compassion

Initially, this piece was about beauty, but I realized that we cannot understand beauty until we explore compassion. There is external compassion and internal compassion, otherwise thought of as self-compassion. When we are self-compassionate, we recognize the importance of being kind to ourselves. Many of us have a tendency, as is commonplace these days, to do the exact opposite, myself included. A recent experience crystalized for me just how hard I can be on myself, and how detrimental that becomes on so many levels—from how you handle yourself independently, to how you handle your team, to how you handle your company. It cascades like a waterfall.

In this moment, I finally created enough distance to ask myself: when was the moment that I lost self-compassion? Of course, there is no singular moment, but maybe there is a collection of moments, or a period of time, or a few significant clusters. No matter its form, something will come to mind. For me it was running.

My track career feels like it was seven lifetimes ago. I competed in the painful 800-1,000-mile dashes—I kid, but what we were doing at that point was definitely dashing. And somewhere in this collection of moments, I lost my self-compassion. At sixteen, I was among the nation’s fastest runners. In New England alone there weren’t a whole lot of people I could compete against. But I got lucky. Two of the top milers in the nation at the time—Natasha and Ari—were both in Massachusetts, and Jen was the highest ranking 1,000 meter runner in the nation for the last few years running.

Then I received a standing ovation for a race that I didn’t win. Many people said it was the best race I’d ever run. People asked my coach what was next.

It was winter in Roxbury, Massachusetts. One of the few times you saw young, white girls from Newton, Wellesley, Needham, Brookline, Cambridge and Waltham flock to Roxbury. To the Reggie Lewis Center for Track & Field. It was the third time I’d run the 1,000 meters in three weeks, and it was the New England Championship. I was racing Ari and Jen, again. For the third time. I was tired of brushing elbows for four laps only to wrestle for the fifth, all of us running decent times. I don’t remember if it was a strategy, or if I just did it. The chances are I probably just went for it because that was the kind of runner that I was. Instead of a well-paced start, I took the first 200 hard, and then I kept going. I petered out in the home stretch, having aggressively pushed the pace, as Jen and Ari whizzed by.

But when I crossed the finish line everyone stood up. Standing on the track, I couldn’t figure out why. In that kind of race, you’re sort of leaning over and panting at that point, hoping you haven’t peed your pants. (There’s a good likelihood that you have). But as I walked to the side to find my coach, they kept standing, and they started clapping, too. By the time I reached Scott he told me we’d just broken the national record—one, two and three (me) in the US and Canada. It was a brave race.

I went on to run track & field for Georgetown University, but from there on out, the expectations I’d set for myself were exceptionally high. When I got my first job and sat in a tiny windowless cubicle, no was giving me a standing ovation? When I moved to California from the East Coast by myself to explore a new walk of life, no one gave me a standing ovation? When I leaped into the unknown from a conventional non-profit job to a gray area known as independent contracting, no one gave me a standing ovation? Why was no one giving me a standing ovation? I’d done it before, what was different now?

But what happened was that my expectations for immediate success had been set high early, and as I traveled through the next chapters of my life, I constantly measured myself to an unattainable standard, practically erasing any hope of true self-compassion.

What I realized amidst my epiphany was that the moment I lost self-compassion was also the moment I achieved success. This is not to say I haven’t achieved success since then; I have. But my emotional benchmark for immediacy and success was imprinted in that sixteen year-old. I was thirty-three when I realized with real clarity that I was very hard on myself. I was striving for a very high goals in moments of life where the goals were no longer so clear as the finish line or the time elapsed.

If you can find that moment for yourself, harken back to it. A lack of self-compassion was holding me back. And any absence of self-compassion in myself meant an absence for those around me. Being easier on myself meant being enough in the moment. Measuring enough is a present practice. When we measure enough in a future setting than we measure it against dreams that we have not yet achieved. When we find enough in the present, we find that the layers begin to peel away, and sometimes not only that, they fall away. We experience an opening and an acceptance that is necessary to further our dreams and desires for life; that is essential in order to invite others in. External expression is simply a mirror of our internal world.

Without compassion we also fail to accept our imperfections. Failing to accept our imperfection—in ourselves, in our team, or in our projects—also means we fail to accept true beauty. Because true beauty has endless imperfection. The wabi-sabi way of life some might say. And what does this have to do with bettering our businesses or our communities? It’s right at the heart of it. Compassion and beauty comprise the cultivation of love. Love in business is what makes us flourish and rise equally, so that there is balance where we have not seen it before, and hope in the darker places of our lives.

a culture of fear

We live in a culture of fear. There are glimmers and bright spots, and people who defy the norm by believing more in their ability than their anxiety, but for the most part we live in a culture of fear. It’s in our parks, and our playgrounds, our friendship circles and our families, and very prevalently, it’s embedded in our businesses. I point to this because it’s in business that I believe we can move the needle. We carry the environment of our work life home to our families, and inevitably we offload this to our children, whether we do so consciously or not. Work also may be where some of our stronger feelings of fear began. The fight to the top—to make the most, to be the best, to play the game of cheaper, better, faster—required a baseline of fear. Except now, that baseline is so exacerbated that it has permeated most arenas of our life.

In work, we seek to sell a product or a service. Seeking to sell led us to marketing, where we looked outside ourselves to attract customers or clients. This, of course, drove us away from what pleased or excited us, and towards pleasing others. This is where our culture of fear begins. The opposite of fear—confidence, compassion, trust, and love—are rooted in self-awareness and self-understanding. So when the principles of work began asking us to look externally in order to get ahead, we started down a path of disconnection that we are only now beginning to see and question.

When we are seeking to please, or attract, others, we forget to think about ourselves, and whether or not we like what we have produced, created, crafted or sold. That’s where we go wrong. The first question should always be: Do I like it? Would I buy it? Do I need it? If you’re having trouble with the answer—if it’s not fairly instantaneous—take a pause and find that voice. Meditate, go outside, or do whatever it takes to hear that voice.

Without that voice, and without that compass, we revert to selling, to fear, to intimidation, to exclusion, and to scarcity. These sentiments heavily permeate our work cultures today. They permeate it to such a degree that we hesitate to disagree, to speak up in meetings, to communicate honestly because we are trying to abide by protocol or by norms. We find ourselves shrinking back from helping others because it’s not our job or it’s not our role, because they don’t understand, and we don’t have enough time or energy or patience to bring them along. Because they are on the other side, because they are not on our team, because they didn’t hire us. Because we are worried about our own liability, because we are worried about their volatility. The list could go on. But we are living primarily out of fear, and not out of love.

So how could we possibly begin to change this? To tackle a cultural phenomenon that is so deeply embedded in everything from our emotions to our economy? We start with re-framing our thoughts, re-framing our ideas, and re-framing our outlook. We focus on possibility and not the absence of it, we focus on giving more than we receive. Yes, more than.

Getting ahead is no longer about making money. It’s about espousing good values, it’s about pausing, it’s about civic duty, it’s about being a good neighbor. This is not mutually exclusive with good decision making, efficiency, or effective spending. But it does have more humanity; it does have more space. In this frame of mind there is more time, there is more release, there is more room. For everyone. My business does not need to compete against yours because if I’m following my path it cannot possibly look like or offer the same thing yours does, and it will naturally attract (by nature of being itself) those most interested in that particular way of being.

Staying true to oneself, whether personally or in business, whether individually or collectively, however, is not an easy task. It’s a very, very tough road, but one that we need to be game to start walking down. That should be our aim now, not comparing to the person beside us, or competing for market share. Look at yourself. Change that first.