True freedom versus “toxic individualism”

I’m writing about freedom from my home in T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia, where the 2-month-long state of emergency is just now coming to an end. The sweeping restrictions on freedom were received without protest; borders were closed, freedom of movement in and out of cities came to a halt, masks were donned, small stores closed (and many went bankrupt,) and compliance with the curfew mostly adhered.

The Georgians, renowned for their hospitality and community, did what needed to be done; new coronavirus cases are now down to a trickle. Last night I gathered with my local and expat friends to celebrate the end of curfew, and life in a safe bubble that integrates “we” with “me” (the resulting economic tragedies not withstanding.)

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Nelson Mandela

The US news feed offers a stark contrast. 100,000 dead in the name of freedom from “government over-reach” with no real end in sight. A feud by store owners and customers over the “right” to not wear masks. A deadly, narcissistic definition of freedom and liberty that is poisoning the concept of Autonomy, a fundamental human need that cannot be properly understood without the context of Belonging.

freedom/ˈfriːdəm/

  1. the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. “we do have some freedom of choice.” Similar: entitlement privilege prerogative
  2. the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. “The shark thrashed its way to freedom”

Ouch… no wonder we’ve gone astray; this is not exactly a healthy definition of freedom. “As one wants” is a dangerously slippery slope, focusing solely on the outer world: physical barriers to break or actions we want to take. But freedom in the outer world is only made possible by freedom in our inner worlds; inner and outer worlds are mirrors of each other. Interconnected, both/and, simultaneously.

Balancing we with me

Insead published a thoughtful article on this topic last year that highlights two types of groups identified by 19th century sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. In Gemeinschaft (community), the welfare of the group takes precedence over that of the individual. By contrast, Gesellschaft (society)is more impersonal; it came to represent urban environments with a more individualistic outlook.

The author notes that the focus on what’s best for the community has morphed into what’s best for me. Self-promotion and individuality rule the day. He calls for a balance of the two types within societies and organizations, neutralising the “faulty premises of the self-esteem movement” and developing the skills of empathy and compassion.

I’d like to build on his core premise and try to go beyond the duality of me versus we. The author’s implication is that the “I” needs to be reigned in, and through one lens, he makes a valid point. But in another sense, perhaps an insufficient “I” is the root cause of this dysfunction we see in the world.

What do I mean by that?

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds.

What we see and create in our outer worlds are mirror reflections of our inner worlds. People denying the freedom of others aren’t free in their own minds. People fighting against government overreach (“don’t take my liberty!”) aren’t feeling free in their own minds.

So if we want to see more freedom in our outer world, we have to go deep inside ourselves… which is where the root of the problem lies. We paradoxically need to focus more on our own healthy sense of “I” — developing the strength of confidence, character, freedom — in order for a healthy “we” to emerge.

I’m not going to say I have all the answers; I’m still sorting through this topic. But what is emerging for me thus far are paradoxes. Here are three of them:

The way of freedom knows that we’re already free

A frequent theme in my coaching calls is the A > B > C path. “I need to keep this job in order to feel safe.” “I need to be a digital nomad in order to feel free.” “I need to find someone to date in order to feel loved.” We want C — the feeling — and then try to find a B to make that happen. But what if we recognize that A > C is a simpler, easier and faster path to the same outcome?

Instead of seeking freedom from or freedom to, we simply recognize that each of us is freedom itself. It’s possible to experience that authentic state of being that is both boundless and bound in love; it requires dropping from our overactive minds into our hearts, and getting deeply connected with the truth of who we are.

The more I contemplate this topic and feel into my own lived experience, I understand that freedom emerges from a feeling of safety… the kind not dependent on the outer world like jobs, relationships and routines (which all can vanish at any moment), but rather on a deep inner-world core: a healthy, flexible skeleton of self-assurance. This allows us to discard our psychological “exoskeleton,” or protective armor, designed to protect but instead imprisons.

