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Author Archive | Chris Bailey

The Beauty of Unexpected Trails

Smith Creek Bridge

Today was a day for me to get some much-needed nature therapy. In the summer months, I struggle to get into woods because of the hellacious Southern heat and humidity. And August is truly one of the cruelest months. However, yesterday, I experienced a panic attack that took me by surprise. My daily medication usually helps, but when I don’t mind my thinking and neglect my body’s need for the outdoors, I get easily knocked off balance.

It certainly wasn’t one of my worst panic attacks, but it was strong enough where I needed to take a knee and regroup.

Committing Self-care
Well, I say I needed to take a knee, but I had every intention of going into work today. It’s a Friday and things are usually a little more chill so I could just gut it out. But when I woke up at 4:30am and couldn’t go back to sleep, I knew something still wasn’t right. My thoughts were swirling around in a spiral and my body would not unclinch in spite of the breathing and relaxation exercises. Nope. Gutting it out wasn’t going to happen today, no matter what my always unhelpful Inner Critic was whispering. So I did the self-compassionate thing and called in for a sick day. The salaried workaday tasks could wait until Monday. It was time to start looking for a trail.

For those of us living in North Georgia, we are blessed with hundreds of trails within a reasonably short driving distance. On my list of “future hikes” was Smith Creek Trail that starts at Unicoi State Park and ends at Anna Ruby Falls. So after downing a few cups of coffee and a plateful of scrambled eggs, I packed my hiking gear and headed north to the mountains.

Forest Mindfulness
Once on the trail, all the forest scents, sounds, and other sensations washed over me. There is actually a term called “forest bathing” and while it might conjure up images of people streaking through the wilderness buck-ass naked, it’s quite a bit more chaste than that. The term is roughly derived from the Japanese Shinrin-yoku and has been advocated by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a form of meditation. It’s slowly gaining attention in the U.S. as our society’s ever-increasing technology addiction, rising healthcare costs, and overall life satisfaction are all out of whack.

With a renewed sense of calm, and the tranquility that comes with no fellow hikers, I could let go and just be with the forest. And as I did, my attention was drawn to all the life around me, both large and small. Towering trees above me. The soft trickling of Smith Creek to my right. Mosses, ferns, shrubs, rocks, and mushrooms at my feet. I’ve been reading natural history books on the Appalachian Mountains and there are chapters devoted to the multitudes of plants and fungi that thrive in these ancient landscapes. With our recent rains in North Georgia, I got to see and smell exactly why some folks are fascinated by the world of mushrooms and lichens. With few flowering plants on the trail, the various fungi provided much of the color and transformative life.

Spider Webs
Dammitall, I knew that August brings insects of all varieties with its heat and humidity. I even had the foresight to stop by the grocery store on my way out of town to power up on some industrial-strength bug spray.

What I totally forgot was that all those active bugs mean dinner for some other critters. Namely, spiders.

Unfortunately, my one weakness when it comes to being in wilderness is an aversion to spiders. I’m perfectly comfortable with snakes, millipedes, and other crawly things of the forest. Not so much with arachnids. And definitely not so much with arachnids who build their webs spanning the width of the trail.

Not to scale (maybe)

That’s one of the negative trade-offs of having a trail pretty much to yourself. There’s no one else to knock down webs that hit you full in the face. You’re on your own. And I’m certain that at times I looked like some hysterical extra from a battle scene of Game of Thrones who decided a more productive use of a trek pole was slashing and parrying with whatever was 4 feet in front of me. Well, better that than having a face full of web with a larger than necessary spider dangling from it.

Strange Pathways
A funny thing happened on my way to the trail’s end: I accidentally meandered off the path by what could have been a quarter mile. I’m still looking at trail maps trying to figure out exactly where and how I could lose the trail in such a spectacular way. Perhaps I was overly entranced by the magnificent array of ferns that covered the forest floor. Perhaps it was just bad trail management by the usually reliable U.S. Forest Service. But as I moved further into a mountainside covered in lush ferns obscuring what could no longer be defined as a path, I knew I went astray. I was no longer hiking a trail…I was blazing a path to somewhere unknown. Every time I thought I backtracked to the proper trail, it turned out to be more of the same non-trail.

