The Slow Go No

It took me years to discover the power of ‘no’. For some reason I always thought if I said ‘yes’ enough, people would like me. And so I did.

Saying ‘yes’ to things seemed to be the path of least resistance. If I agreed, everything would be just fine. Because it was what others wanted. And I knew I was supposed to be there for other people. That’s what I was told. A good person says ‘yes’ to virtually everything. ‘No’ was somehow selfish, as if ever thinking about yourself was, well, a major no-no.

But one day I woke up and looked around me. I had conceded to things that felt off. It was if every ‘yes’ I had uttered had pushed me a millimeter off the track I was meant to take. It required a major adjustment.

The first lesson was to learn how to decline, say ‘no’ — and mean it.

At first, the road was bumpy. I would be plagued with a sense of guilt and – yes – fear. As if I would die if I met someone else’s request with my own spoken negation.

Saying ‘no’ after years of ‘yes’ shocks people. They have to get used to the sudden change.

Recently, I was reminded of my ‘yes’ years by a series of requests coming from various sources.

“Can you promote my book for me? Oh, for free, of course.”

“Can you read this paper for me? Oh, for free, of course.”

“Can you donate to my cause/my work/my life? Oh, I have nothing to give you, of course.”

The final request got me to thinking. Really? You want me to give you money (again – I had already said ‘yes’ once before). And I had already told you ‘no’ with an explanation.

And then I realized ‘no’ is a full sentence. So I responded with that one glorious word and hit the send button. No explanation required.

And you know what? I did not die. As a matter of fact, I grew an inch. And it felt so very good.

If you feel you have become Life’s doormat, pick yourself up with one of the most powerful words in any language.

‘No’ is ‘yes’ for you.

 

How to Thrive, Not Just Survive

It is as if Arianna Huffington took off her high heels and climbed into my head. For the past week I have devoured her latest book, Thrive. It is not as if she says anything new, but reading her book is like getting a whole year’s supply of self-affirmations in one sitting.


In essence, she tells the reader: “You are not crazy to feel overwhelmed. I was too. And I decided to do something about it.”

I have long known that Arianna is a great champion of sleep. So am I. I have no problem getting enough rest. But the quality of it has seemed to suffer over the past few years. Life’s challenges have awoken me in the middle of the night and robbed me of dreams. Technology and my ambition to keep up have left me feeling depleted.

Arianna’s premise is we must redefine the meaning of success to include well-being, wisdom, wonder and community. As my book The Power of Slow boils down to one word – ‘choice’ – hers boils down to one too — ‘love’. The more I think of it, the more I realize the limits of our minds. We have no love in our minds, only thoughts. When we react from the mind, we are entangled in the web of our own making. In fact, every stressor we feel comes down to one thing — our reaction. Stress comes from a lack of trust that everything is going to be alright.

The truth is if we define “alright” to be That Which Is, then yes, everything will be alright. In fact, everything is alright all the time. Everything is indeed in alignment with the Universe. Our trouble begins when we ourselves are not.

Love can change that. When we come from our hearts’ center, we are free.

Thrive is a smart piece of work that cites Greek and modern-day philosophers alike. She even quotes Carl Honoré, whose thinking about the Slow Movement greatly influenced mine.

My favorite part of her book is her discussion about time. She speaks of it in terms of physics. Time, in the physicist’s view, is a landscape in which past, present and future can be seen. Like a mountain and a meadow and a wildflower all converging into one big thing. If that is true, than we needn’t rush. All of time rests on a single canvas.

This book insists that we can not only survive, but actually thrive, even in our 24/7 world. As with all things, the quality of our lives is not informed by our bank account of Facebook fans or Twitter followers.

The beauty of our existence is informed solely by the depth of our hearts. 

 

The Finish Line

When you get to the finish line, will you wish for more time?

I had to ask myself that question as I watched the beat of my own heart on the EKG machine. Lying in the emergency room in the middle of the night on a Thursday, I realized how precious life is. As I heard the horrible sounds emanating from other patients in deep pain, I knew I wasn’t finished yet.

Our bodies are smart. They speak to us. Quietly at first, then louder if we forget to listen.

