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Cultivating an Attitude of Growth
"The human mind always makes progress, but it is a progress in spirals." — Madame de Stael
STAGES OF GROWTH
We have each been through multiple growth cycles in our lives, growing up from infant, to child, to teenager, to young adult and so on. With each of these stages come deep learning experiences — we can call them awakenings — that have the potential to bring us closer to our true selves. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by these awakenings, and as I have gone through them, I have noticed that this type of learning is what makes great leaders. When we learn, we become bigger on the inside and more capable on the outside. Learning, in particular self-discovery, is essential to becoming an effective leader and creating a fulfilling life.
How do we cultivate this life-giving quality we all share — our capacity to learn? One way is to become aware of how we learn and how we don't. In my own life, growth has sometimes come only after a long period where I failed to learn the lessons being offered to me. We may respond instantly to feedback we receive from friends or colleagues, or we may only learn after our sticking to an old script for too long leads us into trouble. Growth often comes from letting go of mistaken beliefs we inherit and are attached to; you can think of these as crocodiles that have dominated our reptilian brains for eons.
Here is part of my growth story. As you read it, see how it may be similar to yours. Also notice common learning patterns I was falling into.
I was born and raised on a farm in the north of the Netherlands. I remember always being interested in the beauty of the region: the fields, the church steeples on the horizon, and the ever-changing display of clouds, grass, animals, and light. What I wasn't interested in at all were the tractors, tending to the cows, and the farming itself — all of which interested many of my friends and family. My mantra early on became: get me out of here as soon as possible. I longed to see the wider world.
Driven by this yearning, I ended up in New York City in my early twenties. I still remember arriving there for the first time on a Greyhound bus and looking out ofthe window, just before entering the Lincoln Tunnel. I gasped at the beauty of the tall buildings standing in stark contrast to the dark-blue September sky. In that very moment, I fell in love with Manhattan, and decided that I was going to get to the top of one of these buildings as soon as possible — not as a tourist, but as a CEO, managing partner, or owner: I was aiming high.
I got part of the way there. I was elected one of the youngest partners in the consulting company I worked at, I got a corner office on Lexington Avenue, and I thought I had it made. Not so fast, it turns out. Life had some lessons in store for me.
I remember being at a holiday party right after my election to partner, where one of my colleagues came up to me and said, "Hylke, you seem to be really good at what you're doing, but do you really like it?" I thought it was a dumb question. I hadn't loved working the farm as a child — it felt like something I had to do. Work and joy were not connected in my mind.
And then something else happened. I was leading a large consulting team. The manager on the project was reporting to me, and he and I were quite close — or so I thought. About an hour before we were going to present our final recommendations to our client, the board of a German pharmaceutical company, he approached me and said, "Hylke, we need to talk. I have some bad news for you." The worst-case scenario flashed through my head — after five months of deep analysis, had our numbers come out wrong? I asked him what the problem was. My colleague said, "Hylke, you are the worst manager I have ever worked for. It's painful to work with you and I will never work with you again!"
Strangely enough, I felt relieved. Phew ... nothing's the matter with what really matters: the numbers for our client, I thought. Since I had been to feedback training, I said, "I'm sorry to hear that, why don't you schedule some time with my assistant so we can talk about it when we're both back in New York." Needless to say, I heard his feedback and didn't change anything as a result. I didn't think that being the worst manager ever was a problem, because, growing up, I knew several very successful farmers in the Netherlands, and they became successful — or so I thought — by being feared by their farmhands. Employees rotated through their farms frequently, and I thought they often needed to be cajoled or criticized to do their work. I thought that was the way you managed a successful company.
A few months later it came time for the annual performance reviews. I loved performance reviews — I had gotten high marks all throughout my life thus far, first in school and now at work, where I was earning big bonuses, fast promotions, and good projects. This time, my boss said, "I have three pieces of news for you. One piece of good news and two pieces of bad news." I thought he was playing with me. I had yet again more than made my numbers that year and thought I was up for another promotion.
"The first thing is that I will fi re you in six months unless you drastically change your behavior." That seemed like an odd comment to me. Did he want me to sell even more? I thought my numbers looked good. He continued: "The hardest thing for me to share with you is that no one in this firm really likes working with you anymore — they try to avoid it." That hurt. "Finally," he concluded, "I want you to take a week off, totally off. Don't check your voicemail — nothing — and think deeply about what I have said." That was supposed to have been the good news. Even though I didn't love my job, I derived a sense of security and identity from it, so being disconnected didn't seem like such a great offer.
