I’ve learned a lot in the past few months, but perhaps the most important lesson has been this: “I am not exempt.” Joseph Goldstein uses this phrase as a mantra. The body will age. I am not exempt. Both good and bad things will happen to me. I am not exempt. All people die. I am not exempt. You get the idea.
It can be hard to come to terms with our life when we always want more, especially when more is always at our fingertips. Sometimes, we don’t even know what we want. We just want more than what life is giving us. However, until we come to terms with our life, until we recognize that we are not exempt from living in an uncontrollable and unfair and unrelenting world, until we stop desiring what we could get and start appreciating what we’ve got, we will never find peace in this incredible and fleeting existence.
This may all sound too heady for a leadership newsletter, but I think it’s essential. In popular culture, we often admire the leaders who refuse the terms of life – the celebrities who defy the aging process, the politicians who bypass ethics, the business mogul who buys happiness. Yet, we know, that all of these people are experiencing the same mid-life crises and the same secret miseries and the same self-doubts and the same incessant dissatisfaction as the rest of us.
I don’t mean to attack anyone here, only to remind us that, geologically speaking, we’re already dust, and for that we should be grateful. What we achieve will be swept away like crumbs on the kitchen table. How we live – and thus how we impact the world around us – is all that matters.
I’ve been asking myself, what binds me to this world? Is it my job? My possessions? My money? The apps on my phone or the watch on my wrist? No, these are all vehicles of experience, but I am not bound to them. I can leave them on the side of the road for the next drifter who comes along. What I am bound to are threads of love. Without the proper attention, these threads may fray and wither. With extreme negligence or abuse, they may snap, a connection now defined by a breaking point.
For better or worse, even when great tension fractures relationships, we stay connected to those people and places and experiences that – if only for one breathless moment – touched our hearts. It is upon those threads that we should meditate. There is nothing more important than the quality of the threads that connect us and convince us that we do indeed belong here, bound to this very moment.
Articulating one’s why has become a standard practice of leadership motivation. It makes sense. Humans are hungry for purpose, needing a point at which to aim. However, more and more, the why places ludicrous demands on how one leads. If a company’s mission is to make the best shoes, does it matter if it does so through child labor? How about if a school wants to provide the greatest education to students, and its teachers are underpaid, overworked, and joyless? Is any why worth the ceaseless discontent that spawns from heedless ambition?
People might argue that golden behavior follows a golden why, but that’s not reality. The why is the easy part. And, if we’re honest, the why doesn’t change much from person to person: promote the well-being of others, make the world a better place, yada yada yada. It is much harder to decide how you will act over and over again, especially with automated shortcuts tempting us to skip mindfulness altogether. We should all pay more attention to how we lead. Here are ten ways to begin:
Control nothing. Free everything.
Lots of people will train to become skillful at something – playing a sport, using a software, practicing some expertise, seeking dominance in a narrow alley – but few will train to be skillful at mindfulness. There lies the key to the city.
If you’re in the business of satisfying desires, you’ll always be dissatisfied. If your satisfaction comes from letting go of desires, you’ll have the business everyone is looking for.
We cannot rest when we obsess, and there is nothing so exhausting as self obsession.
Many people exist in a finger trap, pulling harder and harder – in different directions – to be liberated from discomfort, causing self-inflicted frustration. When we give up this frantic struggle, when we learn to do less, we are freed.
Invest in things, and you’ll get what you pay for. For a real thrill, invest in people.
Failure, success, it’s all impermanent. All great empires end up a postcard in a gift shop.
The bravest and most sensible way to face hunger is to enjoy it.
To bring warmth to a cold world, sew threads of love.
Bet on death. It’s a sure thing.