Last week I landed on my head on a cold stone floor as my circulation collapsed into itself. The emergency technician who rushed to my aid twenty minutes later smiled warmly. It was a warmth I really needed.

When she asked if I had an allergies, I told her I am only allergic to really bad experiences. She laughed. So did I.

Seven hours and an ambulance ride later, I was released from the hospital with a clean bill of health. Stress and forgetting to eat for nine hours were the culprits.

Stress is not very Slow. Stress is silent, but its impact can be very loud. It begins and ends with our thoughts, then lands in our hearts. It can steal our quality of life if we let it.

Taking care of myself does not come naturally. I often push back my own needs to make room for others’.

Slow is about mindful living, but it is not just the mind that needs care. We need to go deeper to that sacred place in our center. We must fiercely guard our divinity, our beauty, our everything.

None of us gets out of this world alive, but we can ensure we truly live while we are here.

We owe that to ourselves and to those who love us. We really do.

Workplace Woes and How to Replace Them

The workplace has been on my mind lately. Perhaps it is because people close to me have been gainfully unemployed for a while. Or because my children are growing fast and are starting to think about their own employment future.

Looking for a job in this day and age has changed significantly. You don’t just circle the want-ads. You now have to be super tech-savvy in your job discovery process.

Web portals such as Xing and LinkedIn are not just social networking sites. They are designed to encourage that the right person find the right job. If your workplace provides you more woes than wonderfulness, listen up.


LinkedIn is great for business people seeking connections. It’s what Facebook was for college students in the very beginning. And so I was intrigued by the book, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, written by the founders of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh. I wanted to find out more about the motivation of the site’s founders.

I can sum the book up in very simple terms. The authors encourage employers to look at their hired talent as an investment. Think of it as a club member whose golf game can only improve the overall quality of club life. So you invite him for free lessons, give him food and drink along the way and ensure that life is so sweet, he’d never think of leaving.

But if he does, make sure you keep your grass green. Because he’ll come running back — or at least speak highly of you — forevermore.

Employers often shy away from offering training because they think somehow they won’t get the return on their investment. People will leave anyway so why bother? This mindset is fatal. Making the job interesting by developing people’s talent will actually make them stay longer. It’s really about setting up a clear understanding from the beginning that your workplace alliances is built on the principles of give and take.

If you think of your employees as free agents, the natural response is to slash training budgets. Why train a competitor’s new hire? In an alliance, the manager can speak openly and honestly about the investment the company is willing to make in the employee and what it expects in return. The employee can speak openly and honestly about the type of growth he seeks (skills, experiences, and the like) and what he will invest in the company in return by way of effort and commitment. Both sides set clear expectations. (The Alliance, page 9).

That is the Slow Workplace at its best.

Gone are the days of lifetime employment at one company. The authors know this well and provide a useful guide for employers in an age in which knowledge is power and ample and free.

For some offline workplace wellness, I stumbled upon Real Happiness at Work by Sharon Salzberg. She offers helpful meditations and time-outs for the harried worker who may be teetering on the edge of burnout. You may not have the luxury of leaving your current work situation, she says, so here’s how you can make it more bearable. Of course, everything begins — and ends — from within. Her focus is about shifting your mind, heart and soul away from what’s not working to what is. Her meditative practices provide the parameters for a Slow Workplace too.

Whether you love, hate or could care less about your job, one thing is for certain: you spend a lot of time there. Wouldn’t it be nice if your job gave you more joy than pain?

Freelance Nation

Freelancer, diversified worker, temporary agent — I prefer the term independent contractor. It sounds more serious. More stabile. More delivering.

Whatever you call those of us who work on our own without the safety net of an employer paying our health insurance or days off, one in three US workers engages in some type of freelance work. According to a recent study commissioned by Elance-oDesk.com, 53 million Americans took on project work last year alone.

The term freelancing sounds so whimsical and, well, free. Truth be told, much of my time is spent panting heavily, running uphill and crossing my fingers that my contract will be renewed and my sins of fallibility forgiven. We walk a tightrope most people don’t see. They think freelancing is somehow for the meek at heart. The ones who can’t get out of their jammies until noon. You know, when they wake up.

Yeah. Right.

