4 ways to navigate uncertainty with self-awareness

Getting past speech impediment and low self-esteem didn’t happen overnight. As a teenager, I remember listening to the radio feeling puzzled by how people could enunciate words so well and be so easy and confident. How was their voice so clear and mine so muffled? The root of the struggle was that I held too many distractions and so I would easily get overwhelmed, and lengthy episodes of depression followed.

By quieting the mind through meditation, I learned to give up buggy beliefs and things began to clear up. One of my mentors once said, “when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” It was a good look in the mirror and poetry was an outlet for me. It’s where I found my voice. I no longer felt the need to push against reality and its gifts opened up beautifully. I had to learn to lean in and just be with the quietness of the unknown.

I realized that we live in a noisy world and many people talk, yet few communicate. I grew to accept the gift of conversation which is at the heart of self-awareness. Acceptance means turning our insides out. The world is a conversation and positive change occurs through open and meaningful relationships.

It’s humbling to see how far I’ve come on this journey and yet how far there is to go. Tomorrow isn’t promised and I’m honored to help people stay on purpose with their talent and creativity. After years of teaching, with success and failure along the way, a pattern began to emerge. Here are 4 guiding principles to wake up to our true potentials.

1. Mindfulness

Notice life through the senses here and now. Live in the moment and be fully present. It’s as simple as noticing the breath, the posture of your spine, or the way your shoulders hang on the sides as you sit. Research from Harvard and others are showing the positive effects of mindfulness on the brain and how it reduces stress and improves cognitive functions.

One study revealed 20 minutes of mindfulness practice for 8 weeks improved memory and actually developed neural tissue in the Hippocampus, the memory center of the brain.As we quiet the mind chatter, we grow open to what is and make decisions from a place of clarity. Buddha’s Brain and The Mindful Brain are great readings on how mindfulness can enhance focus and mental health. The skill here is observing.

2. EQ

Be an expert on your emotions. Life is constant change and with it comes uncertainty. The ability to read and regulate emotions is key to personal happiness and success. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is how we pay attention to things. In the world of emotion, 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4. As anyone who’s in a relationship knows, arguing with logic does not help. Rational thinking grabs at waves while EQ sails with the sea. In other words, feelings trump reason and the quicker you handle emotion the more nimbly you adapt to change.

The brain is a storytelling factory, weaving narratives around pleasure and pain and our emotions are nested in the stories we tell. Questions that arise are: what story do you tell most often? What emotions are present? What variations do you tell that story? What does that story mean to the people in it? The skill here is storytelling.

3. Purpose

Know what you honor. Why do you do what you do? What is your undying belief? When we look back at the great leaders of history, they all stood for something larger than themselves. There was a bigger picture that guided their mission, a belief that stood the test of time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that everyone deserves to be free and safe no matter the color of their skins. Nike honors great athletes. Pixar stands for telling a great story. Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs believed in thinking differently.

What do you hold true? The answer begins and ends at the most important word in the English language: “Why?” Design Thinkers and Lean software developers use the 5 why’s technique to solve complex problems. The idea is to methodically ask “why” to examine the root-cause, and not just react to symptoms on the surface. In other words, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture and asking, “what really matters here?” The skill here is questioning.

4. Trust

The difference between a group of people in a room and a connected team is trust. The fields are in our favor, at the speed of trust. Trusting people, trusting the process, and trusting ourselves to do the right thing. What’s the right thing? It depends on the purpose (see #3). The most important relationship is the one we hold with ourselves. Like the classic trust exercise, I must know my own stability in order to safely catch my partner’s fall. It takes empathy to know my strength when giving support. Empathy means stepping outside of ourselves to add value to someone else.

Trust is built when we repeatedly do the right thing and the right thing tends to make others feel safe. And of course, words don’t mean much if actions don’t match and the contradictions we can mend within ourselves. No body’s perfect and when we accept what is, we release resistance and trust has a chance. And all we can really do is give it chances. World renown executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, poses the following question when receiving feedback, “is it worth it to argue?” The skill here is Empathy.

