The Journey’s Way

Plans are a wonderful point of orientation, but like any roadmap, they change over time. New roads are added. Old ones turn to dust. Anyone with an outdated navigation system will tell you not all roads lead to Rome. Sometimes they take you down dead ends or endless traffic rotaries. Even if you were intending to go to point A, you sometimes land at point B instead.

The journey is the destination, not the end point on a map. And although we often live as though the most important thing comes at the end of one’s travels, the things that happen during those travels are the essence of our existence.

MoonWhenever I am confronted with life’s challenges, I say a prayer of gratitude for the fruits those lessons will bear — even before I receive or fully understand them. I live with a deep faith that everything happens for a reason – but oh! When that faith is lost! That’s when the turmoil begins. Faith and trust are the foundation for your engine’s happiness — gratitude greases the wheel.

When I was knee-deep in writing The Power of Slow, my sister shared a beautiful mantra with me: “Trust the process.” It is about opening your eyes to what is really in front of you instead of watching the film that is in your head.

We are all owners of our very own head-based movie theater in which our films get played over and over again. We react to the world through the lens of that movie theater camera. Sometimes our films take us to beautiful, exotic places, but most of the time the repeated movie performances lead us down those dead ends to the land of the lost. And when that happens, it’s time to change the film roll to a new one that serves us better.

While many of us pine for a better future with the supposedly comforting saying “One day my ship will come in,” I say why wait for that ship when you’re already on it? If you don’t like the direction it is taking you, steer it in a new direction.

You can weather any storm, my friends. You really can — if you believe.

 

The Naked Turtle

Sometimes it takes a good long while for things to sink in. You go days, weeks, months, struggling with an issue that just won’t let you go. You wrestle with it this way and that. You wake up suddenly at 2 a.m., thoughts holding your mind hostage until the wee dawn light.

Then, a sliver of realization slits your brain wide open. It filters through you like light piercing through a room gone dark too long.

“What if I were to simply let this entire thing go? Walk away. Say goodbye. Turn a corner. Never look back. Move forward. Take a whole new path?”

It’s a frightening notion indeed.

But then you see you really have no choice. The realization is there, standing in front of you like a war-weary soldier. You cannot ignore it. In fact, you cannot look away. You feel the shudder of truth ring through you.

In that moment, vulnerability enters the room. You are stripped of every mask, every reason why it should not be so. You are a naked turtle without its shell, completely exposed to That Which Is.

It is a moment of liberation from your hibernation. And it takes courage to see that moment through to the next one, which calls for you to act on the very thing that scares you most.

When faced with difficult situations, I often get nervous. My heart starts to pound; my palms start to sweat. But then I ask myself: “What am I afraid of losing?” The answer is always the same. “The only thing I have to lose is my own fear.”

It is worth taking off that mask to reveal your true self. In fact, in calling forth that part of you, you have already emerged a little stronger than you were before. Along with such experiences comes the marvelous opportunity to show empathy for others who are struggling too.

We are in this together. Our shells may provide us protection, but they also hinder the good stuff from coming in too.

It’s time to get naked.

Now.

 

Quieting the Complaining Mind

Between the hours of two and four in the morning, my mind enters the Fret Zone. I worry, complain, argue and fight about the weirdest things. It is as if all the frustration from the day comes tumbling into one pile of yuckiness. And if I am awake, those thoughts try to convince me that they are right.

Do you ever have one of those worst-case-scenario daydreams? It creeps up from behind when you least expect it. Then bam! You are rattled by a catastrophic thought.

Watching the evening news only reinforces the anxiety that the world is going down the tubes. I recently had to walk away from the television because every single story had a negative ending.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and co-author of the book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (Penguin 2010) suggests that negative and positive emotions are handled in different hemispheres of the brain. Negative emotions, he suggests, generally involve more thinking so the negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. As a result, we tend to dwell on unpleasant experiences and use stronger words to depict what they felt like than happy ones.