Somewhere near Smith Creek Trail

Shit. But here’s the thing. Even though I was alone and off trail, I wasn’t afraid. I knew I wasn’t truly lost since Smith Creek was still to my right. As long as I had that point of navigation, I could find my way back. Now don’t tell anyone, but I did a wee cheat and used my phone’s GPS to locate my position in relationship to the trail. As I zoomed in, I saw that I was so close…just a little further up the mountainside and I’d be back on the right track. So I continued my blazing and within a few minutes I saw what appeared to be the lip of the trail 25 yards above me.

I climbed up, dodging a few more spider webs, clambering over wet and decaying wood. There was the trail. I did notice it curving back around the mountainside in a slightly different direction than I expected, but my U.S. Forest Service map indicated there was only one trail in the vicinity. This had to be the right path. So I followed it for the next hour or so and it took me all the way back to the initial creek crossing near the trailhead. Instead of my waterfall destination, I merely looped back to the truck.

Confused? Yep. Disappointed? Sort of. Yet, by this point, I was in a space of appreciation for my day’s nature experience. Plus, I was to gain a sense of perspective that I misplaced after my earlier panic attack.

Today’s hike was somewhat like this past week. I started on one path with only one destination in mind. Along the way, I temporarily got lost and was no longer as certain about my surroundings. But eventually, I found my way back even if it was on a trail I didn’t expect.

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Finding Our River

Think back for a moment. Can you remember what it was like to be 18 years old? Even though I currently deal with occasional bouts of Stage IV CRS, I vividly recall just how much I wanted to escape my claustrophobic small town rural life of central Appalachia, grab my independence with both hands, and head toward anything approaching an actual city. I was hell-bent on trying to be cosmopolitan and worldly.

The opening lyrics to R.E.M.’s Find the River captures this desire perfectly:

“Hey now little speedy head
the read on the speed meter says
you have to go task in the city
Where people drown and people serve
Don’t be shy
your just deserve
is only just light years to go.”

This little speedy head didn’t need a speed meter to know that it was time to haul ass out of a sleepy, stifling West Virginia. And so I went to task in the city. First, Greensboro NC, then Washington DC, Austin TX, and now Atlanta GA.

I’m not alone in this rural to urban migration. Sometime in 2008, we officially hit a tipping point where, as Florence Williams notes, humans became an urban species. And aside from some sort of apocalyptic event, there appears to be no letting up. Back in 2014, 54% lived in urban areas and by 2050 it’s projected to increase to 66% where 6.4 billion humans will be urban dwellers. The UN describes this event as one where we will turn “much of the world into a global city.”

And yet…and yet. Something hasn’t always felt right about my own migration to urban life. I would sometimes hear an inner voice trying to rise above the din of incessant traffic, demands of work, cell phone dings, shuffling of mortgage and credit card bills. At the time, I wasn’t able to clearly hear the words this voice was trying to deliver to me. But I could feel the emotional weight of the message. Without fail, it always happened whenever I listened to Find the River.

I remember one morning, commuting to work in Washington, DC, the song found its way onto my playlist and I started to weep. I felt a deep sadness rapidly descend upon me and I had to pull off into a hotel parking lot. I don’t remember how long I stayed there, but I do vividly recall sitting in the driver seat and feeling the dark panic, emptiness, and confusion that was engulfing me. Something wasn’t right. I was going in the wrong direction. But what the hell? I enjoyed my work in nonprofits, I was moving forward and upward. I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, but I was getting there.