That week out of the office, I talked to my friends about what had happened. Some told me that my boss was crazy, given all the hard work and great results I was giving him. One or two others cautioned me, and said I should look into the feedback and at least get a coach so I could keep my job. That seemed like a wise idea. And so I did. I got a coach and we worked together for a year and not much happened. Yes, I learned some valuable techniques, but at the root nothing shifted. I continued to believe that I was better than most people there, and that only a few people were better than me. This meant I had to be nice to the better-than-me group, and tolerable with the others — going through the motions of the be-kind-and-clear communications processes I had learned that year in coaching.
And then I hit a wall. I had developed severe asthma and my insomnia was intensifying. Sometimes I wasn't able to sleep for seven days in a row. In one of these sleepless weeks I was on vacation with some friends on Ameland, an island off the north coast of Holland. We were sharing rooms. While my friends were snoring the night away, I was lying there at 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., wide awake, with my body aching from not having slept. Suddenly it dawned on me: Something big had to change. I couldn't go on like this. What had happened to the sweet boy who loved the fields and the music and had lots of great friends growing up? All I could see now was a robot who achieved, achieved, achieved and not much else. And even the achievements were no longer coming the way they used to, as my body and social structures were crumbling.
Does any of this sound familiar? Your own growth journey will likely take a very different form, but it may include a similar pattern of stagnation or struggle. Growth is not a linear process. Life is messy and sometimes it seems like we're going backwards for a long time, before anything changes. I went through a decade or more of inner decline, where life got harder and harder as I became more and more brittle on the inside. Difficult as it was, that was what it took for me to evolve. Our path is sometimes smooth, sometimes not, just like a river.
Even though life and growth may sometimes seem difficult and unpredictable, we may also notice some patterns in how we learn. This awareness can help us become more skillful in navigating our learning journeys, as we become able to recognize and let go of our crocodiles.
In 1999, I trained for my first marathon. It was held in New York City. The first time I did a long-distance run to prepare for the big day, I was caught off guard by the pain and fatigue I experienced around mile twelve. When marathon day came, I knew what to expect and how to move through that dip in my energy — I had learned to rely on steady pacing, gentleness, and perseverance as my helpers. Similarly, we can learn to ride the waves in our learning journeys. These waves follow common patterns and we can train ourselves to move through them — equipped with specific mind-sets and behaviors.
Stage 1: Unconscious-Unskilled
Let's take a look at the first stage ofgrowth, which we can call "Unconscious-Unskilled." Unconscious-Unskilled is a phase where you don't know what you don't know. For me, I had blind spots in huge areas of life and leadership. I had no idea that life (especially work life) and joy had anything in common. I hadn't a clue that seeing the greatness in colleagues and treating them with sincere respect is important, and that it makes work a lot more fun. I had no idea who I was. And I didn't know that my crocodiles were keeping me stuck.
Life is our greatest teacher. We hear this all the time and yet, how much are we listening to life? I certainly wasn't. I had completely closed off, thinking I had it all figured out: make lots of money, nurture a few friendships, and become part of the uber-elite that runs the world was my credo then. With this fixed mind-set, I didn't appreciate the wisdom in my colleague asking me whether or not I liked what I did. Nor did I hear the cry for transformation from my colleague who gave me the "bad manager" feedback. I even rationalized my boss's feedback, despite the fact that he had told me that he was going to fire me. He had fired people in the past and I knew he was serious about it with me. And yet it didn't sink in. Why not?
I had a very deeply entrenched belief system about what constitutes a good person and what I needed to do to be happy. I thought I had to perform to be happy, even if that meant alienating others and, most painfully, myself. I can see this now. Back then I was totally unconscious of this performance-over-all-else orientation. So I was powerless over it — it was running my life, without my knowing it.
"Listen to the whispers, so you don't have to hear the screams" is an old Cherokee saying. My own whispers told me time and time again that I needed to stop, take a step back, and introspect. But I didn't want to. I closed my ears to all the signals that had been coming my way, leading a life that, looking back now, seems in many ways to be a bit absurd. The Dutch priest Henri Nouwen wrote: "The noise of our lives makes us 'deaf,' unable to hear when we are called, or from which direction." According to him, our lives become "absurd" when we lose touch with reality as it is, or deaf to life's natural song. He points out that the word absurd has the Latin root surdus, which means "deaf." I would have benefited from opening my ears earlier to the natural rhythms that I was called to live by. The words hearing and healing have only one letter difference — we could call this a coincidence or consider it as pointing to the transformative healing power of tuning into the natural rhythms of our lives. Until we do so, we remain Unconscious-Unskilled, unaware of where we are stuck and where we must grow.
