Wipe Out

heart cactusMy partner of 28 years is obsessed with hiking. David hikes seven days a week. Unlike the rest of us, the harder he hikes, the faster he bounces back, craving a more challenging hike. But David likes to hike with me, and so on rest days, he agrees to a lighter hike – say three hours, six miles, a twelve-hundred-foot climb.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to hike too, but it wasn’t something I grew up with. In my suburban neighborhood, we were sent outside to play with orders not to come home until later. We were allowed to roam, provided we didn’t cross the avenue at each end of our street. We biked, we roller skated, we threw a ball, we kicked a ball, we rolled around in the grass – but we didn’t hike. I do remember hiking in camp; it is an altogether unpleasant memory of heat, discomfort, boredom. Out of my comfort zone.

So, my mother was taken aback when I went hiking with David soon after meeting him. He loved adventure. I don’t. Bravely, I trudged through strange forests, up and down mountains. challenging my fear of straying too far from home.

Over the years, I improved at hiking somewhat. A wide brim hat shut off the view of the precipice. A hiking stick stabilized me; two hiking sticks were more than twice as good as one. Drinking water helped. When I thought I could not take another step, I went a few more miles. I walked in the pouring rain. I walked in the snow. Military training taught David that limits were largely a fiction of the mind; he passed that on to me.

Hiking’s life lessons didn’t turn me into a physical adventurer exactly, but my horizons expanded in essential ways. Take mindfulness, for example. I’d read the books, learned from experts, practiced on my own, introduced others to it. And yet, hiking taught me how mindfulness could help me with the scary bits—scrambling over precipices, up steep inclines (and down steep declines), through patches of loose rock. My code for it was Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments on drinking tea,[i] “You must be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea. Only in the awareness of the present, can your hands feel the pleasant warmth of the cup. Only in the present, can you savor the aroma, taste the sweetness, appreciate the delicacy. If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea. You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone. Life is like that.”

Step by step, I concentrated on drinking my tea, enjoying the rocks and thanking my nimble feet, practicing presence. As I drank my tea, each step became a journey and each journey a series of steps. Three hours became a lifetime; time passed very quickly.

Hiking got me to some places where nature is unparalleled. I learned to sip the tiny flowers blooming in the desert. I learned to drink in the mountain ranges behind mountain ranges. I used to think of deserts as monotone, whited out by the harsh sun. Now I saw brilliant colors that dazzled. Drinking tea (figuratively) increased my appreciation of hiking’s physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions.

Emotional too. Hiking helped me better understand the person I love, a man who could not be more different from me. As hiking pushed me to the limit, it increased his capacity for everything—in particular, his capacity to feel happiness and joy.

And as if that were not enough, hiking also brought me face to face with my reality. It happened a week or so ago.

We had gone out the night before. David woke up at dawn ready to go. I dragged myself out of bed, hung over, to hike with him. It was the perfect morning for it. We walked on a graceful path through a hilly area, weaving through the mountain. White flowers, yellow ones, purple, fuchsia, and light pink ones opened in the sun. Even after a dry fall and winter, they doggedly persevered.

On our return, I felt the warm sun beating down. My feet seemed to dance from rock to rock, taking little effort from me. Seeing the road below and happy for the end, I walked in a daze, in the zone, maybe dreaming. I hardly heard David chattering behind me.

I cannot report what happened next in detail.

I only recall this: diving forward, body outstretched, forehead hitting the rocky ground, protected minimally by a pair of sunglasses. I hear a thunk and a crack. My poles are askew, caught. The rocks have me. I cannot move. I feel pain. David comes running, yelling, “Don’t move!!” and I force myself to move (I’m counter-dependent). All I can think of are my beautiful sunglasses, mangled. I know that rocks are hard; I am not.

Hiking and mindfulness help me understand my reality. I am a beginner hiker. I am a beginner tea drinker. I teach, but I learn. For all I’ve achieved in my work and in my life, a small rock can bring me to my knees. I accept my vulnerability; I start to cry.

