impossible in a new light

When I boarded my flight home from Boston this July, I had a draft of this essay completed. It was written and focused; I needed only to spend time refining it. Yet as I walked down the jetway, I realized there was a different story asking to be told. It was the story of my relationship with my mother. I was not sure at the beginning how it would connect to the narrative of business, of change, of creating innovation and insight for our community, but it does explain the pathway to my perspective, the passion that is often found behind my ideas, and the force through which I sometimes bring them into light.

For the last two years my job has been to enforce contracts in property management. This is a difficult role for me because I feel better suited to create the contracts than to enforce them, but it’s essential nonetheless to see all sides of our work. With every controversy that arose over a lease agreement I felt myself pulled between sides—a familiar feeling for a child of divorced parents—and I felt the need to be sure that all sides were heard. A contract helps no one if it doesn’t honor all parties authentically. And if we choose to make a tough decision, let’s do so consciously, and with compassion.

Each time a tenant improvement request was made, a lease negotiated, a building system in need of repair, I sought to find all sides of the issue. It’s true there was a status quo as to how I am supposed to handle each issue, but I sometimes found the curt professional response I was supposed to send didn’t do justice to the emotionality of the situations at hand, particularly for the tenant, who found themselves at the whim of unarticulated structures that they did not fully understand. It’s true I represent the landlord, and yet I also believe that what serves the landlord best at the end of the day (a lower vacancy rate and satisfied, responsible tenants who buy into the care of the building) is also what benefits the tenants, and allows them to thrive.

My focus on balancing the scales, and my sensitivity to each side, did not appear out of thin air. It grows from the nuanced story of my parents after their divorce. My mom is intelligent and curious and has suffered from debilitating anxiety her entire life. My dad is thorough, stubborn, and extremely hardworking. Both of them wise in different ways. When they split, so did the resources, on equal terms. But what transpired after that reflected some of the more tragic aspects of our society, and I watched with wide ten year-old eyes.

My dad remarried and continued to work tirelessly, growing steadily yet humbly. My mom was less supported and began to spiral. The community she once knew before the divorce almost completely fell away. Over time, the dichotomy increased, and I found myself bouncing not only between different worldviews, but also different income classes altogether. I had trouble comprehending the growing gap and managing an increasingly complex relationship with my mom as I grew up and found my own way. I understood how to communicate to those who were resource-poor, and I was starting to understand how to communicate with those who were resource-rich. The two have different languages. The subtleties, the nuances, the things that allow one person to feel seen and respected differ from one language to the other, and I knew this intimately. Growing up, I often clashed with my stepmother, whom I adore, for the simple fact that I would say something that was perceived and internalized entirely differently on her end. It would leave me thinking: What have I done? And why can’t she understand me? Over many years, we have come to understand each other, and it’s been an invaluable part of my life. I also continued to cling with white-knuckled terror to the language that allowed me to communicate with my mom. If I abandoned it entirely, I feared I would lose her, and her love.

Only recently have I found the grace to let go, and to loosen my grip on that language; to explore, and diverge, and still love her. It’s fostered a desire in me to connect people through their humanity, not their income, background, race, or age. This is where progress lies for us, and where we can truly see each other as individuals, who often want very similar things.

By the time this summer rolled around, I was ready for a break from examining sides. I spent a week at the beach with my dad bookended by a day on each side with my mom. As I sat across the table from her at a small restaurant in Somerville, I babbled on about my work and my renewed passion for writing, but I was also searching for a meaning to what was so painfully in front of me. My amazing mom was aging, and in her age, I felt I had not done enough to support her when the world seemed to fail her. Does she have agency in this? Of course. But for too many women out there, or men for that matter, they are struggling. So I began to look at the broader picture and say: What does our society need more of? What can we do better? Is there a paradigm we want to change? And finally, how can I be of service?

I recently heard that we cannot move forward until we embrace our past. This is a part of mine, and it defines my view in a beautiful and flawed way all at once. I seek both to break it down and hold it gently. To know when to move outside of it, and when to draw on that power and experience in a unique way. It has developed in me a deep reverence for the pain that we all experience. Our emotions are relative and true, no matter the context. They can never be compared or pitted against one another. They just are. It’s our most challenging emotions that break us down, and if we are committed, resurrect us as we explore our pathway out.

The languages of class defined my childhood, and yet despite my observations about their differences, I also realized there were commonalities. That there was a common language between any class, across any side of the table, between any landlord and tenant. It is the language of ownership, of heart; the language of love. It is a difficult thing to differentiate the voice of the heart from the voice of the mind; but it’s possible with practice, and it tells us the story of a new approach. Of kindness, and growth that does not harm. Of communities that lift each other up, and focus on commonalities instead of divisions. It takes tremendous bravery, and requires an equal focus on the body and soul as much as it does the mind. But the seemingly intractable situations that we face today? The political confusion and aggression, the social justice issues that are rising with force—these are not lost causes. Marked change may be years away, but it is truly the journey that matters. We don’t have to despair. We have to break it down, and focus on one step at a time. Shut out the news, find your light, and bring your passion to the table. It’s not impossible.

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.