Acceptance is the final goal to recognize that the journey is the treasure. I happened to find it through meditation, poetry, and friends and I honor the pleasure of being. Just being. Navigating uncertainty is simple and efficient when you’re hot on “why.” Imagine working with a team where people simply accept and trust each other. A team where people grow through a shared purpose and have each other’s backs. There’s no need to blame others because leadership starts within.

 

Dreams of an Octopus

Once there was an Octopus with a vision to travel on land. All day he would pretend what it’s like to be a land animal. All his friends teased him because he didn’t have the proper legs and it was dangerous and silly to even consider that quest.

But Octopus was determined and he had an idea. One day he floated to the surface of the sea and lured a nearby hawk to catch him. The hawk’s eyes locked in and flung into the water, snatched the octopus with her claws and flew back towards the land.

Octopus could feel the breeze for the very first time. He saw the ocean from overhead, the horizon and the sunset blazing in orange and red. Octopus swiveled his eyes and saw the mountains at a distance and the trees and houses with humans walking on streets. On a bench there was a baby sucking on a mother’s breast. Octopus finally died in the hawk’s nest.

Without a head

The first night I fell with a high fever, vomiting through trembling teeth. My head was caved in from the high altitude I could feel death looming in and out of my veins. The next morning, I stayed in bed while the others wandered the town. I was extremely glad to have a comfortable bed with the hostel manager looking after me. He was lighthearted and I didn’t have the energy to say much. His Chinese name translated to “without a head”. His WeChat id had the tagline “always stay naive.”

It was Spring and the three of us had taken a 13hour bus ride to Seda for a taste of Tibetan culture. Seda, also known as Sertar, is a Tibetan county west of Sichuan in China. At nearly 4,000 meters elevation, Seda Monastery is the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist school and houses up to 40,000 monks and nuns in dorms stacked across in a valley. The tiny lit windows spread a colorful mosaic that blends into the starry night sky.

The next morning, I was about 60% and decided to roam with the others. At dawn, we hiked up the mountain for a view of the valley where the monastery laid. Morning prayer was in order and clouds of incense smoke covered the valley. Fingertips freezing, the sun slowly peeked over the mountains and shadows began to stretch. We goofed around a bit then sat quietly with the sunrise. There was a cold stream in my belly.

We then made our way toward the monastery. I was woozy and grumpy while the other two chatted with the locals. Everyone was dressed in different variations of a brown and red cloak with a softness in their face. I spotted a cozy corner by the temple’s entrance and dropped for an overdue nap deep into my beanie and jacket. The cold air, fever, trembling body. I hated everything and somehow content. I had given up the will to change anything and had no regrets.

Next day we took a shuttle to the sky burial where vultures feast on the dead. It’s customary funeral for Tibetans, a morbid fascination for tourists. Six bodies had been laid and prepared in a pit for dozens of vultures to digest. Slowly birds swarmed in and tore away at the limbs. The thick smell of carcass waved around the funeral site while the birds frenzied in the pit; some flying overhead with wings blanketing the sun. Some were playing tug-o-war with the skin that wouldn’t tear. Near the end, a man with a butchers’ outfit walks to each skull with a knife and strikes a pounding blow at the base, cracks an opening and tosses them to the birds. They beaked into the brain as the jaw bone loosely opened and closed. I couldn’t help but see myself as an anonymous skull in that pit.

Same sun new day, head fevered and knees were trembling after a lengthy walk around town. We spotted a café and claimed a dim empty room with couches all around. We each took a full sofa and crashed from sheer exhaustion. Alina was cold and quiet. The window behind her was open with cool breeze coming in. Just as I got up to close it for her, Ree dashes for the window and slides it shut. She then falls dead on the couch. I drop my head and quietly start crying. I was drained and didn’t need a reason survey my tears but I felt relief. Maybe it was the emptiness inside and the kindness near. It’s like letting it stream down your face and grabbing at no wave because the ocean moves through us.

