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.