Maybe you’re not a klutz like me! That said, you’re like me in other ways. I am imperfect. You’re imperfect, too. We’ve got so much to learn, so much growing to do, and it never has to end. Because we’ll always be imperfect until life is done. That’s wonderful.

Drinking tea is a daily practice, not a milestone to be achieved. Drinking tea helps us experience the color in our world. Drinking tea helps us love ourselves, the people around us, and even the rocks that cradle us, hurting only when we hurl ourselves at them.

_____________________________________________

[i] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation (Beacon Press, 1999)

 

Cake and champagne

With increasing dread, I waited for my 65th birthday. I could think of nothing but my own mortality. I felt old, vulnerable, weak, and puny in the scheme of the Universe. Seriously.

My plan was to head to the farm, far away from New York City and Tucson – two places where I lived daily life. A friend teased that hiding from my birthday meant that it would not find me. David (my mathematician husband) told me to get over it. He was already 65 and had no time for deeper worries.

As the countdown progressed, a truth whacked me on the side of my head. There was nothing I needed or wanted that I could not obtain. Besides, the happiness of things does not last long. Science dictates that most of what you have – or don’t have – won’t affect your lasting fulfillment. I was struggling with a ‘first world’ problem and that made me feel ashamed.

Still, I needed to find some other way to mark the day. Instinctively, I started cooking days for my daughters. The act made me feel purposeful. I love being industrious. It’s my strength. The more shopping and cooking I did, the more energized I felt.

The day before my birthday, I flew to Boston to deliver a talk to the McKinsey office. The event had been on the books for months; now I didn’t want to go. I never want to give a speech when the day comes. It’s a lot of work to get on a plane (again). Bad weather depresses attendance. Getting home is always a travel nightmare. But a promise is a promise; I dragged myself to Boston to tell my story of remarkable women leaders, centered leadership, and the new book.

Contrary to everything I’ve just told you, I had a blast. David reminded me that almost always, I have a blast. I was floating. Energized. When a shy man at the end of the book signing line asked what happened to me since that first moment when I began my journey, I laughed unexpectedly. In 2004, I took my first step to get rid of the feelings of emptiness and invisibility.

Today I’m filled to the brim most days with a force of energy. I feel seen and heard, and that brings me joy. That’s why I laughed. And call it Karma or my random luck, travel home was without a hitch.

I resumed cooking, waiting for my birthday to come and go.

Gaby and Nick (the first two people you meet in Grow Wherever You Work) are real people. They arrived that night with champagne and a momofuku* cake. I had said no birthday fuss, but hey, life happens. Jetta arrived next and we tucked in. It was pretty great, drinking wine, eating cake.

The next day was a day was like any other. I exercised. Went to the store for fresh bread. Drove to the farm. Played with the donkeys. Napped. Ate dinner and drank (more) wine. Watched a movie. Fell asleep.

Reroll that tape. Something important had happened beneath the veil of a quotidian day. Something transformational. And that puzzled me. Sitting with a cup of coffee, I used my new practice—to reflect with curiosity and without judgment. Here’s what I learned:

  • Spending the day at the farm was an act of consciously letting go—of responsibility for the world, industrious work, worrying about everything, striving. I let go, maybe for the first time in months – or longer.
  • The child within me took over—playing with the animals, chasing after the geese in the snow, daydreaming at the window, napping. That child and I were merged for the day.
  • People who loved me chose to be with me—we ate and drank with gusto, happy in the moment. On good behavior, we dropped our petty conflicts to be together. It’s the best birthday gift ever.
  • Challenges can be overcome without struggle—I knew that I was and (for a year) will be 65 years old. That fact freed me. Freedom leads to more creative thinking.

Many people live with tremendous constraints on their lives—illness, financial pressures, social isolation, prejudice, oppressive government—or something else. But one constraint is in our control. It doesn’t require champagne and cake, although those are nice to have. We do have to recognize – and change – the glasses we wear to see the world. It can be in black-and-white or in color. It can be dark. It can also hold joy.

Once I let go, I could feel like the child I was (and can still be). Surrounded by love, I was able to express it. Assuming ownership of myself, I was able to shift. Like magic, my fear and blackness evaporated. I had fun doing ordinary things. I filled up with lightness and felt myself floating.