So I pushed all that shit back as far as it would go into my gut. I put on a cheerful, courageous look and went about my business of living life and working where the work was, which remained in the city. I even swapped nonprofit organizations for technology companies and entrepreneurship because that is where the real success is according to all the major magazines, popular blogs, and everyone else on social media.

However, after 25 years of believing success, money, and happiness would be found in the city, I realize that I might actually have been drowning and serving and losing my authentic self as part of the Faustian bargain. (Oh and by the way, small detail…during this time I was also clinically diagnosed with depression and acute anxiety.) What if no matter what I did, my just deserve was always going to be light years away simply because it was never there waiting for me? What if it was closer to where I started in the first place?

The song continues:

I have got to find the river
Bergamot and Vetiver
Run through my head and fall away
Leave the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way

Where you may find this sad and depressing, I actually read these lyrics as a call to be courageous and honest with our selves. As a forty-something, I’ve come to a place where I believe my path is no longer tied to the city. It is a return to my roots, a return to nature. My authentic self now knows its time to leave that busy, frenetic highway and find my river. And because it is my own unique river, nothing may be heading along my way on a road far less travelled.

My soul is not truly at peace surrounded by steel and concrete. I am most alive when I feel the breeze flow gently through my fingers, hear the sounds of birds singing in the distance, feel the earth beneath my bare feet.

Those same memories from my youth that I casually discarded have now found a way back. Almost like a type of muscle memory. I now vividly recall moments of winter snow, spring wildflowers, summer fireflies, and fall leaves. Of moments spent with my grandmother at her kitchen table watching birds eat from her back door feeder. Of chasing small snakes, toads, and salamanders. Of building dams of sticks and pebbles on small streams.

I’m compelled to reclaim an inheritance that has patiently waited for me to return.

And so I am making it my life and work to reconnect with all that nature continues to offer: beauty, harmony, mystery, awe. Perhaps your authentic voice is whispering something similar. It’s not too late to find our river.

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You Gotta Jump

All I can say to this bit of inspiration from Steve Harvey is…damn right.

Jumping off the cliff – even knowing you have a parachute – is scary as hell.

And I’ll be absolutely candid. I’m still falling, tugging at the ripcord. I’ve been torn up and beaten up on my way down. I’ve experienced things that, at the time, made me wish I never jumped at all. But I’m glad I did. I’m glad I took the risk of jumping into the unknown. I’m glad I tried different careers and moved to different places with no idea what was on the other side. I have scars and I appreciate every single one of them. Each one is a reminder that I am alive, I am whole, I am worthy, I am enough.

And here’s the kicker…I do have faith that my parachute is opening. And yours will too, if you choose to jump.

However, as Mr. Steve says, if you never jump your parachute will never open and you will never soar.

So tell your fear – no matter what shape it takes – to go to hell because you gotta jump.

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4 Steps To Keep From Walking Into Another Bad Workplace

Eventually it happens to all of us when we enter a new organization. Sometimes it takes a few years. Sometimes a few months. For the least fortunate among us, only a few weeks. I’m talking about the waving of a red flag signaling our first WTF experience in our workplace. It’s usually accompanied by a feeling that might appear like this:

WTF is going on around here?

Really? You have got to be kidding me.

We all deal with irritants in our work. The sometimes gnarly commute. The copier that seems to drink ink like a pirate drinks rum. The volunteer who consistently runs late for their shift. You get the picture. But I’m not talking those daily annoyances. They’re just the cost of getting out of bed each morning and going to work in a nonprofit.

I’m talking about those experiences that stoke your sense that something isn’t right about your workplace. You might say those are also a cost of working in a nonprofit (or really any job) and you would be largely correct. Since an organization is made up of people, they’re just as imperfect and flawed as you and I are. Usually, we can choose to look beyond these flaws because we can accept them as we might accept our own flaws.

However, sometimes these flaws turn into something darker and more troubling. They violate a core value. Or perhaps a couple of core values which starts to feel intolerable. Or finally they violate so many of our core values that the environment becomes toxic and affects our wellbeing. It’s time to start looking for a new place to take our skills, talents, and passion ASAP.