With this idea in mind, I am not surprised about the protesters fighting for freedom from masks, or freedom for guns; these are people whose inherent feelings of safety are threatened. They’re grasping for outer-world freedoms instead of tapping into the inner wellspring of safety-empowered freedom that is within all of us.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

victor frankl

I believe that when enough individuals make this shift from outer-world to inner-world — freedom from fear, freedom to be lovingly true to ourselves, freedom to choose joy in any circumstance, like a holy prayer — we’ll hit a tipping point and trigger a phase change in our environments. Like water transforming to ice or steam, we each have the opportunity to create a freer society by first freeing ourselves within.

Until that happens, I’m not sure much will be done about the structural outer-world barriers that inhibit basic freedoms and rights for millions of fellow humans.

True freedom means we are not free to be anything we want.

Only human beings try to be something that we’re not. A mountain lion is not free to become a dolphin; a sand-hill crane is not free to be gorilla. Freedom is found in being true to who we really are, owning and celebrating constraints instead of seeking some imaginary idea of perfection or contorting ourselves into what we think society, organizations or families want us to be. When we limit ourselves to our zone of authenticity, only then can we be truly free.

In other words, true freedom requires limits, but not solely in the way that the Insead article writes. This is about acknowledging the realistic constraints on who we are as individuals; these limits are like the banks of a river. When the banks are absent, water spreads and stagnates. Establishing solid banks will channel and focus the power of the water, leading to the state of flow. Living in our truth, what I call the ground of power, means everything gets easier.

There is no I

One of my favorite images from my meditation practice is that of waves on the ocean. Each wave is simultaneously individual and inseparable. Both/and. In this context, no one is free until we are all free. We free ourselves precisely by freeing others.

“And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”

KHALIL GIBRAN, THE PROPHET

Are you ready to create more freedom in your life? Join my free Facebook group, the Freedom Forge, where we discuss these ideas and I host live weekly coaching calls.

Book a 1:1 coaching call with me! No obligation; I free myself by helping to free others.


The tension between feeling safe and feeling free

I was captivated by the freedom of a child playing in the surf in Sidi Kaouki, Morocco – April 2019

I’m now in the business of freedom. Just saying that out loud makes me so damn happy, because stuck was the theme for most of my adult life.  Stuck in jobs that didn’t light me up, stuck in a life that I was supposed to live, stuck in fear of not doing “it” right… “it” being nearly everything. The analogy that kept coming to mind was that of a grounded airplane, and I just couldn’t get lift-off.

After two years of physical freedom and a lot of solitude – roaming through the American West with my camera and camper in 2018, and through 14 countries in 2019 (this blog post photo is from the tiny surf town of Sidi Kaouki, Morocco) – the psychological baggage dropped away. I feel truly free for perhaps the first time in my life; a freedom that comes from being grounded in the truth of who I am.  

Hang on a minute… freedom comes from being grounded?

When I drop into my body to sense what freedom feels like, it’s light, expansive, untethered… as if I could rise unobstructed above the earth.

And yet I couldn’t feel free until I experienced true groundedness: the deep, rooted stability of a willow tree. This type of grounding is my source of safety and resilience. I maintain my balance during this coronavirus upheaval precisely because of this deep inner work. I liken it to the 300-foot-deep pylons that keep the San Francisco skyscrapers anchored in bedrock even as they’re built on sand; they sway, but don’t fall.

I’ve been so luxuriating in this feeling of safety and groundedness that it only recently occurred to me how free and liberated I feel. The head-scratcher is that my freedom was found in going down, not up. Like most universal truths, it’s a paradox.

Here are a few ways I am trying to articulate this concept… to myself and to the women I’m coaching, who are all wrestling with the tension between wanting to feel both safe and free:

Freedom doesn’t come from lifting off, like a bird or an airplane. Perhaps it comes from jumping: we squat low, feet planted on the earth, and use the immobility of the ground to spring into the air. It’s the freedom of a child jumping in the surf… this action is impossible in space.

Another angle, helpfully suggested by one of my readers which I like a lot: freedom is a kite. It’s the tension of being connected to the earth that allows it to fly higher. The stronger the attachment to the earth (perhaps connected to a pylon driven deep underground), the larger the kite and the higher it can fly.

What does freedom mean to you?

The freedom to travel and work remotely from anyplace you choose?