That day, I stepped into an unknown future without fear. And without a goal, a need to achieve. We’ll see how long that lasts. I will let you know.

Meanwhile, here’s to your birthday celebrations!

________________________________________

*momofuku cake is everything you’d imagine it to be: a yellow cake with thick cream frosting permeated by gaily colored sprinkles. It tastes like birthday. If you want to see, check out their website! http://milkbarstore.com/main/party-cakes/

Playing with the donkeys
Elsa (the baby donkey) let me pet her and Katie (the mama donkey) just wanted to cuddle. Who knew donkeys could be such fun!

Battling obstacles

 

2018 Women Leaders Up and mentors
There’s Maud right next to me in the front row, surrounded by this year’s cohort and their mentors. It’s damn cold, but we’re warmed by the excitement we all feel!

Last week, I spent a wonderful three days teaching 23 rising women leaders in Sweden. Why snowy Sweden of all places?

It all began in 2012 when Secretary Clinton launched the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership. It took about a nano second for me to decide. A politician named Maud Olofsson invited me to join her Leadership Working Group. Our mandate was to help the world prepare more women to lead. Sure thing! Maud argued that the perfect place to start our movement would be in Sweden.

Maud is Swedish.

So that’s exactly what we did. The 2018 program is our fourth. Thanks to McKinsey & Company for hosting, sponsoring, championing, and generally being all-around fantastic, because there were humongous obstacles in getting Women Leaders Up off the ground.

Really, this blog post is about obstacles.

We all face them. They stand in the way of our advancement. They make it ten times harder to get stuff done. They drain our energy. There they sit, stubborn as the North-facing Zax. (Here is the link to learn the sad fate of the Zax if you’re hoping for a brief diversion.)

My usual method for facing obstacles has been to run into them at full force. Kind of like the South-facing Zax, but with much more energy. It worked out well for me. My top strength is industriousness, diligence, and perseverance according to Marty Seligman’s VIA Character Strengths Assessment.

Of course running into obstacles has side effects. Like exhaustion, invisible body armor I couldn’t remove, and the fact that even my mother didn’t like me very much. Still, I advanced in my career, hung on to my marriage, and gave birth to two incredible daughters.

It never occurred to me that there were alternatives to facing obstacles head on. At work, I gathered a reputation of being direct, unrelenting, can-do, and resilient. Ok, stubborn. At the time, my husband did point out that I always seemed to take the ‘goat path’ on hikes when the well-marked trail, the ‘highway’ as he called it, was so obvious. That’s because I never saw the trail (a call-out to all volunteer trail-keepers). It was the same with obstacles. If I ran at them hard enough and long enough, they gave way and I got to the top.

During last week’s seminal training, another path appeared to me. It was so simple. And it had no side effects.

Instead of running at the obstacle, I realized I could step back. With nothing to push against, the obstacle shrank in size. With distance, I could see it better. I could find another route. Or what seemed to be an obstacle would prove not to be one at all.

I tested this path out a few days later during an escalating argument with my husband. Fearing the kind of knock-down quarrel that leads to nothing good, we both slept on it. The next morning, I  listened to him with empathy. As David talked himself out, his voice softened and quieted. I found myself agreeing with his good points. I stood in his shoes and felt compassion for him. It was easy-peasy from there. We found the solution quickly.

Stepping back to see objectively without emotional distortion is not that hard. I can learn to pause. Accepting there is no good and bad, no I’m right and you’re wrong, is harder–but doable. By practicing acceptance, I can take more in. My horizon expands.

I learn something every time I teach Centered Leadership. Swedish Women Leaders Up has given even more than it demands. Tack  mycket!

Talking with Stew Friedman

It was great fun to record a live podcast (that you can listen to still) with Stewart Friedman, professor at Wharton. His series on work and life is quite worth your time! For my part, I’m a podcast amateur without a landline to my name. So I marched down the street to a neighbor’s home to participate from Tucson, Arizona. Sitting in their office for an hour was amazing. The Catalina’s loom outside the picture window, and the hour was at sunset. Captivating.