An experiment conducted by Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University and co-author of a Review of General Psychology journal article “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” (2001) reveals how the same experience in reverse offers different intensities of emotion. The loss of $50, for instance, resulted in a stronger negative reaction than the happiness stemming from gaining the same amount. 

Of course it comes down to survival. Those who anticipate bad events tend to be better prepared for them. Back in the Cro-Magnon days, it was important to be a little pessimistic about the future. Your cognitive functions were necessarily on high alert so as not to slide into a false state of security. Any Mammoth hunter knows you need to get it before it gets you.

But today? Do we really need to be plagued by all those negative thoughts? In our relatively safe environment (and I speak only for myself – I am aware that someone in Syria certainly may not feel this way at present), we have a lot to be thankful for.

Therein lies the solution. I have found there is no room in my brain for the complaining mind to voice its opinion when I am feeling grateful. A state of gratitude is easily come by. All you need is to look at what you have, say a prayer of thanks and recognize the abundance around you.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, recently said in an interview that she has long practiced daily gratitude by writing down the best thing that happened to her that day and dropping it in her so-called “Joy Jar”. Whenever she’s feeling blue, she picks out one of the pieces of paper and reminds herself that good things do come her way (I mean, Julia Roberts played her in the movie version of her book. I’d ride on that one for a couple of months, wouldn’t you?).

So the next time you’re up at 3 a.m. wondering why the world can be so mean, remember the good things. Think about them hard. Revisit your jar of joy – in whatever form it takes — and remind yourself that Universal Goodness does indeed exist.

How can you get your daily dose of joy? Well, my friend, as with all things – large and small — it starts with you.

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.

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?

 

The Value of Failure

If at first you do not succeed, try, try again.

Let’s face it. Success is sweet. And we want it more than we want the smudgy, sweaty, stinky sensation of having given it our all only to flop altogether.

But over the years, I have learned that while success is sensational, failure has its own flavor of wonderfulness too.

Wisdom is born out of failure. Sure, when you win, you learn what worked — that time. But when you fail, you learn so much more about yourself and the world around you. You get to find out who your friends are — and who isn’t. Those who run at the first sign of trouble are the ones you don’t let back in. Those who stick it out even when you aren’t smiling, serving up hors d’oeuvres and smelling like a rose are the ones worth everything.

And then there is the matter of what you learn from what didn’t work. Every once in a while I come across an old book proposal and a wave of compassion rises up in my chest.

“God, what work I put into this! And not a single editor could care less…”

Then a subtle feeling of gratitude settles in. I really tried. It didn’t work. Next.

Is it really failure to have put your heart and soul into something (or someone) only to not get what you anticipated?

I think not.

If you have given your best and the door slams in your face, you haven’t lost a thing. You have actually gained great insight.

We sometimes stomp our feet when things don’t go according to plan. But thank goodness they don’t. Imagine if we could control simply everything about our lives, about what happens to us, about what succeeds and what doesn’t. What a load of responsibility that would be!

I’m happy to leave it up to the Universe. And to listen to its call. Therein lies the key.

Letting things unfold is a much more relaxing approach in my mind. Learning to accept that which is and to see the universal good in life keeps us supple and ready to go for that next cup of gold.

So what if things haven’t worked out the way you thought they would. That just means you aren’t done learning yet.

In fact, until our last breath, we are at risk of failing time and again.

And that is what makes life so very rich indeed.

The Slow Road to Heaven

Speed is relative. Okay, so you can quantify it, measure it, try to control it. But in the end, everyone has his own custom pace.

Mine used to be a lot faster than it is now. But my deceleration was gradual. I only notice how slow I’ve become when I hear my friends talk about their hectic lives. Their treadmill existence. Their scampering and clawing to God-knows-where.

I jumped off that hamster wheel a long time ago. Living in Europe helps. People understand the meaning of vacations and rest here. Even stores close once a week to give their employees a break.

I don’t call that backwards. I call that progress.

But visits to my homeland and chats with my American loved ones remind me of how I used to live. It makes me tense just thinking about all that pushing and pulling I used to engage in.