That’s not my reality at least. Most days — and many weekends — I spend thinking, working, worrying, writing, rewriting, formulating, reformulating, strategizing and implementing and reporting and — yes — praying. Sure, I can decide when to take time off. And I do as much as I can. It usually amounts to a handful of hours on a weekend, away from my phone.

Doesn’t sound very Slow, does it?

Freelancing can be tough. But if you are in love with your clients — and I am — it doesn’t feel like work, but rather more like an obligation a parent has to a child. You want to assure them that everything will be alright. Even when you think it might not be. That’s when you assure them that even if it isn’t, you aren’t going away and you hope they won’t want to see you go.

The Slow part of my freelance exists lies in the freedom of choice I have. I have a lot of room to make decisions, which can be both daunting and liberating. I get to decide now or later to do this thing or that. Ultimately, what counts in my industry (public relations) are results.

Bring them or perish.

Since I like to eat, I move mountains where I can and make molehills out of the rest.

That strategy — and the joy it brings — has worked for over a decade…and counting.

 

A little bit can go a long way

My friend’s face loomed large on my iMac screen. She had forty minutes before her next appointment. It had been too long since we last spoke. And now, because I too had been ten minutes late, we had less time together than planned.

“How’s life?” I asked.

“Too fast,” she said.

She listed all the things she had to accomplish, in a vague, distracted way. It wasn’t clear to me why she was overwhelmed exactly. Yes, having two school kids and a part-time job can be stressful, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it herself. We talked about how fast life is in the US – how incredibly crushing it can be to go from one activity to the next. All the while trying to look good and perfect and sensible.

I shook my head with empathy.

“It’s exhausting. But somehow everyone is stressed out. It’s as if you aren’t a good person if you’re relaxed.” Her story isn’t the only one I have observed. Others from my circle of friends and family complain about how hard it is to keep pace. When asked what they are keeping pace with, I watch them turn their heads slightly, as if the air to their left will somehow give them the answer.

“I don’t know,” I hear over and over again.

Peer pressure. Societal pressure. Cultural demands. They all confront us with specific expectations. Most of us don’t even realize we are subjected to those subtle vices strapped tightly around our thumbs, those digits that are usually cradling a smartphone to help us gather more input than we could ever register.

How often do we ask ourselves: “What are we racing toward? Why are we checking our Facebook status — again? What is missing from my offline life that I need to get one online?”

I recently had a conversation about the differences between European and American expectations around vacation. In the Europe, it’s considered a human right. In the US, it’s considered an inconvenience. I even talked to one client who is getting married and is ‘dropping by the office’ on the way to his honeymoon. He is taking two weeks in Italy. But first, he’s going to check on that report.

Yikes.

I am all for personal responsibility, for giving our children a better life, and for doing an excellent job at work. But I also declare a new way of thinking about taking time off. That includes Friday night and weekends. A little bit can go a long way to keep us sane. Walking a balance beam requires skills, concentration and focus. But we need the strength to do that too.

How can we possibly remain strong when we never, ever let up?

 

Levity, Not Intensity

I have a confession to make. For the past month I have been overwhelmed. Try as I might, I kept slipping into a deep intensity. Slow seemed far, far away. I was in the fast lane, like a lost deer on the highway, seeking shelter, yet finding nothing but headlights.

Today marks the first day that I have finally sat down and concentrated on only one thing. And it has felt so very good. The cloak of Slow has once again emerged to provide the shelter I need.

A lot of my speed-filled month had to do with my being away from my familiar surroundings. And when one is uprooted in such a way, it can throw a person off kilter. Oh sure, you can work remotely, but it isn’t as easy making magic happen at your mom’s sloping card table when what you really need is the stability of your home office desk.

I appreciate the flexibility of my work that allows me to travel to other ends of the earth whilst still making clients happy and heard. But it can also create a muddled state of mind as one is not sure whether to jump into the pool or into a PR conversation. I spent a great deal of August feeling torn, wanting desperately to connect with old friends (which I did) and simply stopping to rest from it all.

There is no place like home. After traveling far and wide, I have come to realize how very good life can be right where you are. Thankfully, life is mostly filled with levity, not such bone-crushing intensity. And when fast takes over, I try to remember what — and who — is truly important.

