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.

 

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.

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.

A meditation on mission and memory

The highest form of reason is love without reason. My deepest insecurity is flawed memory. So, memory for what?

There is a voice that doesn’t use words. There is a place of no ambition, just a sure mission to submission without ego. To throw your imagination forward and let it speak its own language, like living in a lighthouse to summon the ships. Who knows who steers them and what stories they hold. Just keep the light on for whoever can see. Only the bold can arrive and there is no thirst for understanding. It’s not in your interest nor theirs. We’re not in the business of fixing the world, our place is beneath the surface of things where passion dwells without bounds. There’s a voice that doesn’t use words, it overflows and floods the world inside and out.

The city is noisy with honks and engines roaring. The sun is a red blur over a dense layer of smog. The three of us walk and wander in humor with the goal of finding the canal district Ben had heard of and seen online. I drift in and out of conversation as my attention cones toward the trees. They are full with the green of spring, lined up along the madness of the roads. The wind gushes through the leaves for a symphony of sounds and fluid motions waving about. And birds sing and fly swiftly, too quick for the eye to see. These affairs that predate the city trump the smog and noisy streets as we search for the canal district, said to be like the Venice of Shanghai.

We pass through mass surveillanced roads and trampolines and the periodic airplane descending overhead; and every time one does, Ben drops everything, races for his camera and points it at the sky.

After some mapping and walking, we finally arrive at a murky runway of water near the freeway. Andrei begins to roll a girthy rock toward the ledge and then stands, saying, “It’s too heavy.” Ben tells him, “Nothing is impossible!” So Andrei picks up the rock and swings it into the water for a big splash and black tar rises from beneath. I ask them what if this water was totally clean, what kind of society would be around it?”

A bit disappointed at sundown not having seen the reflective canal district from the picture. We walked back through the woods and toward the subway station with a 1 liter beer can in one hand and some mysterious street meat on-a-stick in the other, laughing the journey home.