For a lot of people it is necessary to play the Corporate game. They have children to feed, educate and launch. They have mortgages to pay. Slow isn’t a part of their vocabulary, even with the very best intentions.

I wonder when life became so complicated that we had to have the five bedroom home with six baths. We trade our personal bank account of time for a paycheck and a pension fund. And the years slip by while we pound the treadmill in hopes of getting to that elusive place called heaven.

Heaven is here on Earth. Having tried the fast track, I realize now that — at least for me — the Slow Road will do just fine. Living with less does not mean living small. A big life starts — and ends — in our hearts and minds.

 

The Reward of Bravery

Difficult conversations scare me. I suppose they scare a lot of people. For years I would harmonize on the outside while I would agonize on the inside about the simplest things.

No more.

In my new commitment to authentic living, I am faced with leaving the old ways of being behind. Charming people will only get you so far. Sometimes being real, I mean busting yourself wide open to the point of being naked, is the key to setting yourself — and that other person — free.

Letting go of old behavioral patterns would scare the pants off of anyone. They were so carefuly crafted, woven like a safety net that we thought would catch us when we fall. In truth, all it does is ensare us further, keeping us from where we are meant to go.

Luckily I have great people in my life who have coached me along the way. With encouraging words they have reminded me that there is no better reward than what comes after an act of bravery.

No medals are awarded to the brave of heart. No ceremonies, bright lights and flashes of medial glory come our way. But life has a way of flinging open doors when windows slam shut. And that in and of itself is reward enough.

If you doubt that courage can make your life sparkle, you may not be ready to do more than put on a brave face. But faces and masks and little white lies we tell ourselves do not invite magic in. In fact those things ensure that magic stays just outside our door, lingering amongst the shadows of our own making.

So speaking out the hard stuff, saying it like it is from the deepest well within ourselves is the way to go.

I’m ready to have that conversation. Or two. Or three. The act of jumping into the Unknown without a parachute frightens me silly, but the idea of allowing that fear to keep us teetering on the edge without taking that leap would surely mean the end for us all.

The Progress Principle

Being at a standstill can be the most frustrating experience for a recovering speedaholic like myself. Although I know there is power in slow, there are moments when setbacks make it feel like the world is going to end.

Apparently, I am not alone in this. According to Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, setbacks are one of the major causes of ennui and disengagement amongst workers.

People need to feel they are moving forward with things, even if it is slow-going.


Collaboration helps. According to the authors, deep engagement and creativity stems from a collaborative work setting in which you don’t feel alone. I know I always feel better when my team is sharing the burden of the work, not just me.

Real progress triggers positive emotions like satisfaction, gladness, even joy. It leads to a sense of accomplishmnet and self-worth as well as positive views of the work and, sometimes, the organization. (page 68)

Poor managers forget the importance of giving meaning to the work people are doing. In fact, most still think people are motivated mostly by extrinsic rewards such as higher pay, bonuses or other benefits. People are actually more accutely motivated by a positive inner work life; that is, when they feel they are contributing to something greater than themselves, feel recognized for it and can have fun while doing it.

The book outlines four ways to negate meaning:

  1. Dismiss a person’s work.
  2. Take away ownership from the person.
  3. Doubt that the work will ever come to fruition.
  4. Menial tasks for which the worker is overqualified.

The progress loop, on the other hand, requires, well, progress, a feeling that you are getting somewhere and that your efforts are meaningful. That fosters a more positive inner work life, which, in turn, contributes to more progress and so on.

Setbacks are the major progress killer, leading to negative emotions and disengagement.

Great leaders are catalysts for positive change or even emotional nourishers.They recognize the human component and its importance in their organization.

Never underestimate the power of sincere acknowledgement. If someone in your life is doing something you appreciate, tell that person. It’s amazing how you will rock their world with your words.

The human connection is so valuable in our lives. If you feel disconnected from your job, consider how you might measure some progress in it. Reach out to a colleague. Exchange ideas. It can take you out of that vicious cycle into a virtuous one with more joy than you can imagine.