But how can you be certain you won’t simply walk out of one insane asylum into another? I did it twice in one year and it was disastrous to my mental and physical health.

The key is to get curious about your current experience and learn to identify exactly what sucks. How? I’d like to suggest an exercise you can begin right now.

The first step is to identify and get cozy with your core values. Everything hinges on this because if something has deeply upset you, it’s likely because it violated one of your core values. If you’re unsure or simply want to do some reconnecting work with yourself, there are several sources that can help. Here’s a brief listing of resources which have helped me:
http://www.mas.org.uk/quest/ivp2.htm
http://www.inc.com/kevin-daum/define-your-personal-core-values-5-steps.html
https://www.zapposinsights.com/blog/item/3-steps-to-identifying-personal-core-values

Now grab a sheet of paper or crack open Word. (Personally, I like using a cloud app like Microsoft OneNote so I always have access to the document on my phone and iPad.) You’re going to create a map with at least four columns:

  1. Current Challenging Experience
  2. Violated Core Value
  3. Intensity of Feeling
  4. Questions to Help Uncover

Step 1. Current Challenging Experience
So what’s pissing you off enough right now that you’re actually taking time to do this exercise? What’s happening that is making you to want to run off and sell coconuts along a beach in Tahiti or start an angora rabbit ranch in West Virginia?

For illustration, let’s say a someone in leadership is constantly abrasive and condescending to you and your staff. They have no problems throwing around insults in public meetings. Your challenging experience might be: A Board Member is consistently rude to me and my staff.

Step 2. Violated Core Value
You know your core values. Now see if you can connect that value that’s been violated to the experience.

In our example, we might feel that our value of Respect has been violated.

Step 3. Intensity
This is highly subjective, but can help prioritize which experiences are irritants, which ones you can deal with, and which ones are true value violations.

Respect (at least for me) is one of those top three values so this isn’t an irritant or something you feel mildly. The intensity is High.

Step 4. Questions
Now comes the difficult part but it is a significant reason why you’re going through this exercise. Ask yourself: If interviewing for my current position today, what questions could I ask that would give me insight into my challenging experience? What we’re trying to do here is reverse engineer the experience and identify the burning red flags from our current workplace to check if they’re present in this next possible workplace.

Some questions to ask in your next interview might be:

  • What’s the current relationship between the Board and staff?
  • Are there any Board members who I should work with differently?
  • In terms of how the Board governs, would you say it’s more Advisory, Co-operative, or Managing?

Putting It Together
Your map should look something like this:

Challenging Experience Violated Core Value Intensity Questions to Help Learn
A board member is consistently rude to me and my staff Respect High
  • What’s the current relationship between the Board and staff?
  • Are there any Board members who I should work with differently?
  • In terms of how the Board governs, would you say it’s more Advisory, Co-operative, or Managing?

Keep adding rows of experiences as they arise. And keep adding, reviewing, and refining it. Test drive it when talking to peers inside your organization or friends who work somewhere else.

And when you have an interview and get to put this to work, don’t forget to watch for body language when asking questions. While an interviewer might try to hide what they really think through their words, their nonverbal will likely betray their feelings.

Anything I’ve missed here? Thoughts on improvement? I’m always refining my own map so feel free to share in comments or shoot me a personal message. I’d love to hear how this works for you. Good luck!

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My Vacation To The Lake And Learning To Care Intentionally

View of Lake Hartwell in South CarolinaThere I floated on my bright yellow raft, not too far away from the dock. It was the first morning of our summer lake vacation and was starting to warm up into one of those typical late July hot southern days. But instead of feeling the peace of being on the water and the relaxation of being on vacation, I unintentionally brought something else along with me. A big, nasty ball of feelings that I had slowly and gradually crunched up in the pit of my stomach: bewilderment, anger, sadness, and more.

