1. "You are a mess. You are crying and loud about it. Go to your room and don't come back until you're happy."
These were the words of my mother, an all-loving, somewhat imperfect parent, when I was five years old. (Somewhat imperfect: that's all any parent can hope to be.)
2. "Don't ever let them see you cry at work. Don't ever sob — until you are on the way home."
This was my father, when I was 25. He was being funny, but — with him — there was much truth in jest. He was an artful, thoughtful writer. He chose his words carefully. He meant what he said.
And he and I both laughed, imagining him on the way home sobbing. Because he took the bus.
What I Learned
In many ways, the advice was productive. I learned how to keep my cooler side available to the world. And I kept my hotter side on the inside.
They knew that — when I was at the tender ages of five and 25 — my launches into adolescence and into careerhood — would be more successful if I relied on and trusted my mind. And, to them, emotions distract us from logic.
More erratically, emotions emanate from the gut, from the heart, from the core, from below the neck. And anything that happens below the neck — they implied — was the primitive, interrupting the rational.
Their advice worked.
My early rise, well into my 30s, was fueled by my intellect.
I became a computer walking around on a body stem. I took care of my body, with increasingly better diet, increasingly more intelligent exercise, increasing use of meditation, increasing amounts of sleep.
But my body served little purpose beyond: a base for the primary muscle, my brain.
And then their advice didn't work.
Late in my 30s, I was stuck. My career wasn't advancing. I owned a company filled with smart people who didn't know me. We spent each day working on challenges I didn't really care about.
But what does "care" have to do with career? (That's funny. I've never seen career as care-er, one who cares.)
What does "care" have to do with career? Everything.
I was intellectually engaged, but didn't care. And my work showed it. Suffice it to summarize: the people who cared — in my company, at our competitors — ate my lunch every day because they cared about the work and the industry. The race goes to the swiftest; the creativity to the caringest. More power to them!
I was intellectually engaged in the debates, the arguments, the laughter. But I wasn't engaged emotionally.
And I didn't even know it.
What did this look like? Like a man going to work every day telling himself that he's the luckiest guy in the world. Telling himself! So that, perhaps, he might actually believe it. (These days, these happier days, I find I don't spend any time or effort convincing myself that I'm happy.)
But what was happening to me back then?
I blame fear.
The fear of being emotionally vulnerable had been amplified by additional fears: of the company failing, of meeting payroll, of using debt to fund operating losses, of appearing stupid or unsuccessful, of failing to persuade others to believe I was competent. All these fears originated above the neck — and served as a wall between what I thought and how I felt.
All my trust was in what I thought.
How I felt was a distraction to be avoided.
I didn't realize that my lack of progress was caused by the very idea that helped me soar in childhood and young adulthood. The idea: trust your brain, stifle your emotions.
My intellect was tapped out. Exhausted.
These days, we eat foods that make us sick. Then we spend more than any other country on disease because we're sick. As a result, Starbucks spends more money on healthcare than it does on coffee. (See Robyn O'Brien at TEDxAustin on "Real Food" here: http://youtu.be/rixyrCNVVGA)
Now healthcare costs are a drain on our productivity. Because we could change our food supply, we don't need to continue spending what we are spending. Plus, the current investment isn't working. We aren't going to spend our way out of the national diet of genetically modified foods awash in corn syrup. We need to change our beliefs and our behaviors.
Like watching skyrocketing healthcare costs consume the American GDP, my brain was increasingly taxed by the work of shunting my emotions.
Something had to change.
He instructed me to pause during the day and sense how I felt at that moment. "Not the philosophical, emotional how do I feel?, but rather the physical what do I feel?," he said. "At five minutes before each hour, pause to check what you feel: is your heart pounding? are your hands (or anything else) sweaty? is your blood racing? or is your breath slow and deep? are you smiling? do you feel your weight in your chair or your feet on the ground? What do you feel?"
The idea, he explained, is that what we feel physically is connected to how we feel emotionally. And how we feel emotionally helps us understand whether we like what we are doing. We can start to find the gaps between the cognitive (what I think) and behavioral (what I am doing). According to cognitive behavioral psychology, when our behaviors do not match our beliefs, we feel it.