Stage 2: Conscious-Unskilled
Eventually I did start hearing the screams and became conscious of where I was unskilled. Paradoxically, my insomnia woke me up to the realization that I needed to transform. "What had happened to the sensitive boy, who loved the fields, the church steeples, and nature and who had many wonderful friendships?" I wondered. It dawned on me that I had become a robot, driven by my attachments to performance, prestige, and power. The person who I had become had very little to do with the boy I remembered I had been. And I saw that my life had become unmanageable — my health was failing, I couldn't sleep anymore, I had only some superficial friendships left, and my work was becoming rote. That sleepless night during my vacation on Ameland was the moment where I entered the next stage of growth: I became "Conscious-Unskilled," or in other words, I now knew that I didn't know. I saw that there were huge parts of my approach to life that needed changing so that I could start living from a much more authentic place.
I reached the Conscious-Unskilled stage by allowing myself to become more present, more aware of what was really happening — opening myself to the feedback I was receiving from life. One way in which we can accelerate our growth is to be present to what is and to fully let in what we notice. When we pause long enough, with concentrated attention on what is happening in our lives, we may create sufficient distance from our habits to see what is holding us back and where our biggest opportunities for growth are. Often, we resist doing this because being honest with ourselves feels too threatening for our crocodiles. But it's our only avenue for real learning.
Stage 3: Conscious-Skilled
The move from the Unconscious-Unskilled to Conscious-Unskilled phase is the beginning of growth. This transition is important, as we can only grow once we have gained awareness of what we have yet to learn. We are becoming aware that we don't know everything (often through realizing our own specific crocodilian shortcomings), but we haven't yet acquired the knowledge and skills we need to grow out of it. It's not until we come to a crossroads and make the deliberate choice to develop ourselves more fully that we start to move from Conscious-Unskilled to "Conscious-Skilled." We need to develop the inner resolve to fully address our area(s) of not knowing. During that night of insomnia, I sensed I had to change my life if I wanted to have a shot at being happy again. I became determined to find a new way to live, no matter what. I looked for books, teachers, and eventually meditation found me. Through it I started to find a path back to who I truly was. I discovered how to let go of old, borrowed beliefs that had kept me stuck, like "I should be recognized," "I am better than others," "I should be perfect," "I should have it together," and "I should know the answers." Dropping these beliefs led me to perceive and behave in new ways, and helped me develop my formerly lacking people skills. We become Conscious-Skilled when we start acquiring new capacities, mind- sets, and behaviors and start applying these in our daily lives. My new skill of being gentle with myself, which I honed on the meditation cushion, led me to take time to investigate what I truly wanted to do with my life. This inquiry led me to almost becoming a monk, and then deciding to dedicate my career to helping others access and apply the peace and compassion I was finding on the meditation cushion to leadership, by becoming an executive coach and team facilitator.
The journey from each growth stage to the next is different for everyone. Generally, though, when we're first on our new way, it may feel disorienting. We may feel that we don't know who we are anymore. If we have lived a whole life based on being "the special one," it may feel off to "only" be one of many contributors on a team. If being "the nice one" has been our go-to borrowed persona, the first time we say "no" without apology to someone we care about may feel like jumping out of an airplane. If we are used to being "the rescuer," allowing someone who is struggling to find their own way without us jumping in to fix it for them may feel like blasphemy. At first this new way of being and doing felt very new and uncomfortable to me. I was still only Conscious-Skilled. I was tempted to go back to the rat-race way of living that I knew so well. Conscious-Skilled is like driving a car just after having obtained our license — it might not be second nature yet, but it is becoming a functional part of our lives. We are starting to live and are slowly getting used to our new way of being and doing — it's no longer just a whisper in the background.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Taming Your Crocodiles"
Copyright © 2018 Hylke Faber.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of ContentsContents
Foreword by Vijay Govindarajan
Chapter 1: Cultivating an Attitude of Growth
Chapter 2: Finding Our Authentic Calling
Chapter 3: Growing through Challenge—Transforming Crocodiles into Owls
Chapter 4: Learning from Our 7 Fear Families—Befriending 7 Crocodiles
Chapter 5: Balancing All of Ourselves
Chapter 6: Truth Inquiry into Our Roots
Chapter 7: Growing with Others in Conversation
Chapter 8: Growing Others—Coaching One-on-One
Chapter 9: Growing into the Leaders We Are—Coaching One-to-Many
Epilogue: What Is Your Priority?
Appendix 1: Three Realities Meditation (To Be Recorded by Yourself)
Appendix 2: Three Realities Meditation (To Be Read)
Appendix 3: Growth Leadership Summary Worksheet