Yep, I made the critical error of bringing my job – and the frustrations of the last few weeks – along with me. I wager that every single person who works inside a nonprofit wrestles with an existential crisis at times. I was wrestling with the question of whether anything I was doing in my work really mattered. So there I floated, eventually coming to a point where the constant refrain in my head was, “…I could so care less.” I had gotten to a point where I was starting to find easy solace in apathy. 

Eventually, the slow ebb and flow of the water did its job and I felt my muscles and mind start to relax. The sounds of the birds and the cold beer in my hand led me toward some much needed inner solitude. I questioned how I had arrived at this place where “Screw it all!” was an acceptable landing spot.

I needed to confront head-on the confusion of experiencing this apathy in work that I deeply enjoyed and was exceptionally good at for an organization in which I believed in its mission. What the hell was going on that would make me accept the possibility of caring less?

Then, I recalled something a trusted mentor told me not long ago. I didn’t actually want to care less. My problem was that I was caught in a pernicious trap of caring too much. How is caring too much a bad thing? For me, caring about the outcome of every single experience, every single event, every single opinion in my workplace was exhausting. Further, it only led to disappointment and cynicism when those outcomes failed to match up with my expectations. It was a sure-fire road to burnout and I was on the express bus. 

Fortunately, I was able to pause. I quieted the thoughts about how I should care less or care more. Instead, I started to reflect on how to be more intentional as to what I truly do care about.

Not everything is worth the battle or engaging in the fire drill. We don’t need to actively participate in everyone’s drama. So many things exist far outside our control. However, what we can control is our thoughts and reactions to the daily dramas. When we get clear about our values and goals, we can make better choices about how we want to matter.

Later that evening, I sat on the deck overlooking the lake and spent time with the person I am at my core. I took some time to recall my values and why I returned to the nonprofit world. I sketched out the big picture goals for my work. Anything I could use to reorient me toward giving my best effort to my organization as well as my career. Shortly afterward, I let go a great sigh of relief and settled into enjoying the next few days of special quality time with my family.

By the end of the vacation, I left the lake with what I call my Roadmap for Intentional Caring.

The temptation to care too much is always there. And the relative “safety” of trying to not care at all is always there, as well. It’s locating the sweet spot in the middle and being able to get back there to intentional caring when we swing toward either end of the spectrum.

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Every Hero Needs A Theme Song

Leathers - Deftones“They’re my theme music. Every good hero should have some.”
Bernie Casey as Jack Spade
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

Bernie Casey is absolutely right. If we’re to be the hero of our own movie (and we damn well better be) then we’re going to need a badass theme song to match.

To this day, my theme music is Leathers by Deftones.

When I was living through my own hellish nightmare of depression a couple of years ago, when all seemed lost and felt empty, this song was my constant companion. There was rarely a day when I didn’t plug earbuds in to my iPhone and let the ferocity of the song wash over and drive through me.

Chino Moreno – through his lyrics and voice – was able to help me rediscover (at least for short periods of time) my inner power that had become elusive and difficult to grasp. While I know Chino wasn’t writing specifically for me, the timing of the song’s release in late 2012 and its intense message felt like an uncannily personal plea. It is an anthem challenging me to be courageous, to not allow the diminishment of my self by others, to own my wholeness that includes strengths as well as inadequacies, to show what I am made of.

The song opens like this:

This is
Your chance
revolt, resist!
Open your chest, look down, reach in.

Shedding your skin,
Showing your texture.
Time to let everything inside show.
You’re cutting all ties
Now and forever, time to let
Everything outside you

Even though I’ve moved beyond this dark place in my life, Leathers continues to hold meaning for me. It remains my theme song…so much so that I have a t-shirt for days when I want to openly claim my badassery. It reminds me not only of where I’ve been but also galvanizes me to create a present and future in which I am unafraid to express my full self.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m moved primarily by metal and hard rock. Your groove may be more geared toward pop, country, or gospel. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have your own theme song that brings out your hero or heroine.