And Stew asked such great questions! If you’d like to listen, please do, and let me know what you think.

http://www.workandlifepodcast.com/blog/jbarsh

Tech Talking

Two experiences wowed me last week, both tech-related. I spent several hours in conversation with a remarkable Millennial CEO and spent another slug of time engaging with a mostly Millennial audience in a leading tech firm. I’m still resting up!

Several tech startup CEOs joined the Millennial Research, but up until now, none heading up “unicorns” (young companies valued at one billion dollars or more). This CEO lives on the cutting-edge with a giant bet that his company will flourish as it ages and grows. He’s also a craftsman, a coder, and an artist. A global citizen born in America. Kind and patient, he explained what everyone (who works in tech) already knows, but sadly, I did not. Now I’m plowing into articles and books to catch up, or more accurately, slow my decline. The pace of technology developments leaves me feeling tipsy!

The next day, I recorded a Google Talk related to my latest book. You’ll be able to view it on YouTube post-Christmas. Forty or fifty Googlers helped me think about what it’s like to face challenges at work. No matter where you work – tech is really not so different from other industries in this respect – there are formidable challenges to be faced if you want to keep on growing.

I loved the questions – so smart. Someone asked, “If older executives are less adaptive to today’s environment, more hierarchical, and set in their ways, what’s to prevent we Millennials from becoming them as we age? Or are we so fundamentally different that as we age, that won’t happen?”

I don’t believe in destiny, but that risk is real. Young executives driven to succeed mirror the behaviors of top executives they see. Leaders who don’t value diversity promote young men and women like them – individuals who fit in, who could pass as their sons and daughters. It may not even be a conscious choice for either party. Even if you’re not like that, most of us are willing to repeat the actions that resulted in our success. The more we repeat it, the more likely it is to be hard-wired in our pattern of behavior. That makes it even harder to break out.

But that’s not going to happen, right? It did almost happen to me a few times over the course of my career. I remember telling someone, impatiently, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Oof! Early on, someone coined the phrase, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” An innovator came along to reframe that as, “If it’s not broken, fix it anyway.” Fortunately, I rankled enough at authority that I’d fix anything on a dare, broken or not.

Thanks go to the Googler who raised the question. Companies that cultivate diversity of thought and experience may avoid the effects of aging—institutionalizing ways of working. The signal biggest red flag is the absence of questions. If your top team is still questioning everything and seeing with fresh eyes, that’s the Fountain of Youth.

I’m pretty sure that the tech CEO, now in his early 30s, will remain curious. His propensity to read, to meet new people, and to puzzle over new problems keeps him fresh.

Watch that you sustain your curiosity, too.

Teaching Centered Leadership on the Other Side of the World

With apologies, it’s been awhile—I’ve been to the U.A.E. right after catching my breath after that trip Brazil and Colombia. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, seen through this newcomer’s eyes, are more George Jetson than 2017. Their buildings dazzle and blind when the sun hits their mirrored skins; their highways cut through the city on stilts’ the sea shimmers turquoise and emerald, and the desert stretches to the horizon.

This is our future.

Dubai+Window
I think this is called Dubai’s window but it could well be Dubai’s picture frame!

Dubai people are as glamorous as their city, transfers from everywhere, seeking adventure at work. It’s a place to drink, dance, have fun, shop. It’s also a place for serious business.

I met Arabs from Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates. I met English, French, American, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Canadian, and African too. I should have known that people this diverse would embrace Centered Leadership. I should not have worried.

Still I worry. For years, friends have admonished me not to worry. Frankly, people can talk all day. That just doesn’t work for me. I have to discover things for myself. I’m guessing that you’re similar. I know not to worry, but new experiences catapult me out of my Comfort Zone. Like the man shot out of the cannon, I zoom to my Learning Zone’s outer edge, perilously close to my Terror Zone. It’s natural to worry a little bit.

I was scheduled to introduce Centered Leadership in an iMax Theater in the City Mall, owned by one of Dubai’s leading companies. They started a cutting-edge leadership training institute and adopted Centered Leadership to share with its management. The CEO planned to attend my talk. So did a few hundred executives, some already trained. No pressure? I was on a stage, standing in front of the largest PowerPoint screen (iMax size) I’d ever used.

