The work of self-study (a.k.a. How willing are you to own your sh*t?)

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I’m trying to decide whether or not I have a beef with Marshall Goldsmith.

Marshall Goldsmith, famous leadership and executive coach, no doubt couldn’t give a whit whether or not I have a beef with him. But care, and for a very good reason. I recently read Goldsmith’s famous book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. I won’t bore you with the details of why I just read this book two decades into my career. Overall, I thought the book was fine. It was all fairly common-sensical, and I could see it having more meaning to someone who is just developing their self-awareness. To allude to a favorite movie, I was “whelmed.” Not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed–just whelmed.

There was one section of the book, however, where I found myself in fairly vehement disagreement. As one of the bad habits to change, Goldsmith lists “Clinging to the past.” His position is that spending time excavating your past is only for understanding the past, not changing the future. He writes, “Understanding the past is perfectly admissible if your problem is accepting the past. But if your issue is changing the future, understanding will not take you there.” (1)

As far as I’m concerned, Marshall, you’re wrong. Understanding is what enables you to change the future, and be a better leader, in an authentic way. Otherwise, you’re just changing because someone tells you that you need to, without understanding the root cause of the behavior. There’s nothing authentic about that, and that will be transparent.

This idea of understanding who we are and how we show up is at the core of svadhyaya, one of the yogic niyamas. (For a definition of niyamas, please read my previous post.) Svadhyaya, or self-study, is defined by Deborah Adele in her book The Yamas and Niyamaas “knowing our one true identity … and understanding the boxes we are wrapped in.” (2) She goes on to write:

We have an opportunity to trace whatever we are saying about the moment back to a belief which we are either consciously or unconsciously holding … When faced with any disharmony, our tendency is to blame what is outside of us and then justify what we are thinking of feeling. If we are courageous enough to trace the disharmony back to ourselves, we can begin to unpack our boxes and open up vast amounts of freedom that brings us closer to our true essence.

You hear that, Marshall? Understanding the past, unpacking our boxes, takes courage. And our willingness to step into our courage helps us become better leaders.

I’m passionate about this idea of understanding ourselves to change our future because of my own experience, and the impact it’s had on me as a leader and colleague. I first started to get a glimmer of the power of svadhyaya about a year before I started yoga teacher training and long before I’d even heard the word. I was at a meeting attended by about 100 individuals identified as “senior leaders” in the organization. Many of these individuals had the same level of title as I did, and a few were even immediate peers. Yet I wasn’t an attendee at the meeting–I was an observer, there to take notes and help out. Because the organizational structure happened to land me one step further down from the CEO, I wasn’t on the “senior leader” list.

I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I wanted to crawl under the table and hide. I felt like I was told to sit at the little kids table even as my same-age siblings (i.e. same-level peers) were eating with the adults. To be clear, no one was making me feel that way. I was causing my own suffering. I remember clearly how these feelings were manifesting in my body: a tight jaw, sharp movements, heavy sighs. And a sharp tongue.

A peer who was there as both an attendee and facilitator approached me and asked me a question. My response, fueled by hurt and anger, was sharp and snarky and probably even mean. My colleague, a wonderful person with a huge heart, recoiled. I could see the impact of my response written all over her face. Little did I know at the time that she’d had a really difficult day, and I’d just added to it. She walked away, and I stewed in my self-righteousness, even though I immediately knew what I’d done and how I’d shown up.

As the day went on, I started to reflect on how I was feeling and my reaction, and finally excused myself to allow time to process, to engage in some svadhyaya. Through just a short period of self-study, I realized quickly that I was reacting to a nearly lifelong fear of being left out.

Now let’s get in the way-back machine and go back to 7th grade. (I truly believe that most of our issues stem from either our family of origin or junior high/middle school; for me it’s the latter.) In 7th grade I loved basketball, tried out for and made the team. Not long after that I took part in an ill-fated ski trip. Although I’ve blocked the details from memory, what’s relevant is that some of my teammates decided that I was going to be their bullying target during the long bus ride home. That treatment–what back then was called “teasing” but would now be identified as bullying–lasted most of 7th grade year. All I wanted was to be accepted by these girls, to be their friend, and I was denied, ferociously locked out. That was the beginning of an ongoing longing to be part of the “popular” group.