What’s your theme music? Your anthem that propels you through the dark and rough times, inspires you to remember who you truly are, strengthens your resolve and focus needed to kick the shit out of anything that gets in your way?

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Five Observations For Surviving The Modern Workplace

Rambo and survivalThis post might serve as some indication as to the type of week I’ve had. One where the veil has been pulled aside to further clarify some observations that I’ve noticed in my long and winding career journey.

1. Our organization is not our family.
This very notion that my organization is a family has always made me cringe. Unless we’re related by blood or marriage or some other legal compact, there’s not one shred of truth to this. Further, it feels cultish, like I’ve joined up with the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, goes so far as to say that its one of the worst lies a company can tell its employees. It’s misguided at best and deceptive at its worst.

In a Harvard Business Review article, he elaborated:

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: ‘We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.’

2. Our organization is not responsible for our happiness.
On the face of it, this feels stupidly obvious. But how many times have we felt pissed off, frustrated, and ultimately unhappy only then to blame our organization for it. Take a moment and reflect on your recent experience. Go ahead…I’ll wait. Hey, I did it just this week. It’s all too easy to feel we’re owed happiness at work by the very organization that feels it’s owed our loyalty in return for a signed paycheck.

However, who gets to determine our happiness? We do, of course.

3. Our boss is not our friend. And conversely, our employee is not our friend.
This isn’t to suggest that the boss-employee dynamic shouldn’t be friendly. But do not mistake that dynamic for a true friendship. The boss still holds the upper hand in the power structure. Don’t believe me? The next time you have the chance to do what you want versus what your boss wants, go your own way. Where your friend may be irritated, your boss is likely going to see it as a direct challenge to their authority. Do it too many times and you’re going to find yourself taken behind the woodshed for a professional whipping.

And god forbid that you work for a friend or hire a friend. The times when this works out for everyone is vastly outnumbered by the times when it ends in tragedy.

4. Our job does not define our identity.
I am an entrepreneur. I am a dentist. I am a diner waitress. I am an assistant to the traveling secretary of the New York Yankees. Or for me, I am a digital nonprofit fundraiser.

Yes, these can all be true statements…and untrue if we believe our job is our sole defining role. The times when I’ve identified myself as primarily a marketer, an entrepreneur, or a fundraiser are the times when I have been a shitty husband, father, and friend. These are also the times when I forget that I am a writer, a hiker, an amateur naturalist, a Steelers fan, and several other things that I enjoy in my life.

5. Our work is not our life.
There’s a thin line between being invested in our work (which is good) and being over-invested (which can lead to the type of obsessive behavior that robs us of strong relationships and our well-being). Over-investing in work can also lead to a type of vicious anxiety where the work isn’t just part of our life…it can feel like it’s life or death.

One mistake can cancel out several superb accomplishments. Then, fear of committing another mistake can prompt job insecurity and a paralyzing fear that just one more mistake can lead to a pink slip. And then we’re marked by the stigma of the Scarlet Letter F – for Fired AKA Failure-at-Life.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. But wait.

If you’re still with me so far, hang on. I’m about to take this whole line of thinking for a U-turn because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe this is my cynical persona taking me for a ride.

Instead, if I listen to the quiet voice of inner wisdom that whispers in the space where my ego screams, it reminds me that all is One and Life is interconnected. And our Work is a testament to our love not just for our self but a gift to this fractured world.

As someone who has experienced career success as well as career hell, here’s where I openly admit that I struggle with two concepts: realism and idealism. The real provides a protective fence for my ego. By avowing that my organization is not my family, it allows me to keep the group at arm’s length so I can’t be hurt. By acknowledging that my employee is not my friend, I can more easily make the decision to cut him loose with a parting comment that it’s “just business.” Maybe this protective fence is what keeps me from fully living life, fully sharing my talents with others, fully being human (and therefore vulnerable) with each person I encounter in my daily journey.