The freedom to speak your mind with confidence in the boardroom?

The freedom from the incessant voice in your head whispering that you’re not good enough, or not doing it right?

The freedom from burnout, drowning in to-do lists and expectations?

The freedom to simply be yourself without worrying what other people think?

The freedom to create the job you really want because you’ve invested in yourself?

All of these freedoms require a solid, immovable ground of being from which you can spring into a life that is true to who you really are.

Love, Jen


How can I serve you? I’m currently offering free coaching calls to professional women during coronavirus. You can access my calendar here. I can’t wait to meet you.

What does it mean to be true to myself?

The best advice I’ve ever received comes from my immersion in Buddhist teachings: “accept what is.” Not what I wish it could be… not pushing it away or clinging or judging… but simply holding it — whatever “it” is — loosely.

Conversely, the worst advice might be the phrase, “You can be anything you want to be.” While it’s extremely well meaning, it’s also misleading. It’s a seductive phrase, implying that our identities are like a giant Indian food buffet: I’ll take this but not that. That spicy dish is really popular so I’ll eat it too, even though it gives me awful indigestion and I won’t be able to sleep tonight. This idea of infinite possibility elevates a wish above truth.

Truth – /truːθ/: that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go after what you really want. If you love music, by all means invest the time to be a musician or conductor or whatever floats your boat. What I am suggesting is that we need to accept what is when it comes to our fundamental strengths and limitations. And let’s recognize certain limitations for what they are — weaknesses, not opportunities — and be incredibly grateful for them instead of wishing they didn’t exist.

I believed I could be anything for decades, and gawd, what a burden. The choices are endless. How could I possibly begin to decide what I want to be? What if I make the wrong choice? Our brains like choice and variety, but not too much. Like the wall of 100 brands of toothpaste, too many options become paralyzing.

When we’re caught up in analysis paralysis, the easiest route then becomes the abdication of choice, getting swept along in the current of life and ending up in a place far away from what really lights us up. And that’s the story of most of my adult life, until I realized this truth:

Be anything” negates the beauty of individuality.

You can’t love yourself, nor can you be loved, while trying to be something you’re not. And you can’t truly love someone else if you hold the belief that they could be anything, too. “Be anything” introduces toxic should’s and expectations into the equation… because if you could be anything, why aren’t you already?

Here’s why we adore animals so much: they never try to be anything other than what they are. A mountain goat would quickly fail at trying to be a lion or a bear, yet she thrives while perched precariously on tiny ledge jutting from a sheer cliff. A hippo doesn’t berate itself on its inability to run like a gazelle; instead she relishes in her graceful swimming in cool water.

If you’re failing right now, perhaps you’re simply failing at being true to yourself… and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a gift: it’s the universe saying, “hey, you’re looking in the wrong place!” Living your truth is simpler than you think; this is where flow and joy can be found.

I vividly remember the moment when I finally accepted that I couldn’t be anything or anyone. You’d have thought I’d just won the lottery: wooo HOOOO!!! Not only did it explain my past failures and bullheaded resistance, but it’s incredibly liberating to sweep a bunch of options off the table because they’d require more effort and energy than they’re worth… and would likely make me miserable in the process.

“Being who you are is no luxury reserved for the idle rich, or the very young or old. Being who you are is necessary for the completion of the universe.”

Perron, Mari. A Course of Love: Combined Volume

What I teach in business and in life is that NO is one of the most powerful words we can employ. NO defines the boundaries of where I stop and you begin. NO defines the safe container of YES — what I call the ground of power — and from this rooted place of YES we gain the nourishment to grow in all directions: deeper, higher… vaster.

Standing on our ground of power means we’re not running around chasing happiness out there, but rather we magnetize what brings us joy; we allow it to find us. This is how the law of attraction works: like attracts like. Joy comes to me because my ground of power is defined by joy. Love comes to me because a wellspring of love is not only on my ground of power… it is the source of my power. The less I seek, the more I find.

Our purpose in life is to simply be ourselves.

