was just one of the ways we maintained a commitment to our agreements.
Nutrition – the consistent availability of a variety of fresh, healthy and nourishing foods and snacks helps peoples brains stay on line, and prevents low blood sugar crashes. When people are learning, they burn large amounts of glucose and often need more food, at more frequent intervals, than usual. Attend to the various needs required such as gluten free, vegetarian and vegan options.
Flow – cramming way too much into a day is stressful, and compromises the ability to learn. Create a flow inside hours, days, weeks that includes breaks, down time, and integration time. Negative space is generative.
Details – the smallest things can make a huge difference between people feeling stressed, or feeling terrific. Good maps to important locations (do not rely on everyone’s GPS working well), welcome letters, ‘what to pack’ emails, in case of emergency phone numbers, are all details to include.
Feedback – the best way I’ve learned to create containers is through the direct and honest feedback of our clients. I’ve learned if the maps aren’t right, the day was too crammed, and if I overlooked elements of importance to them. So we treat feedback as a sacred, important offering from our clients. Create a safe space where feedback can be given, and received, wholeheartedly.
For me, container building is an active, constantly evolving, creative way to show care in form and in action. I am constantly learning how to refine and improve the various environments in my care. Have fun thinking of ways you can create deliberate containers for your team, or family. And enjoy the journey!
“I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
falling toward the center of your longing.”
– David Whyte
He drove up our driveway in his new silver Porsche 914. The top was down. He was wearing Foster Grants and a t-shirt. It was 1975 and my father was in the full throws of what my mother’s friends called his midlife crisis. At 51, he had become a cliché. An affair, a sports car, a new look…he grew his sideburns long, and replaced his polyester slacks with jeans. He started jogging. He started listening to music.
He was Lester Burnham in American Beauty.
His romance with one of his graduate students shattered my parents’ 15-year marriage into a billion jagged shards. When one of his colleagues asked him why he fell in love with Angela, he told him it was because she had large breasts. And he meant it sincerely, as if it were some kind of a virtue.
At half my father’s age, Angela was part girlfriend, part child. She sat tiny and stoic in the front seat of the car behind sunglasses too large for her face, and a mane of frizzy ginger hair. Though Angela was not much to look at, my father seemed, for all intents and purposes, in love.
It was all very weird.
With a nervous wave he gestured me into the topless convertible. I scrunched into the not-really-a-seat part behind Dad, my kneecaps pressed between my chin and his headrest. Angela said hello politely as she pulled her hair into an elastic band. He backed down the drive and drove us away as my mother gazed on, looking tired.
Like many divorced families in the seventies, my mother and dad agreed he would take me every other weekend. It was a time for our obligatory ice cream cone, movie and then sleepover. We would pretend to be a new (and really ‘fun’) family together for 48 hours, and then he’d return me, disassociated and numb, back to my mother’s house.
He and Angela lived in a small semi-hip apartment just off the university campus. Sparsely furnished, the place seemed empty of life or anything meaningful. Hours would pass with nothing to do. I remember sitting on the floor looking at the books on the bookshelf—most of them hers—and feeling oddly estranged from this man who was my father. Sleepovers at Dad’s was like stepping into a black hole. I was adrift without gravity, floating in space.
Once in therapy, my therapist asked me what it was like to be with my father in those days. ‘It was like living inside a dark sock,’ I replied bluntly.
When I look back now, I recognize that sensation was exactly how my father was feeling. He confessed many years later that those years were very dark for him. He felt much confusion. He didn’t understand himself and the choices he made. He was mystified by the urges. He was not the man he knew himself to be. He was lost.
In those days people did not have the skills or awareness to meet the inevitable mid 50’s push from life to create a new chapter. Generations before them were lucky to live to 50 or 60. In 1841 the average newborn girl was not expected to see her 43rd birthday. There was no mid life. There was only one flat length, parenthetically held between birth and death. And so without any modeling, people of my father’s generation misunderstood the sudden impulse to follow a wave, this new generational phenomenon—a swell in that flat length—called midlife.
Of course it was a crisis. People were ill equipped to understand that the midlife pull was a natural consequence of a longer lifespan. No one told them that life was urging a second wind, another chance, a miraculous evolutionary possibility. Ministers didn’t tell their congregation that a soul-life wanted to be born. No one said that it would also be accompanied with a sense of isolation, and fear of the unknown.
And so with only the past to reference, men and women (but mostly men) strayed to superficial quenching of an unnamed yearning, and ran into the arms of anyone who might keep them from feeling alone. And when it was over, they emerged defeated, grief-stricken, and laden with alimony payments. The midlife behemoth ravaged families and embarrassed friends.
It’s no wonder that when the proverbial clock ticks fifty today, and we feel that impulse to take the emerging less-traveled fork in our life’s path, we completely freak out.
Now that life expectancy has more than doubled since the 1900s, with a spike since the 1960s, we are beginning to see more contours in the once-flat line of life. There are more natural turning points, more curves, forks and bends, more opportunities to grow, evolve and transform.