Perhaps these five “cynical” concepts I’ve described above have the opportunity to be turned around and transformed into something more spiritually rewarding, and therefore more radical in society and our modern workplace. What if organizations can be more human spaces where respect wins over condescension, courage over fear, service over power, and vulnerability over arrogance?

I wonder what our organizations would look like?

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The Harmful and Ridiculous Lie of “Mentally Strong People”

Take what you need posterLast year, when I was in the hellish gutter of one of the worst depression and anxiety episodes of my life, I kept seeing articles pop up in my Facebook feed talking about “mentally strong people” and the actions they take every day. At the time I felt anything but mentally strong. I was just trying to get through each day, moment by moment, without completely losing my shit. Some days I managed to hold it together; others, I was in one of the office bathroom stalls quietly praying to just not exist. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want the continued pain of being. And then my internal critic would angrily ask why I was so mentally weak because mentally strong people – according to these various articles – don’t hang out on the toilet and contemplate the option of nonexistence. They’d be out there, kicking ass, making all the right moves, being generally awesome.

And that’s the insidiously subtle message of these articles: that if you’re not mentally strong…well, you must be the opposite. And when you’re struggling in a state of depression and anxiety, what other possible explanation could there be?

Yet, I persevered. I suffered, but I persevered and somehow came out on the other side to where I am today. And today is joyful and hopeful and meaningful. Does that perseverance make me mentally strong? Who knows but every time I read these articles and blogposts about mentally strong people, I don’t relate one bit.

This week, I saw another article about “mentally strong people” and felt angry because I wager there are people out there just trying to keep their shit together and don’t need any more of these types of messages. (Here’s my Facebook rant if you’re curious about the genesis of this blogpost.) If you care to see what I’m talking about just do a Google search for “mentally strong people” and you get plenty of these types of articles:

  • 10 Toxic Relationships Mentally Strong People Avoid
  • 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do
  • The 9 Essential Habits Of Mentally Strong People
  • 12 Common Lies Mentally Strong People Don’t Believe
  • The 13 Tough Habits Of Mentally Strong People

Now that I’m in a more healthy mental and emotional place in my life, I see this tripe for what it is: at best, lies masquerading as someone else’s vain attempt to claim toughness and superiority; at worst, linkbait for those who are worried they’re just not measuring up to some impossible standard of success. The more I think about it, it’s probably both.

Turns out I’m not alone. As I was doing the Google search referenced above, I came across this similar critique from Denise K. Shull in Psychology Today:

Despite the widespread appeal of the message, I can’t help but wonder: says who and based on what? How do we actually know what so-called mentally tough people (whomever that is and whatever the standard is) do? There isn’t a shred of psychological research referenced. It appears to be an opinion grounded in the rapidly deteriorating cases for positive thinking and intellect’s superiority over emotion. Sure there are a few valuable truisms like “don’t give up” but the undercurrent of stoicism running through the list is as likely to harm as to help.

Take the reader who is feeling any form of “bad” over a challenging economic situation. What’s the net effect? Does the idea that they are weak if they can’t always suck it up make them feel better about themselves? Does it make them feel more like they can go out and create a new economic opportunity? I actually suspect that deep-down, this list makes them feel more inadequate – or in other words, weaker.

Want to know how to be mentally strong? I honestly have no idea. And if someone claims they do, they’re sizing you up as a sucker. But here’s what I can say from my experience of wandering the mental and emotional wastelands. All we can do is live each day the best we can. Appreciate that we’re going to have joyful experiences and terrible ones. Find ways to see ourselves for the goodness and gift that we are. Perhaps, to be mentally strong is to simply love. That’s all. Isn’t that enough?