Why Forward

The sun was out after a stretch of stormy days in Chengdu, China. I was working at the English center and had a small group of high school students. We were discussing core values. As a warm-up I asked, “what do you look forward to this week, this year?” One student had a shine in his eye and described his plans to travel to Russia with his friends. Another was keen on joining a potluck at a friend’s house that week. One student, Jeff, was sitting in the back of the class with his head slouched in his phone. When I called on him he sincerely replied, “I don’t look forward to anything.”

I reminded them, “we live in a noisy world and many people talk, yet few communicate and communication is an expression of our values.” I walked them through a “why” analysis which basically asks, “what do you honor? What is your undying belief?” I shared my story and gave examples of people and companies who have demonstrated strong why’s. Jeff was being lazy with his answers and passively agreed with other students. I told him, “I want to know what YOU think. Everyone of us has a unique story, that’s what makes the world interesting.” As a reflective exercise, I provided various story prompts and highlighted the importance of hobbies and power routines that energize vitality. Jeff was beginning to open up.

I asked them, “What’s your dream job?” And they chimed, “travel journalist,” “a doctor without borders,” Jeff spoke with a glint of conviction, “biologist.” Finally, I asked them to look inward and come up with a mantra that captures their core value. One said, “be useful,” “be true to yourself,” another “no regrets,” and Jeff said, “know myself.”

A good look in the mirror

“Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.”
– Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

For many years I struggled with social anxiety, speech impediment, and depression because I held too many distractions. It’s a classic self-shame story: I used to suck and now I suck less. Eventually, I realized that we live in a noisy world and many people talk, yet few communicate. What I grew to accept and love was the gift of conversation. It became clear that deep connections are not based on take or blame, they are full of joy and empathy.

A friend once told me, “Time flies when the senses are full.” Leading an inspired path means doing what makes you come alive. And it is the way we live in the present moment that shapes character, relationships, and the quality of our work.
Knowing our purpose is an affair with self-awareness. It’s what makes you light up amid uncertainty. It’s that thing you live for that overshadows everything else, even the fluctuations of money. Know it from within, set boundaries, set goals, and watch the groove unfold. A state of flow arises when we uproot the splinter of self-delusion.

For a short while I drove part-time for Uber. Once I picked up a passenger and I had ambient music playing in the car. He sat in and asked how I was doing. I replied, “Just cruising with the music.” He paused for a moment and said,

“There is something to be said about living like the music never gets interrupted.”

Once we quiet the distractions the gift of conversation reveals itself. We come face-to-face with what is simple and true. Rather than insist on what should be, one surrenders to a living relationship with what is. And feedback is fluid whether soft or brutal. There is no glorified “me” to enforce so emotions move freely, and we bear witness to something unforgettable: a real conversation.

Emotional intelligence is a function of how we pay attention. When we’re grateful we’re not overloaded with expectations. We rejoice in what is. When intimately connected with our source of vitality, we don’t worry about not having enough. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Vitality never takes.” Upon taking a close look in the mirror with vitality first, there is no need to harbor self-delusions. We shed old identities and inhabit a larger part of who we are.

creativity

Getting creative

Creativity means making something new and meaningful. It’s a celebration of being alive.
Creativity is a birthright. A gift to the world. it’s a process. The process is the insight.

Creativity is the natural flow of things. The hard part is getting out of our own way. Creativity happens when we trust the process and let go of how we think it’s supposed to be.

Let go so your gift can flow freely.

Why be creative?
Because it feels good to be alive.

ownership leadership self-awareness purpose

Moving with a purpose

Here’s a review I wrote for Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.