When I started my pauses at work, I realized that I felt agitated when I was in meetings that were going well. Meetings going badly? I felt engaged and passionate. Meetings going well? I felt bored and agitated at the same time.
So I started quietly getting up and excusing myself from meetings that were going well. One client saw me leave and chased me down the hall. "Is everything O.K.?" she asked.
"Oh, yeah. Do you like the work? Do you like what we are presenting?"
"I do," she said. "It's great. We're very happy with the work."
"Great," I said. "That's why I left. I'm not needed in there. I'm looking for a meeting that is less happy."
"Not so fast," she said. "You need to develop some butt glue. You need to learn how to stay in meetings, even when they get a little long for your fruit fly attention span."
She was right, if I was to be a successful business owner. But I wasn't interested in having more butt glue. I honored how I felt. I stopped going to meetings. And, in the end, I lost my company. (I'm not a management role model for CEOs. I'm just being candid: I'm not a CEO. But I might be a role model in other areas, such as self-awareness and personal ingenuity. That's pompous to state, but I know I'm better at those than I am at managing. I never liked telling adults what to do.)
Over time I realized that I was frenetically bored. (Steve loves that phrase and uses it with his coaching clients.) I was busy, busy, busy — and, at the same time, bored out of my gourd.
I needed my body to tell me whether I cared about my work. Because my brain wouldn't pause long enough to assess the Big Picture.
It's a stomach ache. A pang in the heart. A shallow, rapidity in the breath. A tension in the neck. Or about 1,000 other possible signals.
I had been taught — and truly came to believe — that those signals were distractions. So I ignored them.
Mother Nature's Radar
But that's what they are: signals.
Those feelings — physical, connected to emotional — are signals sent to us via Mother Nature's radar. They mean something. And they come so fast that they arrive before we know what they mean.
That's how we are wired. When the tiger comes over the horizon, we don't pause to think about it: "Tigers are carnivores. I might be suitable lunch for this tiger. It would be a good idea to run."
There isn't time. And, if we know how to read Mother Nature's radar signals, there isn't the need to think about it. Fight or flight (in this case, for me, flight) take over.
Sure, this used to be helpful when we lived with tigers on the tundra. (Note to self: Do tigers live on tundra?)
But who cares now? We aren'f facing Tundra Tigers. We live at desks, in cars, and on the pickleball court.
How I feel has a lot to do with what I think about what I am doing. And if my feelings and thoughts are in direct opposition, fighting each other, something has to change. I won't reach my most creative productivity. I either need to change my beliefs (what I think) or my behavior. Because Mother Nature isn't going to change how I feel until I take one of those steps.
My greater creative achievements are waiting for me to evolve toward my greatest passions. I can determine those passions only by keeping one eye on my emotional radar. I need to watch for signals.
What are the signals right now? I'm typing like a madman. (Happily, Matt Slaybaugh is sitting across from me, reviewing drafts of this and asking questions that help in my revision.) I feel my heart racing and my back starting to ache (bad writing posture, goofy chair). I am excited by the prospect of sharing these words with you. Thank you.
This is good news.
Anytime in life — and especially during the adjustments of middle life (commonly called a crisis), we need to adjust our beliefs and our behaviors. What has worked for so long shows signs of failure. "Long-standing, proven beliefs are no longer functional," said Steve. "They have become corrosive and must be destroyed."
Meetings are the way to spend time. Meetings that are smooth are the best meetings. These are two beliefs I no longer harbor.
What I feel now.
As I look up from my writing, I am sickened and scared by what has happened in Paris. The murders of writers, the murders of Jews, the murders of grocery shoppers, the murders of humans. (Who perpetrates this evil? They are more than terrorists. Let's call them what they are: homicidal maniacs. Evil exists.)
What do I feel? Nausea. My shoulders are tense. My neck is tight. My breathing is shallow.
What does this mean? More emotionally, these sensations signal that I am braced for attack. My startle response is set high.
And I'm angry that this is the case. I'm angry that it is so easy (is slaughtering easy to anyone?) to be the Bad Guy. It is so hard for millions of Parisians to be the Good Guys.
I take it very personally.
Paris is personal. I am a Jew. I write. I am human.
Je suis juif. J'écris. Je suis humain.