For those of you seeking reprieve from life’s intensity, Slow can be had. It requires simplifying your life and finding that place on Earth that raises you up to your highest potential.

 

Reunion

Time may change things, but some things truly never change. Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to reconvene with old friends who knew me back in the days when I wore pigtails. These are the people who love us because they know the essence of who we have always been. They see us. They suspend judgement. They know things about us in that quiet, unassuming way. Despite the miles and years that may have separated many of us, we share memories that run deeper than Middle Earth.

Time may wear us down, shape us and leave traces on our faces, but core friendships sustain us as we are tested by the challenges life throws our way. Old friends are the ones who remind us why we are here. And they are so very glad we are.

Perhaps I am feeling so nostalgic because I have come to realize the preciousness of these times. Even though we have many ways to stay in touch in our 24/7 world, the most impactful connections are those we have when we finally get together after years of separation. We pick up right where we left off with a comforting familiarity. That smile, that laughter, that story of Way Back When. It touches the soul and warms the heart as we remember we are never alone, though there may have been times when we have felt the sting of loneliness as we climb yet another mountain of faith.

More than anything on this Earth, I treasure the people in my life. They are what make my life so rich. And the warmth of their love has put me back together more than once to make me whole again.

The Generous Entrepreneur

I come from a family of merchants. Growing up, I would hear stories about my grandparents’ Benjamin Franklin Five and Dime store and how the holidays were the hardest on my grandfather. He sold toys and paper products and candy bars to the locals. Day in. Day Out. For years. It shaped my mother, who later shaped me with her own brand of entrepreneurialism. She sold houses and land and dreams to the locals in our hometown.

So whenever I come across someone with that entrepreneurial spirit, I am fascinated by their passion. It is the honest ones, the generous ones, who touch my heart the most.

The other day I met such a person who owns a small café in the center of Freiburg. Open only Mondays through Fridays, his restaurant feeds the hungry lunchtime crowd that surrounds his building. When I asked him if he’s open for dinner, he replied: “I love what I do, but I love other things too. Noon to three is enough to serve those who are looking for a good home-cooked meal. The rest of the time I enjoy my life.” And so he does.

I witnessed how he greeted small neighborhood children and elderly couples. I saw how they came not only for his good cooking, but for his good heart too. He threw a party for the ZMF Freiburg crew. World-class musicians played the drums while we danced and ate and experienced a moment of profound togetherness.

Couples have found each other in his four walls. He even catered one of the weddings from two people who had met at his café.

The spirit of generosity seeps into the food, which keeps people coming back. And he is able to give so much of himself because he gives to himself – in true Power of Slow fashion.

 

Small Steps, Big Dreams

The Internet has made our lives seemingly instantaneous. Thinking about buying a pair of rain boots? Violà! A newsletter catches your eye to simplify your purchase decision. Want to watch that movie you remember from the early ´90s? Amazon’s instant video makes it possible.

Our world is so convenient. We can reach for almost anything and it’s in the mail the next day.

We have unlearned the art of patience.

When I was a kid, I would pester my mother about when my mail-order doll furniture would arrive. It took weeks upon weeks. And the joy of receiving that package was indescribable when my desire was finally satiated.

My kids don’t have that level of delayed gratification. Thanks to the speed of their world, waiting has become something Godot does – not them.

Yet our collective internal composition still relies on a world of dreams. We dream of things that aren’t easily reached, which is in direct contrast to our virtual reality of instant everything.

Realizing Big Dreams takes time, but our concept of time has been altered greatly by the compression of it in our 24/7 world. We wonder why we feel slightly (or enormously) dissatisfied. We scamper from one thing to the next in the hopes that this feeling will go away. And the more we shove it deep down into ourselves, the bigger the feeling becomes.

It isn’t easy to teach my kids the beauty of waiting for something they really want. But values such as gratitude and appreciation are just as important as in our pre-Internet Age. Maybe even more so now.

My daughter recently thanked me for making her earn the money for her own laptop. She realizes now how hard work adds to the pleasure of having earned her own way.

The Internet isn’t going away. Neither will our dreams if we swaddle them in that protective coating of love for the time it takes to achieve them.