Joanna+with+movie+theater+sign+of+Joanna
How peculiar and at the same time, exciting, to be standing at a movie theater screen announcing my session instead of the latest movie!

Two weeks before, I had stood on stage to meet 2,500 executives in Brazil. That was a new experience, too, but it had not blunted what I felt now. I’ve been to Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and yet this experience felt foreign. Well beneath the water line of my iceberg, I believed that worrying would improve my delivery. Worrying meant I was focused on my audience and what I most wanted for them. It also increased my sensitivity to mess ups. No matter that it also threatened joy, playfulness, and spontaneity. In reality, excessive worrying would strip me of distinctiveness. It’s a fine balance.

The mic worked and then it didn’t. On, off, on, off. Not an auspicious start. Through all my worries, I had not worried about the mic! That thought made me laugh out loud. I asked for a handheld and carried on with all the joy and fun pent up inside. The fine people of Dubai then embraced Centered Leadership and me.

So in Abu Dhabi, when the cable connecting the pc with my slides acted up, I was ready. A diverse group, ranging from young Arab students to senior ministry officials and wealthy entrepreneurs watched the blinking screen with anticipation. As my slides appeared and disappeared as ghosts, I let them go. I didn’t need the slides behind me. I needed the audience in front of me.

It’s always a surprise and a revelation that Centered Leadership feels at home in places I had never visited. Men and women in long robes, speaking Arabic, integrated the concepts of Centered Leadership through eager conversation. As they shared personal stories, they loosened up and raised their voices—just as I had witnessed in China, and France, and Sweden, and elsewhere. Why does that happen almost every time? Worth a think.

Here’s what I’ve got so far: when you believe something deeply, others are more likely to follow; when we laugh, we’re more open to trying new things; when you set the rules, others go along. I didn’t conform or try to fit in. Instead, I imposed a different approach. People were open and willing. They made it happen.

UAE+Millennials
A few Millennials wanted to pose for a photo. How wonderful to connect!

If you’ve participated in one of these programs, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Meanwhile, here’s to the remarkable Millennials I met in Dubai and Abu Dhabi! I feel welcomed in your glittering country, thanks to you.

Next Generation Leaders – That’s You!

In the spring, I was invited to Budapest to teach Centered Leadership and share my perspective on advancing women at work. I had never been there, and as it turns out, I got to bring Jetta, my youngest daughter.

What an experience! Apart from drinking 21 glasses of wine to celebrate Jetta’s upcoming birthday, something very big happened. My world opened up to embrace another city, another culture, and some remarkable people. It was a whir of a week, and I’m left with image traces that feel like dreams – of a fairy tale building, or a brutal painting, or a baby’s face.

And Ewa is certain that I made this video. You can see it here. I don’t remember making it, but I can confidently say that the jet-lagged woman in this video is me. I was obsessed with Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech. Still am. Whatever you think of Teddy Roosevelt, and there are many sides of the matter, this was one helluva speech. Reframe that first or second job decision as a chance to stand in the arena. No matter what happens, you will learn something. It isn’t your only chance and it isn’t your last chance. The odds of falling down are high. And when that happens, our hero gets up, dusts off, and stands in the arena once more.

Yes that’s a romantic notion. Maybe the Hero’s Journey is not for you. That’s all fine. But when work pushes you down, and it feels like forever, know that it isn’t. How you experience the fall is up to you. Personal or Situational? Pervasive or Specific to one aspect of your life? Permanent or temporary?* Falling turns your world upside down, literally. Get some distance. Talk to people who know and support you. Look for what you’ve learned.

When you can see what happened as less personal, more specific, and short-lasting, the world reappears in technicolor. The hero in you regains the energy to stand up and get going.

________________________

* These three dimensions come from Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York, Vintage, 2006). Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant found this approach helpful for people struggling to recover from a traumatic event like the loss of a loved one. As Sheryl notes, that process is neither easy nor quick. But if you’re dealing with the everyday kind of upset, challenges at work, learned optimism is a powerful tool you should consider.