How do we identify this ground of power? Not by analyzing our strengths and weaknesses, but instead, following what we love — what we’ve always loved — like a trail of breadcrumbs back home to ourselves. I’ve previously written that our purpose in life is to love more… to choose love as a state of being, not as a limited resource to give to special people.

The way we start achieving that is by remembering and honoring what we love, and bringing more of it into our lives. Here are a few questions I ask the women I coach:

  • What did you love as a child? In what small ways can you bring that into your life today? Can you give yourself permission to do it badly?
  • What do you love most about yourself?
  • What do you love most in others… and can you see yourself in that mirrored reflection?
  • What do you dislike about yourself… and can you embrace and love that part of you, like holding a small child or a puppy?
  • How do you really want to feel in your life and career? If you want to feel free like a bird, how is that fluorescent-lit cubicle job really working out for you?
  • What kind of people bring out the best in you? How can you surround yourself with more of them?
  • What no longer serves you that you can say NO to?

If you’re questioning your career, don’t worry so much about how to monetize what you love. Some of you are spinning around wondering how to create a job out of walking in the woods. That’s not the point of this exercise. Ask yourself: how does walking in the woods (or whatever it is for you) make me feel? Are there other times or situations in my life when I’ve felt that way? What are other opportunities that might elicit that emotion?

Maybe walking in the woods becomes a guideline for where you live, not what you do. It’s simply one more way of aligning the outer world with your inner truth. Living a joyful life starts with one question: what really lights you up? What’s your YES?

Now go do more of that, and say NO to everything else.

love, Jen


An open invitation

Do you want to be more true to who you are? Let’s spend an hour together. I am doing research for articles and potential group coaching sessions; I’d love to hear more about what’s on your mind, and you’ll get a collaborator to help you solve an issue of your choice. You can access my calendar here.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The missing ingredient in how we define success

Much is being written today about empathy and soft skills being essential leadership traits. Researchers from DDI identified empathy as a critical driver for overall performance, yet found that only 4 out of every 10 leaders are any good at it. Chances are, the memorable leaders throughout your career revealed their hearts, not just their smarts.

Empathy is, of course, only one aspect of our humanity. It’s time to explore what truly makes us human — the qualities that can’t be replicated by robots and artificial intelligence anytime soon — and get real about why they are so elusive in today’s workplaces.

Chances are, the memorable leaders throughout your career revealed their hearts, not just their smarts.

The balance between left-brain logic and our less quantifiable sides — intuition, emotions, authenticity — is rarely rewarded in most organizations. The obsession with data, digital, business models and winning tends to relegate these dimensions to the sacrificial altar… leading to burnout and dissatisfaction.

I speak from experience. Years ago I was humiliated in front of my team for my more intuitive approach to strategy, getting it gradually beaten out of me in favor of the “right” way. I’ve provided emotional support for clients who were ostracized for not fitting the mold and playing the game. I’ve worked with leaders who want customers and employees to love their brand without the necessity of loving them first.

Several of you have shared that you’re feeling guilty about enjoying the lockdown created by coronavirus. You’re able to spend more time deepening their connections with friends, family, and most importantly, yourselves. You might be feeling reluctant to return to a sterile workplace setting where humanity is set aside in favor of hard-charging performance.

The missing ingredient is within each of us

So many of us would like for work to be a safe space where success isn’t defined solely by the numbers. So why isn’t it happening? My friend Julie provided a clue when she told me last week:

“Being true at work scared or intimidated people. They didn’t know what to do with honesty and authenticity. Some days I played the game to make them more comfortable.”

During my recent 2-year sabbatical from the corporate environment, I gave myself the permission to let go of my left-brain crutch and drop into full self-acceptance… and now I can see that company performance and culture are simply mirrors reflecting the level of empathy and love we’ve learned to direct inwardly.

We can’t honor other people — including customers, partners and employees — until we know how to honor ourselves. That means taking time for self-care, listening to our needs, accepting emotions, and setting healthy boundaries. Knowing and acknowledging what we’re feeling, instead of pushing emotions away, is the ultimate demonstration of self-kindness and self-respect… and it’s impossible to show it to others until it’s cultivated in our inner worlds.