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After 7th grade I never played basketball again; instead I found my tribe of music and theater geeks, amazing people I was so lucky to be friends with and keep in touch with to this day. But the desire to be accepted by the popular kids never went away. (The picture of sheep is intentional.) That desire, and all of the icky feelings that went with it, raised its ugly head at that leadership meeting.

As all of this dawned on me, I knew what I had to do. Immediately, I found my colleague and apologized. She gracefully accepted it. But the work didn’t stop there.

As Deborah Adele writes, if we unpack our boxes we can bring ourselves freedom. I needed to sit with what I was coming to understand about myself, and determine how I would change my reaction in the future. I wasn’t going to change my past, but by understanding it, I could change my reaction. That would bring me freedom from suffering, and would change how I showed up.

I needed to own my shit.myrtle

Coincidentally (or maybe not, thank you Universe), not long after this experience in self-study, I happened upon a Facebook post by Elizabeth Gilbert that highlighted the work of artist Carrie Hilgert (warning: explicit language). The message: Own your shit. Know your crazy. This self-study was helping me know my crazy, helping me own my shit. The message resonated so deeply with me that I bought a mug with Hilgert’s Own Your Shit art. I use that mug frequently, and it’s always a welcome reminder of the work I’ve done and have ahead of me. (You can get your own mug here.)

Now this self-study is great and all, but it has to have an impact. It has to change how you show up. And here’s where I differ from good Mr. Goldsmith: understanding can change the future. It did for me.

Six months later I found myself in a role where I was now in charge of this twice-a-year leader meeting. I designed it. I owned it. I was responsible for the execution.

And I still wasn’t invited.

I was sitting in my office reviewing the attendee list, looking down the same list of names as before, and again I could feel my body react. I felt hot, I felt flushed, my heart started to race and I experienced my friend anxiety in my chest. My throat closed up and I almost sobbed. And then I stopped. I recognized what was happening: I was reacting to feeling left out. I was reacting based on a seminal life experience. I could choose to give into the reaction and give my energy over to something that didn’t deserve it, or I could acknowledge it with compassion and grace and move on. In that moment, I did the latter. I took a deep breath, felt kindness towards myself, and moved past the moment. And it worked. In that instance, I was able to let the fear, hurt, and pain go, and move on. That certainly impacted how I showed up the rest of the day.

I’d love to say I maintained that detachment throughout the weeks leading up to the meeting, but I’d be lying. I do feel, however, that I approached the situation differently, and one that caused me less emotional harm and far less suffering. Most importantly, now I know what that reaction is, I can recognize it, and I can dig deep to find the courage to let it go.

I also believe that our experiences, our crazy, can manifest as strengths as well. For me, that means that I’m always thinking about how something will make people feel, especially whether or not they’ll feel left out or “less than.” That’s a gift I bring, and I realize now that it’s based in my life experience.

The practice of self-study, svadhyaya, of owning my shit, shifted something in me that continues to be at work. I’ve seen and heard of similar experiences in others. One leader I had the opportunity to work with told of how he was doing well and succeeding in his career and function, but getting feedback that people struggled to work with him because he was so task-focused and interactions with him felt cold. As he reflected on his life experiences, he identified that his demeanor was forged during his years growing up on a farm, where work and chores were the focus, and emotion wasn’t expressed. He’d brought that into adulthood, and it was impacting his ability to lead. He also realized it was a key attribute to the failure of his marriage. With this understanding, he was able to begin to change his behavior, which had immense benefits on both his personal and professional life. His self-study enabled him to change the future.

Here’s the thing about self-study, and I think this gets to what Goldsmith’s issue is with it: it can’t just be self-study without any change. Whatever your shit is, it can’t be an excuse for poor behavior. And in yogic philosophy, svadhyaya doesn’t end with understanding yourself–it must result in growth. In that growth comes greatness, as an individual, a partner, a friend, a colleague, a leader. Deborah Adele captures this in a haiku in her book that precedes the chapter on svadhyaya:

Know yourself so well
that you will grow into your
wholeness and greatness.
~CL

So, I’m afraid Mr. Goldsmith and I will have to agree to disagree. Understanding the past can lead to changes in the future, as long as you’re willing to do the work.

(1) Goldsmith, Marshall, and Mark Reiter. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. New York: Hachette, 2014. Print.

(2) Adele, Deborah. The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Duluth, MN: On-Word Bound, 2009. Print.

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