Extreme Ownership is a good look in the mirror to live and lead at the highest level. It contains war stories with leadership lessons and I have newfound respect for U.S. Navy SEALs. It checks off on what I count as a good book: vivid imagery, some humor, raises goosebumps, brings tears, and practical for livelihood. On the final analysis, it’s not written by a Hemingway but it does come from the heat of experience. It works because it’s real.

The book harps the tune “it’s all about the mission”. You got to know why you’re in it to begin with, believe in it fully, and continually execute on it. That’s what a leader does. There are many books that stress this point of “moving with a purpose” and Extreme Ownership just does it in a raw fashion within the context of war. On the battle field, making the right decision moment by moment is highly crucial. One is constantly flirting with defeat and running the risk of losing life or limb. Time is of the essence. Navy SEALs blend a deep brotherhood with creative and methodical action which enabled them to accomplish their intense missions in Iraq.

“Effective leaders lead successful teams that accomplish their mission and win. Ineffective leaders do not.” A leader is the true believer of the team’s mission while trusting the troops to deliver on their parts. Micromanaging takes focus way from the bigger picture, which the leader is trusted to keep and communicate. The book presses the leader to simply maintain the strategic vision which enables others to take ownership of their parts and swiftly act on what is immediate. In short, ownership is the absence of blame. When everyone in a team practices it, trust forms and speed quickens. With markets in flux, jobs at risk, and competitions near, trust is paramount to stay nimble and efficient.

This book is written with a sense of urgency, applying the principles of combat to organizational issues. The process invites us to lay it all on the table and examine what is mission critical and what is not. The ensuing plan may change but the purpose remains constant.

Self-awareness on the airplane

I’m on an airplane reading a book on my iPad. the book is titled Extreme Ownership written by some Navy SEALS captains. Excellent book with war stories and leadership lessons. I have newfound respect for those guys. Anyway there is a photo in the book with a ton of ammunition laid on the table, a poster of the SEALS skull patch, and pictures of SEALS lost in combat. I’m zooming in and around the photo when I notice the person to my right gazing over me. I realize I’m a Persian man on an airplane looking at fire arm and death symbols. I immediately put away the device and turn on a cartoon on the seat monitor to balance the equation.

Lavender trust

Lulu just lost her job and with it a messy break up. It’s like a sinking ship in her gut and exploding rocks in her chest. She faces a new chapter in her life. She feels terrible uncertainty and self-doubt. She decides to go on an adventure and winds up in a forest. It’s dark and she finds a hut by the river. She steps in and an own is sitting there with books and a lit candle scented like Lavender Trust.

The owl welcomes her in as though expecting her. Lulu tells him of her lousy state and the owl says, “Get super clear about yourself and how you want to grow. It’s not that you have to overcome uncertainty, but to examine the negative beliefs you’ve attach to it. Trust your senses and rejoice in the mystery that accompanies you. I’ll tell you what my teacher once told me.” Blows out the one candle and says with a grounding voice, “courage is a lover affair with the unknown.”

Lulu realizes she’s smelling like some lavender blend and can’t see a thing, with an owl. She darts out the hut screaming in her breath, part terror part gratitude. She hurdles into the river and swims to the other side, takes a deep breath and dries herself with leaves. Now feeling cleansed and reborn … in a dark forest.

Meeting rage with vitality

Henry is in his alpha state of vitality and has been crushing it all morning. He’s feeling good and focused. He gets into his car and slowly backs out of the driveway. He can’t see the incoming cars so he goes extra slow. A white van passes. He brakes, and slowly begins again. A second car comes and gives Henry a fury honk, quite lengthy and pointless really. Henry gently brakes and turns to look at the driver and it was a dumb cunt. Just as rage swells up, Henry’s alpha is still near and offers a vision of empathy. With a slight turn of awareness, he steps outside of himself and sees through the eyes of the girl thinking, “Maybe she thinks I was trying to get in her way. What’s in her way? Who knows.” He drops it and resumes to alpha.

Vitality: primal state of well being.
Patience: knowing when to let it be.
Empathy: stepping outside of yourself.