When we can give ourselves permission to drop into our hearts and lead from that grounded place, we become stronger, more confident, more at ease. Ironically, vulnerability is the source of power… it’s deeply connecting, and we’re all so much stronger together. Bringing our whole selves — mind, body, heart and soul — to work sounds overly sentimental, but it’s precisely what creates success in every sense of the word.

Love, Jen

How to attract the life you want

I was on the phone last night with a dear friend of mine who has always had this feeling she would move from the US to the city of romance: Paris. She’s even had dreams about it.

So she tells me last night (again), “I feel like I’m going to be in Paris. But I just don’t know when or how. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.” This passive phrase coming out of the mouth of a strong woman already in mid-life surprised me. If not now, then when?

I responded, “May I gently challenge that assumption?”

“Yes of course.”

“‘If it’s meant to be’ isn’t enough; it will happen when you make a choice.”

“Ha! Ok… but I don’t have a big stash of money.”

“I didn’t either when I made the leap overseas.”

Really? I assumed you did. Well, what would I do with my cat?”

“Bring the cat. Really, is that the only thing stopping you?”

(long pause)

She looks at me with both fear and delight visible on her face.

“I could really do this, couldn’t I?”

Yes, my dear friend. YES!

What’s stopping you?

What stopped me for decades was an assumption that these magical, fabulous lives that people led were… not for me. I didn’t even question whether or not I could actually move overseas. The desire was more like a wish that had made a comfy nest in a small corner of my mind, accepting that it would be her destiny to stay there.

What’s worse: I’d convinced myself that I didn’t even know what I really wanted because the best options (roaming the planet, photography, writing, coaching) were for someone else. Those options were already taken, and it was “too late for me.” What lay within my personal realm of possibility in this tiny box that I called reality? Nothing fulfilling, as it turned out.

Inshallah… if God wills. If magic happened and someone handed me an opportunity and a pile of cash on a silver platter, then I’d know it was really for me. I’d go along for the ride. “If it’s meant to happen, it will be.” All of my perceived barriers would miraculously be removed. Fingers crossed!

It’s all within our reach

So how do we get out of our boxes? How do we even know the right thing to choose? I’ve written before on the practical how-to’s of finding yourself, which is the prerequisite to knowing your path… but today I want to talk about something else.

I want to talk about faith and enchantment.

I bet that surprised you. I bet when you read “if it’s meant to be isn’t enough,” you assumed that I’d be taking an uber-rational approach to making things happen… right? And while I have a reputation for doing exactly that, here’s what I know to be true… and I’m confident that my friend (who lives a more enchanted life than I ever will) knows it as well:

There’s a big difference between passive wishing and active faith.

  • A passive wisher stays in her comfort zone; an active faither says YES to opportunities not knowing what will happen, but having faith that something magical will come of it. (Is faither evan a word? well it is now…)
  • A passive wisher has limited her vision to what she can see; an active faither navigates life like a bat… feeling into the next step, guided by intuition and the pull of her soul.
  • A passive wisher is boxed in by the practical; an active faither lives an enchanted life, expecting — and therefore receiving — the hard-to-explain coincidences, clues and gifts that she needs to fulfill her path.
  • A passive wisher feels like she has to push boulders up hill to make things happen. An active faither enters the flow; she knows that the right things come easily, and she simply needs to put herself out there to find them.
  • A passive wisher wants to believe in destiny and says things like “if it’s meant to be, it will happen.” An active faither believes in destiny and chooses it to happen.

Faith without action is a wish… and wishes have no power. A meaningful life overflowing with joy is within reach. The only thing stopping any of us is the choice to see the world differently — from our hearts instead of our heads — then taking the next step based on that limited yet accurate sight. And the next, and the next…

And what happens when we do that is… magical. People, answers, opportunities, even parking spots! appear as if conjured out of thin air. We live an enchanted life on faith. But it can only happen if we are active participants in the process. My logical left brain tries to explain it away, but my soul knows better. My soul knows when I’m in the flow.

May 2020 be the year you decide to reawaken the sense of possibility that perhaps you had as a child. To start unshackling yourself from burdens that are not yours to carry, and begin saying YES to what life has to offer.