Inside out: 4 ways to lead positive change 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. A friend told me, “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 be helping people lead positive change in their work and relationships. After years of teaching, coaching, consulting, and venturing, 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 end-goal to recognize the journey as the treasure. It takes courage, patience, and optimism and the result is an everlasting pleasure with people. And change is natural 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.

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.

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.

You got $10 on your pump

I’m driving and realize I’m super low on gas. I pull up to the nearest gas station and see that my wallet is at my house and no cash in my car. After clawing at my self worth and incompetence, I remembered that my card info is in my laptop. So I bring it over to the clerk and tell him the story. The dude listened and says he can’t enter it manually. He then says, “go ahead, you got $10 at your pump.” At the edge of disbelief and in deep appreciation, we chatted a bit and I learned his story and his work schedule. I figure returning later with $20 is the least I can do.

You got a a lotta room brah

Reading a book in my car and a guy is trying to parallel park behind me. dude’s got alot of room to work with, like 5 cars length, but after an initial bad lean he struggles to slide in as though its a tight space, so he bumps my car three times in the process. not sure if he knows im in the car, i get get out to examine the challenged fellow. i tell him “you hit me 3 times, you got a lot of room to work with bra,” gesturing to the space he has. he gets out, apologizes and asks if there’s any damage. i said, “na no worries, but you got a lotta room brah.”

Powered by play

I met Gary Ware at a storytelling event last month where he gave an engaging talk on play, improv, and storytelling. Gary is an all-around creative: by day he is the Chief Strategy Officer of Tower33 Digital and he is a comedian by night. I sat down with him last week and after an unfortunate vanishing act by technology, our 30min podcast gem of a recording went amiss. Below is some of what I would briefly pen to words.

Play is a natural state of being. It’s the feeling of aliveness when immersed in an activity. And you don’t need a goal to be engaged in it. The feeling, the process, is the endgame itself. The journey is the treasure. As children we instinctively crawl with toys in our boundless field of imagination. It’s not much different for adults, whether it’s with a musical instrument or a sport. For some of us it may be a side hobby or rigorous discipline. For Gary it’s powering up which shapes other areas of life. Play is the missing link when life gets dull or work gets stressful.

If you’re feeling grumpy, you can play a game or draw something for 15 minutes to decenter and lighten the mood. It’s more about the joy that arises than the activity itself. And we all have our own ways of tapping in. In his book Play, Stuart Brown outlines eight different play personalities:

  1. Joker: likes to crack jokes (George Carlin, Dave Chapelle),
  2. Kinesthete: likes to move (Mohammad Ali)
  3. Explorer: likes to discover new things (Elon Musk)
  4. Competitor: likes rules, likes to win (Ray Lewis, Michael Jordan)
  5. Director: likes planning and executing scenes (Woody Allan, event planners).
  6. Collector: likes finding and keeping interesting objects (museum and shop keepers).
  7. Artist: likes making new and interesting things. (Bjork, Charlie Chaplin).
  8. Storyteller: likes to tell…stories like many Irish people I know.

This is not a full or comprehensive guide but knowing your and others’ play personalities helps with knowing your strength and joy zone and guide effective collaboration with others. While being an explorer may come easily to one person, competing may be the lifeblood of another. There is no right or wrong.

Studies show that the player’s state of mind and intention determines how they are affected by the activity. If one goes into a video game just to kill time or complain, then chances are he isn’t going to get much out of it. On the other hand, if one goes in with a curiosity to learn and connect with other players, he or she would have a richer experience. Mindset matters and we can choose which we bring into the game.

You can learn more about Gary’s work at He is also hosting Breakthrough Play Retreat 1.0 Back to Nature on Saturday, October 8th to curb stress and activate creativity.

Why I don’t bother with humility

What if each waking breath you had a whole new brain, a new perspective, and all that remained was a wonder, “Here I am.” What if we dropped our personhood, no matter clever or simple, humble or self-absorbed, into the thick fragrance of now. Those ribbons of analysis wrapped around the mind, how we decorate our walls with untold stories. If we remove the outside world from the equation of “me,” what are we left with?

The self-image is hallow. there is no person behind the mask. There is nothing to chase or avoid, you are the light soaking on your forehead. How light wrinkles and shifts in her eyes, starring at the world behind the world with the spear of destiny in hand.

Easy under the skin, liquify your spine, melt like gravity washing over the stars. The galaxy watching over you, “This one doesn’t reek of comparison.”

Breathe deep as the trees reassemble with the wind, casting electric shadows onto the branches, lazy synapses laid over your gaze, a voice without words only you can hear, and the surrender that glows in this body that knows.

A waterfall has no plan to fall yet look at it go, with no beginning or end, it just falls with no aim to be understood. And the stage it owns. The sound and the tiny ripples. I forget why I bothered with personhood.

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.