In recent years of working with people, I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon with clients between the ages of 50 and 70. I would call it the ‘new mid life’. And it’s anything but a crisis, though to the ego that is dying in its midst, it does seem like the end of the world.
People facing this juncture find themselves, well, called. With the benefit of decades of hard-won experience behind them, combined with remaining good health and energy, these people are poised perfectly to courageously create a life that they previously were too scared to do. It’s a whole new breed of mid-lifers.
And what they are creating collectively is very exciting. Latent entrepreneurs, visionaries, healers, authors, non-profit founders, inventors and leaders are awakening from the dormancy of their chrysalis and unleashing themselves into the world.
These people seem to have a few things in common. They engage with some kind of mindfulness or spiritual practice, they are life-long learners, they access wisdom and intuition as a means to navigate choices, and many imagine themselves late bloomers who have just begun leaning into their real life’s purpose. One major attribute to this group is their ability to cultivate a relationship to the unknown—that land where transformation resides.
The unknown—that terrifying empty place on the other side of the threshold you are crossing. Our fears of jumping into the unknown are infinite. Fear imagines that we will destroy our families, disappoint our relatives, and end up homeless without good healthcare if we really take that leap and live into our deepest calling, our – as Parker Palmer calls it – true vocation. Fear tells us we will fail, we are imposters, or that we are just too damn old.
But some are reluctant members of this group. Instead of hearing a call, they more like stumble and trip over the feet of the unknown stretched in front of them like a prank. Midlife drags these folks by their hair to places they thought they’d never have to go. It can come in the form of a sudden layoff, or health crisis. The message is clear: life as they knew it is now officially over.
Whether you feel lured by a kind of yearning of the midlife transition, or fall flat faced into it, the journey across the threshold is the same. And it usually starts with being afraid.
‘How do you stop being afraid?’ asked one friend the other night at dinner. His voice betrayed the yearning in his heart. A successful professional, a choice to follow his heart seemed like it might cost him everything. And that was a lot (there is a price to a certain kind of privilege).
‘I don’t stop being afraid,’ I said. ‘I feel afraid all the time.’
He looked at me confused.
Being afraid is a natural consequence to befriending the unknown. According to neuroscience, several factors contribute to throwing you into an ‘amygdala hijack’, ie, fight-or-flight response. A major one, next to actual physical threat, is ‘the unknown’.
‘I just recognize that I’m going to feel afraid, and do what I’m called to do anyway.’
If, when hearing that mid life call, we become afraid, know that it is by design. The darkness, the fear, the aloneness is a crucible created elegantly to hone us to the people we need to be to live the next chapter. “…wanting soul life without the dark, warming intelligence of personal doubt is like expecting an egg without the brooding heat of the mother hen,” writes poet David Whyte.
In his amazing audio-set Midlife and the Great Unknown Whyte begins by quoting Dante. ‘”In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.” When you find yourself suddenly without bearings, as Dante Alighieri voiced so well centuries ago, where will you look for guidance?’ he asks.
Great question. So where does one go to glean support, guidance and some kind of light in these times? I can share with you some of the ways our clients, friends and colleagues have found support.
Good company — surround yourself with those who do not encourage you to ‘stay safe’, but rather celebrate your courage, and have a sense of your true gifts.
Meditate – it really does assist in giving perspective, easing stress, and most importantly acquainting you with the fact that all those fear-thoughts and resulting anxious feelings are simply made up. Like, really. Who you are is not that story you keep telling yourself. Best instruction I’ve found on how to meditate in a really easy way can be found here.
Poetry – poetry works, writes Jerry Colonna, because like all great art, it acts upon our unconscious. It speaks to our soul. Just when you think you’ve landed squarely where no human has been before, a poem shows up that describes that place in such exquisite detail, you know the writer has spent a year inside your heart.
Solitude – start actually spending time with yourself—your…self. Journal, draw, wonder, sit in nature, take leisurely walks, bring a camera…allow those quieter voices to emerge and tug you over the threshold.
Get a coach – gifted coaches help you listen to your own intrinsic wisdom, and hold you accountable to your hearts yearning. The midlife transition is an amazing opportunity not to be missed. Good coaches help you to leverage all you can from it.
Forgive yourself, forgive your past – now is the time to finally, once and for all, forgive all that happened before now. Not to do so keeps you stuck in your old ways and your old stories. Just do it.
Befriend fear and anxiety – it’s just a sensation. Period. And if you are leaping into the unknown, you’re going to feel plenty of it, if you are like most of us.
The most beautiful part of allowing the midlife transformation is the permission to wholly and truly be ourselves. At last. For this awakening Lao Tzu offers the following words:
At the center of your being,
you have the answer:
you know who you are
and you know what you want.
There is no need
to run outside
for better seeing.
Nor to peer from a window.
Rather abide at the center of your being:
for the more you leave it, the
less you learn.
FLYING LEAD CHANGE:
56 Million Years of Wisdom for Leading and Living
Released, October 2020 by Sounds True. Sign-up to keep posted about unique opportunities to learn and meet with the author along the way.
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