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On Letting Go and Letting In

Joseph Campbell Quote

I’m really not sure how to start this post. There’s a voice that is trying to convince me to delete it this very moment. My Inner Critic whispers to me in his most lovingly insidious voice, “No one wants to hear about your problems and fears. No one likes someone who is weak and vulnerable and struggles with life and career. No one wants to hire a man who is emotional, fights off self-doubt, bears his soul to the world and is an idealist at heart (besides, you’ll just get chewed up by hungry, focused, competitive, driven professionals that organizations want anyway). So, shut up and stop being such a damned martyr.” Yes, this is what that voice sounds like in my head. He’s a true bastard.

There was a point not too long ago when I would have ceded to this voice. It’s why I didn’t blog for months. It’s why I allowed myself to stay quiet and unassuming. Yet, I recognize now this was the lie of depression. Problem is, when you live with a voice for so long, you hear it softly lulling you into the supposed safety of smallness and inadequacy, it becomes a tough relationship to sever. And that’s where I am right now…trying to be at peace with this voice while allowing for other voices of purpose, confidence, humor, and compassion to emerge, as well.

My past few years have seen their share of ups and downs. They’ve also been full of heartbreaking struggle and it’s largely because I have clung so tightly to my past with its burdens, fears, guilt, and emotional anchors. I’ve lied about what I want from life and ignored my true self fearing the ridicule and judgment of others, particularly in my career. I didn’t want to be seen as weird, incompetent, unprofessional. I chased after work that didn’t fit my strengths, that didn’t excite my passions, that didn’t fill me with purpose but they were in-demand jobs that held the promise of money and prestige. Alas, these jobs didn’t last long and I fear these recent professional missteps – though I learned much in the experiences – could serve as my own scarlet letter in the future.

However, I am also waking up to recognize that all of this I have gone through has been preparation for something much bigger and much more important. I don’t yet know what this is…but I know as I approach 40 it is about emerging into a truer form of my self, one that this world needs right now. It’s about letting go of the past and unmet expectations and letting in the possibility of new beginnings. It’s about meeting whatever comes next with an excitement and a belief that what is emerging has the ability to be a force for good. It means choosing to live a heartful life and commit to work that truly matters. It means being free to be weirdly and soulfully me…and resting secure in the notion that while I may not fit every organization’s ideal model of employee, there are some organizations that are looking for all I bring to the party.

I hope that if you are finding yourself in a similar state of emerging, that together we can embrace the life that is waiting for us. If I can help you in your journey, reach out and let me know what you need. We’re all in this together.

Love, Chris

P.S., Special thanks to Licia Berry for inspiring this post.

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The War On Play

Why is there a war being fought against play?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.

I hear it when I talk to friends about the near-constant stresses of their work. The fear of taking time off only to see the mountain of work upon their return. The endless cycle of meetings where conversation tends to focus on the tactical, on the execution, on the pressure to get shit done NOW. If I would ask, “But did you get to actually play today?” they would look at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. And for good reason…we’ve pretty much separated the ideas of work and play in our current economy.

I truly believe we can and must reconnect work and play if our organizations are going to succeed.

Yes, it’s an uphill battle and the latest employee engagement statistics don’t offer much reason for optimism. And we’re not exactly helping our kids see the connection, either. I witness this every day when my children bring piles of homework from school. Just this past weekend, my daughter probably had four or five hours of personal time. The other remaining hours were devoted to projects, studying, and various other work. She, and so many other children, are suffering a deficit of play.

It’s almost as if our educational system is saying, “Get used to it kids. We’re preparing you for the real world where work is first. Life is just that thing that fills in the odd spaces.”

Why do we believe this is okay? Why have we decided that we need far less time to play, create, and wonder? Why do we regard learning as this intensely serious undertaking instead of the playful possibility it can be? Is this a reason we see so many more instances of depression and anxiety among adults and teens today?

Maybe it’s because as much as we like to believe we value creativity, we really don’t know how to handle it…in our businesses and in our schools.

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